NOAA’s chief scientist reminds everyone that accuracy with honor is necessary for science to be good.
This is an encore post, a repeat post from about four years ago, back in 2008. For some reason the post got a couple hundred hits one day this past week, probably from a reference at another blog that I could not track. I reread it — still true, still good stuff. In this campaign year of 2012, I am dismayed at how anti-science and the denial of reality haunts election discussions, especially on-line, but also in the newspapers and magazines, on television and radio, in diners and drugstore fountains, in churches and PTA meetings. Denial of reality may or may not be a genuine ailment to humans. When it becomes a core belief of a significant number of people, denial can cripple our nation, our states, cities and towns. We need to ask deep questions. We need to have real answers, not fantasies nor dangerous delusions.
Denying reality plagues us as an actual political response to several problems. Denialists wander so far down paths of disreality, they argue that we should ignore serious problems, and that the problems will then go away.
Should we teach the science of evolution to our children, or should we pretend fairy tales will substitute? This has deep meaning to those who understand that Charles Darwin’s greatest contribution to science probably was his strict methodology, which required observation of things in nature before writing about them as if authoritative.
Early in his life Darwin recognized that the natural world he saw, in Brazil, in the Galapagos Islands, in Australia and Tasmania, in South Africa, bore little resemblance to the world portrayed as authoritative by the great William Paley in his Natural Theology. Throughout his science career Darwin observed real things in real time. For his monograph on coral atolls, Darwin extensively observed the volcanic island phenomena throughout the South Pacific. To write about barnacles, Darwin raised them in tanks in his study. Looking at the mystery of exactly how the ivy twines, Darwin put a plant before him, and watched it, unraveling the secrets of how tendrils “knew” what to latch onto for support of the vine. To write about leaf moulds, Darwin observed worms at work, in his lab and in his gardens. To show the variation existing in what we now call the genome of a species, Darwin made extensive interviews and correspondence with animal husbanders of pigs, sheep and cattle, and he raised pigeons for generations himself, demonstrating how variations can be expressed that drive populations of one species to split into two through natural, everyday processes familiar to anyone who observed nature, and accessible by anyone who made methodical notes.
This familiarity with reality made Darwin a great scientist. The methodology proved extendable into other areas when he carefully observed the mediums to whom his brother had cast great credence. Charles revealed to Erasmus that spirit knocking on the tables at the séances did not occur so long as they held the hands of the mediums, who were then unable to feign the knocking.
Ultimately it provided some despair to Darwin, too: In the face of criticism from William Thompson, Lord Kelvin, that the Earth was not old enough to allow for evolution as Darwin suggested it must have occurred, Darwin had no answer. Lord Kelvin calculated the ages of the Earth and Sun to be no more than 200 million years. This was shown by the present temperatures and color of the Earth and the Sun, and calculated by Lord Kelvin from how long it would take the Earth, known to be composed of much iron and nickel, to cool from white hot to current temperatures. Lord Kelvin ventured deep into coal mines to measure the temperatures of the Earth deep underground, to confirm his calculations. At his death, though he defended his own observations of fossils and breeding of live animals, Darwin had no response for those arguments. Darwin thought there must be other forces at play. Only some years later did Ernest Rutherford find the secret of the Earth’s heat: Radioactive decay in the mantle and core of the planet keeps it warm. Measures of heat loss for such a large body had not accounted for continuous heating from within. A short while later astronomers and physicists discovered problems with Lord Kelvin’s calculations of the age of the Sun: The Sun is not composed of iron, cooling from white hot temperatures, but instead is hydrogen, fusing into helium, and making its own heat.
Darwin’s calculations of the age of the Earth were more accurate than Lord Kelvin’s, based on Darwin’s crude calculations of how long it might take animals and plants to have evolved from much more primitive forms. History demonstrated by easily observable things provided greater accuracy than history devised without benefit of grounding in reality.
In what other realms might grounding in reality produce answers different from what some expect, even producing better questions that many ask? Should we consider the migratory pattern changes of birds, fish and mammals, as indicators of a warming climate, over rebuttals provided by untested claims that measuring stations might not be placed correctly? Can we actually “cool” atoms with lasers, and use individual atoms to store information, no matter how counterintuitive that might sound? Can it be true that teaching people about contraception, and about sex, actually prompts teenagers (and others) to reduce sexual activity and look for love, rather than just sex? Does extending medical coverage to an entire population actually decrease total health care costs as observed in all other nations where that solution has been tried, or will it increase costs because the only way to reduce medical costs is to ration it, either with a bureaucracy, or by cutting off access by backdoor, death panel means testing (no money, no health care)? Is there any place Arthur Laffer‘s “curve” of increasing tax revenues by cutting tax rates, actually does not work — or any place it actually works? Has any society in history ever gotten rich by showering riches on the rich, and ignoring the poor, the merchants, and the working class?
