Junkfood Science: Sunday Matinee

March 25, 2007

Sunday Matinee

How do we come to know what we “know to be true?”

Do we question what we hear, go to the original sources of the information and check the facts carefully, consider alternative viewpoints and think about it? That can be a scary thing to do today. Not knowing what the evidence might reveal, means we could find ourselves thinking outside the box. Or, in this case, left outside a circle of people we want to be a part of and who we’ve come believe know the truth. Popular beliefs have a natural way of growing into ideologies so big and strong, that it takes a brave soul to question them. Wagons circle around the belief and to be inside the folds, one must close one’s mind to other evidence.

But the evolution of how an entire planet of smart people can come to believe something completely unsupportable is an amazing thing to watch. Regardless of what one chooses to believe, this profound new television documentary will leave you questioning everything you hear from the media and the organizations and experts you believe know what’s right.

This is the story of obesity, although the film makers didn’t set out to make a film about fat. Still, the parallels between these issues are breathtaking. Here are my notes on this documentary, as an illustration of how we can so easily be led so far astray.

Each day the news reports grow increasingly more apocalyptic. This is no ordinary scientific theory. It is presented in the media as having the stamp of scientific consensus and being an undisputed fact. We’re told that “since no scientist disagrees, we shouldn’t either.”

Yet as the frenzy grows shriller, the doom-laden predictions more extreme, many scientists point out that none of the evidence actually supports the popular theory. In fact, the evidence behind the very premise is crumbling. But the one thing one can’t say publicly is that all of this might not really be a problem. To doubt the orthodoxy is heretical and those who don’t agree with the polemic receive spitting fury, censorship and intimidation.

There are too many vested interests in creating panic. It makes the money flow. Countless careers and an entire economy have come to revolve around this belief. Never mind the distortion of an entire area of science.

This is a cautionary tale of how a media scare became the defining idea of an entire generation. The entire business has become like a religion. One that has taken away a sense of safety and appreciation of the good that is all around us. Instead, we are to believe we are all doomed and that the benefits we enjoy today are slowly killing us.

This is an example of the politicization of an issue. A major government official said there’s money on the table to prove this stuff. So of course, the research community went out and did just that. The moment politicians put their weight behind something and attach their names to an issue, money will flow. Research, development and an entire institution bubbles up with the specific focus to support the predefined issue. When grant applications are written, those that reference the popular agenda get the money. If your field is in the area of political and popular concern, you have much less work to do to rationalize the money spent in your work. The huge surge in the percentage of research money devoted to this issue is out of proportion to the area of science this issue should support.

Huge amounts of money have been spent in computer modeling. But a computer model and its statistically-derived conclusions are only as good as the assumptions that go into it. A bad prediction can be worse than none at all. All models must make basic assumptions and in this issue they assume the cause for the problem — a cause that’s incorrect and ignores of the other factors. The science is that bad.

Mathematical models are so complicated that it’s simple to tweak something and make them show something entirely different from real life. Modelers are less concerned with producing a model that is accurate, as one that is interesting. There is a powerful bias within media and the scientific community for results that are dramatizable. Drama sells. Attracting media attention brings more research money.

And to the untrained eye, models look impressive and supply an endless source of spectacular stories for the media. But the most elemental principles of journalism have been abandoned on this issue. It is now common to lay the blame on the same things — based on that same basic, yet incorrect, assumption — which appear in every story and in every textbook.

The reporting has to get more and more hysterical, though, for the reporter to keep his/her job and to keep viewers. The same goes with the experts. News reports speculate that even a small change could be catastrophic. They never look back through history or examine the bigger picture and see that such a crisis is never evident. Natural, biological variations and changes are always happening but today we’re to believe those are evidence of something we’re doing wrong and of something horrible befalling us all.

Incredibly, the ideas and scare stories are simply invented. Hysterical alarms have been encouraged by the government with clearly untrue statements, such as mosquitos don’t survive in cold climates. Scientists’ statements pointing out the errors and lack of evidence are censored out during the peer review process from publications and official reports. Scientists who don’t agree with the polemic can only resign from professional organizations. And scientists who speak out have a lot to lose. Taking a public stand means losing funding for research or jobs. Going along means professional survival. Those who speak out are often accused of being funded by some big company but in actuality, there is almost no private sector investment in any ideas that go against what’s popular. If there is a sponsor who would like to prove this wrong, please contact blog owner. :)

There is a huge constituency of people dependent on those dollars that come from following the bandwagon and they want to see that carried forward. It happens in any bureaucracy. Consensus building becomes the goal, not science. Anyone who challenges the popular theory is ostracized, villified by the community, and it gets nasty and personal. Skeptics certainly don’t speak out for their health as they’re treated like Holocaust deniers.

The precautionary principle is often called upon, believing it’s better to be safe than sorry. What could be wrong by promoting health? And let’s not forget “the children.” Yet, never part of the risk equation or even mentioned, is the harm caused by following precaution in the name of health and safety. It’s even okay to have hundreds of thousands of people hurt, die or go blind.

Underlying the ideology is a belief that humans are bad, irresponsible and lazy. And those who exemplify the ideology are better people somehow. Sadly, the rhetoric is cleverly cloaking agendas that really don’t have anything to do with the actual issue. The issue is being used to legitimize a whole slew of myths that had already developed: anti-modernization and anti-business.

The theory is so entrenched, the voices of opposition so effectively silenced, it seems invincible. Untroubled by all contrary evidence no matter how strong, the alarm is now beyond reason.

Source: Please only watch if you want to blow your mind with scientific viewpoints you don’t hear in mainstream media. This is simply an illustration for those who might believe we hear critical examinations of all sides of the evidence in mainstream media and sources.

Bookmark and Share