Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Merchants of Doubt

In a previous post I mentioned the deliberate attempt at inventing "scientific debate." The culprits, and methods used, are extensively debated and explained by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. They posit that from smoking to global warming, and other manufactroversies, there has been a concerted effort to invent doubt. As I wrote then:
We were first shown that tactic by the tabacco industry (PDF) , which despite increasing evidence smoking is detrimental to our health, made it possible to stall legislation. Their trick: manufacturing scientific doubt.
We have just been given proof that these claims are indeed not merely speculation. As it happens Exxon appears to have proven the existence of global warming decades ago yet chose to counter their own scientists by generating an industry of denialism. According to The Nation:
"... from months of careful reporting by two separate teams, one at the Pulitzer Prize–winning website Inside Climate News, and other at the Los Angeles Times (with an assist from the Columbia Journalism School). Following separate lines of evidence and document trails, they’ve reached the same bombshell conclusion: ExxonMobil, the world’s largest and most powerful oil company, knew everything there was to know about climate change by the mid-1980s, and then spent the next few decades systematically funding climate denial and lying about the state of the science."
They continue:
"But though we know now that behind the scenes Exxon understood precisely what was going on, in public they feigned ignorance or worse. CEO Lee Raymond described global warming as “projections are based on completely unproven climate models, or, more often, on sheer speculation,” and insisted—in a key presentation to China’s leading officials in 1997—that the globe was probably cooling."
The image I used in the aformentioned post aptly captured these revelations:

Another article by The Nation suggests a possible criminal case:
“The revelation that Exxon knew about the link between climate change and carbon pollution as early as 1981, and yet continued to support the decades-long campaign of denial described in the [Union of Concerned Scientists] report, strengthens the parallel with the tobacco-industry conduct that led to a civil RICO verdict against tobacco,” Senator Whitehouse told The Nation.
Which is also discussed by Greg Laden:
"The timing of this expose is interesting because it comes at about the same moment as a call to use US RICO laws to investigate and possibly prosecute those who seem to have been conspiring for a long time muddy the waters about the science of climate change in order to put off taking action that might financially hurt Big Petrol. (See also this.) "
He reanalyses their results and presents the results, showing that Exxon was amazingly accurate. As an aside I quote The Progressive:
"Greenpeace's investigation of the role of ExxonMobil in funding climate change deniers led to an interactive website,, where visitors can select people and organizations and view the charted connections between dozens of organizations, funding streams, and climate-denying experts active in the decades-long, $30 million effort."
The Guardian has the following to say:
"Recently, 11 House Republicans broke ranks with their party leadership to call for action against climate change. Thus far, dependency on fossil fuel industry campaign donations has played a major role in the Republican Party’s efforts to obstruct national and international climate policies. "
Which, coincidentally, underscores my point that politicians might not always have an honest and objective incentive to make realistic decisions.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Politics vs. Reality

My view on countries is that they are nothing more than oversized companies, shops if you will. We all agree that running a company boils down to being a good manager. One has to ensure there are enough resources, cheese, or toilet paper. In case of illness make sure there is a replacement. The primary goal being the survival of the enterprise. Case in point, opening a restaurant is not the same as knowing how to run it. The reason is you have to understand what the best course of action is to be a restaurateur, not which menu fits your personal believe system.

In the same vein to adequately run a country one must differentiate between ideology and verifiable reality. Just like rational people emphasise the need to adhere to science in medicine we should not ignore the wider effects denialism (more here) has on society.

The audacity with which politicians blatantly posit fact-free "facts" is both impressive as it is disheartening. Stranger still is the observation the general public lets them get away with that. Evidence critical thinking skills should be part of our educational system. Although, it might not be as simple as introducing accurate information to correct reality-challenged opinions, enter the backfire effect (PDF).

Thinking of examples is easy, one can mention the follwing falsehoods, that remain "unresolved" controversies to this day. In light of the numerous stories refuting their premise voters remain annoyingly loyal adherents to these peddlers of humbug, a result that to me is utterly unpalatable.

Global Warming
Confronted with all the scientific evidence supporting the position the earth is warming and humans are part of the cause, special interest groups have reacted with an assault on the science and have been able to make us believe there still is doubt, doubt which politicians use to sabotage necessary reforms.

In short, politicians keep repeating the factually incorrect claim that the science is not settled.

To make things worst AP has decided that calling people who deny the science "denier" is no longer allowed. Yet again proof of journalism refusing to report facts.

