Poisons of the Mind

by Jon Franklin

Copyright (c) 1994 by Jon Franklin

Keynote Address
1994 Convention of the Society of Toxicology
March 16, 1994
Dallas, Texas

Thank you very much. It is an honor to be here, though the situation is unfamiliar. As a science writer I’ve spent a great deal of time over the years with toxicologists, but usually I’m listening to YOU instruct ME about poisons. And now the situation is reversed.

Yet it is an unlikely world, is it not? Full of, as you can read in any newspaper, poisons, miasmas, venoms, pestilence, sin and evil. And if those words don’t exactly go together in your technical vocabulary, I am talking journalism here. And in my vernacular the difference between a poison and evil is trivial.

Poisons, as you surely know, have always occupied a special place in the human mind. The reason, I think, is that they killed in ways that were not readily apparent and therefore seemed supernatural. Three million years ago on the African veld a lion might kill what we will call a man, but the man could at least understand why. We could understand death from a fall, from a war club, from childbirth.

But poisons were different. You couldn’t see them, feel them, hear them, taste them. They were simply there, like a ghost or a curse.

We are born, it seems, with certain fears — fear of falling, fear of spiders and snakes. Likewise the skull and crossbones speaks to us both of pirates and of things we must not drink. Socrates drank hemlock, Cleopatra gave her body to an asp. Ancient kings had food tasters, a risky business replaced in the modern world by your profession.

The Enlightenment changed the world but not the mind. A century ago, in the age of yellow journalism, poison scares — poisoning the food, poison in the reservoir — were standard fare. I read somewhere that during the Spanish America War, the good people of Chicago were terrified that they were going to be poisoned by Cuban saboteurs. Out in Oregon, during the recent war in the Mideast, the military surplus stores all sold out of gas masks.

When I was a kid in the Fifties, we all thought the Reds were putting poisons in our water — fluoride, it was. The government said it was to harden our teeth but, in the immortal lines of DR. STRANGELOVE, the real purpose was to pollute our bodily fluids. I might point out that this Biblical use of the word “pollute” was one of the first popular uses of the term. Sin and poison occupy adjacent file drawers in our psyches, and we have some difficulty getting them straight.

The fluoride scare refers of course to the infamous McCarthy period, in which our minds were seized by right wing paranoids. But in these days, we are reminded by the famous words of Henry Kissinger that paranoids, too, have enemies.

And so it goes. Here we are at the dawn of what some call the postmodern and others are beginning to think of as the neo-Medieval — and poisons are back in the news.

They have poisoned the water, you know.

Read the newspaper! Watch television! Listen to what people are saying!

They have poisoned the air we breathe, poisoned the food we eat, poisoned the little children in their wombs, seeded our bodies with the chemical generators of cancer.

Who? Who, you ask? Read! Listen! Pendulums swing, what comes around goes around. It’s not the communists, this time, but the scientists, the technologists, and the right-wing capitalist overlords they work for.

And so our subject for this morning is that with which we are all familiar, which is to say toxins. But it’s my turn, with my own list . . . which does not include henbane, hemlock, strychnine, Paris green or cyanide. Those are deadly things, and I respect them all, but the venoms that flow from the pen are of a different order entirely. Journalism brings you skewed statistics and decontextualized quotes . . . half truths, mendacity, prevarication and deceit and spin and buncombe and humbug and distortion and bosh, cant, nihilism, cynicism, hypocrisy . . .

And I come before you with yet another dire warning about the toxic nature of our times, and to remind you that there are poisons, too, of the mind.


I am not the first to observe that the weakness of our generation is ignorance of history. The present moment has its roots in the Sixteenth Century, in the days immediately before Copernicus, as the Middle Ages ended.

For centuries Medieval men and women had lived their lives according to the principles set forth by the Church. God had created man in his image and set him on Earth to be tested by the wiles of the devil. The world was Satan’s illusion, against which man had only faith. Satan’s temptations included ego, ambition, desire for material things — even belief in the material world was a sin. The pure of heart would be rewarded in the afterlife; those who sinned would be doomed forever to the burning pits of hell.

