Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

Archive for June, 2014

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.
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* 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 consensus, global warming, media flaws, peer review, scientific culture, scientism | 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.
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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 »