We all know how the free market has made us all extremely happy. The notion that government is out to prevent us all from making money has led to deregulation. Luckily, the removal of laws preventing some to become obscenely rich has made our lives alot easier

Part of protecting our right to make money the world has envisioned a free trade agreement (TTIP) presented as a solution to our economic woes to come. My biggest problem with it is the lack of transparancy. Meaning: nobody, except the lucky few, are allowed to see what this agreement entails. Because of that many have voiced opposition, even observed it threatens democracy itself. How? I see you think. Should a country enact laws which might impact expected revenue, (think smoking, food, cars, et cetera), the affected company may sue the country in what in essence is a secret court: the National sovereignty and investor-state dispute settlements (ISDS), more here, here, here, here, here, here and here. Many fear this will be an incentive not to enact consumer protective laws. Which, if you are VW, is a good thing.     

Another truism among monetary wizards is the notion that reducing taxes on the rich, paired with lower wages/increased taxes on the rest of us plebs, stimulates the economy, better known as trickle down economics

Too Big to Fail, and Jail 
After convincing politicians to remove our protections against a financial collaps, completely unexpected the world was on the brink of disaster as the economy crashed. To avert the end of times politicians decided to rescue the financial world because it was impossible to let them go bankrupt.

The concept "too big to fail" is something I do not subscribe to. But, as I have no background in economics, I will not force my opinion upon you. So, conceding the premise the logical next step is to reduce the size of our financial institutions and update their ethics. This is something politicians have refused to mandate. In addition to that we have seen a reluctance to either investigate or sufficiently punish widespread criminal behaviour.

This is aimed at politicians that refuse to acknowledge reality surrounding the unlimited availability of murder tools. Despite impressive results of curtailing gun ownership in other countries. But ideology, and hysteria, trump common sense, and emperical data showing gun control works. Worse, because of politics we are no longer allowed to even collect and analyse data pertaining to gun violence.  

Following the attacks on the US of A in 2001 politicians claimed this attack, WMD and support of international terrorism meant they had to invade Iraq. While already evident before the invasion those politicians ignored the evidence refuting those claims which simultaneously pointed to the actual culprit.

Even today we fail to recognise our role in creating Islamic State by destabilising the region and supporting one of the worst regimes around today. The entire notion that "war" is the solution to complicated sectarian conflicts is risible. Strangely enough we are shocked when this non-diplomatic approach to solving global challenges causes another catastrophe. Needless to say, nobody ever remembers how things got started, or how human rights are just bargaining chips. Worse still, after history has proven you do not know what you are talking about we happily listen to your insights yet again.

Coincidentally, the inflated fear of those "men with beards and funny names" has opened up opportunities for those interested in making some money and those that feel civil liberties are overrated anyway. Which most of us think is just fine.

For years I have wondered how it is that politicians are able to make a plethora of incorrect statements without the possibility of correcting them. Looking at the rest of society I notice all the jobs I am aware off have some kind of quality control. For whatever reason politics knows no such system. Despite the tedious political debates presented as such we have no objective means of steering the political process back to reality.

Would it not be great if we finally get to implement measures to save the planet and thereby ourselves, or if we stop wasting resources on solving problems that do not exist?

What if we implement some quality control measures to check whether politicians espouse reality-based opinions. The Baloney Detection Kit: Carl Sagan’s Rules for Bullshit-Busting and Critical Thinking seems like a good place to start. We can steal some of his suggestions and turn those into the following: 
  1. Politicians must be able to say whatever they want. They should be able to make any suggestion, propose or block any law, make any claim they want.
  2. Following their suggestions (to implement, or block, policy/law) it should be mandatory to show evidence of a) the need for this proposal/its refusal, b) the proposal has the claimed effect, c) the claimed effect outweighs the expected negative impact.
  3. For the purpose of ascertaining the available facts politicians themselves are not considered experts in the field. 
  4. The evidence shown can not be "I strongly believe," or "god said so," but has to be based on a review by an independent expert in the relevant field. This expert has to a) share with us the mainstream view among the relevant experts, b) state that in case of any discrepancy between the politicians statement and communis opinio among these experts this is entirely reasonable and reflects an actual debate among experts, c) in case of politicians withholding  such studies they are obliged to mention the result and reason behind not mentioning it.
  5. In the absence of verifiable evidence politicians are obligated to either withdraw their suggestions/comments or admit they are only sharing their private opinion and that layman opinion is more important than evaluation by people with real knowledge: otherwise known as experts.
  6. Any proposal based on non-expert guestimation shall be publicly presented as make believe or truthiness
  7. Akin to nearly every other profession I would suggest accountability in case of policy that can not be reconciled with expert opinion, or lacks reasonable arguments to ignore the patently fallacious solution presented.
Yes, I realise we now get into Through-the-Looking-glass territory:
The asnswer is: we employ a system that optimises the objectivity of politics and minimises ideological influences. Just as we are used to in the rest of society: think regulations for the automotive industry, hospitals, construction industry, your local restaurant, hotel, et cetera.

