Jun 04 2012

Legislating Science in North Carolina

The history of governments meddling in the practice of science is not a good one. The most infamous case is that of Lysenkoism -Stalin backed the ideas of Trofim Denisovich Lysenko who believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics. His ideas became of the official sanctioned science of the Soviet government. Genetics was declared a “bourgeois science,” or “fascist science,” and many geneticists who disagreed with Lysenko were executed or sent to labor camps. Execution tends to have a chilling effect on the free exchange of ideas and the practice of science. Over seven decades later genetic science in Russia is still lagging behind.

In the US we have a similar problem – not the Gulag, but political factions that disagree with certain findings of science that are ideologically inconvenient for them. The two biggest issues being targeted (but certainly not the only ones) are evolution and climate change. Much of the focus has been on what should be taught to students in science class (my vote is for science).

Recently the North Carolina legislature proposed House Bill 819 to study the effect of climate change on sea levels, and therefore coastlines. For some reason the legislators felt the need to include in the bill specific restrictions on how the science can be done. Section 2 includes this line:

These rates shall only be determined using historical data, and these data shall be limited to the time period following the year 1900. Rates of sea-level rise may be extrapolated linearly to estimate future rates of rise but shall not include scenarios of accelerated rates of sea-level rise.

Apparently being elected to the State House of North Carolina invests politicians with superior knowledge (to actual scientists who work in the field) as to the proper way to model future trends. Extrapolating current trends into the future is always tricky. The very heart of any such extrapolation is to know what the mathematical trend is. There is a tendency to assume a linear extrapolation, but that is usually not the case.

The problem with linear extrapolation of trends is that often we are looking at a small part of the slope of a complex and changing phenomenon, and there is no justification for assuming that current short term trends will hold up in the long term. Usually this takes the form of, “If current trends continue (linearly is often assumed), then in X amount of time something horrible will happen.” However, we may just be looking at a the ups and downs of a cycle, which is only apparent when longer term data is looked at.

Further, there are often game changers that alter the factors involved in creating the trend. Systems reach saturation points, compensatory mechanisms take hold, technology advances, and times change.

On the other hand, some systems have feedback loops that can actually increase the rate of change over time, so the trend is not linear but geometric or exponential. If in 1960 you tried to predict what computer technology would look like in 2012 by extrapolating linearly from advances so far, your estimates would be off by many orders of magnitude. Advances in computer technology have been geometric, doubling roughly every two years, or 18 months if you believe Intel (a phenomenon known as Moore’s law, which specifically referred to the density of transistors on computer chips).

What is the proper way to mathematically model future changes in sea level based upon recent climate data? That is a highly technical scientific question best left to those with expertise in this area. Climate has many feedback loops and game-changing consequences that need to be taken into account. How this all works out is a legitimate matter of scientific debate, and there are many viable models. Here is a good discussion of the issue, specifically relating to the recent IPCC report on sea level change. They discuss a number of different scenarios, producing predictions of sea level rise by the end of the century between 18 and 59 cm. The extrapolations are all fairly conservative, in that they in fact rely on some linear extrapolations of some things like the flow of ice from Greenland. They acknowledge that this can dramatically change, and may even slow, or the glaciers may rapidly slide off into the North Atlantic, changing all predictions of sea level rise.

The North Carolina bill does more than dictate how publicly funded scientists may extrapolate future trends, they also dictate that they may only use historical data. In other words, they cannot use climate models – they can’t use any actual scientific understanding of climate and the forces at work that can affect climate. They must take a simplistic approach of extending the line from historical data into the future, and they must do it in a linear fashion.

This bill is an amazing combination of ignorance and hubris. It is perhaps an excellent example of the Dunning Kruger effect whereby ignorance renders one unable to detect their own ignorance. Only a scientifically illiterate legislator would be unable to determine how scientifically illiterate this bill is.

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33 responses so far

33 Responses to “Legislating Science in North Carolina”

  1. colli037on 04 Jun 2012 at 8:55 am

    Its worse than you suggest.

    Local news coverage suggests the change was driven by real estate industry insiders, after the initial study resulted in an estimate of 1meter increase in sea level. This would result in large areas of developed (and soon to be developed) ending up under water.

    So pressure on the legislators resulted in legal language defining who would do the study, and how it would be done, in order to obtain the results they wanted.

    tim

  2. Steven Novellaon 04 Jun 2012 at 8:56 am

    Tim – I suspected this was the result of lobbying. Thanks for the info.

  3. Bronze Dogon 04 Jun 2012 at 9:52 am

    Wow. I suspected standard wingnut lobbying, but what Tim said seems to suggest a case of Polly Anna: “We’ve invested a lot of money into this real estate, so we’ll pretend that the bad things won’t happen and that will make them go away.”

  4. siggybosson 04 Jun 2012 at 10:08 am

    I believe this view contradicts the author’s past stance that the state should dictate standards in medicine. I still contend reputation is the best system, where individuals have the freedom of speech to criticize anyone without fear of libel (i.e. lawsuits).

  5. BobbyGon 04 Jun 2012 at 10:09 am

    The bill’s addenda are also noteworthy:

    pi is hereby rounded down to 3. Euler’s Constant is hereby rounded down to 2. It shall be unlawful to use the exp() function in Excel. The teaching of polynomials in high school algebra is expressly forbidden, as everyone knows they were invented by Mormons.

  6. Steven Novellaon 04 Jun 2012 at 10:27 am

    siggy – It is not my stance that the state should dictate standards in medicine. The scientific medical community should dictate standards in medicine, based upon the best available science. The state should enforce these standards. There’s a big difference.

  7. SARAon 04 Jun 2012 at 11:23 am

    Well, how helpful. Remarkably it will probably be the state and its taxpayers who will have to pay for the hubris. There will undoubtedly be legislature to try and save those houses with some form of expensive breakwater or such to try and protect real estate that should never have been developed.

    But that will be a different legislature’s problem.

  8. DS1000on 04 Jun 2012 at 12:40 pm

    siggy – Moreover to Steve’s response, this is a case of a state dictating the answer not the approach for a scientific inquiry.

  9. Sancluson 04 Jun 2012 at 1:18 pm

    It is worthwhile to note that history shows us no successful nation where matters of science were dictated by the government. Within America, it is most ironic that such legislation is diametrically opposed to and warned against by such luminaries as Thomas Paine. Sadly, many seem to have forgotten why we fought a revolutionary war. Personally, I find such legislation dangerous, harmful and a possible indication of a trend that should chill us all to the bone.

    Daniel

  10. ConspicuousCarlon 04 Jun 2012 at 1:19 pm

    Here is the full document:
    http://www.nccoast.org/uploads/documents/CRO/2012-5/SLR-bill.pdf

    I am guessing that the intent is to address zoning, but the bill is full of statements about “any” policy which defines sea level rates, so I would like to ask its authors if local police are allowed to buy rubber boots based on flood predictions.

    Siggy:
    If you want to check Novella’s consistency, here is his commentary on another case of the government trying to dictate scientific conclusions, in which state laws deem that eternal administration of antibiotics will never be considered bad practice:
    http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/index.php/connecticut-legislature-intrudes-on-debate-over-chronic-lyme-disease/

  11. Sancluson 04 Jun 2012 at 2:10 pm

    He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.
    Thomas Paine – First Principles of Government – (1795)

    “The duty of a patriot is to protect his country from its government.”
    ― Thomas Paine

    “It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry. ”

    Thomas Paine

  12. wallet55on 04 Jun 2012 at 4:18 pm

    I agree, this is not an anti-science attitude, though we have more than enough of that here in NC. This is about real estate and flood insurance. Just look at a map of NC’s coast and you will understand why NC follows this very closely. As beautiful as the Outer Banks are, when you are out there, seeing sound all the way to the horizon in one direction and ocean all the way to the other, you realize how precarious it is. I have heard real estate developers actually admit one reason for the extreme development out there is to make it “too big to fail” when there are hurricanes that wipe out whole strips. Quite a number of us inland question the expense and sharing of insurance with these folks, but since quite a number of legislators and others in the 1% have houses out there, Raleigh sits on the issue, hoping it will go away, that no OBX Katrina will happen, and that sea level rise will prove to be overestimated.

  13. siggybosson 04 Jun 2012 at 8:37 pm

    Steven Novella,

    ” The scientific medical community should dictate standards in medicine, based upon the best available science. The state should enforce these standards. There’s a big difference.”

    There is no difference. The state is dictating a standard regardless of its source. Also, there is no precise definition of the “scientific medical community,” which will be determined by the state.

  14. ConspicuousCarlon 04 Jun 2012 at 10:18 pm

    Siggy apparently sees no difference between teaching kids that 2 + 2 = 4 because mathematicians say it is the correct answer versus teaching kids that 2 + 2 = 5 because some politician (or their donor) likes the number 5. Both cases of the government dictating education, eh?

  15. NewRonon 04 Jun 2012 at 10:55 pm

    I agree with the tenor of the article. The words ‘science’ and ‘scientist’ are often used in articles to give import to their content. But Lysenko was a scientist and this helped give respect to his ideas. It is no wonder that for many ‘science’ does not have the positive connotations its practitioners would like.

  16. BillyJoe7on 05 Jun 2012 at 12:29 am

    Lysenko lives on through Shapiro in the shape of Adaptive Mutation. ):

  17. siggybosson 05 Jun 2012 at 10:03 am

    ConspicuousCarl,

    “Siggy apparently sees no difference between teaching kids that 2 + 2 = 4 because mathematicians say it is the correct answer versus teaching kids that 2 + 2 = 5 because some politician (or their donor) likes the number 5. Both cases of the government dictating education, eh?”

    Yes. There is no difference because one cannot trust the state to teach either answer. In gist, the author’s logic is reduced to advocating the state dictate whatever he is in agreement with today (e.g. answer 4), without due consideration that the same state could dictate the opposite tomorrow (e.g. answer 5). There is a real danger that anyone in disagreement with the answer at that moment (4 or 5) will be censored. This very blog could be censored for advocating anything in contradiction with the state’s edict (e.g. North Carolina). The better solution is to let everyone freely debate a solution (e.g. freedom of speech) – maybe someone will come up with something different: 4 + (0 x imaginary number).

  18. siggybosson 05 Jun 2012 at 10:08 am

    ConspicuousCarl,

    Please note:
    An imaginary number is a number whose square is less than or equal to zero…An imaginary number can be written as a real number multiplied by the imaginary unit i, which is defined by its property i^2 = −1.

    An imaginary number bi can be added to a real number a to form a complex number of the form a + bi, where a and b are called, respectively, the real part and the imaginary part of the complex number. Imaginary numbers can therefore be thought of as complex numbers whose real part is zero. The name “imaginary number” was coined in the 17th century as a derogatory term, as such numbers were regarded by some as fictitious or useless, but today they have a variety of essential, concrete applications in science and engineering.

    Source: Wikipedia

  19. ConspicuousCarlon 05 Jun 2012 at 11:50 am

    Siggyboss:

    If the majority of mathematicians become unable to add 2 and 2 correctly, the government will not be at the top of our problem list.

    If you like imaginary numbers so much, I would think that you would dislike the idea of the state of South Carolina writing a law which says that imaginary numbers cannot be used to calculate an answer.

    But your Wikiversity skills are above mine, so I am hoping that you can simplify things a bit for my sake. If a patient owes a doctor $2 for a bunion removal and $2 for cauterization of a bloody nose, and the doctor charges the patient’s credit card $5, is it OK with you if the government demands that the doctor refund $1? If indeed you can answer that without referring to quantum physics?

  20. Alexandraon 05 Jun 2012 at 12:30 pm

    Just to add a lighter note: Stephen Colbert did his “The Word” segment on this story. Hilarious satire, as usual.

    http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/414796/june-04-2012/the-word—sink-or-swim

  21. steve12on 05 Jun 2012 at 3:05 pm

    Siggyboss seems to believe the libertarian idea that “reputation” can take care of things like this, but it cannot. Correct me if I’m wrong, Siggyboss – I don’t want to put words in your mouth.

    I think this notion that tyranny can only come from governments is just nonsense. Tyranny can come from powerful interests that control the flow of information and therefore reputation, and this is just one way in which non-government actors can engage in tyranny. Worry about governments and not monied interests in service of some political philosophy is becoming popular, but ultimately it’s sort of dopey.

    That’s why I find this turn toward libertarianism to be shallow, non-empirical (when/where has it ever worked?), absolutist nonsense. And I used to consider myself a libertarian.

  22. BillyJoe7on 05 Jun 2012 at 5:45 pm

    “If indeed you can answer that without referring to quantum physics?”

    :D

    “An imaginary number is a number whose square is less than or equal to zero…An imaginary number can be written as a real number multiplied by the imaginary unit i, which is defined by its property i^2 = −1. An imaginary number bi can be added to a real number a to form a complex number of the form a + bi, where a and b are called, respectively, the real part and the imaginary part of the complex number.”

    Therefore 2 + 2 = 5?
    I think you should drop the imaginary and the complex and get real. ;)

  23. tmac57on 05 Jun 2012 at 7:54 pm

    hear hear to steve12 and his statement:

    Tyranny can come from powerful interests that control the flow of information and therefore reputation, and this is just one way in which non-government actors can engage in tyranny.

    I get so tired of the one-note Libertarian “government is evil” and “absolute liberty” solves all evils meme.
    Hat tip steve12 :)

  24. eiskrystalon 06 Jun 2012 at 3:57 am

    So what happens if the bill passes and scientists ignore it? I mean does this bill have traction outside of North Carolina or is this just going to all be a bit embarrassing to the idiots that came up with it?

  25. Nitpickingon 06 Jun 2012 at 6:34 am

    An imaginary number is a number whose square is less than or equal to zero …

    Um, Siggyboss, that would make zero an imaginary number. Technically I suppose one could make that argument since 0i = 0, but it’s a very odd thought.

  26. Sancluson 06 Jun 2012 at 8:02 am

    The question may often be who or what has the most oppressive power? It is the power to oppress that is at the heart of tyranny and it is the motivation for oppression that may be the most telling. In most cases, oppression takes the form of an excessive and unjust use of power. Where there is tyranny, there is purpose. The ideas of tyranny can be easily extrapolated and employed by both groups, governments and individuals, but it is the motivation behind tyrannical acts that we must be always cautious of. Fear and ignorance have many names and faces.

  27. steve12on 06 Jun 2012 at 3:35 pm

    “The question may often be who or what has the most oppressive power?”

    I don’t understand this Q, tbh. My point is that any agent that’s oppressive or tyrannical ought to be called to account. Why would I care who wins the title as the most oppresive?

    “The ideas of tyranny can be easily extrapolated and employed by both groups, governments and individuals, but it is the motivation behind tyrannical acts that we must be always cautious of. ”

    Why would I care about the motivation? Tyranny is wrong – I don’t really care what drives them.

  28. locutusbrgon 06 Jun 2012 at 8:50 pm

    @siggyboss
    The nuance you are missing is- the state medical board. Usually made up primarily by volunteer physician. As opposed to the state legislature made up on primarily non physicians. Big difference.

  29. Sancluson 07 Jun 2012 at 10:58 am

    @steve12 Not most oppressive, but most potential oppressive power. Either way, you would want to target those people first. Most people agree that tyranny is wrong, but it if we were to remove the motivation and the enabling factors that allow for tyranny we would be tyranny free. I’m not suggesting that it is easy to do that, but it would be a good thing. I prefer prevention to cure if possible.

  30. Sancluson 07 Jun 2012 at 11:02 am

    @steve12 Not most oppressive, but most potential oppressive power. Either way, you would want to target those people first. Most people agree that tyranny is wrong, but if we were to remove the motivation and the enabling factors that allow for tyranny we would be tyranny free. I’m not suggesting that it is easy to do that, but it would be a good thing. I prefer prevention to cure if possible.

  31. steve12on 07 Jun 2012 at 1:27 pm

    “@steve12 Not most oppressive, but most potential oppressive power. Either way, you would want to target those people first. Most people agree that tyranny is wrong, but if we were to remove the motivation and the enabling factors that allow for tyranny we would be tyranny free. I’m not suggesting that it is easy to do that, but it would be a good thing. I prefer prevention to cure if possible.”

    Can you give an example of what you mean? I’m still confused….

  32. pseudonymoniaeon 09 Jun 2012 at 10:53 pm

    Thanks for the post, Dr. Novella.

    Even while admitting the obvious hubris of these politicians, it is worth mentioning the possibility that nobody may be qualified to accurately model the effects of climate change. As you point out, extrapolation from a limited dataset is an exceptionally difficult affair, particularly when applied to study of an uncontrolled system such as the Earth’s climate. Given this confound, it becomes an exceptionally difficult situation when what amounts to preliminary scientific data is used in the political sphere. This present example is really just the converse of this problem, where politicians are actively attempting to step into the scientific sphere. Needless to say, neither of these actions bode well for the future of climate change research and policy.

    That aside, I am personally pretty skeptical of prognostication in general (even when the prognosticators have very fancy instruments and models). In this case, I think it’s worth taking a fairly moderate perspective: which is that whether or not the current predictions are right, I pretty much like how the Earth is right now, and I don’t like fossil fuels enough to risk screwing everything up. Why mess around with something so good just so we can drive fast cars and planes, and power a bunch of fancy gadgets which are really just good for keeping us entertained 24/7 and making better and better models to predict what the future will look like?

    I like to keep in mind that technological progress is not always inherently better than regress. And by this I mean technology cannot be said to be a good in and of itself. The extent to which individuals have enjoyed a good quality of life has waxed and waned throughout human history, and while this tends to be correlated with political, social and technological advance (e.g. promotion of political and social freedoms, increased availability of technology), this does not imply that more technology is necessarily better. There are technologies which are good, those which are lousy and those which are frankly harmful–and the unfortunate problem of us humans is that we often aren’t very good at making this distinction. If there is one potentially promising outcome which may arise from the current state of apocalypticism about climate change, it is that it will force us to make a reckoning about which technologies we really cannot do without. And if we’re lucky, we may just make those truly useful technologies a little bit more efficient.

    ~neuroautomaton.com

  33. BillyJoe7on 10 Jun 2012 at 4:23 am

    So how long do the climate scientists have to collect data before it is no longer “preliminary”?
    And how many predictions of climate models have to pan out until they can be declared “accurate”?

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