Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Corrupting science

As been noted before science is not necessarily reliable. Since monetary gains trump scientific integrity it is difficult to prevent the misrepresentation or fabrication of science. A previous post explained the use of claimed uncertainty in science confabulated by the  Merchants of Doubt.

Case in point, Emilie Udell for the Center for Public Integrity reports how a lawyer (Evan Nelson of the law firm Tucker Ellis & West) invited a scientist to publish a "scientific theory" regarding the cause of mesothelioma. Coincidentally:
Nelson defended companies that had exposed people to asbestos .........
Luckily for his clients
Nelson came up with a new culprit: tobacco.
There was an obvious problem with Nelson’s “science.” Researchers for decades have exhaustively analyzed data on the health of hundreds of thousands of smokers. Since 1964, the U.S. Surgeon General has summarized the findings of study after study, none of which shows evidence that tobacco causes mesothelioma.
The scientist involved offered to write "scientific articles" meant to be used in court cases. A firm offering such services is Gradient.
A group of academic researchers were so outraged by an article on BPA [bisphenol A, which, according to hundreds of studies is linked to health problems] written by Gradient’s Julie Goodman and Lorenz Rhomberg that they wrote a lengthy response with a table listing all the “false statements” in it.
In the words of the report:
Gradient has become a leading scientific voice in trying to prevent further regulation of air pollution.
Continuing the exposé the Center for Public Integrity recounts the case of Pam Collins, who was suffering from mesothelioma allegedly caused by asbestos gloves. Shawn Acton, one of the lawyers, was confronted with a novel theory regarding the cause of mesothelioma:
Acton did a little research and discovered that Valberg [the aforementioned scientist] had just co-authored an article in the Journal of Environmental Radioactivity saying that cigarette smoke emits radiation. And he noticed that the article was funded by the law firm representing the maker of the gloves.
Acton had no idea that months earlier a lawyer at the firm, Evan Nelson, had concocted the scientific theory that Valberg was using against Collins. Or that Valberg and colleague Goodman had emailed drafts of the article in advance to the lawyer, as their contract required.
In another court case lawyers
decided to subpoena all records .....
The discovery led to e-mails showing how Nelson had commissioned three scientific articles and how its authors struggled to get it published. Eventually two got published.
Pam Collins’s lawyer said efforts by industry consultants to absolve asbestos of blame show they will say almost anything.
“Why are some of these companies putting so much money into research to be published in scientific and medical journals years and sometimes decades after they stop making the product?” Acton asked rhetorically. “Is its purpose for the advancement of medicine? Is its purpose to address a public health concern? Its purpose is for litigation. It’s science for sale.”
The article proves that even scientists are not above human nature.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Politics vs. Reality revisited

There are many that fail to appreciate how their lack of knowledge leads them to feel they are experts, this infliction has unfortunately been diagnosed among politicians.

As you undoubtedly remember this has led me to suggest limiting the politicians ability to view their job description to be ideology-driven as opposed to reality-based

Recent events appear to justify that. Several news items show how today we have unfortunate situations that might have not occurred had politicians adhered to Evidence-Based Policy. However, considering the total failure of the media one does have to admit the problem is not just politicians. We lack incentives to adopt an approach that puts the best for society at the top of the politicians to-do list.

The events in Flint illustrate the tension between responsible governance and opportunism:
As (Governor) Snyder was testing the presidential waters, however, his government was being shamefully unaccountable to constituents who were concerned about their water supply. The city of Flint switched its primary water source from Lake Huron, through Detroit’s system, to the Flint River in April 2014. Approved by an emergency manager appointed by the governor, the move was supposed to save the beleaguered city millions of dollars. But residents soon began reporting tap water that appeared discolored, smelled rotten, and caused kids to break out in rashes. Today, Flint has become a nightmarish example of how misguided austerity policies can literally poison the public.
The article continues to explain this by mentioning the moronic "let's get rid of the government"-zealots:
Unfortunately, the biggest obstacles to desperately needed public investments are politicians like Snyder who conflate “accountability” with austerity. For Republican technocrats in particular, more accountability almost always means less spending on government programs that help ensure the public good.
But of course, we are not allowed to know the details of the decision making process. Unlike scientists who are unrelentingly harassed in the name of transparancy by agents of Big Industry, otherwise known as politicians. Take the case of using politics to sabotage science in order to serve Global Warming denialism:
If you don’t like a particular scientific study, attack the scientists who produced it. It’s a tried and true method of manufacturing controversy around inconvenient scientific analysis. And now, Lamar Smith, Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, is using the sledgehammer of a congressional subpoena to bully National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists for their research on climate change.
I cannot help but think of the following article:
Coal subsidies are costing US and Australian taxpayers billions of dollars a year, according to a new report.
It continues by citing Tim Buckley, who worked on the report:
“Any discussion of cost competitiveness of renewable energy and energy efficiency needs to take into account the decades of extensive subsidies evident for the coal industry and that, in many cases, remain in place today.”
Another example of reality-challenged action is Michigan no longer requiring the use of helmets for motorists:

In the three years after Michigan repealed a mandatory motorcycle helmet law, deaths and head injuries among bikers rose sharply, according to a recent study.

