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Be a Dissenter for Science

When does politics trump science? Whenever it wants to. That’s a problem with modern politics in general, and — at least in part — we owe it to the malign influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

We all know about the anti-science right, and they are indeed awful. The creationists. The AGW deniers. The folks with… let’s call them less-than-mainstream theories of reproductive health. And others.

But there is also an anti-science left. Their numbers and influence are certainly much smaller, and the media does its best never to connect the dots. Still, they’re out there: They are the anti-GMO folks, who reject a scientific consensus every bit as strong as the one supporting anthropogenic global warming. They are the anti-vaxers, whose movement will hopefully fizzle now that we are seeing the awful effects of leaving kids unvaccinated. They are the groups opposing food irradiation, although irradiating to kill bacteria is both safe and effective. And then there’s the entire organic food movement, aptly likened to a kind of secular kashrut. Organic food has shown no demonstrated health benefits. Organic farming means destroying more natural habitat than we need to. And organic farming methods can’t possibly feed the whole world. Organics will necessarily remain exactly what they are right now: a luxury, one that gratifies our apparently inborn need for purity-and-danger taboos. They’re a game that lefties play with their instincts, and not at all a means of saving the planet.

That said, I am not writing to suggest a simple equivalence between Team Red and Team Blue. I’m not saying that it’s irrelevant which side you choose, or that there are no meaningful differences between them. (I am not doing these things, and yet I know that — because politics is the mind killer — I will be accused of doing them anyway. So, whatever.) I’m not asking you to abandon your political beliefs wholesale, and still less am I asking you to adopt mine. I appear to have been born enjoying cognitive dissonance, and I don’t expect this to be a shared character fault, given how maladaptive it is.

What I ask is much simpler: Whichever side you’re on, left or right, at least put science first. If you have to, be a dissenter for science. No matter what side you’re on. I’m not asking you to give up your political team. That’s (1) way too much cognitive dissonance for you to endure and (2) you wouldn’t do it anyway and (3) I don’t even like any of the organized teams, so I find no point in shuffling you around among them, even if I could. I just ask that politics come second, for a while, whenever people who care somewhat less about politics are trying impartially to figure out what’s going on. Listen to these people for a while, please.

In my last set of concretes, I picked on the left, so I’ll pick on the right for the next: Does anyone imagine that climate scientists were cheered to discover anthropogenic global warming? Does a slightly increased probability of grant funding really comfort anyone, when they contemplate the possibility of radical climate change? Folks on the right like to point out that climatologists in the 1970s anticipated a new ice age. They cite this fact as if it proved the incompetence of science in general. What it really shows, to anyone who would consider the position of the scientists involved, is that science is able to change its mind in the face of new and better data. That ought to be a virtue, not a vice. That is — it ought to be the way that cognition happens for all of us. (Is it possible in politics? Maybe not…)

What politicians may choose to do about global warming is a completely separate question from the science. Policymakers ought to consider the tradeoffs presented by various regulations, the groups harmed and helped by them, and the chances of a policy’s overall success or failure. That’s if they were honest and disinterested, which of course they typically are not.

If this were the place for it — and it’s not — I would point out what I see as the strengths and weaknesses of various proposals that respond to the scientific fact of AGW. What seems truly improper to me, though, is for political types to reach beyond politics, into what ought to be the value-neutral domain of science, for the sake of our all-too-human political wins or losses. As if nature were playing on the same team we are, and God were keeping score.

The science says what it says, though. It’s not always going to be right, but it will be more often than guessing, which is what the politically motivated answer inevitably amounts to. Science is not always going to square with your intuitions, and especially not your politically motivated intuitions: Politics is less a tool for uncovering the truth than it is a tool for burying the truth.

Like much of what’s wrong with our politics, our anti-scientific movements, both left and right, trace their ancestry to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau held that civilization and technological progress brought inequality, vanity, vice, and the tragic alienation of mankind from its very nature. Rousseau held that we haven’t been happy — not happy in any way that really matters — since we were all noble savages. A happy state that the very first scientists ruined:

I know it is incessantly repeated that man would in such a state have been the most miserable of creatures… [but] … I should be glad to have explained to me, what kind of misery a free being, whose heart is at ease and whose body is in health, can possibly suffer. I would ask also, whether a social or a natural life is most likely to become insupportable to those who enjoy it. We see around us hardly a creature in civil society, who does not lament his existence: we even see many deprive themselves of as much of it as they can, and laws human and divine together can hardly put a stop to the disorder. I ask, if it was ever known that a savage took it into his head, when at liberty, to complain of life or to make away with himself. Let us therefore judge, with less vanity, on which side the real misery is found. On the other hand, nothing could be more unhappy than savage man, dazzled by science, tormented by his passions, and reasoning about a state different from his own. It appears that Providence most wisely determined that the faculties, which he potentially possessed, should develop themselves only as occasion offered to exercise them, in order that they might not be superfluous or perplexing to him, by appearing before their time, nor slow and useless when the need for them arose. In instinct alone, he had all he required for living in the state of nature; and with a developed understanding he has only just enough to support life in society.

The resemblance to Rousseau is perhaps stronger on the left, among the organic food devotees and the drum circles. But “back to the Pleistocene!” may be shouted to good effect on either side of the aisle. (MRM folks, I’m looking at you…)

Noble savagery was not Rousseau’s only mistake. He also very distinctly prized intuition ahead of intellection: Truth, for Rousseau, was only that which was clear and obvious to the virtuous man. His philosophy had no room for hard-won and counterintuitive conclusions. Revision for him was not a sign of refinement — or, if it was, what he meant by “refinement” was something pejorative. Science itself corrupted, with its flood of complicating data:

What shall I say of that metropolis of the Eastern Empire [Constantinople], which, by its situation, seemed destined to be the capital of the world; that refuge of the arts and sciences, when they were banished from the rest of Europe, more perhaps by wisdom than barbarism? The most profligate debaucheries, the most abandoned villainies, the most atrocious crimes, plots, murders and assassinations form the warp and woof of the history of Constantinople. Such is the pure source from which have flowed to us the floods of knowledge on which the present age so prides itself.

But wherefore should we seek, in past ages, for proofs of a truth, of which the present affords us ample evidence? There is in Asia a vast empire, where learning is held in honour, and leads to the highest dignities in the state. If the sciences improved our morals, if they inspired us with courage and taught us to lay down our lives for the good of our country, the Chinese should be wise, free and invincible. But, if there be no vice they do not practise, no crime with which they are not familiar; if the sagacity of their ministers, the supposed wisdom of their laws, and the multitude of inhabitants who people that vast empire, have alike failed to preserve them from the yoke of the rude and ignorant Tartars, of what use were their men of science and literature? What advantage has that country reaped from the honours bestowed on its learned men? Can it be that of being peopled by a race of scoundrels and slaves?

Ugly stuff, this Rousseau. Stripped of its racism (or, you know, not), the idea remains with us that the Truth and our deepest, most unreflective intuitions coincide. But that idea is precisely the one thing science cautions us the most strongly against. (Who was the original anti-vaxer? The one who did the most to inspire all the rest? Rousseau. Of course.)

How should we think of science? I’m going to cite Hayek here, but not because I think my own tribe is particularly exempt from antiscientific prejudice. It’s certainly not. Still I have not found the difficulty so well expressed in any other author:

The whole history of modern Science proves to be a process of progressive emancipation from our innate classification of the external stimuli till in the end they completely disappear… The new world which man thus creates in his mind, and which consists entirely of entities which cannot be perceived by our senses, is yet in a definite way related to the world of our senses. It serves, indeed to explain the world of our senses… But the point is that the attempts to establish such uniform rules which the perceptible phenomena obey have been unsuccessful so long as we accepted as natural units, given entities, such constant complexes of sense qualities as we can simultaneously perceive. (F. A. Hayek, The Counter-Revolution of Science. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1979, pp 31-33.)

Science frustrates our intuitions, but it predicts future events much better than intuition ever could. We should welcome it for precisely this reason. We should welcome the confounding of our intuitions: We should dance when we are proven wrong.

Given the relatively small range of claims advanced by our intuitions within the much vaster range of claims that might be so advanced, we should not be surprised indeed if, on venturing beyond the range of behaviors governed for eons by instincts in similar animals, our intuitions proved to be worthless. Intuitions ought not to be worth anything in these domains, and science agrees that they aren’t. Of course, our politics runs on intuition, a fact whose implications can’t be fully expressed without becoming both tedious and perhaps more radical than the audience will tolerate.

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216 thoughts on “Be a Dissenter for Science

  1. 1. One minor quibble. I think that anti-Vaxxing is something done by the fringe on the left and the right. For every semi-hippie former celebrity like Jenny McCarthy or Alicia Silverstone, there is also a right-wing Evangelist pastor who goes against vaccinations.

    http://www.npr.org/2013/09/01/217746942/texas-megachurch-at-center-of-measles-outbreak

    2. I am generally on your side of this and have no patience for the left when they all 100 percent organic farming and 100 percent anti-GMO.

    3. That being said I think you are indirectly writing about the potential problems underlying liberal democracy and personal freedom. When does democracy mean that a populous and a majority have a right to ignore the best policy and best science? Of course there will never been one hundred percent agreement on what is the best policy. My problem with people like Ezra Klein, Matt Y, and other self-declared “policy wonks” is that they often seem to want to subvert the democratic process because the democratic process is pesky and people dissent from their white papers. The Ezra Kleins of the world seem to imagine that they can create the right set of incentives and policies to make a utopia with more health, less pollution, fewer cars, more denseness, perfect levels of income and taxation, etc. They don’t seem to really care about liberty as an issue.

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    • 1. I wasn’t aware of that. But fair enough.

      2. Thanks. I don’t actually know what the most ecologically friendly approach to farming is, but I’m intrigued and at least a little encouraged by things like this:

      http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/17/scientists-see-promise-for-people-and-nature-in-peak-farmland/

      3. More or less, yes – a liberal democracy is going to run to a high degree on the intuitions of the masses, and science is always going to be confounding them to some degree, particularly in ages of rapid scientific progress. It would be great if questions of policy could be reduced to questions of fundamental values and fairness, without making science a plaything of politics, but I don’t see it happening anytime soon.

      My problem with the I’m-not-really-partisan-I’m-just-smart subset of policy wonks is that life isn’t SimCity, and the people aren’t an optimization problem. This doesn’t mean that their intuitions are always correct, of course. (Nor are mine, or theirs!) But it does mean that there can be something dehumanizing about the nannying all the same.

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      • Fairness isn’t really an integral part of human nature. Trying to rewrite behavior away from human nature is something that ought to be done with the utmost of care, lest it backfire in all of our faces.

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      • In one of my various science links posts, I had linked to a story about an old warehouse that had been retrofitted into a farm. The sealed the building as best the could and grew food in pots in vertical racks. The system had water recycling, air filtration, and it was all done under LEDs tuned to specific red & blue light frequencies that plants just loved. Minimal power (a battery bank & rooftop solar panels powered the lights & other systems), and thanks to the environmental controls, no need to worry about disease or pests/weeds. They were able to grow nearly as much food as a whole farm on a fraction of the footprint, for a fraction of the power & cost.

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      • James,
        Yeah, sure. Should I cite women ovulating in response to rape? The Cinderella Effect?

        This is more of a fundamental disagreement on human nature than anything else.

        I’m pretty sure he’s pretty fundamentally misunderstanding a lot of the game theory involved in our procreative lives. He’s definitely not done research on male reproductive strategies in humans.

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      • It’s amazing how you seem to have an answer for anything without ever being familiar with any of the research. Maybe you can whip out one of your famous non-sources to not-support your not-accurate claims?

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      • a liberal democracy is going to run to a high degree on the intuitions of the masses, and science is always going to be confounding them to some degree, particularly in ages of rapid scientific progress.

        I agree with this, but let me ask you a question: to what extent do you think those “intuitions” ultimately derive from various types of socially embedded power structures which exist irrespective of the type of political system they are competing in?

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  2. I’m sure zic will be along to give a spirited (and scientific) defense of organic, small-time farming as opposed to the GMO-using Monsanto. If not, I’ll sub in.’

