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The steep price of silence

In 2005 after Congress intruded into a family dispute over life support for Theresa Schiavo, a Florida woman who was in a vegetative state, a Northern Nevada interfaith group called Clergy United for Moral Dialogue issued a statement denouncing Congress for exploiting a human tragedy.

I spoke with some of the signers and asked whether this activism was a one-time thing or if they were going to become regularly involved in giving a competing view to evangelicals on issues. Methodist minister John Auer told me, “I’m quite interested in what’s called faith-based organizing, but it takes seven or eight clergy who have the time or the willingness to take time from their busy schedules to focus on it for a while, and that’s tough.”

Rabbi Myra Soifer said, “We are perking on the need to have a much more forceful voice out there on issues that the right has taken, has co-opted, that they don’t own, as far as I’m concerned.”

In the end, nothing came of it. The group drifted back into being a study group. That was nine years after a similar group in Reno, called the Interfaith Alliance, was launched and then dwindled out. Why do these groups not stay together and become influential like right-wing religious groups?

Some of the 2005 participants told me that many mainstream Nevada religious figures are uncomfortable acting like evangelical Christians. What this meant was that, first, they don’t want to question the faith of those on the right, and second, they don’t want to talk in absolutist, condemnatory terms of good and evil, black and white.

Recently I was reading a book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway about prominent former scientists like Fred Singer and Robert Jastrow who put their reputations at the service of corporations that wanted to discredit science to continue manufacturing death-dealing products or to keep polluting or whatever. These former scientists were not speaking for science, but they managed to muddy the waters.

Many of the former scientists began by telling the public that there is no connection between tobacco and cancer or between secondhand smoke and cancer. Journalists in particular were taken in, presenting tobacco science as undecided long after the debate was resolved and there was a scientific consensus.

From there, they went on to issues like acid rain, nuclear winter, ozone depletion and now climate change. None of the former scientists, I should mention, have any expertise in these fields.

They are all physicists. But, with money from big tobacco or fossil fuel corporations or whomever, they have succeeded in convincing the gullible that they know what they’re talking about. They have succeeded in delaying action on climate change and the planet feels the impact.

So why didn’t other scientists blow the whistle on them? Oreskes and Conway wrote that there is a delicate dance in science over who gets credit. “Scientists are strongly motivated by the accolades and prestige that accrues from making a major discovery. Yet, at the same time, they are often reluctant to attract the limelight for themselves. The reason is twofold. First, nearly all modern science is the result of teamwork … and second, knowledge counts as science when it reflects the consensus of expert opinion, even if it originated in the genius or creativity of one person.”

In the early- to mid-20th century, Congress kept making medicines illegal over the objection of physicians and their organizations. This invented the “narcotics problem,” to say nothing of creating a black market. For instance, doctors could no longer prescribe marijuana, even though it was still listed in the Pharmacopeia, the physicians’ list of approved medications.

But once those laws were passed, the medical establishment fell silent. Why? Partly because once the medicines were illegal, it meant doctors would have to associate with lawbreakers. Author Mike Gray has written that “in no time at all the medical profession more or less washed its hands of the narcotics problem. It may seem strange that a guild as powerful as the American Medical Association would allow a bunch of Treasury men to wade into their profession and start telling them how to write prescriptions, but the fact is most doctors found the narcotics issue disgusting.”

Thus, for want of full and wide-ranging debates, we have evangelicals representing the whole faith community, masses of people believing nonsense about important issues, and a war on drugs that is a domestic Vietnam.

Dennis Myers is a veteran and Nevada journalist.

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