“These ‘skeptical libertarians’ on Facebook seem to be most skeptical of actual skeptics i.e., people who question the media-approved version of events, or the infallibility of the pharmaceutical-industrial complex, which these alleged skeptics treat like a holy priesthood,” writes author Tom Woods. “I am fine with the scientific method. What I am not fine with are people who call themselves ‘skeptics’ when what they’re actually doing is just repeating the conventional wisdom. The conventional wisdom is sometimes right, to be sure, but how does reliably repeating it qualify someone as a ‘skeptic’?”
Woods, like many people offended by our steadfast promotion of science, is confused about the word “skeptic.” To those like him, skepticism means denying the “official” or “media-approved” position. In this view, skepticism is nothing but a knee-jerk rejection of whatever the government or big corporations claim. In our view, scientific skepticism “begins with doubts,” as Francis Bacon put it, but these doubts can be assuaged by what “he has observed in fact or in thought of the course of nature.” Skepticism requires proof, and it is only reliable evidence, not speculation and innuendo, that can sanctify claims about the world.
In reality, the “conventional wisdom” is that society is run from the top down by powerful groups, playing complex schemes for their own ends. Religions postulate good and evil masterminds like God and Satan, designing life or destroying it. Conspiracy theorists propose that grand cabals, secret societies, media elites, big corporations, and big governments control the globe. Even the average voter tends to believe the president controls the economy, gas prices, or unemployment. We reject this paranoid and conspiratorial perspective, in all its forms, because the world truly does not operate like that.
This is the popular wisdom, even if your particular conspiracy doesn’t happen to be. Bacon noted that the human mind is “prone to suppose the existence of more order and regularity in the world than it finds.” It is in our nature to seek and find patterns, and to imbue them intention and agency, and so it is natural, even popular, to find conspiracy instead of coincidence and masterminds instead of self-organization.
This doesn’t mean that people never conspire to manipulate or mislead, only that their conspiracies tend to be localized, simple, and easy to unravel. Large-scale conspiracies are simply not possible to carry out without being exposed. Even the CIA’s top-secret international rendition and torture program came to light rather quickly, despite its participants’ strong incentives not to discuss it. Even when the government made a specific and coordinated effort to silence people who received “National Security Letters” under the Patriot Act, the whole thing eventually came apart when one man decided to fight the gag order. People who postulate conspiracy theories rarely consider how many people would have to be involved (and coordinated by the Conspirators) for them to work.
Woods is apparently upset by our fervent advocacy of vaccination and evidence-based medicine. According to Woods, we believe in the “infallibility of the pharmaceutical-industrial complex.” But there is no such thing. There is no evil cartel, backed by the federal government, conspiring to poison us. The Food and Drug Administration actually does great harm to the pharmaceutical industry by delaying drugs, allowing innumerable patients to die as they wait in vain for treatment. Milton Friedman once asked, “do you ever see the lives that are lost because of that?”
As Friedman points out, there are good public choice reasons for the FDA to not help the industry scam consumers, but rather to delay and obstruct medical research. Most drugs are made much more expensive because of the FDA’s approval process, and while some people think this helps the drug companies, the reality is that expensive products are harder to sell and reduce the corporation’s bottom line. Update: [To repeat, we do not blindly trust the FDA. The FDA is still bad and anti-science (by forbidding off-label marketing, for example), but to say that it intentionally helps the drug companies scam consumers is just not accurate.]
Moreover, the “complex” is actually a large number of companies that compete with each other for consumers, and cartel-like arrangements invariably break down as a result of such competition. Drug companies have a huge profit incentive to expose their competitors’ bad products and a huge disincentive against being viewed as untrustworthy themselves. Does this mean that we can trust all drugs implicitly? Of course not–no more than we can trust all motor vehicles. But just like with cars, it means that manufacturers have an incentive to spend a great deal of time and money making sure their products are safe for consumers. Beyond that, consumer advocacy groups and regulators go over every new product with a microscope. Eventually, bad products and bad companies are discovered and penalized by the market.
Most important of all, however, is that this myth of the “pharmaceutical-industrial complex” ignores the role of individuals. Just who is this demonic “Big Pharma” that is out for our children? If these vaccines and drugs were really so bad, would the scientists and researchers really give them to their own families, for a slightly higher salary? It is hugely offensive to people like Maurice Hilleman—the American microbiologist who single-handedly created eight of the fourteen most common vaccines—to say that he would poison his own family for profit. He actually created the mumps vaccine after his daughter caught the disease.
Hilleman is also personally responsible for preventing a global influenza pandemic in 1957 from devastating the U.S. After analyzing a strain that killed a girl in Hong Kong, he predicted the virus would rapidly spread throughout the globe and reach the US. When no one believed him, he went begging to vaccine manufacturers (“Big Pharma”) to produce enough vaccine to stop the virus. While the outbreak killed over 4 million people worldwide, 40 million Americans were vaccinated thanks to his efforts. Hilleman and his colleagues who worked nine 14-hour days in a row to prove to manufacturers the extent of the threat are heroes on a scale that is almost inconceivable, and yet these men are accused of being behind the great medical conspiracy to kill our children for profit.
How many people are “in on” the vaccine conspiracy? Hundreds? Thousands? All those tens of thousands of thousands of doctors, scientists, researchers, medical associations, scientific journals, and Nobel Prize winners? All of whom are so evil and so driven by corporate greed that they would deliberately kill, cripple, and mentally damage millions of children, including their own, for a few bucks? And that’s just vaccines–consider all the other treatments, like chemotherapy, rejected by naturopaths, homeopaths, and other “alternative” medicine quacks. To accept such a colossal conspiracy, one must believe that the smartest, best educated, and most compassionate people in the world are guilty of a level of moral depravity equaled only by the Nazis.
Woods defends the AIDS denialism peddled at LewRockwell.com as just “non-mainstream” science, as though the question of whether HIV causes AIDS was a mere academic concern, which should trouble no one. He denounces skeptical libertarians as deluded sheep, in thrall to a “holy priesthood” of doctors and scientists, but we’re not bothered that he thinks so little of us—we’re bothered he thinks so little of men like Maurice Hilleman and Jonas Salk, who have saved countless millions and deserve respect, not gratuitous insults and slandered legacies.
Update: Here’s Woods’ remark regarding AIDS: