Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
October 28, 2009
POLITICS: Science And Its Enemies On The Left, Part I

Liberals have dined out at length in recent years on the charge that the Bush Administration and the cultural Right spent the Bush years engaging in a "war on science." Since political power passed to the Democrats, President Obama has practically dislocated his shoulder patting himself on the back for "restor[ing] our commitment to science". But power in the hands of the Left is no boon to science. Quite the contrary.

Whatever one thinks of the validity of the "war on science" charge against the Right, the threats to scientific integrity and scientific progress from the Left are numerous, and they are very real. In this three-part series, I'll consider six major species of dangers to science and the role of the Left (inside and outside of government) in promoting them.

I. Junk Science

While definitions of science differ, most of us learned in grammar school and high school the basic concepts. Science is, as Karl Popper famously defined it, the testing of falsifiable propositions. In other words, you start with a hypothesis that seems to be supported by certain facts, but that would be proven false if certain other things happened, and you test to see if you can make those things happen. The process of experimentation - whether by laboratory experiments, statistical regressions, archaeological digs, or myriad other methods of testing hypotheses about past events or present processes - can take a variety of forms. But the mental approach to science should remain common: the scientist, being human, may seek a desired conclusion, but is expected to use a method of testing for the truth that keeps the finding of truth always as its ultimate goal (wherever the chips may fall). Perhaps more importantly, the process must be transparent in its methods, so that later researchers can replicate the method to ensure that the same test in different hands produces the same result. Scientists, to be scientists, must never say "trust me, I'm a scientist" or "I'm a scientist, don't question my work," and must never demand acceptance of theories that cannot be put to a test they could fail; they must share information and accept correction with a spirit of collegial search for a common and provable truth.

Those are the ideals; humans, being human, often fall short of them. This shouldn't shock us, but we should see the failures for what they are: bad science.

Probably the most pervasive cause of bad science, and one in which the Left and its component interest groups are heavily complicit, is junk science. Junk science is, broadly speaking, opinion or outright deception masquerading as science, for the purpose of persuading people of something that's untrue, unprovable or at least unproven. Junk science shows up in many places, but is most frequently encountered in the courtroom, and its motives are often more or less baldly about money.

The proliferation of junk science in the courts is notorious and widespread, and while the federal courts in particular have tried to crack down on it since the Supreme Court's 1992 Daubert decision authorized trial judges to act as 'gatekeepers,' the job of keeping junk science away from juries falls mainly to individual judges who may not necessarily have the scientific training themselves to spot all the charlatans. Much of modern litigation turns on expert witnesses of various stripes, from products liability experts to economists, and a good many of these are effectively professional testifying experts. That, in and of itself, need not be a bad thing; just as with lawyers, there are many honorable and principled professional experts, but many lazy hacks and cheap scam artists as well. Every lawyer knows that with enough monetary incentives, you can eventually find someone with a couple of degrees to say almost anything if you're not picky.

The personal injury plaintiffs' bar - one of the Democrats' core constituencies - is by far the most notorious offender in this regard. The incentives for junk science are especially powerful on the plaintiffs' side, since a novel scientific theory, in and of itself, can create from whole cloth an industry that will use governmental power to transfer millions or billions of dollars of wealth (a defendant can lose the battle of the experts but win a case on another basis, but a successful plaintiff must have an expert). There's an awful lot of money to be extracted through the use of junk science. It is no accident that it is customarily the plaintiffs' bar that resists efforts to have judges take a more active role in screening expert witnesses to determine the reliability of their processes. Asbestos litigation alone has produced more scientific scandals than one could possibly recount. Consider as a sample studies of vast disparities in diagnoses of asbestosis by unaffiliated and plaintiff-affiliated physicians. The Wall Street Journal has exhaustively catalogued the use of junk science to perpetrate a massive products liability fraud against Dole Foods in Nicaragua. The list could go on and on. Michael Fumento explains a typical example from the silicone breast implant litigation:

Consider the case of Dr. Nir Kossovsky of the UCLA, an inventor of one of the types of tests the FDA warned against. Kossovsky is one of the best-known critics of silicone implants, has testified at the FDA hearings that resulted in the essential ban on silicone breast implants, and is a regular expert witness for plaintiffs in implant- related trials.

Kossovsky developed what he called Detecsil, for "detect silicone." "The Detecsil test confirms whether or not an individual has developed an immune response to silicone-associated proteins," declared an advertisement. As such, it could be useful in showing whether women with autoimmune disease (in which the body's immune system turns on itself) got that illness from silicone.

In legal depositions supporting his expert witness testimony, Kossovsky cited tests from the famed Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation in La Jolla, California as corroborating his own. In fact, Scripps researchers found the antibodies of autoimmune disease victims were the same regardless of whether they had silicone implants or not. All the test found was that there was a higher level of antibodies in anybody with autoimmune disease, exactly what one would expect.

Scripps has repeatedly to disavowed Kossovsky's statements. Indeed, a Scripps researcher was on record as saying, "To my knowledge, there is no test that can predict or indicate any specific immune response to silicone," which is what the test must do to prove adverse health effects.

Even before this latest public FDA warning, Kossovsky had been warned by the Agency to quit using his test. But the damage has been done. The test has played a crucial role in numerous implant trials, including ones with verdicts of $7 million, $25 million, and an incredible $40 million.

More of the same here.

II. Quackery and Luddism

Another longstanding threat to science is the twin scourge of quackery and Luddism. While there is likewise a lot of money in quackery, and sometimes money in Luddism as well, there is a subtle difference in their genesis. Junk science may be principally driven by the needs of its suppliers, who know what they want to prove and need scientific experts to bend their processes to reach the desired results. But true quackery comes from somewhere different: it arises from existing demand, from the needs of people to believe things that science can't supply. Quacks prey on popular gullibility about quasi-scientific-sounding cure-alls, while Luddites (the heirs of the British protestors against the Industrial Revolution) thrive on irrational fears and superstitions about technological progress. The social, cultural and political Left is heavily complicit in both phenomena.

For a good illsutration of what this looks like, David Gorski has an exhaustive look at how the Huffington Post has made itself a haven for the opponents of modern medical science. It's worth reading the whole thing, which details the site's madness for anti-medical and anti-scientific quackery ranging from campaigns against vaccines to enthusiasm for all sorts of bizarre homeopathy, much of which is reflective of the Hollywood culture that pervades the site. The sort of quackery pushed by the HuffPo and its allies includes a lot of traditional junk science as well (for example, plaintiffs' lawyers pushing assaults on vaccine makers in the hopes of hitting a judgment jackpot in court) but the rot runs deeper than that, from the Left's neverending quest for substitutes for religion and commerce and its conspiracy theories about business.

We see all of this at work in the causes the HuffPo flacks for. Parents of children with autism need to blame some evil external force for their children's condition. New Age spirituality fills the gap created by rejection of traditional faiths, and offers the promise of patent-medicine style cures where modern medicine is short of answers. Diet gurus of every kind prey on the widespread chase for the magic weight-loss pill, just as the purveyors of sexual remedies prey on deeper insecurities. Some of these forces go beyond politics, but New Age hokum and hostility to vaccines and other successful products are unmistakably phenomena of the cultural Left. The campaign against vaccine manufacturers has drawn support from icons of the Democratic party:

US senators John Kerry of Massachusetts and Chris Dodd of Connecticut have both curried favor with constituents by trumpeting the notion that vaccines cause autism. And Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a scion of the most famous Democratic family of all, authored a deeply flawed 2005 Rolling Stone piece called "Deadly Immunity." In it, he accused the government of protecting drug companies from litigation by concealing evidence that mercury in vaccines may have caused autism in thousands of kids. The article was roundly discredited for, among other things, overestimating the amount of mercury in childhood vaccines by more than 100-fold, causing Rolling Stone to issue not one but a prolonged series of corrections and clarifications. But that did little to unring the bell.

