If you read my work with any regularity you’ll know that I like to ponder the nature of language, specifically, how the rules of discourse affect what can be known and who is permitted to have this knowledge. Inasmuch as language and discourse are culturally determined so too are the bounds of knowledge. How we describe our reality determines in large part the parameters of that reality or of what can be known. Just as important, is the act of delineating what types of discourse are meaningful versus which types are not worthy of our attention. In recent years, it has become increasingly difficult to delineate the rules of discourse. I have argued previously that we have dissembled much of what holds discourse together and replaced it with a squirrelly notion of narrative control; one where all that matters is how a ‘product’ is perceived, whatever that product may be. In December, two seemingly separate touchstone events illustrate just how far the rules of discourse, particularly scientific discourse, have been severed from the pursuit of knowledge.
Controlling the Narrative
There is a saying in public relations, “he who controls the narrative, controls everything.” There are various iterations of this sentiment, but the gist is that if you control the language, if you control what can be said, and who can say it, you can pretty much guide any story to a desired end. It is brand management 101. Read any marketing or PR guide and there are often long discussions on how to control the narrative. It’s a well-honed practice for anyone in business or politics, and really, in life in general. We all massage language in order to achieve a desired end, to some degree or another. Whether speaking to friends, family, or professionally, there is a tacit understanding of what that person or audience needs to hear in order to make a favorable decision. In many ways, gauging speech to the audience is just part of human communication.
As one might expect, corporations and politicians spend great sums on money on creating and then controlling the narratives of their brands. Whether the brand is a medication, an automobile, or a person, is unimportant. The methods are the same: control the language, control what can be said and who can say it. We begin to have problems when brand management becomes the only arbiter of truth or reality, or more specifically, when simply believing something means it must be true or real. No need to align the belief with reality, to test it against fact or truth. Simply control the narrative and persuade enough people to buy it, and whatever reality one is selling, becomes THE REALITY.
We see this in politics all the time. A political campaign will identify a problem with a particular segment of their voting block and rather than question why that segment of voters did not vote for their candidate, the marketing geniuses conclude that it was the branding at fault, and maybe it was. More likely, however, there were flaws in the candidate; flaws that, if addressed, might yield more votes, but because only the branding is ever considered, because all that matters are how the candidate is perceived and not how he or she actually is, there is no impetus to address these problems. We only have to repackage and re-brand, and somehow, more effectively control the narrative. As infuriating as this type of behavior is, it is so deeply entrenched in our political and economic environments that few bat an eye, unless, of course, we are slapped in the face with the folly of these predilections. Late last year, we were slapped in the face, sucker punched really.
Indeed, I think the entire last year was an exercise in face-slapping, but I digress.
Money, Science and Language
Mid December the press was a flurry with news of banned words emerging from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Initially, it was reported that the ban was top down from Trump administration with admonitions of Orwellian thought control. Claims of anti-science abounded. Given the politically contentious nature of the words and this administration’s view on such topics, it was a reasonable assumption. The reports proved to be false, however, and it was later revealed that the CDC bureaucrats themselves were massaging the lexicon in order to protect their budgets from a conservative Congress. The CDC was re-branding their message and we were aghast in self-righteous indignation.
While everyone else was up in arms about the CDC news, I chuckled, not because this news wasn’t troubling, it was, but because this has been a longstanding practice in the CDC, as it is in any agency or organization whose existence depends upon the whims and political aspirations of others; prostrating at the feet of funders is a well-honed skill, one that takes no accord of ethics, science, and in some cases, reality itself. Only now, it was being laid bare. Under other administrations, different words or concepts, though probably not banned, were definitely eschewed. It is simple marketing 101, brand management, controlling the narrative for express purpose of reaching a desired end. It’s ugly. It’s cynical and not something we like to think about, particularly where science and health are concerned, but it happens.
We believe, perhaps naively, that organizations tasked with public health and medical science are not swayed by political or economic biases. As we saw so plainly with the latest CDC shenanigans, this just isn’t true. He who controls the purse strings controls the narrative, and more importantly, controls the actual work. For the CDC, both congress and pharma control the purse strings. Arguably, as one of the largest spenders on congressional lobbying, pharmaceutical industry influence supersedes even congressional whims. So how does an agency tasked with public health justify the flexibility of language? They don’t and therein lies the problem. Perhaps even more troubling though, neither do we. Rarely, is any consideration given to what effect altering the language so indiscriminately to mollify, or in many cases, promote the goals of one’s funders, has on the actual ‘truth’ and on the science itself. Indeed, had these words not been so politically charged and had this event not taken place during the current administration, one where admittedly there have been many direct assaults on language and meaning, few would have considered these actions newsworthy, much less problematic. We would have continued on in happy ignorance of the larger play at hand.
Beyond Just the Narrative: Controlling How to Think
About the same time as the CDC shenanigans broke, an academic report bemoaning the weaknesses of certain glyphosate research appeared in my feed. The report: Facts and Fallacies in the Debate on Glyphosate Toxicity argues against the use of deductive reasoning in scientific research. To say that I was flabbergasted, would be an understatement. This was a true WTF moment, if there ever was one, and there have been many in recent years. Who, in their right mind, would argue against the use of deductive reasoning in science? Well, the same folks that have something to protect by massaging the language in order to protect their livelihoods. Not literally, of course, but the motivations remain the same, e.g. money and influence.
