Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

Meaningless research

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2014/07/17

Medicine and doctors are often symbolized by reference to Greek mythology:

MedicalLogoAndText

Nowadays, though, much of so-called medical research would be better represented by p-values rampant over a field of nonsensical “associations”.

I had recently drawn attention (Statistics literacy) to a fine article about the lack of understanding of statistics that pervades the medical scene (Do doctors understand test results?). It explains how the risk of false-positive tests should be — but is not — understood by doctors and communicated to patients; and how relative risks are cited instead of absolute risks — a confusion that Big Pharma does much to promulgate because it helps to sell pills.
Another set of misunderstandings underlies much of the “research” that is picked up by the media as significant news: data mining coupled with the virtually universal mistake of taking correlations as indicating causation. A recent case in point concerns Alzheimer’s Disease (AD):

”Sleep disorders may raise risk of Alzheimer’s, new research shows
Sleep disturbances such as apnea may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, while moderate exercise in middle age and mentally stimulating games, such as crossword puzzles, may prevent the onset of the dementia-causing disease, according to new research to be presented Monday”.

Note that “may increase” and “may prevent” both imply causation, that sleep disorders may actually cause AD while physical and mental exercise may bring about (cause) protection. But the evidence is only that there is some sort of correlation; and it’s vitally important to keep in mind that correlation doesn’t mean an association every time, it means only that two things are found together apparently more often than one might expect purely as a result of chance.

Note too that “may” is an often-used weasel word to insinuate something while guarding against being held accountable for actually asserting it; e.g., big campaign contributions may influence politicians; conflicts of interest may influence researchers; and so on.

Note as well “to be presented”, which illustrates publicity-seeking by researchers and the complicity of the media in that, as they ignore the fact that at this moment the matter is nothing more than hearsay: science is supposed to published and evaluated before being taken at all seriously.

As to “purely as a result of chance”, everyone should understand, but few do, that the almost universally used method of calculating these probabilities as “p-values” is itself quite misleading; see “Statistics can lie, but Jack Good never did — a personal essay in tribute to I J Good, 1916-2009”.
The take-away lesson is that what researchers claim as “statistically significant” is often not at all significant, indeed it may be entirely meaningless; yet it will still be picked up by the media and ballyhooed as the latest breakthrough.

Here’s how researchers in medically related fields (and elsewhere too, of course) can generate publications effortlessly and prolifically while disseminating misleading notions:
Select a topic — AD, say.
Collect a data set of people who have that condition, the data including every conceivable characteristic: age (in several categories such as young, early middle age, middle age, late middle age, young-old, fairly old, quite old); exercise habits (light, moderate, heavy); alcohol consumption (light, moderate, heavy); diet (many variables — fat, meat, dairy, vegan, gluten-free, etc.); other medical conditions and history (many indeed); race and ethnicity; any others you can think of (urban or rural, say; employment history and type of employment — veteran; blue or white collar; innumerable possibilities); tests by MRI, complete blood analysis, etc.
Feed all the data into a computer, and set it to find correlations.

Purely by chance, at least 1 of every 20 possible pairings will produce a “p ≤ 0.5 statistically significant” result. Since p ≤ 0.5, this is publishable, especially since the written report fails to emphasize that this resulted from a random sweep through 20 times as many pairings.

Naturally such results are quite likely to make little sense, since they are random by-chance associations. For example:
“[M]oderate physical exercise in middle age could decrease the risk that their cognitive deficits progress to dementia. . . .
Oddly, however, the association did not hold for people who engaged in light or vigorous exercise in middle age or for any level of physical activity later in life.
On a similarly counterintuitive note, another study suggested that high blood pressure among people at least 90 years old — “the oldest old” — may protect against cognitive impairment. . . . although hypertension is believed to increase the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia for middle-aged people, the risk may shift with time” [emphases added].

The reason these results seem so incongruous and counterintuitive is, of course, that they were never genuine results at all, just “associations” that occurred when looking for correlations among a whole host of possibilities.

The notion that moderate exercise but not light or heavy exercise might actually be a significant cause of something like Alzheimer’s is not entirely beyond the realm of possibility, I suppose. Still, it seems sufficiently farfetched that I would hesitate — or be ashamed — even to mention the possibility until it had been reproduced in quite a few studies.
On the other hand I’m perfectly willing to see an association between high blood pressure and good cognition in the elderly, since good cognition depends on plentiful oxygen which depends on a good blood flow; and since arteries become less flexible with age, more pressure is needed to achieve that.
On a further hand, though, the notion that high blood pressure increases the risk of dementia in middle age strikes me as sufficiently absurd as to be dismissed pending the strongest most direct possible evidence; it “is believed” by whom?

Common sense cries out to be applied whenever a p ≤ 0.5 association is touted as meaning something. Try it out on the suggestion that “A daily high dose of Vitamin E may slow early Alzheimer’s disease”. Think about the caveats in that piece, and the trivial magnitude of the reported possible effect.

That respected mass media feature such garbage may well be quite harmful. I would expect some number of people will start taking vitamin E supplements immediately, whether or not there are any indications that they are not getting enough of it already. Not to speak of all the >90-year-olds desperately trying to raise their blood pressure and puzzled about how to decide how much exercise at their age is “moderate” but not “light” or “heavy”; and all the 70-to-90-year-olds wondering at what age high blood pressure stops causing Alzheimer’s and starts protecting against it.

 

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“The scientific method” — it’s just not used, e.g. in Alzheimer’s Disease

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2014/07/17

Alzheimer’s disease is one of the dysfunctional knowledge monopolies mentioned in my book, Dogmatism in Science and Medicine  (pp. 108-9).

Decades-old dogma takes the cause of the disease to be the build-up in the brain of plaques of amyloid protein. However, a mass of actual evidence indicates that theory to be wrong: there have been “hundreds of experiments casting doubt on the neurotoxicity of amyloid”; drugs and vaccines that act against the plaque have been ineffective; amyloid injected into brains of mice caused no symptoms. Yet researchers find it very difficult to get their evidence for other causes of Alzheimer’s published or to get research support for their work.

Rationalizations that try to prop up the amyloid theory are feeble and far-fetched, as illustrated by a fairly recent paean to a “breakthrough”:
“New imaging shows Alzheimer’s unfolding in live brains” (Andy Coghlan, New Scientist, 18 September 2013):
“The two major brain abnormalities that underlie Alzheimer’s disease can now be viewed simultaneously in brain scans while people are still alive”. Amyloid plaque has been observable since 2005 by PET (positron emission tomography), but now one can also observe “tau tangles”, and “tau lesions are known to be more intimately associated with neuronal loss than plaques . . . . tau tangles accumulate first in the hippocampus — the brain’s memory centre — at a time when the plaques are already widespread. . . . Previous research has shown that the tangles rapidly kill neurons and trigger behavioural changes. . . . [The new] images suggest that the plaques are themselves harmless, but help to advance disease by spreading the tau tangles from the hippocampus to other brain regions” [emphases added].

