]]]]]]]]]]]]   YELLOW RAIN: HOW IS A LAYMAN TO DECIDE?    [[[[[[[[[[[[ 
                                                                (1983)
[Note added in 1988: There have been important developments in this
field since this item was written, as you will see in the upper 
floors. Yet neither the methods of science nor those of the New York 
Times have changed since then, and I think the following is still 
worth reading.]

     The evidence on chemical and biological warfare by the Soviets in 
Afghanistan, and by their surrogates in South East Asia, is mounting.
     The usually overcareful and all too restrained State Department 
has issued a report; ABC's newsmen brought back pictures, proofs and 
witnesses from Cambodia; there are innumerable eye witness accounts; 
the presence of Soviet chemical warfare experts in South East Asia; 
the use (indeed, the very presence in their battle kits) of gas masks 
by the Soviets in Afghanistan -- there is more, but normally even that 
much would be more than enough.
     And yet the subject has been made "controversial;" there are 
scientists who doubt the reports and claim the State Department's 
alleged mycotoxins could be bee droppings, and the New York Times 
regrets that the whole thing is being used by the US to "poison" US-
Soviet relations. 
     You have no first-hand evidence, and you know little or nothing 
about mycotoxins, chemicals or biology. Whom are you to believe?
     Well, you may know little about space travel, too, and you have 
no first-hand evidence that there were Americans on the moon (for the 
TV pictures could easily have been produced by the Star Trek crews); 
yet you believed it. Why?
     Because, for one thing, it was not "controversial." Nobody 
claimed that it WAS the Star Trek crews who produced the job. Yet far 
"more" certain things have been disputed. There were only 3 astronauts 
and a at best tens of thousands involved in the logistics; yet it has 
been disputed that the Nazis killed any Jews, and they killed 6 mil-
lion of them, survived by tens of millions of their relatives. So 
things can be MADE controversial. Had the moon story been disputed, 
how would you have known whom to believe?
     You would have had to decide by the plausibility of the claims 
and counterclaims, by the past record of the claimants, and by other 
circumstantial, but nevertheless convincing, evidence. Surely you 
would have decided that the astronauts were for real, and the Star 
Trek story was not. 
     Now here is your chance to do just as well with Yellow Rain. 
Truth is what is confirmed by experience. For the scientist in his own 
field, experience means the laboratory. For the layman experience 
means history. So let's look at history: the history of wishful think-
ing, the history of the counter-claimants, and the history of Soviet 
behavior.
     Atrocities are ugly, and our first impulse is to disbelieve them. 
Did you think that the atrocities in German concentration camps did 
not come to light until after the war? Not at all. There was no 
Auschwitz then, but there was Dachau, Oranienburg, Buchenwald, and 
several others. I knew about them at age 13; many Czechs did -- there 
were escapees who made it across the border, and with their backs 
against the wall, most Czechs knew what threatened them. But in Bri-
tain they dismissed it all as horror stories, and they were shocked in 
1945, as were the Americans, by what they found in Belsen and Buchen-
wald. Belsen is not far from Hannover, where I talked to an innkeeper 
in 1946 who gave me a whole meal for 10 cigarettes and made excuses 
for Hitler. I asked him: how about the concentration camps? "If 
there's one thing the Nazis have taught us," he answered, "it is how 
to judge propaganda." He did not believe because he did not WANT to 
believe. Why should Anthony Lewis of the New York Times be better than 
some Nazi innkeeper? He is not: he is worse -- he is not an inn-keeper 
in the business of beer, but a journalist in the business of truth.
     Next look at the history of some of the skeptics. Typically, the 
history of Eliot Marshall and Nicholas Wade, both of Science magazine, 
Wade now "scientific" correspondent of the New York Times. Science, 
scientist, scientific, so it must be true, right?
     The hell it must, even if they were scientists. But as AtE read-
ers know, they are not. They are scribblers paid to write the gossipy 
"news" columns of "Science." But then, perhaps the painstaking care 
of the scientist has rubbed off on them and they just want to be 
indisputably convinced before they form an opinion? The trouble with 
that theory is that neither one of them had such compunctions when 
they printed false hearsay by antinuclear political propagandists, but 
censored the other side represented by several Nobel Prize winners. So 
the explanation is much simpler: yellow journalism at its yellowest.
                    
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