Questioning Authority

There are a number of stereotypical attributes that are unjustifiably linked to expertise, and it is important to avoid relying on them These stereotypes include age, wealth, maleness, whiteness, self-confidence, credentials, specialization, and techno-elitism.

The difference between the world of a child and the world of an adult can largely be described in terms of control, competence, and responsibility. When you were a child, you had little control over decisions that affected you. You were expected to eat what you were given, go to school at the assigned time, go to sleep at a designated bedtime, and so forth. Adults made the decisions because it was assumed that you lacked the capacity to decide for yourself. Even the decisions you did make were not neces­sarily binding, and it was your parents, not you, who were responsible for the consequences of your mistakes.

As an adult, you are responsible for all these decisions and more. The responsibilities of adults in fact extend beyond their actual areas of competence, which explains a lot about the way the world works. If you want to build an addition to your home, you hire a contractor. To take care of your health, you hire a physician; for legal matters, an attorney. You buy shoes from a company with expertise in manufacturing footwear. In all of these situations, the fact that you yourself lack expertise is not much of a problem, because you know what you want, and the expert’s job is simply to fulfill your wishes. In the words of the philosopher GeorgHegel, “We do not need to be shoemakers to know if the shoes fit, and just as little have we any need to be professional to acquire knowledge of matters of universal interest.”

With regard to decisions about public issues, expertise in terms of skill, knowledge, or experience is often less important than basic questions of values. Is abortion wrong? Is it moral to deny medical care to a child whose parents have no health insurance? Should murderers be put to death? Is it acceptable to perform medical experiments on human beings without their consent? There are no scientific answers to these questions, or thousands more like them. They can only be answered by asking our­selves what we believe and what we value. In addressing these questions, finding knowledgeable experts is actually less important than finding ex­perts who share our values. This doesn’t mean that knowledge is unim­portant. Knowledge matters, whether you are deciding about abortion or hiring someone to remodel your kitchen. But the contractors who remodel your kitchen don’t get to tell you what color to paint the walls or whether you should have wood versus linoleum floors. Their advice is limited to let­ting you know how much each option will cost.  In a democracy that s the kind of deference we should expect from experts on public policy. And a contractor who spends a lot of time studying ways to minimize your outrage is probably not someone you really want to hire.

When hiring a contractor, you can turn to a state licensing board or the Better Business Bureau to see if someone has valid credentials and a reputation for doing honest work There is no such system for accrediting public policy experts. However, if someone makes claims of a scientific nature you can ask what kind of education licensing and other credentials they possess in the field for which they are claiming expertise.  It is also worth asking how experts rank among their peers, although you should bear in mind that every profession has its blind spots and tends to circle the wagons against outside criticisms.  To judge from the literature of the American Medical Association, for example, you would think that malpractice lawsuits are a bigger problem than actual medical malprac­tice. As a rule of thumb, you should assume that specialists in any field are given to underestimating harm for which their own profession is re­sponsible.

Expertise is justifiably linked in the public’s mind to talent, skill, ed­ucation, and experience. There are also a number of stereotypical attrib­utes that are unjustifiably linked to expertise, and it is important to avoid relying on them These stereotypes include age, wealth, maleness, whiteness, self-confidence, credentials, specialization, and techno-elitism. When evaluating a speaker’s message, it is worth asking yourself if you are giving him extra points for having gray hair, a deep voice, an impressive- sounding degree, and a distinguished-looking business suit.

Scientific Uncertainties

Our society’s esteem for science actually tends to encourage the very un­scientific notion that science is a source of infallible truths. In fact, all sci­ence is uncertain to some degree. Nature is complex, and research is difficult. The most that science can tell us about a given question is that there is a strong probability that such-and-such an answer is true. To un­derstand scientific information, therefore, it helps to understand some­thing about the statistical techniques that scientists use to quantify uncertainty. One of the classic journalistic textbooks on the subject is News and Numbers: A Guide to Reporting Statistical Claims and Contro­versies in Health and Other Fields, by the late Victor Cohn, a former sci­ence editor at the Washington Post.

