Tag Archives: Woo

The War On Science: What It Is And How To Win It

Thinker, writer, and independent scholar Shawn Otto has written an important book called “The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It” (Milkweed Editions, publisher)

Read this book now, and act on what you learn from it, for the sake of your own future and the future of our children and their children.

The rise of modern civilization, from the Enlightenment onward for hundreds of years, was the same thing as the rise of modern science. The rise of science was a cultural novelty with only vague foreshadowing. It was a revolution in the way humans think.

People come to believe what they believe in a way that rarely involves scientific thinking. The human mind is not inherently rational in the sense we usually use the term today. The process of learning things, of inference, and developing habits that guide our reactions to the world around us, evolved to function well enough given our usual cultural, social, and ecological context. But the modern world presents challenges that are better addressed, and problems that are only solvable, with a scientific approach. Science is something we willfully impose on our own process of thought and, at the level of society, formation of policy and law.

You have heard of the concept of “diseases of civilization.” For example, we evolved to seek and love sugars and fats, and then we developed methods of obtaining seemingly unlimited quantities of said nutrients. The success of our system of feeding ourselves solves the problem of uncertainty in the food supply and creates the problems of atherosclerosis, widespread obesity, and all too common diabetes.

Self damaging stupidity also seems to be a disease of civilization. One would think that with the rise of science, the opposite would happen, and it has to some extent.

People spend a great deal of time and energy, and other resources, acting on beliefs about food production and personal health that are contrary to their own best interests. Had a fraction of that energy been spent on trying to understand the relevant science of food production and health, those individuals would be much better off, as would the rest of society. The same pattern can be seen in all other aspects of life, from energy production and use to systems of transportation to diplomacy and warfare. Again and again, great ideas emerge that may become excellent new laws or common best practices, only to be watered down and compromised because of this self damaging stupidity. How, when, and why did we get here?

Today, increasingly and powerfully, anti-science forces are strong and shape the way people think and act to our collective detriment. This is the problem Otto addresses.

How is it that humans invented science, used science for all sorts of improvements (and, admittedly, a number of unintended negative consequences), and then came to new ways of developing policy and practice that hobble the use of this important cultural and social resource?

Shawn Otto’s book is a careful and detailed scholarly examination of this question. I struggled for a time with whether or not I should make the following statement about The War on Science, because I want this statement to be taken in a positive way, though it might be seen as a criticism. Otto’s book is similar to, and at the level of, an excellent PhD thesis. I very quickly add, however, that since this is the work of a very talented writer and communicator, it does not read like a PhD thesis. It reads like a page turner. But the substance of the book is truly scholarly, contributes new thinking, and is abundantly and clearly documented and backed up. I can’t think of too many books that do all of this.

The Enlightenment and the early rise of scientific thinking was a self conscious effort by a small number of individuals to rethink the way we think, and it was a very effective one. Almost every advance in technology, economy, and society – from vehicles and energy to the invention of money and markets, to new or modified forms of government – arose from the self conscious application of scientific thinking. The same great mind that contributed so much to the invention of modern physics and mathematics, that of Sir Isaac Newton, modernized the production of coinage and regulation of international exchange of money (as well as modern systems of engaging and neutralizing counterfeiting). The invention of the American system of government was the intentional and thoughtful product of individuals who called themselves and their actions scientific.

But, as Newton would say, for each and every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Science is not only a powerful tool for doing new things and improving old approaches, but it is also very inconvenient. For some, under certain conditions.

It isn’t that science itself is bad for powerful entities that make up the political and industrial status quo. Science is as essential today as it has ever been, or more so, to the owners of energy companies, the producers of military gear, the growers and purveyors of food, and so on. But there are times when the best available scientific evidence suggests that the best decisions that society or government should make are contrary to the vested self interest of those power brokers. So, really, the best method, from the point of view of stockholders in major corporations or the owners of vast energy or agricultural resources, or others, is to use science but also to control the interface between scientific action and public policy.

In other words, the scientifically derived answer to a question is different when the premise is different. What is the best way to increase profits from making and selling energy? What is the best way to protect the public health while making and selling energy? These are two valid questions that, at least in the short and medium term, can produce dramatically different answers.

In 2012, Shawn Otto posed the conundrum, “It is hard to know exactly when it became acceptable for U.S. politicians to be antiscience.” One could ask the same question about leaders of industry. The answer may be fairly obvious. This became acceptable the moment the interests being served by those politicians shifted from the populous to the smaller subset of owners and investors of business and industry. The money trail, which one is often advised to follow to find a truth, leads pretty directly to that answer.

