Merchants of Doubt

Climate change. Cancer and cigarette smoking. Vaccinations. What do we know?

Whatever knowledge we have is grounded in probabilities. What is the likelihood that carbon emissions lead to climate change? Does cigarette smoking causes lung cancer? Do immunizations prevent disease?

The merchants of doubt say we don’t know, we can’t be sure, we could be wrong, the evidence is suspect, we need more research.

Merchants of Doubt, a film made from the book of the same title, depicts the efforts to sow confusion and skepticism about the scientific research on these questions. Most of these efforts are corporate financed public relations campaigns designed to confuse the public.

Lies are spread, so is dishonesty and deception. The men and women who engage in these efforts couldn’t care less. They have a job, the untruths they spread are part of the deal.

Of course, there is always the question of who does and does not succumb to their playbook, the effects of their deceptions. Not everyone, that is for sure, but enough to block widespread acceptance of the research.

The same sort of doubts about research evidence has also characterized recent proposals of certain Presidential candidates. James Surowiecki calls them instances of “magical thinking.” (New Yorker 3/21/16). In particular, he discusses Donald Trump’s proposals to “slash taxes.”

He says Trump’s plan would reduce revenues by more than nine trillion dollars (can you can imagine such a number?) over the next decade. At the same time, he has promised to balance the budget and not cut services such as Social Security and Medicare.

How does he imagine he can do that? Surowiecki says he will get rid of government “waste and fraud and abuse…abolish the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency” and that the tax cuts would stimulate the economy so that government revenues will increase.

This claim is contrary to all the current evidence. Surowiecki writes: “The message has been fact-checked and refuted over and over again, but once something becomes an article of political faith, it’s difficult to dislodge.”

This is the same sort of misperception that characterizes the beliefs discussed in the film Merchants of Doubt. All you have to do is make the claim, spread doubt and once they are in the public domain, they’re very difficult to overcome, in spite of all the contrary evidence, most of which is discounted or more likely ignored and unknown.


When Paris Went Dark

Parisians seemed to be going thought the motions of life without living at all.

Ronald Rosbottom’s When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, is a rich, detailed, account of the German Occupation of Paris during World War II.

Rosbottom drew upon an extensive collection of materials-- diaries, memoirs, essays, newspaper articles, histories, letters, films, archives interviews, photographs, maps, etc.—all of which helped him to understand Paris during the Occupation.

Much of this is well known. However, like so many other readers, my appetite for reading about World War II seems inexhaustible. Some say it was the greatest event in human history, a saga about the collision between good and evil and the remarkable courage so many displayed.

During those days in Paris, food was scarce, heat was rare, gas for automobiles was unavailable, long lines were pervasive, air raid drills were common and the presence of the Germans created a quiet, almost eerie city that was dangerous and often frightening to those who remained.

“The silence caught you by the throat, made sadness press into your thoughts."

In time, it became extremely dangerous for Jews, many of whom left the city if they could, others tried to find a place to hide, but thousands were rounded up, virtually imprisoned for days and then shipped to concentration camps where most did not survive.

In spite of the risks, the French Resistance was a constant threat to the Germans. Rosbottom writes that the German troops “were more and more demoralized as they watched safe Paris become a site for both discriminate and indiscriminate attacks against the Occupier.”

Rosbottom marvels at the fact that Paris managed to survive the War almost unscathed. Hitler had ordered its destruction when the advancing allied armies forced the Germans to leave. How this was avoided is another remarkable tale. In contrast, most of the other large cities in Europe were virtually destroyed by the destructive power of seemingly constant allied bombing.

That is what was seen. But Rosbottom notes, “What the world did not see was the economic, social, and psychological damage wrought by the Occupation, which would take years to repair.”

Eventually this would be clearly seen as the surviving Jews, political prisoners, captured soldiers and others who had hidden in the country began returning to Paris. Rosbottom says, they were unrecognizable as the trauma they had endured lasted so very long.

