Science Gone Awry, Science Haters Mailing Mailers

I’m currently reading Paul Offit’s Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong, in preparation for an interview with him that I’ll be recording later this week. I’ll let you know about the interview, but at this time I can say that I’m very much enjoying the book. The publisher’s description:

What happens when ideas presented as science lead us in the wrong direction?

History is filled with brilliant ideas that gave rise to disaster, and this book explores the most fascinating—and significant—missteps: from opium’s heyday as the pain reliever of choice to recognition of opioids as a major cause of death in the U.S.; from the rise of trans fats as the golden ingredient for tastier, cheaper food to the heart disease epidemic that followed; and from the cries to ban DDT for the sake of the environment to an epidemic-level rise in world malaria.

These are today’s sins of science—as deplorable as mistaken past ideas about advocating racial purity or using lobotomies as a cure for mental illness. These unwitting errors add up to seven lessons both cautionary and profound, narrated by renowned author and speaker Paul A. Offit. Offit uses these lessons to investigate how we can separate good science from bad, using some of today’s most controversial creations—e-cigarettes, GMOs, drug treatments for ADHD—as case studies. For every “Aha!” moment that should have been an “Oh no,” this book is an engrossing account of how science has been misused disastrously—and how we can learn to use its power for good.

The story of opium reminds me of that movie, Very Bad Things. Remember that?

Also, I did a podcast, the guest rather than the interviewer (I go both ways), on Geeks Without God, which will be up on the 16h, here. I think that if you are a subscriber you can get it early, like, now. The interview was about the Heartland Institute‘s recent recent mailing of anti-science materials related to climate change, sent out to a very large number of teachers.

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24 thoughts on “Science Gone Awry, Science Haters Mailing Mailers

  1. As is often the case, people hold and advocate for the most sound position while still blissfully unaware that the support they offer is qualitatively indistinguishable from an opposite position.

    During the science march, I didn’t meet a single participant who knew what the demarcation problem is – and I put real effort into it.

    Offit seems mostly on solid scientific grounds so far as his positions, but like most “skeptics” I get no sense (from his bio) that he has any training in HPS: history and philosophy of science. This is THE field which focuses on issues surrounding his main thesis. I checked the book’s index for “Carnap” – nothing. I thought that certainly Kuhn, the most cited individual in all science would be mentioned – nope.

    I admire and agree with the author’s goals, but in reading a sample and the reviews, his reach exceeds his grasp. For those interested in these topics, I recommend Prof. Jeffrey Kasser’s excellent audio course that will be a revelation to those who thought they would learn what’s special about science in the math & science departments: Philosophy of Science

  2. “During the science march, I didn’t meet a single participant who knew what the demarcation problem is”

    And now here you’ve still failed to find one.

    “and I put real effort into it. ”

    Doesn’t look like it. You didn’t even try. You just said “I’ve not found anyone who understood the demarcation problem”.

    There’s nothing there to understand other than you’re sad.

    Unless that’s what the problem is?

  3. I think most people at the science march know about the demarcation problem, but since they are not trained in philosophy or the philosophy of science, they don’t know the term. In other words, Buck, I think your sampling method was destine to get a useless result.

    Regarding Offit, skepticism, and history of science, this comes down to a now long term division in the skeptics field, with folks like Barbara Drescher insisting that skeptics are only those who are trained in a specific background of philosophy and history, and everyone else who calls themselves a skeptic is doing it wrong, vs. those that are doing it wrong according to Barbara but not according to themselves.

    I have sympathy for both points of view. I’ll give you one preview of my review of Offit’s book: He does play fast and lose with prehistory, as so many do, and in so doing says a number of things that are simply wrong, in a book that is about other people getting things wrong. See this post for a parallel example of that. . And this, getting prehistory wrong is my own version of what you are talking about, i.e., working outside a certain field of philosophy while working on that field.