    Science is a cruel and unforgiving master, prone to bold and ugly conclusions that liberals hate with a passion that dwarfs the sun’s own fury. Nonetheless, they are wrong, and science is right.

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    • Most scientists I know – and work with – are left leaning liberals . . . so I don’t know what that rant is all about . . .

      That aside, I think the let’s response to unanticipated scientific conclusions (like the organic and GMO issues already discussed) is amusing . . . take GMO’s – humans have eaten GMO’s for as long as we’ve had domestic crops (which by my reckoning is several thousand years). So a general sense that you shouldn’t eat GMO’s is silly – it basically keeps you from eating . . . because even the “heirloom” seeds you plant in your organic home garden are “genetically modified” through centuries of horticulture. On the other hand, avoiding foods made from products engineered to grow successfully ONLY with certain pesticides and certain fertilizers made by certain companies MAY be wise – especially since there is a long and well documented set of data that the pesticides do nasty stuff to both the applicators and the non-target organisms that come in contact with them. Round-Up is really toxic once it begins to start breaking down.

      So what’s my long winded point – the ranting and raving of the science deniers on the Right obscures the ranting and raving on the left, and both obscure the nuances of the real argument – and that nuance is what drives science to begin with.

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      • Phillip,
        Sometimes science’s conclusions are damned unpleasant.

        Do you know why IQ in the Deep South has risen a couple of points since the 1970’s? (here’s a hint: it’s not the freakonomics answer of leaded gasoline. you’d expect that to have a much higher incidence around the NE and west coasts, as that’s where the pollution was strongest).

        Liberals want to be able to treat everyone as basically the same. Race has no meaning, Gender has no meaning, everyone is equally capable of doing anything. To a good approximation, science is decent at supporting these things. But the devil’s in the details…

        Okay, I’ll take a less obscure example: IQ of women and men. I believe that they’re roughly equivalent… if you’re looking at medians. However, look at the standard deviations…

        Now how the hell does that affect public policy?

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      • Do you know why IQ in the Deep South has risen a couple of points since the 1970?s? (here’s a hint: it’s not the freakonomics answer of leaded gasoline. you’d expect that to have a much higher incidence around the NE and west coasts, as that’s where the pollution was strongest).

        Liberals want to be able to treat everyone as basically the same. Race has no meaning,

        So are you saying it’s because of the Negros moving north? Or because Jewish people have moved to the deep south?

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      • James,
        Neither, actually. Truth be told, science doesn’t give a shit about the color of your skin. But there are observable differences in IQ [NB: only idiots use American data for worldwide studies, particularly with the confound of “some people didn’t choose to come here”], and they’ve got some intriguing correlations.

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      • Sounds like you’re playing the race card but don’t want to admit it. I’d ask you to cite your sources, but we all know that you never have managed to cite a source that actually supported your claims.

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      • Roundup us derived from a South American plant, and was used by natives to kill fish for eating. (It’s still used for fish kills in small ponds that they want to return to the native population by the USF, btw.)

        The problem is that round-up ready plants grow in fields where there is a great preponderance of other seeds, there through natural means. Most won’t survive the early years; and then they will — the few that do reseed and their offspring are resistant to the levels of roundup originally used. So farmer’s apply more and more; recent tests have shown many fields have levels of roundup that Monsanto labels extreme. And the weeds still adapt.

        Again, there is science here; and in the perfect world where things work the way your original tests work, there would probably not be a problem. But in the real world, change is the name of the game; and applying ever more roundup to get the same result may (this is being researched, it is science) be entering the food supply, particularly the wheat supply, and creating a host of digestive issues for people who eat that wheat; gluten intolerance, imbalanced gut flora and fauna, as well as problems with some mineral absorption, which leads to problems with the filtering organs.

        So I don’t disagree with the science that, used as labeled, there are no health problems; I’d rather argue that this is only a small part of the science that needs to be done to properly understand the potential impact. Glyphosate is not being used as labeled, it’s being used in excess of label through large swaths of the world because weeds adapt. And it’s not just residue in the field that breaks down, it’s what’s in and on the plants consumed.

        http://www.independentsciencenews.org/news/how-extreme-levels-of-roundup-in-food-became-the-industry-norm/

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      • James,
        a sentence later I was off on gender — which I supported later on here, and if you want to find fifty citations showing that men have a larger standard deviation on IQ than women, you can be my guest. They do exist.

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      • , are you quite sure you haven’t confused Roundup (glyphosate) with something else? I’m getting nothing on the Google about using it for killing fish, or about its origins in a South American plant.

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      • @zic I haven’t found anything about deliberate fish kills – I think that *is* a different one – but the problem some folks are worried about with glycosophate is its effects on the overall ecology, not its immediate toxicity. See http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2664.2010.01791.x/abstract – Basically, in cautious-scientist-language, that article is arguing for increased morbidity due to the indirect effects of glycosophate – it makes parasitic infections *worse* . The problem with pesticides etc are very often that they have indirect / whole ecology effects, and people like Monsanto have a lot more money to put into amplifying the studies they like than random niche (but highly rigorous) academics do.

        The problem I have with putting faith in any PARTICULAR tiny piece of science is that it is so often compromised. Every frigging mega-corporation whose products might have health effects *does* have a rack of pet scientists, and things are even more confounded by the fact that really *good* useful science is also getting published with major support from those same companies. The system is less corrupt than politics, but it’s still a corrupted system in which it is very hard to do uncompromised work. I think this is far worse in life sciences / chemistry than in other areas, but maybe I only think that because that’s the area I studied.

        Science as a whole, though, is still better than our other options most of the time. Because Jason is arguing so strongly for science-based dissent, I find myself wanting to argue for dissent against the scientific corpus – but that is, itself, as Jason says, a very scientific attitude to take. In real life I spend so much time saying, “But, you know, they’ve done a lot of work in this area and there’s a pretty strong consensus that…

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      • I gathered this from a story I wrote over 15 years ago about efforts to restock three ponds in the White Mountain National Forest; I managed to find it on my back-up drive.

