Archive for the ‘bad science’ category

Sunday Stuff 1: Cosmology meets New Age Nonesense — Karadzic edition

July 27, 2008

Sean Carroll finds perverse pleasure — which I share in war criminal/face of evil* Radovan Karadzic’s reinvention of himself as a new-age healer.

Sean notes the quantum connection that Karadzic tried to make in his spiel — and this appropriation of a remarkably hard-headed body of science is an unfortunate byproduct of the fact that the language in which quantum theory is often popularized lends itself to all kinds of folly.

But I was struck by what seemed to me a new wrinkle in nonsense. Sean rightly snorts at the parody of quantification in this passage:

“It is widely believed our senses and mind can recognise only 1% of whatever exists around us. Three per cent we understand with our hearts. All that remains is shrouded in secrecy, out of the reach of our five senses; however, it is within our reach in the extra-sensory manner,” he [Karadzic] wrote in one article.

This is familiar enough — one of the standard moves used when purveying such stuff is to cloak it in trappings that suggest a science-like precision. But Sean missed a more specific potential source for the “numbers” (sic) in Karadzic’s “analysis” (sic-er) — one that now joins quantum theory as the unintential wellspring for silly-season stuff in our culture.

It’s all cosmology’s fault, of course. WMAP’s, in particular.

One of the most reported findings from the first round of analysis of the WMAP plot of the CMB was that the particular details of the hot and cold spots on that map permit a calculation of the composition of the universe — how much of the mass-energy it contains came in particular forms. It turned out that, rounding off as the early press did, 73 percent came in the form of dark energy; 23 percent or so as dark matter, and the remainder, roughly 4 percent, is ordinary matter.

You can see where this is going, can’t you?

Karadzic allows human capacity — senses and heart, to perceive four percent of reality. The rest is beyond our direct observation, and must be accessed by magic.

I can understand why Sean, a cosmologist, would shy away from this hideous conclusion: but what if modern cosmology, an extraordinary intellectual and technological achievement, making measurements at a precision that a generation or two ago would have been pure fantasy, producing observations about nature with exceptional rigor (which cannot be said of every branch of physics, at least not yet)…what if all this great work is just so much fodder for murderous quacks.

More to do on public engagement with science I would say…but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

*Karadzic may be the face of evil. According to American negotiator Richard Holbrook, evil itself comes personified in the form of Ratko Mladic, Karadzic’s partner in crimes against humanity.

Mladic is still at large.

Image: WMAP Five Year Microwave Sky.

More On Steven Postrel’s Climate Issues…

April 30, 2008

Issues, as in he has ’em, and it matters because his ill-informed comments (and I’m trying to keep the discourse on a reasonably polite level, as Dr. Postrel himself has done) actually capture a much broader pathology in the realm of those who oppose taking climate science and its predictions seriously.

Last night, I posted my much too-long and still incomplete response to Dr. Postrel’s comments further down this blog — but I also pinged my internet-friend Eric Roston, to see if he wanted to have a crack at the same material that I saw, frankly as nonsense born of a dangerous brew of ignorance of the field and an ideological predisposition to a given outcome.

I did so because while I have written at length about climate change — I did so mostly two decades ago. I have complained (to Eric among others) that what’s most depressing about that is how little I would have to change in my basic take on the subject now, and you can see Eric’s treatment of that claim here.

But the point is that Eric, a former Time magazine science/tech correspondent is now the author of the forthcoming The Carbon Age (Macmillan, July, 2008), and is much more deeply immersed in the current science and policy literature than I ever was. So when in doubt, call in the expert — and here is Eric’s first whack at Postrel’s argument. I should warn you — it ain’t pretty (that is to say, Eric fired for effect, and he got it).

Update: Eric Roston’s name now spelled correctly (with apologies).

Image: Francisco de Goya “Bravo Toro,” 1824-1825. Source: Wikimedia Commons

More on Really Stupid Ideas

April 22, 2008

Just to provide yet more real-world evidence of the vapid stupidity of McCain’s gas tax, now endorsed by Clinton, here, via Atrios, comes confirmation of the fact (surprise!), that price affects consumption.

