Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Not every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

Over on The Houston Chronicle's new MedBlog, Leigh Hopper started to question the wisdom of using Thimerisol (a mercury based preservative that is used in eye drops and vaccines and has been for half a century or more) in vaccines. Many vaccine manufacturers have conceeded to public hysteria over mercury poisoning and have stopped using it. But there are few good replacements for it, therefore many vaccines have a short shelf life, have to be refrigerated, and many manufacturing batches are condemned due to bacterial contamination. Two years ago, an entire batch of Flu Vaccine was condemned sparking a nationwide (and worldwide) panic over flu vaccine availability. But just how do you refrigerate vaccines in the middle of the Congo? You don't. Therefore, millions of people in need of Polio, Diptheria, Tetanus, and other vaccines that we take for granted here cannot get them because they live too far away from an electrical outlet.

This touched on an issue I find very important.

The media lives to jump into controversy and is, by it's very nature, biased towards the minority view. This is not bad in of itself, in fact it is often for the good. The danger is that the minority view is wrong far more often than it is right. The Media is a very high gain amplifier and it will amplify the minority view such that it SOUNDS like the majority view very quickly. This can have very bad consequences if politicians who are really merely weathervanes for thier constituancies are not given good clear unbiased advice such that they use thier heads instead of weathervaning. This has happened over and over again in the scientific media.

Individual persons can be intelligent logical beings, but put them in a large enough group, and they become abjectly stupid and illogical. The lowest common denominator in both intelligence and lack of emotional control takes hold. They become sheep, and the media, whether we or they like it or not are the shepherds. When the media focuses on the herd and not the individual, the herd can be made to stampede off a cliff if the person starting the stampede is irresponsible in choosing the path. Some in the media simultaneously derive giddy joy at the power they hold while claiming no responsibilty for the consequences of thier actions or even disavaowing that such power really exists, while others see that power as a tool outside the political or legal processes and seek to change society to thier whim much as a Stalin or a Hitler or a Baby-Doc would, caring only about thier agenda, and not a whit for anyone or anything else. And a very few others, grasp the dangers of the power they weild so clumsily and try to do as little harm as possible to the sheep in thier care. These few realize that they themselves chose this position, they were not elected to it.

Back in 1962, Rachel Carson set in motion something that has resulted in millions of agonizing deaths. She wrote a book entitled "Silent Spring" She did so with good intent, but with very poor foresight, and very little thought to the unintended consequences of her actions. She, more than any other single person caused the US and the rest of the world to ban the use and manufacture of DDT. A pesticide that to this day has no equal. A pesticide that was so good, and so safe around humans, people abused it with abandon. DDT was a godsend to Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and South America where malaria kills. DDT saved millions of people. Today, malaria is rampant and is immune to many of the drugs that are used to fight it. Malaria is pandemic in places that malaria has never before in history been a problem in. Only now are countries in Sub-Saharan Africa beginning to contemplate the use of DDT again, but since they have little chemical manufacturing capacity themselves, they must turn to the industrialized nations to obtain it, but we won't make it because it offends our sensibilities. Therefore the dying continues unabated. Ms. Carson continues to kill beyond the grave.

Some more examples of stupid policy decisions that were driven by fearmongering in the media:

The halt in construction of nuclear reactors, especially fourth generation fast breeder reactors which are an order of magnitude more efficient.

The ban on reprocessing nuclear fuel for use in fast breeder reactors which would allow us to use 95% of the energy available instead of only 5%, leaving the fuel dangerously radioactive for only 200 years instead of 10,000.

Fighting the establishment of a high level nuclear waste repository for decades while nuclear waste stacks up ouside nuclear power plants because there is nowhere to put it. So just how exactly is stacking it up outside a plant safer than putting it inside a desert mountain 100 miles from the closest living thing?

Forcing refiners to use MTBE in Motor Fuels for environmental reasons and then suing them for doing so because it fouls groundwater.

Banning lead in all uses even though some uses are not only benign, but there are no good alternatives to it. (tin/lead solder in electronics, lead shielding in radiography equipment etc.)

Banning cadmium plating when there are few good replacements for cadmium plating in industrial use.

My point is that the media, especially those in the science media have a responsibility to ask themselves the question whether they are doing the human race good or harm in taking the positions they take, or bringing attention to the things they do. Have they considered all of the consequences of thier actions? Are they prepared to deal with the guilt of choosing wrongly? Are they willing to take responsibility for yelling fire in a crowded theater and causing a mass panic when none is warranted? People in large groups are sheep. It is the shepherd's responsibility if they stampede off a cliff, not the sheep's.


Blogger Leigh Hopper said...

