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.

108 thoughts on “Hand it back: Catalyst edition

  1. Doesn’t elevated cholesterol increase the risk of heart disease (not cause heart disease)? I remember Dr Norman Swan explaining this on RN’s Health Report.

  2. … it may come as a surprise to anyone who cares enough to know what a supporter I am of climate scientists, but here in this case I’m keen to out myself as a sceptic of the medical science that I thought was pretty nicely criticised by the last Catalyst episode.

    In the first instance, before going off to do the hard research work of looking into the absurdity of some of the claims made by the pharmaceutical industry and its many doctors, people would I suggest do well to again look simply at the money.

    As in climate sciencewhere the side of the angels turns out to be opposed by the enormous wealth of the fossil fuel industry so in medical/pharmaceutical matters … where is the big money made?

    In short.

  3. The quote I remembered is

    The message is that paradoxically you don’t take statins to lower your cholesterol. You take them to lower your risk of a heart attack or stroke if that risk is sufficiently high.

    From the Health Report March 5 2012.

  4. I had my doubts after watching the 1st edition last week. One should exercise some skepticism before overturning the existing wisdom.

    However, you also have to keep in mind the resistance that ideas like mosquitoes causing yellow fever, and heliobacter causing stomach ulcers generated.

    As someone carrying a bit too much weight, I can see the attraction in not believing that croissants are bad for me.

  5. On this one, the debate I have come across wasn’t so much as to whether statins lowered cholesterol levels as to whether that flowed through to better heart disease outcomes on the one hand and to acceptable levels of side effects on the other hand. Certainly, the only data point I personally have is, knowing someone who suffered excruciatingly painful side effects from statins that took a long time to be connected to their cause, and who has since died anyway.

  6. Five minutes into the second episode of Catalyst and it’s still looking to be right on the money to me …

  7. “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.”

    I am not sure with this if you take umbrage with people who claim authority of one kind or another or with the people who are left to try to discern the competing claims of those who claim authority.

    As someone who can claim no authority, I would like to defend the latter.

    Often people need to make up their minds about a number of things within timeframes in which they do not have the time to look at all the evidence presented by various sorts of people, let alone to undertake years of intensive study under various sorts of professors to come to their own educated conclusions about *everything they need to make their minds up about* which might not even be things they would choose to know about in any case – we must vote, we must make various choices.

    As you comment from a democratic perspective I can only think you support people making up their minds on things as best they can, but perhaps this is wrong – the combination of socialism and democratic confuses me somewhat I admit – what if one conflicts with another? If someone makes false claims that are decided to be against the social good by people holding authority, perhaps they could be outlawed from socialist perspective? Whereas from a democratic perspective if someone was to make false claims, I suppose it would simply be up to the majority of people as to whether it should be outlawed or allowed?

  8. OK just for the record John, because I have the respect I do for your opinions and you’ve been so critical of this program – having watched the second episode now my opinion is that it is two excellent episodes of work. In my opinion much credit is due DeMasi, and the comments of the witnesses on the sceptical side of the arguments aired in the program accord entirely with my own prejudices on the subject (having looked at the medical science for a couople of decades now).

    Just my opinion, for the record, for what it’s worth.

  9. I was disappointed that the program did not touch on the large number of independent clinical and landmark trials supportive of the use of statins (or maybe they did, I did nod off).

    I look forward to more exposes eg radiation from powerlines/mobile phones/microwave ovens and cancer.

  10. Dr Demasi said

    Unless you’ve already been diagnosed with heart disease, then taking a statin won’t help you live longer.

    This is flawed, some argue that heart disease (eg atherosclerosis) can be present, without symptoms, in teenagers yet does not manifest for decades. Waiting for a cardiac event before prescribing medication is a bit like waiting for a fire before buying a fire extinguisher.

  11. There seems to be an inverse relationship between expertise and media celebrity, in that the more prominent a media celebrity is in posing as an expert and appearing in mainstream media then the less accurate they are in their knowledge and predictions and similarly too with the flashier and more tabloid a science program is.

    Its sort of a conundrum in deciding which programs are worth consideration not being an expert program evaluator. So i use rules of thumb to decide which to avoid.
    If the program uses quick flashing video special effects (an insidious technique originally from commercial TV and marketing, added in post production to create a trance like psychological effect) or meaningless sound effects or general pre-digested verbiage of the type that infests the mainstream media then it’s off my viewing list, which given the current standards means that there are very few programs worth watching, which is probably a good thing because you can learn far more from your time reading rather than the same amount of time watching a linear video.

    Personally I want the expert scientific conclusions first then the details. I don’t want to sit through half an hour of posturing narcissistic media prima donnas with or without their doctorates. And i don’t know about you but frankly i would prefer an expert scientist that looks like the back of a truck rather than these posing pretty boys and girls to be dispensing knowledge to me thank you very much.