The purveyors of glyphosate, like those in the pharmaceutical and other big chemical industries, have a longstanding history of controlling the narrative and employing all sorts of nefarious techniques to do so. Industry entrenchment into all areas of academic research, publishing, and mainstream media combined with their deep financial tentacles strangling every branch of every government globally, not only determine the types of research that can be conducted and published but ensures a perfectly controlled narrative, one that exudes safety and ignores risks. This is not news. Indeed, the playbook for such tactics were written long ago by the tobacco industry and have been perfected over recent decades. What is new is the direct assault on reason as a foundation for hypothesis driven research. In the past, such product defense operations were content with the standard forms of disinformation: employ a cadre of
“industry-friendly scientists and writers who had the habit of pooh-poohing the potential dangers of products, dismissing studies finding possible harm…” and who promote “falsehoods and misdirection to protect companies from bad media and regulatory scrutiny.”
Arguing against the use of reason in scientific endeavors is an altogether different level of narrative control, one that, if it takes hold, will damage the very pursuit of science itself. For what is science, if not a reasoned approach to understanding?
The Argument Against Reason
The authors of the glyphosate paper argue that deductive reasoning. Specifically, they contend that the use of particular type of reasoning called a syllogism is not a valid method to derive a conclusion. In a syllogism, the conclusion is derived from two assumptions that serve to determine the outcome. Throughout the paper, they provide several instances where deductive reasoning should not be employed to derive hypotheses about the ill-effects of glyphosate on human health. In each case, their arguments rest on the lack of research regarding a particular aspect of glyphosate toxicity, with the underlying assumption that an absence of evidence means evidence of absence. Here is one example.
We know that glyphosate chelates minerals. It was initially patented as an industrial descaling agent after all. We also know that mineral homeostasis is an important part of human health. Too little or too much of any one mineral can and does have deleterious effects on health. If we know that glyphosate chelates minerals and that people consume glyphosate in concentrations capable of chelating those critical minerals, can we then say that glyphosate plays a role in diseases processes that involve reduced or dysregulated minerals? According to the authors of the aforementioned paper, we cannot; not because the chemistry is wrong and not because the reasoning is flawed, but because there have been no studies conducted to date to investigate this possibility. They argue that we can only make assertions based upon the results of studies that have already been conducted. We cannot deduce a hypothesis from what data are available if any one piece of the puzzle is missing. To bolster the legitimacy of their contention, this quote is used throughout the article.
It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong. Richard P. Feynman (Nobel Laureate, Physics, 1965)
A legitimate assertion. If theory contradicts data, then it is possible that the theory is wrong. And if a Nobel Laureate makes this claim, well then, there is no need to go any further.
Oooh, but there is.
If the data do not match the theory, it could mean that the experiment is flawed. Human research is messy. Disease processes, particularly those that involve changes in metabolism, are complicated and our ability to detect these changes with current lab testing methods is incomplete at best. Under these circumstances, a mismatch between theory and experiment is no more likely to suggest an error in the theory than an error in experimental design or methods. The authors, however, do not want us to think about potential flaws in experimental design. They want us to think that there is this magic box, called an ‘experiment’ into which ideas go and are tested for validity. If only it were that easy.
More troubling, however, and this is the sleight of hand these authors hope to carry out, it is not that the experimental data do not match the theory, it is quite simply that there are no experimental data. Since industry itself controls the funding for the science, controls what gets published, and how what gets published is narrated, these types of studies have never been conducted and likely never will. In fact, why on earth would the purveyors of industrial demineralizing agent now ubiquitous on all agricultural products and consumed in vast quantities by actual living organisms want to know if their product did to humans what it does to metal pipes? Why would they want to confirm that their product chelates essential minerals? They wouldn’t. And if the authors of this piece have their way, they won’t have to. That is a dangerous pass these authors have given to chemical manufacturers: no need to test anything that hasn’t already been tested. Not only have they perfected tobacco industry tactics for product defense, in one fell swoop, they demolished what constitutes scientific reasoning. To them, we can only ever say what has already been said.
From Banned Words to Banned Reason: Scary Times
While banning or limiting the use of certain words is a troubling, banning the use of reason to arrive at hypotheses seems altogether more sinister. With the CDC shenanigans, we have an open display of the malleability of language to political and economic whims; one that fully exculpates the need to connect scientific endeavors to any sort of reality beyond that which is politically expedient. Anyone with any experience with the CDC, knows this has long since been the case, but perhaps not on display as openly. With the research article, we have a codification of what has long been an undercurrent in corporate medicine/agriculture and the like, that absence of evidence does, indeed, mean evidence of absence. It means that the simple act of choosing not to investigate a particular side effect serves to prove that it does not exist, and now, can never exist. If we cannot reason our way to a hypothesis, but instead, can ever only rely on what has already been concluded, there is no need for science, none. This kills it and in its stead, places an echo chamber of self-serving marketing.
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