If there is one ‘truism’ – something obvious and neither new or interesting – it is that the vast majority of people rely on authority figures in forming their own opinions. What else can we expect when our education system at its core (the tests) punishes students for being wrong. The SAT and ACT regimes are long lists of things to be memorized, statements by authority figures that students must regurgitate to land in a good college. It instills students with fear of being wrong even as mistakes are the best teachers around.
I long ago read a book (I should stop right there) by Edward Bernays called “Propaganda.” I would imagine at a website like this many others have read it as well. It was an interesting book in that Bernays, writing in the 1920s, came right out and said things that were known to be true among insiders, but were rarely spoken outside of the club (the men of his time who managed public opinion). I cite here a passage that appears right at the opening:
This general principle that men are very largely actuated by motives which they conceal from themselves is as true of mass as of individual psychology. It is evident that the successful propagandist must understand the true motives and not be content to accept the reasons that men give for what they do.
No serious sociologist any longer believes that the voice of the people expresses any divine or specially wise and lofty idea. The voice of the people expresses the mind of the people, and that mind is made up for it by group leaders in who it believes and by those persons who understand the manipulation of public opinion. It is composed of inherited prejudices and symbols and clichés and verbal formulas supplied to them by the leaders. …
The important thing for the statesman of our age is not so much to know how to please the public, but how to sway the public. In theory, this education might be done by means of learned pamphlets explaining the intricacies of public question. In actual fact, it can be done only by meeting the conditions of the public mind, by creating circumstances which set up trains of thought, by dramatizing personalities, by establishing contact with the group leaders who control the opinions of their public.
I see all around me people who are not moved by evidence before their own eyes, but instead turn to “experts.” Anyone, for example, can Google Paul McCartney’s childhood photos and find that “he” is a set of twins. But unless some authority figure steps forward and admits this in a place that people regard as credible (itself a confidence game), people will assume their own eyes are lying to them.
The radon hoax
I am on a website called “Nextdoor.” It is just a marketing device but I have found it useful in selling or giving away things I don’t need. The site is littered with advertisers posing as real people. But one thread caught my eye – someone wanted advice on living in the foothills above Denver, having just moved here. That set off a long, long series of comments, as people love to give advice. I would not have participated except that someone brought up the subject of radon. I volunteered that radon is a scam, and not to worry about it, and for sure do not invest your money in equipment to mitigate it.
That set off a firestorm. The upshot was that authority figures say radon is dangerous and must be mitigated.
Radon is a gas, a daughter of uranium. It occurs all over the planet. As with anything from water to heat itself, in large quantities it can be harmful. But in small quantities as we find in our homes, it is harmless. No one has ever been made ill by radon in the home. There is no study, scientific or otherwise, anywhere, that offers evidence to that effect.
Some years back I needed to dispose of a house I inherited from my brother in Livingston, Montana. It was occupied by a renter. I listed it with a Realtor@, found a buyer, and before closing was told that I needed to spend $1,400 to mitigate the radon accumulating in the basement. I refused, and told the buyer that if it was a real problem, he should mitigate. (There is, thankfully, no law forcing me to invest in the equipment.)
Later I learned that the Realtor@ who brought us together had approached the renter and warned her that her children were in danger. Her response … “My babies! My babies!” I was faced with a choice of either seeing the deal collapse, or installing the overpriced and useless equipment. I swallowed hard, and bought the equipment. I am still angry about that.
Three things were evident to me from that experience:
- The matter of reliance on authority figures over trusting oneself, as mentioned above with the Bernays quote, is evident all around us. People do not, cannot, think for themselves.
- When large amounts of money are in play, there are people scheming to get their hands on it. I do not know and will not research this, but suggest that the only time radon mitigation equipment is ever installed in homes is when homes change hands. That is when the money is in a pile, and the sharks are feeding. No one of any intelligence would install unneeded and overpriced equipment in their basement or crawl space without incentive, in this case, fear of a deal falling through. (One other example of a scam that is common in real estate closings … title insurance. Another day.) In my case, I would be willing to bet that the Realtor@ who went to the renter to scare her into forcing me to buy the radon equipment took a cut. How much? Wild ass guess – 30%? (The same bet applies to title insurance.)
- In the Nextdoor thread I was repeatedly reminded that CDC, NIH, and EPA all disagree with me, and how dare I dispute experts! I also came under attack by two people who represented themselves as geologists. (One of them linked back to a real estate firm, but claims that is of no matter, she’s a geologist dammit!) They both made it clear that radon is a carcinogen. I made it clear that no study anywhere anytime has ever linked radon in our homes to illness of any kind. I offered up the following advice:
“… again and again above people have told me that I must discard my own native intelligence and instead rely on CDC and NIH. I trust my own instincts. I often surmise that I am unique in this regard. … Then come the alleged geologists who presuppose that if the existence of something in large quantities is harmful, it must also be must be so in small quantities as well. They would not make these statements unless they also made sure they were speaking as authority figures, geologists. Ergo I naturally suspect that since they are putting out false information, that either geologists are ignorant of the true nature of radon, or that they are not geologists.”
That did not win me friends. The two insisted that radon is dangerous, offered no evidence other than vague generalities, and essentially slammed the door in my face with their supposed credentials. I piss in their general direction.
That is why Edward Bernays came to mind this morning.
PS: I should add that those who have indeed suffered from radon appear limited to underground miners who endure heavy doses and who smoke.