    Whenever I see one of these professional journalistic media types on television i realise just how fraudulent they are. Try it yourself, just watch them closely, their off centre position in the screen, the meaningless hand gestures, the bizarre head movements, all to conceal that they are reading from a script offscreen. Firstly they can’t remember their lines and secondly they are lying about it, continuously. They might as well wear a T-shirt saying “we are deceiving you and we are arrogant enough to believe that you’re dumb enough not to notice or to care” which judging by some of the popular programmes purporting to represent reality may not be far from the mark.

    Anyway the thing about television science programs and documentaries is that they allow ignorant people to feel that they are knowledgeable about a subject simply by sitting on their couch and passively consuming it. Catalyst is better than many but way short of good enough for a credulous public particularly in this instance. Perhaps their standards would appreciate from an organised response.

  12. I think perhaps there is a straw man type argument going on here. And I say that without watching the 2nd episode…

    Say you have blood pressure that is mildly high. This is a risk factor for heart disease. It might double your risk. But if your other risk factors are low, it might be doubling your risk from 1/1000 to 1/500. So do you take medication for your blood pressure? Well no, because at considerable expense and with possible side effects, you’ll end up lowering your risk back to ~1/1000. Which really isn’t worth it.

    But if you have a family history of heart disease, are a smoker, have high cholesterol, are obese and live a sedentary lifestyle, and have high blood pressure – then taking blood pressure medication might reduce your risk of an adverse event from 1/5 to 1/10. And that could very well be worth it.

    Doctors know this, and aren’t going to suggest medical treatment for a low risk situation.

    So if the show was attacking the use of statins by people with low risk of heart disease, I’m not surprised. But if it is attacking the use of statins by people at a high risk of heart disease, I’d be surprised and would want to look into it.

  13. While I’m somewhat sympathetic to the (general) issue being presented in the two Catalyst episodes, I’m less sympathetic to the choice of “specialists” used to provide evidence of problems with statins. Going against the grain requires a pretty high standard of analysis to support the assertion, especially for a science show running a two-part special on the one topic.

    In the second episode, I found the idea that it was reasonable to suppose that patients complaining of problems while using the medication could be explained away as “placebo effect” as particularly galling. It is the age old problem of trust the doctor, not your own body. Sure, some small subset of affected patients might be falsely believing that they have a health problem—and it is caused by a particular medication, but to attribute that as though it is the most likely explanation in general, is breathtakingly audacious—and boneheadedly stupid.

    Like Edward, I suffered peripheral pain in the lower legs and feet to the extent that I could barely walk, and had that for about a year. Stopped a particular medication, and the problem slowly resolved. Imagined? Real? And then there is the issue that since then, I have started using a different combination of medications (including a statin), so it could have even been an interaction of a previous combination of medications that resulted in the severe foot and lower leg pain, rather than a single medication; who would even know? I’d be pretty pissed off if a doctor explained it away as “placebo effect” though.

    Finally, now that I have been exposed to a significant number of different classes of medications over several years, I can say that for myself, at least, I now expect a good 30% chance of significant side effects from any new medication I’m prescribed, all other things being equal. In a few cases, I have ended up in hospital due to side effects, and in one case due to acute allergic reaction. If I believe the statistics as issued in the drug trial stats, a less than 1% chance is expected for getting some of the side effects that I suffered from, for the given medication. One side effect was listed as < 0.01%. Now, perhaps I'm genetically buggered up and that explains it, or…side effect statistics are woefully biased in a downwards direction, whether by poor experimental designs, or by restricting the design to initially exclude patients who seem to suffer side effects, or by deliberate manipulation of published results. Whatever the case, my personal experience is that side effects are rarely discussed but are relatively frequent, and at a severe enough level to cause some health problems distinct from the original condition.

  14. As John Brookes says, prescribing a medication to lower an already very low risk of heart disease is unlikely to be a net benefit; prescribing a medication where it can lower a high risk (eg for a patient with multiple risk factors) to a moderate risk is probably worthwhile. But there needs to be good evidence of the effects, and drug trials are not really designed in a way that allows that sort of evidence to be extracted. Some drug trials accept patients who are using other medication for the same condition as the trial drug’s purpose, so that is probably going to confound it. One trial I’m aware of allowed a pain medication to be used while testing another medication for pain: I’m still scratching my head over how that could provide reliable data for robust conclusions—in theory it is possible, but in reality I doubt it very much.