The hysteria - contradicted by numerous peer-reviewed studies - has real consequences:

In certain parts of the US, vaccination rates have dropped so low that occurrences of some children's diseases are approaching pre-vaccine levels for the first time ever. And the number of people who choose not to vaccinate their children (so-called philosophical exemptions are available in about 20 states, including Pennsylvania, Texas, and much of the West) continues to rise. In states where such opting out is allowed, 2.6 percent of parents did so last year, up from 1 percent in 1991, according to the CDC. In some communities, like California's affluent Marin County, just north of San Francisco, non-vaccination rates are approaching 6 percent (counterintuitively, higher rates of non-vaccination often correspond with higher levels of education and wealth).

That may not sound like much, but a recent study by the Los Angeles Times indicates that the impact can be devastating. The Times found that even though only about 2 percent of California's kindergartners are unvaccinated (10,000 kids, or about twice the number as in 1997), they tend to be clustered, disproportionately increasing the risk of an outbreak of such largely eradicated diseases as measles, mumps, and pertussis (whooping cough). The clustering means almost 10 percent of elementary schools statewide may already be at risk.

Left-wing Luddism is also at work in the outright hysteria, especially in Europe, regarding things like genetically modified "frankenfood" and nanotechnology, here at home in the form of fear of nuclear power and food irradiation; in each case the unfocused, irrational fear comes first, and the pseudoscience used to justify it comes later. Thus, despite the sterling safety record of nuclear power everywhere outside the Soviet Union, and its crucial role in the power systems of countries like France and Japan, we have not had a nuclear power plant built in the U.S. since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.

The environmental Left is especially guilty of this sort of thing, creating bugaboos grounded in public fear and ignorance about technology ranging from 1989's notorious Alar scare to 2001's hysteria about microscopic quantities of arsenic in drinking water, to "Gulf War Syndrome." Over and over we see the Left pressing to convince the public that unseen forces of technology and business - from pesticides to power lines - are conspiring to make them sick, and insisting that once such an assertion is made, the burden is on the skeptic of such crazes to produce conclusive scientific proof to the contrary. The process of disinterested analysis of the evidence and testing of falsifiable hypotheses falls swiftly by the wayside. Science itself becomes the enemy. Anyone who spent time wringing their hands over Bush-era policies with any degree of sincerity should find this all deeply alarming.

In Part II: Politicized science and the temptations of power.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 9:30 AM | Enemies of Science • | Politics 2009 • | Science | Comments (13) | TrackBack (0)
Comments

crank

Another intellectual & well researched article.

I would send it on to my non scientitist true- believers in junk science, a/k/a Luddites, but they would ask, as will the usual trolls on this site, "Is Crank/are you [moi] a scientist?" & "Have you or Crank read the zillions of articles proving my point?"

My quick answer to them on that is:

No, Crank is not & I am not a scientist & neither are you. But the beauty of science is that authority means nothing and evidence means everything. As some critics with credentials have noted, the evidence of the non-expert guys you’re quoting is shoddy and doesn't prove their claims, and one doesn't have to have a PhD to see this.

Posted by: from Inwood at October 28, 2009 12:05 PM

My more detailed answer to those who challenge me on the ‘Net by saying: “But have you read X’s book (whatever)?”

Asked by Liberals who probably have never read a Conservative book (OK, the reverse is also true), or by a guy putting someone down for lack of, um, gravity, by snarkily asking if that someone has ever read a book on quantum mechanics when all they’re talking about is something simple like the physical concept of gravity. But, of course, the obvious response is “And what credentials do you [such challenger] have? You could be a butcher, a baker, a candle-stick maker, or for that matter a monkey, posing as a learned economist, scientist, lawyer. Cf. the New Yorker cartoon about the dog on the ‘net." Even if he/she gives his/her real name & alleged credentials, who’s gonna check?

