Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Tu quoque, revisited

January 21st, 2017 5 comments

Slightly lost amid the furore over the alleged Trump dossier was the news that Trump had held a meeting with leading antivaxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. As is usual, particularly with the Trump Administration, accounts of the meeting differed, with RFK claiming Trump had asked him to lead an inquiry into vaccine safety and Trump apparatchiks denying any firm decision had been made.

This interested me because, on the strength of sharing his father’s name, RFK Jr was, for many years the poster child for those on the right who wanted to claim that Democrats were just as anti-science as Republicans. (I’ve appended a post from 2014, discussing this.) Now he’s eager to work for Trump.

I pointed out the likely emergence of vaccination as a partisan issue in another post. Lots of commenters were unhappy about it, and it’s true that it’s unfortunate in the same way as is the partisan divide on global warming, evolution and just about any scientific issue that has political or cultural implications. But, whether we like it or not, it’s happening and likely to accelerate. The sudden reversal in Republican views on Putin, Wikileaks and so on illustrates the force of loyalty to Trump. We can only hope that, for once, his team’s denials turn out to be correct.

Read more…

Categories: Science Tags:

Catalyst catastrophe

November 3rd, 2016 22 comments

There are reports that the ABC’s Catalyst science program is to be dumped, and replaced by a series of specially commissioned 1-hour documentaries. The move has reportedly been prompted by the disastrous broadcasts of Maryann Demasi, on the supposed dangers of statins and wifi. I have mixed feelings about this. Catalyst has serious problems, going beyond Demasi, but the alternative sounds like it will require a lot of money to do well. I fear that “specially commissioned” will turn out to mean “recycled from Discovery Channel” and that we will end up with lots of variants on “Shark week”

More generally, it’s depressing to reflect on the near-total failure of television as a communications medium for science. The demands of the medium (flashy visuals, and continuous sound) overwhelm what ought to be its potential. Discovery Channel is a joke that makes Catalyst at its worst look good. Even the great David Attenborough is now presented inaudibly, drowned out by the monotone background noise of Sigur Ros. Overall, radio is better, and text better still.

Categories: Science Tags:

A question about group selection

January 29th, 2016 73 comments

I’m doing some work on evolutionary models of game theory and need to understand the debate about group selection. It seems pretty clear that the great majority of evolutionary biologists reject the idea of group selection, but I haven’t found an adequate (to me) explanation of why they do so. A crucial problem for me is that the literature seems, without exception as far as I can see, to conflate group selection with co-operation and altruism. But the problem of group selection arises in non-cooperative settings, provided they are not zero-sum.

To illustrate the problem I’m struggling with, suppose that two previously isolated species meet as a result of some change. In one species (peacocks), competition between males for mates takes the form of elaborate, and energetically costly, displays. In the other species (penguins) males compete by providing food to their mates. In all other respects (diet, predators and so on) the two are similar. It seems obvious to me that the penguins, with their more efficient social arrangements, are going to outbreed the peacocks and eventually drive them to extinction.

It seems to me there are only two possibilities here
(a) My reasoning is wrong, and we can’t judge which species, if either, will dominate; or
(b) Even though it involves one group being selected over another, this isn’t what is meant by group selection

I’d really appreciate some help on this. I’m happy to have thoughts from anyone, but I’d most like to hear from actual experts with contact details.

Categories: Economics - General, Science Tags:

Public funding for phlogiston ?

December 18th, 2015 106 comments

According to the Oz, Queensland LNP Senator Matt Canavan has called for public funding for research promoting his belief that scientists since Arrhenius have been wrong about climate change. He makes this claim on the basis that the overwhelming body of evidence amassed by mainstream science means that “only one side of the debate is heard” (there’s also something about witches). Oddly enough, Canavan goes on to cite some (presumably publicly funded) research on aerosols from the Max Planck Institute which he thinks supports his arguments. The fact that such research gets undertaken and published suggests that there is no problem with the scientific process as regards climate change.

Still, there’s an interesting question here. To what extent should research funding seek to promote research approaches that are regarded by most experts in the relevant field as wrong or discredited?

In fields like economics, the ebb and flow of opinion is such that any temporary appearance of consensus is illusory. When I started studying economics, the dominant Keynesian/market failure school regarded classical economics as a collection of exploded fallacies. Within a decade or so, the position had reversed. Free market microeconomics and New Classical microeconomics became dominant and remained so until the Global Financial Crisis. The position now is best described as confused. Something similar could be said of fields like psychology (another example where plenty of non-specialists have strongly held views)

In the natural sciences, there are a lot more firmly established conclusions, which nonetheless run against the prejudices of many (obviously including Senator Canavan). I don’t see any merit in funding the pet theories and tribal prejudices of politicians. But at the frontiers, there are lots of instances where some particular approach (such as string theory in particle physics) seem to be dominant, at least in part, for sociological reasons. Here it would be desirable to ensure that alternative approaches get a hearing.

Any thoughts?

Categories: Science Tags:

Profit and public health

June 4th, 2015 74 comments

Amid the abandonment of tariff protection and the continued assaults on trade unionism, one union/lobby group has been consistently victorious. The Pharmacy Guild has managed to restrict competition so successfully that it’s impossible to open a pharmacy if it might hurt the profitability of an existing business, even if that business is failing to serve a significant group of customers. I ran into an example when I was at James Cook University in Townsville. A request for an on-campus pharmacy was rejected because it was within the market area claimed by a suburban pharmacy, more than a kilometre away and inaccessible by public transport.

