Sunday, 5 February 2012

Offering your scorn

Many years ago I read an interview between Matt Groening (the creator of The Simpsons) and Frank Zappa. The interview doesn't seem to exist online, but I recall them both agreeing that their job was to 'offer their scorn'. No one had to accept the scorn. They didn't even have to acknowledge it. It probably wouldn't make any difference if they did acknowledge it, but it was the artist's job to offer it all the same.

Several years later I saw the greatly under-rated film Election, in which a school teacher (played by Matthew Broderick) spots a bad egg running for student president and recklessly tries to sabotage her campaign because he knows that a victory will set her on course for a life of making other people miserable. The teacher is exposed, Tracey "pick" Flick wins the election and he is ruined. By the end of the film, he has lost his marriage and his job, his nemesis has won and he has nothing. In the final scene, he comes across her by chance—she is now rapidly ascending the greasy pole of politics—and in a futile and impotent gesture, he hurls a milkshake at her car. The end.

If I was to tell you that this scene and the aforementioned quote regularly come to mind as I write my books, speeches, articles and blog-posts, you would get a glimpse of the hopelessness with which I view the pursuit of liberty and tolerance in the second decade of the twenty-first century. To be candid, I do not see myself on the winning side. As I hinted at in yesterday's post, the forces of reason are no match for the forces of ignorance, avarice and fear which outgun us.

With the odds stacked against you, all you can do is offer your scorn. With that in mind, I point you to Carl V. Phillips' recent testimony to the US Food and Drug Administration. Dr Phillips is an honest scientist, too rigorous for the public health movement he represents and too measured for the e-cigarette and smokeless tobacco industries whose products he implicitly or overtly endorses. The FDA committee on tobacco harm reduction, meanwhile, is ostensibly interested in public health but, as Carl writes, is actually "dominated by dedicated anti-tobacco extremists who are opposed to harm reduction, and its external scientific advisory group (TPSAC) is stacked with extremists and junk scientists". For financial and ideological reasons, it exists to promote pharmaceutical nicotine products at the expense of more effective alternatives.

A genuine harm reductionist cannot expect to change anyone's mind in such an environment. You can waste your three minutes' speaking time trying to win favour with a unwinnable audience or you can seize the moment to offer you scorn. Carl chose the latter...  

I speak today as an educator with an interest in the nature of science and its role in the functioning of our society, and from that perspective would like to say, "won't someone please think of the children?"

If an impressionable young mind stumbled across how science is often portrayed in this corner of our nation's government, he would be at risk of never becoming scientifically literate, let alone to wanting to be a scientist.

First, science is supposed to be an honest truth-seeking process that attempts to figure out the best possible answer to a question, often via methods that require innovative thinking. Our impressionable young mind, however, might come away:

-believing that science consists of just a few narrowly-defined recipes, rather than taking in all the information we have in myriad forms, available from many forums, and thoughtfully making the best use of it;

-believing that health science focuses on looking only under streetlamps and obsessing about easy but not directly informative work like chemistry, rather than trying to do the more difficult work to translate this and other information into what we really want to know about health effects;

-from today's session, he might believe that science involves such methods as manipulating children into giving the answers you want, speculation-laden anecdotes, limiting reviews of the evidence to exclude any evidence that you wish did not exist, and counting unsupported assertions by authors as evidence;

-and he would be taught that science it is not about identifying how we maximize our knowledge, but that it involves declaring that we just do not know anything, when in fact we know quite a lot.

Our impressionable young mind is not going to think very highly of science, and he might reasonably conclude that the best way to get involved in America's version of science is to go to law school. And, yes, that means that misguided ways of looking at science may be a gateway to more dangerous behaviors.

Second, this poor child would get the impression that a hypothetical cardiovascular condition or cancer 40 years from now will be just as harmful as a near-term case in a current smoker, a case that was caused because smokers are discouraged from switching to low-risk alternatives. Do we really want to tell that child that we expect so little of him, that his generation's health science will be so lousy that the 40-year-out cancer will be no more treatable that it would be today?

Finally, at the very least, I would urge this committee and Center to make sure that any such anti-scientific writing is kept in child-proof packaging, rather that being left laying around on the internet where anyone could stumble across it and damage their developing minds.

