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Science: A Danger for Public Policy?!

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/02/08

Public policies rely on advice and consent from science about an ever wider range of issues (environmental challenges, individual and public health. infrastructure and its safety, military systems). Surely this is unquestionably good, that public policies are increasingly pragmatic through respecting the facts delivered by science?

No. Not necessarily, not always.

The central problem is that science — humankind’s understanding of nature, of the world — doesn’t just deliver facts. Science is perpetually incomplete. On any given question it may not be unequivocal.

The media, the public, policy makers, the legal system all presume that a contemporary consensus in the scientific community can be safely accepted as true for all practical purposes. The trouble is that any contemporary scientific consensus may later prove to have been wrong.

If this assertion seems outlandish —theoretically possible but so unlikely as to be ignorable in practice — it is because the actual history and nature of science are not widely enough understood.

The contemporary scientific consensus has in fact been wrong about many, perhaps even most of the greatest advances in science: Planck and quantums, Wegener and drifting continents, Mendel and quantitative genetic heredity; the scientific consensus and 1976   Nobel Prize for discovering the viral cause of mad-cow diseases was wrong; that stomach ulcers are caused by bacteria had been pooh-poohed by the mainstream consensus for some two decades before adherents of the consensus were willing to examine the evidence and then award a Nobel Prize in 2005.

Historical instances of a mistaken scientific consensus being have seemingly not affected major public policies in catastrophic ways, although one possible precedent for such unhappy influence may be the consensus that supported the eugenics movement around the 1920s, resulting in enforced sterilization of tens of thousands of people in the USA as recently as the latter half of the 20th century.

Nowadays, though, the influence of science is so pervasive that the danger has become quite tangible that major public policies might be based on a scientific consensus that is at best doubtfully valid and at worst demonstrably wrong.

The possibility that significant public actions might be dictated by an unproven scientific consensus was explicitly articulated by President Eisenhower. His warning against the potential influence of the military-industrial complex is quite often cited, but little cited is another warning he gave in the same speech:

“in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”

That can happen when a contemporary scientific consensus is accepted as practical truth, as settled science. The crucial distinction could hardly be explained more clearly than Michael Crichton did in an invited lecture at CalTech:

“Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. . . . It would never occur to anyone to speak that way.”

Crichton had in mind the present-day scientific consensus that human-caused generation of carbon dioxide is chiefly responsible for rising global temperatures and associated major climate-change. The fact that there are highly competent public dissenters — including such winners of Nobel Prizes as Ivar Giaever (Physics 1973), Robert Laughlin (Physics 1998), Kary Mullis (Chemistry 1993) — demonstrates that human-caused global warming is a consensus, not the unanimity associated with such “settled science” as the Periodic Table of the chemical elements or that E=mc2.

The proponents of human-caused global warming constitute an effective elite. Since they represent the contemporary consensus, they largely control peer review, research funding, and which research gets published; and they hold important positions in the halls of power of individual nations as well as in such international organizations as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The history of science is unequivocal: Contemporary scientific consensuses have been wrong on some of the most significant issues. Those who determine public policies would do well to seek an impartial comparison and analysis of the substantive claims made both by proponents of a mainstream consensus and by those who claim that the evidence does not prove that consensus to be unquestionably correct.

In absence of an impartial comparative analysis, public discourse and public actions are determined by ideology and not by evidence. “Liberals” assert that the mainstream consensus on global warming equals “science” and anyone who properly respects the environment is supposed to accept this scientific consensus. On the other side, many “conservatives” beg to differ, as when Senator Inhofe flourishes a snowball. One doubts that most proponents of either side could give an accurate summary of the pertinent evidence. That is not a very good way to discuss or to make public policy.

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This little essay had been offered as an Op-Ed to the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times. the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Financial Times (London), and USA Today. That it appears here confirms that none of those media stalwarts wanted to use it.

Posted in consensus, global warming, media flaws, politics and science, science is not truth, science policy, scientism, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Trust science at your peril: Beware of scientism and political correctness

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2016/06/25

Science is, ideally, a quest for authentic understanding of the world, of everything in the universe. Scientism is a religious faith which preaches that only science is capable of gaining such authentic understanding and that contemporary scientific claims are for all practical purposes true.

