Tag Archive | science

It’s Been a While …

It has been nearly a thousand days since my last post, and a lot has happened in that time. Mr Gove has gone from a reasonable sounding shadow education minister with some good ideas, to an arrogant, self-assured education minister surrounded with yes-men and no ability to distinguish the good from bad.

We now have religious fundamentalist schools redacting parts of science exam papers with which they disagree, a rapid growth of academies without local oversight, radically changed teacher working conditions and pension arrangements, and an untested performance pay system with new head-teacher powers. There are also radically changed exam arrangements, new performance tables, a swelling Maths curriculum, arguments about English and History contents and a minister who seems to be manoeuvring for the party leadership if the Conservatives lose power in the next general election. And there is UKIP making dodgy sounding statistical claims about immigrants, along with the other right wing xenophobic parties getting more shouty all over Europe and America.

On the science side we have the Higgs Boson discovery, badger culls, shale gas extractions, wind turbine fields, the pause in global warming, observations of cosmological chaotic inflation and of quantum gravity waves.

I had originally planned to post to this blog every couple of weeks: that makes me seventy post behind schedule, so it is time to get cracking!

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The BMA’s Attack on Smokers with Made-Up ‘Evidence’

The British Medical Association, the Physicians’ trade union, has called for a ban on smoking in private cars, to add to the 2007 restriction on smoking in enclosed ‘public’ places. Their reason is that such a ban is a small price to pay to reduce the exposure of minors carried as passengers. Apparently, the level of toxins detectable in a smoker’s car is 23 times that found in pre-2007 smoky pubs. The Evening Standard published a piece supporting the proposed ban, deciding that “Demanding that people stop driving in a self-generated cloud of poisonous gas doesn’t seem a big ask.”

But it does seem a ‘big ask’.

For objections to this illiberal proposal, the first has to be the good word of the BMA itself, which campaigned heavily before the 2007 ban. It’s representatives sent out to TV and radio stations laughed pompously at the objectors warnings of the slippery slope such a ban would put the UK on: it was only to protect innocent pub-goers, they said, who had no choice in what they breathed in when exerxising their alcohol imbibing rights. Don’t they deserve to be protected?

That alcohol was by far the most hazardous part of a Friday night seemed to have been considered unimportant when smoking was coming to be seen as antisocial and presented an easy target of opportunity.

 The law banning smoking in public places also overlooked that most of the affected locations were, in fact, privately owned, and no person was obliged to visit a smoking pub or restaurant.

For the Children

It turns out that the ridiculed ‘slippery slope’ argiment was spot on, and campaigners are now openly pushing towards an outdoor ban and wispering about the move into homes. Of course, it will be phrased as if a ban was ‘for the children’, but you can be sure it will be a blanket ban that is demanded, as is the case for the current BMA proposal, for ease of enforcement.

Or just because smoker-persocutors are the new witch-finders and are bolstered by the political momentum to go for the criminalisation of tobacco, openly and without embarrassment.

Although I am, a lifelong non-smoker who has benefitted from smoke-free pubs and offices, I have fundamental objections to the BMA’s demand:

First is the liberty one. It is no business of doctors, in my mind, to stop me doing risky things if the risk to others is small. I am not prevented from climbing mountains, paragliding, skating on icy lakes, driving a car at high speeds (with passengers), and drinking alcohol. The BMA has not yet suggested banning these activities, but since they have a habit of sliding down the slippery slope, I am willing to draw the line at banning smoking.

Fake Figures

The second objection is the ’23 times more toxic than the smoky pub’ figure that is being quoted withoud attribution. The Today program speaker explained that this was the case even when no smoking was actually happening since the ‘toxins’ soaked the inside of the car. Is this serious? Just what was measured? And did it really equate to 23 times more hazardous than a pub atmosphere? It seems remarkably suspicious, and the BMA today withdrew its claim (See the Factcheck site for a debunking of this media myth, with sources.)

The argument for a wholesale ban on in-car smoking is a practical one: that it will be easier to enforce ‘for the children’ if everyone was banned.  This will include people without children, and people who will never carry children in their cars. In a spirit of tolerance, only dangerous activities should be prohibited – anything else is just illiberal. Why ban people from smoking in their own car just to make enforcement easier? (Foreign laws against smoking in cars only forbid smoking with a child in the car.) It will clearly result in the bulk of prosecutions being of drivers of cars with no children, since they are the ones who will most disagree with such a law.

Slippery Slope

The final criticism is made with the slippery-slope argument. Usually a poor excuse for logic, the current debate has used the existing ban on smoking in work vehicles and public spaces as justification. One can easily imagine a future when the argument move on to be that the only place a child can breathe smoke is in the home, so that it is a dangerous loophole that should be closed.

Intolerance breeds intolerance by emboldening the nannys that build on victory after victory, incrementally moving us from the traditional character of the country, where a free person can partake of anything not specifically banned, to the continental tradition where you can only do what is specifically prescribed, with everything else forbidden. 

The BMA took a fake fact about smoking with children in the car and made it into an attack on all smokers. Anyone who values the freedom to choose what risks to take for themselves will be wise to protest this move – if this moves onto the statute book, the nanny campaigners will not stop there in their programme to save us from ourselves.

