Fallacies, like false dichotomies regarding who believes in 'real science', are shaping a number of our most important law and policy debates.
Several of today’s most vehement public policy debates are predicated on a chaotic combination of false dichotomy and a claws-out catfight for control of the dominant cultural and media narrative. The arguments proffered over these vital public issues – immunizations and GMOs chief among them, although the disagreements over climate change, teaching evolution in schools, and abortion all bear similar elements –are ill-structured, fallacy-based, logically-inconsistent, and hyperbolically divisive. And on such foundations are our laws written and enforced.
The dominant narrative regarding immunizations goes like this:
“Government and pharmaceutical industry scientists say immunizations are not harmful and are for the common good, and anyone who does not believe this is an ignorant, uneducated, anti-science, superstitious, obstructionist, probably Christian-southern-Republican, idiot and should be punished by being forced to immunize their children.”
The dominant narrative regarding GMOs goes like this:
“Government and agricultural industry scientists say GMOs are not harmful and are for the common good, but anyone who believes this is an ignorant, uneducated, unreasonable, gullible, obstructionist, probably Christian-southern-Republican, idiot, and the agriculture industry should be punished by being forced to label and disclose to the public any molecule of GMO material included in any food product.”
Individuals who question vaccination policies (as well as climate change data or any other official reports bearing numbers and lab studies) are scathingly branded ‘anti-science’ and marginalized by those controlling the media narrative. Yet individuals who question GMO data are deemed cultural heroes who are battling ‘junk science’ and preposterous industry-funded studies.
These two false dichotomies – if you value science over superstition, you won’t question vaccines; and if you believe those industry shills and their junk studies about GMOs, you’re an idiot—are logical fallacies that serve only to divide the public into ever more distant and angry diametrically opposed camps. Being called a superstitious idiot never changed anyone’s mind, ever.
This means that as laws are adopted and enforced on these subjects—as parents are threatened with jail for not immunizing their kids, and huge lawsuits loom over GMO bans and labeling—Americans will be splintered into warring camps. True, there are winners and losers in every policy debate. But where the process is fair and civil, where the arguments are based on reason and rationality rather than philosophically inconsistent (a.k.a. arbitrary) rhetorical fallacies, most losers can find a way to live with the results, content that they were heard and respected in the process.
Much of this rhetoric has recently focused on the question of whether or not you ‘believe in science’ as well as whether or not the data at issue is ‘real science.’ The arguments which result in marginalizing some people as being ‘anti-science’ assume that ‘science’ is immutable, absolute, not subject to question—and apparently something performed or funded only by entities some group of people decides they like, such as Merck rather than Monsanto.
I run into logical, emotional and philosophical problems with this initial premise. To me, science IS inquiry; science IS an ever-changing understanding; science IS something performed by and participated in by every one of us every day, and not purely the realm of experts in any camp. Science is of course informed by our cultural precepts, including our language, our faith, our emotions – it always has been.
Following this alternative premise about science, then, I come down squarely in the camp of questioning the various industry-sponsored GMO studies – questioning, mind you, not outright rejecting on account of their source. I’m perfectly willing to accept the industry- and government-science supported notion that eating an ear of GMO corn is not likely to kill you, at least not directly or in the short term. Besides, killing off their customer base too quickly would be bad for business – heck, any virus knows that killing off the host too fast is bad strategy.
My concern in the GMO debate is that this attempt to vilify and discount all studies indicating that GMOs are not, in themselves, harmful, diverts the public policy arena from addressing the bigger-picture issues. For example, many GMO crops are manipulated to be pesticide and herbicide resistant, allowing—encouraging—far greater use of these chemicals which disrupt our ecosystems and quite possibly human health. Most GMO crops are also gene-patented, which I—a dedicated open-pollination seed saver—find most troubling of all.
I personally find this heated public argument over GMO labeling and the question of whether eating GMOs is bad for you to be doing more harm than good. It strikes me as the same structuring of public policy and law that led Americans to argue over whether the Government could look at your kid’s library records via the Patriot Act – while not raising one complaint over the complete and total surrender of your internet and telephonic communications privacy by warrantless and sealed-warrant FISA court investigations. They robbed the whole store, and we felt good because we got to keep the candy bars.
By getting enraptured by the passion of proving that GMO science is junk science, we’ve lost sight of the real issues. Allowing companies to patent indigenously developed seed strains, allowing a tiny handful of companies to come into possession of an ownership interest of the world’s seed – and thus food –supply is a terrifying evil. Having been duped by our vanity over science-based arguments into plunging down this side-show path about labeling and the safety of GMO produce items, we are missing the opportunity to have meaningful, substantive impact on this issue which may well shape the future of humanity. The GMO industry will make a great show of fighting us all over labeling, then concede, leaving us once again standing in an empty store holding the candy bars with a dumb smile on our face.