In reality, science is a perpetually unfinished quest. The history of science tells of false trails followed, of errors made, of misguided theories held dogmatically long after the evidence had turned against them, of researchers motivated by self-interest and influenced — corrupted, in a sense — by conflicts of interest.

Science has progressed marvelously, but the progress has not come steadily and linearly, it has come through continual correction of minor errors as well as periodic scientific revolutions in which former dogmas were discarded and replaced by different theories, different beliefs, different dogmas, sometimes to an extent capable of changing world-views.

Those realities have been described and documented in many articles and books over many decades (1), yet the conventional wisdom seems ignorant of them. In the popular view, science deploys the scientific method which guarantees getting things right through scrupulous adherence to facts, so that the scientific consensus on any given topic at any given time can supposedly be relied on quite safely to guide personal and public actions.

People who question the mainstream view, the official positions disseminated by such bodies as the National Academy, the Royal Society of London, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, the World Health Organization, etc., are dismissed as ignoramuses on a par with those who still believe that the Earth is flat, and they are denigrated, attacked, and suppressed as “denialists” — for example, the eminently qualified scientists who question whether HIV really causes AIDS (2), or whether carbon dioxide is the prime cause of global warming (3), or whether the universe began in a Big Bang about 13 billion years ago (4).

In other words, the officially accepted conventional wisdom functions as an exercise of scientism, proclaiming as true — as not to be questioned — any contemporary claims that have the imprimatur of a prevailing scientific consensus.

The most common popular, mass-media-disseminated beliefs about science fall in line with the official scientistic conventional wisdom. Prominent popularizers of the scientistic faith include people sometimes described as the “New Atheists” — see for instance Curtis White in The Science Delusion (Melville House, 2014), who names among others Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Bill Mahler. Self-styled “Skeptics” (for instance Michael Shermer and the late Martin Gardner) are also apostles of scientism, as illustrated in associated publications (Skeptic, Skeptical Inquirer).

But promiscuously indiscriminate faith in currently accepted scientific knowledge is unwarranted. One does not need the immense scholarly literature (1) to recognize that, it is already obvious from first principles and fundamental logic:

–>      Science is carried out by human beings and is therefore inherently fallible.

–>      Scientific theories are neither uniquely determined nor proved by any amount of factual evidence. The proverbial black swans demonstrate that no matter how comprehensive or long-standing any given body of evidence and associated explanations may be, no matter that an hypothesis may have been thoroughly tested and accepted via the scientific method, there may remain lurking in the unknown unknown some bits of data that can disprove the accepted theory instantly and devastatingly.

The popular adherence to scientistic dogmas is immensely dangerous because it may support public policies that cause tangible damage, sometimes on a large scale. Historical examples are fairly well known, but their lesson has not been learned; perhaps because a corollary of contemporary scientistic faith seems to be the notion, implicit if not explicit, that even if science was fallible in earlier times, today’s science is so advanced, so sophisticated, that it is no longer dangerously fallible. That and similar corollaries are acts of faith unsupported by evidence, thereby confirming that scientism is a quasi-religious faith: it is unshakeable, embraced as absolutely and self-evidently true.

A couple of recent books (5) describe the considerable damage done by public policies based on a scientific consensus which remained active during something like half of the 20th century: the policies of forced sterilization of purportedly feeble-minded individuals. This was an exercise in eugenics, a program intended to improve the national genetic stock, and it was supported and justified by the prevailing scientific consensus.

In reviewing these books, David Oshinsky focuses on the Supreme Court’s 8-to-1 decision in 1927, written by the revered Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and agreed to by the “liberal” Jewish Louis Brandeis as well as by 6 other Associate Justices, upholding the forced sterilization of those judged to be mentally defective: “Was it an isolated misstep or something more: an indictment of Justice Holmes and the Progressive movement he appeared to embrace?” (6).