Anyway, the goal is to make visible that politics is not seldom based on wishful thinking if not good old-fashioned smoke and mirrors. Who knows, it might even reduce political disputes as it limits the possibility to abuse reality without getting corrected.

Feel free to augment/amend my proposal in comments.

Update: Unfortunately we have an oportunity to see whether politicians are willing to choose society over ideology. What will the response be to Obama pleading:
"Obama appealed to voters to elect politicians committed to strengthening gun control and to gun owners to ask themselves whether organisations such as the National Rifle Association, which pour large amounts of money into lobbying against restrictions, are really serving the interests of those who use weapons for sport and hunting."
Obama also asked to compare the effects of gun violence and terrorism.
 Will politicians choose the facts-based approach? Not holding my breath.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Scary things

As you have noticed my writing has been somewhat spars even though I was still active on Twitter. Much has happened.

The past years I have been busy emigrating and it has not been easy. To learn the language I used children's books and Byki, a good way to learn the basics of a foreign language but not nearly sufficient for communicating in a medical setting. Though I had only two months before I had to start I managed. 

You would think that is a huge decision but there is more. Since I like difficulty I simultaneously became a parent. Imagine that.

Anyway, today I sort of regained control of my life and as such you can expect a rebirth of this blog.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

House, M.D.

Ever since St. Elsewhere -yes, I am really, really old- I am addicted to hospital series, from ER to Grey's Anatomy. My favourite, since I like caricature, and the overt references to the House of God, is Scrubs. There are more series, and one of them is annoying beyond description: House, M.D.. Apparently nobody shares my dislike.

Why do I have a problem with this particular series?
  1. House simultaneously works as a paediatrician, gynaecologist, nefrologist, gastro-enterologist, radiologist, surgeon, et cetera. For some reason his hospital does not need medical specialists. Internists do know alot but those I have met never attempt to be any other type of physician.
  2. Oddly enough, his diagnosis will ignore more obvious possibilities, and instantly requires us to accept a more unlikely scenario.
The first point should be self-evident, the second I will explain in more detail. Let me be absolutely clear, in no way am I suggesting the presented diagnoses are incorrect. One can argue that technically every episode is medically possible. Whether the sequence of events is plausible is something else.

From experience I can tell you that the series explores medical conditions that rarely, at initial presentation, offer sufficient information to instantly suggest their highly unusual diagnoses. The list of enigmas, i.e. uncommon diagnoses, I encountered consists of:
Only carotenaemia (jaundice without yellow eyes), and fièvre boutonneuse (eschar), were an on-the-spot-diagnosis, the others involved extendsive investigations. Eventhough I worked in highly regarded hospitals, no physician was able to pull any rabbit out of his hat. House, of course, would have known the answer within seconds. Utterly unrealistic, especially those that invlove a diagnosis per exclusionem, it is ridiculous to let House skip the exclusionem part.

Add to that the convoluted, and at times incomprehensible, decisions and you understand my being underwelmed. In all honesty, his diagnostic and therapeutic approach are so aberrant it immediately removes any credibility for me. Even the caricature Scrubs has an air of authenticity.

His Asperger-like antisocial personality I find less offensive, it resembles many physicians I have worked with. Totally incapable of thinking of others, and convinced of their infallability. Admittedly, like House, they do tend to know their stuff. Strangely enough this part of the character is true to life.

His magician-like ability to conjure up the right answer out of thin air makes me incapable of watching the series.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Agnotology: or denialism as policy

When I entered medical school I strongly believed that knowledge was the answer to most, if not all, problems. By the same token I thought that in any debate, just offering your opponent a well-supported argument had to lead to its acceptance.