        The Forest Service agent I interviewed referred to Rotenone, and said it was the chemical foundation at the base of Roundup. A look at the wiki page for glyphosate, and they look somewhat similar, but not enough for me to say one way or the other; I’m no chemist.

        Both have similar action, and rotenone is approved for organic use; at the time I wrote the story, I did not know to verify the science he fed me; I would have a few years later. So I may be responsible for one of the information cascades I criticize elsewhere on this thread, and I’m grateful you made me aware if it.

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      • You’re conflating genetically modifying something and selective breeding, they are not the same thing.

        GM involves inserting new genetic material into a DNA strand; selective breeding is selecting for desired traits present in existing DNA strands. One of the arguments against GM is that existing genes have been tested through nature, and we don’t know, over time, the impact that inserted genes may have over time, particularly as the escape to the wild. The feared impacts are not just on the specific species of plant or animal, but on other species that share ecosystem; poisoning pollinators, for instance.

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      • Technically, a GMO can also have no new genetic material, but has merely been tweaked so that useful recessive or “turned-off” traits can be expressed as dominant or “turned-on” (and yes, , this has something to do with sex, but not the way you will undoubtedly think about it).

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      • ,
        I wasn’t conflating the two – I have had too much biology and genetics training to do that – rather I was trying to point out that objecting to “GMO” crops because of the DNA additions you referred to is unscientific balderdash, since that insertion is only one of the techniques by which we have altered crop plants. to an Ecologist (or a biologist, but perhaps not a geneticist) genetic alteration is genetic alteration regardless of the technique. Adding DNA can accomplish in one or two generations what probably takes hundreds or thousands in a horticultural setting – but the outcome is still a crop plant modified to meet certain criteria.

        I’ve always thought the better argument against DNA-added crops is the economic one: DNA added crops tend to work only with certain fertilizers and pesticides (the ones the added DNA binds to FWIW). Because of that close tie between plant and chemical, farmers are restricted from making choices about rotation, application times, doses, or even using new and innovative products. DNA-added crops are thus anti-competitive (to say nothing of bankrupting for developing county farmers).

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      • Thanks, for clarifying.

        Because a lot of people make those kinds of claims without understanding what they’re talking about; hybridizing rarely involve GM, and they should not be equated.

        I agree with the rest of your comment; and I would expand it to include selling hybrid seed crops sold to the developing world; I believe ethics of food security require that this years crop a farmer grows be able to produce the seed for next year’s crop; that that farmers have the right to select for their physical locations.

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      • Phillip,
        Yup. This is why a friend of mine runs an anti-GMO group. Because there’s honest, legitimate, scientific concerns behind the hysteria. (on the fun side of legitimate concerns: Monsanto developing a plague that only Monsanto-made products are proof against. And folks wonder why it’s a good idea to keep the corps distracted!)

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      • , Thank you found it now, though I’m not sure why you would include that explanation under “Sometimes science’s conclusions are damned unpleasant”. Is there some vocal anti- air conditioning lobby I don’t know about?

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      • Matty,
        Thanks for paying attention!
        The strong implication is that certain genetic patterns lead to more intelligence — if kids are exposed to a particular range of temperatures for enough of their development. [I can probably pull cites on terribly high brain temperatures doing a number on children’s IQ, and leading to brain death in extreme cases.]

        So far so good, no?

        Well, the next bit of the story is that these genetic patterns aren’t terribly adaptive in places where those critical temperatures don’t exist (in fact, are somewhat maladaptive…). If you look at temperature versus IQ, on a population basis, you get a nice shiny bell curve.

        Now, is this racist? Not if you’re going to be a brute about it, and define race based on skin color. But if we take more of the nationalist version of race… where Japanese are considered different from Koreans, etc., then yeah, this is categorizing people based on their communities (we can take for granted that anyplace with significant mixing will see subsequent dilution of adaptivity/maladaptivity).

        Now, this is just a theory. But it’s not a terribly pleasant theory is it?

        The one I wrote about below? How boys have much more variance in Intelligence than girls? [this one I will cite sources for, If you need ’em.] If our goals are to raise teeny little geniuses [as they’re most likely to add to global productivity], it strongly suggests that we should put more resources into nourishing/finding boys than girls.

        Again, truth ain’t pleasant. Ain’t nearly as liberal as we’d like it to be.

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  3. Hey! I wrote a “Bad Liberal” piece about how crazy all the mandatory GMO-labeling efforts made me! I still can’t go back to Whole Foods.

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  4. Your knowledge of the current state of science is sadly deficient. I believe if you knew more about the commercial science being done, you might be a lot more troubled about, well, a lot of things.

    How much science would you allow without the consent of the participants? [Do speak carefully, psychology often depends on deliberate deception of research participants.]

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      • Two different things, really. First, that the cigarette companies were far from the only people dedicated to covering up their industrial research, and that a lot of the industrial research isn’t exactly complimentary to the industry. (Epidemiologically speaking, we can point to a whole host of dramatically increasing disease incidences. We can also show where corporations have done a lot to slow down research into the environmental causes of cancer, to take something specific. Now, we can also point to a few that have dramatically decreased (stomach cancer plummeted after refrigeration). ).

        But, hell, some research is simply covered up because it was done without getting proper consent. (mostly because of fear of lawsuit).

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      • Michael,
        public health concerns being deliberately covered up is a major problem.

        Covering up science because of legitimate concerns about research subject participation issues? It’s a really, really tough question — but I’m pretty sure my views on the subject have changed after I figured out what some people were doing with such research.

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      • The TL;DR version: citation needed.

        Two different things, really. First, that the cigarette companies were far from the only people dedicated to covering up their industrial research, and that a lot of the industrial research isn’t exactly complimentary to the industry.

        This is one of those times when you need to clarify exactly what companies you’re talking about, in what industry, and why you believe that they are engaged in this behavior. Not because people will disbelieve it happens, but because without evidence, it’s unclear exactly what you’re saying, who you’re accusing, what you’re accusing them of doing, and why.

        Epidemiologically speaking, we can point to a whole host of dramatically increasing disease incidences.

