Health News Digest

August 1, 2005

Personal Environment, Personal Bias, Junk ScienceIt's all in your mind

By  Michael D. Shaw

Back in the 1960’s when I was growing up on the Westside of Los Angeles, hardly any homes had air conditioning. That was because of the conventional wisdom: “It doesn’t get hot here, it gets hot in the Valley.” Well, yes, if it was 95 degrees here, it probably WAS 105° in the Valley. How this proved that it wasn’t hot on the Westside was never explained. Go anywhere, though, and you’ll encounter the same thing.

“I tell ya, it’s never this hot—or wet or cold or dry—this time of year.” Are these just harmless lies that people tell themselves to cope with the vagaries of Mother Nature, or do they now have a dark side? Has this tendency to self-delusion morphed into a loss of the powers of objective reasoning? And, has the downward spiral helped to create the wholesale distortion of science on behalf of ideology?

Consider the bluster of Laurie David, liberal political activist and wife of comedian Larry David, co-creator of the TV series Seinfeld. Her campaign against global warming, which is surely one of the most questionable and politicized environmental issues of the last ten years, is part of a protest/radical chic posture, not a legitimate brand of dispassionate inquiry. Like Arianna Huffington before her, Laurie has been called on her lavish environmentally-unfriendly lifestyle, which in Mrs. David’s case includes a huge home, supposedly valued at $25 million. But, she IS against SUV’s, you see.

How does Laurie answer her critics?

“Sure, I have a big house, but I use it to gather hundreds of people for eco-salons. I could always cut down on clothes and dry-cleaning, but the point is not necessarily what more you could do.”

Right. The point is just ranting for its own sake, logic and science be damned. If Karl Kraus were alive today, he might have riffed on his cynical description of journalists, noting that David, Huffington, et al. are people without any ideas but with an ability to express them.

Even if what she says about global warming is true, and that is far from established, how does it follow (in other postings) that the Bush administration is solely responsible for bad weather, and everything from heat waves to depletion of the ozone layer? At a certain point, such beliefs assume religious fervor; and passion becomes an issue of believe-it-or-not, a twisted faith with perverse implications.

Perhaps no one appreciates the gravity of this situation better than a doctor, author, screenwriter, director, and producer named Michael Crichton. Yes, that Michael Crichton: the Harvard College and Harvard Medical School graduate with a passion for scientific inquiry. Here are some remarks, taken from a recent Caltech Michelin lecture:

“[I]n this elastic anything-goes world where science or non-science, is the handmaiden of questionable public policy, we arrive at global warming…”

“Evidentiary uncertainties are glossed over in the unseemly rush for an overarching policy, and for grants to support the policy by delivering findings that are desired by the patron.”

“Once you abandon strict adherence to what science tells us, once you start arranging the truth in a press conference, then anything is possible. In one context, maybe you will get some mobilization against nuclear war. In another, you get Nazi euthanasia.”

We used to be able to count on science to provide the sweet objective light of reason, even if there always was some political pressure brought to bear (remember Galileo?). These days, though, with the media explosion, PC shackles, and intense competition for research funding, the temptation to fudge the results is irresistible in far too many cases. That’s when science becomes junk science.