He concludes, “There are, in the life of a nation, moments that wound its memory as well as the idea that one has of one’s country. This was one of those moments for France and from all accounts still is, more than 70 years after the Occupation ended."


Water News

Water, water everywhere, And all the boards did shrink: Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink. Coleridge

There is a drought in the west, floods in North Carolina, the reservoirs in Brazil are drying up, and 663 million people are said to be living without access to water. Meanwhile, cities are experimenting with recycled waste water and in some countries desalinization of sea water. Water has become one of the crises of our times.

Tomorrow, March 22nd, is World Water Day. To acknowledge the day, I begin with a report of a study, the kind I love. It’s an article by Arron Carroll in the Times (8/24/15) that deals primarily with the recommendation to drink 8 glasses of water a day. According to Carroll, there’s no evidence to support this.

Although I have not read the original study, Carroll reports a paper he co-authored in 2007 on medical myths. The first was that people should drink at least 8 8-ounce glasses of water a day. He says people continue hold that belief, in spite of evidence to the contrary.

The same finding was reported in a book on medical myths that once again “debunked” the idea that we need 8 glasses of water a day. Carroll says water is present in fruits and vegetables. I drink coffee twice a day and tea once, both are said to dehydrate you. Carroll claims the research shows that’s not true either.

How did the water recommendation get started? It may have been a 1945 Food and Nutrition Board report recommending that people need that much water per day. You’d think by now, 70 years later, the myth would have been dispelled, that the weight of the evidence would have called it into question.

But no. The belief spread, remains unexamined, and has assumed a kind of cultural truth that is virtually impossible to alter.

At the same time, the water news from Israel presents a more optimistic picture. Faced with year after year of drought, the government took drastic steps to curb water consumption and increase water resources. Isabel Kershner reports in the Times (5/29/15) the following measures were instituted:

1. A heavy tax was placed on excessive household water consumption.

2. Individuals were told to cut their shower time by two minutes, washing cars was prohibited and watering lawns was heavily taxed and only permitted in the evenings.

3. A major national effort was made to desalinate Mediterranean seawater, with five plants now in operation.

4. At the same time, programs were developed to recycle wastewater.

5. Large cuts were made in the annual water quotas for farmers.

6. Water Authority representatives went door-to-door offering free low-flow showerheads and advice on how to conserve household water consumption.

Kershner observes that taken together these measures have provided Israel with more than enough water for all its needs, even during periods of severe drought, and even enough now to export.

The lesson here is abundantly clear. This is what is required to overcome the periods of extreme drought currently faced by California, other western states and elsewhere throughout the world.


Anita Brookner

Anitia Brookner died the other day. Brookner was an English art historian and novelist. I think I’ve read almost all of her many novels.

At times they grow tedious, but she wrote well and her themes captured my interest. In 1984 she won the Booker Prize for her novel, Hotel du Lac--a tale of a lonely woman coming to terms with her solitary life during a visit to a hotel by a Swiss lake.

At the Hairdressers was her last novel and the first to be published as an e-book. It is the only one I wrote about on this blog. Her others were written before I started blogging. The following post was written four years ago.

…we are all alone, that no reciprocity is to be sought between people formed by different outlooks, and not only outlooks but different environments, both mental and physical. Anita Brookner

There are several firsts in Anita Brookner’s latest novel, At the Hairdressers. It is her first e-book; in fact, it is only available as Penguin Short e-book. It is her first novel after a lapse of several years. For a while, she was publishing a new novel each year like clockwork, most of which I read. Now they appear intermittently and since she is almost 84, I don’t imagine there will be many more.

It is also the first Kindle e-book I have read from start to finish. After many tedious criticisms of e-books in general, I have finally mastered the fine art of highlighting passages and then copying them into my commonplace book. As readers of this blog have been reminded all too often, these steps are essential to my way of reading.