  15. Dr Abramson

    We’re missing the message: that health rarely comes out of a bottle. Exercise and a Mediterranean-style diet is the best way to prevent heart disease. I think virtually everybody agrees with that. Now, it’s very clear that when you look at the effects of exercise, they’re far more powerful than statins.

    What is in agreement by virtually everybody is that high cholesterol is associated with heart disease and research has shown that the Mediterranean style diet and/or exercise can lower cholesterol. There is still heart disease amongst those who follow particular diet and exercise regimes but it is at a reduced rate.

    For those people who, irrespective of diet and exercise, continue to show high levels of cholesterol other methods are required.

  16. Dr Abramson

    We’re missing the message: that health rarely comes out of a bottle. Exercise and a Mediterranean-style diet is the best way to prevent heart disease. I think virtually everybody agrees with that. Now, it’s very clear that when you look at the effects of exercise, they’re far more powerful than statins.

    What is in agreement by virtually everybody is that high cholesterol is associated with heart disease and research has shown that the Mediterranean style diet and/or exercise can lower cholesterol. There is still heart disease amongst those who follow particular diet and exercise regimes but it is at a reduced rate.

    For those people who, irrespective of diet and exercise, continue to show high levels of cholesterol other methods are required.

  17. Getting science from television is like getting free oxygen from the moon… or legal sense and good governance from Campbell Newman.

  18. In Statins, Dr Ian Hamilton-Craig gives a reasonable summary of the overall case for using statins, along with statistics for side effects and what can exacerbate the side effects (near the end of the article).

  19. I suppose I am biased, but i do not trust the pharmaceutical industry to be honest and truthful.

    I my view the pharmaceutical industry has only one goal and that is to generate the highest return to shareholders as possible, with the health and welfare of humanity being no more that a business opportunity.

    With so many medical professionals and medical research professionals being funded wholly or partly by the pharmaceutical industry, can we trust them to be unbiased? Personally I don’t unless there is full disclosure of their interests in the subject matter. For them my health is an income stream and nothing else.

    I say this as my Father was unfortunate enough to have been prescribed Vioxx, it nearly killed him first up and he was bedridden until he died 4 years later. My experience with the pharmaceutical industry and medical profession is not a trusting one.

    Good on catalyst … lets have the discussion, if we had it about Vioxx , maybe a lot more people would be alive today.

  20. I’d like to emphasize the one simple point: in both climate science, specifically debate over the effect of humanity’s energy habits on the health of the planet, and medical science on the question of the effect of plasma cholesterol levels on our personal health, there is a vast wealth imbalance across the divide such that one side in each debate has collectively a large vested interest in needing to believe its own nonsense (I mean “arguments”).

    No comment to what extent any particular individual in said debates need necessarily be aware of their own subconscious biases in defending a position they’ve taken, & equally no condemnation of anyone as necessarily being corrupted by the fact of the earning of income from their membership of a profession or “guild”. On the other hand it’s clearly naive to ignore the effect of vested interest on expressed personal opinion – isn’t it?

    That’s the simple point to understand, while medical science is harder to grok. Years harder. Thanks 🙂

  21. I am sorry to be nitpicking Mr Quiggin but you do seem to invite pendantry with

    “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. ”

    I don’t know if you have spent time in court, maybe as an expert witness, or maybe just learned it over the lunch or dinner table, but you may be aware of the quite different approach that experienced barristers and judges often take, especially when having trouble concealing the contempt they often feel for academics who stray beyond their very narrow area of precise expertise or show defective logic. (I was taken to a medico-legal event once where a very distinguished judge ripped into expert witnesses generically).

    The point is that counsel have to get up enough of the subject to be able to examine, cross-examine and present arguments to the court on matters which could be very technical indeed, not least in patent cases but also in one’s involving matters of engineering judgment for another set of examples. They go through the business of preparing witnesses (that’s the US version anyway, but obviously counsel, even in the old UK tradition of not speaking to witnesses but relying on their instructors’ briefing, have to go through what their expert witnesses will be able to testify to with them and they have to ask questions until they understand) and of getting up the material for cross-examination. The judge, or indeed judges on appeal, sometimes solely on transcripts, have to make sense of the expert evidence and pronounce judgment. It helps if they have once got first class honours in physics or even like the famous Court of Appeal in the UK about 120 years ago, had three Cambridge Wranglers on the bench. But the point is that judgment is arrived at and not committed to some opinion poll of self-described or even genuinely worthy experts in a field.

    I would hate to put someone like you Mr Quiggin, who, I believe, has first class honours in mathematics in your CV, into the same category as Prof (of something or other) Clive Williams or the engaging blowhard and enthusiast Tim Flannery but just think what would happen to any cause they stood for if they had to face sustained cross-examination by a leader of the Bar on the opinions they proffer so confidently. And then, please let on your private thoughts about how you would like to face up to serious cross-examination in support of your view that we ought to be acting now in all sorts of expensive ways to reduce Australia’s CO2 emissions. Wouldn’t you rather be the expert, numerate, economist who prepped the counsel assisting on arguments about the timing and magnitude of Australia’s efforts?