    But, I think that there is this other things, a kind of skeptical activism, where there is a lot of work being done, and frankly, the, the purists such as you and Barbara, apparently failed to gain the full attention of the world of interested parties, while Paul Offit ad NdGT, who always gets GMOs wrong by the way (Paul has a chapter on that too, I’ll see how he does!) for similar reasons, have done so.

    The problem is that this division in how people do things was discovered when certain people waked into the saloon and started slapping people around, making enemies, rather than trying to engage in a productive philosophical discussion as we find with philosophers like Dan Fincke.

  4. Adam – Doesn’t look like it. You didn’t even try. You just said “I’ve not found anyone who understood the demarcation problem”.

    No, If you are going to put something in quotes, maybe you should use the words that were actually said i.e.,:….. “I didn’t meet a single participant who knew what the demarcation problem is”

    He’s talking about participants of the march numb nuts, not this blog.

    Your typical twisting, lying, misquoting and intentionally misleading comments don’t go unnoticed Adam…keep up the good work.

  5. Greg – Despite asking several other questions as well, (e.g.: “Have you ever heard of philosophy of science?”, “What do you think makes science special?”) I have to agree with your assessment: this sampling probably WAS bound to fail.

    However, I’m not comfortable being ascribed the opinion “skeptics are only those who are trained in a specific background of philosophy and history”. I do think it is possible to present strong skeptical arguments with no formal training in the same way it is possible to build a home with no formal training, especially if we know our limits. It does seem that to have NO training and NO awareness of this lack reduces our likelihood of success with all but the most basic projects – and increases the odds of our committing serious, and to us: undetectable errors along the way. Also, as I’m loathe to use terms like “always”, “everyone”, or “pure” as historically, they are not helpful for good analysis, and I hate to be wrong.

    Does expectation that one (via whatever means) gain the equivalent of a minimal passing grade toward 1 semester of ANY intro HPS warrants a label of “purist”? Is such an unreasonable expectation to have toward one who would presume to advise or teach?

  6. “I didn’t meet a single participant who knew what the demarcation problem is – and I put real effort into it.”

    Sampling bias, non random selection — all sorts of fail there.

    1. Yup – as admitted in the followup to Greg: “I have to agree with your assessment: this sampling probably WAS bound to fail. “

  7. Anyone who alleges ‘from the cries to ban DDT for the sake of the environment to an epidemic-level rise in world malaria’ has some problems.
    DDT was never banned for anti-malarial-mosquito purposes. It continued to be widely used well after resistance to DDT had made its use largely ineffective. (Sri Lanka is a good case study.)
    The ‘environmental arguments have kept malaria going when we could have stopped it’ myth doesn’t outlast even brief checking of the record. So Offit versions of reality can’t be trusted as true even in very broad outline: and any conclusions about the risks of science ‘leading us in the wrong direction’ that depend on Offit stories are like trusting Greg Hamm.

  8. Christopher, your comment is a clear violation of due process and lacks nuance! Read the book before convicting him.

    But, yes, the blurb level coverage of that issue left me wondering too. Offit is a an expert, perhaps, in some but not all of the areas he writes about here. I promise to ask about this in the interview.

  9. I am not sure about your conclusion that banning DDT was a bad idea.
    Mosquitoes became immune to the product.
    The detrimental effects are well documented.
    A whole range of pesticides have detrimental effects, not only on wild life but humans as well, for instance the family of which Dieldrin is a member of organochloride family and is particularly harmful to the human being.
    The organochlorine pesticides, like DDT, aldrin, and dieldrin are extremely persistent and accumulate in fatty tissue, which is not exactly the type of chemical one should be just spraying around.

  10. It wasn’t banned, john. It was never licensed or passed for use as a widespread indiscriminate pesticide, but for targeted use.

    But poor farmers and the mislead were using it to spray fields and stagnant pools, when it was not considered safe to do so for humans or any wildlife and would produce immunity in the mozquito population.

    So it was “banned” by insisting that it could not be used in a way it was never licensed to have been used in the first place.

    Some places put a wider ban, some didn’t and some just enforced the current rules on DDT use.

