Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity: Get Out the Shovel — Why Everything You Know is Wrong is both fun and informative. It is bound to evoke a wide range of emotions in most readers: anger, shock, disbelief, relief, incredulity, laughter, surprise, and finally gratitude that we have honest reporters such as John Stossel and the real experts upon which he relies to help us separate the truth from both the simple falsehoods in which we commonly believe and the often malicious lies and scams to which we are all too often exposed.
As a long-time resident of the greater NYC Metropolitan area, I have been familiar with the Stossel's work since his appearances on WCBS-TV as an in-your-face consumer reporter early in his career. I took notice when he moved to network TV after being hired by Roone Arledge, and continued to enjoy his reporting even as I sometimes disagreed with some of his premises.
I watched his TV specials which often questioned liberal orthodoxy with such catchy titles as "Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?" I regularly found these to be both informative and provocative and was very pleased when he became the co-anchor of 20/20. I met when we both attended a conference several years ago, and since then I have seen him once or twice a year at other events that we have both attended and regard him as a casual friend. We share a common philosophical outlook about the benefits of free market competition rather than government regulation, and generally agree on many topics. This book is no exception; there are a few areas where I disagree with his interpretation and commentary, but none where I fault his facts.
A disclaimer: Because I believe in the educational value of Stossel's work (and its potential to be a catalyst for classroom discussion of the topics involved) I have provided modest financial support to intheclassroom.org, the organization that provides copies of Stossel's programs and classroom guides to high school teachers interested in the material.
As Stossel explains in his introduction, his investigative team consistently gets out their shovels and digs through a lot of nonsense and deception to discover the truth. And most surprisingly, every once in a while as they are looking for the pony in the pile of manure, they discover one! Occasionally a popular belief concerning a controversial topic that has attained mythic proportions actually turns out to be true.
The dominant similarity among the chapters in the book is that these 12 topics are all areas where Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity are prevalent. Each chapter examines several interesting myths, and there were far too many for me to choose just a few favorites. Among those I enjoyed the most were discussions of how mouthwash often makes our breath worse, why antibacterial soap does little to help your health (viruses are usually a greater threat than bacteria and how you wash your hands is more important than what you use), and how laptop computers can reduce male fertility. In addition, the discussion of why premium dog food appeals to people but is not better for your dog was interesting if a little gross; dogs love udders and other byproducts which humans find to be repulsive.
While most of the scientifically-challenged myths mentioned above will probably not create much controversy among this book's readers, Stossel's willingness to challenge commonly held beliefs in such areas as economics, politics, the environment, and government regulation will undoubtedly outrage many of those individuals whose "special interests" are being skewered. An example of these myths and his "truths" is that a higher minimum wage helps workers, to which he retorts that it "helps some workers, but hurts more."
Even more controversial is a topic frequently in today's headlines and a source of heated political debate: the belief that outsourcing is a "crisis" which takes jobs from Americans. To which he replies "outsourcing creates American jobs." However, his most biting criticisms are reserved for his associates in the press and most acerbically for the politicians who want to both control our lives and perpetuate their power while claiming to be our friends.
I was already familiar with the facts in his discussion of the lies perpetuated in the Congressional Record (which is in reality a non-record), the falsehoods in which would be investigated by Congress if anyone else published it. I still enjoyed his examples. Most telling, however, was his discussion of the myth that the average politician will fulfill his election-year term-limit pledge. The single anecdote that best demonstrates how they view themselves and their relationship to the voters who elected them was the quote by a Congressman (you'll have to read the book to find out who uttered it) who — 16 months after explaining why he wanted to be a citizen legislator rather than a lifetime politician — informed his constituents, according to a newspaper article, that "he'd been talking with the Lord, who had absolved him of his pledge."
Another thing I enjoyed was the frequent use of highly descriptive terminology, which strikingly illustrated the concepts which were being discussed. One example that vividly remains in my mind under the discussion of price controls and price -gouging was the image of price increases during catastrophes performing the "vital task of economic triage."
Another was the image of the "invisible fist" of the plaintiff's bar supplementing Adam's Smith's invisible hand of the marketplace. Other examples are Americans' "addiction to insurance" (surely much more dangerous than any addiction to oil) and the current "censorship by intimidation" so rife on college campuses today (to which Larry Summers certainly can testify).
Finally, this book also contains a lot of very helpful advice. Stossel's chapter about child-raising myths, written from his perspective as a parent, is very worthwhile reading. I wish that he had written a book with these helpful insights when I was trying to figure out how to raise my two daughters. I found the description of how kids become "mother-deaf" fascinating. And everyone should find his investigation into attaining happiness and his discussion of the power and nature of forgiveness worthwhile.
Of course, the fact that this book discusses a very diverse group of topics undoubtedly means that many readers will find some chapters very stimulating, some of little interest, and perhaps a few controversial. Furthermore, the book is basically a collection of a great many ideas organized around a few unifying themes. I found it satisfying to read one chapter at a time, rather than attempt to proceed too rapidly through the various topics. Since it does not have to be read sequentially, this is also the type of book with which you can either randomly jump from myth to myth, or simply go where your interests take you.
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