Conventional Unwisdom

In an essay "Freedom of the Press" George Orwell wrote presciently about the dangers of a press too bound to prevailing orthodoxy to print anything else:

"Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news -- things which on their own merits would get the big headlines -- being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that "it wouldn't do" to mention that particular fact. So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralized, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is "not done" to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was "not done" to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.

Substitute the American mass media and entertainment industry today for the British equivalents in the 1940 about which Orwell was writing and you will accurately describe the situation we find ourselves in, where from the purely political to the notions of proper nutrition, energy policy, transportation -- you name it -- there is a conventional orthodoxy, often unsound and lacking in factual foundation, which has an iron grip on the average mind of those who do not actively seek out alternative sources of information or whose work and life experiences have not shown them the prevailing conventional wisdom is bunk.

My friend James Lewis offers up the notion that the mass media are "pathogenic" and are "turning our national discourse into pathology". He explains, "If you have free and open debate, crazy ideas tend to get exposed. If you don't (the way we don't in the MSM), you [amplify] pathogenic 'memes.'"

That notion, first remarked upon by the genius Orwell decades ago, was best illustrated in an article by Kyle Becker this week.

Yale Law professor Dan M. Kahan was conducting an analysis of the scientific comprehension of various political groups when he ran into a shocking discovery: tea party supporters are slightly more scientifically literate than the non-tea party population.

When composing histograms of the scientific inference abilities of liberals and conservatives, he discovered that those who described themselves as tea party supporters came out pretty well, based on National Science Foundation standards of evaluation:


Remarkable was the professor's reaction on the Yale Law "Cultural Cognition Project" website:

I've got to confess, though, I found this result surprising. As I pushed the button to run the analysis on my computer, I fully expected I'd be shown a modest negative correlation between identifying with the Tea Party and science comprehension.

But then again, I don't know a single person who identifies with the Tea Party. All my impressions come from watching cable tv - & I don't watch Fox News very often - and reading the "paper" (New York Times daily, plus a variety of politics-focused internet sites like Huffington Post & Politico).

I'm a little embarrassed, but mainly I'm just glad that I no longer hold this particular mistaken view.

[Emphasis in original]

If a presumably well-educated and well-read person like a Yale law school professor was so easily duped about a major American political movement by the media, imagine how easy other idiotic notions have been peddled to ordinary voters.

It is the increasingly singular view of the "correct position" that precludes honest debate of so many important issues. As the poster Jimmy K responding to a fellow poster's question observed of the Orwellian stew we are presently in, observed:

"In what rational world is trying to get the government of, for and by the people under the people's control equated with "hating government"? "

The same one in which

● being opposed to reverse discrimination and special privileges for certain racial groups is 'racist'

● being opposed to gay 'marriage' is equated with 'hating gays'

● favoring the enforcement of immigration laws is equated with 'hating immigrants'

● favoring security measures that factor in the prevalence of Muslims involved in terrorism is equated with 'hating Muslims'[/quote]

Add to this the widespread scientific ignorance and the money to be had -- often from the taxpayers' pockets -- by exploiting this lack of knowledge, the pathology is creating a tragic waste of lives and of resources that could be far better put to use.

Science is never "settled," contrary to men like Al Gore, made fabulously rich by doomsday lies about climate change. It is a process, one which requires constant testing and often the revision of previously held theories. This week we got to see this anew. The discovery of new fossils in Eurasian Georgia, for example, has led scientists to question whether there really were different species of hominids who preceded modern man. There's reason to believe that the what we once considered diverse species were simply variations of a "single, evolving lineage" As one commentator suggested, if we examined the fossil remains of Danny DeVito and Michael Jordan we might easily have assumed they were diverse species, not evidence of the huge variety of modern man.

Today's pathogenic memes include the need to bankrupt the West in order to control for climate change which, in any event, would not necessarily be the bad thing the changers argue it is. The yipping about it to the effect of billions of dollars being transferred to useless projects created by large democratic donors (Profits of Doom?) reminds me of the foolish predictions of another doomster of note, Dr. Paul Ehrlich, much loved by the media in his heyday and still setting toxic memes. Among his predictions of imminent catastrophe are these:

1. "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate..."

2. "In ten years [that is, 1980] all important animal life in the sea will be extinct. Large areas of coastline will have to be evacuated because of the stench of dead fish."

3. "By the year 2000 the United Kingdom will be simply a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people... If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000."

None of these things came to pass, but his views still inform much of the public's notions of the world we live in. The most obvious example to my mind is the Environmental Protection Act, which displaces countless people, reduces the development of land and resources because like Dr. Seuss' Horton Congress believes a "creature's a creature no matter how small," ignoring, of course, that new organisms develop to fit into niches created by the passage of older species (See Charles Darwin). (The same lovers of snail darters, however, believe as did Ehrlich that the reverence for life does not extend to small creatures in human wombs, even those only half way out of them.)

What largely made nonsense of Ehrlich's predictions was human ingenuity which managed to vastly increase global food production, and what threatens to bring a halt to that progress are two ideas as dumb as were Ehrlich's predictions, and both of these dumb ideas are promoted day in and day out by the forces Orwell warned about. I'm talking, of course, about the prejudice against genetically-modified food and the preposterous claims for organically grown foods, two efforts by scientific illiterates to deny us the benefits of human creativity and a higher standard of living for all.