Note first that “the scientific method” * that so many pundits still cite and believe in states that a theory is discarded when the evidence goes against it. Here, the mass of evidence against amyloid theory has not broken the grip of the dogmatic knowledge-monopoly. Even as it is acknowledged that tau tangles and not plaques are actually closely associated with loss of neurons, and that plaques were present “10 to 15 years before there are symptoms”, the amyloid theory is still paid obeisance by suggesting that amyloid plays an essential role by “spreading the tau tangles”.

But since plaque pre-dates symptoms by a decade or more, surely it makes more sense to infer that plaque “may be neutral or even beneficial, perhaps attempting to defend neurons that are under attack” since “some amyloid can be found in the brains of most people over 40”.

The New Scientist piece is based on Maruyama et al., “Imaging of Tau Pathology in a Tauopathy Mouse Model and in Alzheimer Patients Compared to Normal Controls”, Neuron, 79 [2013] 1094-1108; the “et al.” stands for 24 additional names. That article begins, “Hallmark pathologies of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) are extracellular senile plaques consisting of aggregated amyloid β peptide . . . and intraneuronal . . . pathological tau fibrils, while similar tau lesions in neurons and glia are also characteristic of other neurodegenerative disorders” [emphasis added].
Tau tangles, but not amyloid, are known to be associated with a number of neurodegenerative disorders. Where was the need to invoke amyloid rather than tau as a cause of Alzheimer’s in the first place?
Those who question established mainstream dogmas are routinely called “denialists” — “AIDS denialists”, “climate change denialists”, and so forth. In point of fact, it is typically the mainstream thatis truly denialist: evidence denialist. As Max Planck out it long ago, old theories die only as their proponents also pass away; science advances funeral by funeral.
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* See Scientific Literacy and Myth of the Scientific Method, University of Illinois Press 1992

Posted in resistance to discovery, the scientific method, denialism, medical practices | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Knowledge, understanding — but then there’s Wikipedia

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2014/07/17

I’ve had much occasion to comment on the unreliability of Wikipedia on any topic where viewpoints differ (The Wiles of Wiki; Health, Wikipedia, and Common Sense; Lowest common denominator — Wikipedia and its ilk; The unqualified (= without qualifications) gurus of Wikipedia; Another horror story about Wikipedia; The Fairy-Tale Cult of Wikipedia; Beware the Internet: Amazon.com “reviews”, Wikipedia, and other sources of misinformation).

However, yesterday morning’s Public Radio warned me that I should question Wikipedia’s reliability even over what might seem to be objective factual data. Many media ran the same story, for instance the Sydney Morning Herald.

The revelation was that 8.5% of all Wiki articles, some 2.7 million of them, were “written” by one individual, Sverker Johansson: “On a good day the output can be as high as 10,000 articles”. “His claims to authorship are contested however, as they were created by a computer generated software algorithm, otherwise known as a bot. Johansson has named his Lsjbot”.

The Public Radio piece included comments from Jimmy Wales, Wiki’s founder, who said that this was actually nothing new, that “bots” had been used to “create” “content” from the very time Wiki was first established.

Johansson said that his motive is to bring knowledge to the widest possible audience.
An obvious question would have been, what is meant by “knowledge”?

A primitive answer might be, knowledge consists of facts, things that are indisputably so.
For example?
Well . . . . That all humans are mortal?
Hard to quarrel with that one, though quibblers might suggest a dependence on the definition of “human” and on the status of gods who sometimes take human shape.
So how about “the Earth is not flat”?
No quibbling there, provided we ignore as irrelevant any technicalities that concern only topologists and their multiple dimensions. But such negatives are not particularly informative, and surely “knowledge” implies being informative.
So should we have said “the Earth is spherical”? No, because quite important characteristics and phenomena depend on the fact that the Earth is not exactly spherical.

The point is, I suggest, that there’s no such thing as purely factual knowledge, because that isn’t informative. Data have meaning only in some context.
One might say that there are two kinds of knowledge, map-like and story-like. Maps tell you how to go somewhere, but give no reason for doing so, no meaningful context. Stories, on the other hand, many not be factually accurate in every respect, but they convey meaning, understanding. As Steven Weinberg has put it, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless”. Pure facts, data, convey nothing that’s meaningful for us human beings; context, relationships, emotions, ethics, morality are what give meaning to facts.

Bots, robots, computer programs, “artificial intelligence”, “information technology” are inherently incapable of delivering meaningful knowledge, or of judging whether or not certain data are meaningful or whether they are nonsensical.
It follows that Wikipedia ought to restrict itself to things that matter to computers, automata, robots, bots.

The usefulness of Wikipedia — of anything that claims to be informative — depends inescapably on the inescapably human judgment that went into selecting and vetting what is presented as “knowledge”, even if that has the appearance of purely “objective” data.
In the earliest days of the computer-obsessed era, a principle was recognized that contemporary computeroids like Wales should re-learn: GIGO, garbage in = garbage out.

There are no databases or other repositories of supposed fact that can be relied on not to contain errors and misleading “facts”, and only human intelligence, common sense, and judgment are capable of detecting them. I learned about that early in my research career, when I was studying photolysis of organic iodine compounds. Nitric oxide, NO, could be used to combine with iodine atoms, so I searched for information about NOI, nitrosyl iodide, in the index of Chemical Abstracts, the universal source of information about chemical matters in pre-computer days. I was astonished to find that a cited source turned out to be an article not about NOI but about NaI, sodium iodide. I assumed that whoever had “written” that article had dictated to a secretary and then failed to proofread. I doubt that such errors no longer occur, albeit perhaps owing to flawed speech-recognition software rather than secretaries.
Beyond that, how is a computer or a bot to figure out whether or not the Earth should be described as spherical?
And how much more misleading would a bot be about more complex matters?
Could a bot recognize that the conclusions of a published, peer-reviewed article are not to be believed because the statistics were incompetent, or the protocol inappropriate?

Automated procedures cannot deliver reliable information. They can search databases, but they may just be collecting Garbage Input. Imagine what “purely factual” information computers would glean about HIV/AIDS, say, since just about everything in the mainstream literature has been misinterpreted (The Case against HIV).

Sadly, the computeroid nonsense doesn’t stop with Wikipedia. Books are “written” in the same way:
“Phil Parker, who is purported to be the most published author in history, has successfully published over 85,000 physical books on niche topics such as childhood acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. Each book takes less than an hour to ‘write’. In fact the writing is carried out by patented algorithms which enable computers to do all the heavy lifting.” “The books — typically non-fiction and on extremely niche topics — are compiled on-demand, based on publicly available information found on the internet and in offline sources” (Automaton author writes up a storm).
Not everyone would agree that this technique can produce non-fiction, something that is not fictional.

“Bots may also be writing the journalist out of the future of journalism. Ken Schwencke, a reporter on the Los Angeles Times, has created ‘Quakebot’, an algorithm which automatically creates and publishes a story on the newspaper’s website every time an earthquake is detected in California” (This is how Sverker Johansson wrote 8.5 per cent of everything published on Wikipedia).

This is how the world will end, not with a bang, not with a whimper *, but through the abandonment of thinking under the spell of computeroids and their bots.