These principles created order out of the chaos of the Dark Ages. They gave meaning to the hardships and sacrifices the common people faced every day. Kings ruled, knights fought, peasants tilled the land because those were the roles God had assigned to them before birth. This knowledge kept the world stable.

Throughout most of modern times, the Medieval has been considered primitive and backward. Today, however, many historians are recasting it as a comparative Garden of Eden. But there were serpents in the garden — the aforementioned temptations — and those chosen to uphold the principles of the church proved inadequate to the task. Priests coveted other men’s wives and daughters. They grew fat and rich from others’ labors. Worst of all, they challenged God’s authority by selling indulgences — tickets to Heaven — to those who could pay.

This corruption of society’s primary institution of faith accelerated the decline of the Medieval. When Martin Luther nailed the accusations up on the church door, truth prevailed over faith, the Medieval ended, and a new era began.

The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, would have a new set of principles, a new faith, with a new institution to keep it. That was science, of course, which is to say you folks.

Science gave the human race new powers. Science could understand and control the material world, which in the new age was known as “reality.” Science would point telescopes at distant planets and microscopes at the living cell. Scientists would develop medicines and surgical techniques that would enable people to live longer, healthier lives. They could build bridges to span rivers, ships to cross oceans, railroads to link distant cities — even, one day, spaceships to explore what had once been called heaven.

As faith had been the heart of Medieval consciousness, so now truth was the touchstone of the modern. The idea that the truth could be known replaced faith in the unknowable as the basis of the social contract; the prevalent faith was that truth would always win out, and that when it did it would be visible to all. These perceptions dominated everything from the making of the modern science to the American constitution and the idea of the freedom of speech, which gives power and meaning to my profession.


The truth behind the truth, though, was that science was not accessible to all. Few could build a microscope or understand what it showed. Few could follow Newton’s equations. So as medieval peasants had once trusted priests and popes, enlightened laymen now trusted science.

There were always critics, of course. Jean Jacques Rousseau called civilization unnatural. The Luddites destroyed machinery in early factories. But most adapted and even flourished in the Industrial Revolution.

By the Twentieth Century, however, technological change was occurring at such a furious pace that it was becoming increasingly difficult for people to adapt. Where once science had given people the power to control, it now made them feel weak and impotent. By the postwar period, these feelings were reaching an intolerable level.

The friction between scientists and non-scientists was first noted by C.P. Snow, a British physicist and public servant. Snow was also a novelist, and so was required to attend numerous academic cocktail parties. Because the subject matter of his novels involved the government administration of science, those cocktail parties attracted professors from both the sciences and the humanities.

Those of you whose existence predates the popularity of Perrier will remember the cocktail party as the high water mark of civilized boredom. Snow, in the grip of this boredom, amused himself by observing his fellow party-goers. He noticed something rather striking: Scientists and humanists had a marked tendency to drift apart.

It wasn’t that the two groups hated each other, or anything like that. But they had little in the way of common language or interest. They tended to think in different ways. It was sort of awkward for a physicist and a rhetorician to discuss child-rearing. They were polite, ate the green olives out of their martinis, and drifted on in search of more suitable companions. The humanists and scientists aggregated in separate groups, birds of a feather.

What Snow observed was a cultural split that would grow for the remainder of the century. Western society was separating into two parts, scientists on the one hand and everyone else on the other. Most people were technologically ignorant. The few who were in the know composed an increasingly elite aristocracy that held power by its command of counterintuitive knowledge.

In hindsight, this division went ‘way back. Since the beginning of the Enlightenment there had been a tendency for people to be either very literate in science or not literate at all. Luddites and Rousseauean romanticists have abounded. But in the Sixties this split was exacerbated by the pace of events.

By then, the texture of everyday life was becoming alien and unrecognizable. Television made the world smaller, and replaced traditional sources of normative definition. The bureaucracy had become immense. People one generation removed from the land lived in sprawling suburbia. Men whose fathers had owned mules worked behind desks, making marks on paper. Women wore pants. Mamma found birth control pills in sister’s purse. Junior discovered Zen. The divorce rate rose. Surgeons in Sweden changed a man into a woman. The mental institutions were overflowing. For the first time, America’s highway deaths exceeded the number killed in all her wars combined.