Far more important to the Guild is the imperative of keeping supermarkets out of the pharmacy business. The key argument is that supermarkets are just businesses, happy to sell anything to make a buck, whether it’s cigarettes or cancer medications.

So, I was interested to read the Guild’s reaction to a proposal that medical professionals should stop prescribing homeopathic products. Whatever you might think about alternative/complementary medicines in general, homoepathy is plain quackery, combining a magical theory of medicine with the preposterous physics of water memory. Unsurprisingly, research has proved beyond any doubt that it’s no better than a placebo. So, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) has formally recommended GPs stop prescribing homeopathic remedies and says pharmacists must also stop stocking such products.

The Guild’s reaction:

it is not a regulatory authority, and as such there will be no recommendation backing RACGP’s call for homeopathic products to be taken off the market.

In other words, selling medicine in the same shop as alcohol is unthinkable, but it’s entirely OK for a health professional to promote and sell water as a treatment for serious illness.

This episode demonstrates, to anyone who cares to look, that the Pharmacy Guild is (and in fact claims to be) nothing more than a rent-seeking lobby group, whose sole concern is the profitability of its members. As the Tobacco Institute of Australia would be quick to point out (if it were still around), there’s nothing illegal about that. But when profits and public health come into conflict, the Guild and the Institute are on the same side.


February 28th, 2015 23 comments

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, and Paul Krugman has given me a nice jumping off point with this column on how to respond to economists (including highly credentialled ones) who push zombie ideas such as the threat of imminent hyperinflation. As Krugman notes, providing evidence-based criticism, whether politely or rudely, has no impact on people who have strong reasons for wanting to believe something. This is even more true on topics like climate change than it is on economics.
Read more…

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Science Tags:

Researcher: a new term of art for #Newscorpfail ?

February 25th, 2015 23 comments

The Murdoch press has just about run out of scientists it can find to support its various anti-science jihads/crusades#. So, it seems to have come up with a new term of art. The word “researcher” is now the preferred Newscorp description of unqualified rightwingers doing bogus analyses that would never pass muster as peer-reviewed research. (Just to confuse things, the same term is used to describe genuine research.)

A couple of recent instances: Jennifer Marohasy*, a biology PhD who spent quite a few years heading the IPA Science Policy unit is cited as a “climate researcher” disputing the classification of Cyclone Marcia as a Category 5 (this is part of a general conspiracy-theoretic attack on the Bureau of Meteorology).

Steven Cooper, an acoustics engineer who conducted an anti-wind farm study with a sample size of six(!), is also described as a “scientific researcher”.

Are these isolated cases, or can readers point to more along the same line?

# The terms have the same meaning: pick whichever you prefer
* Her name is spelt Morohasy in some reports.

Categories: #NewsCorpFail, Media, Science Tags:

Reality finally bites for Willie Soon

February 23rd, 2015 26 comments

Among the handful of apparently reputable scientists who deny mainstream climate science, Willie Wei-Hock Soon, regularly described as a Harvard astrophysicist (he’s actually an aerospace engineer working for the Smithsonian, which has a joint centre with Harvard), has been among the most prominent and durable. His biggest hit was his 2003 paper with Sallie Baliunas* which brought about the resignation of half of the editorial board of the journal concerned.

Soon has finally come unstuck, having failed to declare his funding from fossil fuel interests and the Koch brothers in a number of articles, thereby violating the requirements of the journals that published him. The New York Times has a lengthy and unflattering expose.

The only surprise is that this took so long, and that Soon has been allowed to do so much damage to science. Still, the supply of seemingly credible deniers is small enough that discrediting even one makes a difference.

Read more…

Categories: Environment, Science Tags:

Vaccination a partisan issue in the US? (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

February 9th, 2015 130 comments

Some recent statements by Chris Christie and Rand Paul[^1] have raised the prospect that vaccination, or, more precisely, policies that impose costs on parents who don’t vaccinate their kids, may become a partisan issue, with Republicans on the anti-vax (or, if you prefer, pro-freedom) side and Democrats pushing a pro-vaccine, pro-science line. Christie and Paul took a lot of flak from other Republicans and even Fox News, and tried to walk their statements back, so it seems as if it won’t happen just yet.

But there are some obvious reasons to think that such a divide might emerge in the future, and that Christie and Paul just jumped the gun. The outline of the debate can be seen in the ferocious response to Reason magazine’s endorsement of mandatory vaccination. And, while Reason was on the right side this time, they’ve continually cherrypicked the evidence on climate change and other issues to try to bring reality in line with libertarian wishes.

The logic of the issue is pretty much identical to that of climate change, gun control, and other policies disliked by the Republican/schmibertarian base. People want to be free to do as they please, even when there’s an obvious risk to others and don’t want to hear experts pointing out those risks.[^2] So, they find bogus experts who will tell them what they want to hear, or announce that they are “skeptics” who will make up their own minds. An obvious illustration of the parallels is this anti-vax piece in the Huffington Post by Lawrence Solomon, rightwing author of The Deniers, a supportive account of climate denial[^3].

As long as libertarians and Republicans continue to embrace conspiracy theories on issues like climate science, taking a pro-science viewpoint on vaccination just makes them “cafeteria crazy”. The consistent anti-science position of people like Solomon is, at least intellectually, more attractive.