My assertion that this labeling debate is a side show does not sit well with my liberal friends, to say the least—but that is nothing compared to what happens when I apply the same premises and logical inquiry to immunizations. If I should not believe the agricultural industry studies on GMOs, why should I believe the pharmaceutical industry studies on immunizations? This pronouncement is met at dinner parties with the most disdainful astonishment. The response, usually, is ‘Well, that’s different,’ followed by, ‘But it’s science.’
Well, there’s a logical argument for ya.
I know, there is a significant body of data and studies from a wide variety of sources indicating that most vaccines in use today have very low risks of direct harm to the recipient, and that the public in general benefits relative to particular diseases when a significant portion of the population is immunized. I did immunize my child – but not on the standard schedule, in fact, she did not receive some of the required child immunizations until well into her teens, when she talked through the issues with her doctor and made her own choices on them. This failure to comply utterly with what ‘science’ tells us has resulted in my being called the most extraordinary names. It’s also led to significant bafflement, since I’m not uneducated, ignorant, Christian, southern or Republican or any of thoseother horrible false-dichotomy labels heaped on the people labeled as ‘anti-vaxxers.’
I have seen all the studies, is my response, and science thrives and develops by being challenged. That’s the whole reason we have peer-review journals – so that studies apparently performed along accepted standards of scientific inquiry can be challenged, duplicated, and debated. I never was particularly concerned about the correlation between vaccines and autism myself, but I’m delighted that enough people raised that challenge that long-term detailed studies were undertaken on the subject. I tend to believe that knowledge about both immunizations and autism was substantively advanced by these studies—and that isa very good thing indeed for all of us.
What most concerns me is the absolutist, hyperbolical position of the ‘pro-science’ camp, which asserts a downright tyrannical proposition: No one has any right to question the ‘science’ on this subject. This position ignores, indeed attempts to stomp out, the notion that people have very, very good reason to question Government and industry findings regarding human health.
Unethical government-sponsored medical practices and public health scandals abound in living memory of many Americans. The Tuskegee experiments lasted until the 1980s; the eugenics programs into the 1930s. Forced lobotomies and forced sterilizations continued well beyond the eugenics program, and state law still allows court-ordered sterilization of individuals with developmental disabilities. From 2001 to 2004 Washington DC and federal agencies covered up the fact that harmful levels of lead were in the public drinking water. Americans have good reason to start with the presumption that the Government is not telling the truth regarding health-related information.
Even removed from Government and industry influence, scientists frequently determine that what they declared with absolutely certainty at one point in time is actually absolutely wrong. For example, for a dozen years or more, ‘science’ in the form of respectable entities from the Mayo Clinic and National Institutes of Health on down have touted niacin supplements – vitamin B3 – as a natural means of cholesterol control. Niacin is cheap, available over the counter (unlike prescription statins), and in fact is highly effective at raising HDL (“good cholesterol”) and lowering LDL (“bad cholesterol”).
Last week, a prominent peer-reviewed medical journal published a report indicating that despite the fact that it raises good cholesterol and lowers bad cholesterol, niacin does nothing to stop heart disease. In fact, the study concluded, taking niacin supplements increases your odds of dying prematurely. ‘Science’ said for years, with no reservations, this stuff is fabulous; now science says oops, actually it’s killing you. This is hardly a one-off – remember DES? It was administered liberally to pregnant women from the 1940s to the 1970s to reduce pregnancy complications, and created a generation of DES sons and daughters with significant debilitating medical problems.
So how does logic dictate that anyone who questions immunizations – particularly immunizations that have not been around for 50 years so that we can see the long-term impacts and unexpected generational consequences –is ignorant, uneducated, or an idiot? The more you are educated about the American medical and pharmaceutical industry and its studies and programs, the more you have reason to question. ‘Science’ changes its mind every week about something affecting our health. Coffee has gone from being good for you to being bad for you so many times that I don’t bother to look anymore. Margarine was better for you than butter; now butter is better for you than margarine. Yet somehow, we are told, all immunizations are absolutely good all the time without fail or change in thinking, and if we don’t believe that, then we are idiots.
Increasingly, the law says we are more than idiots. If we doubt, if we question, if we hesitate to immunize our children on the mandated schedule out of concern for the risks (and there are genuine risks – you can check out the data at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Vaccine Compensation program, which has paid out compensation for over 3500 claims of death and serious bodily injury since the program’s inception in 1988, and they only pay for a very narrow range of claims for a small number of vaccines that do not, for example, include flu shots) we can be legally punished. Our kids can be precluded from attending public schools; in some states we might even be thrown in jail, which has long been the political response of tyrants to people who do not agree with them.
The Americans who dominate our present cultural narrative waive the flag of righteous, patriotic Science and wield it as a banner to vilify and marginalize those with alternate points of view. Fallacies, like the false dichotomy that anyone not with ‘real science’ is an idiot not worthy of discourse, have always been the scurrilous weapon of eristic argument – argument aimed at defeating, squashing and humiliating an enemy rather than engaging in heuristic inquiry and persuasive techniques designed to work together towards a common goal.
Is a nation of those who sign on to the dominant narrative lined up to legally bulldoze those who bring a different perspective to the table really where we want to be going?
Or worse – is it where we have already arrived?