Thursday, October 8, 2009

The lost art of evidence-based debate

When people first find out that I was not born in the US (that's right, there go my presidential aspirations!), their question is about culture shock. They want to know what I perceived to be the biggest differences in cultures in the old vs. the new country. Over the nearly 35 years that I have spent in the US my thinking on this has evolved. Initially I was flabbergasted that teachers in high school tolerated students' putting their feet up on the desks. In my old country such behavior would have been punished corporally.

Today I consider myself to be a more sophisticated judge of cultural differences. I have come to appreciate that the US is not a monoculture, but a conglomeration of many different philosophies. And I do not mean just based on race, ethnicity and other obvious cultural drivers. Take for example politics as a profession: its culture is quite distinct from many others. Social scientists tell us that successful politicians are necessarily narcissistic, which is a blessing and a curse. This makes them not only ├╝ber confident and decisive, but also prone to philandering and other forms of deception. I am also struck by how well they have perfected the art of not responding to questions by taking every opportunity to drive their talking points. Particularly astonishing is their ability, derived from Karl Rove's playbook, to turn a complete fabrication into what is accepted as reality by some. Just look at the death panels rhetoric.

I have to say that over the years I have cynically come to expect this and other bad behaviors from politicians. What is concerning to me is the pervasiveness of the same Rovian tactics in other sectors. Remember the recent E. coli outbreaks linked variously to Mexican peppers, tomatoes and spinach? Well, keeping this in mind, let's consider the work by the Center for Science in the Public Interest on FDA-regulated foods that have been implicated in E. coli outbreaks. This work, citing such seemingly innocuous and even desirable foods as lettuce, tuna and potatoes, has apparently incensed some of the corporate food lobby. Indeed, the Chicago Tribune reports that
...the Produce Marketing Association disagrees with putting them on the list, saying it is committed to providing safe produce and is working with the FDA and CDC to create "food safety solutions to help safeguard public health" and that "fruits and vegetables are necessary for better health."
All points well taken. But how does this address the issue at hand? Take back your data because we are committed and working on doing better? Why this is like a doctor saying "take this malpractice suit off my record because I am committed and working on doing better". Absurd logic? I think so.

The article further cites objections from the tuna organizations thusly:
But the National Fisheries Institute was even more scathing the study (sic) in their statement, saying "Seafood is a safe and healthy product that is an essential part of the American diet. CSPI has a history of attempting to scare consumers by playing fast and loose with definitions that might lead the casual reader to think people are getting sick left and right from seafood...Consumers should take this report with a grain of salt and a heaping helping of perspective."
Scare? Fast and loose? Have they ever heard of scombroid? No, it is not fatal, just unpleasant, but it happens despite the FDA regulation to gut and stuff the fish with ice immediately upon catching. Instead of addressing the evidence, they are quick to deny the allegation by casting doubt on the source.

And this brings me to my central point. Do these tactics of killing the messenger originate in relentless pursuit of market share even at the expense of public's health? Or is this just ignorance of how to debate a legitimate point? Is it possible that these executives and lobbyists do not have the skills to structure a logical evidence-based argument? Perhaps our educational institutions have lost sight of this critical skill as well. My guess is that it is a little bit of the latter and a lot of the former. Seems like public debate continues to deteriorate into voyeuristic entertainment, aided by shallow reporting.

But it does not have to be this way. The public needs to be empowered to make their own decisions based on a critical look at the evidence presented by both sides. If we can vet this evidence ourselves, there will be no room for corporate deception. Their antics will take their rightful place in the comics section of the paper.  


  1. I agree that categories of argument have collapsed into equivalency. Another negative effect is branding science as just another "religion"--since its "believers" doggedly adhere to certain arguments, they must be just as beholden to some ideology, which is seen as equivalent to evidence.

  2. Thanks, annamarie, for your thoughtful comment. I agree that there are elements trying to blur that pesky line between science and religion, intelligent design being one of them. I am convinced that a big part of the etiology of the public's gullibility is the constant press chatter that, under the guise of equanimity, just quotes from press releases. But how much of this is due to the failure of our educational system to foster critical thinkers instead of corporate drones?