A Checklist for Healthy Skeptics

Dr. Durante is a free-lance researcher living in Brooklyn, New York.

Wre 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 evaluate predictions of high-tech doom. We must learn, if we are to keep the technological achievements that give us one of the highest standards 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? According to Dixy Lee Ray, to get the amount of Alar fed to the mice who developed tumors, you would have to eat 28,000 pounds of apples every day for 70 years.[1] Mice fed smaller doses didn’t develop tumors: eating a mere 14,000

pounds of apples a day wouldn’t do it. Further examples:

• How much radiation was released from Three Mile Island in March 1979, in what is widely referred to as the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history? Answer: about one millirem in the surrounding area, and a maximum of 80 to 100 millirems within the plant. Let’s put that into perspective. The average “background” exposure to a resident of the U.S. is about 350 millirems a year. By flying from New York to Los Angeles, you would expose yourself to about five additional millirems; by choosing to live in Colorado or in the radon belt of eastern Pennsylvania, you might get a couple hundred millirems more than the average yearly dose. Comparison with these exposures from normal background sources reveals that the one millirem released at TMI was actually a very minor amount.[2]

• Precisely how many cases of cancer can be traced to DDT? None. In fact, the National Cancer Institute declared in 1978 that DDT is not a carcinogen. For a debunking of every horror story you’ve heard about DDT, from the soft-shelled birds’ eggs (they were occurring before DDT came into use) to the idea that DDT never breaks down (it does, within about two weeks in most cases), see Ray’s chapter on pesticides.[3]

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 research the matter in question. The news reporter, because he must frequently condense his presentation to a two 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 exaggerate, ignore, or distort the facts in order to make his story more attention-getting. As for “celebrity authorities,” their occupations require acting ability, not scientific training, Suggestions for checking sources:

• Find out where the reporter got his information. If he gives no source, that’s a serious shortcoming. In fact, when the question is one of scientific evidence, if no source is given, you can and should simply dismiss the statement as arbitrary, as if the speaker had said, “Pluto is composed entirely of rum raisin ice cream.” Unsubstantiated emotional diatribes are unacceptable, no matter who the speaker is.

• If an authority is cited by name, what are his credentials? Is he in a field that is applicable to whatever he’s talking about? For example: few biologists know in detail how nuclear power is generated and what its risks and safeguards are. Being a scientist rather than a piano teacher is not enough to qualify one to speak on all scientific issues.

• Find out where the authority who is cited has been published. A sensation-seeker may manage a mention in Time, but not an article in a well-established scientific journal that requires review of the article by other scientists before publication.

• Check the date of the statement. Often one vague statement, if dramatic enough, will be picked up and cited over and over again, despite any evidence to the contrary that was known at the time or has become known since. A good example: prompted by an extremely hot and dry summer in the continental United States in 1988, NASA’s James Hansen told a Congressional hearing that year that he was 99 percent sure the greenhouse effect was drastically changing the climate. He is still cited very frequently. How many people know, remember, or mention the fact that the winter of 1989 was the coldest on record in Alaska?[4]

3. Put potential risks into perspective; look at the forest as well as the trees. No technology and no element in nature is 100 percent risk-bee: 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 with the benefits gained from the product?

• The Three Mile Island accident, the worst mishap in 35 years of nuclear power generation in the United States, resulted in no deaths.[5] Contrast the record of electricity generation by coal. Mostly because producing one megawatt of electricity requires much more coal than uranium, using coal leads to about 100 times more deaths in mining coal than in mining uranium for a nuclear power plant, and leads to more than 20 times as many cases of industrial diseases among coal miners than uranium miners.[6]

• DDT did not result in any proven fatalities or cancers, but while in use it saved millions of people from disease and death. DDT was the most effective weapon against the mosquito that spreads malaria, a disease that has caused millions of deaths in Asia and even in the United States, and is doing so again now that DDT has been banned.[7]

4. Play devil’s advocate with the facts, once you have them. It’s a useful method of serf-defense to become familiar with how some facts can be distorted and how other equally important facts can be completely ignored.[8] Two common techniques to watch out for:

• Ignoring the larger picture, while citing only facts sure to alarm the listener. A mock advertisement in Petr Beckmann’s book (p. 77) reads, “Foods advertised in Reader’s Digest are radioactive.” In small print, he points out that virtually all foods have trace amounts of radioactivity.

• Confusing cause and effect with correlation. Many people die while they’re sleeping; therefore sleeping is a leading cause of death. Some people got sick after ingesting PCBs, so PCBs must be dangerous chemicals. (In fact, in the case cited as evidence of this, the liquid mixed in with the food had come from air conditioning equipment, and contained, aside from PCBs, chemicals known to be highly toxic.)[9]

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 being, to be dealt with through persuasion, who ultimately must be left alone to plan his own course of action.

The evidence is overwhelming that government economic 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 for environmental regulations, which are just another form of economic intervention.

At present, the government has severely restricted the use of DDT. In a free market, a person in a tropical climate 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 a backhoe operator. 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.

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 the 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 percent risk-free is to condemn man to perpetual fear, backbreaking labor, and premature death.[10]

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 doomsayers meet basic standards of proof.

Isn’t this being a bit harsh? Shouldn’t we give environmentalists some credit because they have good intentions? Aren’t they working 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 these 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!”[11] 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 for 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.”[12] 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 people don’t 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 good for any benefit it might bring to man. If man suffers so that the snail darter and the spotted owl can prosper, so be it. This idea that man is a disfiguring blot on the face of the earth is the reason that many leading environmentalists wish for alligators to have us as appetizers.[13]

Granted, the above quotes are from only two members of the environmentalist movement, but Muir and Schneider have been prominent leaders of it, and one must judge rank-and-file members by the fact that they have accepted these men as leaders.

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. []

1.   Dixy Lee Ray, Trashing the Planet. How Science Can Help Us Deal with Acid Rain, Depletion of the Ozone, and Nuclear Waste (Among Other Things) (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1990), pp: 78-79. Ray, the former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, provides a clearly and vividly written analysis of the evidence concerning the greenhouse effect, acid rain, pesticides, Alar, asbestos, diox-ins, PCBs, nuclear energy, and so on. The book is aimed at the layman and has substantial footnotes.

2.   Ray, p. 126. For a good discussion of normal exposure to radioactivity, as well as a detailed description of how nuclear power plants operate and how they compare in terms of safety with other types of energy generation, see Petr Beckmann, The Health Hazards of NOT Going Nuclear (Boulder, Colorado: Goleta Press, 1976). Beckmann is Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering at the University of Colorado.

3.   Ray, pp. 68-74. See also Elizabeth Whelan, Toxic Terror (Ottawa, II1.: Jameson Books, 1985), pp. 59-85. Whelan has other chapters on PCBs, dioxins, nuclear energy, and acid rain, each organized in sections: the charges made against the substance or process, the facts, the background, various studies on the subject, and concluding remarks. The book is heavily annotated. Whelan has doctoral and master’s degrees in epidemiology from the Harvard School of Public Health and a master’s degree in public health from the Yale School of Medicine; she is president of the American Council on Science and Health.

4.   Ray, pp. 32, 34-35.

5.   Whelan, p. 239. She notes that President Carter’s inves-tigatory panel (the Kemeny Commission) concluded that there was no evidence that human or animal life had been threatened by the accident at TMI.

6.   Beckmann, pp. 83-85.

7.   Whelan, p. 69, with a chart on Ceylon, where reported cases of malaria dropped from 2,900,000 in 1948 to 17 in 1963, when DDT was widely sprayed in homes. The spraying was stopped in 1964, and by 1969 the reported cases were back up to 2,500,000.

8.   For more on this, see Darrell Huff and Irving Gels, How to Lie with Statistics (New York: W. W. Norton, 1954).

9.   Ray, p. 87.

10.   See Ayn Rand, “The Anti-Industrial Revolution,” in The New Left’ The Anti-Industrial Revolution (New York: New American Library, 1971), for an enlightening description of what would happen d technology were abolished, why we cannot restrict just some technology, and the motives of those who want to. This essay, written 20 years ago, is remarkable for its insight into the principles behind the ecology movement and for where that movement must inevitably lead.

11.   Quoted in George Reisman, “The Toxicity of Environmentalism” (Laguna Hills, Calif.: The Jefferson School of Philosophy, Economics, and Psychology, 1990), p. 4; also forthcoming in Rational Readings on Environmental Concerns, ed. Jay Lehr. An excellent analysis of the driving force behind environmentalism.

12.   Quoted in Reisman, p. 10.

13.   This premise is developed at length by Reisman and Rand in the essays cited above.

Further Reading