    Before seeking further to tap your expertise let me share the horror that I am sure you must have felt at the failings of all – lawyers and judge not least – to rumble that appalling fraud Sir Roy Meadows whose evidence led to a young solicitor mother going to gaol for murdering her child. Didn’t it make your skin do whatever it is meant to do when one learns of something horrible that one can do nothing about when what Meadows said was allowed to go through to the keeper. That is that there was only a one in 84 million chance that the sequence of cot deaths could have occurred without malign human intervention. How could they all have failed to have the elementary thought that some underlying genetic or chromosomal or similar problem would make it much more likely that there would be a subsequent cot death?

    But, back to your expertise and my questions. No, I’ll leave that for another time but I would like to know who you think have authoritative opinions on climate change, its causes, its likely problems for us and the rest of the world and, perhaps separately, the economic costs and benefits of various courses on various assumptions. (A scientist who is not a sceptic told me recently that Matt Ridley was right and that, up to 2 per cent global warming, which might be reached by 2080, would be good for world GDP per capita – for Australia he didn’t say).

    If one chooses to put one’s faith in some group how are they to be distinguished from the medical and pharmaceutical mafias who publish so much later falsified (but sadly much later usually) pretended breakthroughs and support for so long so many errors? I remember an eye surgeon once telling me to beware the surgeons who had spent a lot of money and time learning to do radial keratotomies but to wait for laser treatment to be perfected. He knew perfectly well how much money talks in mid-career. What do you make of the fact that so many of the climate sceptics are Em Profs and other retired people, it being longer true that God’s use-by date marks the onset of senility?

  22. Prof Q, what’s your opinion of the work of John Ioannidis?

    I haven’t watched either of the Catalyst episodes, so I can’t venture an opinion of them, but Ioannidis’ work certainly suggests that, as a general proposition, research findings into the efficacy of drugs should be treated with considerable caution.

    That doesn’t change the fact that sound arguments and evidence are required to challenge an established scientific consensus, of course, but it does suggest that, in much medical research, consensus positions based on research results are not as firm as they appear.

  23. Back on original narrow-sense subject: another, possibly medico-legal, event I was taken to was addressed by a heart surgeon or cardiologist academic who seemed to know what he was talking about and, though this is now a few years back, I remember taking away the important point that the statins firmed up the structure of one’s (almost inevitable) plaques and made them much less likely to rupture. Any advances on that now I wonder?

    I think he said that it would make sense for everyone to take statins from about age 40. A pity my male forebears didn’t.

  24. Regardless of the merits of the case against the link between cholesterol and heart disease, the first episode of that Catalyst special was a truly spectacularly bad example of scientific journalism for the reasons which John outlined, one that should frankly go close to being career-ending.

    It’s a long way from my field, but if somebody attempted the same approach to a story in my area I would be furious.

    I would say, however, that I am a little frustrated by the response of the mainstream cardiology/nutrition community. The climate science community has learned how to explain the fundamentals of its evidence base to the public (even if much of it chooses not to listen). It’s surely not impossible for them to do the same.

    Furthermore, I would note that inappropriate treatments without an evidence base which are nevertheless pushed by parts of the medical community are a real thing.

  25. @Tim Macknay

    Indeed I seem to remember one David Freedman writing up the work of Ioannidis
    and also broadcasting on it when he was in Australia. Ioannidis doesn’t beat about the bush when pointing to human frailties and money motives (and limitations). One interesting point which may or may not be applicable to climate science was that space was so limited in the premier journals and funding for replication studies so minimal that a lot of bad science, or, anyway, wrong conclusions, were allowed to hang about for years for want of follow up. Who wants to fund or to publish follow up studies?

    I recall that the peer review process didn’t get enthusiastic applause. The human reality was described in believable terms though without any suggestion that there was a conceptually better model. What was most shocking was that he took just the top 40 out of perhaps 150 journals and found that only some very small proportion indeed of articles describing some discovery or advance stood the test of ten years experience. But then, the old codger might say, things have changed since my day when the local doctor would come round in his horse and buggy: why, here’s this young man, post 1950, who is happily telling you he chose medicine for the income he could earn…..

  26. Hmmm, I wonder if all tertiary educated people denying that we have overshot the limits to growth (LTG) should hand their degrees back?

    Denying that is very much at odds with the empirical evidence and gives tacit support to the “loot it till we root it” creed of late stage capitalism.