    DDT was never designed to be used as a crop spray. It MAY be that the manufacturer deliberately misled farmers into thinking they should so that it would be bought, but that may not have happened, or it may have just been local sales reps trying to make a massive bonus doing it without collusion from the company.

    The company wouldn’t want their product to be rendered useless so quickly. Nor make them liable to lawsuits for toxicity damage. So them not wanting DDT abused isn’t odd at all.

    1. Re: #12: I hate to be pedantic, however: while technically: companies cannot “want” things, we might say that as legally mandated maximizers of profit and market share, the optimal outcome for manufacturers is massive overuse with avoidance of liability. The first condition appears as a matter of historical record, the second is a core value for incorporation.

      If the typical for-profit corporation was actually a “human person” rather than a “legal person”, they would often qualify as a psychopath by standard clinical assessments, particularly the PCL-R model – see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychopathy_Checklist#PCL-R_model_of_psychopathy

  11. Here’s another Christopher who is concerned about the statement “and from the cries to ban DDT for the sake of the environment to an epidemic-level rise in world malaria.”

    But that of course is from the publisher’s blurb, and publishers’ blurbs do not always accurately reflect the content of the book.

  12. And occasionally discard the title for one with more “punch”, even if it cocks up the author’s intent for the book.

  13. Interesting.

    According to the latest estimates from WHO, there were 214 million new cases of malaria worldwide in 2015 (range 149–303 million). The African Region accounted for most global cases of malaria (88%), followed by the South-East Asia Region (10%) and the Eastern Mediterranean Region (2%).
    In 2015, there were an estimated 438 000 malaria deaths (range 236 000–635 000) worldwide. Most of these deaths occurred in the African Region (90%), followed by the South-East Asia Region (7%) and the Eastern Mediterranean Region (2%).
    Between 2000 and 2015, malaria incidence rates (new malaria cases) fell by 37% globally, and by 42% in Africa. During this same period, malaria mortality rates fell by 60% globally and by 66% in the African Region.

    Continuing:

    Other regions have achieved impressive reductions in their malaria burden. Since 2000, the malaria mortality rate declined by 72% in the Region of the Americas, by 65% in the Western Pacific Region, by 64% in the Eastern Mediterranean Region, and by 49% in the South-East Asia Region. For the first time, the European Region reported zero indigenous cases of malaria in 2015.

    Still continuing.

    Children under five are particularly susceptible to malaria illness, infection and death. In 2015, malaria killed an estimated 306 000 under-fives globally, including 292 000 children in the African Region. Between 2000 and 2015, the mortality rate among children under five fell by 65% worldwide and by 71% in Africa.

    From

    https://goo.gl/jlmr4A

  14. No, companies can want things.

    You don’t seem to realise that “want” is the result of a complex interaction between multiple codependent parts that result in an overall reaction that is somewhat predictable as “intent”.

    This is how even your brain operates and how you dothe things you “want” to do: the various neurons interact in a complex way with each other and the variation of the biotic soup that your brain interacts in to produce a consequence we instill a pattern we ascribe as “want” to it.

    Next time you wish to wax rhetoric about wants on a pedantic tone, please refer back to this post for your edification.

  15. “legally mandated maximizers of profit ”

    Oh, right? Where IS that law? Can’t remember ANY country having a law that makes companies mandatorily HAVE to maximise profit.

    Who knew that the USA would criminalise businesses failing, eh?

    1. Wow – You make a number of good points. For example, it is true that “want” results from complex interactions. Although I studied multiple realizability related to philosophy of science for concepts and desires like “want”, I’m certainly no expert.

      The other good point you raise regards “legal mandate”, which perhaps sounds too strong, like it is law, rather than a legal ruling. As I understand it, I’m using the generally accepted meaning. By that meaning, we will not find any mandate in laws.

      As for rulings that constitute this meaning of mandate, many consider the Ford v Dodge ruling as relatively clear:

      “A business corporation is organized and carried on primarily for the profit of the stockholders. The powers of the directors are to be employed for that end. The discretion of directors is to be exercised in the choice of means to attain that end, and does not extend to a change in the end itself, to the reduction of profits, or to the non-distribution of profits among stockholders in order to devote them to other purposes…” See: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2154031. IMO, this one is an interesting read: http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2345&context=fss_papers

      Thanks for keeping me honest!

  16. “Wow – You make a number of good points.”

    Will you learn?

    BEcause it’s no good to just go “Oh, well, I gyess I was wrong”, the point isn’t anywhere near just correcting you.

    Being wrong is the default state of any knowledge, just like atheism is the default state of any faith, but many merely just pick the wrong religion (oddly enough, it’s always “someone else” who picked the wrong one and the believer just happened to get the only right one… odd that). Education isn’t to correct you, it’s to change your way so you won’t do it wrong the next time.

    If you don’t go “To be pedantic, there’s no such thing as “red”, only the qualia “red” as I described in my philosophy of physics book on amazon.com” faux intellectual, then there’s no need to bow and scrape. I can take comfort in that there’s just a little more thinking going on in the world.

    “As I understand it, I’m using the generally accepted meaning. By that meaning, we will not find any mandate in laws.”

    But that is merely horseshit. It’s nowhere in any law, any mandate or any guidelines of incorporation. ANYWHERE.

    It’s a MYTH. It’s a SHIBBOLETH. It’s FAKE.

    It’s a lie.

    If you ever DO find a corporate charter that puts in it ANYWHERE a mandate to maximise profit, RUN. AWAY. They will scam you. That maximises their profit.

    You will never find one, though.

    There is no mandate, nor even guidelines, for a business to maximise profit.

    ANY business has these requirements

    1) Operate under the law
    2) Sell to customers
    3) Buy from suppliers
    4) Pay your wage bills
    5) Pay your dues

    That’s it.

    A corporation requires, in order of importance these things and these things alone are mandatory:

    1) Customers. Without them you have no method to generate revenue. No customers, no business

    2) Workers. Without them you have nothing to sell to customers. No workers, no product, no business.

    3) Owners. Without their cash you might not be able to keep going to pay the bills to begin with. But you have to have Customers or you have no revenue, and without workers, you have no product, so all your cash, all your “ideas” are meaningless because there’s nothing there to be a business.

    Profit is unnecessary. All the bills are paid before profit. Everyone gets paid what they need. And if anyone has money in the business, they still have that business asset as collateral and to sell.

    ZERO profit is all a business needs. Less than that and the business will eventually fail. And more than that is merely evidence of a failure of the market to find the fair market price, and is a drag on the economy, making it inefficient.

    A business with zero profit and a fairly narrow pay structure indicates that the market is working as intended, as the ideology expects.

    A business with massive pay disparity indicates the market is not working and that there is a drain on the economy and it is begin syphoned off into a small number of hands, denoting corruption.

    And a business with profits indicate that the market is not frictionless and that there is an unexploited market that indicates a failure to supply to the market their demands.

    IF you wanted to get into what free market ideology “intends” for corporations and businesses, that is. Because that zero profit and low wage gap is what is supposed to be the inevitable result of a “more efficient and responsive” private industry response to a demand. Sans that and we’re, in free market terms, still looking at the corrupt and inefficient government actions, the only difference begin there’s nobody to hold accountable for the inefficiency or corruption when they’re not public officials.

  17. “A business corporation is organized and carried on primarily for the profit of the stockholders.”

    No, a business corporation is organised and carried on primarily to sell to customers and exchange the customer money for the businesses’ goods or service.

    That is all.

    All else is political dogma and hidden corruption.

  18. Adam @21 – “No, a business corporation is organised and carried on primarily to sell to customers and exchange the customer money for the businesses’ goods or service.
    That is all. All else is political dogma and hidden corruption”

    Interesting, I know of a windfarm called Westmill (Wind Over Westmill) that takes the PROFIT from it’s 5 wind turbines and in part, distributes those profits as interest to it’s members.

    Is Westmill is corrupt Adam?

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