I’ve debated (with myself) whether to post anything about disgraced columnist Michael Fumento’s rantings that bird flu was a “Chicken Little” story (literally: it’s entitled, “Chicken Littles were Wrong”). It was published in the far right rag, Weekly Standard, where Science is a dimunutive figure in the far distance, but now it’s been picked up by Yahoo and other outlets, so I guess I’ll have to bite the bullet and say something about this sleaze.
Why am I attacking him instead of what he wrote? I’ll get to that in a minute, but first let me continue my egregious ad hominem ways. Fumento is a familiar figure here at ScienceBlogs, having been savaged repeatedly by my fellow bloggers Tim Lambert at Deltoid, PZ Myers at Pharyngula and Chris Mooney at The Intersection (use the search boxes upper left on each site to search for Fumento). As a confirmed wingnut he specializes in two things: attacking anything to the left of James Inhofe; and writing screeds that support the hands that feed him. Like Agribusiness.
Earlier this year he got fired from Scripps Howard Newspapers for failing to disclose he received a $60,000 “grant” from the Monsanto Corporation although he was writing puff pieces about Monsanto’s biotechnology products for the newspaper chain. Bird flu isn’t the only thing he has opinions about. There’s “the perfectly safe place called Love Canal,” his innumerate babblings about The Lancet study on Iraq casualties, the non-existence of Gulf War illness and lots more. Common theme: if it’s bad for business or implies the government has a role in helping people (killing them is fine), he’s against it. If you think you can stand more, go over to Deltoid and click on Fumento in the categories list on the left. Yes, he’s got a whole category to himself. There you can wander Through the Looking Glass to your heart’s content.
What about his Chicken Little article? It is a clever mosaic of half truths designed to say that government should get out of the business of being precautionary when it comes to public health. He pats himself on the back for “laying out the evidence” a year ago that H5N1 would not become readily transmissible and credits himself for having his arguments “catch on,” for example, that a pandemic was “overdue.” It didn’t take a genius to see this was not a good way to talk, as I know for sure, since we said it ourselves at least a year ago. Pandemics occur irregularly so we don’t know what “overdue” means, except that it is almost certain there will be another one. No one knows when. It could be underway already or it may happen in ten years. When it does, it might or might not be subtype H5N1. Agreed. So what. That’s a straw man.
But you don’t have to go far into the article to find the real target:
Not coincidentally, an avian flu bureaucracy has become entrenched. Like all bureaucracies, it will fight to survive and thrive, egging on governments to provide ever more money. The alarmingly titled 2006 Guide to Surviving Bird Flu is published by no less than the Department of Health and Human Services. Never mind that no one in this country has yet even contracted bird flu. Congress last year allocated $3.8 billion to prevent the ballyhooed catastrophe (Bush requested almost twice that amount). The latest “scary news,” promulgated in the November 23 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine by ├╝ber-alarmist Robert Webster of St. Jude Memorial Children’s Hospital, is that human cases of H5N1 contracted from birds are continuing to increase. (via Yahoo News)
Compared to the money spent on protecting us from shoe bombers or Iraqi insurgents, $3.8 billion’s a pittance, but that’s for another day. Admittedly Iraqi insurgents have killed almost 3000 Americans. Thanks to Michael and his cheerleaders for the war. They are taking recruits to age 42, Mikey. Now that you are out of a newspaper job . . .
Back to the article. The rest is just a recital of bits and pieces of flu science he has pulled out to make it seem like researchers have shown that a change to a pandemic strain is unlikely to happen. Every paper he cites we’ve discussed here and I don’t intend to do it again. Fumento, a lawyer with no scientific training, feels free to put his own spin on the science. The spin is always rightward. Since I’ve discussed all the issues he has raised from a scientific perspective — and most of them are currently unresolvable issues — it would be fruitless to get into a pissing match with someone whose history and writings show no respect for intellectual honesty. Instead — and for the sake of argument only — I’ll grant him there is scientific evidence of all kinds, some of which can be assembled to suggest a grave a imminent threat; some of which can be assembled (as he does) to say, “Don’t worry, be happy (and cut my taxes and the taxes of my friends but feel free to give them everyone else’s tax dollars)”; and some of which can be assembled to say this is a potentially serious public health problem that bears serious preparation, preparation that includes strengthening our entire public health and social service infrastructures in ways that produce manifold benefits to everyone whether or not a pandemic with H5N1 happens in the next five years.
It isn’t that what Fumento says is so outrageous one would have to be stupid or ignorant to believe it. It’s that it would be folly (and stupid) to act as if you believed it. Fumento couldn’t care less about public health nor does he care that what he writes makes it still more difficult to get government to make a puny investment in keeping us safe from disease at the same time he encourages it to sink more down the rat hole of the War in Iraq.
Maybe he’s on the Halliburton payroll, too. If not, he’s the kind of cheap investment they’d approve of. Cheaper than a Vice President, I’d guess.