Oshinsky describes the IMBECILES book by Cohen as “a superb history of eugenics in America, from its beginnings as an offshoot of social Darwinism — human survival of the fittest — to its rise as a popular movement, advocating the state-sponsored sterilization of ‘feeble­minded, insane, epileptic, inebriate, criminalistic and other degenerate persons’.”

The point I want to make here is that the forced sterilization of tens of thousands of Americans, which continued in some States into the 1960s, is nowadays described as an outrage based on pseudo-science, yet it had relied on what was regarded at the time as perfectly sound science supported fervently by individuals whose reputation remains that of progressive reformers: as well as Justices Holmes and Brandeis, strong advocates of this eugenic program included other “progressive icons like Theodore Roosevelt and the birth control champion Margaret Sanger . . . . people who combined ‘extravagant faith in science and the state with an outsized confidence in their own expertise.’ . . . Science didn’t lie” (6).

This notion that science doesn’t lie, that it can always be believed, is a tenet of scientism, and it is baseless, quite wrong, as already noted. Yet this notion, this subconscious scientism continues to corrupt public discourse. Scientism is a faith held unwittingly by most popular media, including such elites as the New York Times; and it is held, again unwittingly, by today’s sociopolitical progressives or liberals.

When some claims by some scientists seem plausibly consistent with liberal, progressive programs, activists seize on them, make dogmas of the claims, and denigrate and attack those who disagree as unscientific denialists.

This circumstance is what has come to be called in recent decades “political correctness”: certain views are to be accepted as so self-evidently correct, objectively true — and by the way ethically and morally sound — that disagreeing with them is virtually a criminal act; and indeed actions that are politically incorrect may bring sanctions. Contemporary illustrations of such sanctions are the penalties imposed by colleges and universities on students and faculty who make politically incorrect statements, including the mere use of a word or a phrase that acts as a “trigger”, a “micro-aggression” that makes some individual belonging to a certified-discriminated-against minority feel uncomfortable (7).

That something is politically correct is shown when people who have no direct specific knowledge about a topic express with certainty a dogmatic opinion about it. They have obviously taken this opinion on faith, from sources congenial to them on ideological grounds, which may be based religiously, socially, politically — at any rate, not on actual evidence about the matter.

Contemporary scientific claims that have attained the status of politically correct include that HIV causes AIDS and that human-caused liberation of carbon dioxide is the prime cause of climate change. The manner in which media and individuals refer to these matters is an immediate proof that opinions about them are politically correct, not evidence-based.

For example, the vigilantes who most assiduously and viciously attack those who question whether HIV causes AIDS include an economist (Nicoli Nattrass), a graduate student (Ken Witwer), a psychologist (Seth Kalichman), a lawyer (Jeanne Bergman), an activist (Nathan Geffen) and others, all of whom feel qualified, despite their lack of appropriate qualifications, to denigrate eminent molecular biologists with deep knowledge of the subject, and even to demand that the National Library of Medicine remove a journal from MEDLINE (8).

Left-leaning media (say, MSNBC) treat HIV=AIDS as indisputable settled science; right-leaning media (say, Fox News) doubt that HIV causes AIDS.

Left-leaning media treat as indisputably settled science that human activities are responsible for global warming and climate change; right-leaning media doubt or deny that.

Nature, however, will not be mocked, and the truth is not determined by human ideologies. Public policies (and also private actions, of course) had best be based on the soundest, most probing and skeptical assessment of current knowledge-claims in light of the indisputable fact that no contemporary scientific consensus represents guaranteed truth.

If the present scientistic, politically correct beliefs about HIV/AIDS and about climate change are as misguided as were the scientistic, politically correct beliefs about mental deficiency and eugenics, then immense harm is being done and will continue to be done. Unfortunately, the plain evidence is that HIV does not cause AIDS (9, 10), and the notion that human activities are responsible for global warming and climate change is suggested only by highly complicated, sophisticated, and fallible computer programs that have already been wrong about the global cooling in the 1940s to 1970s and the lack of appreciable warming since about 2000 (4).