Scientists live with uncertainty by measuring probability. An accepted numerical expression is the value, a statistical calculation of the proba­bility that a given result could have occurred just by chance. A value of .05 or Iess — the conventionally accepted cutoff for “statistical signifi­cance” — means there are probably only five or fewer chances in 100 that a result reported in a scientific study could have happened by chance alone.  When studying health risks, statistical significance is often impos­sible to achieve. If something kills one in 1,000 people, you would actu­ally have to study several thousand people in order to achieve a value of .05 or less, and even then the possibility of other confounding factors might call your result into question. “A condition that affects one person in hundreds of thousands may never be recognized or associated with a particular cause,” Cohn says. “It is probable and perhaps inevitable that a large yet scattered number of environmentally or industrially caused ill­nesses remain forever undetected as environmental illnesses, because they remain only a fraction of the vastly greater normal case load.”6

If you find any of these concepts difficult to grasp, you can take com­fort in the fact that you are not alone.  “Every major study of statistical pre­sentations in the medical literature has found very high error rates, even among the best journals,” says Thomas Lang, medical editing manager at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and coauthor of How to Report Statistics in Medicine: Annotated Guidelines for Authors, Editors, and Reviewers.  “Many of those errors were serious enough to call the authors’ findings into question.”

There are some specific guidelines to consider when evaluating sci­entific information. Cohn recommends that when someone tells you they’ve done a study you should ask, “What kind? How confident can you be in the results?  Were there any possible flaws in the study?” The last question is particularly important he says because the answer may tell you whether you are dealing with an honest investigator or a salesperson who is trying to convince you of a particular point of view.  “An honest re­searcher will almost always report flaws," Cohn says. “A dishonest one may claim perfection.”  Other questions to ask include:

§         What kind of study protocol was used? Is enough information of­fered to satisfy you that the research method is sound in its design and that its conclusions are reliable?

§         Why was the study performed?

§         What is the study’s statistical significance and margin for error?

§         Was it submitted to independent peer review? Has it been pub­lished in a reputable scientific journal? (Bear in mind, however, that authors can pay to have scientific findings published even in some peer-reviewed journals.)

§         Are the results consistent with the results from other studies per­formed by other researchers?

§         Is there a consensus among people in the same field?

§         Who disagrees with you, and why?

Asking some of these questions may seem daunting. Scientific stud­ies are laden with jargon of the trade that makes it difficult for outsiders to understand—words like “chi-square,” “allele,” “epizootic,” and so forth. Don’t let the language put you off. Often you can find a friendly scientist at your local university who is willing to translate things into plain English. University scientists are trained and paid to be educators, and many of them are happy to assist an intelligent, motivated person with questions. Above all, don’t be afraid to ask, and don’t let the incomprehensible stuff intimidate you. If someone wants you to believe something, the burden of proof should be on them to explain it to you in language that you can un­derstand.  If something is too complicated to explain, maybe it’s also too complicated to be safe.

The Precautionary Principle

Given the uncertainties inherent to science (and to all human endeavors), we are strong believers in the importance of the precautionary principle, which we discussed in Chapter 6. Throughout this book, we have also stressed the importance of democracy in making decisions about tech­nology and its impact upon people’s lives. The reason that democracy matters in science and scientifically influenced policy is precisely that uncertainty exists and that different people reach different conclusions about important issues. Debate and compromise are the processes through which people resolve these differences. When a new technology is introduced, such as nuclear power or genetic engineering, some people will focus entirely on the potential benefits of the new technology while ignoring the dangers.  Others will focus on the dangers and ignore the po­tential benefits, while other people fill in the continuum of opinion be­tween these two poles.  In an ideal decision-making process, the interplay of debate over differing views will hold the “reckless innovators” in check but enable beneficial innovations to move forward after the concerns of the “fearmongers” have been thoroughly vetted in scientific and public fo­rums. This process may slow the pace of introduction of new technologies, which indeed is part of the point to having a democratic decision-making process.

