Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

Archive for May, 2014

TED and TEDx reinvent the wheel — and get it all wrong (or, Ignorant punditry about science and pseudo-science)

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2014/05/30

For something like a century, scientists, philosophers of science, and many other scholars have grappled with this question: What criteria, principles, rules, or behavior characterize science by contrast to all other things? What exactly is “not-science”, in other words? What exactly is “pseudo-science”?

The upshot of these many decades of suggestions and discussions and argumentation among the most well-informed specialists is that

NO  COMBINATION  OF  CRITERIA,  PRINCIPLES,  RULES, or BEHAVIOR
CAN  DISTINGUISH  SCIENCE UNEQUIVOCALLY
from NON-SCIENCE or from “PSEUDO-SCIENCE”

The classic summation of failed attempts is Larry Laudan’s “The demise of the demarcation problem” [1]. Even those who don’t agree that the issue is at a dead end [2] attempt to find a practical distinction by means of “family resemblances” or “fuzzy logic”, thereby acknowledging that the distinction can only be approximate, probabilistic, never a definitive one: no hard-and-fast, unequivocally valid set of criteria is able to identify an instance of “pseudo-science” without delving into the particularities of methods, evidence, and inference specific to that instance. Of course you can declare something wrong if you can show the methods to be inappropriate or incompetent, or that the claimed evidence is fudged or faulty or incomplete, or inferences are drawn against logic. But you don’t need a general, universal definition of “pseudo-science” to do that.

By hindsight, it even seems obvious that no universal definition of “science” could be found. It would have to be based on what everyone agrees constitutes science: biology, chemistry, geology, physics, etc. — not to speak of the behavioral and social sciences. Inferring from those real-world enterprises the “essence” of science means educing or inducing universal characteristics from empirical observations. But philosophy has long understood that induction from empirical observation or experience can never be guaranteed to yield universally applicable generalizations. (The classic illustration is that empirical observation yielded the principle that all swans are white, which was confounded upon the discovery of black swans in Western Australia.)

Moreover, a universally applicable definition of science would not change over time, whereas the activities that everyone calls “science” have changed drastically over time [3]. Most pertinent: some matters once accepted as proper science later became generally regarded as not-science or even pseudo-science, and some matters once pooh-poohed as pseudo-science later became accepted as quite proper mainstream science, for example, electromagnetic phenomena in biology [4].

The term “pseudo-science” can only mean something that pretends to be science but isn’t; and since there is no valid definition of “science”, there is equally no valid definition of “pseudo-science” by which it could be recognized.

Nevertheless, it remains quite common in public discourse that practicing scientists as well as professional and amateur pundits use the epithet “pseudo-science” to malign specific claims (say, the existence of Loch Ness Monsters or of Bigfeet) or even whole fields of activity (parapsychology, “cold fusion”, cryptozoology, ufology, etc. etc.)
The basis for such maligning and pooh-poohing is that the topic has been found wanting by the prevailing consensus in mainstream science. But that basis is fatally flawed: the history of science tells of one after another mainstream consensus being itself found wanting and replaced, often by something that the mainstream had earlier resisted vigorously or ignored studiously [5-8].

The state of the intellectual art about this has been quite plain for decades. But this intellectual art is the domain of history of science, philosophy of science, sociology of science, and the comparatively young interdisciplinary umbrella of STS (Science & Technology Studies), of which most scientists, journalists, and pundits generally are woefully ignorant; an ignorance that extends perforce to the public media generally, and to Internet punditry, very much including Wikipedia and its ilk, to an extent that would be highly embarrassing if those people and groups knew even a smidgeon of what they ought to before blathering about “pseudo-science” or “science”.

There is so much of this ignorant blathering that I usually ignore it, but that blissful state was interrupted when I became aware of a recent instance from the prominent and prestigious TED  and its franchised TEDx ventures, which bill themselves as promoters of high-quality seminars — “Ideas worth spreading . . . the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and, ultimately, the world”.