Whoa, not so fast Rorshach! Don't lump me in the anti-vaccine, vaccines-cause-autism camp! I'm a fan of vaccines, and a skeptic of naysayer arguments.

You point out how the potential for vast benefits can be undermined by disproportionate concern about a small risk. That's so true.

But the nature of parenting is often in conflict with the goals of public health. Parents focus on risk and make the best decision about their children. It's a bonus if it helps society, too.

In steering readers of my MedBlog to the John Hopkins vaccine site, I merely meant to provide info and perhaps allay concern.

January 17, 2006 11:53 AM  
Blogger Rorschach said...

Fair enough, I'm a parent of two girls myself so I understand your concerns. My bigger issue is not with you, or any one person (well, maybe Rachel Carson...=D) but the whole science media community, and by extension the media as a whole. Your blog post just reminded me of it. The general populace is not all that science savvy. Most would be hard pressed to pass a high school physics exam, or even show where on the map where Madagascar is. If people read something about some group spouting off about the dangers of breathing hydrogen dioxide (that would be water BTW and breathing it is called drowning.), they won't bother to go and find out what the stuff is, or what it is good for, they'll start writing thier congressmen screaming for a ban on it. The media will then pick up on this movement, report it, and add a positive feedback loop to the amplification process. Nowhere in this process has anyone said "Hey wait a minute! This is WATER we are talking about!".

There is very little responsibility shown in the reporting of news these days. This isn't just true of news reporting but of science news reporting as well. If the New York Times were to report that the US Government was listening in to telephone calls of people in sight of Pearl Harbour in 1942, you can bet the place would be raided by the US Army and the editors and reporters involved would be led away in handcuffs for sedition and treason. Journalists used to care about how thier reports will affect society, that does not seem to be the case nearly as much anymore, and we as a society have accepted that irresponsibility as normal. We should not be willing to accept that.

But the phrase "I only meant to provide information" is a cop out. Information without context or explanation is as or more dangerous! That is like handing a kid a loaded handgun and not teaching him how to handle it safely, the odds that they will make intelligent choices on how to handle the situation are low. Average people don't know anything about Thimerisol, they see the word "Mercury" and freak out and stop reading anything else, that is assuming they understand what they are reading to begin with. Most people don't realize mercury is used in dental restorations too and has been for a century at least. It is still the "gold standard" that all other substitutes are compared against, so far none have come close to it's longevity. Add to that study after study showing that Mercury leeching out of the fillings just does not happen. It is easy to forget the abject gullibility and stupidity of the masses when you talk to intelligent and logical people every day. "Persons" and "people" are two different animals. Group psychology is very different than individual psychology. Groups are much less logical or intelligent, and much more emotional.

Look, I respect you and Eric Berger both a great deal, heck I'd be happy as punch to break bread with either of you. But you must understand what I'm talking about is the recognition that the media wields great power and to weild such power without an acknowledgemtnt that there is great responsibility as well is intellectually dishonest.

January 17, 2006 1:08 PM  
Blogger Cory said...

Sadly, it's much about the bottom line now and what pushes copy (or sells TV ads). Gone are the days of "news for the common good" I'm afraid.

This, of course, is not a slam on those who work for MSM and are trying to put food on the table.

In my job you do what the boss tells you to do provided it is legal and ethical.

It's obvious the ethical decision regarding reporting of this nature has been decided in the industry long ago.

So, no. I don't blame the reporters.


January 17, 2006 4:03 PM  
Anonymous ttyler5@hotmail.com said...

The journalism schools at for instance UT or Columbia are engaged in the political indoctrination of the students.

They are spoon-fed Marxism, Liberalism, PC, Environmentalism, ideological doctrines of "social justice", etc as opposed to being taught the rules of objective news reporting we were raised on and which is in fact the standard of jorunalism the American people want!

Part of the problem is that Academia naturally attracts the types of social and ecnomic parasites who believe in the type of crap listed abiove and who believ it si their job to spread their mental diseases to their students.

January 17, 2006 6:05 PM  
Anonymous ttyler5@hotmail.com said...

Please excuse typos, my eyes are worn out!

January 17, 2006 6:05 PM  
Anonymous ttyler5@hotmail.com said...

Ror, BTW, I have your site on my Firefox tab array that I leave open all the time while working, so I can check in on my favorites blogs and see waht's going on.

However, just a bit ago I had a "Timed Out" message from Firefox on your blog.

Is my keeping an open circuit to your blog in any way adding to your server costs?

If so let me know and I'll make an adjustement on this end!

January 17, 2006 9:22 PM  
Blogger Rorschach said...

Nah, this is blogger, I don't pay a dime, but alas, that means I (and both of my loyal readers) have to put up with outages from time to time. "You get what you pay for" is all too true.

January 18, 2006 7:48 AM  

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