Note Another issue that fits the same frame is speeding. Anti-science ibertarians in Australia and the UK are strongly pro-speeding, but I get the impression that this isn’t such a partisan issue in the US, the reverse of the usual pattern where tribalist patterns are strongest in the US.

[^1]: Christie was just pandering clumsily, but Paul’s statement reflects the dominance of anti-vax views among his base and that of his father (take a look at
[^2]: Of course, the situation is totally different in cases like Ebola and (non-rightwing) terrorism, where it’s the “others” who pose the risk.
[^3]: The Huffington Post used to be full of leftish anti-vaxers. But the criticisms of Seth Mnookin and others produced a big shift – Solomon’s was the only recent example I could find. Similarly, having given equivocal statements back in 2008, Obama and Clinton are now firmly on the pro-vaccine side.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Science Tags:

Catalyst teaches the controversy

December 31st, 2014 59 comments

I was at the gym just now and they had a rerun of a Catalyst story from October on the alleged climate change pause, presented by Anja Taylor. It was appalling. It started off correctly attributing the 1998 peak in warming to El Nino (with a shot of Richard Morecroft).

Next there was an unnamed speaker, suggesting that this presaged a permanent El Nino . This obvious straw man (it’s called the Southern Oscillation because it’s cyclical) was presented as if it represented the view of mainstream science, but the transcript attributes it to “reporter”. Clearly, Taylor was unable to get any vision of an actual scientist making this claim.

Next, four denialists (Monckton, Paltridge, Newman and Curry) and an editorial intervention from Taylor asserting the “pause” as a reality, with some super-shoddy graphs. Then a flashback to Climategate.

After this setup, things got gradually better. Some real scientists were brought on, and we eventually reached the conclusion “All things considered, there’s been no global warming pause”. But anyone watching the program would conclude that the sceptics had a pretty strong case.

The problem is that this kind of “teach the controversy” approach is utterly inappropriate for a TV science program. In this case, the problem is (as the program admits) that the majority of the time is given to a view held by a tiny minority of scientists, so few that Taylor had to give air time to two non-scientists and one who has gone emeritus. But even on a topic where scientists are actually divided, a 15-minute TV segment isn’t going to help clarify the issues.

Unfortunately, this kind of thing is typical of Catalyst nowadays. I used to think it was just Maryanne Demasi, but obviously the producers want to present “he said, she said” controversy. It’s time for the ABC to pull the plug.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Science Tags:

Monochrome swans

September 15th, 2014 33 comments

I have a request[^1] for help from scientifically literate readers. A lot of my research work is focused on the problem of unforeseen contingencies, popularly, if ethnocentrically, described as “black swans”. In particular, I’m interested in the question of how you can prepare for such contingencies given that, by definition, you can’t foresee exactly what they will be. One example, with which I’m very pleased, is that of the precautionary principle. It seems reasonable to say that we can distinguish well-understood choices involving hazards from those that are poorly understood, and avoid the latter, precisely because the loss from hazard cannot be bounded in advance.

Anyway, I was thinking about this in relation to the actual case of black swans (or, from my own perspective, white swans). The question is: what principles would help you to avoid making, and acting on, the assumption “all swans are white (or, in my own case, black)”. It seems to me that the crucial fact here is that the shift from black to white, or vice versa, is, in evolutionary terms, a small one. So, if you used something like cladistics, you would avoid choosing feather color as a defining feature of swans, and birds in general. As I understand it, a phylogenetic approach starts with features that are very strongly conserved (body plans) and proceeds from there. But, rather than assume that my own understanding is correct, it seemed simpler to ask.

[^1]: There’s a blog-specific word for this, but I refuse to use it

Categories: Science Tags:

Tu quoque

April 19th, 2014 133 comments

I’ve written many posts and articles making the point that the political right, in most English speaking countries[1] has been taken over by a tribalist post-truth politics in which all propositions, including the conclusions of scientific research, are assessed in terms of their consistency or otherwise with tribal prejudices and shibboleths.

Very occasionally, intellectuals affiliated with the political right (conservatives and libertarians) will seek to deny this, arguing that isolated instances are being blown out of proportion, and that the right as a whole is committed to reasoned, fact-based argument and acceptance of “inconvenient truths’ arising from the conclusions of scientific research[2], [3].

But, far more often their response takes the form of a tu quoque or, in the language of the schoolyard, “you’re another”. That is, they seek to argue that the left is just as tribalist and anti-science as the right. Favored examples of alleged left tribalism included any rhetoric directed at rightwing billionaires ( Murdoch, Rinehart the Kochs). The standard examples of alleged left anti-science are GMOs, nuclear power and anti-vaxerism, but it is also sometimes claimed that US Democrats are just as likely as Republicans to be creationists.

I’ll argue over the fold that these examples don’t work. What’s more important, though, is what the tu quoque argument says about those who deploy it, and their view of politics. The implied claim is that politics is inherently a matter of tribalism and emotion, and that there is no point in complaining about this. The only thing to do is to pick a side and stick to it. What passes for political argument is simply a matter of scoring debating points for your side and demolishing those of the others. So, anyone who uses tu quoque as a defence, rather than seeking to dissuade their own side from tribalist and anti-science rhetoric, deserves no more respect than the tribalists and science deniers themselves, who at least have the defence of ignorance.

