Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: The Daily Embarrassment

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  • Kracklite,

    This link may appear to be way OTT… I wonder how many GW studies are as badly flawed as the Lancet study. Quite a few would be my guess.

    A non-sequitur in fact: ‘I have counted no cattle in the field, therefore there are no oranges in the orchard.’

    "scientific studies"

    Cower before my deadly quotation marks, foolish mortals!

    almost certainly a complete load of shit.

    Someone will remind you of that the next time you refer to any study.

    their personal biases can creep into their work

    As Richard Feynman once said, science is the art of not fooling yourself.

    This is so egregiously ignorant, I’ll have to split my reply into several parts:

    First, scientific method is designed to override any personal biases. As I explained in another thread, peer review and reproducibility are essential. Observations and/or experiments must be repeated in order to elevate an hypothesis to a theory. The Annals of Improbable Research, which sponsors the Ignobel prizes has/had a rival called The Journal of Irreproducible Results and that title is hilarious if you know how science works. If a result isn’t reproduced, it’s worthless. Science is a collective but fiercely competitive activity. It is not conducted by lone celebrities who then dazzle everyone with their insight and are universally applauded and never questioned. That’s demagoguery.

    Second, as a corollary to that, the perceived integrity of any single scientist of team is irrelevant, as are spurious character attacks on individual scientists. All of their professional colleagues are breathing down their necks. If one is found to have a liking for rubberware and livestock, then if the results they found are reproduced, it’s unimportant. If the results are not reproduced, then it is also unimportant.

    Third, as a corollary of that, scientific fraud is a problem and it does occur… until someone attempts to replicate results. There are certainly high profile cases to point at, going back to the Piltdown Man. However, the competitive nature of science ensures that a fraud will be found out sooner or later. It is simply impossible to put something forward that is contrary to the laws of nature and not have it found out.

    OK, fourth, or two-A or whatever. No broad phenomenon is dependent upon one result or paper. Gregor Mendel’s studies of the genetics of peas are statistically too good to be true – it is possible (but, I hasten to add, unproven) that he massaged his results. However, there are so many studies supporting the theory of genetic inheritance that even if he made everything up, genetic inheritance is a proven phenomenon. There is a fundamental misunderstanding of scale in claiming that one or two errors or discrepancies refute an entire theory; observation or experimental proof (meaning trial or test) is always matched to the specific hypothesis.

    Where there are suggestive results and wishful thinking involved, there will be a persistence of sorts, but it’s eventually sidelined – witness the case of ‘cold fusion’. There are still people who cling to that, but rather than being censored by nasty people in white coats and black helicopters, they simply are unable to produce reproducible results and are consequently sidelined.

    I honestly do not know what the case would be with the Lancet, but I’d rather see peer papers than a Neocon newspaper’s.

    Science is a ruthlessly competitive business, as is all of academia. Make a mistake and you may as well smear yourself in BBQ sauce and leap into a sharks’ feeding frenzy. I often quip to friends that Inspector Morse was a hopelessly inaccurate police series because the homicide rate in a university would never be so low.

    Sometimes the sharks are slow, but when we’re dealing with not an isolated observation but a phenomenon that’s been observed over decades (again, consider the matter of scale and breadth and coherence of observations), then a truly absurd conspiracy theory has to be erected to account for it. Still, there are Flat Earthers about even today, and don’t get me started on the manifold idiocies of the ‘They faked the Moon landings!’ loons…

    (Is there someone who takes Richard Hoagland, the ‘Face on Mars’ guy, seriously here?)

    we should always be skeptical of scientific studies.

    And this is where paranoia and solipsism meet. There’s scepticism that's indicative of reasonable caution and there’s scepticism that covers complete cerebral ossification. Certainly it’s impossible to argue with someone who believes this (they usually end up claiming that I'm an hallucination and everything's fake). I do however propose an experiment: Newton was wrong, we know it for a fact. Newtonian theory does not account for discrepancies in the orbital motion of Mercury. Therefore gravitation is false. Please fling yourself off a cliff or high building and let me know what happens.