Short form: gas consumption and traffic are down. The Feds predict a .4 percent fall in gas consumption this summer (when the proposed gas tax holiday would, if any savings made it to the pump, reverse that long-sought outcome). Money quote:

“Sustained higher gasoline prices are beginning to show up in lower gasoline consumption,” said Tancred Lidderdale, an analyst for the Energy Information Administration.

That’s the market in action, folks. Doing what it should. Is there a problem here?

John, Hilary: pay attention. Good on ya’ Barack for figuring this out.

Image: Lesser Ury, “Hackney in Rainy Weather, (Pferdedroshke im Regenwetter),” 1924. Source, Wikimedia Commons.

Stupidity Kills: McCain/Vaccination edition.

March 25, 2008

As promised, a post about this story. In my previous post, I asked what was missing from this seemingly straightforward bit of science/medical reporting about a growing number of parents who refuse to vaccinate their children because of fears that vaccines are unsafe.

The answer: a couple of things.

First, the piece had lots of numbers, but very little in the way of useful, contextual quantitative analysis.

For example, it would have been nice to know the ratio of the risk of serious complications of the vaccine to risk of the disease itself. That is, after all, the crux of most of the argument vaccine exempters make.

Second, the piece refers to the herd immunity concept, but never explains it — which is crucial, because the public health question (as opposed to the child abuse one) turns on the point at which refusal to immunize creates a big enough unvaccinated habitat in which a given illness starts to pose a risk to folks other than those who have chosen to risk disease rather than a shot.

Make no mistake — this piece does document, however imperfectly, a real problem. It catches the essence of the stupidity on the march in our rich, unprecedentedly healthy society in this passage:

It is the absence, or close to it, of some illnesses in the United States that keep some parents from opting for the shots. Worldwide, 242,000 children a year die from measles, but it used to be near one million. The deaths have dropped because of vaccination, a 68 percent decrease from 2000 to 2006.

“The very success of immunizations has turned out to be an Achilles’ heel,” said Dr. Mark Sawyer, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego. “Most of these parents have never seen measles, and don’t realize it could be a bad disease so they turn their concerns to unfounded risks. They do not perceive risk of the disease but perceive risk of the vaccine.”

But the third, and the real point of this post, is that there is a really big hole in the NY Times story: nowhere does the author mention that a current candidate for the Presidency of the United States has very recently made this problem worse.

Last month, John McCain said the following, according to ABC News:

“It’s indisputable that (autism) is on the rise amongst children, the question is what’s causing it. And we go back and forth and there’s strong evidence that indicates that it’s got to do with a preservative in vaccines.”

McCain said there’s “divided scientific opinion” on the matter, with “many on the other side that are credible scientists that are saying that’s not the cause of it.”

There is, of course, precisely the opposite of “strong evidence” that the vaccines cause autism. The NYT piece did point to the vaccine/autism panic as one wellspring for the movement to avoid vaccination, writing this:

Alexandra Stewart, director of the Epidemiology of U.S. Immunization Law project at George Washington University, said many of these parents are influenced by misinformation obtained from Web sites that oppose vaccination.

“The autism debate has convinced these parents to refuse vaccines to the detriment of their own children as well as the community,” Ms. Stewart said.

You would think that the fact that someone running for President is spouting the same myth, would register here. It has been less than a month since McCain exposed either his ignorance or his willingness to pander to an angry voter.

Whatever the source of his remarks, they provide direct demonstration of how credulity and intellectual sloth undermine science — and in this case, directly contribute to an evolving public health threat. It’s not good journalism to ignore elephants like this hanging around the edges of your story.

Beyond that: we’ve been lucky so far.

Measles is rare now, and likely to stay so in North America.

But outbreaks will continue to occur, and one may hit in an unlucky pocket of susceptibility to the diesease.

Meanwhile, other diseases have been getting more common. Pertussis, (aka whooping cough, for readers of a certain age), the “P” in the DPT shot is on the rise, with incidence rising fifteen fold in the last quarter-century, to over 25,000 cases in the US in 2004.

Sometime, probably not that far off, a kid or kids are going to die of entirely preventable illness because someone thought it was too damn risky to immunize their children.

Maybe they heard Senator McCain tell them that credible scientists thought so too. He should know better. And if he doesn’t know, then he should recognize his ignorance, and shut the hell up.

In my dreams.

Image: Louis-Léopold Boilly, “L’innoculation,” 1807. Source, Wikimedia Commons.

(I think I have used this picture in an earlier post, but it works so well here, so why not?)


March 21, 2008

This is going to be all over the science blogosphere in a blink, so there is no real need for me to pile on, except that it gives me the opportunity to recycle one of my recent favorite political snarks,

I mean, if you have done something really dumb — like make an ignorant, ill-informed, duplicitous film that is so ineptly put together as to be unable to attract even papered full houses — and then you decide you want to make sure that none of your critics can actually see the film, it might be a good idea to know your enemy, just a little bit.

But nooooo! The producers of Expelled, Ben Stein’s formal notice of secession from reason knew they had a problem with PZ Myers. After all, they had interviewed him under false pretences to serve as one of a number of straw men to a bankrupt argument. He’s been pretty clear — brutally plain — about both that essential discourtesy, and the larger dishonesty of the project as a whole. They know he can dish the invective pretty well, and to the largest audience in the science blogosphere.

So I can understand why they wouldn’t want him actually to see the film. From their already morally (as well as intellectually) compromised position, that would be tantamount to giving not just ammunition but the whole damn arsenal to the enemy. So it’s no real surprise that they had a police officer at the ready to identify mild-seeming bearded squid fetishists in the line for a restricted screening of the film in Minneapolis.

But as I said, you have to be smart if you want to be safely dumb. And the problem with that, I think is obvious. Hence the result that PZ gleefully documents in the post linked above (and here again).

The thought police expel PZ from the line waiting to get into the theater. They manage to ignore his guest.

Richard Dawkins.

Stop for a moment. Think.

Richard Freaking Dawkins.

This isn’t just dumb, folks. To channel Eroll Flynn in Captain Blood “Bedad! It’s epic!”

(By the way — this really is not the way real film makers behave. When I, or any of the documentarians I know and respect, make a film, we promise –and deliver — DVDs of the finished product to those who have contributed to the project, for receipt right after the premiere.)

What happened in Minneapolis is like — and I’ve been struggling to come up with an analogy that isn’t just blood thirsty — corralling Mothra but losing track of Godzilla, or, f you want a reference to another bad science movie franchise perhaps, caging Velociraptor but failing to account for T Rex.

And it gives me the chance to make the observation that is the real point of this post. I don’t often read Ben Smith’s column over at, but at the height of the Spitzer schadenfreude orgy, he came up with this*: “When stupid gets to $200 a barrel, I want the drilling rights to Eliot Spitzer’s head.”

Not me, man. I want to tap into the fine wine of dumb these guys have got going.

(Eyewitness account of the scene inside the theater here.)

*Quoting from memory. Sue me if I missed a word.

Images: Inferred Dinosaur Behavior (Velociraptor and Proceratops) illustration in L. M. Chiappe, A Field Trip to the Mesozoic, PLOS Biol 1/2/2003. Licensed under a Creative Commons License ver. 2.5.

Piotr Jaworski, “Tyranozaur,” 2004. Licensed under a GNU Free Documentation License.

Don’t Know Nothing ‘Bout Causality (or science): Washington Post Edition…

March 5, 2008

…Or why you can’t infer from one truly awful writer that all writers are dumb as a box of rocks.

By now, pretty much everyone in the blog reading world (or at least those I imagine are the readers of this blog) has heard of, and maybe even read Charlotte Allen’s unwitting (witless?) self parody (immolation?) in last Sunday’s Washington Post.


You can find all the responses you want with a quick google search — here are a couple that catch the zeitgeist pretty well. (For a post with links to a lot more see this one.)

