Monday, September 15, 2014

10 Thoughts on the Occasion of Dr. Elizabeth Whelan Passing Away

I hope it does not seem disrespectful to mark the death of my former boss from the American Council on Science and Health with a listicle of somewhat random thoughts, but Beth liked top ten lists, so I hope she wouldn’t mind.

1. Before Dr. Elizabeth Whelan became known for founding an organization that combated unscientific health claims (paranoia about chemicals, overhyped cure-alls, etc.), one of her first claims to fame was the 1975 book A Baby? ...Maybe, from the days (not so long after my birth and not too terribly long before the birth of her own daughter, Christine) when feminism was in its still fairly-rational Second Wave and was making some now-obvious points, such as that women should think carefully about whether and when to reproduce.

The more or less libertarian attitude she developed then -- trained in epidemiology but painfully aware that government, media, and the public make decisions without rationally weighing risks or costs-and-benefits -- was very much like my own: comfortable with science and capitalism as natural complements, both helping to make the world a more prosperous place, as the more liberal participants in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment had hoped.

2. I find it interesting that while Beth was secular, skeptical of regulation, and libertarian, her husband is Catholic, a lawyer, and more conservative -- while their daughter, clearly loyal on some deep level to both parents, studied sociology and philosophy, a compromise after my own heart, and has written about and more or less within the self-help movement, including about marriage prospects. You can see comparable smart, systematizing tendencies in the whole family, beyond the superficial differences.

3. It’s easy to forget now, but even in the hip 1970s, when that early Whelan book came out, it was a bit radical to do things like this bit from the kids’ show New Zoo Revue in which the “The Miracle of Birth” was sung about in frank fashion (h/t Steven Ben-Off Abrams and Jeffrey Wendt). That’s one of those shows for which I’d probably be shocked now to see accurate stats on “total hours Todd spent watching,” by the way.

4. Beth saw the logical and causal connection between unscientific thinking, irrational risk assessment, fear, and the exploitation of that fear by would-be authority figures. As people become more frightened and long to be protected, they easily adopt a mindset in which kids effectively belong to the state (just as horrendous communist Simone de Beauvoir always wanted). Nowadays, for instance, you -- and your kids -- may get grilled by authorities if the kids play outside unsupervised (h/t Bethany Mandel).

5. Neither libertarians, conservatives, nor liberals, alas, are quite suited, in most of their manifestations, to noticing that as regulation increases, voluntary rules-adherence and self-discipline tend to wane.

The modern conceit among most members of all political factions is instead to think that governmental and private rule-making tend to act in concert, waxing or waning together (thus, libertarians might want tax cuts and nude pot-smoking at Burning Man, conservatives Bible-reading and the arrest of prostitutes, the left ever more regulation and the strict self-policing of speech, etc.).

The neo-Victorian route of ditching government but adhering to high moral and etiquette standards still has fewer champions than it deserves (and needs). I think in many ways Beth was still old-fashioned enough to embody that sort of combo, one after my own heart. In an era of proud offensiveness, we need this scathing critique of many bad selfies (h/t Elizabeth Cochran).

6. Beth had both aesthetic and health reasons to dislike smoke-filled bars and virtually never entered them (which might be just as well, since, as Mark Judge writes, they can be the sites of great everyday incivility -- and not just by males, he notes).

As an anarcho-capitalist, I would have preferred that rising awareness rather than regulation put an end to smoke in bars, but I can’t pretend to miss it now that it’s gone. In fact, I now realize to my relief that half my vague discomfort in bars when I was in my twenties was caused by the cigarette smoke, not by the social awkwardness.

7. That rationality-plus-freedom combo that seems so natural to me and seemed logical to Beth keeps eluding people. For instance, at Yale nowadays, one of the institutions that shaped Beth but often annoyed her, it’s not just Muslim groups who want to ban (critic of Islam and genital mutilation survivor) Ayaan Hirsi Ali from campus but also feminist and atheist groups, who you might have thought would like her, or at least want to give her a chance to speak (h/t Funnya Gleason).

Are most of my fellow atheists so knee-jerk left nowadays that they don’t like the Enlightenment-inspired free speech/free inquiry model?

8. Fear-mongering isn’t just something that manifests as science gone wrong but, of course, as politics gone wrong. Here’s a reminder (from a magazine Beth loved and which tends to jibe with the science + capitalism worldview) that New York politicians are hardly rational assessors of risk: Rep. Peter King is quite authoritarian in his pro-security-state, pro-military stance despite the fact, reports Reason, that he was a real, honest to gosh, vocal supporter of IRA terrorism (and denouncer of “British imperialism”) thirty years ago.

9. I hope ACSH will long endure even without Beth, and there are times, even now that I don’t work there, that I turn to them as the sole voice of sanity in a paranoid and unscientific world, whether they’re bucking the anti-fracking trend or keeping level heads during things like the ebola crisis. I’d trust them before I’d trust the New York City Department of Health, and they’re not paying me to say so.

10. I thought of Beth during the first-day show of Atlas Shrugged: Who Is John Galt? I attended (not realizing it was the same day ACSH announced her death), during a short scene about a government official pressuring scientists to compromise their intellectual integrity for the sake of advancing state projects and maintaining the state’s air of authority (I’ll say more about that film in a podcast -- but first will unveil one about the Scottish independence referendum, so stay tuned).

That corruption of science by politics is a real problem, deeper than almost any commentators realize, I think, and it’s a problem that ACSH’s critics tend to dodge by merely countering that ACSH, in turn, is touting a corporate view of science (like plenty of non-profits, they’ll take donations from anyone who doesn’t attach strings to their research, so some of that will be filthy corporate money, goes the argument). Indeed, it doesn’t even occur to most of their critics that government money might subtly corrupt -- and that government has greater power to create a broad, homogenous consensus and enforce it by regulatory fiat.

I can only say that I attended enough meetings at which ACSH sifted dutifully through new medical journal reports, said no to crackpot products, lamented unscientific “green” shifts in corporate PR, or adopted nuanced positions that made it just a bit trickier to churn out emphatic op-eds that I know their passion is trying to get people to respect science, not playing defense for any company that wants defending. If ACSH sometimes sounds like a mid-century pitch for better living through industrial productivity, it might simply be that there was real rationality in elements of that mid-century worldview, as in elements of the Victorian ideal of progress.

ACSH’s variation on the science-and-industry theme all began, really, with Beth seeing the yawning chasm between (A) what she learned about rationally ranking risks and health priorities as a student of epidemiology and (B) the flashy, near-random things the press and public obsessed over instead. The living embodiment of her frustrations would be, say, an environmentalist smoking a cigarette while fretting that minuscule electric and magnetic field effects from power lines might cause cancer and should be banned.

Other such contrasts abound in our culture, and they are the sort of absurdities that get a rational, informed person fired up to fight on behalf of sanity, no matter how much that smoking environmentalist might imagine himself to be the enlightened one. I’m glad Beth did get fired up, and we need more people like her. 


Gil Ross said...

Your devotional is brilliant and eloquent and makes me sad, as always, Todd [except for the sad part]. Atheist though you be, you'd have appreciated her funeral Mass today [except for the god-religious-jesus parts]; very poignant and dare I say funny from Steve and Christine. And her delicious delightful grand-babies showed up at the Lotos Club reception. She'd have had a ball. xo Gil

Christine Whelan said...

I just came across this post while researching personal mentions of Mom. Thank you for a funny and perfect tribute. Mom would be so proud, and I can see her nodding along with you on all points. Thanks for your kindness, Todd!

Todd Seavey said...

Thanks for commenting. I hope you are doing well.