Hand it back: Catalyst edition

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 LewRockwell.com

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.

Smokescreen (updated)

Brsbane has had its second CBD lockdown in a week with another false alarm prompted by the fear that outlaw bikies will launch a terrorist bombing campaign against the forces of law and order. We’re already on the verge of a constitutional crisis as Newman intervenes directly in court cases, claiming a mandate from the masses, and running smear campaigns against judges who defy him.

What is going on here? The actual threat to society represented by bikie gangs (a few public brawls[1] and some low-level drug dealing and protection rackets) isn’t remotely commensurate with this response.

I suspect that the answer is to be found in the fight between Newman and Tony Fitzgerald and, in particular, Newman’s suggestion that bikie crime is worse than the corruption exposed by the Fitzgerald inquiry. Of course, that corruption didn’t involve bikies, or any kind of outlaw gang – it was run from the top, by senior National Party ministers, and the corrupt police they promoted. Its exposure left the conservative parties in the wilderness for nearly 20 years.

Clearly, Newman and the LNP have forgotten none of this. Almost their first act on taking office was to nobble the Crime and Misconduct Commission that arose from the Fitzgerald report. Pretty clearly, Newman and Seeney don’t intend their government to share the fate of Bjelke-Petersen and Hinze. Equally clearly, they intend to reward themselves and their mates as liberally as possible at the public expense. For a government that’s only half way through its first term they’ve already accumulated a track record of nepotism and cronyism that would be impressive after a decade or more in office. It’s obvious that, sooner or later, something big will blow up with the CMC, criminal charges and so on. That is, of course, unless the CMC can be neutralised and the judiciary reduced the position of tame compliance we saw in the Joh era.

A politician who preaches law and order is almost certainly picking your pockets as he does so. That certainly looks to be the case in Queensland.

Update The evening after this was posted, there were calls for the Acting head of the CMC, Ken Levy, to resign because he had written an opinion piece endorsing the Newman government’s policy. It turns out that he’s a former director-general of the Department of Justice forced out by Labor because of the fiasco over the disgraceful prosecution of Pauline Hanson. That led me to the discovery that Newman’s review of the CMC was conducted by Ian Callinan, who has ethical issues of his own. Readers can judge whether Levy’s leadership is such as to inspire their confidence.End update

fn1. The most serious case was when where a fight in a shopping centre resulted in a bystander receiving gunshot wounds. But that didn’t require new laws. One participant was convicted of affray, while the other (the alleged shooter) is in jail awaiting trial.

Hand it back

The Sydney Morning Herald interviewed 35 economists and found 30 of them favored carbon price (tax, ETS or some mixture) over Direct Action. It quotes Chris Caton as saying “Any economist who didn’t opt for emissions trading “should hand his degree back”, says Chris Caton.

I’d take that a step further.

Anyone with a natural science degree in any field will find plenty of examples of denialist lies on everything from basic physics to bushfires. More generally, denialists have attacked the entire scientific enterprise with absurd conspiracy theories. No-one who endorses these attacks, explicitly or tacitly, deserves to call themselves a scientist.

Similarly, anyone with a degree that includes even minimal exposure to statistics should understand that denialists were misusing the concept of statistical significance when they claimed, a few years back there had been no significant warming since 1995. Subsequent hacks have had to move the goalposts forward to 1997. And that’s just one example of the cherrypicking dishonesty rife on the denialist side of the debate. So, anyone who claims to be a sceptic and hasn’t distanced themselves from claims like these should send back their math/stat degree.

Then there are those with university degrees, but without the training in science, maths or economics to assess the key issues independently. 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. If they prefer the kind of nonsense circulated on denialist websites to the conclusions of scientific research, they should hand in their degrees and instead obtain one of the many qualifications available, for a modest fee and no work, on internet sites like those listed here.

Colin Clark Memorial lecture: National Accounting and the Digital Economy – the Case of the National Broadband Network,

I’ll be presenting the Colin Clark Memorial lecture on 14 November.

Colin Clark’s greatest contribution to economics was his pioneering role in the construction of national accounts. In the industrial economy of the 20th century, the central problem in the national accounting was the need to avoid double counting, by measuring only the value added at each stage of production. This problem is closely related to that of benefit-cost analysis for public projects. In the 21st century digital economy, value is primarily derived from the flow of information rather than physical inputs and outputs. This creates new problems for national accounting, and for benefit-cost analysis. One example of these problems is the question of how to evaluate alternative proposals for the National Broadband Network.

The talk is bundled with a lunch at Customs House, which (from past experience) will be very pleasant, but fairly expensive, so this event is mostly going to appeal to people whose employers can pay. For those who aren’t in this category, or who aren’t in Brisbane, I’ll post a link to the slides after the event.

The macro foundations of micro (crossposted at Crooked Timber)

Twitter alerted me to an amusing exchange between Chris Auld, posting a list of “18 signs you’re reading bad criticism of economics and Unlearning Economics, responding with 18 Signs Economists Haven’t the Foggiest. UL suggests that Stephen Williamson manages an impressive 9 out of 18 in his review of Zombie Economics (my response here with more from Noah Smith.

Scoring myself against Chris Auld’s list, I’d say I’m in the clear. But quite a few commenters on Zombie Economics have made complaints along the lines of his point 1, that I focus too much on macroeconomics (and finance). The implication is that, even if macro is totally wrong, only a minority of economists do it, and microeconomists are in the clear.

This defense doesn’t work, at least not in general.

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Abbott's Sister Souljah non-moment

As I said in my last post, Tony Abbott has set himself the tightrope-walking task of maintaining his government’s official endorsement of mainstream climate change, while keeping his denialist base happy. Having made a mess of this with his bushfire comments, he had a chance to rectify the situation when he gave an interview to denialist and conspiracy theorist Andrew Bolt. Newscorp ran in under the headline “Andrew Bolt tackles the PM on the big issues”, but Bolt was playing touch, not tackle.

The interview was a sycophantic exercise in mutual admiration, with all the tough questions you might expect from, say, Anne Summers interviewing Julia Gillard or Kevin Rudd interviewing himself. But such interviews present smart politicians with the chance to play against type, by disagreeing with the interviewer on an issue dear to the base, but politically problematic for a would-be statesman. Presented with a soft lob question about the bushfires, Abbott could have taken the chance to define his own position as the “sensible centre”, by repudiating both Bolt’s denialism and the “alarmism” of those stressing the link between bushfires and climate. Bill Clinton famously did this when he denounced radical rap artist Sister Souljah, signalling the shift to the right undertaken by the Democratic Leadership Council of which he was part.

Instead, Abbott chose to dig himself deeper, extending his denialism on bushfires and further claiming that the observation of record high temperatures is not evidence of climate change. I mentioned in my last post that he would have a problem in formulating a response to the likelihood that 2013 will turn out to be the warmest year in the Australian observational record. He’s chosen his answer now, one that is unlikely to carry much credibility except with those already committed to denialism.

His summary of climate science, previously reported as “crap” has been replaced by “hogwash”, perhaps in deference to the sensitivities of Greg Hunt, who took strong exception to being confronted with the previous term by a BBC interviewer. I won’t link to Bolt, but the relevant passages are quoted over the fold.

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