The Double Standards of Professional Contrarians

I normally avoid leaving comments on online newspaper articles as I don’t enjoy the anonymous behaviour of participants: rudeness, ignorance and unwillingness to engage in proper debate. But I did get stuck in to one of James Delingpole’s Telegraph Blog entries. (My spell-checker wants to replace ‘Delingpole‘ with ‘Delinquent‘. I’m tempted.)

Delingpole seriously embarrassed himself in the BBC’s Horizon programme Science Under Attack when he debated climate change with Nurse, a Nobel Prize winning scientist. Specifically, Delingpole described his climate change ‘journalism’ as interpreting interpretation: he didn’t read scientific papers, not even the abstracts.

More specifically, he has found a few people who share his biases and then uses their writings as evidence for his own opinions, as they use his to buttress theirs. ‘Science’ is a word used often, but the scientific method seems to be unknown to them as they resort to rhetoric instead. It seems that winning an ill-natured argument is far more important to them than actually being right. (They fervently believe they are right, of course, though they make no effort to develop secure lines of reasoning, relying on the whole list of pseudo-science techniques described here.)

The comments on the blog entries are even less nuanced, as they don’t even try to use rhetorical tricks and deceptions. If you have ever had so little going on in your life that you feel able to interact with the low-lifes that inhabit these sites, then you may skip to the end.

But this is the nature of argument from those that worship the self-important journalists such as Delingpole. Insults are the order of the day: anonymous posters are just rude. If you come up with a good argument, data that disproves a statement or even just try to act as a moderating influence, then expect to get flamed.

Ignore reasoned arguments

Tell the poster that their sort of person makes you sick and you can’t believe how much they wriggle and squirm in a proper debate. Tell them how thin skinned they are. If you are lucky, they will be distracted by your bilge and not notice that you had no answer to their line of argument.

Consensus Plays No Part in Science

If anyone has the front to point out that the specialists in the field are virtually unanimous in their judgements, so you are likely to be mistaken, bang on about the ‘fact’ that consensus plays no part in science. This is a great move, since you can act as an expert in your own right at the same time as denying real experts know anything about the reality of the science. It is, of course, nonsense. Science does not have authorities that pass judgement on theories when there is disagreement. The only way for tentative theories to enter the canon of accepted principles is for them to be debated back and forth along with the data in journals and at conferences, until everyone has had their objections answered and consensus is reached. Far from ‘consensus plays no part in science’, a lack of consensus is fatal to the progression of a scientific theory. Consensus is the only way in science.

Apply Different Standards of Evidence to Opponents

Appear to carefully pick apart statistical inferences with which you disagree, then slip in a non-sequitur based on an absence of evidence. For instance, challenge the last fifty years of warming by selecting your data from one of the regularly occurring decades where the warming slows or stops for a few years, say that there is no statistically significant warming. If there is warming, pick a new start year that is especially warm and try again to fit a negative gradient. Ignore the fact that the correlation is very weak (r=0.1) and insignificant. Try the line that since warming is not proven, so cooling must be happening. And add an insult as a diversion so no-one notices the sleight of hand.

Libel the Experts

Repeatedly point out that some of the experts are actually computer modellers, chemists or physicists, not ‘climate experts’, and make claims that they are in the pay of large governmental and NGO conspiracies. Refer to your own sources as ‘renowned climate experts’, even if they are retired engineers or computer modellers. (‘Renowned’ is the give-away term, as no reputable scientists refer to anyone as renowned.)

Quote Your Own Consensus

Quote a big, long list of scientists who signed up to an online statement supporting your view, but don’t worry if none of them are actually working in a related field of study. As long as they give academic titles and put PhD after their name, they are scientists, right? And don’t call it a consensus, as you have already claimed that consensus is not part of science.

Hide Contrary Views

To force recent posts that challenged your statements off the bottom of the first page, find a contrarian web site and cut and paste large chunks of it into your posts. This has the bonus of not requiring any thought whatsoever on your part. When the offending posts have disappeared, you can repeat what you wrote before, secure in the knowledge that new readers will not see that there are good reasons not to trust what you say.

The Lesson

This was the first time I tried to sustain interest in a blog comments section for a couple of days, and there were over a thousand posts in that time (some commenters seemed to post continually day and night – didn’t their mothers tell them to come up out of the basement and go to bed?)

I tried to direct arguments towards a discussion of evidence, towards an understanding of the statistical limits of certainty, towards the problematical bias of picking an opinion and searching out individuals who support that idea instead of dispassionately assessing opinions and evidence in the round. But it was for naught.

Delingpole told Paul Nurse in the Horizon programme that he didn’t read proper research papers, because peer-to-peer review (clever, huh!) was an improvement on peer-review because it allowed journalists and anyone with an interest to get stuck in.

And he said it with a straight face!

The Sound of Science

A great reworking of Paul Simon’s ‘The Sounds of Silence’, now featuring Darwin and the scientific method …

The Sound of Science, courtesy of Youtube.