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* See “The Hollow Men” by T. S. Eliot

 

 

 

Posted in media flaws | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

Statistics literacy

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2014/07/13

Doctors are on average ignorant about statistics that are directly relevant to their practice and their advising of patients and their ability to understand the tricks played by drug companies and their representatives. A comment to my HIV/AIDS blog mentioned an excellent article, “Do doctors understand test results?”,  that everyone should read and re-read and learn from, because it is not only doctors who are woefully ignorant about statistics.

Everyone would benefit from understanding the difference between relative risk and absolute risk, and between survival rate and mortality,  for example.

Posted in medical practices, scientific literacy | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

When prophecy fails

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2014/07/13

True believers do not question their belief when evidence disproves it, for example when predictions turn out to be wrong. Instead they find ways to modify the predictions while keeping the core belief intact, illustrating the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance: the inability to recognize facts that contradict one’s beliefs.

The classic study is When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, & Stanley Schachter (University of Minnesota Press, 1956).

This is often cited in connection with religious cults and similarly disparaged groups. However, the lesson is just as applicable to true believers of all sorts, including true believers in the conventional wisdom and acolytes of scientism, true believers in the religion of Science (Scientism, the Religion of Science).

Scientists themselves are not immune. Half a century ago, Thomas Kuhn [1] pointed out that the history of science is a record of maintaining theories long after the evidence has disproved them. Bernard Barber [2] pointed out that what are now the most applauded advances in science were fiercely resisted at the time they were first proposed. Gunther Stent [3] pointed to “premature discoveries” like continental drift and quantitative genetics that were dismissed for several decades before gaining acceptance. Imre Lakatos [4] pointed out that scientists routinely make ad hoc adjustments to theories in order to maintain the core belief, just as Ptolemy added epicycles — wheels upon wheels — to sustain the credibility of Earth-centered astronomy.

The popular view that scientific theories are continually tested against evidence is wrong. It’s only in the long run that science eventually acknowledges its errors and corrects them, and sometimes that long run is very long indeed.

A contemporary case in point is HIV/AIDS theory. The evidence has long been quite plain that “HIV” is not infectious, is not transmitted sexually, and doesn’t cause “AIDS” (The Case against HIV). Prediction after prediction of the theory has been disproved, for example, that an AIDS epidemic would sweep across the heterosexual world (section 4.1 in The Case against HIV). Innumerable individuals continue to be dreadfully harmed, to the point of death, by supposedly life-saving antiretroviral drugs (section 5 in The Case against HIV). People continue to be told that they are “HIV-infected” despite the fact that there is no approved test for “HIV infection”, and increasingly the mainstream is doubling down on the harm it causes by calling for more and more widespread “HIV testing”.

Perhaps most incredibly, the idea is now being promulgated assiduously that perfectly healthy, HIV-negative people should take up a permanent regime of toxic drugs in order to decrease the likelihood of becoming “HIV-positive”:
Healthy gay men urged to take HIV drugs — WHO:
“The World Health Organization (WHO) is urging all sexually active gay men to take antiretroviral drugs to reduce the spread of HIV. The organisation says the move may help prevent a million new HIV infections over 10 years”.

What exactly is the evidence that antiretroviral drugs can prevent infection?
The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) cite 4 trials of Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP).
Like peer review, clinical trials are widely thought to safeguard the quality and reliability of scientific publication, but that is not now the case: vested interests of drug companies and researchers and others have made clinical trials tools for marketing drugs instead of for discovering truth [5]; innumerable devices are employed to slant results of clinical trials in directions desired by the sponsor [6, 7].

The four studies cited by CDC illustrate that great skepticism is called for.
1. “Preexposure chemoprophylaxis for HIV prevention in men who have sex with men” (New England Journal of Medicine 363 [2010] 2587-99 by Robert M. Grant (corresponding author) and 34 other authors “for the iPrEx Study Team” listed in a Supplementary Appendix on the NEJM website.
2499 subjects were followed for a median of 1.2 years. 36 in the PrEP group administered FTC (emtricitabine) plus TDF (tenofovir) became infected compared to 64 on placebo, yielding a claimed effective reduction of 44% in infection rate. How this is calculated is rather obscure, since the paper’s Figure 2 shows cumulative probabilities of infection as about 9% and about 7.5%; that decrease of 1.5% from 9% is a decrease by 1/6 which is about 15%  rather than 44%.

PrEP-Grant

 Beyond that apparent contradiction, certain details in this report seem unbelievable. Both placebo and drug recipients supposedly had identical rates of adverse events (70% and 69% respectively) and of serious adverse events (5% each).

There’s something obviously wrong here. Participants must have been significantly unhealthy if some 70% on placebo experienced adverse events and 5% serious adverse events, in little more than a year and when the average ages were 26.8 and 27.5 years in placebo and drug groups respectively. There were only very minor differences between the groups: Drugs caused more nausea (2% vs. <1%, p = 0.04) but placebo caused more diarrhea (61 vs. 49 events p = 0.36, insignificant).
More specifically: It has long been known that TDF is toxic in a number of ways, notably by causing kidney failure: Poisonous “prophylaxis”: PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prevention); Treatment Guidelines are dangerous; Unlimited insanity: Truvada to prevent HIV; Spinning Truvada; Kidney-disease denialism (a special case of HAART denialism); Tenofovir and the ethics of clinical trials.

2. “Antiretroviral prophylaxis for HIV-1 prevention among heterosexual men and women” (New England Journal of Medicine 367 [2012] 399-410) by Jared M. Baeten (corresponding author) and 44 others “for the Partners PrEP Study Team” that are listed in a Supplement.
The same oddity is reported here, of similar rates of adverse events (~85%) in two separate drug-administered cohorts as well as in the placebo group. Serious adverse events were also reported as similar at 7.3 or 7.4%. The study extended over 3 years.
Again one wonders why people on placebo, with median age in the low 30s, would experience a 2.5% per year rate of serious adverse events, even in Kenya and Uganda.
The subjects were 4758 couples, and HIV infection was reported at 0.65 per 100 person-years with TDF alone, 0.50 with FTC/TDF, and 1.99 on placebo; thus reductions of 67% and 75% respectively: about twice the 44% reported by Grant for FTC/TDF.

3. “Antiretroviral preexposure prophylaxis for heterosexual HIV transmission in Botswana” (New England Journal of Medicine 367 [2012] 423-34) by Michael C. Thigpen (corresponding author) and 23 others plus further members of the TDF2 Study Group listed in the Supplementary Appendix.
1219 individuals were studied for a median of 1.1 years, with reported efficacy of TDF/FTC at 62.2%: 1.2 and 3.1 infections per 100 person-years, respectively. The drugs did produce more “nausea (18.5% vs. 7.1%, P<0.001), vomiting (11.3% vs. 7.1%, P = 0.008), and dizziness (15.1% vs. 11.0%, P = 0.03) than the placebo group, but the rates of serious adverse events were similar (P = 0.90)” [emphasis added].
Once again it seems more than strange that the rates of serious adverse events on placebo should be the same as on the drugs: why would 7% of people healthy enough to enroll in a clinical trial experience a serious adverse event in little more than a year? When the average age was only in the 20s?
But incredible details aside, this article should never have been published: “Because of
low retention and logistic limitations, we concluded the study early and followed
enrolled participants through an orderly study closure rather than expanding enrollment”. It is an elementary principle that when protocols cannot be followed, “results” must not be given any credence.