1. The myth that organically grown foods are better for you and the environment

Repeated, sound testing has shown that there is no substantial difference between organically grown food and conventionally grown food. While it is always more expensive, organically grown food is not safer or healthier. It is more expensive -- often twice as expensive as conventionally grown food. To those who see something moral in this earlier form of agriculture, it is worth noting that it requires more land -- that is, is takes it away from other uses like housing and forest land for wildlife -- it uses more labor and it takes more conventional energy if grown on smaller plots of land than does conventionally grown food grown on large plots.

There are, moreover, hidden health dangers in organically grown food:

According to recent data compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), people who eat organic and "natural" foods are eight times as likely as the rest of the population to be attacked by a deadly new strain of E. coli bacteria (0157: H7). This new E. coli is attacking tens of thousands of people per year, all over the world. It is causing permanent liver and kidney damage in many of its victims. The CDC recorded 2,471 confirmed cases of E. coli 0157: H7 in 1996 and estimated that it is causing at least 250 deaths per year in the United States alone.

Consumers of organic food are also more likely to be attacked by a relatively new, more virulent strain of the infamous salmonella bacteria. Salmonella was America's biggest food-borne death risk until the new E. coli O157 came along.

Organic food is more dangerous than conventionally grown produce because organic farmers use animal manure as the major source of fertilizer for their food crops. Animal manure is the biggest reservoir of these nasty bacteria that are afflicting and killing so many people.

Organic farmers compound the contamination problem through their reluctance to use antimicrobial preservatives, chemical washes, pasteurization, or even chlorinated water to rid their products of dangerous bacteria.

That report is from 1998 and once again human ingenuity has managed to reduce the food-borne illnesses of organically grown food but there is still a statistically greater likelihood that you will contract microbial disease from it than from conventionally grown products.

Avery also warns of that and about toxicity problems with organic food:

As if that were not frightening enough, organic and "natural" food consumers also face increased risk of illness from toxins produced by fungi -- and some of these toxins are carcinogenic. Refusing to use artificial pesticides, organic farmers allow their crop fields to suffer more damage from insects and rodents, which creates openings through which fungi can enter the fruits and seeds. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regularly tests samples of various foods for such dangers, and it routinely finds high levels of these natural toxins in organically grown produce. It found, for instance, that organic crops have higher rates of infestation by aflatoxin, one of the most virulent carcinogens know to man. Unfortunately, the FDA has issued no public warnings about these risks so far.

Click on almost every healthy food guide on Yahoo or in your newspaper, and they still repeat without warning the benefits of organically grown food, repeating like mirrors in mirrors in mirrors the benefits of it without noting the costs and the dangers and the FDA which knows better is cowed into silence. From a moral point of view deliberately reducing the food supply and driving up its prices especially in view of the lack of discernable benefits seems immoral. We simply have to up substantially land yields for food. (Avery said in 1998 we needed to triple them.)

If ever challenged about their notions of organically produced food, its supporters argue that they are pesticide free and so somehow safer, But all tests show the insecticides used on domestic crops provide no real danger -- Captan, the most widely used. "is one ten-millionth as carcinogenic as ordinary drinking water." Should you still have some concerns rinse your produce in water and vinegar to remove all traces of it.

2. The second major agricultural development which made the Ehrlich predictions risible was the development of genetically-modified foods, a life-affirming development which the eco-fanatics and a credulous press join hands to scotch.

Genetically modified food can greatly increase yields and feed a hungry world. They are safe, say doctors, food scientists, and plant biologists. 

They are prevailing upon more and more in Third World countries ,whose farmers need these products, to ban them, and when they do, crop yields will remain small, and farmers will be forced to use insecticides without proper safety equipment.

Cornell plant geneticist Walter De Jong was shocked to watch the romantic urbanites' efforts to prevent GM food:

"Do you want to be the African farmer who has to apply insecticide every week -- really nasty stuff -- without protective equipment?" The question hung in the air for a second, and the panelist beside him repeated the no-chemical mantra.

Weeks later, De Jong tells me the panel opened his eyes. He was shocked at how people who don't live near farms feel entitled to advise farmers, especially on environmental matters. "There is a romantic notion of environmentalism, and then there is actual environmentalism," De Jong says. "Farmers are very conscious of the environment. They want to hand off their operation to their kids and their kids' kids, so they maintain the land the best they can while doing what they need to do in order to sell their harvest," he says. "My guess is that the majority of people who are anti-GM live in cities and have no idea what stewardship of the land entails."

"I find it so tragic that, by and large, crop biotechnologists and farmers want to reduce their pesticide use, and yet the method we think is most sustainable and environmentally friendly has been dismissed out of hand." He pauses as he recalls the event and says, "There is no scientific justification for it -- it is just as if there is a high priest who decided, 'Thou shalt not be GMO.'"

Orwell, in his great essay on the press kowtowing to conventional unwisdom  ends

[I]t is the liberals who fear liberty and the intellectuals who want to do dirt on the intellect: it is to draw attention to that fact that I have written this preface.

It is to draw attention to this lemming-like behavior, this assault on liberty of thought and debate that I write this.