Read more…

Categories: Politics (general), Science Tags:

Catalyst followup

November 7th, 2013 26 comments

Fresh from denouncing statins as a Big Pharma conspiracy, MaryAnn Demasi gives a massive plug for cosmetic dermatology, which she describes, without irony, as the “anti-ageing industry”. She dumps on some over-the-counter remedies but only to promote much more expensive treatments like botox and laser “therapy”. Money quote

Now, you’ve seen how we can mask wrinkles by freezing muscle-movement or adding volume to the skin, but to achieve the ultimate skin-rejuvenation, the one thing all dermatologists agree on is to target a protein in the skin called ‘collagen’.

It’s good to know there aren’t any stick-in-the-mud dermatologists who think that leaving collagen alone is a reasonable implication of the Hippocratic injunction “first, do no harm”.

Categories: Science Tags:

Hand it back: Catalyst edition

October 31st, 2013 108 comments

In a recent post, I observed that “Anyone with a university education ought to be able to recognise the limits of their own expertise, and to be able to distinguish between bogus sources of information and the products of genuine peer-reviewed research.” Sadly, the ABC’s Catalyst program appears to be failing that test, judging from the first episode of their report, attempting a debunking of the claims that elevated cholesterol causes heart disease, and that statins reduce the risk of disease. I looked at the evidence on this when I started taking statins around 20 years ago, and it seemed pretty convincing. In the last few years, with intensive exercise, I’ve reduced my cholesterol and stopped taking medication, so I think I can look at this fairly objectively.

As I said, before regarding someone’s opinion as having weight, you need to check whether they have any reason for claiming authority[1]. A quick visit to Google reveals the following info on the medical “scientists” quoted in the program

*”Stephen T. Sinatra is a board certified cardiologist, nutritionist, and anti-aging specialist specializing in integrative medicine. He is also a certified bioenergetic psychotherapist”

* Jonny Bowden – The Rogue Nutritionist is a weight loss coach

* Michael Eades is the biggest prat in the diet industry (alert: possibly not a neutral source).

* Ernest Curtis publishes not in medical journals but on

AFAICT, none of them has ever published scientific research in a peer-reviewed journal (still need to check this more carefully). I’m going to watch Part II now. But based on Part I, I’d say everyone involved should hand back their degrees.

Update The second episode was an improvement on the first. At least it quoted real scientists who have done actual research, and provided something like links to the real stuff (not sure if that will show up in transcript). And the general problems of research funded by drug companies are real enough. OTOH, at least one of the experts quoted against statins was described as a litigation expert, which suggests that the bad incentives aren’t all on one side. An interview with someone from the Heart Foundation was a welcome element of balance, but looked to me to have been edited in a way that gave a misleading picture of what (I imagine) was actually said.

Moreover, given the stress on drug company profits, the show might have taken a minute to point out that both simvastatin (Zocor) and atorvastatin (Lipitor) are now off-patent. There’s been some dispute over whether Australia has moved fast enough to cut the price paid for Lipitor and to encourage the prescribing of cheap generic versions, but the days of statins as a cash cow are already receding. That doesn’t preclude the possibility that its advocates are locked into positions taken previously, but it does cast some doubt on the continuing relevance of financial incentives.

fn1. As I grow tired of pointing out to people who have a misunderstood high school lessons in logic, the alternative to rejecting unqualified “experts” out of hand is not to look at the evidence they present and “make up your own mind”. It’s to undertake the years of intensive study needed to master the subject, then assess the evidence and make up your own mind.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Science Tags:

The Mail on Sunday’s own goal for delusionism

October 4th, 2013 75 comments

I’ve been struck by the fairly straight reporting of the IPCC Working Group 1 report on the physical science of climate change. Even Graham Lloyd at the Oz could find only one para for delusionist Benny Peiser[1] in his report, headlined “Science solid on global warming, IPCC declares“. What happened to the much anticipated delusionist counterattack?

I think we have the Daily Mail to thank for the no-show. As readers will recall, the Mail ran a story by David Rose under the headline “‘World’s top climate scientists confess: Global warming is just HALF what we said”. This was obviously absurd, and the Mail was forced to retract, but not before the story had been circulated throughout the denialosphere, notably including Bolt, the Oz, and the Torygraphs (both UK and Oz). The Oz eventually retracted, but Bolt didn’t bother. This misfire made it pretty much impossible to get much traction out of the modest adjustments that were actually contained in the report, such as reducing the lower bound estimate of climate sensitivity to 1.5 degrees (it was increased from 1.5 degrees to 2.0 degrees in the Fourth Assessment Report0

What’s interesting here is the fact that such obvious nonsense as Rose’s article got such a credulous reception. The idea that estimates of warming since 1950 could be out by a factor of two, or that a few years of additional data could change them substantial is entirely implausible, and a “confession of error” unsupported by a quote ought to raise alarm bells. Multiple levels of stupidity are needed to explain this. First, the majority of delusionists are simply innumerate, and ignorant of the most basic facts about data (we saw this with the claims about “no significant warming” since 1993). Second, the confirmation bias that affects everyone is magnified to a pathological extent in the parallel universe created by the right. Third, the tribal character of the movement means that there are no incentives to correct error. Presumably there are at least some delusionists who must have thought the “confession of error” story too good to be true. But no one would have thanked them for raising doubts. Whereas real climate scientists disagree vigorously among themselves (though all but a handful agree that the evidence for the basic fact of human-caused climate change is overwhelming), “sceptics” never criticise any claim on their own side, however absurd.