By training and enculturation, most experts in the employ of govern­ment and industry are technophiles, skilled and enthusiastic about the de­ployrnent of technologies that possess increasingly awesome power. Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, they are enchanted with the possibilities of this power, but often lack the wisdom necessary to perceive its dangers. It was a government expert, Atomic Energy Commission chairman Lewis L. Strauss, who promised the National Association of Science Writers in 1954 that atomic energy would bring “electrical energy too cheap to meter” within the space of a single generation.7  Turn to the back issues of Popu­lar Science magazine, and you will find other prophecies so bold, so opti­mistic, and so wrong that you would be better off turning for insight to the Psychic Friends Network.  If these prophecies had been correct, we should by now be jet-packing to work, living in bubble-domed cities beneath the ocean, colonizing the moon and Mars. The cure to cancer, like prosperity, is always said to be just around the corner, yet somehow we never actu­ally turn that corner. Predictions regarding computers are notorious for their rhetorical excess.  “In from three to five years, we will have a machine with the general intelligence of an average human being,” MIT computer scientist Marvin Minsky predicted in 1970.  “I mean a machine that will be able to read Shakespeare, grease a car, play office politics, tell a joke, have a fight. At that point, the machine will begin to educate itself with fantastic speed. In a few months, it will be at a genius level, and a few months after that, its power will be incalculable.”8  Expert predictions of this sort have been appearing regularly ever since, although the day when computers will be able to grease your car (let alone read Shakespeare) keeps getting pushed back.

The views of these techno-optimists deserve to be part of the decision making process but they should not be allowed to crowd out the views and concerns of the skeptics — the people who are likely to experience the harmful effects of new technologies and who deserve to play a role in deciding when and how they should be introduced. Just as war is too important to leave to the generals, science and technology are too important to leave in the hands of the experts.

Opponents of the precautionary principle have caricatured it as a rule that “demands precautionary action even in the absence of evidence that a health or environmental hazard exists” and says “if we don’t know something we mustn’t wait for studies to give answers.”  This is not at all its intent.  It is a guide for policy decisions in cases where knowledge is in­complete regarding risks that are serious or irreversible and that are unproven but plausible in the light of existing scientific knowledge. No one is suggesting that the precautionary principle should be invoked regarding purely fanciful risks. There are legitimate debates over whether a risk is plausible enough to warrant the precautionary principle. There are also reasonable debates over how to implement the precautionary principle. However, groups that seek to discredit the principle itself as “unscientific” are engaged in propaganda, not science.

Follow the Money

When you hire a contractor or an attorney, they work for you because you are the one who pays for their services. The PR experts who work behind the scenes and the visible experts who appear on the public stage to “educate” you about various issues are not working for you. They answer to a client whose interests and values may even run contrary to your own. Experts don’t appear out of nowhere. They work for someone, and if they are trying to influence the outcome of issues that affect you, then you deserve to know who is paying their bills.

Not everyone agrees with this position. Jeff Stier is the associate di­rector of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), which we described in Chapter 9.  Stier goes so far as to claim that “today’s conven­tional wisdom in favor of disclosing corporate funding of research is a ‘new McCarthyism.’“  Standards of public disclosure, he says, should mir­ror the standards followed in a court of law, where “evidence is admissi­ble only if the probative value of that evidence exceeds its prejudicial effect.”  To disclose funding, he says, can have a “prejudicial effect” if it “unfairly taints studies that are scientifically solid.”  Rather than judging a study by its funding source, he says, you should simply ask whether its “hypothesis, methodology and conclusion” measure up to “rigorous scien­tific standards.”9  When we asked him for a list of ACSH’scorporate and foundation donors, he used these arguments to justify his refusal.  With all due respect, we think Stier’s argument is an excuse to avoid scrutiny.  Even in a court of law, expert witnesses are required to disclose what they are being paid for their testimony.

Some people, including the editors of leading scientific journals, raise more subtle questions about funding disclosure.  The problem, they say, is knowing where to draw the line. If someone received a small grant 20 years ago from a pharmaceutical company to study a specific drug, should they have to disclose that fact whenever they comment about an entirely different drug manufactured by the same company?  And what about non­financial factors that create bias?  Nonprofit organizations also gain some­thing by publishing their concerns. They may have an ideological ax to grind, and publicity may even bring indirect financial benefits by helping attract new members and contributions.  Elizabeth Whelan of ACSH made these points during a letter exchange with Ned Groth of the Consumers Union.  “You seem to believe that while commercial agendas are suspect, ideological agendas are not,” Whelan complained. “This is a purely spe­cious distinction. ... A foundation’s pursuit of an ideological agenda — per­haps one characterized by a desire for social change, redistribution of income, expanded regulatory control over the private sector, and general promotion of a coercive utopia—  must be viewed with at least as much skepticism and suspicion as a corporation’s pursuit of legitimate com­mercial interests.”10

There is a certain amount of truth to Whelan’s line of reasoning. Nev­ertheless, corporate funding is particularly important to track, for the fol­lowing reasons:

1 Corporations are consistently driven by a clear and self-evident bias — namely, the desire to maximize profits, whereas assessing “ide­ological bias” in nonprofit foundations is itself subjective and ideological.