4. “Antiretroviral prophylaxis for HIV infection in injecting drug users in Bangkok, Thailand (the Bangkok Tenofovir Study): a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled phase 3 trial” (Lancet 381 [2013] 2083-90) by Michael Martin (corresponding author) and 16 others “for the Bangkok Tenofovir Study Group”.
2413 individuals were assigned to TDF or placebo, with apparent infection rates of 0.35 and 0.68 per 100 person-years respectively, presumably from sharing of infected needles rather than from sexual transmission. One may be excused for being skeptical about this given that other studies have shown that drug abusers who don’t share needles tend to be “infected” at a greater rate than those who do share needles (section 3.3.8 in The Case against HIV).
Here again the “occurrence of serious adverse events was much the same between the two groups”, albeit ill health among drug abusers is to be expected; median age was 31. “Nausea was more common in participants in the tenofovir group than in the placebo group (p=0·002)”.

Those are the data that supposedly justify administering highly toxic drugs to perfectly healthy individuals continually during their years of sexual activity.
What the reports actually demonstrate is that clinical trials can be and are biased unscrupulously to produce highly misleading “data”, “showing” for example that a drug of known toxicity is no more harmful than placebo.

In an honest world, the perpetrators of such schemes, Big Pharma and its “researcher” shills, would be charged with manslaughter if not murder.
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[1] Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, 1970
[2] Bernard Barber, “Resistance by scientists to scientific discovery”,  Science, 134 (1961) 596-602
[3] Gunther Stent, “Prematurity and uniqueness in scientific discovery”, Scientific American, December 1972, 84-93
[4] Imre Lakatos, “History of Science and its Rational Reconstruction”, pp. 1-40 in Method and Appraisal in the Physical Sciences, ed. Colin Howson, Cambridge University Press, 1976
[5] David Healy, Pharmageddon, University of California Press, 2012
[6] Ben Goldacre, Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients, Faber & Faber, 2013
[7] Peter C. Gøtzsche, Deadly Medicines and Organised Crime: How Big Pharma Has Corrupted Healthcare, Radcliffe, 2013

Posted in conflicts of interest, fraud in medicine, fraud in science, medical practices, prescription drugs, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , , , | 4 Comments »

Idiotae non carborundum

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2014/07/01

Common slang advice for coping with nincompoops is the pseudo-Latin phrase, “Illegitimi non carborundum” — “Don’t let the bastards grind you down”. But I grew up in Australia, where a common affectionate greeting to a friend ran, “How are ya, ya old bastard?”.

I have no friendly feelings at all for those who parrot shibboleths about matters of science without knowing anything about the particular subject, so I prefer the less friendly and more accurate “Idiotae non carborundum”: “idiota, idiotae = uneducated person, ignorant person, layman” (New College Latin& English Dictionary).

It does wear me down, though, especially when people with whom I agree over lots of important things hold forth about matters of science about which they know nothing. I don’t so much mind as they prattle on about carbs, proteins, vitamins, “getting your potassium from bananas”, and so forth, because that may harm only themselves and their dependents. But I do care when it’s about HIV/AIDS or global warming, because promulgating untruths about those does tangible damage to hordes of people.

The evidence that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS (The Case against HIV), and that human-caused release of carbon dioxide has not appreciably warmed the Earth, is very strong, and has been published by competent scientists for several decades. The most dispassionate and objective possible take on these issues is that the mainstream consensus remains to be translated into beyond-doubt-proven fact because of the competent fact-based objections raised against the mainstream interpretation. Yet most media and most pundits have been seduced into regarding HIV=AIDS and human-caused global warming (AGW, for anthropogenic GW) as “settled science”.

Sadly, people acquire their beliefs on these issues not from any acquaintance with the evidence but according to their political ideologies: left-leaners tend to believe one thing and right-leaners tend to believe the opposite (A politically liberal global-warming skeptic?). That’s a dreadful way to form views on matters of science. One wonders for how long a democracy can function when facts take second place to ideology.

I’m politically and socially left of center (though strongly critical of the politically correct extreme Left), and it saddens me deeply that President Obama is in the thrall of his ideologue Science Advisor John Holdren, that the most accurate view I heard recently on global warming came from a Republican politician (Marco Rubbio), and that my usually favorite sources of insight on television (The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, GPS) treat global warming “skeptics” as willfully ignorant denialists.

The Daily Show of Monday, 2 June 2014, labeled as equally flat-earthish those who campaign against vaccination and those who question a human cause of global warming.
But think for just a moment about what substantive commonality there might be between those two matters.
There is absolutely none.
The only commonality is the non-substantive one that both are contrary to the contemporary official mainstream consensus. Yet the lesson of history is absolutely clear, that no contemporary mainstream scientific consensus can be counted on in the long run; indeed, the greatest scientific advances have come though overturning well established scientific dogmas, even ones that had held sway for decades. If there is one fact that everyone should know, it is that contemporary scientific experts and any contemporary scientific consensus are to be trusted just as much as, but no more than, experts on economic or social or political or religious matters. When all of them agree, then they may be right (but they may still all be wrong, as history proves). But if even a few competent ones disagree with the majority, then it is far from a settled matter. Always remember Michael Crichton on consensus: No one says there’s a consensus that E = mc², “consensus” is invoked only when the matter is not settled.

The actual evidence for the efficacy of vaccination is of an entirely different order than the evidence for human-caused global warming (AGW, for anthropogenic GW). The Daily Show doesn’t understand that because it has not looked at the evidence. Vaccination against smallpox appears to have eliminated that scourge, as evidenced by the tangible fact that people don’t get smallpox nowadays. (That not all vaccinations are of proven value doesn’t gainsay that the concept has strong facts in its support — so strong, indeed, that unwarranted extrapolations of the concept have seduced large swaths of society, as with Gardasil (Deadly vaccines).

On the other hand, there is no good evidence at all that carbon dioxide causes global warming.

The trouble is that the AGW enthusiasts have managed to monopolize official agencies and the media, as illustrated by the pertinent entries at Wikipedia (The Wiles of Wiki). Furthermore, although there’s a vast literature debunking the claims of human-caused global warming, it’s of highly uneven quality. Books come from small or niche publishers (1,2), or they are self-published (3), often with incompetent copyediting (or none at all), perhaps lacking an index and with sourcing only to Internet sites (2). The best-presented as well as substantively sound works are much denigrated ad hominem because the authors or publishers are politically conservative (4-8).

A further difficulty in bringing dissenting views to public attention is that those who dissent from an entrenched mainstream dogma tend to become frustrated and to react in counterproductive ways (9,10). Some of the books mentioned above illustrate this with repetitive rants that detract from their substantive message.