    (Actually, General Relativity accounts for Mercury’s odd movement and it was in fact one of the first observational proofs of Relativity)

    The Library of Babel • Since Nov 2007 • 982 posts Report Reply

  • James Bremner,

    Kracklite,

    Did you read the article on the Lancet study? It is a devastating destruction of a study that has received a lot of play in the media over a period of years and has certainly aided in shaping opinions and perhaps in developing policy options on one of the most important issues of the day

    Doesn't it bother you that the study is apparently a load of crap?

    NOLA • Since Nov 2006 • 353 posts Report Reply

  • Kracklite,

    Doesn't it bother you that the study is apparently a load of crap?

    I've read it, I'm reading it again.

    It bothers me that it is apparently dubious, but I am not a statistician, I do not work in media studies and the National Journal is not exactly a disinterested publication. I would like to see more analysis - including analysis of the National Journal article.

    I assume that other people here will have something to say and they may or may not have good resources. Unlike you, I do not immediately leap to embrace something that appears to gratify my prejudices.

    It does bother me that you try to use induction to infer - actually to use a non sequitur - to support a solipsistic belief that scientific articles are mostly 'a load of crap'.

    How are your experiments with gravity going?

    The Library of Babel • Since Nov 2007 • 982 posts Report Reply

  • linger,

    the article on the Lancet study [...] is a devastating destruction

    Not exactly.
    The article raises a great many questions (some admittedly well worth asking) -- but it does not provide definitive answers. That must await detailed peer review, and attempts by other researchers to replicate the Lancet study's findings.

    The main claims made in the article are:
    (1) The authors and researchers show political bias.
    [By itself, this is simply an ad hominem.]

    (2) The sampling methodology used is possibly unrepresentative
    (e.g. favouring main streets where car-bombs were more likely).
    [This is not clearly demonstrated in the article, but may be worth following up.]

    (3) The data collectors were not effectively supervised,
    and working under extreme time pressure and in extreme danger
    [Seems a fair comment.]

    (4) As a result, the data collectors may have fabricated some data (the article cites some suspicious details -- unlikely distributions of deaths, missing death certificates, unexpectedly high survey response rates -- in support of this claim).
    [But accusation is not proof: this is where replication is needed.]

    (5) Nobody has been given access to the raw data, and therefore (under the circumstances) we should question its existence.

    To return to our original topic: only (1) -- the ad hominem -- is potentially relevant to GW. So I have to concur with Kracklite that in the current thread, this is a non sequitur.

    Tokyo • Since Apr 2007 • 1943 posts Report Reply

  • James Bremner,

    to support a solipsistic belief that scientific articles are mostly 'a load of crap'.

    Kracklite,
    Go back and read what I wrote. I never said anything of the kind.

    I wrote
    that "scientific studies" by respected organizations that appear in respected publications that are taken very seriously and impact public attitudes and potentially public policy can in fact be almost certainly a complete load of shit.

    The key word is "can", no implication that all scientific studies are wrong, or anything like it. There should have been a "be' after 'certainly", not that makes any difference to the meaning of my post.

    Science is the foundation of the modern world we live in. My point was simply that we shouldn't automatically accept the findings of scientific studies as fact. Many dramatic claims seem to be automatically be reported and treated as fact when skepticism and further scrutiny would be the more appropriate course of action. The Lancet study being a case in point.

    NOLA • Since Nov 2006 • 353 posts Report Reply

  • Kracklite,

    Sophistry, and disingenuous to boot.

    just proof positive that we should always be skeptical of scientific studies.

    "Always". No discrimination suggested.

    You used the "destruction" of the Lancet study because, supposedly:

    This link may appear to be way OTT at first glance but it is relevant to the discussion on GW

    Despite your claim that the article is "relevant", your post is mass of inappropriately applied generalisations. It's called induction, and if you claim to respect science, then you should know that that is about the biggest logical error you can make (apart from non sequiturs and presenting an opinion followed by selected factoids cherry-picked to support it).

    Many dramatic claims seem to be automatically be reported and treated as fact

    Yes indeed. As is your treatment of the National Journal article.

    As I pointed out, science has a self-checking process built in and long-term, errors are rooted out. I'll wait and see what happens regarding the Lancet because things are never settled overnight.

    Not only are you committing the logical error of applying the particular (fatalities in Iraq as measured by one study) to the general, you are applying it to a general in an entirely different field (climatology, as it has been investigated worldwide over decades). This is even sillier than trying to say that the Piltdown Man hoax refutes evolutionary theory because at least we know that the Piltdown Man was definitely a hoax - and it has no pertience to, say, astronomy.

    It is quite clear that you are ignorant of scientific method and like many ignorant people, you think that the less there is that you know, the less there is to know. The respect given to papers published in journals is not arbitrary like that given to celebreties or royalty - it is earned and it is tested.

    There is professional scepticism and there are conspiracy theories. There is a difference, and it is profound. I give credence to what climatologists say about climate, knowing that the last thing they would do is "automatically" accept what a colleague says. I give no credence to conspiracy theorists.

    The Library of Babel • Since Nov 2007 • 982 posts Report Reply

  • James Bremner,

    Well, your beloved scientific process certainly appears to have broken down in the case of the Lancet study doesn't it?

    So we plebs should just bow down before your great wisdom and let the wise scientists dictate to us what is right and what is wrong as they look down on us from their great ivory towers? No thanks.

    Wisdom and intelligence are not the same thing, as many scientists and academics prove on a regular basis.

    NOLA • Since Nov 2006 • 353 posts Report Reply

  • Kracklite,

    Well, your beloved scientific process certainly appears to have broken down in the case of the Lancet study doesn't it?

    No, not at all. The point is is that it is in the process. Again (and again and again...), no single paper is important. It is the accumulation of a body of verifiable facts that matters.

    In fact, for the system to work, at least half of all papers published must be wrong, because every one must be challenged and prove itself in order to survive. Observations suggest hypothesis A, someone proposes hypothesis B - and when the dust is settled, one survives and is cited and the other is thereafter ignored. That is why I only care for those that have lasted and contributed to a gestalt of knowledge, not cherry picking.

    great ivory towers? No thanks.

    As so you will never again enter a doctor's surgery?

    I prefer that as an alternative to mobs with torches and pitchforks, fortune tellers, astrologers, augers, demagogues, witch-finders, inquisitors, comissars and conspiracy theorists. They've all been tried already.

    Science may be the worst possible system, as Churchill said of democracy - except for all the rest.

    Now, should trials be run without due process, should an election? Oh hang on...

    Wisdom and intelligence are not the same thing, as many scientists and academics prove on a regular basis.

    You are obsessed with the ad hominem. The virtues of individuals do not matter, any more than the virtues of individuals matter in (basic) captitalism - as Adam Smith pointed out, if I want a pie, I depend on the baker's desire for my money, not his genorous intention to give me a pie. The legal system works much better than mob rule despite the fact that there are stupid, venal lawyers as well as saintly, brilliant ones; it could not work if it depended absolutely on the latter because there aren't enough.

    You want absolute certainty, black-and white truth as if from God, otherwise everything is doubtful? Grow the hell up.

    Throughout this thread I have seen the denailists use misrepresentation, misinterpretation, falsehood, Michael bloody Crichton, cherry-picking, induction, non sequiturs, paranoia and fantastic psychological projection of motives - anything but reason, and yet you consider yourselves competent to make scientific judgments.

    Incredible.

    The Library of Babel • Since Nov 2007 • 982 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    RB, your comments on the National Journal article? You have cited the Lancet study number frequently in your posts.

