Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Reporting sucks today - the BBC editors and writers should be fired

I read two fairly horrible articles on  The first was "Big rise in new 'legal highs' - UN Drug Report" and the second was "Did our brains evolve to foolish follow celebrities?"

In the first about legal highs, the article is about the spread of designer drugs for whom no legislation exists and how the chemistry of drug designers works faster than law enforcement in criminalizing them.  The article goes on to say that this is bad because the new designer drugs are dangerous.  This is stupid in at least two ways.  One: it takes as a given that getting high, in any fashion at all, should be illegal.  Two: the facts are wrong.

Now, why should it be taken that getting high should be illegal?  It is untrue, of course.  We are allowed to get high, legally, with alchohol and nicotine (I should, perhaps, add caffiene to that list).  These things are legal and regulated and they get you high.  Alcohol, in particular, has the power to get you as fucked up as any illegal drug -- the characteristic of the high is different than, say, LSD, but you can get yourself totally wasted by alcohol to a similar extent as LSD.  While nicotine lacks that kind of potential in the way the industrialized world generally uses it (though if you're fond of a hookah, you can get pretty goddamn smashed, I should add), clearly we are not systematically opposed to intoxication.  So why should we presume all other forms of intoxication are bad?  Yet, in a totally unspoken way, the article does exactly that.

Afterward, it just says that designer drugs are unsafe.  Really?  Let's think this through.

(One of the unsafe drugs mentioned is "bath salts", which is just sloppy journalism.  Almost no one takes bath salts because the high isn't very good and the crash is quite bad.  But after that guy freaked out here in Miami had started eating a dude's face, there was a bath salts scare.  Bath salts had nothing to do with the attack, but once a good scare is started it's good for sensationalism to bring it up.  Who cares if people don't actually use bath salts?  Bath salts are bad!)

Alcohol and nicotine can kill you.  In the US, alone, the CDC says that 60,000 die every year because they drink too much.  The CDC says that cigarette smoking causes twenty percent of deaths in America, 443,000.  Fifty thousand of those deaths are from second hand smoke -- fifty thousand non-smokers die every year because of cigarettes.

In 2010, a study by the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs ranked how dangerous various drugs were on a scale of 1 to 100, taking into account personal harm, harm to others, costs to society.  Alcohol got a 72, the highest score - this is above heroin at 55 and crack cocaine at 54.  Tobacco was right under cocaine at 25.  Cannabis rated a 21.  Mephedrone - one of the "dangeorus" designer drugs - rated a 12.  Ecstasy rates a 9.  LSD is down at around 7 and magic mushrooms a 5.

So, most illegal drugs are safer than most legal ones.  The dangerous mephedrone, meow meow in the article, is . . . pretty goddamn safe.  Safer than cannabis.  Ecstasy, LSD and magic mushrooms?  Single digits.

I question the report in several serious ways.  There is no real indication that cannabis harms the user.  So why does it rate above, y'know, in the same ballpark as cocaine and amphetamines?  And how does nicotine, causing so many deaths, rate lower than alcohol?  So, far from perfect.

Yet, many of the drugs we thing are dangerous - mushrooms, LSD, ecstasy - are very . . . well, safe compared to things that are already legal.  And mephedrone, one of the drugs the reporter specifically mentions, is much safe than the legal drugs of tobacco and alcohol. 

In short: there is no reason to presume designer drugs are dangerous.  That's just pure sensationalism created out of a fairly bizarre idea that being high on anything other than booze or cigarettes is somehow worse than being high on booze and cigarettes.  It's also just plain wrong and clearly no one fact-checked the article, so it's a failure on the editorial level, too, for a newspaper that is supposed to report facts.

The second bad article is about the effects of prestige on society.  The article opines that we should not care what underwear David Beckham wears - that Beckham's social prestige makes us care more than we "should" for extraneous things like his fashion choices.

What the article fails to really address is that this isn't happenstance.  We care what underwear David Beckham wears because someone make a multimillion dollar advertising campaign to sell us Calvin Klein briefs.  Left to our own devices, most of us would never, ever learn, or care to learn, what briefs Beckham wears and care about his prestige in his area of legitimate expertise - soccer.

The use of the prestige of celebrity to sell us things is not a maladaptation to the modern world.  It is an adaptation that is being consciously, actively subverted by advertisers to sell us crap we do not need.  Without the influence of advertisers, would the prestige of celebrity be so odious?  Is it bad to hold up David Beckham in considerable prestige due to his really incredible athletic skills?  Or to hold up Beyonce for her skill as an entertainer?  But what happens is this prestige, this false authority, is being repackaged by advertisers as a means to manipulate us.  It isn't just happenstance.  Someone is doing it.

When you fail to mention something so important in an article about how prestige is used to influence us - that there are a group of people consciously manipulating this psychological reality - then you've failed as a journalist.

Then I stopped reading the news because I remembered how horrible it is, generally.

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