        Which diseases, and why would you assume that they have a causal link to whatever product(s) we’re talking about that you didn’t specify, rather than some other cause? ‘Cause yanno, this is the line of non-argument that the vaccinations-cause-autism folks use.

        We can also show where corporations have done a lot to slow down research into the environmental causes of cancer, to take something specific.

        Great, there’s something specific. And your evidence of this is…?

        Now, we can also point to a few that have dramatically decreased (stomach cancer plummeted after refrigeration

        Great, there’s another something specific. And your evidence of this is…?

        But, hell, some research is simply covered up because it was done without getting proper consent. (mostly because of fear of lawsuit).

        Kim, ‘s critique of your comments on this thread is extremely apropos.

        If you’re going to get into a discussion on these topics, you need to actually do the work to provide a citation to what the hell you’re talking about.

        You need to provide evidence. You need to quote actual specific studies, not allude to some science that somebody may or may not have done somewhere that may or may not have limitations that you may or may not have clarified.

        Because otherwise, you just take these comment threads where something productive might come out the other end, and you drag them off into death spirals where you say whatever random shit comes into your head and then when people specifically ask you to clarify what you’re talking about, you clarify halfway.

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      • James,
        Breast Cancer rates have been soaring in the last 50 years or so. Now, no one academic has found the culprit yet…(as of two years ago, when I last asked an academic in the field) but that’s not to say that someone corporate hasn’t. After all, corporations have an advantage, in that they have a relatively narrow focus. “will our product hurt people?”

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      • Breast Cancer rates have been soaring in the last 50 years or so. Now, no one academic has found the culprit yet… but that’s not to say that someone corporate hasn’t.

        Conspiracy theorizing. Sure, now I’ll take you seriously.

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    • Are you accusing me of not knowing the current state of science… about cigarettes, then? I waited for some kind of clarification, but if this is it… wellllll…. I give up.

      Seriously, Kim, your every comment diminishes the value of this site, because not one of them is well-evidenced or even vaguely tethered to reality.

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      • No, I’m not. And that’s a particularly ungenerous reading, not that I’ve given you much reason to be generous, now have i?

        I’m accusing you of not knowing the private, corporate research of our food-producing companies.

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      • There’s a lot of air between…

        “I’m accusing you of not knowing the private, corporate research of our food-producing companies.”

        …and your earlier statement, which was…

        “Your knowledge of the current state of science is sadly deficient. I believe if you knew more about the commercial science being done, you might be a lot more troubled about, well, a lot of things.”

        Do you imagine that because I work for Cato, corporate scientists just drop by my office and share their private research? How else was I supposed to have known about it? (And how on earth was I supposed to even know that this of all things was what you were talking about?)

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      • The amusing thing, Jason, is that Kim is hinting that she actually does have some knowledge about this “private” research. She has a friend, you know, who used do something who knows this stuff.

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      • I’m pondering basic scientific morality (yes, I know, tangents). There have been research studies done without people consenting to basically anything at all. Ought we to use the science that we get back from such research? When this came up in ethics class, I thought we were just talking about the Holocaust. Now that it’s more or less what certain corporations have done… I’m not sure my answer is the same.

        As a complete and total sidenote: what the hell is wrong with Columbia University? I went to pull some cites on their 1990’s “giving illegal drugs” research study, and I pulled up about four other violations in the meantime. Is their IRB just… out to lunch? Are people deliberately going there just because it’s got that rep?

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  5. I agree with this but point three in Saul’s response is very spot on. Liberal democracy is going to involve the populace making some very bad choices at least occasionally. One of the problems is that certain things become tribal totems. Take anti-GMO food for instance. Lots of leftists like picturing themselves as anti-corporate and GMO food reeks of corporations. Therefore, any true leftist most embrace the organic food movement scientific consensus be damned. You see the same thing with the anti-climate change folks on the right. At the heart of their complaints is that dealing with climate change is going to require them to sacrifice their tribal totems, in this case it seems to be the automobile suburban lifestyle. Even an environmentally friendly car like a Prius or a Tesla is too much for them. Not only can they not imagine driving less, they can’t even conceive of an alternative source of fuel besides petroleum being acceptable. It would be funny if the results weren’t horrendous.

    I’m not sure how much blame I’d place on Rouseau though. The idea that the natural world when people lived in simplicty and bliss is an amazingly persistant one that existed long before Rousseau was born. It seems to have existed shortly after humans invented the city.

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    • We can find antecedents for anything, including Rousseau’s philosophy. But Rousseau was widely read and admired, and the specific forms he gave this prejudice have endured and taken on a life of their own.

      It’s not idle, then, to find intimations of Rousseau in, say, the Bible, or the stadial theories of history that were popular in classical Greece and Rome. But if anyone successfully repackaged this stuff for the modern, secular world, it had to be Rousseau.

      As to Saul’s third point — again, I basically agree. I think it should signal a cautious politics regardless of one’s ideology. All of them should be worn more lightly, including my own.

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      • So are you saynig that without Rousseau, no anti-GMO movement, no anti-vaxxers? Cuz I’m not buying that. (I realize, you’re probably not. But if you’re not, it moderates whatever point you have to make about Rousseau’s indispensable part in all this.)

        I think it comes down to how strong the human reaction against civilization and modernity might naturally run. I agree with . I think it would be there and be strong enough to give rise to these reactionary movements regardless. After all, the language of AGW-denier and anti-GMO people alike is the language of modernistic science – they wear science’s clothes and accept many of its premises while rejecting its conclusions – not the rejectionist, primitivist language of Rousseau. I too question the connection between the writer and these activists. I accept the connection between the reactionist tendency itself and each modern offshoot thereof, though. And certainly Rousseau promoted and popularized this line of thinking in his day. I’m happy to listen to a case for a necessary line of causality between Rousseau, and not the general tendency of reactionism, and these modern movements, but I’m not at all convinced specifically his influence is really what’s behind today’s political, cultural, social resistance to science.