Forced sterilization as part of a eugenic program to improve the fitness of the population was supported by progressive reformers and by eminent medical and scientific experts. That physical traits are transmitted from one generation to another was known, scientifically as well as popularly. That behavioral characteristics are similarly transmitted was not obviously wrong, and when sanctioned by experts it became the conventional wisdom. So feeble-minded-ness, epilepsy, poverty, criminality and other socially undesirable characteristics came to be targets for elimination, by quarantining or sterilizing people and families where such characteristics had been noted (11). There was not sufficient dissent within expert communities to prevent what is now recognized as pseudo-science from becoming accepted as settled science, during the early decades of the 20th century: “Less than 100 years ago, America’s finest minds were convinced the nation was threatened by sexually insatiable female morons” (12). Those finest minds included, as well as the earlier mentioned progressive reformers, David Starr Jordan, a biologist specializing in ichthyology, an activist for peace, an eminent educator — president of Indiana University and later founding president of Stanford University — and moreover so concerned with distinguishing good science from bad science and pseudo-science that he had written a book about it (13), as well as works about eugenics (14).

So policy makers might be excused for succumbing to the “scientific” evidence supporting eugenics — a century ago. Nowadays, though, there is no similar excuse for sticking with the theory of HIV/AIDS or with the claim that it is indisputably settled science that global warming and climate change are humanly caused. Competent, qualified experts have published and spoken copiously, pointing to the deficiencies of the present scientific consensuses on these matters. It is past time that these whistle-blowers, these “denialists”, be attended to; that the actual evidence be attended to.

 

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(1)    For example, among dozens or hundreds of worthwhile works:
Bernard Barber, “Resistance by scientists to scientific discovery,” Science, 134 (1961) 596-602
Henry H. Bauer, Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method (University of Illinois Press, 1992)
Michael Crichton, “Aliens cause global warming” (Caltech Michelin Lecture), 17 January 2003
Daniel S. Greenberg, Science, Money and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion (University of Chicago Press, 2001) & Science for Sale: The Perils, Rewards, and Delusions of Campus Capitalism (University of Chicago Press, 2007)
Paul R. Gross & Norman Levitt, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994)
Susan Haack, Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate (University of Chicago Press, 1998) & Defending Science — within Reason (Prometheus, 2003)
Ernest B. Hook, (ed). Prematurity in Scientific Discovery: On Resistance and Neglect (University of California Press, 2002)
David Knight, The Age of Science: The Scientific World-View in the Nineteenth Century (Basil Blackwell, 1986)
Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press, 1970, 2nd ed., enlarged)
Derek J. de Solla Price, Little Science, Big Science … and Beyond (Columbia University Press, 1963/1986; the 1986 edition contains additional chapters)
Gunther Stent, “Prematurity and uniqueness in scientific discovery,” Scientific American, December 1972, pp. 84-93
John Ziman, Real Science—What It Is, and What It Means (Cambridge University Press, 2000)

(2)   Henry H. Bauer, The Origin, Persistence and Failings of HIV/AIDS Theory (McFarland, 2007)

(3)    Henry H. Bauer, “A politically liberal global-warming skeptic?”, 25 November 2012

(4)    Henry H. Bauer, Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth (McFarland, 2012)

(5)      IMBECILES: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen (Penguin Press, 2016)
ILLIBERAL REFORMERS: Race, Eugenics and American Economics in the Progressive Era by Thomas C. Leonard (Princeton University Press, 2016)

(6)    David Oshinsky, review of (5), New York Times Book Review, 14 March 2016

(7)    A rather random selection of pieces about micro-aggression:
“Microaggression theory”“21 Racial Microaggressions you hear on a daily basis”;
“Ten things you didn’t know were racist”“Microaggression”“Microaggression Theory: An assault on everyday life”“Microaggressions: Power, privilege, and everyday life”

(8)    Letter of 5 August 2009

(9)    Henry H. Bauer, The Origin, Persistence and Failings of HIV/AIDS Theory (McFarland, 2007)

(10) Henry H. Bauer, The Case against HIV

(11) Edwin Black, War against the Weak, Thunder’s Mouth Press (2003)

(12) Farhad Manjoo, “Progressive genocide”, reviewing Better for All the World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America’s Quest for Racial Purity by Harry Bruinius

(13) David Starr Jordan, The Higher Foolishness, Bobbs-Merrill (1927)