The bomb multiplied by genetic engineering times the sum of universal air travel times modern birth control added up . . . and what they added up to was what Toffler called “Future Shock.” Our culture was outdriving its lights.

I have just spent several years reading and writing about that era, and if there was a single common feeling, oozing out of every novel, every comic book, every television show . . . that feeling was fear. Fear that went far deeper than atomic war, fear that the world had stopped making sense, that people no longer counted, that everything was falling apart, that values were losing their meaning. Everything was UNNATURAL.

There it was. Unnatural.

It was at this moment, as traditional life was disappearing, as right and wrong were being turned on their ear, as food was canned and women’s hair color came out of the bottle, that the thought crystallized: We are poisoning ourselves!

We often forget that the first alarms came from the right wing. Communists, assisted by an incompetent government and mad scientists, were conspiring to poison us with fluoride.

Mad scientists. Science, after all, was fundamentally unnatural. The public had long feared it would one day turn evil. At about the time of the Luddites, Mary Shelly’s Dr. Frankenstein had crystallized this fear. The atrocities committed by Nazi doctors magnified it. And now, in the Fifties and Sixties, the image of the evil scientist was not the exception but the norm. Scientists were going mad.

The fears of the right-wing soon spread to the left. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring revealed the dangers of pollution and toxins to the environment. The birds, it was said, were like canaries in the mines — a way of measuring the environment. And the birds were dying.

With these thoughts, the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, began to change. The science, technology and industry that our parents had all but worshipped began their long, slow transition into the poisoners of the earth.

The perception was by no means totally unfounded. We WERE poisoning ourselves. The environmental movement had — and still has — legitimacy. But it was also true, as the French writer of Cyrano de Bergerac observed, that “a lie is a sort of myth and a myth is a sort of truth.” The social psyche fixated on the dangers in the environment, and produced phobias. Woven together with reality, a paranoia grew and became so widespread as to dominate political, social, and economic thought. The fear was expressed in the media by reporters and editors who had little or no training in science, but who could enhance their bylines by pandering.

Hey! Apocalypse sells. So the news stories focused on nuclear accidents, asbestos, pesticides, Love Canal, Times Beach, the greenhouse effect, and the ozone hole. People were so terrified of genetic engineering that several towns tried to outlaw genetic research. The American Cancer Society, with very little data, concluded that 90 percent of all cancers were caused by pollution. The Alar story still lay in the future, but we were getting there.

Many of the issues were legitimate, but there was a tendency in the newsroom to leap before looking, to assume the worst of technology. That tendency, combined with a notoriously high level of technological ignorance among reporters and editors, was revealed again and again. In the early hours after Chernoble, for instance, wire services reported 250,000 people killed in an hour — revealing an abysmal ignorance of nuclear power. There was also a tendency to give critics of science more play than its defenders.

Let me tell you a war story. Around 1980, when I was on The Baltimore Sun, I was assigned to cover the developing Agent Orange scandal. People were saying the defoliant had not only poisoned the Vietnamese countryside but our own soldiers. My editor, who like myself was a veteran, was outraged. He said, basically, “go get ’em, Franklin.” He told me I could have all the time and money I wanted, and even gave me one of the paper’s best investigators to help.

I was ecstatic. It would be, I thought, the story of my science-writing career. Nobody, but nobody, gets that much time and money to do a story. So I gathered about me that righteous fervor that is the armor of the crusading reporter, and I went to work.

Let me remind you of the headlines. There had been hearings on Capitol Hill in which it was charged that the children of Vietnam veterans had an extraordinary high rate of birth defects — about 1.5 percent. Vets were said to be dying of cancer at an alarming rate. Brain tumors, unexplained episodes of violence, heart palpitations . . . well, YOU of all people surely remember that stuff.

