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Top 10 Things Society Got Horrifically Wrong

by Christopher Dale
fact checked by Jamie Frater

As history shows, we’re not nearly as smart as we think we are. Witch-burning, bloodletting, and eugenics are just a few examples of how once-established theories proved not only incorrect but insane.

Have we learned from our asinine assumptions? You be the judge. With one uterus-unraveling exception, the following are more modern instances where the general consensus was generally nonsense.

Top 10 Reasons The Dark Ages Were Not Dark

10 Pain, Pain, Go Away

The Science of Opioids

It started with the best of intentions. About three decades ago, a push began to find medications that more effectively relieved pain for chronic conditions (like back issues or arthritis), post-surgery recovery, and terminal illnesses (such as late-stage cancer).

In 1995, Purdue Pharma introduced what was quickly billed a wonderdrug: OxyContin. Percocet and Vicodin soon joined the pill-poppin’ party as, throughout the late 1990s, pharmaceutical companies reassured the medical community patients would not become addicted to prescription opioid pain relievers. Healthcare providers started prescribing them at exponentially greater rates.

The painkillers were efficient at both pain and killing. Opioid addiction and overdose deaths surged. By 2017 an estimated 1.7 million Americans had substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers. But hey – at least their arthritis wasn’t acting up.

Also in 2017, the esteemed Mayo Clinical published a postmortem on the opioid crisis’s widespread… well, mortem. An excerpt from the abstract says it all: “Good intentions to improve pain and suffering led to increased prescribing of opioids, which contributed to misuse of opioids and even death.” Perhaps the initial concept – that the acceptable amount of pain is zero – was flawed from the get-go?

In the 12 months ending September 2020, a record 87,000 Americans died of drug overdoses. In October 2020, Purdue Pharma plead guilty to federal criminal charges, part of a settlement of over $8 billion. Neither of those facts are coincidences.

9 Back in the USSR: Russia’s Relapse

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Entry into the Kremlin – Imperial March

It seems incredible that, barely 20 years ago, hopes were high throughout Western Civilization that Russia, emerging from the ashes of the USSR’s 1991 implosion, would embrace its former adversaries and join the fraternity of developed democracies.

It started very promisingly. After US president Ronald Reagan thawed the deep freeze and forged a working relationship with his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan’s successor, George H. W. Bush, oversaw the USSR’s collapse with his trademark gloat-free grace – deftly setting a diplomatic reset button. (In fact, Bush’s outstanding performance during the Soviet Union’s collapse is why most rank him among the finest one-term presidents in US history).

Unfortunately, Russia’s new leader was a naive drunk. President Boris Yeltsin tried to convert Russia’s state-dependent economy into near-total capitalism far too quickly. The fallout was severe: Through the 1990s, Russia’s GDP fell by 50%, vast sectors of the economy were wiped out, inequality and unemployment grew dramatically, while incomes fell.

Russia first democratic president was so poor that he also became its last. In 2000, Yeltsin was succeeded by his Prime Minister, a young ex-KGB agent named Vladimir Putin. Twenty years of dissent-squashing, Syria-backing, Ukraine-invading and election-interfering later, and it’s safe to say that Russia is every bit the nuclear-armed menace now that it was for most of the late 20th Century.


8 Not So Fast

Throughout history, there have been widely held misconceptions concerning physics. People once thought the Earth was both flat and the center of the universe. Many thought the laws of nature prevented man-made flight – including the brilliant John Adams, until he witnessed one of the first-ever hot air balloon ascensions in Paris, in 1783.

Less widely known is a commonly held belief of the early 19th Century concerning the development of rail travel. Quite simply, many thought speed literally killed. Fetuses, that is.

New technologies often bring with them unfounded fears (remember cell phone brain tumors?). When rail travel was introduced, it brought with it the potential to move far faster than man had ever gone before. Women, however, were a different story: at or around speeds of 50 miles per hour, many thought a woman’s uterus would fall out. How’s that for a Plan B?

According to cultural anthropologist Genevieve Bell, misogyny has been a drumbeat behind many a tech-centric moral panic. For example, when electric lighting was starting to proliferate, “experts” thought that lighting homes would endanger women and children by letting predators know they were home at night. And when automobiles gained momentum in the early 1900s, many felt that women – considered prone to fainting, physical weakness, and random bouts of hysteria – would be unable to handle such high-speed responsibility, and should therefore be disallowed from driving. Saudi Arabia concurred for over a century.

7 The Original Social Distancing

You Will Wish You Watched This Before You Started Using Social Media | The Twisted Truth

Remember when everyone thought social media would bring people closer?