Not so. Apparently, for psychological reasons humans reject evidence that contradicts strongly held beliefs. Hence the need for denialism. Because of that I coined the phrase: there is no cure for stupidity. As I remarked before, there are two sides to that coin. One, there are those that sincerely refuse to accept scientific facts, mostly through lack of understanding. Eventhough studies show increasing their knowledge does not help, I sincerely hope it does. Unfortunately, they evade venues that offer critical thinking courses.

Unfortunately, there is another group. They do not reject science, they understand and accept it. However, their monetary gains, religious and political powers, are severly damaged should certain scientific facts become known and accepted by the general public. To protect profitable companies, policies, et cetera they attempt to keep uncomfortable information hidden, and are actively aided by politicians. And if that does not work they soften the blow by pointing out the science is not settled, or even making us distrust science.
We were first shown that tactic by the tabacco industry (PDF) , which despite increasing evidence smoking is detrimental to our health, made it possible to stall legislation. Their trick: manufacturing scientific doubt.

Following that success new acolytes appeared: global warming does not exist, vaccination kills, evolution is merely another opinion, the financial industry Ponzi scheme, non-medicine-medicine, only plebeians commit crimes, we guarantee your safety, privacy will be the end of us all, militarism and ignoring the law breeds democracy. The recurring theme is misinformation, misrepresentation, and fullblown denialism.

Putting as many sticks as possible in the wheels of the bicycle called science has become a major strategy which is detailed in Merchants of Doubt. The cause is self-evident: if people hear smoking kills you lose customers, once evolution is accepted and the bible is proven to be a set of fairy tales that book can no longer be used to indoctrinate the rabble, if global warming is true you need to make costly adaptations to factories and cars, if security theatre does not prevent terrorist attacks we won't spent billions on the military-industrial-complex incarnation called security firms.

That technique of creating confusion is known as agnotology. According to Dah Wiki this:
is the study of culturally-induced ignorance or doubt, particularly the publication of inaccurate or misleading scientific data.
The term was invented by Robert Proctor in 1992. An example is given by Stéphane Foucart for The Guardian:
A famous internal memo issued by the US cigarette manufacturer Brown & Williamson put it bluntly: "Doubt is our product." The campaign by the tobacco industry to spread ignorance, which became a deliberate ploy in the 1950s, has since been copied in other fields.
Hmm, doubt as a product, where have I heard that before?

Today the intertoobs are a highly effective method of disseminating misinformation. There are numerous echo chambers promoting "alternative views" by experts without knowledge. Countering the deliberate manufacture of debate becomes increasingly difficult. Especially when exposing those fabricating facts results in abuse like the recent unpleasantness.

Not only facts are misrepresented, also language is conscripted  in this war on reason. Something Orwell years ago explained to us, which is why today we call such abuse of language Orwellian.

The sad thing is I expect powerful factions to mislead in order to gain money and power, I have been turned into a cynic by Il Principe combined with a lack of interest in the latest Hollywood gossip. What annoys me is that the one institute whose raison d'être should be exposing such blatant fraud is refusing to do so. Or, in the case of one news organisation, participating in the scheme to mislead us. Commenting on the P.R.-departments we call media David Roberts writes:
There's one thing we haven't learned from climategate (or death panels or birtherism). U.S. politics now contains a large, well-funded, tightly networked, and highly amplified tribe that defines itself through rejection of "lamestream" truth claims and standards of evidence. How should our political culture relate to that tribe?
We haven't figured it out. Politicians and the political press have tried to accommodate the shibboleths of the right as legitimate positions for debate. The press in particular has practically sworn off plain judgments of accuracy or fact. But all that's done is confuse and mislead the broader public, while the tribe pushes ever further into extremity. The tribe does not want to be accommodated. It is fueled by elite rejection.
At this point mainstream institutions like the press are in a bind: either accept the tribe's assertions as legitimate or be deemed "biased." Until there is a way out of that trap, there will be more and more Climategates.
Confronted with such opposition to change, i.e. advancement of knowledge, I am reminded of my school days. During physics lessons Lenz's law was introduced to me.
An induced current is always in such a direction as to oppose the motion or change causing it.
Add to that a pinch of Newton:
To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction.
which completes my version of quantum-woo to explain The Force is behind the anti-science movement.

Update: Added image borrowed from Waldenswimmer.

Update II: Yet another brilliant picture from Joe Romm, for Think Progress:

Nice flow-chart of The Denier Industrial Complex.