We had sent several million men to fight in Vietnam, we had exposed them to heroin dealers and punji sticks. We had sent them against women and children, and told them not to win. And then, on top of everything else, we had poisoned them. Somehow, in the Catch-22 world of that time, it was all very easy to believe.

My own journalistic curse, in hindsight, was all that time and money that my managing editor promised me. We didn’t have to take quotes off the AP wire and run with them. We could do something journalists can almost never do, which is go to original sources, look up and read the journal articles, talk to scientists who knew . . .

So you can imagine my horror when this story, the biggest of my life, began to slip through my fingers like so much journalistic quicksilver. I couldn’t substantiate anything . . . anything at all. As other newspapers printed front page stories about Agent Orange victims with brain tumors, quoted congressmen and senators ranting, I had the time to substantiate the quotes . . . and found them hollow. Nothing checked.

Oh, there was pain out there. I will forever remember the young veteran who sat with his wife and two daughters at his kitchen table, telling me how Agent Orange had made him drink too much, beat his wife, and abuse his daughters. I remember another man, who said he couldn’t hold down a job because Agent Orange had made him lethargic and lazy. I asked this man when he was exposed, and he said he had been in a tank column and he remembers clearly how this orange powder came drifting down on them . . .

A majority of the vets I talked to, including a number who had been quoted in the New York Times and the Washington Post, remembered orange power or orange liquid. In fact, as many of you may know, Agent Orange was called that because it was shipped in orange barrels. But the stuff itself was a clear liquid.

We tried to document statements that other reporters printed about this or that scientific paper. We got in touch with their sources, but they said they heard it from somebody else. The trail always either petered out or led us to some outraged scientist who’d said his results had been twisted all out of shape.

I began to develop a source list of scientists who, all off the record, were telling me that the whole thing was hysteria. There was no evidence. This included reputable scientists from major research universities and from the National Institutes of Health. One scientist in particular — let me call him Jim Smith because you would all know his name, and he will come up later in this narrative — was so outraged by the sensationalistic coverage of Agent Orange that he took a day off work to teach me the scientific principles I needed to know — beginning with your profession’s maxim about the dose making the poison.

He and others taught me that the birth defects rate quoted by the veterans in that Congressional hearing was in fact the normal rate. They showed me why, biologically, toxins rarely caused lasting damage to sperm — mammalian sperm, unlike the egg, is manufactured constantly. The scientist I’m calling Jim Smith alerted me to the existence of Operation Ranch Hand. Ranch Hand was the code name for the Air Force squadron that sprayed Agent Orange.

Well, flyers are pretty macho and Ranch Hand crews were no exception. The hippies back home were demonstrating against agent orange and the Ranch Handers answered the only way they knew. They developed an initiation rite in which all new arrivals had to drink a cup of agent orange. They all stood around in a circle and watched the new guy drink. Many of them drank a cup every time anyone else did, and kept track of how many gallons they had consumed — sort of like people keep track of how many gallons of blood they give. They wore T-shirts that said I DRANK AGENT ORANGE.

The story got stranger and stranger. They were supposed to wear protective clothing. Rubber suits . . . in the tropics. They wore boxer shorts and tennis shoes, and were commonly covered with Agent Orange. When they sprayed, the crewmen would stand in the open bay doors, getting swept by cool air — and also covered with Agent Orange. I have pictures of Ranch Hand members standing in bay doors with Agent Orange streaming across their bodies.

Well, these guys were obviously prime targets for epidemiologists . . . and their health, ten and fifteen years after exposure, was very normal. No excess cancer, heart disease, alcoholism . . . Most newspapers didn’t run this story, and those that did minimized it.

I lost a lot of confidence in my own profession, and yours didn’t come off very well either. The scientists who were feeding information to the protesters generally refused to release any of their data, even to the government. And of that I did gain access to, most was not credible even to my semi-educated eyes. Some of those scientists, in fact, were quietly fired in the years to come, at least two for mishandling public money. But the story was not dependent on science or scientists. It had a life of its own, based on quotes from people who thought themselves victims and statements picked up out of the clip file.

