Profit and public health

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.


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.
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Researcher: a new term of art for #Newscorpfail ?

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.

Reality finally bites for Willie Soon

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.

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

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.

Catalyst teaches the controversy

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.

Monochrome swans

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