Archive for the 'Science and the Media' Category

Nov 14 2019

The Science Wars

In an ideal world (not the one we live in) science should be apolitical. In fact, it should be completely protected from political and other ideological influence. By this I mean the conduct of scientific research itself, so that the results are shielded from bias, conflicts of interest, and undue influence.

There are ways in which science and politics legitimately interact. If governments fund scientific research, then they have a right to set standards and dictate priorities for the research they fund. They don’t, however, have a right to dictate results, because then that perverts science into ideological pseudoscience. Priorities should also be broadly defined – what basic goal are you trying to achieve, such as finding cures for cancer. But they should avoid micromanaging the direction of scientific research, which optimally should follow the science itself.

The other legitimate interaction is that science should inform politics. It cannot determine politics, because politics also includes value judgements and priorities that are partly subjective. But scientific information can answer important questions helpful to setting political priorities or crafting specific solutions. Scientific research can also be used to determine how effective and efficient specific policies and programs are.

What we need to avoid, however, is a situation in which those with a vested interest are able to put their thumb on the scale, to create scientific research that serves their ends, rather than honestly pursuing the truth. When you work backwards from a desired result, that is not even science. That is pseudoscience.

But there is also a more subtle way in which political or corporate agendas can corrupt science – not by creating the scientific results they want, but by cherry picking those results. Science is complex and imperfect, so any big question in science is likely to contain research with results that are all over the place (just by chance alone). If you are able to cherry pick the results you want, without honestly looking at all the research based on quality alone, then again you can easily distort the scientific process to political will or vested interests.

This is a political battle that is going on right now – which science is admissible in terms of informing government policy? For example, in 2017 EPA director Scott Pruitt announced a new policy that would ban scientists from the EPA’s scientific advisory board if they received funding from the EPA. This was presented as a way to limit the perception of conflicts of interest.

However, in practice this was a way to exclude many academic scientists. If you are an environmental expert working in academia, chances are you have received some government funding. This would be the equivalent of banning medical scientists from government advisory boards who ever received funding from the NIH – so basically any qualified academic researcher.

The rule, however, made no mention of industry conflicts of interest. The result was to pack the scientific advisory panel with industry experts at the expense of independent academic experts – all under the pretext of quality control.

Similarly, you can craft rules to exclude specific scientific studies, again under the pretext of quality control, but designed to exclude studies more likely to be unfriendly to your political agenda. The EPA just announced a proposed rule to require scientists submit raw data for any studies they cite when informing government policy.

A new draft of the Environmental Protection Agency proposal, titled Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science, would require that scientists disclose all of their raw data, including confidential medical records, before the agency could consider an academic study’s conclusions. E.P.A. officials called the plan a step toward transparency and said the disclosure of raw data would allow conclusions to be verified independently.

Disclosure of raw data for independent analysis is a good thing, but it is being perverted here for political ends. The devil, as always, is in the details. What if a study that is the basis of EPA policy is 20 or 30 years old, and the raw data is no longer available? Now they have an excuse to roll back regulations based on those older studies. What if the study includes confidential personal medical data? There are rules for the use and disclosure of such information, and so you can manufacture a regulatory conflict that excludes legitimate studies from consideration.

This is all the regulatory equivalent of p-hacking – making necessary and legitimate decisions about how to conduct research, but with an eye on how it affects the data so as to massage the results toward statistical significance.

Transparence and quality control in the science used by government agencies to inform policy is a necessary and good thing, but if specific rules are crafted with an eye toward favoring industry and excluding independent experts, you can engineer a desired outcome. Even more sinister – if you goal is just to promote uncertainty and doubt, to paralyze regulatory efforts, then just keep raising the bar of quality control to exclude more and more legitimate science.

No scientific studies are pristine. No researcher is without any connections to either industry or government that can be spun into a potential conflict of interest (or the appearance of one). He works in a lab with another researcher who received funding from an organization that is partly funded by industry – COI!

Elizabeth Warren is now promising to fight back from the other side.

Any studies found to present conflicts of interest “will be excluded from the rulemaking process and will be inadmissible in any subsequent court challenges unless the research has passed rigorous, independent peer review,” Warren wrote.

Again, the devil is in the details. How will this policy be implemented? It can easily turn into an industry witch hunt that excludes legitimate research based on tenuous or perfectly innocent connections. And who will do the independent peer-review? That’s really the question.

I believe that Warren’s intentions are pure, but here is my concern. She is thinking this is a way to exclude research, for example, funded by the fossil fuel industry with the intention of muddying the waters on climate change to delay regulations.