This story changed my life. Scientific reality was one thing and, thanks to my colleagues, social reality was something else. I wrote my stories, but they were lost in the blizzard of stories to the contrary. What we were saying was so remarkably different from the conventional wisdom that we were simply not credible.

All around the country, in fact, reporters who offered contrary views were attacked by their own colleagues. I was once accosted in the center of my own newsroom by several reporters and loudly accused of taking bribes from Dow Chemical. Other journalists reported similar experiences. In recent months Keith Schneider, a New York Times reporter who wrote what I consider the truth about the dioxin hysteria, has been attacked by numerous journalism publications, including the American Journalism Review.

What is happening was all too clear. The media, which once prided itself on its truth and accuracy, now flourishes on lies, half-truths, and illusions about environmental poisons.


As we watched our profession convert the Agent Orange story into postmodern legend, my partner and I lost some of our reportorial innocence. But I retained considerable faith in science. Because of science, I was sure that truth would ultimately win out.

But life is a machine for disabusing us of our illusions and the truth was that science was also susceptible to the bandwagon effect. Look at cancer causality, for instance, which even in the scientific community can be seen to follow a very clear series of fads, from genetics to radiation to viruses to environment and back to genetics. PR is money, and scientists follow the money.

Back in the early Seventies, Richard Nixon promised to cure cancer in ten years. I couldn’t find a single source in the cancer science community who thought that was likely. But neither could I find one who would say so, for the record. If the administration believed it could cure cancer by throwing money at research, then cancer researchers were not going to tell the nation otherwise. A gold mine is a gold mine is a gold mine.

In the years since, it has become standard operating procedure for media-savvy scientists to team up with reporters to scare the public into coughing up research money. Who benefits from terror about the greenhouse effect and the ozone hole? I am not casting aspersions on those issues, you understand — though plenty of others with better credentials than I will call it bad science. But . . . WHO BENEFITS FROM ATMOSPHERIC TERROR? Atmospheric research was one of the most chronically underfunded fields in science. Now the money pours in.

Who benefits from earthquake scare stories? Out in my part of the country, the series of earthquakes have proven to be a bonanza to a whole bevy of folks, from seismologists to building inspectors. Chemical terror, in the form of the Superfund, has been called, “the full employment bill for lawyers.”

Animal Rights, to take another example at hand, is of benefit to certain insiders, perhaps here in this room. It is certainly beneficial to veterinarians, more and more of whom are now required to police you sadistic people. You pay them, out of your own pocket. Bureaucrats, likewise, are benefited. So are lawyers. So are you, if you believe the numbers; your grants get bigger and bigger and never mind that more and more of the money goes to security, bureaucracy, vets and cages. Toxicology is booming, thanks in large part to the cancer scare. And to not leave myself out, all this is grist for the journalistic mill. Chemical terror is easier to write about, say, than the problem of teenage pregnancies or the impact of modern transportation on the spread of disease. In journalism too, the bad drives out the good.

I watch these developments with horror; my individual conversations with many of you tell me that my horror is shared. Yet few speak out. Those who do are drowned out by the louder voices of hysteria and doom.

My own moment of truth came on a bright, cheerful October day. I was with my fiancee in, of all places, the elephant house of the Washington D.C. zoo when I looked over and there was one of my best Agent Orange sources — the guy I called Joe Smith.

We chatted for a minute and he introduced his children. He was in Washington for the final negotiations on a major grant with, I think, the NIH. I asked him what the grant was for, and he started getting strange on me. He tried to change the subject. Out of instinct more than anything else, I prevented him from doing so. Finally he told me. The grant was to investigate the effects of Agent Orange on some organ system.

I was horrified, of course, and I said so. How COULD you? You KNOW it’s bogus!

Well, he got very defensive, and then very angry, and he sent his children off after some cotton candy. He told me he had lost his earlier grant. He reminded me that he had a wife and children to support. He had a laboratory, three or four post-docs, a bunch of grad students, a couple dozen lab assistants. What did I expect him to do? Fall on his sword?

And, he rationalized, he’d probably do some very good biochemistry in the process. Perhaps he did. But in the process he, as well as hundreds of other scientists who fuel public hysteria in order to obtain research funds, was violating the fundamental principle of the Enlightenment. They are not telling the truth.