Most obviously, Judith Curry who was quoted in Rose’s article (not as a source for the bogus claims) must have realised it was nonsense. But she implicitly endorsed it, after its publication, but before its retraction. Note that, while saying the article quoted her accurately and would not be welcomed by the IPCC, Curry carefully avoids mentioning taking a position on its main claim, which she must have known to be false (she mentions the dispute briefly, at the bottom of here post, but offers no opinion). This is fairly typical of her, and her role-model Richard Lindzen.

But in this case, it was too clever by half. A smart delusionist if one existed would have jumped on Rose’s error and used it to build up some credibility for the future.

fn1. Peiser is, or was, a social anthropologist, and, according to Wikipedia, is currently a visiting fellow (not a real job, I suspect) at the University of Buckingham (definitely not a real university[2]). He’s therefore eminently qualified to represent the delusionist viewpoint on issues of physical science and the interpretation of statistical evidence.

fn2. To be boringly clear, I’m fully aware that Buckingham is an accredited institution with lecturers, degrees and so on, legally entitled to call itself a university. It’s still not a real university.

Categories: #NewsCorpFail, #Ozfail, Media, Science Tags:

How to argue with creationists

September 30th, 2013 61 comments


Read more…

Categories: Science Tags:

The global party of stupid (slightly updated)

September 18th, 2013 42 comments

The new conservative ministry has just been sworn in, and while it includes Ministers for Border Protection (that is, stopping refugees) and Sport, and even a minister for the centenary of the Anzac landings on Gallipoli in 1915, there are no longer ministers for science or higher education[1]. This is part of a fairly consistent pattern. The US Republican Party recently vetoed the creation of an unpaid position of National Science Laureate. In Canada, the Harper government eliminated the position of National Science Advisor, among many other anti-science moves. All of this reflects the inconvenient fact that scientific research often reaches conclusions that conflict with the policy preferences or religious beliefs of rightwingers.

It’s striking in this context to recall that, only 20 years ago, the phrase “Science Wars” was used in relation to generally leftish postmodernists in the humanities, who were seen as rejecting science and/or promoting pseudoscience (while some of this stuff was rather silly, there’s no evidence that it ever did any actual harm to science). These days postmodernist and related “science studies” critiques of science are part of the rightwing arsenal used by Steven Fuller to defend creationism and by Daniel Sarewitz on climate science. The routine assumption that the analyses put forward of innumerate bloggers are just as valid as (in fact more valid than) as those of scientists who have devoted their life to the relevant field is one aspect of this, as is the constant demand to “teach the controversy” on evolution, climate science, wind turbine health scares, vaccination and so on.

In the short run, the costs of attacking science are small. Scientists aren’t that numerous, so their conversion into one of the most solidly anti-Republican voting blocs in the US has’t had much electoral impact. But, eventually the fact that conservatives are the “stupid party” gets noticed, even by rightwingers themselves.

One person who has just noticed is Frank Furedi, a leading figure in the former Revolutionary Communist Party which, over the course of the 1990s, morphed into the rightwing libertarian Spiked group. In retrospect, Furedi jumped ship at the high water mark of right wing intellectual confidence, symbolised by Tom Friedman’s bloviations in The Lexus and the Olive Tree. Then came the Asian crisis, successive financial crises in the US and the intellectual debacle of climate delusionism, to which Furedi and the Spiked Group contributed actively. So, having joined what seemed to be the smart set, Furedi has finally realised that he is inescapably enmeshed in stupid. The result is this cri de coeur, lamenting the way in which rightwingers are called out for saying stupid things (he name-checks Tony Abbott, Stephanie Banister and, of course, Sarah Palin). Furedi doesn’t deny that rightwingers embrace stupidity, in fact he concedes it, observing

Not surprisingly, many conservatives become defensive when confronted with the put-downs of their intellectual superiors. Consequently, in many societies, particularly the US, they have become self-consciously anti-intellectual and hostile to the ethos of university life. Anti-intellectualism works as the kind of counterpart to the pathologisation of conservatism. And of course, the bitter anti-intellectual reaction of the right, which sometimes seems to affirm ignorance, only reinforces the smug prejudices of the intellectuals who see themselves as being morally superior. (emphasis added)

A couple of things are interesting about Furedi’s piece. First, he erases from history the period of rightwing intellectual dominance that began with the rise of market liberalism in the mid-1970s, and reached its apogee in the mid-1990s, before declining catastrophically in the Bush era. Second, he fails to recognise the way in which the silly-clever pointscoring of rightwing intellectuals like himself has contributed to the anti-intellectualism he deplores on his own side.

Even now, the intellectual collapse of the right has not had much effect on political outcomes. The dead ideas of the right shamble on in zombie form, and still dominate the thinking of the political class, particularly at the level of unconscious reflex. And, even to the extent that rightwing claims about, say, the beneficence of the financial sector, are discredited, the political power of the dominant class ensures that not much can be done. Winning the battle of ideas is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for progress. The rightwing embrace of stupidity is already doing them harm and will do a lot more in futer.

fn1. There are also very few women, but that needs another post.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Science Tags:

What is it like to be a bug?