As to the insinuation that funding by conservative viewpoints drives dissent from AGW dogma, it is at least equally true that funding drives the mainstream claim that global warming is significantly human-caused. Huge resources are available from governments and official agencies for research specifically on human-caused global warming because the dogma is promulgated by  “The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) [which] is a specialized agency of the United Nations. It is the UN system’s authoritative voice on the state and behaviour of the Earth’s atmosphere, its interaction with the oceans, the climate it produces and the resulting distribution of water resources”. Together with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), “the voice for the environment within the United Nations system”, in 1988 WMO established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which issues periodic reports about how human activities affect the climate.

Yet the case against the mainstream consensus includes some indisputable and easily understood points. For one, the consensus is based on computer models that are inherently, inevitably incapable of reflecting accurately the complex interactions among innumerable variables that determine global climate (2:111ff., 11). Further, the models consider only very recent times, a century or two, and fail to account properly for hotter temperatures only a millennium ago (the Medieval Warm Period) or the even more recent Little Ice Age which made it inevitable that present times would be experiencing warming from entirely natural causes. And none of the models can account for the undisputed fact that there has been no warming for at least the last 15-18 years despite significant increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide:

17yearsNoWarming

In ignorance of these facts, Fareed Zakaria’s GPS (CNN TV) of 29 June 2014 featured the bipartisan pair of esteemed economic experts, Henry Paulson and Richard Rubin, promulgating the Risky Business Report, “The Economic Risks of Climate Change”, which accepts without question the most dire predictions made by the proponents of worst-case AGW: “Risk catastrophic to life on Earth as we know it”, said Rubin.

What the media fail to reveal, culpably and unforgivably, is that even the IPCC’s own Scientific Reports make abundantly clear that the computer modeling is beset with inescapable uncertainties, whereas the IPCC’s “Summaries for Policy Makers”, released to press and public before the Scientific Reports, portray the role of carbon dioxide as established beyond doubt and its consequences as terrifying.

(The same tactic is used by UNAIDS, where Foreword or Preface signed by some eminent person lays out the horrible consequences of the continuing epidemic, while the actual data in the body of the Report contradict those projections [10: 197ff.]. What media and pubic need to know is that “Official reports are not scientific publications” [10: chapter 8].)

Those who insist on the catastrophic progression of human-caused global warming are either self-interested because their careers are vested in that conclusion or they are the idiotae of this blog-post’s title, people who take on faith what the mainstream scientific consensus is and then do not hesitate to parrot it and to malign dissenters who know far more about the issues than they do. Thus a lawyer holds forth about “Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change”, and a respected academic press (Oxford) publishes him (12). A compendium about “Junk Science” (13) is rightly critical of many things but is woefully ignorant about the credentials of global warming “skeptics” (and I’m always suspicious when both author and well established publisher feel the need to emphasize the author’s “Ph.D.” on the title page).

There is no lack of examples in hardcover and in softcover and in “news” reports and television punditry and internet blogs and comments that idiotae feel free to hold forth passionately for or against, depending quite predictably on political ideology and displaying no interest in the actual evidence.

Anyone who wants an informed opinion needs to dig into the evidence. Eventually, fairly well documented and fairly evenhanded sources can be found. They are easily recognized by relatively measured tone and by concentration on evidence instead of ad hominem charges. My recommendation currently goes to Warren Meyer’s site Climate Skeptic.
——————————————————————
1 A. W. Montford, The Hockey Stick Illusion: Climategate and the Corruption of Science, Stacey International, 2010
2 Tim Ball, The Deliberate Corruption of Climate Science, Stairway Press, 2014
3 David Dilley, Natural Climate Pulse Global Warming — Global Cooling — Carbon Dioxide, free download at http://www.globalweatheroscillations.com/#!climate-pulse-e-book/cav2
4 S. Fred Singer & Frederick Seitz, Hot Talk, Cold Science Global Warming’s Unfinished Debate, The Independent Institute, 1999
5 S. Fred Singer and Dennis T. Avery, Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1,500 Years, Rowman & Littlefield, 2008
6 Patrick J. Michaels, Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians, and the Media, Cato Institute, 2005
7 Roy W. Spencer, The Great Global Warming Blunder: How Mother Nature Fooled the World’s Top Climate Scientists, Encounter Books, 2010
8 Brian Sussman, Climategate: A Veteran Meteorologist Exposes the Global Warming Scam, WND Books, 2010
9 Henry H. Bauer, Confession of an “AIDS Denialist”: How I became a crank because we’re being lied to about HIV/AIDS, pp. 278-82 in YOU ARE STILL BEING LIED TO: The REMIXED Disinformation Guide to Media Distortion, Historical Whitewashes and Cultural Myths, ed. Russ Kick, The Disinformation Company, 2009
10 Henry H. Bauer, Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth, McFarland, 2012, p. 251
11 Ian Plimer, Heaven and Earth: Global Warming — The Missing Science, Taylor Trade Publishing, 2009
12 Andrew T. Guzman, Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change, Oxford University Press, 2013
13 Dan Agin, Ph.D., How Politicians, Corporations, and Other Hucksters Betray Us, Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, 2006

 

 

Posted in conflicts of interest, consensus, funding research, global warming, media flaws, politics and science, science is not truth, science policy, scientific culture, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

The Wiles of Wiki

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2014/06/25

The unreliability of Wikipedia has often been remarked, for instance in relation to matters of health and medicine (“Health, Wikipedia, and Common Sense” and further links there). To be more precise: Whenever there’s a range of opinion, Wikipedia is unreliable because its entries are typically controlled by a single viewpoint.

The fundamental, inescapable reason for Wikipedia’s untrustworthiness is that it was founded on the naïve premise that an unregulated free-for-all would make the entries reliable through the contributions of anyone and everyone interested in a given topic.
Such a premise could only be held by someone immersed in abstraction and simplemindedly ignorant about the ways of human beings. Even the most rudimentary awareness of human behavior reveals the primacy of emotions. Those most likely to be actively involved in an enterprise are those who have the strongest interests in them. As to “knowledge”, dogmatically fanatical believers or disbelievers will be over-represented on any given topic; just sample blogs and other Internet forums. Historians, psychologists, sociologists — humanists and social scientists would never dream that truth or sound knowledge could result from a contributors’ free-for-all, no matter under what written policies. As I’ve remarked before, “Wiki’s policies are indeed splendid, and they would work just fine if the people contributing to Wiki were impartial, unbiased, unprejudiced, and scrupulous in gathering all available information on any given topic and presenting it evenhandedly. Such people do not exist, however, and there’s no mechanism for impartial resolution of differences of opinion about Wiki entries”.

The founder of Wikipedia is indeed demonstrably naïve about human beings and simpleminded about matters social and political: “Jimmy Wales . . . is so enthralled with Rand and objectivism that he named his daughter after one of the characters in a Rand novel”.
I enjoyed Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged thoroughly, in the same way as I enjoy fictional thrillers for their moral certitude and for their endings where the good guys always win, but it never occurred to me that the real world is anything like Rand’s scenarios, or ever could be anything like that.

At any rate, Wikipedia is useful only when one already knows enough about a subject to assess the reliability of its entries. And on any halfway controversial topic, Wiki is dogmatically one-sided. Take the case of whether human activities are appreciably responsible for warming up the globe: Any number of relevant entries are slanted to support the so-called “scientific consensus” and to denigrate anyone who questions it, for example “Climate change denial”,  “Scientific consensus”, “Scientific opinion on climate change”, “Global warming controversy”  — among quite a few more.

