Conspiracy Theories: Historians, In and Out of Court

“The United States has long been a breeding ground for conspiracy theorists… .”  It did not take long for conspiracy theories surrounding the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, to circulate.  Lee-Anne Goodman, “Latest American conspiracy theory claims Newtown mass shooting a hoax” (Jan. 15, 2013) (Associated Press) (“Sandy Hook Truthers, as they’ve been dubbed, believe last month’s mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., was a hoax”).  And the tragedy of the Boston marathon bombing gave rise to conspiracy theories within hours of the horror.  Meghan Keneally, “Conspiracy theorists claim Boston was ‘false flag’ attack arranged by the government” (April 17, 2013) (“false flag” staged attack); Amanda Marcotte, “The Boston Marathon Bombing Could Become a Conspiracy Theory Hotbed” (April 16, 2013).

Conspiracy theories are not confined in the United States to the lunatic fringe; nor are they the creatures of internet fantasies.  Conspiracy theories inundate our courts, and occasionally make for a rattling good yarn from academic writers. A couple of years ago, I wrote about historians of occupational health and safety as particularly susceptible to the lure of conspiracy theories.

Professors Rosner and Markowitz, historians of silicosis, certainly come to mind:

“In the postwar era, professionals, industry, government, and a conservative labor movement tried to bury silicosis as an issue.”

David Rosner & Gerald Markowitz, Deadly Dust:  Silicosis and the Politics of Occupational Disease in the Twentieth Century America 213 (Princeton 1991).  This is a remarkable group libel of scientists, physicians, industrialists, and labor union leaders. Perhaps readers may infer that the unions branded “conservative” are the ones not committed to Marxist-Leninist principles, such as the Western Federation of Miners, later known as International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers.  In their book, Rosner and Markowitz singled this union out for its for heroic resistance to the putative conspiracy of government, academics, scientists, industry, and the non-Communist-influenced labor movement.

Reality is often much less glorious than speculative conspiracy theories.  Professor Beth J. Rosenberg, an Assistant Professor, in the Department of Public Health & Community Medicine, in Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston, Massachusetts, is an unabashed activist.   She has championed workers’ safety and rights.  She has tried, but failed, to organize workers and unions in Massachusetts over the real hazards of abrasive sandblasting, only to find that their concerns lay elsewhere.  Beth Rosenberg, “Second Thoughts About Silicosis,” 13 New Solutions 223 (2003).

“The main point here is that the men I’ve interviewed are not terribly concerned about silica dust. They care about being treated decently and respectfully by their bosses. They’re concerned about being encouraged to work too fast to work safely. They care about lead dust, particularly bringing it home to their families, so they get really angry when the foreman wants to lock up the yard at five o’clock and doesn’t leave them enough time to shower and change their clothes. They feel that they are expendable. And although most are fully aware of silica’s dangers, silica is not a top priority for them. The silica agenda was set by some physicians and health professionals who are outraged that anybody is still dying of this 100 percent preventable disease. This is understandable, and I am one of those people, but I’m not sure this is the best way to be of service. I see that there are other, more pressing issues than silica.

Id. at 229 (emphasis added).  See also  CDC, “Ten Great Public Health Achievements – United States, 1900 – 1999,” 48(12) CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 241 (April 02, 1999)(“Work-related health problems, such as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (black lung), and silicosis — common at the beginning of the century — have come under better control.”).

Is there any substance to the claim that everyone, after the Great Depression, other than a few radical labor leaders, tried to bury the issue of silicosis?  As I have noted, we can find some objective indication of continued interest in silicosis from the number of publications in the National Library of Medicine’s database (PubMed) on silicosis.  A simply search on “silicosis,” with limits to each decade after the 1930s reveals a pattern that silicosis had not been buried at all:

Date Range                    Number of Articles from Keyword Search

1940 – 1949                      113

1950 – 1959                    1,421

1960 – 1969                    1,867

1970 – 1979                    1,178

1980 – 1989                       940

1990 – 1999                       882

2000 – 2009                      843

To be sure, the low count in the 1940s likely results from the lack of coverage of publications in the database, as well as the growth in the number of biomedical journals after the 1940s.  The Post-War era certainly presented distractions in the form of other issues, including the development of antibiotics, chemotherapies for tuberculosis, the spread of poliomyelitis and the development of vaccines for this and other viral diseases, radiation exposure and illnesses, tobacco-related cancers, and other chronic diseases.  Given the exponential expansion in scope of public health, the continued interest in silicosis after World War II, documented in the PubMed statistics, is remarkable.

Recently, in my own blog reading, I came across a post by David Oliver on the use of Google’s database of digitized books to create charts of word hits in this digital library.  See David Oliver, Fun With Google Books’ Ngram Viewer (Dec. 17, 2010).  Oliver hypothesizes that the number of times that a word appears in the database of over 5 million books is a reasonable proxy for identifying the active interests and concerns of society.  Google labs offers the opportunity to run this search as a function of year, and to produce a chart that reflects the prevalence of the keyword over time.

With David Oliver’s permission, here charts he prepared, using Google labs, for two very different diseases, mesothelioma and silicosis, with their very different levels of interest and concern among various writers:

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This Google tool may be incomplete and imperfect, but it shows, along with the PubMed database, that it may well be time to look for more objective bases for historical opinions, both in court and in academia.


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