In short, how does reality we know, inform us about reality yet to be? Which is the more potent predictor, observed reality, or hoped-for results to the contrary?
Our future hangs on how we answer the question, probably more than what the answer actually is.
I believe Christians, the largest faith group in the U.S., have a duty to stand for reality, and truth discovered by observation. That was the issue in 2008, too.
Here is my post of four years ago. I noticed a few of the links no longer work; I’ll replace them with working links as I can. If you find a bad link, please note it in comments; and if you have a better link, note that, too.
Several weeks ago [in 2008] I responded to a lengthy thread at Unreasonable Faith. The original post was Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” cartoon of the guy in a doctor’s office, just diagnosed with an infection. The physician asks the guy if he’s a creationist, explaining that if he is, the doc will treat him with old antibiotics in honor of his belief that evolution of bacteria doesn’t occur.
Point being, of course, that evolution occurs in the real world. Creationists rarely exhibit the faith of their claims when their life, or just nagging pain, is on the line. They’ll choose the evolution-based medical treatment almost every time. There are no creationists in the cancer or infectious disease wards.
At one point I responded to a comment loaded with typical creationist error. It was a long post. It covered some ground that I’ve not written about on this blog. And partly because it took some time to assemble, I’m reposting my comments here. Of course, without the Trudeau cartoon, it won’t get nearly the comments here.
I’ll add links here when I get a chance, which I lacked the time to do earlier. See my post, below the fold.
Gee, I think I first posted this more than a year before the Pennsylvania decision. In any case, the subject has come up once again in another forum: Why don’t we teach intelligent design as an “alternative” idea in public school science classes? The answer is, simply, ID is not science. It’s not an alternative hypothesis, it’s a chunk of minority cult religious dogma.
Most bad science claims recirculate year after year, until they are simply educated out of existence in the public mind. We can hope intelligent design falls into that category. But we might worry that modern creationism, begun as a backlash to the anti-Soviet, National Defense Education Act‘s effects on beefing up science teaching in American schools, survives.
We’re talking past each other now over at Right Reason, on a thread that started out lamenting Baylor’s initial decision to deny Dr. Francis Beckwith tenure last year, but quickly changed once news got out that Beckwith’s appeal of the decision was successful.
I noted that Beckwith’s getting tenure denies ID advocates of an argument that Beckwith is being persecuted for his ID views (wholly apart from the fact that there is zero indication his views on this issue had anything to do with his tenure discussions). Of course, I was wrong there — ID advocates have since continued to claim persecution where none exists. Never let the facts get in the way of a creationism rant, is the first rule of creationism.
Discussion has since turned to the legality of teaching intelligent design in a public school science class. This is well settled law — it’s not legal, not so long as there remains no undisproven science to back ID or any other form of creationism.
Background: The Supreme Court affirmed the law in a 1987 case from Louisiana, Edwards v. Aguillard (482 U.S. 578), affirming a district court’s grant of summary judgment against a state law requiring schools to teach creationism whenever evolution was covered in the curriculum. Summary judgment was issued by the district court because the issues were not materially different from those in an earlier case in Arkansas, McLean vs. Arkansas (529 F. Supp. 1255, 1266 (ED Ark. 1982)). There the court held, after trial, that there is no science in creationism that would allow it to be discussed as science in a classroom, and further that creationism is based in scripture and the advocates of creationism have religious reasons only to make such laws. (During depositions, each creationism advocate was asked, under oath, whether they knew of research that supports creationism; each answered “no.” Then they were asked where creationism comes from, and each answered that it comes from scripture. It is often noted how the testimony changes from creationists, when under oath.)
Especially after the Arkansas trial, it was clear that in order to get creationism into the textbooks, creationists would have to hit the laboratories and the field to do some science to back their claims. Oddly, they have staunchly avoided doing any such work, instead claiming victimhood, usually on religious grounds. To the extent ID differs from all other forms of creationism, the applicability of the law to ID was affirmed late last year in the Pennsylvania case, Kitzmiller v. Dover. (Please go read that case!)