(14) David Starr Jordan, The human harvest; A Study of the Decay of Races through the Survival of the Unfit (American Unitarian Association, 1907); The Heredity of Richard Roe; A Discussion of the Principles of Eugenics (American Unitarian Association, 1911)

Posted in conflicts of interest, consensus, denialism, global warming, media flaws, politics and science, science is not truth, science policy, scientism, scientists are human | Tagged: , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

“Dark matter” and dinosaur extinction

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2016/01/06

“Everyone” knows that the collision of an asteroid with Earth damaged the environment so much that the dinosaurs died out and only much smaller creatures survived. Many also know that the impact crater, the Chicxulub crater, has been found beneath the surface near the Yucatan peninsula. Just consult Wikipedia, or Google for more sources.

Except: Google also turns up some reservations, for instance “What really killed the dinosaurs? New challenges to the impact theory” (BBC program).

Several decades ago already, paleontologist Dewey McLean (as well as some other geologists and paleontologists) had made the case that the dinosaur extinction was brought about by climate changes owing largely to the enormous volcanic activity associated with the Deccan Traps (a region in India) —
see Dewey M. McLean, “Impact winter in the global K/T extinctions: no definitive evidence”, pp. 493-503 in Global Biomass Burning: Atmospheric, Climatic, and Biospheric Implications, ed. J. S. Levine, MIT Press, 1991.
(McLean’s somewhat lonely public dissidence is mentioned in my book, Dogmatism in Science and Medicine [McFarland 2012, pp. 97-8]. I knew McLean, we worked at the same university.)

Donald Prothero is also a paleontologist. Recently he posted the following in a book review on amazon.com:
“that the impact at the end of the Cretaceous is the primary cause of the extinction of dinosaurs has been discredited in recent years. . . . the consensus has now swung to the idea that the massive Deccan eruptions in India and Pakistan were far more important to the end-Cretaceous extinctions.”

Prothero’s review is of the book by Lisa Randall, Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe, which postulates the presence in the Milky Way (our galaxy) of a disc of “dark matter” that somehow periodically liberates comets or asteroids that go on to cause periodic extinction events on Earth.
In his amazon.com review, Prothero also debunks the notion that extinctions follow an identifiably periodic pattern.

My own trouble with Randall’s speculation is that “dark matter” is no more than a fudge factor necessary to make Big-Bang cosmology fit the observed facts. There is no shred of direct empirical evidence that “dark matter” exists.
Things just don’t add up in Big-Bang cosmology. Actual observations of quasars and galaxies do not jibe with calculations based on the known force of gravity and on the presumption that redshifts reflect speed relative to Earth (Doppler effect).
There isn’t enough gravity. So “dark matter” was invented to yield that needed extra gravity. “Dark matter” is associated with “dark energy”, for which we have no evidence either.
All this “dark” stuff is supposed to make up more than 90% of the universe, at the same time as “dark” is the euphemism for “we know nothing about it, we just need it to make the equations balance”.

This collection of science fiction is treated respectfully by the media.

But there is a much simpler explanation for the failure of Big-Bang cosmology to fit the observed facts. There is strong evidence that redshifts of quasars do not always result purely from Doppler effects, that quasars are associated with the creation of new matter which has an inherent redshift:
— see Halton Arp, Quasars, Redshifts and Controversies (Interstellar Media 1987) and Seeing Red: Redshifts, Cosmology and Academic Science (Apeiron 1998); for a summary, see pp. 113-18 in Dogmatism in Science and Medicine.

Which all goes to show, as many others besides me have often remarked, that “What everyone knows is usually wrong (about science, say)”.  On all but the most non-controversial issues, TED talks and Wikipedia entries are among the sources most likely to be wrong, moreover wrong dogmatically, insistently, aggressively, uncompromisingly, as they treat every contemporary (and thereby temporary) mainstream consensus as Gospel truth.