But – the same rules can then be used to exclude research on GMOs because of industry connections and frustrate the approval of new crops. And how will this affect the pharmaceutical industry?

Even if Warren’s rules are used wisely, the apparatus is in place for the next administration who may have very different priorities.

The inherent dilemma is that we have government deciding how government will determine what science to use to form government policy. The process is just begging to be distorted for political ends.

What we need to do is craft an infrastructure of quality control for science that informs government policy that is as isolated and independent from undue political influence as possible. This can never be perfect, but it can be robust with sufficient checks and balances. We recognize the need, for example, for an independent judiciary that priorities justice over politics. We recognize the independence of the Fed to isolate monetary policy from politics. We also need to recognize the importance of independent scientific advice as insulated from political influence as possible. This should not be at the whim of the current administration, or easily weakened or perverted.

This can’t turn into a war between industry and academics. Both are needed, and good science has connections to both private and public funding. What we need is independent scientific advice that priorities objectivity and quality and is buffered from short-term political agendas.

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Aug 26 2019

False Memories and Fake News

Here’s yet another reminder that our memories are reconstructed fabrications our brains use to reinforce existing narratives. A new study of 3,140 participants finds that exposing people to fake news created false memories of the depicted events in about half of subjects.

What the researchers did specifically was show people in Ireland prior to the 2018 referendum on abortion, six news stories, two of which were fake. One of the fake stories was about campaign posters being destroyed after it was discovered that they were illegally funded by an American. Later, about half of the subjects reported false memories regarding at least one of the two fake stories. About one third of the subjects included details in their fake memories that were not included in the original stories.

Further, subjects were more likely to form false memories if the fake news dealt with a scandal for the other side (so “yes” voters were more likely to form false memories regarding a scandal involving the “no” vote). And perhaps most concerning, when the subjects were told which news stories were fake, this only decreased the false memories slightly. It did not correct the effect.

None of this is entirely new, but it is the first study like it involving a real-time political event. This research reinforces what psychologists have been demonstrating for years – that memories are constructed, and then reconstructed in remembering, that memories are partly thematic and the details will morph to fit the theme, and that fake memories are relatively easy to create. Once formed a fake memory feels just like a real memory. They are just as vivid and compelling as a genuine or more accurate memory. Vividness does not predict accuracy, despite the fact that this is what most people assume.

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Aug 05 2019

Bad Science Promoting Organic Apples

Are we eating apples wrong? An ABC news headline reads, “If you aren’t eating the whole apple, you might be eating it the wrong way, a study finds.” This reporting is based on this study, which is a comparison of the bacterial content of different parts of apples, and comparing organically grown to conventionally grown apples. The study found that there was a different bacterial composition between the conventional and organic apples, and that the core and seeds of the apples contained about 10 times the bacteria as the flesh. The authors also conclude:

“Moreover, organic apples conceivably feature favorable health effects for the consumer, the host plant and the environment in contrast to conventional apples, which were found to harbor potential food-borne pathogens.”

All the usual problems I often complain about are present with this conclusion, starting with the fact that it is absolutely not justified by the actual data. First, this is a small preliminary study, of the sort that the media should not even report on. At best this type of study can generate a hypothesis to be tested. The researchers compared a grand total of four apples each from two orchards, one organic and one conventional. Right there you can probably see the problem.

All the apples were of one cultivar, so we cannot generalize the findings to other cultivars. But even worse, only two orchards were compared. Even if you sampled a thousand apples from each orchard, you are still only comparing two orchards.  Elisabeth M Bik, a microbiota researcher, already commented on the study, pointing out that –

For example, the orchards could also have different sun exposures, soil characteristics, age of trees, harvesting techniques and storage conditions, etc. These are all parameters that are not associated with organic vs conventional farming, but that could still have a big impact on the microbiome composition.

Exactly. There are many variables, and absolutely no way for the researchers to isolate the organic farming as the one variable that correlates with the changes they saw. Even worse, and I have no idea why they did this, the organic apples were picked and sampled fresh, while the conventional apples were stored in plastic prior to examination. Why introduce another variable like that? Bacterial populations are certain to change over time after harvesting, and based on storage conditions. So – do I have to say it – this study was not comparing apples to apples while they were comparing apples to apples.

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Jul 08 2019

Cancer Quackery on YouTube

Many outlets are covering the story of Mari Lopez, a YouTuber who claimed, along with her niece, Liz Johnson, that a raw vegan diet cured her breast cancer. Johnson recently updated the videos with a notice that Mari Lopez died of cancer in December 2017. She has refused, however, to take down the videos.

The story, unfortunately, is a common one. When people are diagnosed with cancer it is understandably a psychological shock. They face not only the grim possibility of their death, but also the prospect of surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation therapy – none of which are pleasant. It is a life-altering event. It also makes people vulnerable – in that situation, who wouldn’t want an escape hatch, a way to get back to their normal life? That is what cancer quackery offers – forget surgery and chemotherapy, just engage in this mild intervention, like a diet change, and your cancer will be gone.

Those who get lured in by this siren song experience one of several possibilities. First, many may still undergo some initial treatment, such as surgery, to treat the cancer, but then refuse adjunctive therapy like chemotherapy or radiation. Some of those patients may, in fact, be cured by the surgery. Often the purpose of the chemotherapy is to reduce the risk of recurrence. Others may forgo any science-based treatment.

Following the initial diagnosis, with or without some intervention, there is what we call the honeymoon period. In this phase the cancer may be relatively asymptomatic. This is especially true if it was discovered because of some screening test, like an X-ray or blood test, and not because it had already become symptomatic. This period can last for months and even years, depending on the stage and type of cancer. This is the phase where those who pursued some form of cancer quackery convince themselves that they are cured. They will also tend to credit the alternative treatment with their cure, even if they received surgery or some other standard treatment.

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Jun 21 2019

People Growing Horns? – More Bad Science Reporting

One type of bad science reporting that is very common is reporting the speculation at the end of a study as if it were the finding of the study. For example, the Washington Post headline was, “Horns are growing on young people’s skulls. Phone use is to blame, research suggests.” The research, you may be surprised to learn, had nothing to do with phone use. “Horns” is also a stretch.

When I see headlines like that my first questions is always – what did the research actually show? What was the data? In this case the researchers were looking at X-rays of the skull, and particularly at the occipital protuberances. This is a pair of bumps at the back of the head where the posterior neck muscles insert. They found that the risk of having bony spurs or calcifications in the ligaments attaching to the skull (not horns) increased in men, with forward tilt of the head, and in younger subjects. That’s the data. Everything else is the authors speculation about what these results mean.

They argue that the bone spurs are partly a result of the mechanical load on the back of the skull, largely from tilting the head forward. This is reasonable and backed up by some prior research. But the study did not measure phone use. That is pure speculation. It belongs nowhere in the bottom-line headline reporting on the study. Further, a recent systematic review found no clear evidence for increased neck symptoms in mobile phone use. There are many possible factors at work here. Saying that men has slightly more risk than women because men use mobile phones more is a really weak argument. There are many differences that could account for the disparity.

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Jun 06 2019

The Metric System Is Not a Conspiracy

Oh boy. I probably shouldn’t do this, but my “someone is wrong on the internet” instincts are overwhelming me. Tucker Carlson recently had on a guest, James Panero, who essentially repeats the arguments he laid out in this article. Who is Panero? Apparently he is an art critic. I don’t know if he is truly a conspiracy nut, or was just looking for an issue to propel him onto the media for his 15 minutes of fame.

I will also say at this point that I don’t think Carlson is worth responding to. He, in my opinion, is just a highly paid troll catering to an extreme political view. Of course I don’t know what he actually believes, but I wouldn’t assume he believes what he says. Performance art is a more likely hypothesis.

In any case, it doesn’t really matter. He put the arguments out there, complete with factual errors and poor logic, and it’s worth setting the record straight.

Carlson starts:

“Almost every nation on Earth has fallen to tyranny: the metric system,” said Carlson. “From Beijing to Buenos Aires, from Lusaka to London, the people of the world have been forced to measure their environment in millimeters and kilograms. The United States is the only country that is resisted, but we have no reason to be ashamed for using feet and pounds.”

He mispronounces “kilograms” then makes a funny face – performance art.  But on to the actual arguments. Panero makes the point that “It was customary units that calibrated the machinery of the Industrial Revolution and took us 240,000 miles to the moon.”

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Dec 04 2018

Foodbabe Fails – Blames Astroturfing

Many people are complaining that CNN, in reporting on the recent E. coli outbreak on romaine lettuce, had The Food Babe (Vani Hari) on as a food “expert.” This, of course, is a complete journalistic failure on the part of CNN. The Food Babe is a famously scientifically illiterate alarmist whose career is based on peddling misinformation. My favorite example is when she completely misunderstood the nature of pressure in airline cabins, and complained that the air was tainted with up to 50% nitrogen.

As important as this complete scientific failure, was her response. She did not transparently correct the misinformation and apologize. She simply deleted the post.