Some form of social media – loosely defined as online gathering places – has existed since the advent of the Internet itself. But while AOL chatrooms, MeetUp and MySpace certainly played their part in normalizing these new platforms, it was the 2004 debut of Facebook that took social networking fully mainstream.

Facebook’s intentions – its stated ones, anyway – were innocent enough. Suddenly, we could all give a custom-built list of “friends” access to our musings and photos, and share links to stories we found interesting. We could crowdsource recommendations from people we knew and trusted, organize events with like-minded hobbyists, and stay in closer touch with folks we seldom see IRL.

Seventeen years and 2.8 billion users later, Facebook – along with its 280-character cohort, Twitter – are two of the most culpable culprits in the intractable culture wars that have engulfed much of Western civilization, and the US and UK in particular. Sites selling togetherness have accomplished the exact opposite – and the reason, unsurprisingly, is money.

It’s simple, really. To keep users engaged, social media sites use advanced algorithms to spoon-feed individual users more of what they want. That’s an (arguably) innocuous thing when, for example, someone clicks on a pregnancy article and gets served up a baby stroller ad. The danger comes in politics specifically. Liberals get more woke nonsense and flawed logic, conservatives get more anti-liberal memes and cancellation, and in short order we’re in an uncivil war fought largely online.


6 High Crimes

Why The War on Drugs Is a Huge Failure

“Instead of a war on poverty,” Tupac Shakur rapped, “they got a war on drugs so the police can bother me.”

The War on Drugs is a US government-led attempt to stop illegal drug use and distribution by dramatically increasing prison sentences for both dealers and users. Among other accomplishments, it has succeeded in stigmatizing and worsening drug abuse while giving America the world’s highest incarceration rate. Take that, El Salvador (#2) and Turkmenistan {#3). Non-violent crime arrest much?

Unsurprisingly, all drugs were not waged war upon equally. At the onset of the crack epidemic – which initially was largely limited to Black communities—the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 established what became known as the 100:1 ratio. Ridiculously, five grams of crack carried a minimum mandatory sentence of five years in prison, while the same sentence for its more expensive counterpart—powdered cocaine, pervasive in white America—came at five HUNDRED grams.

That law came under Republican Ronald Reagan. But the drug war’s most flagrant foul likely came in 1994, with a bill signed into law by one Democratic president (Clinton) and written by a future one – actually, the current one. Then-Senator Joe Biden authored the deceptively-named Violent Crime Control & Law Enforcement Act. The law gave states billions to build more prisons, and established grant programs incentivizing police to pursue more drug-related arrests, especially for low-priority substances like marijuana. Feed that prison industrial complex beast, Joe.

5 The Facemask Facepalm

Masks: Necessary Protection OR Political Symbol? | Russell Brand

Hi medical science, my name is common f*cking sense. Have we met?

No one side in the COVID-19 situation has a monopoly on virus-combatting protocols. Liberals would lock the world down until both the virus and the global economy vanish, while conservatives think the simple act of donning a piece of fabric is an unforgivable infringement on freedom.

However, it is the experts’ responsibility to make health recommendations, and when they tarnish their own reputations early in a crisis, the results can be deadly. Such was the case when, as the virus gained steam in the US in late February and early March, Dr. Anthony Fauci and other experts said wearing facemasks was unnecessary.

Fauci later explained that, at the time, “we were not aware that 40 to 45% of people were asymptomatic, nor were we aware that a substantial proportion of people get infected from people who are without symptoms.”

This is a shockingly poor excuse. By late February it was clear that a new virus was spreading with a pace and ferocity not seen in decades. Crucially, it should have been obvious to contagious disease experts like Fauci that so rapid a proliferation CLEARLY INDICATED airborne, asymptomatic spread. Common sense says it would be almost impossible for a new virus to spread that far, that fast otherwise.

There was no other logical conclusion, and it stands as the most consequential misstep in the early response to a disease that has killed more than three million people.


4 Smoke and Mirrors

EARLY 1960’S CIGARETTE ADS

“If excessive smoking actually plays a role in the production of lung cancer, it seems to be a minor one.”

You’d expect such a quote to come from a tobacco company executive. But that was Wilhelm Carl Hueper, director of the Environmental Cancer Section of the National Cancer Institute, who gave the public the all clear to smoke ‘em if you got ‘em in 1954.

From the 1930s to 1950s, one of advertising’s most powerful phrases – “doctors recommend” – helped peddle one of the world’s deadliest consumer products: cigarettes. “Give your throat a vacation,” one magazine ad for Camel cigarettes was headlined, “smoke a fresh cigarette.”