At the Hairdressers is similar to her other novels. There is a lonely woman (occasionally a lonely man), usually educated and reasonably well off, emotionally reserved, and finished with their professional life. They long for friendship or perhaps a lover, a happiness that is never fulfilled, without hope or expectation that anything will happen to them other than yet another blank day.

Solitude is the familiar burden for Elizabeth Warner in At the Hairdressers. She lives in a basement flat in London and leaves the house only to go shopping and have her hair done. Her only “friends” are the people she sees on the streets, the market, or the women at her salon. Mostly, what the 80 year-old Elizabeth longs for is youth.

…a brooding and no doubt disagreeable old woman to whom memories of youth come unbidden, and unwelcome, now that youth is out of reach.

Sometimes the young do nothing for one’s dignity.

At the Hairdressers opens on this theme as Elizabeth recounts a dream. In it she recalls the small group of friends she had as a student in college, imagines what course their lives have taken, and how much she would enjoy seeing them again. Of course it was youth that was being celebrated.

When she chances upon one of these friends, she is immediately disappointed by the wide social gap between them and the comparative inadequacy and failures of her own life. She concludes that the dream only brought back feelings that are gone forever now.

Again, like most of the other books Brookner has written, this short novel is infused with inwardness, continual reflection by the protagonist of their life, their life unlived, and the only life that one can expect now.

I rather hope I shall die at the hairdresser's, for they are bound to know what to do. At least that is what I tell myself.

You have to like this kind of internal dialogue to enjoy Anita Brookner’s novels. And yet it spite of their repetitiveness, self-centeredness and absence of any action, I find it hard to put one down once I start. I may not read it all at once, but I do eventually finish, knowing full well that the next one, if there is to be one, will not be any different.


Operation Thunderbolt

June 1976, almost 40 years ago. An Air France flight takes off from Israel, where security is tight, with 228 passengers heading to Paris, with a stopover in Athens, where security is lax. Four hijackers board the plane there, with heavy bags that were never checked and said by the hijackers to be loaded with guns and explosives. They order the pilot to fly to the Entebee airport in Nairobi, Uganda.

So begins Saul David’s Operation Thunderbolt: Flight 139 and the Raid on Entebbe Airport, the Most Audacious Hostage Rescue Mission in History. The story of the hijacking, the days at the terminal in Entebbe, the debate within Israel about how to respond to the terrorist demands and the eventual planning and rescue of the Jewish hostages is told in an hour by hour, sometimes minute by minute, account by David in a “you are there” fashion.

The four hijackers, later joined by two others at the airport in Entebbe, demanded the release within 48 hours of 53 militants mostly imprisoned in Israel, in exchange for the release of the hostages.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin believed the government had to give in to the terrorists to avoid the slaughter of the Jewish hostages; Defense Minister Shimon Peres argued for an attempt to rescue them with a raid at the Entebbe airport in distant Uganda. The squabbling between Rabin and Peres was at times bitter.

However, the plans for a surprise raid were yet to be formulated, with various impractical ideas on how to return the hostages to Israel. Were it not for the extension of the deadline three days, so that Idi Amin, the President of Uganda, (who knew about the hijacking in advance and supported the terrorists) could attend a conference of African leaders, the hostages would have been killed or released, if Israel acceded to the demands of the terrorists.

The additional time gave the Israel Defense Force (IDF) time to work out a “realistic” rescue plan that finally gained the support of Prime Minister Rabin and his cabinet. Meanwhile, 48 non-Jewish hostages were released by Amin and flown to Paris. Although the final airlift-rescue plan was never rehearsed and entailed a number of unknown risks, it was nevertheless launched on the night of July 3rd.

After a refueling stop at Nairobi, Kenya, four Hercules transports landed undetected at the Entebbe airport, 2,500 miles from Israel. Two Boeing 707 jets followed, the first contained medical facilities and landed in Nairobi, the second circled over the Entebbe Airport to monitor the raid. A black Mercedes that looked like President Idi Amin's vehicle and his supporting Land Rovers were driven out of one of the Hercules and headed for the old terminal where the hostages were located. The Israelis hoped they could use them to bypass security checkpoints.