Deaths at the scene of the crash more than quadrupled, while deaths in the hospital tripled for motorcyclists. Head injuries have increased overall, and more of them are severe, the researchers report in the American Journal of Surgery
Then we have the odious example of white terrorists in Oregon. A situation hinted at in a report deemed unacceptable by ideologues:
Daryl Johnson, a former analyst for the Department of Homeland Security, wasn’t surprised when Ammon Bundy and his group of right-wing gunmen took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. His office was responsible for the famous 2009 report, “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment,” which suggested right-wing groups would be an emerging domestic terror threat if left unchecked.
However, the report, which was published in the fraught political climate shortly after the first inauguration of Barack Obama, created outrage amongst Republicans and right-wing media outlets, and the political pushback resulted in the burying of the report, an apology from DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, and the eventual closure of Johnson’s office.
Then we have the blooming Big Brother industry attemting to mandate the software industry to grant automatic (without the need for any court of law), and unrestricted access through so-called backdoors to our information. Again, against the advise of those more knowledgable:
The Dutch government has released a statement in which it says that "it is currently not desirable to take restricting legal measures concerning the development, availability and use of encryption within the Netherlands." It also notes that forcing companies to add backdoors to their products and services would have "undesirable consequences for the security of communicated and stored information," since "digital systems can become vulnerable to criminals, terrorists and foreign intelligence services."
President Obama, increasingly annøyed with repeated gunmassacres in the US announced he intends to unilaterally implement some restriction on the spread of killing machines among people needing to assert their manhood. The obligatory gun fetishists are increasingly seperated from reason, to the point of them opposing even saint Ron:
... in 1991, former president Ronald Reagan wrote an op-ed endorsing federal gun control legislation; in 2016, Obama’s proposed to do less on gun control than even Reagan wanted is seen by Reagan-worshipping Republicans as unconscionable tyranny. 
Maybe Richard Feynman can help us interpret politicalese more reliable and reality-based.

Update 1:
Regarding the dubious handling of water poisoned with lead in Flint:
Water authorities across the US are systematically distorting water tests to downplay the amount of lead in samples, risking a dangerous spread of the toxic water crisis that has gripped Flint, documents seen by the Guardian show.
..................  the issue of misleading test results was widespread. “There is no way that Flint is a one-off,” [Lambrinidou] (a senior environmental scientist at the department of health) said.“There are many ways to game the system. In Flint, they went to test neighbourhoods where they knew didn’t have a problem. You can also flush the water to get rid of the lead. If you flush it before sampling, the problem will go away.
“The EPA has completely turned its gaze away from this. There is no robust oversight here, the only oversight is from the people getting hurt. Families who get hurt, such as in Flint, are the overseers. It’s an horrendous situation. The system is absolutely failing.”
The Centers for Disease Control is very clear about lead’s impacts on children. The agency emphasises that lead has no biological function in humans, and even the smallest exposure can developmentally impair children.
Not entirely safeguarding the publics health.

Update 2:
David Gorski has a good analysis of the unfortunate choices made resulting in the poisoning of Flint:
For those of you who haven’t heard of it yet, the Flint water crisis refers to the ongoing contamination of the tap water in Flint, MI with unacceptably high levels of lead that resulted from change in its water supply nearly two years ago to Flint River water.
 His conclusion hints at the root cause:
Now we will now be forced to use science-based medicine to treat potentially thousands of children for lead poisoning and science to try to fix the problems caused by this colossal failure of science-based public policy. Worse, it’s still going on, as The Guardian just reported on Friday that water authorities across the US are systematically distorting water tests to downplay the amount of lead in samples.
As I think about that, seeing the Governor throwing mid-level bureaucrats under the bus and other politicians saying that the Flint water crisis is a hoax does not give me confidence in how this crisis will ultimately turn out or that the aging infrastructure that allows such a catastrophe to occur will be fixed any time soon.
There is more out there for those interested in the Flint disaster. ProPublica has a podcast about what caused the problem, who dropped the ball, and what happens next. Or, try Mother Jones, which uses the deteriorating health of LeeAnne Walters and her family to tell the underlying story. And, then there is Dah Wiki.

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, ExxonSecrets.org, 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.