So, with all that out there, what more to add? Two things, actually, or maybe two and a half.

First, this blog has gone on, perhaps to the point of exhaustion, about the importance of even very simple quantitative reasoning as both the starting point for thinking within the scientific world view — and just for making sense of the everyday world of experience.

Allen’s inability to do this reaffirms how important it is — not least for keeping yourself from looking like a true idiot in front of a national audience. Here’s the problem: one of the early “arguments” (sic) that Allen uses to suggest that “several of the supposed myths about female inferiority are true,” is that “Women really are worse drivers than men” according to a ten year old study out of Johns Hopkins.

Jake Young whaled on this one here, proving once again (take a memo certain Post editors!) that it really, really helps to read and understand a paper before you glom onto its abstract. But that critique, useful as it is, misses the simplest stupidity that Young (and her editors) commit.

Young writes that the study

revealed that women clocked 5.7 auto accidents per million miles driven, in contrast to men’s 5.1, even though men drive about 74 percent more miles a year than women.

Stop and think about that for a moment.

Now change the activity in question, and maybe turn the groups being distinguished into ones that have a little less political affect:

Say you have some working stiffs who play golf once a week on the weekends, and some biometrically equivalent trust fund golfers who get to hit the links three times a week. Next, breathlessly report that the weekend duffers “clock 5.7 bogies per 18 holes, in contrast to the trust funded group, who cut their bogie rate to 5.1, even though they play 300 percent more holes than poor folk.


From that you could conclude, I guess, that the evolutionary history that produces poor people also contains genes for lousy golf, and the reverse for the rich folk. Or you could propose that maybe hitting a few more balls might improve your game.

I don’t truly know if practice makes you a better driver. It seems a reasonable hypothesis — but you’d have to do some real research to say so with any confidence, of course.

I don’t even care if this fact has something to do with whatever the Johns Hopkins people observed.

Here’s the point: A couple of times over the last few years I’ve given a talk in which I’ve come out “against science literacy.” Allen’s article is an illustration of what I mean. She’s marginally literate in science-yness at least. She uses words like “genes” and botches that old chestnut about brain sizes and so on. But it doesn’t matter how many Tuesday Science Times section she reads. If she can’t think, it doesn’t matter how many words she knows. And thinking in this context means, at a minimum being able to understand the basics of the statistics she chooses to bandy.

So that’s one point. The other derives from the second half of my job title: I’m a science writer, and I have to say that there is one other quality of Allen’s piece that has not, I think, received all the ridicule it deserves. Boy, is that one badly written stretch of fish-wrap!

And here, I’m not talking about the global issues of logic, accuracy and argument, but the butt-ugly sentences and phrases she unleashed on who knows how many Sunday hangovers.

This post is long enough, so one example will do:

This female taste for first-person romantic nuttiness, spiced with a soupçon of soft-core porn, has made for centuries of bestsellers — including Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel “Pamela,” in which a handsome young lord tries to seduce a virtuous serving maid for hundreds of pages and then proposes, as well as Erica Jong’s 1973 “Fear of Flying.”

That’s damn near unreadable. Look at that construction:”This female taste for first-person…blah, blah, blah…as well as Erica Jong’s 1973 Fear of Flying.”

Did Allen miss that fourth grade lesson on run-on sentences, in which vital topics of syntax, usage and style were covered, as well as her college expos class? (Sorry. Couldn’t help myself.)

I teach writing at the college and graduate level. My least articulate MIT freshman, fluent in Python, not in English, doesn’t commit crap like this.

Which leads to my last half point. The real damage here is to whatever is left of the Post’s editors’ reputation. Leave aside all the things that can (and have) been said about the vapidity or worse of every paragraph in the piece. How did anyone licensed to wield a red at the paper let uglification like this get through?

Just askin…

Images: James Gilray, engraver, “Physical air,-or-Britannia recover’d from a trance,” 1803. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Gunnar A. Sjögren, “Saab Formula Junior,” illustration on page 23 of The SAAB Way – the first 35 years of SAAB cars, 1949-1984, 1984. Released for uses clearly not contradictory to Saab’s interests.” Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Horace Hutchinson, British Golf Links, 1897 J. S. Virtue & Co, London, page 9. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

John Leech, ” published in The Comic History of Rome, p. 88 c. 1850. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Best ID refutation yet: Ridiculing the ridiculous department.

March 3, 2008

I was digging through some old blogosphere notes today, and rediscovered Daniel Brooks’ account of his time at the false-colors conference purporting to be a commemoration of the famous — or infamous — 1967 Wistar conference “Mathematical Challenges to the Neo-Darwinian Interpretation of Evolution.”

The conference turned out to be a deep embarrassment to the political commisars of the ID regiments.  Mixing highly qualified, articulate real biologists with ID advocates whose capacity for scientific argument has been dulled by too much preaching to the choir turned out to be a bad idea. So much so, that, to the amusement of many in the science blogging community, the conference organizers then tried to gag participants, emailing them after the fact that “the ID people considered the conference a private meeting,and did not want any of us to discuss it, blog it, or publish anything about it.”

Fortunately, Brooks ignored this ex post facto nonsense — leading to a fair amount of (still accumulating) science blogospheric coverage of the topic.  Even so, to my knowledge, no one has highlighted one of the my favorite moments in Brooks account of the whole sorry affair.

So, to help brighten everyone’s Monday, let me quote one of the most pleasing rhetorical bludgeonings of ID I’ve yet read. In his dissection of Stephen Meyer’s talk, Brooks methodically went through the premises stated and the conclusions drawn. The last of Meyer’s allegedly proven claims held that “layered informational hierarchies arise only from intelligent agents.” To this, Brooks replies

…it is time for them to retire the assertion that ID wins over evolution on the basis that “There is not enough information in any given microbe right now to generate all the rest of the species on the planet.” This is silly, and does not help their cause. It is trivially true that no contemporary microbe frozen in time and space contains all the genetic diversity of all the species on this planet. But evolution is about descent with modification and neither descent nor modification play any role in the ID discussions.

Then — and here comes the object lesson: don’t mess with folks who (a) know what they are talking about and (b) know how to stick the rhetorical shiv between one’s ribs — Brooks provided the illustration to make his point unforgettable.

Using their reasoning, I have no daughter because there’s not enough information in me to generate her. That does not mean she was produced by the intervention of a supernatural designer. It is true that during the mechanical process that produced her, I may have invoked the name of the Deity at the height of ecstasy. But I know who was in the room at the time of conception, and my daughter is a wonderful combination of the material traits of both of those people, in addition to having many wonderful traits of her own, some of which appear in her children. I personally do not want ID to take away that strong sense of personal connection among the generations.

Just in case the barb failed to hook even the dullest of intellects, consider Brooks’ treatment of Michael Behe, Lehigh University’s disowned ID propagandist. Behe is, as Brooks wrote

…the primary reference for the ID concept of irreducible complexity (which is rebranding the argument from design better articulated by Enlightenment philosophers)…

However, as Brooks noted, even this stalwart defender of astrology as science may have a hidden Darwinian bias any worthwhile therapist would wish to explore…

…his introducer pointed out that Behe has 9 children (1 fewer than Darwin, but 1 more than Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s bulldog). If they were produced by the same mechanism as my daughter, it would seem that, whatever his religious beliefs, Behe has been hedging his bets by increasing his Darwinian fitness as much as possible.

The moral: don’t mess with folks both cleverer and funnier than you.

Happy Monday. Now back to book and grant. (I asked for the job, mate, as a long-ago PA reminded me when whinging at the end of some long shoot day. I was, at the time, just coming down with Hepatitis A, so, unknowing, I had some excuse for complaint. But still, she was right.)

Images: Cercopithecus Diana, Illustration from The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, New York: D. Appleton, 1872, volume 2, page 297. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Charles Wilson Peale, “The Peale Family,” 1771-1773. Source: Wikimedia Commons.