A pervasive problem is that mainstream dogmas are taken as truth by people outside the particular field of knowledge:
Randall is a physicist, so she is not familiar with the range of views among paleontologists and geologists.
On the matter of HIV/AIDS, one finds economists like South African Nicoli Nattrass (The AIDS Conspiracy: Science fights back) and political scientists like Courtney Jung (Lactivism: How feminists and fundamentalists, hippies and yuppies, and physicians and politicians made breastfeeding big business and bad policy) getting the facts totally wrong, even citing mainstream sources incorrectly.
Many social scientists get a whole lot wrong about science, as when Steven Shapin asserted that scientists don’t value their technicians appropriately (p. 142 in Fatal Attractions: The Troubles with Science, Paraview Press 2001).
No one is immune, because we cannot look at the primary evidence on every topic of interest, so we have to decide, more or les by instinct, which mainstream beliefs to accept, at least provisionally, and which to doubt enough that further digging is called for. I went wrong by accepting mainstream views about UFOs and about homosexuality,  for example, and I’m probably wrong on some other issues where I haven’t yet woken up to it. But at least I’m aware of the problem. The media, though, apparently are not aware of it, nor are the publishers who put out books like Nattrass’s or Jung’s or Randall’s.

 

Posted in consensus, media flaws, science is not truth, scientism, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Psychological toll of climate-science belief

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2015/07/11

Mountainmere  just drew our attention to the devastating psychological impact of belief in human-caused climate change.

Esquire carried (7 July) a story by John Richardson, “When the End of Human Civilization Is Your Day Job: Among many climate scientists, gloom has set in. Things are worse than we think, but they can’t really talk about it” — they are afraid to talk about it because of “the relentless campaign against them” in which the poor folk are labeled “alarmist”. (The heartbreaking Richardson story was picked up in a number of places, for instance “Climate Scientists Are Dealing with Psychological Problems”  as well as the Judith Curry blog that mountainmere had cited, “Pre-traumatic stress syndrome: climate scientists speak out”.)
If climate “scientists” want to know what a relentless campaign really looks like, they should examine the treatment meted out to those “denialists” who draw attention to the lack of evidence to support the hypothesis of human-caused global warming.

Richardson’s featured climate-scientist victim, Jason Box, is a stereotypical ultra-environmentalist: an American who has worked for Greenpeace, demonstrated at the White House, claimed that sea levels would rise inevitably by 70 feet in the next few centuries, and “escaped America’s culture of climate-change denial” by moving from Ohio to Denmark. A report of methane seeping into Arctic sea-water so terrified Box that he immediately tweeted “If even a small fraction of Arctic sea floor carbon is released to the atmosphere, we’re f’d”, which naturally brought a flurry of headlines.
Box looks at the worst, and among the least likely, of the various scenarios generated by the computer models used by climate “scientists” — models that have been demonstrably wrong for the last 15-18 years or so during which there has been no warming while carbon dioxide levels have continued to rise; models that fail to account for the 1940s-to-1970s period when global temperatures were actually decreasing while carbon-dioxide levels were steadily rising.
Box thinks “most scientists must be burying overt recognition of the awful truths of climate change in a protective layer of denial (not the same kind of denial coming from conservatives, of course). I’m still amazed how few climatologists have taken an advocacy message to the streets, demonstrating for some policy action.”

Richardson’s story is full of errors, notably that “warming is tracking the rise of greenhouse gases exactly as their models predicted”. No. The models have not predicted the empirical fact that global temperatures have been stable rather than rising since about 2000; some reports even have it as a cooling rather than a slowing or halt in global average temperature: http://isthereglobalcooling.com; http://wattsupwiththat.com/2012/01/11/the-portland-state-university-study-of-shrinking-mt-adams-glaciersa-good-example-of-bad-science; http://notrickszone.com/2013/09/12/no-warming-left-to-deny-global-cooling-takes-over-cet-annual-mean-temperature-plunges-1c-since-2000/#sthash.mowZKMjF.dpbs; http://www.forbes.com/sites/peterferrara/2013/05/26/to-the-horror-of-global-warming-alarmists-global-cooling-is-here; http://www.globalresearch.ca/global-cooling-is-here/10783.