And, has the questioner, in turn, read every Conservative/ Liberal book, as the case may be, on the subject in point, & is this is a scholarly class limited to the questioner’s particular “authorities” work rather than the subject in general. Since the answer to both is, obviously, “no”, that, plus following, usually suffices:

"And yes, I haven't read much of X’s book [paper, monograph, thesis, whatever]. So I won’t criticize X's book [whatever] as if I were doing a book report. I’ll just note that, IMHO, X is a rather tendentious person, or as we used to say back in Inwood, 'a guy wid a attitude', & any book written by a rather tendentious person will have tons of rather tendentious things in it (a marshalling of the evidence, as we lawyers say), which the rather tendentious author is, as in this case, only too happy to regurgitate endlessly on talk shows & which rather tendentious things some credentialed critics will publicize as rather tendentious, or as fonts of wisdom, as the case may be. QED, I feel qualified to join in such ridicule of X’s rather tendentious theories, hypotheses, claims, etc. of its rather tendentious author, even tho I have not read any or all of his book [paper, monograph, thesis, whatever]. Look, as some editor once said to some writer: I don’t have to eat the whole egg to know it’s rotten. I never finished Das Kapital or Mein Kampf either."

If X has a double doctorate from Oxbridge, some Ivies, or MIT, then, instead of the last two paragraphs, I would note that

"He/she’s been challenged by other experts & I’ve read such challenges as well as a summary of his/her points, & while it’s true that I don't have enough scientific/ economic/legal/whatever knowledge to have an authoritative opinion, neither, I suspect, do you. Rather, your opinion is based on an appeal to authority, namely A. And mine is based on authorities X, Y, & Z. And, yes, my opinion rests largely on reading, observations, & intuition, but I’m entitled to believe that your opinion in the absence of credentials rests on the same.

"And, my reading consists of plausible history/science/economics/law, even if such is not 'authoritative', 'new', or 'deep'. this approach is simply a thoughtful, fair & balanced corrective to the marshalling of evidence, unbalanced paeans, of your guy. Deep down, your guy is superficial."

Further, I would add re political “books”:

"I husband my reading time. And if I really want to understand economics, science, morality, the way things are outside of politics, how things work, or the meaning of life, of shoes, & ships, & sealing wax, or cabbages & kings, then, any exposition of such by X would be rather low on my “must read” list. Anyway, he/she’s a pol, not an original thinker or even someone who tries to be an impartial popularizer of ideas. His/her raison d’être/shtick is emotion; a cry for unthinking action ASAP or the World Will End.

"More important, X and others who write (or have written for them) Big Books to advance their Big Political Goals (elect me folks, choose me as your running mate Mr./Ms. Presidential candidate, or appoint me to your cabinet Mr./Ms. President!) don’t really assume that anyone would waste his/her time reading such tripe. They just want it to be bought as a gift & its points (boiled down Readers’-Digest style, & endlessly summarized on Talk shows by them & their epigoni (the blind host leading the dishonest) all the while discussed as Revealed Truth."

Posted by: from Inwood at October 28, 2009 12:33 PM

It's amazing that the Right, the GOP and big corporations never figured out this tactic. Oh, wait...

Posted by: jim at October 28, 2009 1:06 PM

The main reason that junk science (which is used by both sides of the political spectrum) is effective in trials is because potential jurors who actually know anything about relevant science are weeded out by the idiotic rules that lead to anyone with specialized knowledge immediately being dismissed. While it's superficially to my benefit that my knowledge of cognitive neuroscience mean I'm never allowed to serve on a jury (unless I were to lie about it), it's bad for the justice system, not to mention that I'd like to do more of my societal duty than waste a day sitting in a waiting room every five years.

Posted by: Steve H at October 28, 2009 3:58 PM

I've got serious misgivings about the prescribed vaccination schedule for kids. Not because I reject the studies that have proven them safe, but because I don't think there's any way a study can show the long-term health effects of a vaccine that has only been around for a decade or so. When you're shooting weird stuff (and no matter how you look at it, vaccines are loaded with all kinds of weird stuff) into kids during phases of incredible brain development, how do you know what damage you could be causing?

I think the public-health case for vaccination is pretty open and shut - the benefits to society far outweigh the potential effects. But on an individual child basis, the calculus is entirely different. We intend to vaccinate our kids prior to them entering school, but as long as they're at home with my wife, we see no reason to expose them to risks from vaccines.

I guess the point of my rant is that it's not fair to paint all vaccine-skeptical parents as Luddites - I think most of us are as skeptical of the vaccine science "consensus" as most of us conservatives are of the climate change "consensus" amongst climatologists. And certainly you feel that skepticism is reasonable, no?