What TED and TEDx spread about science and pseudo-science is ignorant rubbish (A letter to the TEDx community on TEDx and bad science). As with other charlatans, they know how to cover their tracks: They acknowledge reality correctly in sweeping general statements and then try unobtrusively to get around it:
“What is bad science/pseudoscience? There is no bright and shining line between pseudoscience and real science”.
RIGHT. But that valid statement is followed immediately with tiptoeing away from validity:

“Needless to say, this makes it all terribly hard to detect and define”.
NO: it makes it IMPOSSIBLE to detect as a genre or class or supposed exemplar of a genre or class. The only way to evaluate any counter-mainstream claim is to dig into the specific particularities, and then to concede that any contemporaneous judgment of plausibility or potential validity can only be probabilistic. That’s the clear lesson of centuries of history of science and a century or so of scholarly preoccupation with this issue [4].

The TED ignoramuses then proceed to offer “guidelines” for what constitutes “good science”. All of those “guidelines” are plainly misguided, reflecting a childishly naïve, uninformed view of science:

“It makes claims that can be tested and verified”
Every scholarly source since Popper’s proposal of “falsifiability” has been clear about the impossibility of verification — there can never be a guarantee against the future appearance of a “black swan”.

“It has been published in a peer reviewed journal (but beware… there are some dodgy journals out there that seem credible, but aren’t.)”
As Ziman pointed out [9], something like 90% of the primary research literature is wrong to some degree (in physics, but that’s the epitome of science and it may well be worse in other fields)

“It is based on theories that are discussed and argued for by many experts in the field”
History teaches that all the experts can be wrong — and are wrong in the longest run.

“It is backed up by experiments that have generated enough data to convince other experts of its legitimacy”
That the experts agree is no reason to believe them, in part because in the long run they’re usually wrong [5-8]. Here’s a nice way of putting it [10]:
“Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had. . . .
Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough.
Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way”.

“Its proponents are secure enough to accept areas of doubt and need for further investigation”
Few mainstream scientists exhibit that quality, as anyone familiar with actual scientists or with the history of science or the sociology of science knows

“It does not fly in the face of the broad existing body of scientific knowledge”
The most significant advances are those that do contradict contemporary views; they spark scientific revolutions and become praised only by hindsight [5-8]

“The proposed speaker works for a university and/or has a PhD or other bona fide high level scientific qualification”
Any number of incompetents and kooks have such qualifications, as even a brief participation in a research community makes evident.
It is an endless source of astonishment to me that totally uninformed, ignorant people feel so free to hold forth with arrogant assurance, as TED does on the issue of science and pseudo-science. Don’t the TEDdies and their ilk ever stop to wonder where their knowledge comes from? “Knowledge” that is actually abysmal ignorance?

__________________________________________________________________

[1] Pp.111-27 in Physics, Philosophy and Psychoanalysis, ed. R. S. Cohen & L. Laudan, Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1983
[2] For example, Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem, ed. M. Pigliucci & M. Boudry, University of Chicago Press, 2013
[3] Henry H. Bauer, Three Stages of Modern Science, Journal of Scientific Exploration, 27 [2013] 505-13; From dawn to decadence: The three ages of modern science
[4] Henry H. Bauer, Science or Pseudoscience: Magnetic Healing, Psychic Phenomena, and Other Heterodoxies, University of Illinois Press, 2001
[5] Bernard Barber, Resistance by scientists to scientific discovery,  Science, 134 (1961) 596-602
[6] Ernest B. Hook (ed)., Prematurity in Scientific Discovery: On Resistance and Neglect, University of California Press, 2002
[7] Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, 1970
[8] Gunther Stent, “Prematurity and uniqueness in scientific discovery”, Scientific American, December 1972, 84-93
[9] John Ziman, p. 40 in Reliable Knowledge: An Exploration of the Grounds for Belief in Science, Cambridge University Press, 1978
[10] Michael Crichton, “Aliens Cause Global Warming”, Caltech Michelin Lecture, 17 January 2003