Richardson describes the terrible stress that climate scientists are under for bringing their message of lack of hope: “targets of an unrelenting and well-organized attack that includes death threats, summonses from a hostile Congress, attempts to get them fired, legal harassment, and intrusive discovery demands so severe they had to start their own legal-defense fund, all amplified by a relentless propaganda campaign nakedly financed by the fossil-fuel companies”.
It’s just as well that they can continue to do their depressing work with the help of large grants and that any attempts to have them fired went nowhere; and that the “intrusive discovery demands” were no more than to ask for the raw data on which Michael Mann conjured his alarmist “hockey-stick” graph of unprecedented rate of warming — a graph that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change dropped from its Reports because it was shown to be not a valid reorientation of the data. Professional scientific journals have increasingly being demanding that all data on which articles are based need to be made publicly available; it is not clear to me why climate “science” should be exempt. The only reason to keep data secret is to avoid that others could show that published analyses are flawed.
And those poor climate scientists suffered from having their e-mails hacked, revealing that they were deliberately fudging the evidence. (Google “Climategate” for details about that.)

So, anyway, those poor activist climate “scientists” are suffering gloom, sadness, fear, anger; “Dr. Lise Van Susteren, a practicing psychiatrist and graduate of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth slide-show training, calls this ‘pretraumatic’ stress.” Some are retreating off the grid to await the catastrophe. “No one has experienced that hostility more vividly than Michael Mann”, who barley manages to keep going as a well-paid tenured full professor at Penn State.

I urge you to read Richardson’s full story, especially the later parts that describe all the suffering that climate scientists endure.

For yet more insight, go to Judith Curry’s earlier blog post, “Pre-traumatic stress syndrome: Climate trauma survival tips”  which informs, among other things, about “the relatively new field of psychology of global warming”; followed by Curry’s sensible deconstruction of climate-change hysteria.

The unfortunate pre-traumatically stressed climate-“science” activists suffer quite unnecessarily. I recommend resort to the school of psychology, “rational-emotive therapy”, associated with the name of Albert Ellis; see his A New Guide to Rational Living, or Help yourself to happiness through rational self-counseling by Macie C. Maultsby, an acolyte of Ellis.
The essence of this approach is to list in writing one’s depressing thoughts, and then the emotions they arouse. Merely writing these down tends to reveal how out of all proportion the emotions are. Then, the really important part, annotate those depressing thoughts with the actual evidence.
With climate “scientists”, this should bring immediate relief, since all their depression arises only from computer models, whereas reality demonstrates that global warming is the result of the Earth recovering from the last Ice Age and that carbon dioxide has no appreciable effect, as proven by the periods from the 1940s to the 1970s and again since 2000, when “carbon” was being emitted relentlessly but Earth warmed not at all or even cooled.

 

Posted in denialism, funding research, global warming, media flaws, peer review, science is not truth, science policy, scientific culture, scientism, scientists are human, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , , , , , | 10 Comments »

Probabilistic causation, misinterpreted probabilities, and misdiagnosing mental illness

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2015/01/25

Some people want everyone to accept what “science” says, even when they cannot really justify that from the actual evidence and facts.

For instance, Donald Prothero in Reality Check (Indiana University Press, 2013), spends countless words saying things like “nothing in real science is 100% proven” (italic emphasis in original) mixed in with “if something has a 99% likelihood of occurring, or being true, then this level of confidence is so overwhelming that it would be foolish to ignore it” (p. 32). He illustrates this by the high likelihood of injury or death if one jumps off a building.
Then comes a typical piece of misdirection about the likelihood of getting cancer if one smokes, because “the link between cancer and smoking is about 99%”.
In the first place, the evidence for jumping off a building and for cancer causing smoking are of an entirely different order. In the second place, no source is given for the claim of “about 99%” for the cancer-smoking link.
The observable evidence about jumping off buildings is quite direct, no inferences needed. On the other hand, the link between cancer and smoking is based on inferences from data that are probabilistic: analyzing records from people who have smoked varying amounts for varying lengths of time and applying statistical tests of significance.
But most subtly misleading or deceitful is that “about 99%” assertion. A similar point crops up in a number of quite different matters. Probabilities cannot be turned around, one might say they are not “commutative”. (A + B is commutative because it equals B + A. There are many operations in mathematics that are not commutative.)
If someone dies of lung cancer, there is a high likelihood that smoking may have been a causative factor; but that is not the same as saying that smoking is highly likely to cause death by lung cancer, and the second statement does not follow from the first. The commutated probability that a smoker will die of lung cancer is not very high:
“Smoking accounts for 30 percent of all cancer deaths and 87 percent of lung cancer deaths” but “fewer than 10 percent of lifelong smokers will get lung cancer”
(Christopher Wanjek, “Smoking’s many myths examined”).

