The Denialist Playbook and the FAA

Photo credit: MBisanz licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

When I was sent a copy of this FAA presentation to the Congressional Quiet Skies Caucus, FAA Powerpoint PDF, I had a moment of recognition: the FAA is using a play from what I call “The Denialist Playbook.” The Oxford Dictionaries define a denialist as:

A person who refuses to admit the truth of a concept or proposition that is supported by the majority of scientific or historical evidence.

There appears to be a denialist playbook, just as there are playbooks for football teams. Just as one can recognize a screen pass play watching a football game, one can recognize the denialist plays when industries or government agencies try them. A well-documented example denialism can be found in the book “The Merchants of Doubt,” which chronicles how “Big Tobacco” issued statements and funded research to sow doubt about the dangers of cigarettes. No doubt Big Tobacco looked to the past. After all, when the lead contamination scandal unfolded in Flint, Michigan, it came to light that lead pipe manufacturers had trod the same path in the 1920s. And, of course, the conservative denial of climate change–continuing to deny that it is happening, even as the seas rise, the floods of biblical proportion inundate Houston, and the fires burn in California–would be laughable if the consequences weren’t so serious.

One version of the Denialist Playbook was described by Christie Aschwanden at Grist:

Step 1: Doubt the science.
Step 2: Question scientists’ motives and interests.
Step 3: Magnify legitimate, normal disagreements among scientists and cite gadflies as authorities.
Step 4: Exaggerate potential harms (scare the hell out of people).
Step 5: Appeal to personal freedom (I’m an American and no government official can tell me what vaccinations I need).
Step 6: Show that accepting the science would represent a repudiation of a key philosophy.

But I think that brief version omits several important basic plays from what I will call “The Complete Denialist Playbook.” Here are the playbook topics by chapter:

  1. Deny that there is a problem. Climate change denialism may be the most salient current example, but the FAA does this to a certain extent on Slide 4, when it states, “[a] factor of 20 decrease in community noise exposure has been accompanied by increased community concerns.” The FAA is staying that there isn’t a problem, when numerous media reports across the country document that aircraft noise is a major problem.
  2. When it becomes obvious that there is a problem, claim that it isn’t a major or real problem.
  3. Ignore those who complain about a problem, especially if they are young, women, or members of minority groups. This happened with the water problems in Flint, Michigan.
  4. State that there must be something wrong with those who complain about a problem. This was done by the conservative Mercatus Center in its “NIMBY report.
  5. Reluctantly admit that there might be a problem, but it isn’t associated, statistically correlated, and certainly not causally related with what reputable scientists think is the causative agent.
  6. Find fake experts who have views contrary to established knowledge but really are not experts in the field, even though they may have a PhD after their names.
  7. Fund research to find alternative explanations for the causation of the problem.
  8. Fund (in many cases through hidden funding mechanisms) consensus statements or even research that will obscure the true nature of the problem, i.e., sow confusion or doubt about the causal relationship.
  9. Cherry-pick the data and select research or quotes taken out of context to discredit established researchers and the scientific consensus to create an appearance of conflict or controversy when among experts there is none.
  10. Fund cultural or social organizations whose support can then be enlisted in fighting any regulatory efforts to control or ameliorate the problem. Philip Morris, among others, did this.
  11. Fund legitimate researchers looking for funding so that they will be reluctant to criticize their funding source or do research that may endanger their funding source.
  12. When the problem is so obvious that it can’t be denied, finally admit that there might be a problem, but insist that it isn’t a big problem.
  13. Offer alternative solutions to the problem which mask the real cause, e.g., soda makers funding youth exercise programs as a solution to the epidemic of obesity in young people, rather than admitting that sodas are a major, if not the major, contributor to obesity in your people.
  14. Invoke American freedoms to fight any regulatory efforts. Again, the tobacco industry did this, funding fake “Astroturf” organizations protesting that restrictions on smoking interfered with smokers’ right to smoke.
  15. Insist that the data are not robust enough and that more research is needed, which, of course, will take many years.
  16. Keep insisting that there is still doubt about the level of proof even when the overwhelming majority of scientists and even the public are convinced. The Heartland Institute, for example, still claims that there is doubt about whether smoking causes lung cancer.

It is the “more research” strategy that the FAA is adopting. On Slide 11 concerning cardiovascular health, the FAA states that “[e]xisting health study cohorts are being used to evaluate linkages between health outcomes a noise exposure while accounting for a wide range of factors,” with the research completion anticipated in 2020.

I have read some of the salient literature about aircraft noise and cardiovascular health, and attended several sessions on this topic and spoke with the world’s leading researchers in this field at the 12th Congress of the International Commission on the Biological Effects of Noise in Zürich in June, 2017. While there is always a need for more research, there is no need for further research into this particular topic because there is no doubt that aircraft noise causes cardiovascular disease. The basic physiologic mechanisms of how noise in general and aircraft noise specifically causes involuntary physiologic responses in the neuroendocrine and parasympathetic nervous systems have been well-described. A large number of epidemiology studies, using a variety of study designs, in a large number of countries, in different population groups, have shown that aircraft noise causes hypertension and cardiovascular disease. There can be no rational doubt about this relationship. These studies have been reviewed by Hammer et al., Basner et al., Munzel et al., and many others. As Basner noted in an editorial, the evidence is strong enough that most experts in the field think causality has been established.

In Europe, the adverse effects of noise on health are well-known, as summarized in a World Health Organization monograph on the “Burden of Disease from Environmental Noise.”  The European Union is dealing with this in its European Noise Directive.

There is NO need to reinvent this wheel on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, unless scientists can prove Americans are biologically different from Europeans. The FAA insisting that more research is needed to document the health dangers of aircraft noise exposure in the face of hundreds of articles in peer-reviewed scientific and medical journals is like the National Cancer Institute suddenly insisting that more research must be done to prove the dangers of smoking. How many more Americans must have their health damaged by aircraft noise–or even killed by it–before the truth is acknowledged? It is time for the FAA to act to protect the health of those exposed to aircraft noise, and if the FAA won’t act, for America’s congressional representatives to take action.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America.

Originally posted at The Quiet Coalition.

Comment (1)

  1. Jan L. Mayes

    I hope people do take action. This reminds me of your blog on quiet being a privilege of the rich. Are airplanes flying over high cost/high rent homes giving high income people heart disease,disturbed sleep and learning problems in their children?


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