Unhealthful News 98 – More on WHO, and what it means for reading the health news

Last lame post from Lebanon with a theme that makes it an early Sunday post; I will try to resume regular UNs tomorrow.  Perhaps the most compelling piece of knowledge I come away from this conference with is not any new bit of research (though I was intrigued by one delegate’s methods for helping nicotine users become more aware of what they were doing), but a deep-seated reminder of how disturbing the WHO’s influence in the world is.  I am certainly not the type to worry about the U.N.’s black helicopters (the United Nations, that is, of course – it would be very nice if Unhealthful News had a helicopter).  But WHO is right up there with U.S. “war on terror” efforts and a few other bits of international power politics in terms of arrogantly and often arbitrarily defining what constitute acceptable behavior for the people of the world (and occassionally killing them if they do not comply).

You might recall that I posted that the local WHO poobah told us, on the first night of the conference, that nicotine users should be punished as criminals.  Well yesterday, according to The Daily Star (Beirut), the same guy, Hussein al-Jazaeri, opened a local meeting on the topic of antimicrobial resistant buggies (the WHO topic du jour, which I wrote a bit about).  A couple of observations occurred to me:  People here are willing to uncritically listen to this guy talk about any subject and apparently believe him, though someone in a management and diplomatic job obviously cannot be expert on all the topics he expounds upon.  Also, I witnessed the almost-literally-spitting mad defense of WHO from some government officials at the IHRA conference when I and a couple of other speakers criticized their impractical demands about tobacco policy and especially their opposition to tobacco harm reduction.  This did not seem to just be the smarmy court-politics sucking up to WHO that I mentioned in a previous post, but rather seemed to be based on a genuine godlike admiration for WHO from local health officials.

This contrasts markedly with the response to the WHO in the U.S. and Britain, where I get most of my news and information, where it is properly treated similarly to a university research program or large special interest NGO — their opinions, after all, are just what a group of people got together and decided to the best of their (fallible human) abilities.  That is, Americans and Brits tend to repeat what WHO says as if it is true, but do not defer to their mandates or opinions to any particular degree.  What is the difference?  Well it is obvious as soon as you think about it:  The Americans and Brits have the capacity to do their own national analysis about many health questions, but most smaller or poor countries have no clue.  Their few health officials have their hands full keeping the medical services functioning and such, and have no way to take on complicated scientific questions.  But this is quite similar to how within the U.S., local and state governments defer to the FDA and other national entities (often quite foolishly, like buying into FDA’s anti-scientific attacks on e-cigarettes).  If they did not have a national government they were more comfortable with believing, they too would probably have no choice but to hope WHO was offering good advice. 

Once someone defers to another person/entity’s politics and opinions, they tend to defend them more violently than they defend opinions they came to through reasoning and study:  Intelligent people are ready to defend their analysis rationally, or willing to question it if appropriate.  But when they are subconsciously embarrassed about blindly yielding to someone else’s authority, it is hard for them not to insist that the someone else must have godlike correctness.  It is a cognitive dissonance thing, wherein if we are insecure about why we are doing something we tend to change our beliefs to justify the choice.  “If I am blinding deferring to them without being able to really understand whether they are right or not, then there must be absolutely no doubt they are right because I would not be so stupid as to blindly defer to someone whose judgment is questionable.”

As I said, it was obvious once I thought about it.

What does this mean for readers of the health news?  It is a reminder that when you read a scientific declaration / behavioral recommendation / etc.  by your local health department (or your national health department if you live outside the dozen or so countries whose governments have the capacity to really do the science in-house), what you are likely hearing is the piped-through opinion of the U.S. government, the WHO, or some other large rich government.  That does not make it necessarily right or necessarily wrong, obviously – those entities are usually right, though are often wrong on the most controversial issues.  But it does mean that the reporters should be demanding the basis for the claim (identifying the original source) and skilled readers should recognize that this is missing when they fail to do so.  Because of that cognitive dissonance problem, the local officials might actually take a harder line about something than the authority they are quoting, and portray it as far more definitive than the authority actually did.  Sometimes such misrepresentation results from simply being in over their heads and bungling it, but it is worth remembering that they will likely have the subconscious urge to over-state the claim and their faith in it to protect their egos.

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