The truth is that science, as well as the media, benefits from the lies, illusions and poison paranoias that grip our society. The truth is that while not all scientists and reporters pander to the hysteria, most enable it with their silence. And the truth is that this dishonesty will destroy your credibility in the same way that corruption in the church destroyed the power of Medieval Catholicism.


As more and more of us, as individuals, draw sustenance from propositions that we know to be false, if only in their disproportion, so we devalue the respect for truth that is the foundation of our civilization. Finally it comes down — it has come down — to a corruption of the faith that once underlay the modern age.

All you need, today, to see the result, is to visit your local court of law. Lawyers have traditionally hired themselves out to argue for the higher bidder. But now, where it was once your lawyer against my lawyer, it is increasingly also your scientist against my scientist.

Worse, scientists — and journalists — are increasingly acting in roles of public advocacy. As self-proclaimed environmentalist-scientists declare yet another ecosystem endangered . . . what are we to think? When a study that seems to indicate anatomical differences between homosexual brains and the brains of straight people turns out to have been conducted by a homosexual . . . what are we to think? When scientists lend their names and credibility to weak propositions for the sake of ideology or money, what is the inevitable end result? Make no mistake about it. Science is losing the trust of its constituency. I know that a majority of Americans still tell pollsters that they believe in science, but belief in that data is whistling in the dark. Talk to those same people and you will find in many cases that the so-called “science” they believe in includes astrology, yoga and ESP.

In one study designed to plumb the scientific literacy of adult American citizens, half did not understand that the earth travels around the sun. Only 6 percent of adults could be considered scientifically literate.

In a recent survey of students at Hollins College in Virginia, more than half the student body believed in ghosts and mental telepathy.

But the most frightening poll, if you believe the press has power in this culture, was taken at the Columbia graduate school of journalism, one of my profession’s most elite institutions. 57% of the student journalists believed in ESP, 57% believed in dousing, 47% believed in aura reading, and 25% said they believed in the lost continent of Atlantis. Another poll, limited to managing editors of newspapers, showed that two-thirds thought humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time, and that there was a “dark” side of the moon, upon which light never fell.

We are in fact sinking deeper and deeper into a generalized acceptance of, as they say, “other ways of knowing.” Witchcraft, reincarnation, devil possession, spiritualism . . . these things are widely accepted by a large proportion, perhaps a solid majority, of the voting population of the United States.

The attendant hostility to science is palpable. The public’s willingness to believe that the United States poisoned its soldiers in Vietnam with Agent Orange, and that scientists invented the poison and aided in the cover-up, marked the change in tide. To touch on a subject that is near to many of you in this room, the animal rights movement is indicative of that same distrust. The philosophical basis of the animal rights movement is that science is fundamentally evil, and there is plenty of evidence out there that a significant part of the public, at some level, agrees.

How, otherwise, could they trash your laboratories and consistently get away with it? How, if it didn’t strike a deep chord in the American heart, could the movement be able to collect so many million dollars in small contributions.

Scientists don’t seem to comprehend that people — not thousands, not tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands, but MILLIONS of Americans — see them as torturers of animals. Otherwise they wouldn’t send quarters and dollars to their mortal enemies. And I ask you . . . how many people, if you asked them, would send money to YOU?

Lest you think the animal rights movement is about animal rights, by the way, several studies have documented the antiscientific core of it. Most animals killed by our society, for instance, are used for food. But by far the majority of the energy, ink and venom produced by the animal rights movement is aimed at science. The head of PETA, people for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, is a self-declared Luddite. Animal rights advocates claim, with effect, that science has in fact never cured any disease or in any way bettered the human lot.

Think about it, for a moment. People can believe scientists who use animals — people like you — are sadists, or they can believe PETA is nuts. Their advertisements allow NO center ground. And, by the millions, the decision comes down on the side of PETA. PETA’s bankroll dwarfs the size of this institution’s, I can guarantee you.