2012 is an election year, a time when we make history together as a nation. Potential turning points in history often get tarred with false interpretations of history to sway an election, or worse, a completely false recounting of history. Especially in campaigns, we need to beware false claims of history, lest we be like the ignorants George Santayana warned about, doomed to repeat errors of history they do not know or understand. How to tell that a purported piece of history is bogus? This is mostly a repeat of a post that first appeared at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub six years ago.
Robert Park provides a short e-mail newsletter every Friday, covering news in the world of physics. It’s called “What’s New.” Park makes an art of smoking out bogus science and frauds people try to perpetrate in the name of science, or for money. He wrote an opinion column for the Chronicle of Higher Education [now from Quack Watch; CHE put it behind a paywall] published January 31, 2003, in which he listed the “7 warning signs of bogus science.”
Please go read Park’s entire essay, it’s good.
And it got me thinking about whether there are similar warning signs for bogus history? Are there clues that a biography of Howard Hughes is false that should pop out at any disinterested observer? Are there clues that the claimed quote from James Madison saying the U.S. government is founded on the Ten Commandments is pure buncombe? Should Oliver Stone have been able to to more readily separate fact from fantasy about the Kennedy assassination (assuming he wasn’t just going for the dramatic elements)? Can we generalize for such hoaxes, to inoculate ourselves and our history texts against error?
Perhaps some of the detection methods Park suggests would work for history. He wrote his opinion piece after the Supreme Court’s decision in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., in which the Court laid out some rules lower courts should use to smoke out and eliminate false science. As Park described it, “The case involved Bendectin, the only morning-sickness medication ever approved by the Food and Drug Administration. It had been used by millions of women, and more than 30 published studies had found no evidence that it caused birth defects. Yet eight so-called experts were willing to testify, in exchange for a fee from the Daubert family, that Bendectin might indeed cause birth defects.” The Court said lower courts must act as gatekeepers against science buncombe — a difficult task for some judges who, in their training as attorneys, often spent little time studying science.
Some of the Daubert reasoning surfaced in another case recently, the opinion in Pennsylvania district federal court in which Federal District Judge John Jones struck down a school board’s order that intelligent design be introduced to high school biology students, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District.
Can we generalize to history, too? I’m going to try, below the fold.
Here are Park’s seven warning signs, boiled down:
Justice Stephen G. Breyer encouraged trial judges to appoint independent experts to help them. He noted that courts can turn to scientific organizations, like the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, to identify neutral experts who could preview questionable scientific testimony and advise a judge on whether a jury should be exposed to it. Judges are still concerned about meeting their responsibilities under the Daubert decision, and a group of them asked me how to recognize questionable scientific claims. What are the warning signs?
I have identified seven indicators that a scientific claim lies well outside the bounds of rational scientific discourse. Of course, they are only warning signs — even a claim with several of the signs could be legitimate. [I have cut out the explanations. — E.D.]
- The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media.
- The discoverer says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work.
- The scientific effect involved is always at the very limit of detection.
- Evidence for a discovery is anecdotal.
- The discoverer says a belief is credible because it has endured for centuries.
- The discoverer has worked in isolation.
- The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an observation.
Here, with thanks to Robert Park, is what I propose for the warning signs for bogus history, for voodoo history:
- The author pitches the claim directly to the media or to organizations of non-historians, sometimes for pay.
- The author says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work. Bogus history relies more on invective than investigation; anyone with an opposing view is an “idiot,” or evil.
- The sources that verify the new interpretation of history are obscure, or unavailable; if they involve a famous person, the sources are not those usually relied on by historians.
- Evidence for the history is anecdotal.
- The author says a belief is credible because it has endured for some time, or because many people believe it to be true.
- The author has worked in isolation, and fails to incorporate or explain other, mainstream versions of the history of the incident, and especially the author fails to explain why they are in error.
- The author must propose a new interpretation of history to explain an observation.
Any history account that shows one or more of those warning signs should be viewed skeptically.
In another post, I’ll flesh out the reasoning behind why they are warning signs.
John Abraham’s work ended up giving Christopher Monckton a bumpy ride into New Zealand, according to Country 99 News:
Monckton was lucky the news channel labeled him “Climate Skeptic” and not “Barking Mad.”
- Professor Abraham’s original presentation highlighting, profiling, revealing and documenting Monckton’s many, many errors about global warming, climate change, and the price of bananas in Brooklyn
Sometimes in unexpected places you stumble across a factoid that makes sense out of a lot of other factoids, turning them into enlightening, and perhaps useful, information.
Among the allegations, that Monsanto aggressively protects its patents on seeds and other products sold to farmers, and that the company may not be above a bit of skullduggery to push farmers and, in this case, milk processors, to use Monsanto products. Watch for Steven Milloy’s name to pop up in the last paragraph. The site quotes a Vanity Fair article on Monsanto from 2008.
