TWO SIDES TO A STORY: FACTS AND UNSUBSTANTIATED OPINIONS


I didn’t start it, but I did finish it.

My wife and I took an early morning shuttle to the Minneapolis airport after our annual weeklong trip into the Boundary Waters.  Coming out of the woods after a trip requires readjusting to a lot of people and noise.  We had been been in a world where nature ruled.  It is not inherently dangerous in the woods, if one can read the weather, understand animal behavior, and constantly observe the surroundings.  There isn’t any right or wrong out there, only consequences.  We’d do well to heed that aphorism in nature today.

The other passenger was a woman from California’s central valley, who began a conversation with the shuttle driver about the drought.  The conversation soon devolved to the smelt, a fish that had been protected for years, but whose protection now cost sending water to farms.

After hearing “tree huggers”, I then heard her say “people have priority over fish.”  The fish had been protected by people, so I wasn’t following her reasoning.  The fish doesn’t have a choice but to live in water; people have the choice to control their numbers and use water properly, especially in dry areas, like the central valley.  Nature doesn’t tell us to control population or water use, but there are consequences if we don’t. The lady then referred to herself as “an environmentalist.”

I was beginning to seethe but held my tongue, as we would soon disembark.  My wife, however, who usually stays quiet, commented, “Some of us back here feel differently.”  Her words ignited me.

“Perhaps if California had a better system to allocate water and acted a lot earlier, this wouldn’t be a problem,” I began.  “Perhaps we shouldn’t try to grow certain crops in places where the rainfall is capricious.  If Fresno used the same water per capita as Phoenix, 3/4 million acre feet would be saved annually. Half the houses in Sacramento don’t have water meters.”  I had a dozen more things I wanted to say, including rainwater harvesting, fixing leaks, not brushing teeth with the faucet running, and 90-second showers, but we were at the airport.

“There are two sides to every story, I guess,” the woman replied.

“Yes,” I shot back.  “Facts and unsubstantiated opinions.”

That ended the discussion.

I don’t bring up controversial topics in places like airport shuttles.  But if they are mentioned, I may add my two cents’ worth.  What annoys me about the “two sides to every story” argument is many assume both sides are telling the truth.  They aren’t.  We have become a society where everybody’s say is equal to everybody else’s, and if Fox News wants to lie, it can, without consequences.  In 2014, we still allow equal time to those who believe the Earth is 10,000 years old, or that the highest carbon dioxide levels in humanity’s history have no consequences.  A large percentage of Americans feel there is no climate crisis, because enough doubt is interjected by the other side, especially by those who are good looking, sound sincere, misuse statistics, or just yell and bully— all are effective—to make their case.  We shouldn’t be debating evolution or the climate in 2014; animals are already evolving—or going extinct—because of us.  We should be trying to develop workable solutions to major problems.

I am disturbed by those with influence—I will use Sen. John McCain, for example—who violate their duty to use such influence wisely.  Mr. McCain has said many things I have disagreed with during the two decades I was his constituent.  His coming to my new state, Oregon, to campaign against a sitting Senator, once considered unethical by the Senate, bothered me.

What McCain said would have been laughable if so many people didn’t believe it.  He said that challenger Dr. Monica Wehby would be the “go-to” person to fix the VA System, since she had experience with the VA.

Mr. McCain voiced unsubstantiated opinions.  Here are facts:  Dr. Wehby is a pediatric neurosurgeon who had some of her training at the VA, like every other doctor, including me.  How many pediatric patients are at the VA?  None, unless we are conscripting kids for our several wars.  I too, trained at the VA, both as a medical student and as a neurology resident.  I saw patients. I did not know anything about running the system, and in my unsubstantiated opinion neither did Dr. Wehby. Fact: nobody with whom I trained had that experience. Fact:  Dr. Wehby has had two restraining orders placed on her by men.  That doesn’t disqualify her from the Senate, but at at time when we are polarized, her presence isn’t likely to help. That’s an opinion from one who studied psychiatry (a fact), along with an opinion that two restraining orders suggests an individual has serious anger issues. It is possible to be a good neurosurgeon yet a poor senator.  Opinion.

Fact:  Dr. Wehby is a physician running for the Senate.  Her medical training actually makes her less likely than the average physician to deal with health care finance, because she is highly specialized and less exposed to insurance issues than the average FP.  Fact.

I remember the last well-known physician-senator, Dr. Bill Frist, who also campaigned against Sen. Tom Daschle in South Dakota.  Frist had the absolute gall to say that Terri Schiavo was clearly conscious, on the basis of a video, because she laughed, when the late Ms. Schiavo was in a persistent vegetative state, a fact, where automatic smiling may occur, like in babies.  Fact: The American Academy of Neurology filed an amicus curiae brief with the Florida court, and Ms. Schiavo’s brain at autopsy weighed 600 gm, the least in an adult I ever saw as a neurologist.  Fact: I saw many brains at autopsy and cut brains to teach anatomy to the nursing staff at the hospital where I practiced.  Fact: Congress was called back for an emergency session in March 2005 to block Mr. Schiavo’s wishes to stop support.  Fact: some physician-legislators who were not neurologists weighed in with opinions without ever examining Ms. Schiavo.  Fact: I was a fellow of the AAN who had dealt with many vegetative cases in my career and supported the ethicists in the AAN who did examine Ms. Schiavo.

Yes, there are two sides to every story, but they are usually not equal.  We aren’t tossing a coin here, with a 50% probability of heads; we are dealing with the smelt, fresh water allocation, the climate, who runs the country, war, Ebola, overpopulation, the Earth’s age, and resource degradation.  We should be using science, models, and probabilities.  The probability that the Earth is older than 10,000 tropical years is 1. The confidence we have that manmade climate change is occurring is over 95%. Fact. California cannot continue to use water the way it once did.  Fact.  Unsubstantiated opinion:  America needs decisions made less by charisma and screaming and more by science and careful deliberation.

Fact: Soon.

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