        Myself, even though I am happy to often be a dissenter for science (while reject the notion that it should resolve our politics in toto – values and, indeed, intuition not just will, but ought to have some role in politics if it’s a democratic politics that we are going to choose, though that is itself optional ), I also like the ideological diversity and indeed I like Rousseau’s formalization of anti-modernism into a coherent, modern form. I like his bringing the questioning of modern assumptions and values into the modern lexicon. If we didn’t have Rousseau, we wouldn’t have Rousseau to kick around – to help us clarify the value of civilization and scientific rationality (and to consider where it can’t be sufficient to ultimately answer all of our questions, even our political ones). I value Rousseau’s contribution even though I ultimately reject his prescriptions.

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      • I think that without him, this sort of reaction would have been significantly muted. It would likely have taken a more explicitly Christian form on the right, and perhaps a more New Agey form on the left, and in both cases, it would have been easier to dismiss.

        Consider that Rousseau’s anti-scientific views were quite rare for his time: Though nominally a man of the Enlightenment, Rousseau was way off message here. Consider Voltaire, Condorcet, Diderot, d’Alembert, Franklin — and over here, we have Rousseau basically dumping on all of them.

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      • Well, who knows. I think you’re mistaken in thinking this, though. I think that without him, it might have been less New Agey, but I don’t really know. Again, the current movements use the language and trappings – and to some extent even the methods – of science to (arguably) advance anti-science. (Though I personally think there is often a quite legitimate debate to be had about the extent to which it’s anti-science versus alt-science, even on the AGW issue, though regardless, correct is correct and mistaken is mistaken. but you can be mistaken within science and be mistaken while rejecting science outright as Rousseau did. And the people we’re talking about don’t follow Rousseau in that.)

        In my view, Rousseau pushed them in a more New Agey direction by offering a rejection of science. But even so, today they tend to be in orbit around the scientific community, not off in primitivist anti-science communities of their own. I just don’t see that much of a influence there. I think we agree that this strain would be here regardless. Again, I’m not seeing any tracing of the influence to give me a sense of why you think anti- or alt-science today would be different in an identifiable way had it not been for Rousseau. It would probably have been a little different, but I’m not clear how to draw conclusions about in what way that would be.

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      • Rousseau was probably an inadvertent prophet of the Romantics, who also famously rejected Enlightenment idea. The Enlightenment might have overall been a great time for science but like every other movement, it had its dissenters like any other movement.

        The anti-modernist tendency and the tendency to romanticize simpler times and places is deeply rooted in the human psyche.

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      • I agree, it makes little sense to call Rousseau an Enlightenment thinker when he rejected so many core premises of the Enlightenment. It would be like calling Hayek a Keynesian just because he was a contemporary of Keynes.

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    • Lots of leftists like picturing themselves as anti-corporate and GMO food reeks of corporations. Therefore, any true leftist most embrace the organic food movement scientific consensus be damned.

      It’s the same for the anti-vaxxers and what I would call the “pro supplements” crowd. I know people that are reflexively against the regulation of certain kinds of supplements because the pharmaceutical industry supports it. Rational discourse is not to be had.

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    • Liberal democracy is going to involve the populace making some very bad choices at least occasionally.

      As I read it, Jason wasn’t calling for an end to liberal democracy. He was asking you citizens to be more responsible in your liberal democraticness. I don’t see how your critique is anything but a distraction from the issue. I don’t think you consciously intend it this way, but it comes across to me as an attempt to avoid the issue of how citizens evaluate policy by re-interpreting the argument as an attack on democracy. As though liberal democracy required that we never criticize anyone’s decision-making!

      But I suppose it’s easier for each of us to shoot the messenger than to re-evaluate how his message applies to our own actions.

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      • I’m not shooting the messanger and Saul made the observation first. I just find it easier on my sanity to simply accept that sometimes democracies can give rise to really bad decisions. These sort of bad policy decisions are at least in the short term, much better than launching unncessary wars and causing lots of immediate death and destruction. The long term damage is vast though.

        My real point was that people do not trust science on certain issues because they desire to keep the fetishes and totems of their tribes in tact. In order to get people to really consider what science is saying, you are going to need to find a way to detribilize politics. Good luck with that.

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      • Saul made the observation first.

        Brothers, so easy to throw under the bus. ;)

        I just find it easier on my sanity to simply accept that sometimes democracies can give rise to really bad decisions.

        Do you never advocate better decision-making while accepting that it’s not often going to happen? If so, I don’t see where you and Jason differ.

        My real point was that people do not trust science on certain issues because they desire to keep the fetishes and totems of their tribes in tact.

        I think that was Jason’s point.

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    • “Liberal democracy is going to involve the populace making some very bad choices at least occasionally.”

      Sure. But it is one thing for people to say, “Eating GMO-free food gives us the warm fuzzies and labeling helps us get there and since the majority of us feel this way, labels we shall have.” It is quite another to say, “GMOs will kill you and everyone you love and it is imperative for health and safety reasons that they be labeled as such.”

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  6. I am not anti-GMO; the ability to make a strain of wheat resistant to a fungus killing it is pretty awesome.

    But I am greatly concerned about GMOs designed to make plants resistant to roundup; and there’s growing medical evidence that it’s responsible for a lot of our health problems; I posted a link to that research on Linky Friday.

    I do believe in organic farming, too, though I don’t believe it’s necessary to ‘save the world,’ that we can feed the world on organics, and I don’t only eat organic food. It really depends on the food; I won’t eat strawberries that are not organic, for instance. The value in organics is looking for a method of farming that is respectful of soil life; and it fascinates me how quickly mistreated soil can recover from abuse.

    So I see some weird signaling going on here; the shorthand we use to signal (anti-GMO, for instance) shouldn’t be automatically conflated with anti-science; any more then being for free markets shouldn’t be conflated with being pro-pollution. The problems are complex; and the shorthand signals we use to discuss them are just that — symbols of things often too complex for most of us to take the time to understand fully. To paraphrase the Police, there’s too much information running round my brain.