September 14th, 2013 50 comments

According to Calvin, at least, the same as to be a bat. But for the rest of us, it seems obvious that there is likely to be a qualitative difference between the subjective experience (if any) of a bug, and that of a bat. And, if true bugs don’t work for you in this example, there’s always the colloquial “bugs” such as bacteria and viruses, which presumably don’t have any experience at all.

Read more…

Categories: Science Tags:

The obesity paradox paradox (crossposted at Crooked Timber)

June 20th, 2013 26 comments

I see lots of stories made up of handwringing over the “obesity paradox”, normally presented as saying that even though obesity is a risk factor for all kinds of diseases, obese people appear to have lower mortality than others. A typical finding is the one reported here

being overweight or slightly obese was linked to about a 6 percent lower risk of dying, compared to people considered “normal weight. Being severely obese, however, was still tied to an almost 30 percent higher risk of death.

People are tying themselves in knots over this, but it doesn’t seem to me that there is any paradox to be explained. The obvious reading of the data is that the Body Mass Index[^1] ranges used for the various categories (20-25 Normal, 25-30 Overweight etc) were set a bit too low when they were originally estimated, or rather, guessed. From my quick look at the data, if you bumped the ranges up by a couple of points, the paradox would disappear. People at the bottom of the current normal range, who tend to have high mortality, would be classed as underweight, while those currently classed as slightly overweight would be reclassified as normal.

Am I missing something?

[^1] This point is logically separate from the general problems of the BMI, regarding muscle mass and so on.

Categories: Science Tags:

The arithmetic of space travel (crossposted from Crooked Timber)

May 13th, 2013 110 comments

There’s been a lot of excitement about the discovery of two Earth-like[^1] planets, a mere 1200 light years away. Pretty soon, I guess, we’ll be thinking about sending colonists. So, I thought it might be worthwhile to a little bit of arithmetic on the exercise.

I’m going to assume (generously, I think) that the minimum size for a successful colony is 10 000. The only experience we have is the Apollo program, which transported 12 astronauts to the Moon (a distance of 1 light second) at a cost of $100 billion or so (current values). So, assuming linear scaling (again, very generously, given the need to accelerate to near lightspeed), that’s a cost of around $100 trillion per light-second for 10 000 people. 1200 light-years is around 30 billion light-seconds, so the total cost comes out roughly equal to the value of current world GDP accumulated over the life of the universe.

Even supposing that technological advances made travel possible over such distances possible, why would we bother. By hypothesis, that would require the ability to live in interstellar space for thousands of years. A civilisation with that ability would have no need of planets.

[joke alert on] On behalf of my fellow Australians, I’m going to make a counter-offer. For a mere $10 trillion, we can find you an area of land larger than a typical European country, almost certainly more habitable than the new planets, and much closer. We’ll do all the work of supplying water and air, build 10 000 mansions for the inhabitants and guarantee a lifetime supply of food. I’m hoping for a spotters fee of 0.01 per cent.[joke alert off]

On a related point, what should we be wishing for here? The fact that no-one has sent a detectable signal in our direction suggests that intelligent life forms similar to humans are very rare. If habitable planets are very rare, then this is unsurprising – interstellar distances preclude both travel and any kind of two-way communication. If on the other hand, the emergence of intelligent life is common, then the evidence suggests that its disappearance, through processes like nuclear war, must also be common.

[^1] Where Earth-like means somewhere between Venus-like and Mars-like.

Categories: Science Tags:

Crusader Monckton

February 13th, 2013 119 comments

Ever since the Brisbane Institute cancelled my invitation to debate Christopher ‘Lord” Monckton a few years ago, I’ve followed his career with more than usual interest. His ‘Loony Lord M’ character, owing a lot to Screaming Lord Sutch, has been a huge hit here in Australia. By contrast, back in the UK, officials of the House of Lords have taken offence at his claims to be a member of that institution[1]. Some sniffy British Tories also seem to be upset by the claim that the UK government, along with Obama, Merkel and Gillard, are plotting to introduce a communist world government through a $20/tonne tax on CO2, and, of course, Agenda 21. Here in Australia, though, the fans love him for his ability to make the most absurd claims with a (sort of) straight face.

Given his obvious similarities to Sacha Baron-Cohen, it seemed reasonable to expect that Monckton would come up with a new character to keep his Antipodean fans amused. That expectation was proved correct when he turned up in Canberra as Crusader Monckton, endorsing pastor Danny Nalliah’s campaign against the oppressive rule of Shariah law in Australia, and the establishment of a new Judaeo-Christian political party. So far he’s getting rave reviews in advance press.

I’m a bit disappointed, though, that he doesn’t seem to be growing as an artist. Instead of making a clean break, he’s playing it safe, maintaining the previous climate delusionist shtick in parallel with the new one. And there isn’t really a lot of distance between the old character and the new one. Existing fans like Abbott, Albrechtsen, Bolt and, of course, Gina Rinehart will welcome the addition of the new Crusader persona, but there’s no way he can reach new audiences with such tired stuff. He really needs something more creative, like a campaign against gravity, or a claim that cancer is good for you.

