Skepticism is hard. As a recent best-selling book noted, doubletalk is a pervasive part of an attention-driven, media-dominated economy. But we can't just choose to doubt everything all the time, or we'd never be able to get out of bed in the morning for fear of the floorboards inexplicably collapsing. So we each come up with our little rubrics for deciding what to discount.
The very funny and intelligent movie Thank You for Smoking, out today, is (dare I say it) unquestionably a skeptical movie and one will that will encourage skepticism in its audience, but it's interesting that different people might take different rubrics away from it.
The most obvious message in the film is that tobacco kills and the industry for decades tried to distract people from that fact. But the movie is not so much about tobacco as it is about spin in general. And any organization such as ACSH, devoted to encouraging empirical assessment of risks and rational responses to them, must abhor spin -- but not all spin is equally deadly, and some may come away from the film with the impression that everything is lies and simply resign themselves to ignoring all advice, expert and otherwise.
The film depicts public relations experts representing tobacco, alcohol, firearms, landmines, logging, nuclear power, Hollywood, fast food, a senator's office, and finally cell phones as approximate moral equals in that they all spin -- though it is made clear that smoking takes the prize for killing the most people (and ACSH would argue that some of the others, contrary to popular belief, kill no one at all).
So what rule of thumb would the neophyte skeptic take away from Thank You for Smoking? Don't trust the tobacco industry? Don't trust people pushing potentially unhealthy products? Don't trust industry in general? Don't trust industry or grandstanding politicians? Or the Fox Mulder principle: trust no one? The final rule might be tempting, but that way lies paranoid schizophrenia (which may be why the paranoid schizophrenics and Mulder-like conspiracy theorists sound so similar).
The best rule of thumb may be never to trust completely but adopt increasingly strong tentative beliefs based on the thoroughness with which ideas have been tested, debated, refined, and subject to potential debunking. As the market tends to weed out bad products -- over time -- and continual debate and comment, we hope, (sometimes) weeds out false claims in journalism, so too the continual process of peer review and attempted replication of experiments and studies weeds out the nonsense in the scientific arena (even the well-funded Tobacco Research Institute eventually became a laughingstock and closed its doors).
Our most esteemed scientific journals, then, ought to be about as close to the carefully-examined truth as human beings can get -- and indeed they are generally more reliable, despite what the corner psychic or traditional Chinese medicine buff might tell you, than the intuitions of the layman. But even participants in the scientific process can be hasty in constructing rubrics for weeding out falsehoods. Two nights before I saw Thank You for Smoking, I was lucky enough to hear former New England Journal of Medicine editor Marcia Angell under the auspices of the Center for Inquiry, publishers of the aptly-named Skeptical Inquirer magazine. She lamented the unscientific state of the American mind, as evinced by everything from religion to postmodernism -- but curiously, when she asked "who benefits" from our mass scientific illiteracy, her answer was "big business" and the "right-wing politicians" who supposedly serve big business.
When I tried asking her how she could say big business is the prime beneficiary when, for instance, it's General Electric that has to dredge the Hudson River at a cost of some half-billion dollars because of environmentalists' unscientific fear of trace amounts of PCBs, or California utility companies that must place power lines underground because of unscientific fear that electric and magnetic fields cause leukemia, she quickly cut me off (while nearly every other questioner rambled on at great length), saying that since "profits" are all that corporations care about, they will always be a threat to the truth and unreliable in their reliance on science. It pays to be skeptical, but if Angell's rubric is simply "profit-makers are liars," she may too quickly fall prey to false claims by ostensibly selfless groups from the Environmental Protection Agency to Greenpeace to the devotees of religion she spent so much time denouncing.
When someone asked her if she ever felt pressure to skew the contents of the New England Journal of Medicine, I was prepared to defer to her personal expertise if she said, for instance, that pharmaceutical companies, who advertise heavily in science journals, used the ad revenues as financial pressure on the journals' editors -- this is the central claim of anti-pharmaceutical conspiracy theorists and those who say the journals, companies, and the Food and Drug Administration collaborate to oversell new drugs. But interestingly, even after writing an entire book about why she thinks we should not trust drug companies, Angell said she had never felt the slightest editorial pressure while at New England Journal of Medicine. Science isn't perfect, but maybe it actually works -- even in partnership with those dreaded profit-oriented corporations, despite Angell's preferred rubric.
So let's walk away from Thank You for Smoking wary of unscientific spinmeisters but recognize that in the real world, we are not simply at the mercy of self-interested industry or government mouthpieces. No one person's utterances are authoritative -- even when the person is well-meaning, unlike the consciously slippery characters in Thank You for Smoking -- but there are processes by which we can asymptotically approach the truth: science, thorough and competing journalistic perspectives, philosophical debate, market competition, and so on.
Don't take Nick Naylor's, Marcia Angell's, or Todd Seavey's word for it, but don't despair, either. Gradually, painstakingly, in a piecemeal fashion, even a planet full of idiots and liars can fumble its way toward consensus-building, time-tested, repeatedly-affirmed truths. For starters, studies show cigarettes kill, not cell phones or PCBs at the bottom of the Hudson. People who tell you otherwise may be trying to sell you something -- and may be completely wrong even if they aren't.
Todd Seavey is Director of Publications at the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH.org) and editor of HealthFactsAndFears.com. Other Fears pieces on Thank You for Smoking appear here, here, here, here, and here. This week also sees Seavey pieces about vampires and anarchists on the big screen, as if cigarette-makers weren't scary enough.