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The Cincinnati Enquirer June 30, 1990

The Lower Price Hill disaster

Guest Columnist
The practice of environmental
scaremongering is not unique to our
time. A century ago some ambitious
Naderite observed that the Lower
Mississippi River had grown 242
miles shorter in the preceding 176
years. The message was
that America was in grave
danger of losing a vital
waterway, and dire consequences were bound to
In response to this
calamitous predictions,
famous steamboater Mark
Twain observed that any
calm person who is not
blind or idiotic can see that in the
Old Oolitic Silurian Period, just a
million years ago next November,
the Lower Mississippi was upward of
1.3 million miles long and stuck out
over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing
rod. And by the same token any person can see that 742 years from now
the Lower Mississippi will be only 1
3/4 miles long, and Cairo and New
Orleans will have joined their streets
together and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and
a mutual board of aldermen.

Recognizing nonsense
Twain possessed a talent which
most Americans still seem to lack
the capacity to see through nonsense masquerading as scientific
The latest example of such
balderdash has issued from a group
of activists claiming, in an encyclopedic tome begging for delivery to
the recycling slurry, that the children of Lower Price Hill are being
robbed of educational attainment by
commercial pollution in their neighborhood.
This product of the pollutioncauses-every-social-ill mill replaces
the previous explanation, coming
from the poverty-causes-everysocial-ill assembly line, which lately
seems to have lost favor with con-

The pollution explanation offers
the additional advantage of supplying just oodles of statistics, which
never fail to impress journalists and
baseball fans.
The pollution scholars behind
this current upheaval are not the
usual gaggle of medical experts and
politicos, but mostly a
clique of social uplifters
and lobbyists. There are
the sort of folks who are
always around to divide
the loot when Uncle Sam is
feeling generous at dispensing taxpayer booty to
Do Good.
The lone health expert
in the mob, a University of
Cincinnati student, mars
what is a promising dark cloud with
a swatch of silver lining. She notes
that the results of her study cant
prove that these things are necessarily caused by pollution. This
does seem to put a crimp in things
since proving pollution the culprit is
the entire purpose of the exercise.
Of course, it is what is not apparent which is most interesting in Oz.
In this case, the wizard is a political
conniver. The report etches the
indelible impression that lead from
nearby factories is damaging the
learning ability of Lower Price Hill
Now it is indisputably true that
lead can seriously harm children
and retard their learning, but it is
far more likely, in fact almost certain, that their lead exposure would
come from sources other than air
pollution, such as paint chips children are wont to eat. The trouble
with this explanation is that (1) lead
paint bores the ambitious social
engineer who pines for bigger catastrophes, and (2) it would not generate news coverage because there is
not a clearly identified scapegoat. A
door-to-door educational effort to
teach parents about the hazards of
paint chips is really dreary stuff to
people who want to transform the
world, one calamity at a time.

A competent epidemiologist could

digest and refute the pseudo-science
in the report in 15 minutes. He or
she would immediately recognize the
imprint of that most dangerous of all
species; the single-minded idealist,
enemy of civil stability and good
A peek at the nocturnal news
blather reveals the country to be
overrun by this species at present,
many of whom are drawn to the
journalistic trough. For some reason
the delicate ecological balance which
kept the propagation of the predatory activist in check seems to have
been disrupted. Some say the overfeeding of the dangerous college professor is largely to blame, along with
the habitual inbreeding of Homo
Americanus with Lemmus lemmus,
the piteous lemming.
Answers to complex scientific
questions come from careful dispassionate research, not via the medium of the press conference, who
purpose is to generate heat, not
light. But the activist is high-strung
and allergic to contemplation, while
it thrives under high-intensity TV

Facts and conjecture

After lampooning the absurd prediction that the Mississippi was disappearing, Twain concluded with an
observation which should serve us
well in being confronted with each
days ecological disaster report.
There is something fascinating
about science, he said. One gets
such wholesale returns of conjecture
out of such a trifling investment of
From the trifling facts offered
in this massive report come three
certainties: Nobody will read it,
everybody will believe it, and foolish public policy will be triumphantly adopted.

Nicolas S. Martin is executive director of

the Consumer Health Education Council, a
non-profit charitable organization.