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More reviews of DOGMATISM book

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2014/05/22

Two substantial reviews offering much room for further thought have just been published of Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth:

Journal of Scientific Exploration, 28 (2014) 142-48, by Donald J. DeGracia
Dogmatism in Science and Medicine (DSM) by Henry H. Bauer is about the corruption of modern science. For practicing scientists it is a disturbing book to read. Medicine is bitter, yet we put up with it to get better. DSM is bitter medicine intended to improve the health of science.
. . . .
Dr. Bauer does a professional, competent, and important job bringing the corruption of modern science into the light. The criticisms offered above do not detract from the fundamental correctness of the picture DSM paints, but instead underscore its seriousness, and the need to further refine the picture. To scoff at DSM or to think it is off-base is merely to reveal that the scoffer is woefully uninformed about the transformations that have occurred in science over the past decades. If one is a practicing scientist, or a concerned citizen of good will, one ignores this book at one’s own peril.

Journal of Scientific Exploration, 28 (2014) 149-52, by Brian Josephson
At the end of this fascinating book, Bauer asks the question: Can 21st century science become trustworthy again? He suggests that change must come from outside the existing institutions, which merely serve to perpetuate knowledge monopolies, but first the need for change must become generally recognized . Possibilities discussed include a Science Court; independent, publicly funded institutions that can assess scientific claims of public importance; and designated funds for non-mainstream research. Something of this nature is clearly needed.

 

 

 

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Correlations: Plausible or implausible, NONE prove causation

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2014/05/18

My critique of confusing correlations with causes (60 MINUTES on aging — correlations or causes?) brought a number of comments, including a link to a boingboing piece, “Spurious correlations: an engine for head-scratching coincidences”  with an illustration of a correlation that is obviously not a cause-effect relationship:

CorrelSpaceSociol

This came from a website  with software that can generate correlations on request from a large database. Many other examples are offered of correlations that are obviously meaningless, for instance:

CorrelCHeeseBedsheetDeaths

Far too many people and institutions perpetually fall into the trap of taking correlations as causation. The error is pervasive in statements and publications about medical science and practice from official agencies and from doctors and researchers, and the media perpetually fail to debunk such statements.

So the Spurious Correlations website is a valuable tool
for reminding people never to assume that a correlation has a causal basis.

But I would like to add a couple of comments.

1. Our intuition about what a “correlation” is differs from how numbers like the 0.947091 in the example above are calculated. As the website points out in its “About this page” (whose link is anything but prominent), “there are better ways to calculate correlation than I do here” .
The website uses what is perhaps the most common formula, “a simple Pearson’s correlation coefficient”. That’s also used in the Microsoft Excel CORREL formula. I first realized how different the result of that can be from an intuitive sense of correlation when an article claimed a geographical correlation between HIV and AIDS for which the actual data seemed to me to show “obviously” no correlation (pp. 110-2 in The Origin, Persistence and Failings of HIV/AIDS Theory).
An informal tutorial from my friend Jack Good  set me straight. Everyone should beware that what might seem like quantitatively very good correlations, with numbers like 0.75 or more, may not signify what our intuition says about how good or bad the correlation is.
(And everyone should beware of the accuracy implied by numbers like 0.947091. All too many publications show such numbers, copied from a computer, that imply an accuracy to 6 significant digits, 1 part in a million. Rarely are more than two figures warranted, in this case 0.95.)
2. The most important caveat, though, is that the Spurious Correlations website features correlations that are obviously absurd and not reflecting any causal relationship. In the real world, however, considerable real damage is done all the time because

correlations that look plausibly reflective of a causal relation
are mistakenly taken to reflect actual causation
.