Even as smoker’s cough proliferated and concerns understandably grew about the healthfulness of… well, inhaling smoke, Camel also made the reassuring claim that “more doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.” In the runup to making that claim, they conducted a survey of doctors in which participants were paid with – what else? – Camel cigarettes.

Before the mid-20th Century, such health-conscious claims were unnecessary because, oddly, people in societies around the world thought no long-term physical harm could come from sucking on burning sticks all day. It wasn’t until the 1940s that international teams of epidemiologists started concretely linking smoking to lung cancer, mostly because the proliferation of cigarette smoking directly paralleled with a surge in that once-rare terminal illness.

3 America’s Delusional Decade

When the Towers Fell | National Geographic

Many look back on the 1990s as the American Decade. Starting roughly with November 1989’s fall of the Berlin Wall – a death knell for the collapsing Soviet Union – the 90s were a brief but brilliant time in which Western Civilization had triumphed over soviet socialism and totalitarianism, and when America stood alone as the world’s sole superpower.

Looking back, perhaps the height of our hubris was “The End of History,” a 1992 book by American political scientist Francis Fukuyama. The influential tome argued that the ascendance of Western liberal democracy represented “not just … the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: That is, the endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Great! Westerners could all relax. No need to… say… clean up our defenses while we had a breather. Like, for example, maybe not have the cockpit doors of commercial airliners be about as secure as a mall restroom?

First Clinton and then (W.) Bush largely ignored the growing Islamic terrorism threat. Atop the global food chain and buffered by two oceans, America was untouchabl…

… with first one plane crash then another 18 minutes later, the 1990s ended a year late but promptly on September 11, 2001. The rest is history – and by no means the end of history.


2 An Invincible Earth

Is nuclear energy a clean energy source?

Perhaps the most glaring example of mankind’s hubris is the notion our planet is so exceptional that we can inflict thousands of cuts without ushering in its death.

What makes it worse is that we used to know this. By the 1960s, developed countries around the world realized the woeful side effects of the Industrial Revolution. Most notably, the air quality in cities was terrible, and rivers and lakes were fetid.

Collective action was taken, because this wasn’t a controversial issue yet. In 1970, Republican President Richard Nixon created the US Environmental Protection Agency. Two years later, he signed the Clean Water Act into law. Countries around the world took similar measures to heal a wounded world.

Fast forward 50 years, and we’re… well, here. Still thinking landfills have infinite space. Still chopping down rainforests – invaluable carbon filters and oxygen suppliers – for not-good-enough reasons ranging from agriculture to oil drilling. And of course, still tied to the idea that we can continue burning fossil fuels producing enormous amounts of pollution while we could be focussing on cleaner options like nuclear power.

1 The Food Pyramid Scheme

The origins of the anti-meat message with Dr. Gary Fettke — Diet Doctor Podcast

In 1992, the US Department of Agriculture proudly debuted the Food Pyramid, a triangle to nutritional balance. It was based on the horrifically wrong dietary recommendations of the non-scientific and outright brainless committee run by the Democrat senator (and 1972 Democratic presidential candidate) George McGovern in 1977. At the tippy-top were foods the committee (against the advice of all doctors present) recommended minimizing; moving downward, the Pyramid fattened out to display food groups to consume more liberally.

So for example, a category called “Fats, Oils & Sweets” came to a point at the Pyramid’s peak. These foods were to be eaten so restrictively that no daily recommended allowances were given, only directions to “use sparingly.” Conversely, at the Pyramid’s base were foods to eat remorselessly – 6-11 serving daily, in fact. Of course, we’re talking about vegeta…

… wait, carbs?

That’s right. For over a decade, the official recommendation of the US government was that its citizens consume 6-11 servings of bread, pasta, rice or cereals PER DAY.

And despite the daily carbfest, Americans were told to make room for 2-3 servings of dairy and 2-3 servings of proteins – a category whose broad scope included everything from red meat to red beans, with a helluva lot of leeway in between.

Oh, and 2-4 servings of fruits and 3-5 servings of vegetables. Go ahead and count potatoes as veggies – you wouldn’t want to eat into that carb allotment.

In 2005, the USDA thoroughly revised the recommendations but, for no good reason, kept the Pyramid form – which made it look like an update rather than a redo. They later re-shaped it into a “food-plate” but the terrible dietary advice remains intact and all attempts to revert to the pre-war commonsense high-fat low-carb diet is met with vicious attacks from the media, politicians, and “academics”. Fast forward to today and 42% of Americans are obese.

Top 10 Tips For The Perfect Diet

fact checked by Jamie Frater
Christopher Dale

Chris writes op-eds for major daily newspapers, fatherhood pieces for Parents.com and, because he's not quite right in the head, essays for sobriety outlets and mental health publications.

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