Hari has come under extensive criticism for spouting her nonsense and fearmongering. She is perhaps most famous for her “yoga mat” stunt, completely misunderstanding the fact that chemicals can be used for a variety of reasons, and that does not make them dangerous.

Her general response to criticism is to (in addition to hiding) go on the attack. She does not appear to be an honest broker of information, but rather a self-promoter who will attack her critics. She also likes to ban critics from her own page. So when the internet complained to CNN that the Food Babe was not an appropriate person to have on their program to be presented as an expert, Hari did what she does – she went on the attack.

Her tactic this time is to blame the whole affair on “astroturfing.” This is a real phenomenon in which an industry, company, cult, or ideological group will create the impression of a grassroots campaign using front organizations and paid agents. However, this isn’t the whole story.

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Nov 08 2018

Echinacea Does Not Work for the Cold

We are heading into cold and flu season, so Time magazine decided to helpfully tell us what the science says about echinacea and the common cold. Unfortunately, they completely bungled their report, getting the bottom line wrong. Exactly where they go wrong, however, is extremely common and instructive.

The terrible article is partly not the fault of the author. They spoke to experts and tried to do a balanced piece. Unfortunately, there are experts out there who are biased and just wrong. The author was not able to make sense of the evidence themselves, and so they helplessly just passed along whatever nonsense they were told. This is another manifestation of the infiltration of “alternative” medicine into our system – there are always going to be “experts” out there who are just alternative cranks, but they will get quoted along side more serious scientists.

For example, they write:

Other experts say there is evidence that echinacea can be helpful. “Echinacea is popular because it does work for at least some people,” says Kelly Kindscher, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Kansas who has written a textbook on echinacea. While some clinical trials have not shown echinacea to be effective, Kindscher says others have found benefits.

I understand listening to someone who wrote a textbook on the topic, but this conclusion flies in the face of published reviews. The next statement shows where they go wrong:

A 2010 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine compared echinacea to a placebo and to no treatment at all. It found evidence that echinacea outperformed both when it came to reducing the duration of the common cold — but these benefits were too small to be considered statistically significant.

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Sep 10 2018

BBC and False Balance Revisited

In 2014 the BBC announced a policy change – that it would train its journalists to avoid false balance when reporting science news.  This was a welcome policy change, but apparently execution has not achieved the desired results. In a recent training brief the BBC admits it often gets its science reporting wrong, falling for false balance. This is especially true when reporting on climate change.

Balanced reporting simply refers to the journalistic standard of fairly and proportionately representing all sides in a legitimate debate. This strongly applies to political reporting, where there are often literally two sides, and neither side is objectively right or wrong. Even when one side has the better case, many news outlets take a neutral journalistic stance, simply reporting what each side claims. They relegate taking a side to the editorial and opinion pages, while sticking to the facts in their news pages.

False balance refers to the practice of reporting two or more sides to a controversy as if they are equivalent when they are objectively not. This mostly applies to science reporting, where opinion plays far less of a role than politics. The BBC affirmed in 2014 what critics of mainstream science reporting have been saying for decades – good science journalism does not present all sides in a balanced way, but rather reports different views in a proportional way, depending on the consensus of scientific opinion. That is a far more accurate way to report science news.

So, if 99.9% of geologists and other scientists accept the consensus interpretation of the scientific evidence that plate tectonics is the only valid scientific theory regarding the dynamics of the Earth’s crust, science journalists should not feel obligated to report on the alternate theory of the hollow Earthers every time they report on a related news item. They also do not have to mention, every time they show a NASA photo or video of a spherical Earth, that there are those who contend the Earth is actually flat.

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Jul 31 2018

The Weaponizing of Fake News

I encounter a range of opinions regarding the current state of politics and misinformation. At one extreme are those who argue for what I think is a false equivalence – politicians have always lied, the news has always been fake, there is nothing to see here. At the other end are those who argue that social media has changed everything.

I think reality is somewhere in the middle. Lying politicians and biased journalism have existed as long as there have been politicians and journalism. But social media has fundamentally changed the dynamic, and we have yet to adapt to the new world we have created.

This appears to primarily be a problem in societies that are based on open democracy. Ironically our freedoms have been weaponized against us. Russia interfering with the 2016 election is only the most obvious example, and is perhaps not the worst or most pernicious.

The Role of Social Media

While social media is a fantastic tool for communication and accessing information, it has some vulnerabilities. Traditional media had to build a brick-and-mortar infrastructure in order to have societal penetration, and that infrastructure was often built over years. This model favored, at least to an extent, quality control. If a news outlet was persistently wrong, or “tabloid” in its style, it was relegated to the supermarket checkout lane.

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