2 Even if money doesn’t always create bias, it is a leading indicator of bias. Some nonprofit groups receive their money from the public at large or from a broad sector of the public. Consumers Union, for ex­ample, receives the majority of its funding from consumers who join in order to receive its publication Consumer Reports. Groups such as ACSH receive a large percentage of their money from major corporations. Elizabeth Whelan may believe every word she says about the safety of pesticides, and perhaps she would have ended up believing the same things even if she had never received a dollar from the chemical and food industries.  Nevertheless, the funding differences between Consumers Union and ACSH offer a fairly clear indication of whose interests are served by each organization.

3 The money that corporations pour into influencing public policy is huge compared to the expenditures of nonprofit organizations. In 1998, for example, environmental organizations spent a total of $4.7 million on lobbying Congress. The sum total for all single-issue ide­ological groups combined — pro-choice advocates, anti-abortionists, human rights groups, feminists, consumer organizations, senior cit­izens, and a variety of other groups — was $76.2 million. By con­trast, the agribusiness industry alone spent $119.3 million, and the lobbying expenditures of all industries combined added up to $1.2 billion. These numbers are just lobbying money and do not include campaign contributions, “soft money” or any of the other ways that corporations buy political influence. Of course, no one is truly immune from ideological bias As a practical matter, however, the biases you need to worry about the most are the biases held by people who have the money and power to influence government policies that affect your life.11

The simplest way to find out who is funding an organization is sim­ply to ask. Request an annual report or list of institutional donors. Don’t just ask who is paying the bills. Ask how much money is involved. Spin doc­tors have mastered the art of the “nondenial denial.”  Remember the strat­egy that Philip Morris used to conceal its role as the creator and primary founder of The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition: “We will not deny being a corporate member/sponsor, will not specify dollars, and will refer them to the TASSC ‘800’ number.”12  The strategy of admitting to being a sponsor while refusing to specify dollar amounts was designed to deflect questions while avoiding outright lies that could embarrass the company if its funding role was later exposed.

Even if an organization itself doesn’t disclose its funding, sometimes the information is available from other sources. Examine the interests and affiliations of the organization’s board of directors.  If the organization refuses to make any of this information publicly available or hedges its an­swers, that in itself is cause for suspicion.

The Devil in the Details

In addition to examining someone’s funding sources, you can also learn a lot about them by asking what positions they have taken in the past on spe­cific issues. Pay attention to nuances. Industry front groups like to portray themselves as moderate and representing the “middle ground.”  Watch for words like “sensible,” “responsible,” and “sound” in organization names.  Just as the true mission of The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition was to stigmatize science that inconvenienced its sponsors, a group called “Citizens for Sound Environmental Policy” is likely to be in the business of trying to discredit genuine environmentalists Industry-sponsored or­ganizations frequently adopt misleading names.  Examples have included the Foundation for Clean Air Progress, the National Environmental Pol­icy Institute, the National Wilderness Institute, the Science and Envi­ronmental Policy Project, the Council for Solid Waste Solutions, Citizens for Sensible Control of Acid Rain, and the Alliance for Responsible CFC Policy.  Be especially skeptical of “think tanks,” which have proliferated in re­cent years as a way of generating self-serving scholarship to serve the ad­vocacy goals of industry.  Rather than centers for research and analysis many of today’s think tanks are little more than public relations fronts, usually headquartered in state or national seats of government. Washington Post columnist Joel Achenbach says, “We’ve got think tanks the way other towns have firehouses. This is a thoughtful town.  A friend of mine worked at a think tank temporarily and the director told him when he entered, ‘We are white men between the ages of 50 and 55, and we have no place else to go.’ “14

Funded by big business and major foundations, think tanks devise and promote policies that shape the lives of everyday Americans.  Social Security privatization, tax and investment laws, regulation of everything from oil to the Internet.  They supply experts to testify on Capitol Hill, write articles for the op-ed pages of newspapers, and appear as TV com­mentators.  They advise presidential aspirants and lead orientation semi­nars to train incoming members of Congress.