    “… in the mid-1970s, we crossed a critical threshold: Human consumption began outstripping what the planet could reproduce.”- Global Footprint Network.

  27. @Tim Macknay

    I think Ioannides is broadly correct, though (as with the research he is criticising) the headline presentations overstate the case. The classical theory of hypothesis testing overstates the significance of “statistical signifance”. From a Bayesian viewpoint, a single study should update your prior beliefs, but usually not by very much.

  28. punditjohn :

    I don’t know if you have spent time in court, maybe as an expert witness, or maybe just learned it over the lunch or dinner table, but you may be aware of the quite different approach that experienced barristers and judges often take, especially when having trouble concealing the contempt they often feel for academics who stray beyond their very narrow area of precise expertise or show defective logic. (I was taken to a medico-legal event once where a very distinguished judge ripped into expert witnesses generically).

    As it happens, I have spent time in court as an expert witness, and faced barristers who tried this approach on me. I think it’s fair to say they came off worse for wear. Of course, I am careful to stick to my area of expertise in such matters. Even on blogs, I try to make it clear when I’m talking about my professional area of expertise and when I’m just giving an opinion on matters where there is no clearly authoritative view.

  29. @Ikonoclast

    Hmmm, I wonder if all tertiary educated people denying that we have overshot the limits to growth (LTG) should hand their degrees back?

    Ikonoclast, I’d suggest that the evidence pretty firmly indicates that we haven’t (yet) overshot the limits to growth, since growth is still occurring. Not to say that it can’t or won’t occur, of course.

  30. According to the internal university statute I looked at degrees can only be revoked if they are acquired fraudulently. I don’t think anyone will relinquish their degree as a matter of choice unfortunately.

    The university in its act of incorporation does have the power to revoke degrees:
    “(3) If the university statutes so provide, the Council may revoke any degree conferred or other award granted by the University, whenever conferred or granted.”
    So you could try to get the Council to enact a university statute that could revoke degrees for reasons other than being acquired fraudulently.

    Other than that, the only other way I can think of to revoke people’s degrees would be to argue that the university that granted the degree was in breach of its duties under the government act of incorporation at the time of awarding the degree.

    Eg. Was it in breach of 5(c) “(c) to undertake scholarship, pure and applied research, invention, innovation, education and consultancy of international standing and to apply those matters to the advancement of knowledge and to the benefit of the well- being of the Victorian, Australian and international communities” or 5(g) “to provide programs and services in a way that reflects principles of equity and social justice;”

  31. Sounds dangerously like an intellectual elite class selecting which ideas constitues a valid argument. Next we will have a government which makes being a member of an assosciation illegal just in time for the G20….

  32. @John Quiggin

    Thank you for your reply John Quiggin. Sorry about the literal that I started with, viz. “pendantry”. However much I may turn out to disagree with you I think hanging mightn’t answer any real need. Maybe burning as for heretics but hanging would be bit low class even if it too is a proven crowd puller that the anti-elitist masses could enjoy.

    I take it from your reply that you were fortunately or wisely on the winning side when you were an expert witness, or that, at least, your evidence was accepted …… by a lawyer with wig on answering to Your Honour or maybe a reasonably intelligent and educated parliamentary committee. So was the acceptance of your expert evidence something that you sneered somewhat cynically at on the ground that the chaps in wigs (particularly of course those whose experts were wrong) weren’t remotely qualified, despite your help and that of others, and all the questions, to award you the credibility prize or the reverse?

    I assume you wouldn’t approve of the Royal Commission called for by some conservative sceptics which would inquire into AGW’s science and economics and, with luck, give the multitude some confidence that the right policy prescriptions were clear or at least able to be based on uncontested or at least barely contestable facts? But what about a three person Commission made up of a retired superior court judge with a good science degree, a particle physicist who hasn’t declared his hand, and say a distinguished chemist who likewise hasn’t come down on one side or the other (or yet another!)? Counsel assisting would be acknowledged leaders of the Bar.

  33. @John Quiggin
    AND, come to think of it, there should be some economic expertise on any Royal Commission but, again, not anyone who has blown his cover. Not Ross Garnaut or Lord Stern therefore and perhaps not John Stone, former Secretary of the Treasury who got a first in mathematical physics before becoming a Rhodes Scholar. I’m not sure that his physics pre-dating the Standard Model would be a relevant limitation but I think I’ve heard that he is a sceptic.

  34. @Tim Macknay

    Tim, maybe I should have been clearer and said we have overshot the sustainable limits to growth. The “crash” (population crash) happens some time after sustainable carrying capacity is overshoot.

    “In population dynamics and population ecology, overshoot occurs when a population exceeds the long term carrying capacity of its environment. The consequence of overshoot is called a crash or die-off.” – Wikipedia.

