Junkfood Science: Knowledge is power

June 23, 2007

Knowledge is power

“Our air, food and water are poisoned; our food is unnatural and unfit to eat; our bodies are obese and ridden with disease and cancers; our healthcare is the worst in the world; and we’re all doomed to an early grave.” If we listen to media, mad scientists and evil corporations are conspiring to kill us. Fear is oozing from everything!

Of course, scary news is what sells — papers, books, television shows — and agendas. Reporters know that, too, and are quick to look for the gloomiest spins and worse case scenarios. In media, the difference between a poison and evil is trivial, said journalism professor Jon Franklin:

Apocalypse sells. So the news stories focused on nuclear accidents, asbestos, pesticides, Love Canal.... The American Cancer Society, with very little data, concluded that 90 percent of all cancers were caused by pollution.... Last year, Newsweek magazine... proclaimed that the improved health statistics in modern times are a result not of medical advancement, but of changes in lifestyles — jogging, diet, and such. This is simply not the truth. But as the truth is spoken less, it becomes ever more difficult to speak it and the speaker seems increasingly less credible. In the atmosphere of anxiety we have collectively created, or have allowed with our silence to be created, the truth, even if spoken, becomes commensurately less valuable.

What he’s describing is, of course, the power of groupthink.

Conversely, those questioning popularized fears, investigating the evidence and reporting the science (which almost always dispels the Apocalyptic scares in the news) are being starved out, their views rarely given a voice in mainstream media, and their work rarely privy to funding or government grants. We’re witnessing the power of groupthink to muffle and drown out opposing ideas.

When factual evidence is spoken, it’s lost in the blizzard of frightening and sensational news stories. So much so, that it’s the truth that sounds unbelievable to us. The evidence is simply so different from conventional wisdom, we can’t believe it’s credible or that those speaking it are credible, either.

In his classic article entitled, “Poisons of the Mind,” professor Franklin cautioned against relying upon media for sound information:

Journalism brings you skewed statistics and decontextualized quotes ... half truths, mendacity, prevarication and deceit and spin and buncombe and humbug and distortion and bosh, cant, nihilism, cynicism, hypocrisy....

While he found that low level of understanding of science, medicine and technology play a key role in the unreliable reporting of the news by media, he also described the power of groupthink throughout the industry which chooses to look the other way in the face of facts.

In the most surprising and insightful story, he illustrated how and why media can continue to publish news so divergent from the evidence. He wrote about a special assignment he had been given while a reporter at the Baltimore Sun to cover the Agent Orange scandal. His editor gave him all the time and money he wanted, the best investigators to help him, and said “go get ‘em, Franklin.” Read the article to learn what he discovered, what happened behind closed doors and what continued to be reported in the news after his report. You’ll never blanketly believe anything you read again.

He also laid a share of the responsibility for the junkscience in the media on professionals. Those who draw their sustenance from propositions they know to be false, he said, “devalue the respect for the truth that is the foundation of our civilization.” Beyond failing to respect the truth, he was especially critical of professionals in science who used bogus scares:

The Supreme Court has said, to my profession, that freedom of speech does not give it the right to shout “fire" in a crowded theater. Now I say to yours that panic is a kind of poison and that untruths, like arsenic, are cumulative. Exaggerations collect into little lies, which pool together with silence and uncorrected hyperbole to, in time, become mythologies that spawn the hysteria that, like the venom of the krait, decouple everything and produce chaos and death... I would ask you to remember that the most important resource we have is not the environment or the well-being of our people. It is rather a civilization that VALUES the environment and its citizens. ...[I]n our quest for material purity we must never forget for an instant that there are poisons, too, of the mind.

Professor Franklin asked them: “When scientists lend their names and credibility to weak propositions for the sake of ideology or money, what is the inevitable end result?”

According to Franklin, the answer is that the public is losing its trust in science. That serves to make people more vulnerable to be frightened and more likely to believe things that aren’t true. He said the growth of alternative modalities is evidence of this. “We are in fact sinking deeper and deeper into a generalized acceptance of, as they say, ‘other ways of knowing.’”

Since professor Franklin made his speech to an audience of toxicologists more than thirteen years ago, it has become even more difficult for those trying to speak out against the zeitgeist to find a voice in mainstream venues. It’s largely become alternative media, such as bloggers, small independent publications, talk radio and cable news, where the public is likely to find the greatest range of ideas. We need those skeptics and devil’s advocates as they’re valuable groupthink antidotes. But there’s need for caution there, too.

Regardless of the source, groupthink can keep us from questioning everything, critically examining what we hear and recognizing the truth. It’s those who understand science and are able to think critically who can best protect themselves from being taken advantage of, and not turn over control to the power of groupthink. That’s why I spend so much time trying to help you develop skills to question and sort through what we hear in the media, rather than just follow whatever sounds the best.

It’s vitally important for us to not just become believers, but to really know and understand why something is true. Only then, will we be able to not only take back power over our lives, but live and enjoy our lives without fear.

Thanks to Dr. William M. London, Ed.D., M.P.H., coordinator of the Health Science Program at California State University, Los Angeles, for reminding me of professor Franklin’s classic article. It’s long, but valuable weekend reading in helping us understand the power of groupthink. It reminds us of the importance of remembering history and that knowledge is power.

© 2007 Sandy Szwarc

Bookmark and Share