A Checklist for Healthy Skeptics

© 1991 Dianne L. Durante

Originally printed in The Freeman XLI:11 (November 1991), pp. 406-9.

Introduction

We in the United States are becoming terrified of our own technology. Nuclear energy will zap us into early graves. Alar and DDT will give us cancer. The greenhouse effect will melt the polar ice-caps and Manhattan will be submerged. Wouldn't it be better to live "in harmony with nature," that is, without all our high-tech devices but in peace and health and security?

Or would it, perhaps, be better to ask first how much truth there is in the media hype that bombards us with such dire predictions every day? Few of us know how to evaulate predictions of high-tech doom. We must learn, if we are to keep the technological achievements that give us the highest standard of living in the world. Before accepting the media's forebodings of imminent disaster and screaming for the government to charge to the rescue, consider the following points.

1. What are the facts?

Get specific facts, with places, dates, amounts and sources; don't accept emotional tirades or vague generalities. If, for example, a movie star says Alar causes cancer, ask when and where and by whom and on what was the study done that reached that conclusion. Have other studies supported those findings? How much Alar would you, a human, have to eat to get the same effect? In the case of Alar, to get the amount fed to the mice who developed tumors, you would have to eat 28,000 pounds of apples every day for 70 years. Mice fed smaller doses didn't develop tumors: eating a mere 14,000 pounds of apples a day wouldn't do it. Further examples:

2. Check your sources

Don't assume that anyone who has made a movie or landed a job as a reporter has taken the time to really investigate the matter in question. The news reporter, because he must frequently condense his presentation to a 2-minute slot, often may not have a strong incentive to thoroughly investigate the matter. He does, however, have a strong incentive (his ratings, and ultimately his job) to grab your attention and hold it, and may not hesitate to exagerrate, ignore or distort the facts in order to make his story more attention-getting. As for "celebrity authorities," their jobs require acting ability, not scientific rigor. Suggestions for checking sources:

3. Put potential risks into perspective

Look at the forest as well as the trees. No technology and no element in nature is 100% risk free: while drinking a quart of water may save your life, putting your head into a bucket of water may kill you. If there is solid evidence of a harmful effect, how does the amount of risk compare to the benefits gained from the product?

4. Play devil's advocate with the facts

As a method of self-defense, it's useful to become familiar with how some facts can be distorted and how other equally important facts can be completely ignored. Two good techniques:

5. What to do?

If a hazard to human health exists, what is the best way to deal with it? There are basically two alternatives: government action, or action by individuals. They depend on two very different views of man: that he can't be trusted to look out for his own welfare, and must therefore have a paternalistic government tell him what's good for him and force him to do it; or that man is a rational animal, to be dealt with through persuasion, who ultimately must be left alone to plan his own course of action.

In the economy, the evidence is overwhelming that government planning is an abysmal failure. It fails because no central agency can process, or even collect, all the details that, in a free market, each individual considers in order to make the best choices for himself. The same is true in the field of environmental regulation, which is just another sort of economic intervention. At present, the government has severely restricted the use of DDT. In a free market, a Southerner might decide that he is willing to risk whatever minor hazards come from using DDT, in return for dramatically decreasing his chances of getting malaria. At present, the government has imposed such stringent controls on nuclear power plants that many utility companies cannot afford to build them. In a free market, a utility company might persuade the residents of New York City that a nuclear plant (whose containment vessel can withstand the impact of a jet at landing speed) is safer in a crowded urban area than huge, flammable gas tanks, or gas lines that can be ruptured (and have been) by backhoe operators. Individuals working and cooperating within the free market must be left to deal with environmental problems, as they deal with problems of supply and demand. Only individuals have the knowledge to make the decisions proper to their own welfare.

Conclusion

We feel pity for a man who's "afraid of his own shadow." To be afraid of one's own mind is worse, and fearing the technology we've created is precisely that: fear of the efforts and products of the human mind. The mind is man's means of survival. It is his only way to make Earth, often so inhospitable, a wonderful place to live. To reject the products of the mind on the grounds that they are not immediately perfect or 100% risk-free is to condemn man to perpetual fear, backbreaking labor and premature death.

I called this article a checklist for "healthy skeptics." The reason should now be clear. To remain healthy, we must learn to approach predictions of environmental doom critically, not accepting them unless or until the doom-sayers meet basic standards of proof.

Isn't that a bit harsh, you say? Shouldn't we give them some credit, because they have good intentions? Aren't they fighting for clean air for all of us to breathe and open spaces for our children to play in? Aren't they fighting technology for our benefit?

Let me answer those questions with two quotes from prominent environmentalists. The first is from John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, addressing alligators: "Honorable representatives of the great saurians of older creation, may you long enjoy your lilies and rushes, and be blessed now and then with a mouthful of terror-stricken man by way of a dainty!" [NOTE 1] Does this sound like a man who has good intentions toward you and the rest of humanity? And from Stephen Schneider, one of the leading spokesmen in favor of the greenhouse theory:

We need to get some broad-based support, to capture the public's imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we may have. . . . Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. [NOTE 2]

Does this sound like someone who is interested in presenting you with the truth, and nothing but the truth, so that you can make your own informed decision?

Such men do not simply want clean air for man to breathe or open areas where children can play. They rank clean air and open spaces above any concern for man. They consider nature (which has come to mean anything on earth that's not human) good in itself, not for any benefit it might give to man. If man suffers so that the snail-darter and the spotted owl can prosper, tough luck. This idea that man is a horribly disfiguring blot on the face of the earth is the reason that leading environmentalists wish for alligators to have us as appetizers.

Granted, the quotes above are from only two members of the environmentalist movement, but they are prominent leaders of it, and one must judge rank-and-file members by the fact that they accept these men as leaders. After all, the members will go where the leaders take them.

Technology - man's tool for shaping his environment to suit his needs - improves man's living conditions and ultimately prolongs his life expectancy. For evidence of that, you need only look at the high level of disease and the low life expectancy in any period before the Industrial Revolution. It is imperative, if you want to remain a healthy human being, that you refuse to accept any claim that technology or specific technological achievements are going to kill or maim you, unless such claims are proven beyond reasonable doubt.

Notes

1.Quoted in Ray, Environmental Overkill,p. 204.

2. Quoted by Jonathan Schnell in "Our Fragile Earth" (Discover Oct. 1987, p. 47), which is quoted in Ray, Trashing the Planet, p. 167.

Further Readings

Huber, Peter. Galileo's Revenge: Junk Science in the  Courtroom. HarperCollins / Basic Books, 1991.

Ray, Dixie Lee. Environmental Overkill: Whatever  Happened to Common Sense? With Lou Guzzo. Washington: Regnery Gateway, 1993.

Ray, Dixie Lee. Trashing the Planet: How Science Can  Help Us Deal with Acid Rain, Depletion of the Ozone, and Nuclear Waste (Among Other Things). With Lou Guzzo. Washington: Regnery Gateway, 1990.

Whelan, Elizabeth M. Toxic Terror. Ottawa, IL: Jameson Books, 1985.