Still, for those interested here’s the tour schedule

fn1. He ran at the first opportunity, receiving no votes. In emulation of the Monty Python Silly Party, he ran again, getting twice as many.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Science Tags:

Problems with probabilities

August 28th, 2012 53 comments

Peter Hartcher is an insightful commentator on political issues, but we are all prone to fallacious reasoning about probability, and this article about Australian views of the US election illustrates quite a few of them. I don’t mean to pick on Hartcher, whose errors here are trivial compared to the practice of deriving strong conclusions from trivial fluctuations in poll numbers, but this is, as they say, a learning opportunity. Hartcher notes that most Australians, like most people everywhere outside the US, would prefer Obama and goes on to say

But Australians’ answers to another poll question on the US election were troubling. Asked which candidate they expect to win, 65 per cent name Obama and only 9 per cent Romney in the poll conducted by UMR Research.

This is not a question about preferences but expectations. And it is far removed from the realities in the US. The contest for the presidency is finely balanced.

The average result of eight leading polls of US voting intentions shows 46.9 per cent of Americans support Obama and 45.5 per cent Romney, according to That’s a difference of just 1.4 percentage points, which is within the margin of polling error. For statistical purposes, it’s a dead heat.

”Australians could be in for an unpleasant surprise on November 6,” the UMR Research pollster Stephen Mills observes.

Read more:

There are lots of problems here.
Read more…

Categories: Science, World Events Tags:

Big tobacco loses again

August 15th, 2012 84 comments

Until relatively recently, Big Tobacco appeared invincible. Despite the fact that tobacco smoke was full of known carcinogens that would have had a factory shut down if they came out of the smokestack, and ample evidence that exposure to tobacco smoke caused cancer, not to mention the violation of liberty associated with blowing smoke in public places, Big Tobacco effectively resisted even the mildest restrictions on its activities. It was aided by a team of scientists and other “experts” willing to claim that the hazards of smoking were non-existent or overstated (notable names here include Enstrom & Kabat, Gio Batta Gori, Richard Lindzen, Steve Milloy, Fred Seitz and Fred Singer – Google has details).

Virtually all the main rightwing thinktanks in the US and Australia went along with this fraud (AEI, Cato, Centre for Independent Studies, CEI, Heartland and IPA among many others). While they might legitimately have argued part of their case on strict libertarian grounds, that would not have been sufficient to resist restrictions on passive smoking. So, they published attacks on science which any reasonable assessment would have shown to be false. In doing so, of course, they encouraged people to take risks with their own lives and those of others, while happily accepting money from the merchants of death. Whether they were knowingly lying, or merely recklessly indifferent to the truth, this episode should have discredited them forever (it certainly has with me).

But the tide has turned. US litigation in the 1990s exposed a treasure trove of internal documents which eventually led to racketeering convictions for the main tobacco companies. And now the High Court has rejected Big Tobacco’s (legally preposterous) challenge to plain packaging legislation in Australia, made on the supposed basis that it represented a taking of intellectual ‘property’. Not satisfied with one preposterous claim, the tobacco companies are planning another, having bribed the government of Ukraine to make a WTO accusation of trade restraint. Actually, this is a good thing. This case is such an obvious abuse of process, and the litigants so clearly evil, that the WTO will surely not be crazy enough to support their case. In rejecting it, they will probably be forced to set precedents that make future interference with domestic health policy more difficult.

Coming to the policy merits, the current legal status of tobacco is, in my view, a pretty good model for drugs in general – legally available, but with all kinds of promotion prohibited and with an active public health campaign to give accurate information on the associated risks.

Categories: Intellectual 'property', Science Tags:

Greenpeace, an enemy of science

July 15th, 2011 139 comments

Tim Lambert comments on Greenpeace sabotage of a CSIRO experiment on GM crops. Sadly, Greenpeace has become an openly anti-science organisation.

I agree with everything Tim says, but I’d add something more on the politics of this action. This kind of criminal vandalism, in the “right” cause, appeals to the juvenile instincts that nearly all of us retain to some extent, but it has repeatedly proved disastrous for the left, and the environmental movement. It’s worth comparing this kind of action to civil disobedience protests, where people put themselves on the line and openly invite arrest. If these guys had any desire to promote genuine debate they would turn themselves in and defend their actions in open court.

Given the embrace of anti-science and anti-rational views by the political right, it is important that the left and the environmental movement should dissociate themselves entirely from this kind of action. It will be a long time before Greenpeace can regain my support, if they ever do.

Categories: Environment, Science Tags:

Tell it early, tell it all, tell it yourself

May 26th, 2011 28 comments

That’s the advice on scandal management from former Clinton spinmaster Lanny Davis, who’s since applied his expertise to defending some of the least appealing clients imaginable. Whatever you think of Davis, his advice is pretty good, and lots of people have come to grief by doing the opposite. That certainly seems to be the case with George Mason University. In March 2010, they received an official complaint of plagiarism regarding the notorious Wegman report produced (at the request of Republican Congressman Joe Barton) to criticise the well-known ‘hockey stick’ graph of global temperatures. Amazingly, GMU Professor Edward Wegman had lifted substantial blocks of text, without acknowledgement, from one of his targets, Raymond Bradley. When this was pointed out by bloggers John Mashey and Deep Climate, Bradley complained and asked for the report to be retracted.