Scientists tend not to look outside their own fields, but if they did they’d see that what’s happening to them is happening to everybody. Physics just took a front-page loss. Genetic engineers are being stalked by the likes of Jeremy Rifkin and his band of Luddites. Basic biology has fallen on hard times.

I wonder how many of you are aware that recently the scientist who was head of the Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Administration was driven from office because he made the observation, in public, that young primate males were inherently aggressive?

That fact is well documented in the scientific literature, was discussed by Darwin. But the scientist, Fred Goodwin, was accused of racism and hounded from office by, among others, Ted Kennedy and John Conyers. For speaking words that any scientist in his field would confirm was, if not truth itself, then certainly staid, mainstream opinion.

Now genetic engineering is not psychology is not toxicology . . . or is it? Is science a community, or not? Do things happen in a vacuum? Is it mere happenstance that, at the same time, Capital hill is crawling with PETA advocates?

And while I grant you that a majority of senators and representatives are probably rationalists, that’s a relative term in Washington. The important thing is that they know where their votes are coming from. And so Congress consistently votes to require you to spend more and more money on your animals.

Marginal researchers — and that is not to say poor researchers — are driven out of business. Animal researchers, weary of living in fear, are leaving the field. Those who stay have to spend more and more money on cages and guards, and you live with the sure knowledge that one day your laboratories may be wrecked by the Animal Liberation Front.

And when that happens, your fellow scientists will draw away from you like you have leprosy. Whoever funds you will pull your grant on one pretense or another. Law enforcement agencies will snort and grumble and be very busy elsewhere while the animal rights activists feast on you as though you were public relations carrion — which you will be. This is the pattern. The people of this democracy will look the other way; even your fellow scientists will look the other way.


What we are seeing, in the press and in our society, is nothing less than the deconstruction of the Enlightenment and its principle institution, which is science. You have an ulterior motive, they say, for everything you do. They say your quest is less for the truth than it is for grants. That the means has become the end.

The belief that science has no social benefit is not confined to a small group of radical activists. Last year Newsweek magazine, a publication that has long reflected trends on the center left, proclaimed that the improved health statistics in modern times are a result NOT of medical advancement but of changes in lifestyles — jogging, diet, and such.

This is simply not the truth. But as the truth is spoken less, it becomes ever more difficult to speak it and the speaker seems increasingly less credible. In the atmosphere of anxiety we have collectively created, or have allowed with our silence to be created, the truth, even if spoken, becomes commensurately less valuable.

Public perception, in the process, loses its link to reality. That there might be a truth — that your laboratories might produce answers more valid than those conjured up on Capital Hill — seems increasingly dubious to increasing numbers of people. How can anyone believe the truth when the credibility of the truth-seekers has vanished?

And then what are we, finally, journalists and scientists? Are we politicians, functionaries, keepers of conventional wisdom, priests and priestesses striving to preserve our own religion for our own vested reasons? How are we different, then, say, from lawyers or politicians?

That is the question that is being asked by millions of people out there. They are asking it in seriousness. Our society is asking itself: Is there even a reality? The very question, and the fact that it can be asked, tells us that something is terribly wrong.

The Supreme Court has said, to my profession, that freedom of speech does not give it the right to shout “fire” in a crowded theater. Now I say to yours that panic is a kind of poison and that untruths, like arsenic, are cumulative. Exaggerations collect into little lies, which pool together with silence and uncorrected hyperbole to, in time, become mythologies that spawn the hysteria that, like the venom of the krait, decouple everything and produce chaos and death.

And so as you conduct your business here, and as you go back to your laboratories at home, I would ask you to remember that the most important resource we have is not the environment, or the well-being of our people. It is rather a civilization that VALUES the environment and its citizens. And I would remind you as well that human history admits to greater dangers than you can titrate in your laboratories.

Let me close with a warning from Frederich Nietzsche, the patron philosopher both of the Nazis and, in more modern times, those who oppose science.

“Whoever fights monsters,” he said, “should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”

We want clean air. We want clean water. We want to rid our environment of poisons. But in our quest for material purity we must never forget for an instant that there are poisons, too, of the mind.

Thank you very much.


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