Some familiarity with rhetorical devices help in recognizing such biases. It is perfectly possible to convey a misleading impression without mis-stating facts, just by selective citing of sources, for instance. Thus the Wiki entry on the  “Science & Environmental Policy Project” begins by summarizing correctly some of the points made there against the hypothesis of human-caused global warming (AGW, for anthropogenic GW), but unproven “facts” and misleading citations are then used to contradict those points. For instance, it says that “Patrick Michaels, a well-known ‘skeptic’, has said that it is ‘proven humans are warming the atmosphere’ [4]”; however, that reference [4] contains no mention of Patrick Michaels, let alone citing something that he does not believe. In the Wiki entry on “List of scientists opposing the mainstream scientific assessment of global warming”  Michaels is classed among “Scientists arguing that global warming will have few negative consequences” and not under “Scientists arguing that global warming is primarily caused by natural processes”, which is entirely deceptive: global warming will have few negative consequences because carbon dioxide is not producing significant warming, and Michaels could equally have been listed under “Scientists arguing that global warming is primarily caused by natural processes”. Note too that Michaels qualifies as a “Climate Misinformer” at “Skeptical science: Getting skeptical about global warming skepticism”.
Read what Michaels himself has written, say in Forbes magazine, to appreciate that he qualifies fully as a global warming “denialist”, the term used by vigilantes to describe anyone who points out that carbon dioxide has an entirely unproven but certainly negligible role in the warming trend as Earth recovers from the last Ice Age.

Wiki’s “List of scientists opposing the mainstream scientific assessment of global warming”  is altogether deceptive. It has only some 50 names even though many thousands of others have expressed similar views publicly. Here’s Wiki’s attempted excuse for this deceptive maneuver: to be listed, “it is not enough for a name to be found on a petition or similar” — a decision, enforced by anonymous Wiki editors, for which there is no rational basis. Imagine if such “reasoning” were applied to getting candidates for political office onto an official ballot, say. What might the Supreme Court hold if a political party attempted to disqualify signatures supporting a candidate’s name by claiming that signing a petition does not indicate a person’s belief?

By using such devices to mislead about counting names, Wiki then includes a graphic suggesting that these views are held by a negligible number of people:

WikiGWopinions

Such tricks may not be immediately obvious to the unwary reader coming newly to this topic. Those who capture Wiki entries on a given topic are often shrewd enough, and certainly unscrupulous enough, to employ deceptions of all sorts — like Jimmy Wales claiming that Wiki policies ensure that only sound science is represented.
Connoisseurs of polemics will appreciate the facility with which Wiki projects evenhandedness while ensuring that readers are seduced to a particular viewpoint. S. Fred Singer, for example, has held so many prominent positions at first-rate places that his expertise cannot be denied even by Wiki. But the introduction of his entry concludes with the sentence, “Singer has been accused of rejecting peer-reviewed and independently confirmed scientific evidence in his claims concerning public health and environmental issues. [3] [11] [12] [13]”.
This reminded me — unpleasantly, of course — of the professor at the University of Sydney who used to make the rounds at cocktail parties saying things like, “Isn’t it despicable, the way they are maligning X . . . — about his cheating on his wife, embezzling research funds, seducing interns (male as well as female) . . .”, thus effectively smearing X while pretending to deplore the rumor-mongering of others.
The four sources cited by Wiki about the accusations against Singer include only such negative views as “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming” (by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Bloomsbury, 2010) and “The Denial Machine” (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 15 November 2006, 16:01–16:35 mins).

Innuendo, rumor-mongering, cherry-picking of sources and every other sleight-of-word trick is deployed in Wiki’s entries on any halfway controversial topic. Misleading in this manner is much more culpable than straight-out lying: “There is a difference between misleading statements and false ones; striving for ‘the clear reception of the message’ you are sometimes allowed to lie a little, but you must never mislead” (Paul R. Halmos, I Want to Be a Mathematician, 1985, pp. 113-14). The reason is that lies can readily be countered, but there is not effective way to defend against insinuations, rumors, innuendo.
At the same time as Wiki entries are rife with tactics to mislead, it attempts to represent itself as evenhanded with such caveats as

WikiCaveat

But bias will always be in control because it is the anonymous and not evenhanded Wiki editors who rule on what is “reliably sourced” and at what stage “the dispute is resolved”.

 

Posted in conflicts of interest, consensus, global warming, media flaws, scientism, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Health, Wikipedia, and Common Sense

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2014/06/19

OMSJ™ (Office of Medical & Scientific Justice) once again alerted me to something well worth reading: a study in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association  revealing how unreliable Wikipedia is about matters of health and medicine. An editorial  in the Journal comments on the same issue.

I had first learned about Wikipedia when a friend alerted me that there was an entry about me. It turned out to have been composed by someone furious about my “HIV/AIDS denialism”, namely, a graduate student and member of AIDStruth.org  who had also posted at amazon.com a nasty review — however soon withdrawn by him — of my book, The Origin, Persistence and Failings of HIV/AIDS Theory.
Several of my friends had attempted to have the worst calumnies in the Wiki entry modified toward accuracy, but they were always defeated by the original miscreant, abetted by Wiki’s editors. And I learned that Wiki’s rules forbid one from correcting even factual errors in one’s own bio entry.

For some of what I’ve learned Wiki’s flaws, see Beware the Internet: Amazon.com “reviews”, Wikipedia, and other sources of misinformation; The Fairy-Tale Cult of Wikipedia; Another horror story about Wikipedia; The unqualified (= without qualifications) gurus of Wikipedia; Lowest common denominator — Wikipedia and its ilk.

The obvious question is, why would anyone think that an “encyclopedia” could be at all reliable when it is written by whoever cares to do so? With “editors” “appointed” just because they want to be?
It could only be someone who is very simpleminded and naively ignorant about human beings.
Fifty years ago or so, that was exemplified by some science-fiction buffs: for instance, those who fell for Dianetics, a bowdlerized and over-simplistic take-off on psychology and psychoanalysis, and Dianetics’ progeny, Scientology, which adds to the pseudo-psychology the pseudo-religious notions of Theosophy and its ilk. The intellectual basis for these cults was no secret, they originated with L. Ron Hubbard, a successful author of Science Fiction.

Nowadays the Hubbard-role is played by computer buffs or computeroids (like Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia) who appear to believe that software programs and robots can be made artificially intelligent, that things designed and made by human beings can transcend the fallibilities of humans, and that anyone clever enough to use a computer is thereby qualified by integrity, knowledge, and wisdom to participate in creating an “encyclopedia”.