Ignoring (or ignorant of) Davis’ advice, GMU took its time, perhaps hoping the problem would go away. Unfortunately for them, the opposite happened. Further research produced at least two more instances of plagiarism, one in another section of the Wegman report dealing with social networks and another in an unrelated paper on color vision. As I a mentioned a little while ago, the social networks analysis produced an academic paper, accepted by a Wegman mate with no peer review, which has now been retracted.

And now, Nature, which published the original hockey stick paper in 1999, has weighed in with an editorial calling for GMU to hurry up, and making mention of the Office of Research Integrity as an alternative process. That could make it a criminal matter.

At this point, GMU has no appealing options.

Read more…

Categories: Environment, Science Tags:

Reality-based journalism: some updates

May 25th, 2011 10 comments
Categories: Media, Science Tags:

Lindzen, Davidson and statistical significance

April 11th, 2011 13 comments

Among the many anti-science talking points, a striking one is the widely repeated claim (originating with Richard Lindzen) that there has been no significant warming since 1995. In his original statement, Lindzen was careful to refer to “statistically significant” warming, but he must have known that most of his readers would understand “significant” in its ordinary sense, and in fact Lindzen fell into the same trap himself in this Quadrant article. Sinclair Davidson cites the BBC interview leading to the famous Daily Mail article that got this utterly wrong, but doesn’t point this out to his audience (most of whom wouldn’t know a t-statistic if it bit them, but nevertheless feel qualified to “make up their own “minds”” in accordance with their political prejudices.)

As I pointed out, all Lindzen’s claim means is that, given the noise in the data, you need more than the 14 annual observations from 1995 to 2008 (when he made the claim) to get statistical significance. Of course, we had the additional observations, namely those before 1995, so Lindzen’s statement was trivial. It was also safe to predict that, given a few years more data, the trend for the period since 1995 would be significant, and so it has proved.
Read more…

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Science Tags:

Phoning it in

April 7th, 2011 54 comments

Not long ago, I noted that Opposition Environment spokesman Greg Hunt was out by a factor of five in his estimate of the effects of a carbon price on the average household’s electricity bill. Now Tim Lambert at Deltoid catches him out by a factor of (at least) 100. And last week Lenore Taylor caught him circulating the latest delusionist talking point (about France dropping a carbon tax) in a press release, hastily correcting it an hour later when he realised that his “news” was a year old.

Three absurd errors in the space of a few weeks is starting to look like a pattern. What gives here? Hunt is one of the less silly members of the Opposition front bench, so I think the only explanation is that he is, as they say in the movie business, “phoning it in”.

If Hunt wants to stay in his job he has to oppose a policy he knows to be the right one, while advocating a nonsensical supposed alternative which exists only because Abbott can’t afford to say he will do (next to) nothing about climate change if he gets in, though of course that’s exactly what will happen.

And those on the Liberal side of politics who are paying any attention to this issue are mostly “sceptics”, that is, credulous fools who’ve already swallowed bucketloads of nonsense from Monckton, Carter, Plimer and others, despite ample and easily accessible refutations from scientists who know what they are talking about[1]. While they would scream blue murder about a misplaced comma in an IPCC document, or an out-of-context phrase lifted from an email, nothing as trivial as an error of a factor of five (or a hundred or a thousand) will worry them as long as it comes from their side of the fight (I was going to write “debate”, but this would imply that there was some element of rational argument).

So, from Hunt’s point of view, he might as well take it easy and churn out whatever nonsense comes to hand. As has been shown by the non-reaction to the absurdities I’ve listed, no one but a few bloggers will care.

fn1. Within this group, I guess I prefer those for whom “sceptic” means “I’ll believe whatever suits me politically” to those who, in the face of all this profess to be “still making up their minds” or “unable to judge”. Both are displaying absurd credulity regarding the nonsensical “evidence” put forward by the anti-science side and a massive over-estimation of their own reasoning powers regarding a mass of scientific literature they have never read and never intend to. But the first group are at least clearer about their motives.

Categories: Oz Politics, Science Tags:

The chain of scientific authority

March 21st, 2011 90 comments

Noted scientist Andrew Bolt assures us that exposure to radioactivity is beneficial. His source is creation scientist Ann Coulter, who in turn relies on all-round scientific expert Tom Bethell, whose Incorrect Guide to Science[1] rejects scientific correctness on radiation, evolution, climate change, DDT, AIDS and many other topics. As far as I know, none of these experts has ever studied any scientific subject at a level higher than high school, which guarantees that they haven’t been infected by the subversive influence of correctness in science (or, for that matter, any other topic).

(Hat tip, Tim Lambert, who points to one of those correct scientists, PZ Myers)

fn1. The full title says “Politically Incorrect”, but this is a bit redundant. No doubt politics are the reason for Bethells incorrectness on science, but that’s true of all his incorrect opinions.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Science Tags:

Howled down in a pomo world

March 19th, 2011 31 comments

Deirdre Macken has a great piece on today’s Fin, riffing off Cardinal “I spend a lot of time studying this stuff” Pell to the general issue of the challenge to expertise in both productive (Wikipedia) and unproductive (climate science rejectionism) forms. Paywalled unfortunately, but here’s the link for anyone who can use it.

Macken, correctly I think, points to postmodernism as a contributor to the process. I’ve discussed this before (do a search) and I know it’s more complicated than that, but the vulgarised version of postmodernism as denying any special status to scientific knowledge as compared to other “knowledges” has certainly been embraced on the political right in a way that few of its original proponents could have anticipated.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Science Tags: