This Week’s Mtg: Can All Scientific Research Be Trusted?

This was Mike’s idea, and our first science topic in a while.  It may surprise you to learn (it did me) that some scientists believe that most routine scientific studies are invalid because they simply contain basic errors in statistics.  The reasons for this include ignorance of what statistics actually mean, sloppiness, and even unconscious bias.

Mike will open the meeting by explaining the notion of bad statistics.  Then, after about 10-15 minutes, I’ll open it up to discussion, making sure that we branch out to cover some broader issues.  The broader stuff will include the idea of deliberate as well as unconscious bias among scientists.  You don’t have to buy into the “global warming and evolution are left-wing hoaxes” stuff to be concerned about the misuses to which Science can be put – by the scientists themselves as well as the news media and politically unscrupulous nonscientists.
LINKS

  • Mike’s basic idea: Much of science is based on flat-out bad use of statistics.   A must read for TH’s mtg.
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  • Our meeting in April 2011 on, “Is Science Political?”  I quoted someone who said science becomes political as soon as the scientists start caring about the outcome!  The caring can be about career advancement, funding, status, and other matters besides politics.
    .
  • The subtle corruption infesting much of medical research.
    .
  • We also could talk about what Michael Pollan has called the “nutrition-industrial complex,” the alliance of food scientists, food processors, and advertisers that he says misuses nutrition science to sell us ever more and lower quality foods.  Note:  In his books, Pollan bashes the nutrition scientists themselves as much as he does the big, bad corporations.
    .

Regarding climate change denial, I don’t know quite what to say or link to.  Calling an entire scientific field a politically-motivated fraud is unprecedented in our history, as far as I know.  Why?  Unlike, say, creationism, which is motivated by faith, climate skepticism (1) is funded so heavily by gigantic corporate interests that stand to benefit by the status quo, and (2) has become a litmus test for one of our two major political parties.  Still, FWIW:

Let’s remember to have a respectful conversation on this one!

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8 responses

  1. Here is a link to a global warming graph:

    A number of features stand out:

    1) The size of the effect, over more than a century, is minute, less than 1 degree celsius.

    2) There are stretches of several decades where temperature is flat or declining.

    3) If this were a stock chart an economist would instantly describe it as a random walk.

    In sum, if this is the evidence for global warming it is weak at best, and may well represent random variation rather than a trend.

  2. By the way, to access the graph you must cut and paste. Don’t click, because the .gif part of the link did not get pulled into the link by the website software.

  3. One possible reason why results from experiments or studies are considered statistically flawed is that the data isn’t shared. Analyzing data isn’t well funded in grants. So the data is coveted by researchers who can patent it or reuse the data in other studies. This has been going on for centuries, by the way.

    Here’s an interesting link: http://hereandnow.wbur.org/2012/02/21/physicist-scientific-discovery.

  4. The accuracy of science and data collection is a lot more refined and precise than what Mike alluded to from the primarily older pharmacological industry research models he used as examples. I have helped edit and index a peer-reviewed scientific journal and know well the exacting rigors that precede the publication of science articles. When an article is submitted, it is scrutinized for accuracy and adherence to the scientific method, its use of statistical models and much more. It is then sent to several specialists in the field best poised to critique and find any anomalies or inaccuracies and suggest ways to correct or improve its content and methodology. The article is then sent back to the author and these types of steps can be repeated 3 to 5 times over the course of months before it is accepted for publication. Peer-reviewed science is what has solidified such concepts as plate tectonics, evolution and the physics behind the electronics we use in our daily lives.
    The example I gave at the meeting of seeing within my 50+ years of following science, the change from total skepticism WITHIN THE SCIENCE COMMUNITY of the theory of “Continental Drift” to the “rock solid” (pun intended) facts of Plate Tectonics all came about through peer-reviewed science from several widely varying disciplines in the different main fields of science. Theories can be proposed before the explaining and underlying concepts are fully understood. It is then up to the peer-review process to weed out the hearsay and bolster the true science that brings understanding and explanations backing up the theory. This has happened with Plate Tectonics and before that with Evolution. Evolutionary concepts and theories abounded long before Darwin even sailed on the H.M.S. Beagle, even from his own grandfather. BUT, no one could explain an operating mechanism or concept that would have guided its course. Geologists had noted abrupt changes in the stratigraphy of sedimentary layers of rock and named the geological epochs. Linnaeus had named the known animals and plants with Latin binomials in 1735, based on evolutionary assumptions, but Darwin’s genius was in discovering natural selection and its associated effects, based on his specimen collections, Lyell’s geology text, Malthus’ population studies and a synthesis of knowledge from many various fields. And in ALL the peer-reviewed science published since, there has never been ONE article to bring doubt to the FACTS of evolution.
    On the topic of climate change, I would like to post these links by highly respected organizations and individuals with compelling evidence and statistics backing up their claims:



    On a related topic I’ve know something about for 30 or 40 years, the British have been compiling data on the timing of first nesting behavior in birds and have meticulous records going back for over 150 years. They were the first to devise breeding bird atlases that surveyed these trends geographically. There has been a trend ever since the industrial revolution of earlier dates of first nest building as a result of warming temperatures. This is one very little known element among many, from tree ring, or dendrochronology studies to ice cores and paleoclimatology that ALL support the recent UNNATURAL changes brought on by man’s activities and our effects on global climate. The scientists are vastly unified, as these videos aptly demonstrate. It is past time for politics to step aside and allow man to address these vital concerns for the benefit of us all.

    1. Thanks for your contribution, Jack. Yeah, the key here, in my lay yunderstanding, is that warming evidence comes from multiple sources of data, none of which could plausibly be expected to move in the same direction for any reason other than the climate is warming.

  5. I feel the need to post this and draw particular emphasis to the third and the last paragraphs in this article.

    CLIMATE CHANGE DENIAL PLANS DIVULGED

    “Leaked documents suggest that an organization known for attacking
    climate science is planning a new push to undermine the teaching of
    global warming in public schools, the latest indication that climate
    change is becoming a part of the nation’s culture wars,” reported The
    New York Times (February 15, 2012). The documents in question were
    obtained from the Heartland Institute, a non-profit organization best
    known for its attacks on climate science, and posted at DeSmogBlog
    (February 14, 2012), which “exists to clear the PR pollution that is
    clouding the science on climate change.”

    The documents detailed a plan to invest at least $100,000 to produce
    and distribute curriculum material propounding climate change denial.
    “Many people lament the absence of educational material suitable for
    K-12 students on global warming that isn’t alarmist or overtly
    political. Heartland has tried to make material available to teachers,
    but has had only limited success.” The proposed remedy was to produce
    “modules” on climate change with such claims as “whether CO2 is a
    pollutant is controversial” and “whether humans are changing the
    climate is a major scientific controversy.”

    “It is in fact not a scientific controversy,” the Times explained with
    regard to the latter claim. “The vast majority of climate scientists
    [97-98%, according to Anderegg et al., “Expert credibility in climate
    change,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 2010)]
    say that emissions generated by humans are changing the climate and
    putting the planet at long-term risk, although they are uncertain
    about the exact magnitude of that risk. Whether and how to rein in
    emissions of greenhouse gases has become a major political controversy
    in the United States, however.”

    The Heartland Institute explicitly denied the authenticity of one of
    the documents, which included a startling description of the proposed
    curriculum as showing “that the topic of climate change is
    controversial and uncertain — two key points that are effective at
    dissuading teachers from teaching science.” The author of the
    curriculum confirmed to the Associated Press (February 18, 2012) that
    the description of his curriculum throughout the documents was
    otherwise accurate, however, explaining that his goal for schools was
    “teaching both sides of the science, more science, not less.”

    The article in the Times observed, “The National Center for Science
    Education, a group that has had notable success in fighting for
    accurate teaching of evolution in the public schools, has recently
    added climate change to its agenda in response to pleas from teachers
    who say they feel pressure to water down the science,” and quoted Mark
    McCaffrey, who is spearheading NCSE’s climate initiative, as saying
    that the Heartland documents show that climate change deniers
    “continue to promote confusion, doubt and debate where there really is
    none.”

    The Los Angeles Times (February 20, 2012) offered its editorial
    opinion: “On one side of the ‘controversy’ are credentialed
    climatologists around the globe who publish in reputable,
    peer-reviewed scientific journals and agree that the planet is warming
    and that humans are to blame; on the other are
    fossil-fuel-industry-funded ‘experts’ who tend to have little
    background in climatology and who publish non-peer-reviewed papers in
    junk magazines disputing established truths. … It’s bad enough that
    we’re gambling our children’s futures by doing so little to fight this
    problem; let’s not ask their teachers to lie to them about it too.”

    Here is the source link:
    http://ncse.com/news/2012/02/climate-change-denial-plans-divulged-007216

  6. James H. Zimmerman | Reply

    This is very reminiscent of the similar “controversy” over tobacco as a cause of cancer.
    I hope the end result will be the same too.

  7. James H. Zimmerman | Reply

    Is there really a debate on the fact that the climate is warming? The Arctic ice is melting, glaciers are receding; these are facts anyone can observe.

    On the causes there might well be differing views, but surely not on the fact.

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