    It's interesting and apparently fairly damning, but perhaps you should wait a bit before describing a single article as "proof positive" of "destruction".

    One of the most vocal critics of the study is unhappy with the way some of his quotes were used, for example.

    The credibility invested in the Lancet study was largely because it appeared to have been conducted according to well-established practice. If that turns out not to be case, its credibility will be diminished accordingly. It's not that complicated.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22849 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    So we plebs should just bow down before your great wisdom and let the wise scientists dictate to us what is right and what is wrong as they look down on us from their great ivory towers? No thanks.

    James, you sound like an adolescent.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22849 posts Report Reply

  • tussock,

    RB: James is funny, leave him be.

    The National Journal article is pretty silly too, the best critique of the lancet study being that it was misreported in media headlines, much like all statistical data is. Error bars are there for a reason, and that study had some big-ass error bars.

    Kinda like how political poll trends aren't necessarily so once you account for error margins. The media want stories more than facts though, so it will always be.

    Earth is now at the peak of one of its passing warm spells. It started in the 17th century when there was no industrial influence on the climate to speak of and no such thing as the hothouse effect. The current warming is evidently a natural process and utterly independent of hothouse gases.

    That's a neat trick, the climate being independent of the properties of the gasses that it's composed of. I wonder what mechanism they've proposed to increase the planet's heat radiation by precisely the same amount as it should be reduced by the physical properties of increased CO2.

    The real reasons for climate changes are uneven solar radiation, terrestrial precession (that is, axis gyration), instability of oceanic currents, regular salinity fluctuations of the Arctic Ocean surface waters, etc. There is another, principal reason—solar activity and luminosity. The greater they are the warmer is our climate.

    We measure all that, very accurately, and it can't explain the changes that we've also measured very accurately. CO2 concentrations can, and are comfortably within the bounds of expectations. Bigger than the normally reported lower bounds, smaller than the runaway upper bounds.

    Carbon dioxide is not to blame for global climate change. Solar activity is many times more powerful than the energy produced by the whole of humankind. Man’s influence on nature is a drop in the ocean.

    Oh, good grief. Someone who thinks CO2 warming is from the heat of the fire that created it. Fsck that's ignorant in a discussion of global climate.

    So who knows?

    You don't. Most other people do.

    And of course there is the fact that warmer climates and more CO2 have some very positive effects, so [...]

    The rate of change matters. That's why the suggestions aren't to stop all CO2 output and rebury what's been released, but limit it's output rate to levels that we think the human world can afford to manage, that leaves the wild room to avoid mass extinctions.

    Thus, "Climate change", rather than "global warming".

    I hope that cooler, more sensible heads prevails on GW.

    I hope that a few rationally cautious heads take over and actually do something. Vote Obama. Vote Green. Etc.

    Since Nov 2006 • 611 posts Report Reply

  • Kracklite,

    James, you sound like an adolescent.

    I'm reminded of something James Oberg said about debating UFO cultists, although he may have been quoting someone else: it's like wrestling a pig - you assume undignified positions, get covered in mud and in the end you're left with the suspicion that the pig enjoyed it.

    Still, I don't mind getting down and dirty now and again. Disagreement I like if it's challenging and witty (Craig Ranapia would leave this forum a poorer place if he left, for sure), but wilful ignorance really pisses me off.

    RB: James is funny, leave him be.

    Wot, no telling off for me? Are all my efforts in vain?

    Vote Green. Etc.

    I'm definitely tempted, but I have the feeling that they'd try to ban the Sun if they found out that it was nuclear powered.

    The Library of Babel • Since Nov 2007 • 982 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    __Vote Green. Etc.__

    I'm definitely tempted, but I have the feeling that they'd try to ban the Sun if they found out that it was nuclear powered.

    I've said this before, but I've found my experience in trying to get to the bottom of the GE issue very helpful in assessing climate scepticism.

    You see the same things: single studies quoted like gospel; science academies ignored; long-debunked talking points endlessly circulated; dubious characters getting lots of press; claims of conspiracy; science demonised.

    And sometimes, even the same people.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22849 posts Report Reply

  • Kracklite,

    How could I have missed it?

    Truthiness!

    "What we're doing is bringing democracy to knowledge."

    D'oh!

    The Library of Babel • Since Nov 2007 • 982 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    Oh, and I've been meaning to post this for a few days.

    Via RealClimate, The Age of Consequences: The Foreign Policy and National Security Implications of Global Climate Change, a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Center for a New American Security.

    I'm not so sure about the subsequent Malthusian enthusing in some of the RealClimate comments, but the author list alone -- including former CIA director James Woolsey, former Chief of Staff to the President John Podesta and some very senior scientists -- should make it compulsory for anyone who presumes to pass comment on climate change. Like Tussock says, it's the rate of change.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22849 posts Report Reply

  • linger,

    There is a difference between journalism and science. The National Journal article presents a journalist's argument, not a scientific argument.
    In my summary of the article above I fairly deliberately gave it the benefit of the doubt, in focussing on the substantive points that directly attacked the Lancet paper. It would be too easy to identify points that are less relevant to a scientific argument, but (applying the article's own logic) undermine the article's own credibility.

    * It shows notable political bias (sure, an ad hominem -- but in this case it directly leads the authors to glaring logical flaws, as below).

    * Risible argument from authority (it is implied, more than once, that the Lancet study has no credibility simply because George W said so).

    * Astounding scientific howlers (e.g. someone is quoted as saying that the environment of Iraq had been spoiled with effects lasting for "35 billion years". Bearing in mind that the Earth is only 4.6 billion years old, and will in all likelihood be burnt to a cinder within a similar period, this shows a lack of care to accuracy that counsels caution in assessing the "factual" claims made against the Lancet paper).

    Does any of this prove that the article's attack is unfounded? Actually, no.
    But by the same token, the article's attack does not prove that the Lancet study is unfounded. As I said above, it raises questions, but does not definitively answer them.

    I would add that journalists are generally not all that trustworthy in reporting on science. (I am not claiming any intent to deceive. Simply that they're not experts, and it shows). For example:

    Bell (1989) conducted a study of newspaper reports concerning global warming, by the simple method of sending copies of articles back to the sources quoted and asking them to comment on any inaccuracies. He found that

    "Sources rated 29% of stories absolutely accurate, and 55% slightly inaccurate, with 16% in the higher inaccuracy levels [...] Scientific/ technical inaccuracies were present in about a third of stories ム technical terms misused, wrong figures given, scientific facts confused. Non-scientific inaccuracies (such as mis-spelled names, misnamed organisations and wrong dates) also occurred in about a third of the stories, as did misquotations. About a quarter of stories had significant omissions or exaggerations."

    (Bell, Allan (1991) The language of news media. Oxford: Blackwell. p217)

    Tokyo • Since Apr 2007 • 1943 posts Report Reply

  • Kracklite,

    You see the same things...

    Indeed, there seems to be a consistent pattern among the various pseudoscientific cults. On one hand they claim the authority of science and bring up whatever studies they can find and misrepresent them, and other times, because they can't find acceptance among the scientific community while earnestly trying (I'm being generous here), they decide that it must be due to some conspiracy.

    There's an article here by a space journalist attending a presentation by Richard Hoagland, the Face on Mars guy. The parallels are obvious, and overall it's actually pretty sad and dreary:

    That kind of intense disappointment must greet conspiracy buffs virtually every day. They’re looking for some great secret message, something that gives them access to the hidden world that they know is out there. But what they often get is lame, stupid, boring—a commercial pitch to “buy my book.”

    Anyway, page one here and page two here

    Hoagland's book, by the way is interesting as an example of mixed pathology and manipulation, but otherwise... um, well...

    Now and again I have to read this stuff as part of my research. Weep for me.

    The Library of Babel • Since Nov 2007 • 982 posts Report Reply

  • Steve Parks,

    I'm definitely tempted [to vote Green], but I have the feeling that they'd try to ban the Sun if they found out that it was nuclear powered.

    Careful, Kracklite. You never know when a Green might be reading.
    Seriously, their stance sometimes reminds me of the attitude expressed in a letter to the editor, which said that nuclear power is intrinsically evil. I wondered: Does this guy know how that life-sustaining ball of fire in the sky works?

    Wellington • Since May 2007 • 1165 posts Report Reply

  • Steve Parks,

    With regards to Truthiness, interesting that the link to the explanation of the word goes to Wikipedia. That 'bringing democracy to knowledge" comment was a dig by Colbert at Wikipedia. So, I now know all about "Truthiness" from Wiki. But... Colbert was being sarcastic in his reference to Wikipedia, mocking its reliability. So, does that mean I don't trust this article on "Truthiness" at all, because it's on Wikipedia? Even though the article seems coherent and reasonably well written and neutral, and has cited ample sources? And wait, if I disregard the article, including its depiction of "Truthiness" as something Colbert meant to be applied satirically, does that mean he doesn't align Wiki with Truthiness...Wiki's wrong: He isn't being ironic? Oh, I'm so confused.

    Seriously, Colbert is an intelligent, funny guy, but it's a shame he's in the Paul Henry camp on this one.

    Wellington • Since May 2007 • 1165 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    No Right Turn comprehensively sorts out the Herald's latest guest denial tract, the one from Brian Leyland (whose connections are not even mentioned in connection with the story).

    This is getting ridiculous. Could the Herald possibly get someone with some credibility to write on this issue?

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22849 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    There's an article here by a space journalist attending a presentation by Richard Hoagland, the Face on Mars guy. The parallels are obvious, and overall it's actually pretty sad and dreary:

    This was a major problem for the anti-GE lobby here. I had a bit of contact with them, and there were genuinely concerned and knowledgeable people involved -- and then there were what I referred to as the "UFO fanciers" like Jonathan Eisen -- who really is a Face on Mars guy.

    My impression is that Eisen and his mates had the energy of crazy people and to some extent ran away with the movement, and there was a lot of emotional upheaval. I asked Bic Runga (who was a celebrity supporter) about it in an interview once, and she really didn't want to talk about it.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22849 posts Report Reply

  • Philip Wilkie,

    Does this guy know how that life-sustaining ball of fire in the sky works?

    Well yes. Last I looked at the science, Big Yella is supposed to be kitted with a nuclear FUSION reactor under the hood, runs on hydrogen, and burps helium out the tail pipe. Very green and trendy. Gets a 5 five eco-star rating.

    By contrast all the nulcear power station technologies currently in use (and for the foreseeable future) use FISSION reactors which, for a whole bunch of reasons are environmentally like running the kids to school in a Hummer that runs on a distillate of humpback whale oil. No eco-stars at all.

    Since Mar 2007 • 23 posts Report Reply

  • Philip Wilkie,

    nulcear

    Oh damm, I'll never be able to say anything bad about GWB ever again...

    Since Mar 2007 • 23 posts Report Reply

  • Alex Coleman,

    Indeed, there seems to be a consistent pattern among the various pseudoscientific cults.

    This guy has based his whole blog around pulling apart arguments made by denialists of many stripes.

    He shows that it doesn't matter which colour the stripes are the arguments stay the same. Creationists argue like holocaust deniers who use the same techniques as climate change sceptics. All three get offended when this is pointed out to them, but they all get offended in similar ways. Which is funny.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 247 posts Report Reply

  • Idiot Savant,

    This is getting ridiculous. Could the Herald possibly get someone with some credibility to write on this issue?

    How would they tell?

    Palmerston North • Since Nov 2006 • 1716 posts Report Reply

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