Even if Monsanto’s efforts to secure across-the-board labeling changes should fall short, there’s nothing to stop state agriculture departments from restricting labeling on a dairy-by-dairy basis. Beyond that, Monsanto also has allies whose foot soldiers will almost certainly keep up the pressure on dairies that don’t use Monsanto’s artificial hormone. Jeff Kleinpeter knows about them, too.
He got a call one day from the man who prints the labels for his milk cartons, asking if he had seen the attack on Kleinpeter Dairy that had been posted on the Internet. Kleinpeter went online to a site called StopLabelingLies, which claims to “help consumers by publicizing examples of false and misleading food and other product labels.” There, sure enough, Kleinpeter and other dairies that didn’t use Monsanto’s product were being accused of making misleading claims to sell their milk.
There was no address or phone number on the Web site, only a list of groups that apparently contribute to the site and whose issues range from disparaging organic farming to downplaying the impact of global warming. “They were criticizing people like me for doing what we had a right to do, had gone through a government agency to do,” says Kleinpeter. “We never could get to the bottom of that Web site to get that corrected.”
As it turns out, the Web site counts among its contributors Steven Milloy, the “junk science” commentator for FoxNews.com and operator of junkscience.com, which claims to debunk “faulty scientific data and analysis.” It may come as no surprise that earlier in his career, Milloy, who calls himself the “junkman,” was a registered lobbyist for Monsanto.
If accurate, it’s a sort of “origins” story — I don’t think it explains Milloy’s current advocacy of DDT and almost all other things anti-environmentally-wise. Nor does it explain Milloy’s penchant for making things up whole cloth. Does Fox News disclose this anywhere?
It does suggest his dirty tricks chops against environmentalists and scientists get exercised more than I had imagined.
The story is an interesting and odd footnote in the debunking of the unholy War on Science that claims Rachel Carson was wrong, and DDT is harmless and right.
- Kleinpeter Dairy site
- Bartlett and Steele, the two reporters who wrote the article for Vanity Fair
- Milloy unfairly goes after campaigns for clean water
Oh, not outwardly anti-Africa, but stupidly so.
The extreme right-wing Heritage Foundation lashed out at health care workers and scientists fighting malaria in Africa and Asia for World Malaria Day, April 25 (HF’s post showed up on May 5). If these malaria fighters really were smart, HF’s Jane Abel wrote, they’d just poison Africa with DDT instead of protecting children with bednets and working to improve medical care. According to Abel, DDT is safe for everyone but mosquitoes, and more effective than anything else malaria fighters use — so they are stupid and venal, she asserts, for not using DDT.
Here’s her post:
Environmentalists celebrated World Malaria Day last week (and Earth Day the week prior). Meanwhile, thousands of African children died of malaria.
While these activists may make themselves feel like they’re saving the world, they are ignoring the best possible solution to Africa’s malaria problem: the use of DDT to wipe out the Anopheles mosquito.
Even though the World Health Organization resumed promotion of DDT in September 2006—realizing it had the best track record for saving the lives of 500 million African children—environmentalists are still emphasizing the use of bed nets instead. DDT treatments almost completely eradicated the disease in Europe and North America 50 years ago, but today an African child dies every 45 seconds of malaria.
Providing sub-Saharan Africans with bed nets has had far from acceptable success in delivering the amount of protection needed from mosquitoes. The World Bank touts the fact that 50 percent of children in Zambia are now sleeping under nets as a good thing, but what about the other half who are left defenseless against a killer disease? The Democratic Republic of the Congo had only 38 percent of children under nets in 2010.
One would question why, in the 21st century, people should have to live inside of a net in order to be safe from malaria. The world has a better solution, and it’s not the quarantine of African infants. Dr. John Rwakimari, as head of Uganda’s national malaria program, described DDT, which is nontoxic to humans, as “the answer to our problems.”
World Malaria Day 2011 had the theme of “Achieving Progress and Impact” and aims to have zero malaria deaths by 2015. If the world really wants to make progress and increase the number of lives saved from malaria, it needs to embrace for Africans the best possible technologies available today, and that means DDT.
Here’s my response, which I predict will not show up at HF’s blog in any form*:
DDT is toxic to humans — just not greatly and acutely so. Ms. Abel should be aware of recent studies that indicate even limited, indoor use of DDT in the end produces a death toll similar to malaria. But we digress on just one of the errors assumed by Ms. Abel.