    We are most definitely in overshoot. A crash is inevitable now.

  35. ” a particle physicist who hasn’t declared his hand, and say a distinguished chemist who likewise hasn’t come down on one side or the other (or yet another!)”

    A bit of a problem if the scientists are members of any major scientific organization, like say, the Australian Academy of Science or the American Physical Society (this can be repeated for every major scientific organization in the world). More seriously, assuming that it wasn’t stacked a Royal Commission would be a great idea.

  36. @Ikonoclast

    We are most definitely in overshoot. A crash is inevitable now.

    The disciplines of population dynamics and population ecology are not exact sciences, so I’m not convinced one can be as definitive as that (If one were to rely on the Wikipedia account of population ecology, which I don’t propose to do, skepticism of the discipline would certainly be warranted, since Wikipedia states that its ‘first law’ is Thomas Malthus’ law of exponential population growth, which was so obviously wrong that Malthus himself deleted it from the second edition of his essay on population).

    Applying ecological methodologies to human societies, while it certainly has value, needs to be done cautiously, as there seems to be a constant temptation to treat modern human consumption of resources as if it were identical to the consumption behaviours of non-human species. However, the vast majority of contemporary human consumption is not survival-related, so the fact that it is unsustainable does not necessarily imply that a reduction will lead to a population die-off.

    There is also the possibility, or likelihood, of population decline caused by reduction in birth rates, which would lead to an overall reduction in population without a die-off. At this point in time, a non-catastrophic global population decline driven by declines in birth, rather than increases in death, is a real possibility (some economic commentators believe that shrinking populations are catastrophic for economic growth, but that’s not the kind of catastrophe we’re talking about).

    Even a “die-off”, if it occurs slowly, need not be experienced as catastrophic or highly disruptive. The population of Russia has declined significantly (and continues to decline) due to a combination of a long-term decline in the birth rate, coupled with a more recent, modest increase in the death rate following the decline of Soviet-era social welfare standards. While one would certainly not have described the post-Soviet era as “good times” for Russians, it has certainly not been apocalyptic. Life goes on.

    What is inevitable is a crash in the populations of a great many non-human species, including some which are prized and widely utilised by humans (such as bluefin tuna, for example). The evidence of that crash is plentiful indeed.

  37. If you think a Royal Commission would be great idea, I imagine you would get a significant enough number of signatures for a petition addressed to the Governor General (not the upper or lower house).
    Unless this has been updated The Governor General can call a Royal Commission:

    ROYAL COMMISSIONS ACT 1902 – SECT 1A

    Power to issue Royal Commission
    Without in any way prejudicing, limiting, or derogating from the power of the King, or of the Governor-General, to make or authorise any inquiry, or to issue any commission to make any inquiry, it is hereby enacted and declared that the Governor-General may, by Letters Patent in the name of the King, issue such commissions, directed to such person or persons, as he or she thinks fit, requiring or authorising him or her or them or any of them to make inquiry into and report upon any matter specified in the Letters Patent, and which relates to or is connected with the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth, or any public purpose or any power of the Commonwealth.

  38. I think such a petition would have to be written as a petition of right – I think this is the only petition the Crown is legally obliged to hear. I am happy to look into the matter as best I can, but I could only gather signatures in my town – this would not be a very substantial number of signatures.

    According to Wikipedia
    “A petition of right was available:[4]
    To obtain restitution of real or personal property of the subject which has found its way into the hands of the Crown, or compensation if restitution could not be made; or
    To recover damages for breach of a contract made on behalf of the Crown, whether the breach was due to the acts or the omissions of servants of the Crown.”

    I think both these claims could be made – the first in terms of the property of future subjects (the crown I think extends in both directions in terms of its subjects and duties) – the second you could argue that the coronation was a contract and not fulfilling it properly breached that. So you would claim either restitution for future generations, or you would claim damages payable.

    Then you could call for a royal commission as well.

    Even if this failed, it could be important to people of the future in making a case against the government/crown for not acting to mitigate climate change. This might be similar to the role of the bark petition in assisting with native title claims.

    Again, according to Wiki “The law as to petitions of right applied to Ireland but not to Scotland, and a right to present such a petition was also thought to exist in colonies whose law was based on the common law of England” so that should include Australia.

  39. @Tim Macknay

    The claims of Ioannidis need to be taken seriously. While I think he goes too far in some of his claims there are other voices out there which are also raising similar concerns. Dr. John Healy is a world renown expert in neuropsychopharmacology and has demonstrated that many of claims purportedly based on solid research are just plain wrong. There are now studies indicating that the very greater majority of people taking antidepressants derive no benefit; though it should be noted that for severe depression these drugs are life savers. The off label use of antipsychotics is little more than sedation and is potentially very dangerous, especially given their increasing use in children. There is some very worrying evidence that these drugs can induce cerebral atrophy. It is atrocious that these drugs are being increasingly prescribed to children and yet we have no idea of the long term consequences and nor have these drugs being trialled on children.