That happens pervasively in medicine. Correlations between blood pressure and heart attacks, for example, led to designating blood pressure as a “risk factor” for heart attacks, interpreted mistakenly as high blood pressure constituting an actual risk of causing heart attacks, and using medication to lower blood pressure when in actual fact there is no evidence that high blood pressure causes heart attacks (or strokes) — see “Evidence-based medicine? Wishful thinking”  and “Seeking Immortality? Challenging the drug-based medical paradigm”.
All sorts of shibboleths about HIV/AIDS are treated as fact by media and public just because they seem plausible for a sexually transmitted infection, yet there evidence is plain that neither “HIV” nor “AIDS” is infectious and that they are not correlated with one another. (Correlation never proves causation; but lack of correlation is strong evidence against causation and places heavy burden of proof on anyone claiming causation.)
So too with “global warming”. Given all the doubts about human-caused global warming, for instance that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has continued to increase dramatically during the last ~15 years without discernible increase in temperature, global-warming and environmentalist activists have succeeded in making the dogma one of (unfalsifiable) “climate change” instead of warming, and pundits galore hold forth about how “climate change” has brought more extreme events that are increasingly extreme — which seems so plausible, until you realize that this is mere speculation and not a reflection of known historical events; and that one could just as plausibly speculate that, as temperature rises, ocean and air currents become stronger and will tend to even things out and decrease the likelihood of extreme events.

Correlations never prove causation
and that needs to be emphasized over and over again,
the more plausibly causative a given correlation  appears to be.

 

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60 MINUTES on aging — correlations or causes?

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2014/05/06

The TV program 60 Minutes on 4 May 2014 reported on studies of people older than 90, for clues to what allowed them to live so long. It was clear that neither the reporters nor the doctors understand the difference between correlations and causes.

Dementia was a prime concern, Alzheimer’s in particular. The mainstream dogma was taken for granted, that Alzheimer’s is defined and caused by amyloid plaques and tangles in the brain.
It turns out, however, that behavioral dementia does not correlate with either of those: people showing no behavioral signs of Alzheimer’s might have quite a lot of tangles and plaques, while people with behavioral dementia might have little or none of either or both.
One doctor did at one point say that one possibility might be that the tangles were not causes of dementia, but no one questioned that amyloid defined Alzheimer’s despite the rather clear evidence that they are not correlated.
Lack of correlation is a good sign of lack of causation. If plaques and tangles cause Alzheimer’s dementia, then they should be present in all cases of AD. They are not. Yet the belief persists despite disproof.

At the same time, the misguided view that correlation indicates causation pervaded the program. It was said that maintaining weight or even gaining a bit made for — is a cause of, in other words — longevity; that vitamin supplements do not; that moderate alcohol and coffee intakes make for longevity, as does exercise and social activity.
BUT: Assume just for the sake of argument that healthy longevity is determined solely by genetics. Then exactly the same correlations would be observed. People with good genes would live longer, socialize more, exercise more, eat and drink with fewer restrictions . . . .
So those correlations in themselves say absolutely nothing about what might have actually caused the long healthy lives of the studied people.
Correlations never prove causation.

Some autopsies revealed that dementia and death were sometimes associated with signs of numerous mini-strokes that might have been so slight as to be not even noticed. The prevalence of such strokes was less in people with higher blood pressure, the opposite of expectation based on current medical dogma.
The lack of correlation between high blood pressure and stroke indicates, of course, that high blood pressure may not be a significant cause of stroke, but this conclusion was not drawn.

The chief doctor in the program was quick to add that high blood pressure is still a risk factor for younger people, showing ignorance of actual data and brainwashing by contemporary medical dogma and shibboleths. It’s been known for a century that blood pressure increases with age — normally, naturally. That people over 90 have “high” pressure should not have been a surprise, nor that they had fewer strokes: IF one lives to a significantly old age, it means that one has not had too many strokes, and living that long means that one’s blood pressure will naturally, normally, be what is nowadays called, out of ignorance, “high”.

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