If DDT could wipe out malaria-carrying mosquitoes, WHO would not have slowed or stopped its use in 1965, years before anyone thought about banning the stuff. By 1965 it was clear that overuse of DDT in agriculture had bred mosquitoes that are resistant and even immune to DDT. Jonathan Weiner noted in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Beak of the Finch, that today every mosquito on Earth carries at least a few copies of the alleles that allow mosquitoes to digest DDT as if it were a nutrient.
DDT cannot be a panacea for malaria.
Please do not forget that malaria is a parasite disease, and that mosquitoes are only the carriers of it. To truly eradicate malaria, we need to cure the humans — and if we do that, the mosquitoes do not matter. With no infected humans, mosquitoes have no well of disease to draw from. Without infected humans, mosquitoes cannot spread malaria.
Only 38 percent of children in Congo sleep under bednets? I’ll wager that’s twice the percentage of kids that were ever protected from malaria in Congo by DDT. In actual tests in Africa over the past decade, bednets have proven to reduce malaria by 50 to 85 percent; DDT, on the other hand, reduces malaria only 25 to 50 percent under the best conditions. If we have to go with one and not the other, bednets would be the better choice. Nets are much, much cheaper than DDT, too. DDT applications must be repeated every 6 months, at a cost of about $12 per application per house. Nets cost about $10, and they last five years. Nets protect kids for $2 a year, better than DDT; DDT protects kids for $24 a year (that’s 12 times the cost), but not as effectively as nets.
Also, it’s important to remember that DDT has never been banned in Africa. DDT non-use is much more a result of the ineffectiveness of DDT in many applications — why should we expect Africans to throw away hard-earned money on a pesticide that doesn’t work?
Finally, it’s also good to understand that, largely without DDT, malaria deaths are, today, at the lowest point in human history. Fewer than 900,000 people a year die from malaria today. That’s 25% of the death toll in 1960, when DDT use was at its peak.
Ms. Abel assumes that all Africans are too stupid to use DDT, though it might save their children. He states no reason for this assumption, but we should question it. If Africans do not use DDT, it may well be because the local populations of mosquitoes are not susceptible; or it could be because other solutions, like bednets, are more effective, and cheaper.
Ms. Abel has not made a case that DDT is the best solution to use against malaria. DDT cannot improve a nation’s medical care delivery systems, to quickly diagnose and appropriately treat malaria in humans. DDT cannot make mosquitoes extinct, we know from 66 year of DDT use that mosquitoes always come roaring back. DDT cannot prevent mosquitoes from spreading malaria as effectively as bednets.
Maybe, just maybe, as evidenced by the dramatic reductions in malaria deaths, we might assume that modern Africans and health care workers know what they’re doing fighting malaria — and they do not need, want, or call for, a lot more DDT than is currently in use.
It’s too bad Heritage Foundation fell victim to so much junk science, and that the otherwise august press release operation pushes the grand DDT hoaxes. Just once, wouldn’t it be nice if these conservative echo chambers would, instead of recycling the old, wrong press releases of other conservatives, would do a little research on their own, and get the facts right?
* It’ll be fun to watch. I sent my response early, early in the morning while rushing to get a presentation ready, and I made a couple of egregious typos, including identifying Jonathan Weiner as “Stephen Weiner.” If HF wished to embarrass me, they’d publish that one out of their moderation queue — but I’ll bet that even with my typos, they can’t allow the facts through. Also, for reasons I can’t figure, some guy named Thurman showed as the author of HF’s piece on May 5. So I had referred to Mr. Thurman instead of Ms. Abel. Interesting technical glitch, or story, there.
Update, May 8: As we should have expected, Steven Milloy’s Junk Science Side Bar also went on record as favoring the poisoning of Africa rather than the fighting of malaria. Milloy makes claims that DDT will beat malaria (ostensibly before it kills all life in Africa), but his sources don’t support the claim. Milloy is always very careful to never mention that, largely without DDT, the death toll from malaria is at the lowest point in human history. Instead he notes that while malaria fighters promoted World Malaria Day, lots of African kids died of malaria. That’s true, but misleading. Because of the malaria-fighting efforts of those Milloy tries to impugn, far fewer African kids die. Contrary to Milloy’s insane and offensive claims, it’s not alright that “only people” die. Milloy asserts implicitly that, but for environmentalists, thousands or millions of children would survive that do not know. That’s not true: Because of the work that Milloy denigrates, millions fewer die. It wasn’t environmentalists who overused DDT and rendered it ineffective in the fight against malaria, it was Milloy’s funders. Follow the money.