Others don’t agree. A petition at Change.org reads:
“Wikipedia is widely used and trusted. Unfortunately, much of the information related to holistic approaches to healing is biased, misleading, out-of-date, or just plain wrong. For five years, repeated efforts to correct this misinformation have been blocked and the Wikipedia organization has not addressed these issues. As a result, people who are interested in the benefits of Energy Medicine, Energy Psychology, and specific approaches such as the Emotional Freedom Techniques, Thought Field Therapy and the Tapas Acupressure Technique, turn to your pages, trust what they read, and do not pursue getting help from these approaches which research has, in fact, proven to be of great benefit to many. This has serious implications, as people continue to suffer with physical and emotional problems that might well be alleviated by these approaches.
Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia, left the organization due to concerns about its integrity. He stated: ‘In some fields and some topics, there are groups who “squat” on articles and insist on making them reflect their own specific biases. There is no credible mechanism to approve versions of articles.’
This is exactly the case with the Wikipedia pages for Energy Psychology, Energy Medicine, acupuncture, and other forms of complementary/alternative medicine (CAM), which are currently skewed to a negative, unscientific view of these approaches despite numerous rigorous studies in recent years demonstrating their effectiveness. These pages are controlled by a few self-appointed ‘skeptics’ who serve as de facto censors for Wikipedia. They clothe their objections in the language of the narrowest possible understanding of science in order to inhibit open discussion of innovation in health care. As gatekeepers for the status quo, they refuse discourse with leading edge research scientists and clinicians or, for that matter, anyone with a different point of view. Fair-minded referees should be given the responsibility of monitoring these important areas.
I pledge not to donate to your fundraising efforts until these changes have been made.”

The response from Jimmy Wales was:
“No, you have to be kidding me. Every single person who signed this petition needs to go back to check their premises and think harder about what it means to be honest, factual, truthful.
Wikipedia’s policies around this kind of thing are exactly spot-on and correct. If you can get your work published in respectable scientific journals — that is to say, if you can produce evidence through replicable scientific experiments, then Wikipedia will cover it appropriately.
What we won’t do is pretend that the work of lunatic charlatans is the equivalent of ‘true scientific discourse’. It isn’t.”

So Wales reveals himself to be an acolyte of scientism (Scientism, the Religion of Science) and wrong as well about replication and peer review; and a typical computeroid who believes that all that matters is that policies should be “spot-on”, whereas anyone with experience of working with human beings knows that it isn’t the policies that matter but who administers them and how.
Wiki’s policies are indeed splendid, and they would work just fine if the people contributing to Wiki were impartial, unbiased, unprejudiced, and scrupulous in gathering all available information on any given topic and presenting it evenhandedly. Such people do not exist, however, and there’s no mechanism for impartial resolution of differences of opinion about Wiki entries. On any topic where there is a significant difference of opinion among sane and reasonably informed people, Wiki is at the mercy of the fanatical extremists who grab control of the pertinent entry.

Full disclosure on substantive matters:
Re “Energy Psychology, Energy Medicine, acupuncture, and other forms of complementary/alternative medicine (CAM)”:
I’m agnostic about acupuncture, knowing people who have been helped by it and others who have not, and having seen studies where fMRI and voltage measurements seem to show something significant about the classical acupuncture points.
However, I’m not a fan of “Energy Psychology, Energy Medicine” and their ilk and believe that any of their benefits reflect the placebo response.
Re Journal of the American Osteopathic Association:
Some decades ago I read Martin Gardner’s Fads & Fallacies In the Name of Science and did not question his classification of chiropractic and osteopathy as quackery. Since then I’ve learned, and not only at first hand, that chiropractic can be very helpful in some instances of back pain, and that osteopathy is nowadays quite different from its origins.
A former colleague in the Chemistry Department is now president of the Via College of Osteopathic Medicine in Blacksburg, and I learned that the curriculum of this College is the same as that of conventional Colleges of Medicine with the addition of 200 hours of instruction in manipulation: in other words, osteopathy nowadays is mainstream medicine plus chiropractic.

 

Posted in conflicts of interest, media flaws, medical practices, peer review, scientism, scientists are human, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , , , , , | 8 Comments »

What everyone knows is usually wrong (about science, say)

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2014/06/11

The insight that the conventional wisdom, “what everyone knows”, is all too often wrong has been expressed innumerable times by various people, as Googling for the source quickly reveals. The phrase even heads Chapter 9 in The Practical Drucker: Applying the Wisdom of the World’s Greatest Management Thinker, by William A. Cohen.

In matters scientific, what everyone “knows” — that is to say, believes — is so often wrong because of entirely mistaken views about what scientific activity actually is and the misguided equating of “science” with truth (Scientism, the Religion of Science).

Pundits hold forth about “scientific literacy” as though that means knowing things like what the most common gas is in the atmosphere, or the most common element in the earth’s crust, etc. etc. etc.; see for example an online quiz by the Christian Science Monitor. But you could get 100% on that sort of quiz and still be entirely ignorant about how reliable science can be or cannot be as a guide to public policy *. Meaningful scientific literacy would comprise a reasonable understanding of the elements of the interdisciplinary field of STS (Science & Technology Studies), particularly familiarity with the history of science (see my Scientific Literacy and Myth of the Scientific Method, University of Illinois Press 1992). That would provide a rudimentary safeguard against accepting and parroting mistaken shibboleths like those exhibited, for instance, by the managers of the prominent “ideas” forum, TED [TED and TEDx reinvent the wheel — and get it all wrong (or, Ignorant punditry about science and pseudo-science)].

But those who pointed to TED’s misunderstandings were no better informed about science. Thus “Deepak Chopra, MD. FACP, Stuart Hameroff, MD, Menas C. Kafatos, Ph.D., Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., and Neil Theise, MD” asserted that  “One of modern science’s great strengths is that any questionable finding dies a quick death if it’s invalid. The safeguards are mainly two: Your new finding must be repeatable when other researchers run the same experiments, and peer review by qualified scientists subjects every new finding to microscopic scrutiny” [emphases added].
The most elementary acquaintance with history of science reveals that questionable findings die a quick death only if they contradict a prevailing scientific consensus at the same time as the most incompetent stuff finds acceptance if it fits the current paradigm. “Repeatability” is a common but baseless shibboleth: almost no one even tries to repeat things because there’s no credit for doing so, you don’t get published unless you do something “original”. Published work gets tested not by attempted repetition but because others try to use the conclusions for further research. As for peer review, it is far from “microscopic scrutiny”, it’s merely a way to ensure that publications fit with prevailing beliefs (Richard Horton, Health Wars: On the Global Front Lines of Modern Medicine, New York Review Books, 2003, p. 306).

As yet another example of scientifically illiterate science punditry, a science guru at Slate (“Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death from the Skies!”) found the TED letter “wonderful”.

TED spreads misinformation not only through its seminars, it also publishes books. Evgeny Morozov has demolished the pretensions of that genre in a very funny and acerbic commentary on 3 TED books, prinarily Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization by Parag Khanna and Ayesha Khanna; see The Naked and the TED: “Marketing masquerading as theory, charlatans masquerading as philosophers, a New Age cult masquerading as a university, business masquerading as redemption, slogans masquerading as truths. . . . Much like Glenn Beck’s magic blackboard, it connects everything to everything without saying anything significant about anything. . . .
TED is . . . an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering — a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. . . . ‘ideas worth spreading’ become ‘ideas no footnotes can support.’ . . . . The TED ideal of thought is the ideal of the ‘takeaway’ — the shrinkage of thought for people too busy to think.”

Thomas Frank is also splendidly satirical about the “creativity-promoting” industry and TED’s pretensions:  “[TED audiences] think they’re in the presence of something profound when they watch some billionaire give a TED talk”.

Functional scientific literacy means knowing when to trust official pronouncements and when to question them. The lack of such literacy leaves one at the mercy of politically polarized claims about science (e.g. about global warming) and of self-serving advertisements by drug companies, among many other similar dangers.
——————————————————-

* Full disclosure: The average reader, we’re told, scores 66%. This Chemistry PhD scored 78% but doesn’t regard any of the 22% missed as a matter for concern, they — like the other 78% —are just trivia to look up if you ever need them — which is in itself extremely unlikely.

Posted in global warming, scientism, scientific culture, peer review, consensus, media flaws | Tagged: , , , , | 6 Comments »

Scientism, the Religion of Science

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2014/06/09

Comparing unbridled, uncritical belief in Science to religious faith has been quite common.

The belief, faith, or ideology that science can deliver unquestionable certainty and that only science can answer all questions is called scientism.

Toward the end of the 19th century, Thomas Huxley practiced scientism quite overtly as he preached self-described Lay Sermons on behalf of the Church of Science [Knight 1986]. In more recent times, however, scientism has become recognized fairly generally as an unwarranted faith and its adherents do not usually bear public witness to it, dissembling usually by claiming only a rational adherence to observable facts — of course, “scientific” facts.
Nevertheless, common behavior and language use [Bauer 2001] reveal scientism to be a widespread, action-determining ideology; thus the phrase “scientific tests have shown” carries far more impact than “tests have shown”, implying that what is “scientific” is beyond doubt. Such honorific use of “science” or “scientific” is one of the marks of scientism listed by philosopher Susan Haack [2013/14]; other clues include aping the methods and approaches thought to characterize science; drawing sharp distinctions between science and “pseudo-science”; obsession with “the scientific method”; crediting science with the capacity to answer any and all questions; denigrating non-scientific modes of inquiry.

Comparisons of religion and science have largely focused on authorities and hierarchies, comparing scientific researchers to priests, and Scientific Establishments to Vaticans and other religious authorities. At least as significant in practice, though, for everyday matters including politics and social activities, is the similarity of the behavior of followers and acolytes of religion and the behavior of groupies and devotees of Science. Both accept their gurus’ pronouncements uncritically, unreservedly, in equally sheep-like manner, and both parrot those sayings without actual understanding of what they are talking about. Christian fundamentalists, for instance, profess the inerrancy of “the Bible” in blissful ignorance of the fact that there are many “Bibles” in many languages with many self-contradictions and mutual disparities. Environmental fundamentalists and left-leaning others describe global warming and its consequences in blissful ignorance of the pertinent facts, for instance that the greenhouse influence of carbon dioxide is much less than that of water vapor and about equal to that of methane, and that the official projections of future temperature are based on computer models that cannot explain the lack of warming during the last 15 years or so or the 7 or 8 cycles of changes over a range of 5-6°C during the last million years.

Human beings appear to crave certainty of understanding and have sought explanations of observable things and phenomena for as far back in time as we can see and infer. Knowledge about themselves led humans to interpret natural phenomena anthropomorphically, in terms of powers and actions of spirits and super-spirits. The numbers of supposed Gods decreased over time, by 3 or 4 millennia ago shrinking among most people to just one all-powerful Being.
Seeking certainty via “Science” has a shorter history, in particular the “modern” science that is less than a millennium old and which waged explicit battle against Christianity in Europe in the 18th century.
That Science really won that battle is demonstrated by innumerable accommodations that most religions have made with the sciences, in extreme cases by casting religion as “scientific creationism” or its alter ego of “intelligent design”. That the victory enshrined Science as a faith held irrationally was pointed out by John Burnham (How Superstition Won and Science Lost, Rutgers University Press, 1987).

In the human quest for certainty, religion and scientism are two incompatible extremes: both hold certainty to be attainable, but by distinct and incompatible means: in the case of religion via faith and revelation, in the case of scientism via empirical investigation. In both cases, perfectly sound logic is used to draw practical conclusions from the premises. The two extreme worldviews do not differ in rationality, only in the premises from which inferences and implications and applications are drawn.
The space between those two extremes is very sparsely populated, by people who recognize that certainty is not to be attained and who try to live in that “existential” state. Whether acknowledged or not — to themselves as much as to others—, most people hold one of those two extreme beliefs; that is to say, they act as though they hold one of those beliefs.

Those who do not hold one of those extreme beliefs are not much appreciated by those who do. Acolytes of a different religious faith are denigrated as non-believers, pagans, heretics, and have been persecuted sometimes to the point of death. Those who do not accept what the scientific authorities claim are denigrated as ignoramuses, pseudo-scientists, denialists, and are persecuted by sanctions on careers and reputations.

Yet the premises of both religious faith and of scientism are demonstrably doubtful, not to say untenable.

Religious believers hold a particular faith despite the fact that most other human beings disagree with their claims: Every religion is a minority religion. If the Jewish God is The One, then the Christian One cannot be, nor the Islamic One. Moreover, within each of those three umbrellas there are several sects in deadly opposition. Catholics and Protestants have engaged in mutual genocide, as have Shias and Sunnis. Yet acolytes of any given sect within any of the Big Three are somehow able to regard their own beliefs as the only really True One. Religious leaders and their followers manage somehow to ignore the significance of the fact that informed, intelligent people adhere with equal certainty to other faiths. They remain blissfully ignorant of issues fundamental to their premises and doctrines and guides to behavior.

Quite similarly, Scientific Establishments and their followers manage to be blissfully ignorant of their own history, which demonstrates that in the long run they are always proved wrong as “science” “progresses” via Scientific Revolutions as well as less dramatic but significant continual modifications. Scientific Establishments and their followers willfully ignore the lesson that those whom they denigrate as denialists may well turn out to be the secular saints of future Establishments. By ignoring substantive critiques by competent “denialists”, they remain blissfully ignorant of the flaws in their specific doctrines concerning, for example, the Big Bang, prescription drugs, global warming, HIV/AIDS [Bauer 2012]. No matter how often Establishments claim to be evidence-based, even perfunctory browsing in the research and review literatures reveals that the mainstream consensus on many issues of considerable public importance is at the least seriously flawed, at the worst quite untenable.

Public media, politicians, and official agencies all kowtow to Scientific Establishments, with the result that public policies are often seriously, even dangerously misguided.
_________________________________________________________

Bauer, Henry H., 2001: Fatal Attractions: The Troubles with Science, Paraview Press
Bauer, Henry H., 2012: Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth, McFarland
Haack, Susan, 2013/14: “Six signs of scientism”, Skeptical Inquirer; Part 1, 37 (Nov/Dec 2013) 40-5; Part 2, 38 (Jan/Feb 2014) 43-7; see also Defending Science—Within Reason, Prometheus, 2003
Knight, David, 1986: The Age of Science, Basil Blackwell

Posted in consensus, denialism, global warming, media flaws, politics and science, prescription drugs, science is not truth, science policy, scientism, the scientific method, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , , | 5 Comments »

 
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