    If Catalyst should be required to “hand it back” then large numbers of GPs, psychiatrists and psychologists should be struck off because repeated studies have demonstrated they providing treatments of no value or worse.

    Bloggers like Neuroskeptic, the economist McCloskey, and in the 60’s the work of Jack Cohen, have indicated that biomedicine has a serious problem with statistical analysis. We need much more stringent standards. Just this week US based research found that up to 1/3 of all clinical trials are not published and there are numerous incidences of Big Pharma receiving huge fines for outright fraud and propaganda. So it is not surprising that so many people have turned away from the experts because all too often the experts have been found wanting.

    BTW, if you think the experts should always be trusted then read this:

    http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21588069-scientific-research-has-changed-world-now-it-needs-change-itself-how-science-goes-wrong

    I disagree that saturated fat is not a problem but the matter is not simple. From what I have read the problem is about big single intakes of saturated fats, especially in the absence of antioxidants, constitutes a blood vessel risk. Not because of cholesterol but because there is evidence to suggest that this can initiate a sustained inflammatory response in the blood vessels.

  40. @Tim Macknay

    By pampered Western standards life for most Russians is now very grim. You might call it catastrophic if your living standard dropped from your current one to the average Russian living standard. On the other hand, when has life not been grim for Russians excepting for their elites in each age?

    As Dmitry Orlov has pointed out, Russians in a sense were partially collapse-proofed because they were already essentially adapted to living in a quasi-collapsed country. We are not in that position. Our systems (physical and economic) are all designed to run on a superfluity of resources. Our psycho-social ethos is one of grandiose entitlement. How will all that stand up to resource collapse and a complete change in expectations? I am not sure but it won’t be smooth.

    I expect small elites in each country (even Western ones) to look after themselves and screw the majority down into abject poverty. The USA is well on the way on this path. Homeland Security is acquiring billions of rounds of ammo and reconditioned IED resistant APCs for domestic use. Gee, I wonder what these will be for? To put down civil insurrections from the heavily (small-)armed populace of course.

  41. @rog

    Rog,

    I did provide sources. The Economist should have done a better job but it is not really their field so I can excuse that. Dr. Ben Goldacre in Britain has also written extensively about the corruption of biomedical research. “Bad Pharma”.

    If you have to verify you are by default indicating you do not trust the source.

  42. ZM :“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.”
    I am not sure with this if you take umbrage with people who claim authority of one kind or another or with the people who are left to try to discern the competing claims of those who claim authority.
    As someone who can claim no authority, I would like to defend the latter.
    Often people need to make up their minds about a number of things within timeframes in which they do not have the time to look at all the evidence presented by various sorts of people, let alone to undertake years of intensive study under various sorts of professors to come to their own educated conclusions about *everything they need to make their minds up about* which might not even be things they would choose to know about in any case – we must vote, we must make various choices.
    As you comment from a democratic perspective I can only think you support people making up their minds on things as best they can, but perhaps this is wrong – the combination of socialism and democratic confuses me somewhat I admit – what if one conflicts with another? If someone makes false claims that are decided to be against the social good by people holding authority, perhaps they could be outlawed from socialist perspective? Whereas from a democratic perspective if someone was to make false claims, I suppose it would simply be up to the majority of people as to whether it should be outlawed or allowed?

    here we have in a rather wordy but good description of a subject that will reduce me to ranting incoherance.

    “fair and balanced”,
    “teach the controversy”
    “you decide”

    the reduction of debate on areas of information that i need by

    “pundits” and “commentators” gives me the pip.

    getting information from people who have proven expertise in a given area is not easy.

    checking the facts is not easy.

    getting past revved up emotionalism is not easy.

    i’d better stop—i’m starting to rant.

    still,what would be nice is to see a bit of respect given to our common and garden variety pedant.

    i know they can be infuriating (any subject you want with a true blue pedant will within three sentences revert to their beloved subject)

    but they know what they are talking about and they do so because they are (shall we say obsessed?) with their subject and do not abuse it.

    especially for money.

  43. Nat Hentoff wrote a nice book in 1992 ‘Free Speech for Me–But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other’.

    Hentoff indicts those from the right and the left who would suppress the rights of individuals to voice opposing viewpoints.

    He deals with traditional censors–religious fundamentalists and political right-wingers–but does not neglect the new ones, e.g., feminists who tried to prevent a pro-life women’s group from participating in Yale University’s Women’s Center.