The other Hercules transports held Israeli assault teams that drove their vehicles directly to the terminal building The Israelis sprang from their vehicles and raced toward the terminal. The hostages were in the main hall of the airport building, directly adjacent to the runway. Entering the terminal, the commandos shouted through a megaphone, "Stay down! Stay down!”

They identified the four hijackers, shot them, along with numerous Ugandans who were guarding the building and began moving the hostages to the Hercules transports. The commandos then destroyed the Ugandan MIG fighter planes to prevent them from pursuing the returning Israelis. Five commandos were wounded and one, the team’s commander, Yonatan Netanyahu, the brother of the Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was killed. Out of the 106 hostages, three were killed, 10 were wounded and one woman who was left in a Ugandan hospital was killed by Amin.

The raid and the liberation of the hostages last only 51 minutes.

The Israeli raid was a daring operation, attracted world-wide acclaim, and served as a model for other rescue missions. It also enhanced Israel’s morale and stature in the world. But how important was it? David makes no attempt to address this question and place it in a wider context.

However, his detailed account of the raid, its planning and ultimate execution was riveting to read. Still, the leader of the commandos was killed along with 4 of the hostages. Unavoidable? Worth the risk? In spite of the elation of the surviving hostages and the crowd that met them when they returned to Israel, you might be left with these questions at the end.


Where to Invade Next

I saw Michael Moore’s “Where to Invade Next” this weekend. Like his other films, it is a critical indictment of American society. It is also highly selective, as the programs discussed in the countries he visits are “cherry picked.” All the countries have major problems, but Moore ignores them, picking “the flowers, not the weeds,” as he says.

In the film Moore compares the social policies in several countries, mostly European, with those in America. He begins by visiting Italy, where the sun always shines and the people have beautiful tans. He learns from a middle age couple that the companies where they work provide them with four weeks of paid vacation. National and local holidays add even more paid vacation days.

While still in Italy, he visits a Ducati motorcycle factory and a clothing manufacturer that bestows five months paid maternity leave and two-hour lunches. We see workers returning home to a three-course lunch, wine included, with family and friends. How they ever get any work done in the afternoon is a mystery to me, but the CEOs of both firms assure us that the two-hour lunches lead to more contented and productive employees.

Moore moves on to France, where once again we are told that long and healthy lunch breaks are good for school children. In Finland, where everyone seems to speak beautiful English, we are informed that Finnish schools have virtually eliminated homework and standardized testing, as well as providing more free time. In a recent comparison of math, reading and science skills among 15-year olds, Finland ranks number one among developed countries, while the United States ranks among the lowest.

On to Slovenia, a country that is rarely heard from, where college education is virtually free. Moore speaks with several American students who have enrolled in colleges there to avoid the prohibitive costs of tuition, room and board of colleges and universities in this country. However, we don’t find out about the courses offered or their outcome, including graduation rates and subsequent employment of the students who attend college there.

Moore moves on to Germany where there is free health care, as is true elsewhere in most European countries. He spends a fair amount of time in school classes where the study of the Holocaust is required. Moore then laments that there is no requirement in schools of this country for studying the way we have treated Native Americans or the long history of slavery either.

In Norway Moore is startled to learn that prisons are organized around rehabilitation rather than retribution. Prisoners are housed in studio apartments equipped with a bathroom, television, and cookware including knives. No one is locked up in solitary confinement and the maximum sentence is 21 years. Prisoners have considerable mobility within the grounds; you get the impression that Norwegian prisons are not that much different from a small society.

In Iceland, a country of about 320,000 people, where the financial crisis crippled the economy, the country has largely recovered with the help of tourism. Moore comments that the one bank that didn’t fail was run by women. This leads to a lengthy treatment of the many virtues of female leadership.

Moore intends the film to be an exercise in finding solutions to the many problems facing this country. In this sense the film has a positive message, although it deals in obvious generalities about the merits of European countries. (The film was made before the current migration crisis there.)