A harder question is, how did large portions of the academic world also decide to be anti-science? For this, one needs to take a more fine grained cultural approach, looking at self interest in the context of scholarship.

How does religion fit in here? The modern, mainly social network-bound, conversation about religion science, secularism, etc. is over-simplistic and mostly wrong. It is not the case that religion and science are opposite things. Rather, the rise of science was part of revolutionary changes in European religious institutions, culture, and politics. There are ironies in that story and the details are fascinating and important. Otto covers this.

Otto also identifies and discusses at length something I’ve been talking and writing about for some time. The nature of the conversation itself. If a conversation proceeds among those with distinctly different self interest, it quickly goes pedantic. If, on the other hand, a conversation proceeds among those with the common goal of understanding something better, or solving a particular problem, then it progresses and discovery and learning happen. On all of the different fronts of the “war on science” we see the honest conversation breaking down, or even, not happening to begin with, and from this nothing good happens.

Otto identifies a three-front war on science: The identity politics war on science, the ideological warn on science, and the industrial war on science. Conflate or ignore the differences at your peril. Postmodernism problemtizes the very concept of truth. Much of what you think of as the war on science is part of the ideological war on science, often with strong religious connections. The industrial war on science is in some ways the most important because it is the best funded, and the anti-science generals have a lot at stake. When cornered, they tend to be the most dangerous.

The last part of Otto’s book is on how to win this war. He is detailed and explicit in his suggestions, producing a virtual handbook of action and activism. Recognizing how the system works, how to marshal resources to reshape the conversation, what scientists need to do, what communicators need to do, are part of a coherent plan. He ends with a “Science Pledge” which is “a renewed commitment to civic leadership based on the principles of freedom, science, and evidence.” And there is nothing new in this pledge. It is, essentially, a fundamentalist approach to science, society, and policy, going back to the beginnings of the coeval rise of science and civilization. There is little in Otto’s pledge that would not have been said by Thomas Jefferson, John Locke, or Francis Bacon.

You will enjoy Otto’s “The War on Science” and it will enrich and advance your understanding of the key, existential, issue of the day. And, it won’t just inform you and rile you up, but it will also help you define goals and give you tools to meet them.

The War on Science is an essential work, a game changer, and probably the most important book you’ll read this year.

Here’s an interview with Shawn Otto on Ikonokast Podcast.

How To Evaluate Science Stories

I’m on my way to a taping of the Humanist Views with Host Scott Lohman. I do these now and then and have done so since I first moved to Minnesota back when it was still cold here. We’ll be talking about science knowledge, and why basic science knowledge is important. We’ll also be talking about how to go about evaluating science stories you encounter in the news, or more likely, on your Facebook feed or in other social media.

Pursuant to this, I wrote a blog post that talks about how science stories go out to the general public. I also report on a request I sent out a few days ago to my own Facebook Friends for their thoughts on which Internet sites are good science sources, and which are not so good.

So, here goes…

How a scientific finding comes to you

A first year graduate student comes up with a project. The idea is that change in A causes a change in B, and this could be important, although in truth the natural phenomenon being studied is a bit esoteric. After a year or so of experimentation, learning, literature search, and thinking about the problem, the graduate student comes to understand that a change in the level of disorder in the state of A is associated under certain conditions, some known and some unknown, with a threshold change in B, but it doesn’t always happen. The threshold itself is as yet unmeasured, but seems like a threshold. In the end, more questions have been raised than answered, but also, more is known about A and B and related things than before.

Eventually, there is a paper, peer reviewed, and about to be published. The University Press Office is informed. The University writer who covers this area of science is on vacation, so a different person not so familiar with that area of science takes on the job of writing the press release. An interview with the graduate student doesn’t go too well, because scientists have dialects that are sometimes more difficult for a non-specialist to understand than are the diverse dialects of a widely spoken language (like English) by someone unaccustomed to them.

During the conversation the writer presses the graduate student for more on the significance of the study. The graduate student claims the study results are significant. But the writer is thinking “cures cancer” or “a better mousetrap” significance, and the graduate student is thinking about statistical tests and p-values. But, during the conversation something is said about something that sounds significant to the writer. The paper is about statistical variation in ATP use in a muscle fiber, and muscle fibers are what’s messed up in many different diseases, as well as in aging. So now the writer contacts a couple of scientists unrelated to the exact research project and asks about its significance. During that conversation it is made clear that curing heart disease is important, even though this research really has little to do with it. But it could be related in the sense that the more we know about muscle and ATP in muscle fibers, the more we know in general, and that can’t be bad when it comes to heart disease, or a long list of other problems.

So the writer writes up the story, and focuses on the value this new research will have in curing heart disease and multiple sclerosis. The real meaning of the original research, which is that we should be measuring the order and disorder of the state of a particular molecule in muscle fibre, instead of measuring, for instance, how much the muscle twitches in a test tube, is not even mentioned in the writeup because it is too difficult to understand and too esoteric.

Under deadline, the writer asks the editor if the near final copy should be run by the graduate student to see if it is right. The editor says no, explaining that “we don’t let the people we interview see the copy because it would not be fair to the other people you interviewed,” or some such excuse. So the copy moves along in the process. The editor creates a title that makes the research look sexy. The writer, feeling the title might be misleading, asks that the title be toned down a bit, and the editor agrees. But the process of putting the press release onto the University web site has already begun, and the original, overstated, title is still in the HTML Metacode where it will show up as the title on a Facebook post about the research.

Then, somebody spots the research and posts it on their Facebook feed. It gets shared and shared and shared and shared, with the original bogus title on top of every share. Almost nobody reads the text under the title; had they done, they would notice a conflict between the title and the text. Even fewer people click through and read the original text of the press release, so almost no one notices that there may be more, or really, less, to the story than the title suggests. Even fewer people, maybe one in 1,000, have a look at the original article, and if they do, they don’t understand much of it because the process of publishing peer reviewed papers also involved making science being reported less, rather than more, understandable. Also, it is only an abstract because the paper is behind a firewall.

Everybody is now stupider than they were before this whole thing started.

(See a cartoon version of this here, hat tip: Michael Tobis.)

And, importantly, this is how science gets muddled even when there are sincere efforts to not muddle it, and in the absence of nefarious muddling by anti-science operatives.

This is not how it goes with all scientific stories. Many scientists, often those once or twice burned, are more careful in dealing with press offices. Many press offices are actually pretty good, and have great writers, and the press releases they produce are better. Many stories get picked up by crack science writers and bloggers who bother to read the original paper, talk to experts, contact the author with questions, then do a good job of presenting the material. But often, something like the above, or a subset of the above, happens. Stupider, many become.

How does the average person who is interested in science, or a particular topic important to them because of something in their life, avoid becoming stupider, and maybe, just possibly, become even smarter? Here are a few guidelines, most of which have to do with encountering this information on the Internet.

1) Do not assume that a title reflects the research. It often does not.

2) Do not assume that a third party writeup is not messed up. It often is.

3) The internet is made of tubes. Some of these tubes are little more than conduits of original press releases, scraped from myriad sources and turned into what look like news stories. These are good places to find out about newly published research. They are entirely unreliable to find out what that research is about. They are like search engines that lie.

4) Find interpretive outlets you can trust. There are many science writers and science bloggers (overlapping entities) who regularly do a good job of describing current or recent research.

5) Time is your friend. Often, even among the better interpretive sites, mistakes are made and research is accidentally mis-represented. But usually, eventually, corrections are made. An absolutely fresh report of new research may be misleading, while just a week or so later, the reporting gets straightened out.

6) In some fields, there are people who are involved in the research (specifically or generally) who also write about it in a blog. The best example I can think of has to do with climate change. RealClimate blog is written by climate scientists. Very often, the blog posts they produce are written by the actual authors of the new papers. They write these blog posts specifically to inform the general interested (and at least somewhat field-aware) public of their findings. Sometimes they write blog posts specifically designed to address misunderstandings that have emerged, as described above, or as is often the case in climate science, because nefarious science deniers have muddled up the message on purpose. Similarly, there are science based medicine sites that write about health and medicine related news, though in my experience these bloggers are experts in their fields but not generally the authors of the work they are writing about, as is often the case with RealClimate.


7) In some fields, there are relatively reliable web sites that cover everything encyclopedia style. Again, with Climate, SkepticalScience.com covers every aspect of climate change, as well as denial of climate change science. If something isn’t there, it is because it is so new it hasn’t been covered yet, but will be. You can even contact the authors of this site and ask for more, or for clarification. Other sites are more like topical sites. This is trickier. There are bogus health and diet sites and there are good health and diet sites. Nature News is crap according to everyone I know (I don’t track that site). WebMD tends to be reasonably good, The Mayo Clinic’s site is very reliable. The CDC does a good job of covering disease. These sites will be less current, and very cautious. They won’t say stuff if they are afraid you will misuse the information, but they go out of their way to address common goofs people make in their thinking about the issues they cover.

8) This should be number 1, but in fact, applies to very few people for various reasons, so I put it down here. If you want to be able to evaluate new scientific research in a given area, learn all about that area and become an amateur expert on it. That is not easy. People will tell you it is easy, and claim they have done this. It is not and they did not – if they thought it was easy they missed something. But if your sources are good, you are honest with yourself, have a bit of training or experience with thinking about things in a scientific way (and haven’t simply told yourself you can do this) then you can make this happen.

9) Pursuant to number 8, use sources like Google Scholar to find actual peer reviewed research of interest to you and read it. Many peer reviewed papers will not be easily available to you because they are behind firewalls, but many are OpenAccess. Others, probably all others, can be obtained at a good library, though that can be a lot of trouble. For something really important, where your need for a paper goes beyond your own interest – maybe you are a teacher teaching about the topic – go ahead and contact the paper’s “corresponding author” and ask for a copy. If the paper is an older one, go first to the authors’ web sites and see if there is a downloadable copy there, often this is the case. Try Googling the entire title of the paper, in quotes, followed by the words “download” and “PDF.” Every once in a while this works, just like magic.

There are some great science communicators some of whom are also scientists.

A couple of quick tips on how to tell a good communicator:

  • They communicate in the field they work in, or at least, communicate a lot in. So they know stuff.
  • When they talk they make sense (by itself not a good clue, but helpful).
  • They manage to use some big words or concepts but make them fully understood.
  • They are often interviewed on comedy central, the only really good news network.

Caution: self styled skeptics are often bad sources because they really do think they understand the science, but may not.

  • As a rule if a non-specialist or highly experienced writer tells you that a certain area of science is simple to understand, check your wallet.
  • If a skeptic tells you that “many peer reviewed studies” have proven/disproven something, check your wallet. Then check for the studies.
  • If an argument is the counter to the argument that the science is controlled by big business, chances are both the original argument and the counter argument are worthless.
  • Notice how self styled skeptics often follow a party line that is as much derived from authority as any other argument they may reject because it is derived from authority.

So what are some good science sources, and what are the bad ones?

A few days ago I asked my Facebook friends to suggest what they thought were good, vs. bad, sources on science. Below I’ve placed their recommendations, without links. That is partly because I don’t want to have links to bad sources on this site. If you enter the term supplied here you can find the referenced resources easily.

If you disagree with anything on this list, or want to add to it, just drop a comment below.

I have not included sites like Physorg and other science news aggregator sites. See above for my opinion on those sites. Interestingly, these sites were listed by Facebook friends as either bad or good. In truth, they are probably either bad or good depending on what you do with them.

Not everything here is exactly a science site but you can see where those listings are still relevant.

Science Sources People Say Are Good

The Global Warming Fact of the Day Facebook Page
Science Based Medicine
Bad Astronomy
Christian Science Monitor
Wikipedia (Especially as a really smart search engine)
Talk Origin
Federation of American Scientists
Cultural Cognition Project
Mayo Clinic
Carl Zimmer

Science Sources People Say Are Bad

Whats Up With That
Natural News
The Truth Wins
Answers in Genesis
Discovery Institute
Real Science
Dr. Oz
Collective Evolution
Food Babe
Spirit Science
International Medical Council on Vaccination

What’s up with that?

You may know the blog What’s Up With That. It is Anthony Watt’s anti-science blog, dedicated to climate change denialism.

A current post reports the finding of life forms from another planet, in a meteorite.

This looks to be a huge story, the first evidence of extraterrestrial life, if it holds up….

This is from a recent meteorite find in December 2012. A large fire ball was seen by a large number of people in Sri Lanka on December 29th 2012, during that episode a large meteorite disintegrated and fell to Earth in the village of Araganwila which is few miles away from the city of Polonnaruwa.

Look at what the electron microscope shows of a sample purported to be from the meteorite:

Then he shows a picture of a rock with a bunch of contemporary Earth Based diatoms stuck to it.

It is very fun to read the comments. I provided a comment that will not be printed because Watts never prints my comments, but I’ve screen captured it for you (it is below).