    Hentoff discusses everything from efforts on college campuses to prevent non politically correct subjects from being discussed to censorship he faced while writing his columns. Hate-speech ordinances, speech codes on campus, flag-burning amendments to the Constitution, and feminist-Moral Majority coalitions to ban pornography.

    A group of librarians in New York suggested that the following label be put on particular books in school libraries, as needed: “WARNING: It has been determined that these materials are sex-stereotyped and may limit your sense of freedom and choice.

    He especially criticizes “civil libertarians” who use the First Amendment as protection of things they like and then ignore it when trying to ban what they hate (racist writing, sexual harassment, etc.).

    Rather than set up left-wing straw men to knock down, Hentoff details stories of how the left censors, while acknowledging that the Right censors. Since conservatives admit their intentions they are not as dangerous as the duplicitous people on the Left.

  44. Jim Rose :Nat Hentoff wrote a nice book in 1992 ‘Free Speech for Me–But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other’.
    Hentoff indicts those from the right and the left who would suppress the rights of individuals to voice opposing viewpoints.
    He deals with traditional censors–religious fundamentalists and political right-wingers–but does not neglect the new ones, e.g., feminists who tried to prevent a pro-life women’s group from participating in Yale University’s Women’s Center.
    Hentoff discusses everything from efforts on college campuses to prevent non politically correct subjects from being discussed to censorship he faced while writing his columns. Hate-speech ordinances, speech codes on campus, flag-burning amendments to the Constitution, and feminist-Moral Majority coalitions to ban pornography.
    A group of librarians in New York suggested that the following label be put on particular books in school libraries, as needed: “WARNING: It has been determined that these materials are sex-stereotyped and may limit your sense of freedom and choice.
    He especially criticizes “civil libertarians” who use the First Amendment as protection of things they like and then ignore it when trying to ban what they hate (racist writing, sexual harassment, etc.).
    Rather than set up left-wing straw men to knock down, Hentoff details stories of how the left censors, while acknowledging that the Right censors. Since conservatives admit their intentions they are not as dangerous as the duplicitous people on the Left.

    this is exactly what i’m talking about.

    what the hell has left or right or pro or con got to do with the ability to access information needed to make up my own mind?

  45. and just because i’m in a bloody bad mood.

    http//:img.wonkette.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/slavery-3.jpg

  46. @Jim Rose

    See, this whole thing gets to the point of the issue. The truth is that so many people are grotesquely unqualified to comment on certain topics. Some people, instead of acknowledging the limits of their knowledge, instead see it as some kind of concerted attack to censor them or limit their freedom of speech when in reality all they do is to muddy the waters and prevent any kind of meaningful discussion by experts in the field. Science and knowledge are not democratic processes, no matter how much some people wish they were!

    I don’t know the damned thing about bridge building or biochemistry and I just simply have to accept that fact and concede to the scientific consensus in those areas. I do however have 2 bits of paper on the wall which qualify me to have some kind of input in discussions on economics and econometrics. But, as Prof Q will no doubt recognize, trying to get a layperson to drop preconceived economic notions and just accept that their beliefs are dangerously false is extremely disheartening and infuriating.

  47. @Jim Rose
    Even tho you’ve not, so far as I can see, addressed the questions as to whether you see yourself as someone who is a moral being, and therefore subject to moral laws (as opposed to an amoralist), and even though for some strange reason you are happy to claim the Star Trek is an accurate teleogical account of future human history (can you explain why you think this is so?) – even you must have an understanding that speech is also an act (I think folks may call it “the speech act”). Perhaps you would interject here to say – yes, that is indeed obvious,

    BUT no matter how coarse, no matter how villainous, no matter how deceitful – the speech act is an act that should never be subject to interference – let someone say what they will – if one tells another that he’s a cuckold why should the second use violence against the first?

    If one is inciting another to murder – hello, Lady Macbeth – why should anyone mind? This is the “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” argument.

    Now, of course it is not a very true sort of an argument – but nevertheless you may make it.

    However – here we come to whether you are a moral or amoral creature or not – there are other sorts of actions as well. Bodily (rather than mouthy) actions.

    Ought murder be outlawed? Ought rape? Or ought we stand back from making a moral claim about these actions at all?

    Now anthropogenic climate change falls into the latter category – it is a bodily thing – if it was merely a question of rhetoric (hey my friends, I have this excellent idea of altering the climate – shall we alter the climate or not alter the climate?) one could claim it was subject only to the laws regarding speech – however, as a bodily thing, it may be and ought to be subject to the laws governing the body.

    Now, to the point – do you truly believe there ought be no laws to govern subjects bodily actions?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s