Go over to Ep-ology to read the background of this story and the various references to which the good doctor alludes.


Curmudgeon said...

Rather pessimistic assessment there, Chris, but sadly all too true. I suppose all you can do is to say "I spoke out. I bore witness. I did not go gentle into that good night."

It's also depressing how often people, across all spheres, fail to make the connection and appreciate the point of "first they came for the smokers."

Anonymous said...

From Dave Atherton

After Reagan and Thatcher put socialism/communism to the sword in the 1990s the left now have to either invent capitalistic apocalypses like man made global warming or instead of controlling the economy, they now want to control our bodies. Like Britain post Empire in the 20th century it needed to find a new role.

To be frank I share your pessimism in being able to halt this tide of interference, until a new age of enlightenment is upon us. The best we can hope for is to be able to turn down the volume.

Murray Rothbard (@LibertarianView) said...

I agree that scorn and ridicule are amongst our most effective weapons, along with truth and reason.

The great sea of the ignorant mob is easily swayed, but that is true in both directions, so never lose hope.

Belinda said...

This is not simply a symptom of the right. Identifying with the big business interests of pharma at the expense of ordinary people's autonomy is not what the left is about ... it was meant to be about people owning corporations, not the other way around.

Cameron betrayed the right (especially the libertarian right) by not reversing the smoking ban, just as Labour betrayed the left by bringing it in (it wasn't on their manifesto). You will argue that Cameron isn't 'really' on the right, but it is equally true that Blair/Brown isn't 'really' on the left.

To me this is more about society's rejection of religion. Religious zeal and the need to convert others/evangelism has found a secular home in the public health sphere. In the zealot's mind there is no need for evidence to save people from themselves: zeal is enough.

lleweton said...

Amen to that Belinda

Ann W. said...

"zeal is enough" but only when it pays well. Cut off their funding and they find "zeal" in a new area.

Anonymous said...

Belinda said: "...Identifying with the big business interests of pharma at the expense of ordinary people's autonomy is not what the left is about ..."

Here is America's republican presidential candidate, Rick Santorum, speaking to this very thing:

These people are some of the most cruel, heartless bastards ever!


Belinda said...

Ann W. you are right, I forgot the money element for a moment ...

Anonymous said...

Hope this isn’t a double post. Don't think it took the first time.

You can fool some of the people all of the time….

This is American centric.

The war against tobacco has waxed and waned ever since Christopher Columbus discovered Native Americans (Cubans?) smoking the evil weed.

I’m sure you know, by 1900 (only about 15 years after manufacturing made them widely available), cigarettes were called coffin nails, dope sticks, devil's toothpicks, and anti-tobacco zealots (“Smoke free America by 1925!”) proposed that every pack of cigarettes be labeled with a skull and crossbones and the word "poison." Between 1895 and 1909 a dozen U. S. states outlawed the sale of cigarettes (but not other forms of tobacco).

The zealots didn’t get their smoke free utopia in 1925. State laws banning the sale of cigarettes were rescinded. Years passed, and smoking became increasingly popular. It’s said that America (with some help from you Brits) won World War II with coffee and cigarettes. (During the war, U. S. tobacco farmers could get draft exemptions for performing a vital national service.) By the 1960’s, some 70 million Americans consumed tobacco products.

The latest (1950 and counting) crusade against smoking is just one of many over the last 500 years.

I blame the success of the anti tobacco movement on the baby boom generation. Half of them, at least, are certifiable hypochondriacs. The latest health scare pornography gets them hysterically seeking protection from some imagined danger. (I’m part of the boom, but born in 1946, I escaped the worst effects. I grew up with the three martini lunch – alcohol, tobacco, butter, salt, sugar, soda (?!) were just things that people enjoyed – and, yes, that a small number abused.)

…the forces of reason are no match for the forces of ignorance, avarice and fear which outgun us.

They’ve won battles, but never the war. For a time, in the early 20th century, prohibitionists won, but their victory turned to ashes (literally in terms of tobacco). Prohibitionists are once again ascendant – but for how long?

These lunatics always seek the “next logical step” to fight imaginary demons. And with each step, they become more irrational, and affront more and more people. Eventually, average people examine the claims of Experts and find the Experts wanting. (Think global warming.)