Phil Plait has reviewed the Alien Life in the Meteor story here, and as I said, it is not alien life come to earth in a meteor. It is (I guess) a fragment of a meteorite with fresh water diatoms stuck to it. There are fresh water diatoms stuck to your shoe, your car tires, your dog, everywhere. The silica bodies of these tiny algae are part of the dust, not as numerous perhaps as skin cells or, certain times of the year, pollen, or the loess blowing off the melting glaciers and such, but common. This is why real scientists grind down the meteorite, cross sectioning it, before looking at the sample.

As Phil points out, this report is by a “scientist” who has made many outrageous and incorrect claims about aliens, reported in a journal that is famous for printing bogus and incorrect science, the methods are obviously bogus and anyone who knew anything about, say, climate studies (where fresh water diatoms are used all the time as proxyindicators) would at least be suspicious, and would know how to check for veracity of the claim.

Anthony Watts, the anti-science global warming denailist, was not equipped to recognize this bogus science as bogus. We are not surprised.

Gardasil, HPV vaccine, bits of DNA, SaneVax, Sin Hang Lee

There has been concern over the safety of Gardasil (and other?) HPV vaccines. This concern emanates from the usual Anti-Vax sources. The Anti-Vax people are wrong, often to the point where we have to regard them as delusional, about everything they say. If you find yourself leaning towards thinking that they have a point, you need to check yourself because they don’t. There are good reasons why parents worry about vaccines (see “The vaccination does make the baby cry, so why do it?“), but in the final analysis (or even way before the final analysis) these worries are falsehoods. I would like to direct you to THIS POST by Orac (see also this) as a good place to start, and quite possibly end, your consideration of this issue. I won’t link to recent sensationalistic news stories about the horrors of HPV vaccines because they are worthless drek. And no, I do not get a check from Big Pharm. I don’t like Big Pharm any more than I like Monsanto, yet Huxley and Julia are fully vaccinated and we eat. Life is complex.

Anti-Vax Paranoic Police State Shenanigans: Skeptics visit AutismOne Conference

You must go read the chilling and amusing account of Jamie Bernstein and Ken Reibel’s visit to the AutismOne Conference in the Chicago area. The story has all the elements. Horror:
(that’s what they were forced to eat); Police Absurdity (though not brutality); Screeching Breathless Paranoia; Jenny McCarthy; and Chemical Castration.

The story is told by Jamie across two blogs: Autism One, Part One on Skepchick and How I Got Kicked Out of the AutismOne Con: Part 2 on Friendly Atheist. Ken Reibel gives his version of the events here.

The vaccination does make the baby cry, so why do it?

ResearchBlogging.orgIt seems like every time I take Huxley (now 18 months old) to the doctor, the following things happen: 1) Somebody says “Well, he won’t need to get stuck with any needles for a long while now …. his next scheduled immunization is [insert phrase indicating ‘a long time into the future’]”; and 2) Huxley gets stuck with some needles.

The last time, a few days ago, was especially bad.
Continue reading The vaccination does make the baby cry, so why do it?

Important Information on the MMR Vaccine-Autism Link

An investigation by the Sunday Times (UK) indicates that the doctor who reported information suggesting a link between MMR vaccine and autism may have “misreproted results in his research.” The investigation purpots to show that …

…Andrew Wakefield manipulated patients’ data, which triggered fears that the MMR triple vaccine to protect against measles, mumps and rubella was linked to the condition.

The research [originally] claimed that the families of eight out of 12 children attending a routine clinic at the hospital had blamed MMR for their autism, and said that problems came on within days of the [vaccinatoi]. The team also claimed to have discovered a new inflammatory bowel disease underlying the children’s conditions.

However, our investigation, confirmed by evidence presented to the General Medical Council (GMC), reveals that: In most of the 12 cases, the children’s ailments as described in The Lancet were different from their hospital and GP records. Although the research paper claimed that problems came on within days of the jab, in only one case did medical records suggest this was true, and in many of the cases medical concerns had been raised before the children were vaccinated. Hospital pathologists, looking for inflammatory bowel disease, reported in the majority of cases that the gut was normal. This was then reviewed and the Lancet paper showed them as abnormal.

(Emphasis added)

The story is here.

See also:
A Quick Note to Huffington Post

Did the founder of the antivax movement fake autism-vaccine link?

Anti-vax study a case of scientific fraud?
The anti-vaccination movement—rotten to the core