I. J. Good discussed this general issue in relation to the trial of O. J. Simpson for the murder of his wife, given the acknowledged circumstance that Simpson was an habitual wife-batterer. Alan Dershowitz, assisting the defense, had pointed out that only about 0.1% of wife-batterers go on to actually kill their wives. But this was misleading. The pertinent probability must be calculated as follows: Given that a wife is murdered, and given that the husband is an habitual wife-batterer, what is the probability that the husband did it? Good showed that it was greater than about 1 in 3 (Nature 375 [1995] 541). In a later piece, Good reported that Dershowitz’s 0.1% was itself misleading, and the correction raised the pertinent probability from >1/3 to about 90% (Nature 381 [1996] 481).
The probability that the murdered wife of a battering husband was killed by the husband is high. The commutated probability that a wife-batterer will actually kill his wife is very small.

It is quite damaging to public and personal health that such basic issues concerning probabilities are so little understood among doctors. For example, what is the probability that a woman between 40 to 50 years of age and with no manifest symptoms or family history of breast cancer actually has breast cancer if her mammogram is “positive”? A survey of doctors yielded estimated probabilities of >50%, many of them at about 90%; but the actual probability is only 9% (Steven Strogatz, “Chances are”).
A fundamental point is that no test is 100% specific and 100% accurate. All tests have some probability, even if only small, of yielding a false positive. If a particular condition is rare, then the likelihood of a positive test being false can be quite high: in low-risk populations, a high proportion of “positives” are actually false positives (Jane M. Orient, Art & Science of Bedside Diagnosis, 2005).
The probability that a woman with breast cancer will have a positive mammogram is very high. The commutated probability that a woman with a positive mammogram has breast cancer is not high.

This sort of issue is very damaging when it comes to diagnosing mental illness, discussed at length in Saving Normal by Allen Frances and The Book of Woe by Gary Greenberg (both 2013; see my essay review in Journal of Scientific Exploration, 29 [2015] 142-8). The critical problem is that there exists no objective diagnostic test for a mental illness, diagnosis has to be gauged on the basis of observable symptoms. One classic procedure for diagnosing depression is the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HAM-D). It was evolved in the 1950s by British doctor Max Hamilton, who was seeking a way to measure efficacy of anti-depressants, using his depressed patients as guinea pigs (see for example Gary Greenberg, The Noble Lie, 2008, p. 55 ff.). Hamilton came up with 17 items — for instance insomnia, feelings of guilt, sleep, appetite — rated on scale of 0 to 4 or 0 to 2, with a possible maximum total of 52. There is nothing objective here since the assigned points depend on what the patient says and what the tester concludes; and the diagnosis also uses arbitrary cut-off points: 0-7 = normal, 8-13 = mild depression, 14-18 = moderate depression, 19-22 = severe depression, ≥23 = very severe depression. But the point here is not about subjectivity or arbitrariness of the diagnosis, but the fact that HAM-D was evolved by looking at patients who had already been diagnosed as depressed severely enough to require treatment, even hospitalization. However, the fact that depressed patients frequently accumulate high scores on this questionnaire does not entail the commutated reverse, that anyone who scores more than 7 is to some extent “depressed” or at ≥18 severely depressed.

Confusion about what statistics and probability mean, about interpreting such data with their seemingly accurate numbers, is a hazard in public discourse on a host of matters in science and in medicine. Misinterpretation is common and damaging.

Posted in consensus, media flaws, medical practices, science is not truth, scientism, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

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 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.
_________________________________________________________

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 »

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?

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[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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