Posted by: Joel in Seattle at October 28, 2009 6:25 PM

Our host has marshaled a good deal of historical evidence to indict knee-jerk acceptance of junk science by the left. Yet somwhow we are to ignore all this and restructure our society based upon how they "feel" about climate change.

No thanks. Hey, you lefties have no one to blame for the coming apocolypse but yourselves. We just stopped believing you.

Posted by: spongeworthy at October 28, 2009 7:32 PM

A small point:

"The Wall Street Journal has exhaustively catalogued the use of junk science to perpetrate a massive products liability fraud against Dole Foods in Nicaragua."

According to the article, the problem there was fraud, not junk science. The article did not question that the chemical was scientifically proven to cause sterility. Testing people for sterility isn't junk science either. The problem was the falsification of the results.

Posted by: MVH at October 29, 2009 2:02 PM

1. "Junk science is, broadly speaking, opinion or outright deception masquerading as science, for the purpose of persuading people of something that's untrue, unprovable or at least unproven. "

LIKE CREATION SCIENCE?

2. Agreed, there is a lot of bad science used in support of personal injury cases. Trial lawyers are generally supporters of the Democratic Party

YOU HONESTLY THINK THIS SUPPORTS YOUR OPENING SHOT AT THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION? REALLY? HOW EXACTLY?

3. "Quacks prey on popular gullibility about quasi-scientific-sounding cure-alls, while Luddites (the heirs of the British protestors against the Industrial Revolution) thrive on irrational fears and superstitions about technological progress. The social, cultural and political Left is heavily complicit in both phenomena."

AND THE RIGHT ISN'T? ALL THE GOP HAS IN ITS OPPOSITION TO OBAMA POLICIES IS FEAR; "DEATH PANELS. RATIONING, BALCKS BEATING UP WHITE KIDS ON THE BUS."

4. There is some degree of Luddism, but you ignore the histrocial context for it.

THE RECORD OF YOUR BELOVED CORPORATE AMERICA SELLING GOODS (LIKE THE FORD EXLPORER) OR HAVING WORKPLACES WHERE PEOPLE END UP WITH MESOTHELIOMA BECAUSE THE COMPANY MANAGEMENT WOULD NOT SPEND THE MONEY TO KEEP WORKERS SAFE.

Posted by: magrooder at October 29, 2009 6:35 PM

In the one-sided world this blog has evolved into even this one sort of stands out in its apparent denial of reality. Without even trying it would be laughably easy to go on and on about right-wing, uber-religious, GOP, corporations, etc. using fake, faux, false or flattly made-up science to their own purposes and ends. While perhaps this piece is simply pointing out that the other side does it too, to fail to mention that it runs rampant for the home team is dubious essaying.

Posted by: jim at October 29, 2009 8:02 PM

magrooder -

1. My thesis is that, whatever one says about the Right, the Left presents serious threats to science. Your appeal to tu quoque does nothing to dispute this.

2. I will get to the Administration in more depth later in the series. But the med-mal provisions of the Obamacare bill rolled out today suggest that the connection between Democratic power and plaintiffs' bar junk science is not just coincidence.

3. This has nothing whatsoever to do with science. Who invited the red herrings to this discussion?

4. In other words, you support bad science because it's excusable. Hmmmm.

Posted by: Crank at October 29, 2009 9:55 PM

Crank,

1. No, I don't disoute that there is junk science (or more broadly, junk analysis) on both sides.

2. We'll see what you come up with.

3. Red herring? I was quoting you and responding about how the right preys on ignorance and irrational fears, though I acknowledge my response wss more to junk analysis than junk science.

4. No, I don't excuse it, but in a context in which individuals have been preyed on by unscrupulous employers and suppliers of goods, their willingness to beleive someone "selling" them a cure is understandable.

Posted by: magrooder at October 30, 2009 2:44 PM

There's always an agenda, usually reaching into my wallet. A personal favorite: the coming heterosexual AIDS epidemic. Should be along any day now, right?

Nobody believes you people. Nobody with a lick of sense anyway.

Posted by: spongeworthy at October 30, 2009 5:23 PM

See what I mean?

Posted by: magrooder at November 2, 2009 9:42 PM
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