Mr. Snowdon, you sound pessimistic. Yes, but….

With each post you (and others) write, you fire one bullet in the decades long war against rationality. (Literally decades, literally war.)

Keep up the good work. If you can get one person to question authority, maybe a second will, and a third….

It may take 40 or 50 years, but I’m sure smoking will once again become popular. Then, sadly, 40 or 50 years later, it will become unpopular based on some pseudo-scientific theory.

People can learn, but all too often, they don’t. History repeats.

P.S.: Mr. Snowdon, I think I can accurately state that you do not believe in second or thirdhand smoke nonsense. Yet you believe (from what I’ve read) that primary smoking causes lung cancer. (I’ve seen your arguments on F. Davis’ blog.) Might I suggest that you think some more – if 3 is incorrect, and 2 incorrect, could the same ideology that “proved” 1 also be incorrect?

You have cited Auerbach’s beagle study as “proof” that smoking causes lung cancer. Think again. There are three versions of this study. (Which did you read?) In the published version , rather than 12 dogs with lung cancer, after autopsy, Auerbach only claimed 2 dogs with abnormal (microscopic) lung tissue which he declared pre-cancerous. Other pathologists disagreed. (Too long for a comment; if you think Auerbach is valid science, you have my e-mail address [I think]; I can supply many critical opinions to the contrary.)

The lies about tobacco didn’t begin with secondhand smoke. Take the next logical step.


Ann W. said...

@Belinda, money always brings out the "zeal" in people.

Two of our most productive Canadian anti's can out of the acid rain zeal.

One pays himself over a $100,000 a year and the only way we know this is because he is part of a charity. The other is non profit and we are not allowed to see their finances.

Lou said...

Felt that way myself many times; when that happens I ALWAYS remember the captain of the vessel "Junk" when he said something along the lines of:

"If you know something's wrong and you don't do anything about it, then you become an accomplice".

He was talking about all the garbage we chuck or leave in the oceans, but the sentiment's the same VG and I will never be a silent accomplice to the smoking ban.

Our scorn and derision is only part of the picture. It's shared by millions worldwide. We may not know of all the blogs, especially those in other languages, but a shared belief that something's very wrong is very much alive and kicking - and it's forced ordinary people to take an interest in politics. And - being one myself - I'm disgusted with what I've discovered by myself and via other scribes.

If it were easy to sit down and write about these things, well anyone would do it. It's not and lets face it, at times it's degrading because that's what we're up against. It's base, it's negative and it's riddled with corruption.

Just keep on telling it like it is Squire.

Carl V Phillips said...

Thanks for that, and I don't just mean the shout-out. Offering the scorn is what I have been doing, but I did not really have a term for it, or a thought-out theory of what I was doing -- it was more a gut feeling about what needed to be said. I guess I thought of it in terms of the "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable" view of what journalists should do. But in some ways, my approach, like yours, is sometimes more artist than journalist.

I think that bringing the scorn can be a genuinely useful tactic. It does not affect the hard-core scorn-worthy opponents (though it might annoy them, which should be seen as a plus). But, it might pry loose a few fellow-travelers from the other side, those who are at their core embarrassed about who they are allying with, but who can put it out of their head until confronted with it.

More important, though, is that it offers comfort and a rallying point for those on our side. When we eventually win (I am more optimistic than you), it will be because of those who fought clear through the dark times, and the more milkshakes we throw, the more we will be able to keep up the fight.

dearieme said...

You are all much too pessimistic. The blitz against smoking worked because of two factors: (i) smoking does kill, and (ii) smokers routinely behaved very anti-socially, making everyone else's eyes sting and clothes stink.

The new crusades will have neither advantage.

Anonymous said...

It's a tanker and will take time to turn. But my guess is that you will see more howls of reasonable protest and that these will increasingly catch the eye of the media (and then politics) not least because there is always part of the media that wants to run against the herd, but also because they are human too and feel the same indignation. I know this partly because I work there. There are individuals who also believe that some of these health campaigns are politics masquerading as science. You will wish they'd use their influence and shout out. It doesn't work quite like that, they're in a minority and need to be sure of their ground. They also know they'll be hit by an almighty wave of shit. Just keep encouraging them with reasoned argument. It does make a difference.