Think tanks have a decided political leaning. There are twice as many conservative think tanks as liberal ones, and the conservative ones gener­ally have more money.  This is no accident, as one of the important func­tions of think tanks is to provide a backdoor way for wealthy business interests to promote their ideas.  “Modern think tanks are nonprofit, tax-exempt, political idea factories where donations can be as big as the donor’s checkbook and are seldom publicized,” notes Tom Brazaitis, writ­ing for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.  “Technology companies give to think tanks that promote open access to the internet.  Wall Street firms donate to think tanks that espouse private investment of retirement funds.”  So much money now flows in, that the top 20 conservative think tanks now spend more money than all of the “soft money” contributions to the Re­publican party.15

A think tank’s resident experts carry titles such as “senior fellow” or “adjunct scholar,” but this does not necessarily mean that they even pos­sess an academic degree in their area of claimed expertise. Elsewhere in this book we have criticized the ways that outside funding can corrupt the integrity of academic institutions  The same corrupting influences affect think tanks, only more so. Think tanks are like universities minus the students and minus the systems of peer review and other mechanisms that academia uses to promote diversity of thought.  Real academics are ex­pected to conduct their research first and draw their conclusions second, but this process is reversed at most policy-driven think tanks.  As economist Jonathan Rowe has observed the term “think” tanks is a misnomer.  His comment was directed at the conservative Heritage Foundation, but it applies equally well to many other think tanks, regardless of ideology: “They don’t think; they justify.”

Demand Accountability

One of the reasons that life in the information age has become such a wel­ter of conflicting claims is that journalists have failed to live up to their re­sponsibilities. Reporters are supposed to be one rung up from the average citizen on the information ladder, and they have a responsibility to verify the credentials and reliability of their sources. When they allow their re­portage to be leavened with propaganda, they cheapen and degrade their product just as surely as a baker who adds sawdust to his flour. If you see a news story that fails to identify the background, credentials, and poten­tial bias or conflicts of interest of a cited authority, complain. Send a let­ter, make a phone call.

The scientific press is expected to meet a higher standard of ac­countability than the general press.  When it fails to meet this standard, the harm is multiplied, because general news reporters often repeat informa­tion that appears in scientific journals, using even less fact-checking than they would apply to information from other sources.  In December 1999, for example, the British Medical Journal published a “study” claiming that shaken (not stirred) martinis have beneficial anti-oxidant properties The so-called study was part of the BMJ’S annual joke issue.  It accompanied other similarly humorous papers examining the effects of “too much sax” on jazz musicians, the frequency of swearing by surgeons, and the ques­tion of whether young women named Sharon are more likely to contract sexually transmitted diseases.  To drive home the point that this was all tongue-in-cheek, the BMJ’S martini study made frequent pointed refer­ences to James Bond, commenting that “the well known fictional secret agent. . . not only is astute in matters of clandestine affairs at a personal and international level but may also possess insights of interest to medical science. . . . 007’s profound state of health may be due, at least in part, to compliant bartenders.”  Notwithstanding these efforts to clue in the clueless, wire services including Reuters, Knight-Ridder, the Associated Press, UPI, and Scripps Howard all distributed stories on the martini’s new­found power to ward off cancer and heart disease. Reports on the “anti-aging oomph” of shaken martinis appeared as straight-faced news in more than 100 publications, including the New York Times, Houston Chronicle, London Financial Times, Chicago Sun-Times, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Seattle Times, Forbes magazine, and, of course, Playboy.16

Not only does the media fail to adequately investigate the information it reports, often it fails even to disclose information that is readily available. Take, for example, the thousands of video news releases (VNRs) that are incorporated into television news broadcasts.  TV news directors certainly know who supplies their VNRs, and it would be very easy to place small subtitles at the bottom of the screen stating where they came from — for example, “Footage supplied by Pfizer Pharmaceutical.” This is almost never done, mainly because the stations themselves realize that it would be embarrassing if people found out how much of their so-called news is actually canned material supplied by PR firms. It can only be hoped that as the public becomes better educated about the use of VNRs and other public relations tactics, pressure will be brought to bear upon the media to reform itself.

Excerpted from Chapter 11 of Trust Us, We’re Experts! How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles with Your Future. New York: Penguin Putnam, 2001.

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