Unhealthful News 73 – Beware of simplistic labeling

This is slightly off for a weekday UN post, but I just read the article today and felt a need to write something.  The feature story, in the New York Times’s Week in Review was arguing that “liberals” who normally like “green” projects object to them when they are “in their backyard”.  The examples given were: Brooklyn, New York residents in one limousine-liberal neighborhood objecting to a new bike lane on their road (the ongoing controversy over Bloomberg’s bike lane initiatives was undoubtedly the reason this article was published); Berkeley, California merchants objecting to the prospect of customers not having easy access to their stores or parking if a dedicated mass transit lane was retrofitted into their main streets; and the Kennedy family leading the fight against an offshore wind turbine facility near Cape Cod that would be visible from their estate.  The first observation is that this story, like most in the corporate media, is about a combination of fairly rich and extremely rich people.  In this case, all of their actions can be interpreted as protecting their wealth, and thus not a whole lot different from banks fighting against regulation, even though it is portrayed as being some kind of everyman’s dilemma (the reporter likens it to the choice of whether to reuse your towel when staying in a hotel rather than hanging it up and saving on laundry).

The really destructive problem with this reporting, though, is that it plays the usual news reporter game of trying to turn everything into a sports-match-like political contest when there might be genuine scientific/technical issues that need to be discussed.  For example, some of the Brooklyn residents are contending that the bike path in their neighborhood is badly designed and creates dangerous traffic hazards.  It is possible, of course, that the are really just objecting to something that makes their neighborhood less exclusive or that hurts them personally (less parking), and are trying to use the technical health arguments as an excuse.  I have no idea whether this might be true, but it is certainly true that such games do happen.  The objections to the Cape Cod wind project are many, and include credible arguments that it costs far more than is warranted by what it will produce (just in terms of resources, and thus costs to taxpayers and electricity consumers, regardless of the issue of the view).  But the Kennedys’ and their rich neighbors’ objection to is it is purely a matter of its visual impact on the ocean view from their “compounds”.

No doubt people over-generalize from that fairly well-documented behavior of the Kennedys and their neighbors to the entirely different issue I have been working on, the effects on ordinary people when land-based wind turbines are built near their houses.  These also have an aesthetic visual impact, and many people do not like that (though some people do).  But the noise from them (they are much closer to people’s houses than offshore turbines) also creates a much more serious impact, including substantial health problems.  But it has been possible for turbine industry proponents to denigrate the health claims by implicitly (or sometimes explicitly) likening them to the rich residents’ objections to the Cape Cod project, and the awareness that people do indeed sometimes make health claims when their real objections are entirely aesthetic and political.  (The most obvious example of that is policies forbidding smoking in many places, like parks, where people can smell and see it, but there is no credible claims of any health risk.)  The problem is largely created by the simplistic labeling, that declares wind turbines to be a nice clean green innovations that no one could object to except for the most selfish of reasons; “natural” products to be what enlightened liberals prefer, and thus harmless (see my rant about latex from three days ago); or smoking and drug use to be a bad unhealthy practice that therefore must always cause health risks.

A story from one local board hearing about whether wind turbines would be allowed in a town, which I gave testimony at:  Open comments from the floor were allowed.  One comment was from someone of college age – perhaps a local resident, though I recall she did not identify as such and I had the impression she came in from the city to represent the enviro club from her university.  The hearing was focused on the health effects of a planned turbine project but she ignored that and made a plea in favor of the turbines because of the need to increase the production of “green” energy.  I could be wrong, but I suspect she had the same mindset as the reporter of the above story:  The policy question had nothing to do with scientific questions about whether a policy would hurt people’s health; is all about her “us”-group who have big-picture political goals which serve the greater good of society vs. “them” with selfish individual preferences.  I suspect she had never studied at the analyses that suggest that the particular technology is not so green and efficient as it is portrayed to be (there is debate about that, but the point is that it is not clear-cut) or looked at the evidence of the health effects.  Nor had she ever stood in someone’s yard listening to the roar and throbbing coming from a nearby turbine. Wind turbines are considered green, she considered herself green, and that was all she needed to know.

As the great American scholar-politician, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (a sadly rare combination) remarked:

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.

The problem is that in the current American science/political climate, people form scientific opinions based not on the science but on who they identify with.  It is sometimes called “values politics” but the much more accurate term used for it is “politics of identity”.  Someone who wants to think of herself as “green” and/or wants others to think of her that way chooses to believe that bike lanes are safe and wind turbines are useful and harmless without even considering what the science says.  Why should she?  After all, scientific conclusions follow from political belief, not from scientific analysis. 

In the spirit of the Moynihan quote, it is an acceptable position (perhaps a bit cruel or naive, but at least not existentially Wrong) for someone to say, “yes, turbines are economically inefficient and they ruin the lives of some neighbors, but I think those are acceptable prices to impose on people so that we become a society that burns less fossil fuel”.  But it is not acceptable for anyone to say or think “because I believe in this political cause, there is nothing bad about turbines”.  Or “because I hate smoking, a whiff of smoke from someone’s cigarette is dangerous.”  Or “because I love the Earth, organic produce is more nutritious than conventional produce.”

Such attitudes are both an cause and effect of epidemiology and related science being generally low quality and often total junk.  Many people publishing epidemiology are political activists who have learned just enough about how to run some epidemiology software that they can write something that looks like a scientific analysis and that, of course, reaches conclusions that support their cause.  But this is only possible because epidemiology, as typically practiced, is such a low-quality science that it is easy to introduce propaganda disguised as science.  If someone did a study reporting that bike lanes had a positive effect on traffic safety, or a negative effect, I would not be inclined to believe it.  Injury epidemiology, while a bit better than nutritional epidemiology, is such junk that my first guess would that the study was written by a political partisan trying to support their side, and my second assumption would be that it was done badly in any case. 

So, I have nothing good to say about someone who believes a particular scientific/technical/health claim just because he thinks of himself as a “liberal” (or whatever political bent).  However, I object far more strenuously to a reporter who declares that someone is supposed to blindly support that claim because he is a liberal (etc.), declaring him to be a hypocrite, not even recognizing it is possible that he might have formed his opinion based on actual scientific information.  Therein lies a source of much unhealthful news.

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