    Finally, when it comes to science; what gets into public awareness is often a perversion of science, not the science itself. Sometimes, not science at all — for instance the long-held notion that eating fat causes heart attacks. There was one doctor who thought this, gave a speech on it at a medical convention in the 1950’s, and we all began eating margarine. There was never any real, peer-reviewed science there, yet it became a bedrock of the science of good health for 50 years. Eggs were bad for you for a long time; and I’m still waiting for the world to come around to recognizing some eggs are bad for you, some aren’t — not all eggs are created equal, it depends on what the chicken ate. Science can actually detect levels of cholesterol and omega-3 acids, and chickens that eat what chickens would naturally eat make healthy eggs with less cholesterol and more omega-3 then chickens who eat industrial-food by-products heavy on corn and soy remnants.

    So my only concern here is some recognition that there is science, there is pop culture of science where we use pseudo-science to signal things we don’t understand, and there is disinformation pretending to be science. Parsing those perspectives matters in evaluating what someone says as either science/anti-science or pure bs.

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      • Mono culture is one problem, yes. Lack of crop rotation another. Water use a third.

        I’m also greatly concerned about disappearing heirloom and a dependence on a single genetic line; genetic diversity matters; and I think there needs to be serious consideration about individuals owning genes of plants; there’s some basic primitive rights to the bounty of food from nature that needs to be examined on an ethical level.

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    • You remove patent protection on GMO, this problem vanishes overnight. Well, that’s a massive oversimplification, but it certainly would help.

      Then the avenue for wealth is in healthy, long-term, sustainable crops, not bioengineering monoculture that you own the patent rights to.

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      • I don’t know if I’d remove patent protection on GMO, but I would certainly restrict it to only being enforceable against someone actively trying to subvert it.

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      • If you can’t patent-protect a genetically-modified organism then there’s no use trying to breed better chickens, or pigs, or apples, or tomatoes, because once someone buys one they can grow as many as they like.

        “no patent protections for GMO” is one of those things that sound so awesome and squee-worthy anticap, but it actually will hurt small growers as much as (if not more than) Monsanto.

        “oh I didn’t mean that” really? Because you just said “no patent protections for GMO”, and a cow is a genetically-modified organism (unless there is a population of feral Holsteins out there somewhere.) The vegetables in the supermarket do not exist in nature, and would not have.

        “oh well I meant like recombinant-DNA” So modification via some other means than recombinant DNA is OK? “well no I mean–” Okay, see, you’re going to use some words here, and whatever words you use, “what about another method” is still going to apply, so you end up playing regulatory whack-a-mole trying to tag the big companies who can afford to play better than you, and in the meantime the small producers you wanted to help are getting screwed by the fallout.

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      • You know, Jim, there’s this very large, very free, intellectually-property-unencumbered product that runs basically half of the Internet.

        “Remove patent protection on software and nobody will write software” has a very large, very free, very empirically present piece of evidence to the contrary.

        If you can’t patent-protect a genetically-modified organism then there’s no use trying to breed better chickens, or pigs, or apples, or tomatoes, because once someone buys one they can grow as many as they like.

        Yes, certainly. And that’s been the case from the beginning of time until 1995 or so?

        Gosh, all those breeders of dogs who bred basically all the breeds we have, ever how fucking dumb were they to trade away their entire livelihood every time they sold one of their dogs? Those cattle ranchers that existed prior to 2000, how did they ever make money?

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      • that’s an interesting analogy, in particular because I think both GM and software are in the wrong branch of IP law. They shouldn’t be patented, they should be copyrighted — you own the right to distribute your original work for a limited amount of time. Utilitarian use applies to genes here; I cannot think of anything utilitarian to life then the stuff of life, genes. I can see the right to distribute a specific sequence; but no control of derivative works, and the next gen is a derivative work. No selling clones, however, without license from the copyright holder.

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      • yup. I’ve got a couple of wild apple trees in my back yard that have amazing apples and are probably worth a fortune if I wanted to start cloning them.

        One is this amazing green apple, just a touch of red blush, win an incredible aroma.

        I would never stop somebody else from distributing their own wild apple, however. Some low bar of originality is required is all.

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      • I seem to recall that GMOs can be produced with a generational kill switch, such that I can buy seed from BigAg, plant it, & get a crop, but if I try to preserve any seed from that crop for next year, I’ll get a bum crop (the plants will grow, but will not flower or bear fruit).

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      • “You know, Jim, there’s this very large, very free, intellectually-property-unencumbered product that runs basically half of the Internet.”

        And if it weren’t for a US DoD-funded research program it wouldn’t exist, because there wouldn’t have been an Internet for it to run on, but hey, keep telling me about how stuff totally gets made for free.

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      • And if it weren’t for a US DoD-funded research program it wouldn’t exist, because there wouldn’t have been an Internet for it to run on, but hey, keep telling me about how stuff totally gets made for free.

        No, I won’t keep telling you how stuff gets made for free, because it doesn’t and I didn’t say that in the first place. But hey, some day maybe you’ll read what I write instead of what you want me to be saying.

        You implied that if GMO patents didn’t exist, nobody would make GMOs. I provided an existing, honest to God counterfactual to your implication.

        Linux and FreeBSD and the like aren’t free to make, they’re just free to own.

        If GMO patents don’t exist, GMO research will continue to be done, both in basic research universities, where most of the research came from in the first place, and in the private sector, which still gets to write off R&D.

        If we’re not doing enough of it, we can certain seek ways to stimulate that activity.

        The idea that we can only provide such a stimulus through IP laws is absurd.

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      • Well, as someone who’s spent several years garnering income from copyrighted works, I’ve got no problem with bringing sanity to the topic. Sorely needs updating for the modern age; still stuck in the era of the big record label and movie studio.

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      • “GMO research will continue to be done, both in basic research universities, where most of the research came from in the first place, and in the private sector, which still gets to write off R&D.”

        Ah yes, we’re back to “most technology development comes from government funding because it’s either done in a university or done tax-free”.

        How many of those universities and basic-R-&-D projects produce actual consumer products that people are using?

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      • I’d agree with that except our copyright laws are more insane than our patent laws, so… yeah.

        Did you consider the economic drag of patent trolling? Because I know a lot of people who write software that’s proprietary; and they have a monster in their closet that might jump out and yell, “Boo!” at any moment.

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      • You know, Jim, there’s this very large, very free, intellectually-property-unencumbered product that runs basically half of the Internet.

        Stupidity?

