I begin this blog with a current affairs quiz. Just three questions:
- What do you think has caused the serious defects of new-born babies in Brazil?
- What about that car company Volkswagen, do you think it has deliberately cheated customers and the regulators with its clever software to pass emissions tests with cars that are dirtier than they seem?
- And what about Boeing, Airbus and most of the airlines of the world, repeatedly breaking health and safety law, and covering up serious toxic injury of crew and many passengers?
If you live in the west and read western mainstream media, your answers to the above are likely to be variants of:
- Well, that Zika virus, obviously.
- Yes, VW has! What absolute rogues, and
- What? Don’t be ridiculous. Sounds like a conspiracy theory.
Yet the airline case is the odd one out for quite the opposite reason to that assumed in the popular narrative – it’s the only case of the three where a causal link has been proven.
In my three decades’ work as a journalist I have never ceased to be amazed by the ability of regulators and other powerful figures to embed a narrative that has only a tenuous or circumstantial evidence base, and to suppress more important, solidly based intelligence on a matter of public concern. It’s called spin, and we all know it goes on. But what is more surprising, and really rather depressing, is the willingness of a supposedly sophisticated, educated population, priding itself on being sceptical, rational and evidence based, to go along. The profession of investigative journalism has more or less died.
The link with the Zika virus and severe abnormalities in newly born babies in Brazil caught my attention for a couple of reasons: firstly, a causal link was assumed based only on correlative evidence. In my journalistic work trying to expose wrongdoing by corporate vested interests I am always told that ‘correlation does not equal cause and effect’ – which of course is true. So what is the reason for ignoring this important scientific principle in the case of the Zika virus? Secondly, such severe abnormalities more typically have a synthetic cause, the obvious example being the Thalidomide scandal of the 1960s.
Instead of investigating the matter, mainstream media lazily repeat the Zika link and issue paeans of praise for Big Pharma in the hope that they will mount their silver charger and come to the rescue with a vaccine, as in this shoddy ‘news’ article that appeared on Reuters. Now, of course I don’t know whether those horribly injured babies have been harmed by some chemical or other, in a scandal that is being hushed up, but I do know that my profession ought to be looking in to the matter, like an earlier generation did with Thalidomide.
In the case against Volkswagen, the evidence appears far more damning, but it is easy to overlook the fact that no public inquiry nor court case has proven the case of deliberately cheating emissions tests. US regulators are convinced and, protected by the Constitutional right to free speech, say so with confidence in public statements. But the case hasn’t been heard yet.
In the example of airlines negligently poisoning their staff, the case has been heard over and over again. It has been proven over and over again: in independent academic studies, in individual diagnoses by expert toxicologists, and in several court cases that have ruled in favour of the claimant against his or her employer (read my dossier on the scandal, summarized in this blog, with a link to the full report). The Mail this week reported a German study confirming the link. Credit to this much-maligned paper for doing so, but it gave the impression that this report was the first of its kind. In fact, there have been several in the past decade (the supposedly ‘progressive’ anti-corporate Guardian has been fully briefed on this scandal, by the way, and refuses to cover it).
Despite all the evidence, few western regulators or news editors stand up to the airline industry and say, as some have with Volkswagen, that this is wrong and that the aviation industry ought to begin complying with health and safety law. One coroner did so last year, and got slapped down by the vested interests. His final report, however, is still to be published.
This blog is not just about three controversies, but about wider questions of truth, honesty, evidence and how popular narratives become established. The modern clamour for being ‘evidence-based’ is hopelessly inadequate. There is a need not just for evidence, but for honesty and integrity. Evidence has limitations. It can be spun, partially hidden or exaggerated; indeed, it is almost always subject to these strong human biases. There are wildly varying thresholds of the strength of evidence required depending on whether a powerful vested interest is being attacked or defended (guess which is the higher). Our supine news editors and corrupted scientific professions meekly comply with these distorted terms of reference.
We live in an age that is rejecting formal religion, and the more obvious superstitions. It calls itself secular and scientific age. It is an ‘evidence-based’ age, but one in which evidence often plays just a fleeting role in establishing the dominant narratives.