The film also ignores the many efforts to solve our problems, as well as the difficulties we have in adopting new, large-scale programs in one as big and diverse as ours. Small, relatively homogeneous societies have several advantages compared to large, multi-state countries in introducing and experimenting with new programs.

After seeing a preview of the “Where to Invade Next” a friend of mine announced rather boldly, that she will never see the film. That is a problem with films like this. The audience, like the subjects in Moore’s film, is also going to be highly selective.

After the showing I attended, the assembled crowd burst out with wild applause. That surprised me, although I guess it shouldn’t have.


In Other Words

As I went through the show [of Matisse cut-outs], I recognized an artist who at a certain point felt the need to charge course, to express himself differently. Who had the mad impulse to abandon one type of vision for another. Jhumpa Lahiri

The blank page. The blank canvas. Day after day they remain blank. I suppose every writer or artist reaches a point in their life when they stare at a blank page or canvas hopelessly paralyzed.

This might have been what happened to Jhumpa Lahiri when she stopped writing in English and sought a new direction to her work. During her first visit to Florence as a 20-year-old student, she fell in love with the Italian language. I recall a similar experience after one of my early visits to Florence. In an essay describing Italian, I wrote:

It is not surprising that Italians are so musical. It comes with the language. When Italians speak to one another, they virtually sing, with a rhythm and lyric that is slightly operatic. Soon the words echo in your mind, although you don't have the vaguest idea what they mean. …It was not long before I found myself quite unexpectedly speaking an Italian word or phrase that from all I could tell must have been appropriate. When most Italians talk, they also gesture vigorously with their hands, as if they were conducting an orchestra. I suspect that if you tied a rope around their hands, they would not be able to utter a single word.

Over the years that followed Lahiri took Italian lessons but she never really mastered the language that way. So in 2012, she took the leap and moved to Rome with her husband and two children.

Lahiri says she was never comfortable in the language of her family (Bengali) or the language in which she had been educated (English). She said: “In the months before coming to Italy, I was looking for another direction for my writing. I wanted a new approach. I didn’t know that the language I had studied slowly for many years in America would, finally, give me the direction.”

In her memoir, In Other Words, Lahiri describes her efforts to learn the language well enough to speak easily with Italians and write in their language. She stopped reading English and wrote exclusively in Italian, both in her diary and the pieces that compose the book. In Other Words is printed in a dual-language format with the English translation by Ann Goldstein on one page and Lahiri’s Italian on the other. (I found reading both pages of the book a good way to learn a little more Italian.)

There is a simplicity to Lahiri’s short Italian sentences that is beguiling, but after awhile rather limited, especially when she’s writing about complicated issues. They also become somewhat repetitious, as she tries to explain the difficulties she’s experiencing in writing Italian.

When I read in Italian, I feel like a guest. A traveler…When I write in Italian, I feel like an intruder, an imposter. The work seems counterfeit, unnatural. I realize that I’ve crossed over a boundary, that I feel lost, in flight. I’m a complete foreigner.

Yet, In Other Words is a pleasure to read as Lahiri struggles to express herself in Italian and strike out in a new direction. Throughout the book I kept wondering why she tried to distance herself from English, her dominant language, the one in which she was so successful.

I can appreciate her desire to try a new direction to her work. But why in a foreign language, one she scarcely knew before she moved to Rome? In Other Words was a best seller in Italy and at the time of this writing has moved into the top fifteen on the New York Times Hardcover best seller list.

Last September Lahiri returned to this country as a professor of creative writing at Princeton. She was reluctant to leave Rome and worries now that she won’t be able to maintain her fluency in Italian and newfound identity. One wonders if In Other Words is the first or the last of her work in Italian? While in Italy she wrote,

“I’ve uprooted myself not only from a physical place but also from a linguistic place. This double uprooting is artistic freedom, and it’s dizzying. Once you taste that you can’t give it up.”