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      • “Did you consider the economic drag of patent trolling? Because I know a lot of people who write software that’s proprietary; and they have a monster in their closet that might jump out and yell, “Boo!” at any moment.”

        I’m curious… does anyone have a solution to patent trolling that isn’t worse than patent trolling itself? Most of the ideas I hear people float out there (which, admittedly, tend to be frustrated rants more than thoughtful policy proposals) are much worse.

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      • I wouldn’t call it outlandish — and I almost must concede that I know little of the software/programming world — but I struggle to see how that makes things better. At least for people bemoaning patent trolling. If they couldn’t be sued, they also lose any and all protections for their work. Many are upset with patent trolling because it takes money out of their pockets; money that might never even get there if they couldn’t guarantee a return on their work through patents.

        Eliminating software patterns might be good in a broader sense, but I don’t think it makes those who feel targeted patent trolls better off.

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      • Who’s making a profit from PNG again?
        Adobe, GIMP, the list goes on.

        Standards are standards, and don’t need to be patented to make money.

        Whatever happened to JPEG2000? Exactly.

        Plenty of people make their living from software that they distribute for free.

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      • First off, a patent troll is not some person working hard out of a small office trying to make a living off his hard work. Patent trolls are wealthy persons/entities (law firms or investment firms) who buy up the rights to patents, or who try to push ridiculous patents, & then proceed to abuse the courts to collect royalties.

        Assuming for a minute that is wrong about software properly being covered by copyright (she isn’t), the problem with what patent trolls are doing is that they are getting & enforcing patents on concepts, not concrete objects. The patent office, whether because they are over-worked, or ignorant, or both, are awarding these concept patents; oftentimes long after the concept itself has been well established as a common practice (& should therefore fall under prior art & be denied protection).

        Imagine, if you will, if someone had successfully patented the idea of a car, or even an internal combustion engine, without ever producing a working prototype. Now imagine if they successfully got the patent awarded in 1930, decades after cars had been on the roads. Obviously the patent is invalid, but courts are hesitant to invalidate patents, so the process to get one invalidated is long & costly. Microsoft or Amazon can certainly expend the resources to get the job done, but a small start-up firm would be buried, and thus they tend to pay the license fee.

        Ultimately, the problem is with the patent office itself, and the proper avenue of repair is to get the legislature to order the patent office to deny protection to concepts, and to fashion rules that require courts to suspend or invalidate patents while the validity is under question.

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      • I don’t disagree with anything you or are saying… in large part because you both know more than I do.

        I just can’t get on board with people saying, “Patent trolls and patent trolls alone should be barred from suing for infringement.” Because then the question is who is and who is not a patent troll. We can’t have a legal system that is accessible to one group of people and not another — even if the latter is deplorable. Rather, fix the system — as you propose. Totally on board with that. Not on board with people just whining about patent trolls and thinking they should be marched off.

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      • , you might have missed what I meant, I was not saying anything about limiting patent trolls ability to sue, and there would still be patent trolls. What I’m suggesting wouldn’t bring an end to the problem; but it would eliminate the problem for most software development.

        Under copyright law, two things can do the same thing as long as each is an original work, patent grants some level of exclusivity for a short time, copyright grants rights of distribution for a much longer time. Under copyright law, the only thing patent trolls would be able to sue over is a potential copyright violation; say lines of lifted code, and that would have to exceed fair use. Often, there would be nothing for the trolls to sue for when it comes to software.

        Patent trolls are a problem now because they’re draining enormous resources away from the software industry and they hamper the evolution of new products. If you don’t have a patent repository behind you — Apple, Google, Oracle, Microsoft have all been building up libraries of overlapping patents to protect themselves — you become a target for a troll, particularly if you’re moderately successful.

        And the US Copyright does offer <a href="http://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ61.pdf"copyright protection for registered software. With few of patented mechanical processes that include some sort of numerical control, software should never have been patented; it was mostly ignorance by patent officers; lack of investing in government employees or something.

        (I have a very clever young friend who’s now a patent officer, and I rejoice.)

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      • The patent office recruits heavily at engineering & comp sci schools. They don’t always get a lot of bites, though, because new graduates usually want to get busy creating, not spend their days looking over someone elses creativity.

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    • when it comes to science; what gets into public awareness is often a perversion of science, not the science itself.

      Hear, hear!

      But there’s more… It takes more than one study meeting a 5% p-level to establish a scientific fact worth believing in. And due to publication bias, you are seeing spurious results much more often than the nominal type I error rate would suggest. Yet the media, always hungry for novelty, puts the “latest findings” out there where naifs, opportunists, and charlatans can make use of the these factoids. That’s why I’m skeptical of news reports of scientific findings outside of physics and astronomy, and deeply skeptical of health research.

      Don’t get me wrong; I believe in science as the only path to knowledge about the way the world works. But I also don’t believe it is as easy as many make it seem.

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      • You forget, I’m married to a librarian, one who works for Boeing. My wife can help me find articles that meet my criteria, but her ability to asses those articles for scientific or technical merit is limited.

        But that is not my point. I was expressing concern over the opposite problem was referencing. Rather, if there is a currently hot area of research, one that is getting a lot of funding (as opposed to almost no funding), then the sheer volume of published work can overwhelm reviewers and allow mistakes to slip through. This same volume can also confound researchers who assume that published work was peer reviewed & is thus accurate to a high probability. The mistakes can be cited again & again, and start causing something of a confirmation bias until someone has a chance to address that specific mistake & take it apart. Luckily, the more a paper is cited, the more likely someone will try to take it apart, but until then…

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      • I got it,

        too much information coming out at once to be reliably peer-reviewed. That’s often a problem; and sometimes, important voices with unusual insights and notions get lost in the haystack.

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      • The solution to this problem is for people in academic hiring to consider “literature reviews” to be really first class reasons to hire somebody.

        ‘Cause I’m doing one now and it’s a lot of work, and everybody I know loves reading a good lit review, but nobody wants to write them because they’re not sexy on your CV.

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      • I don’t know about other disciplines, but in psychology, there are a few journals just for lit reviews, and they all look good on your CV. One is even set up for researchers to write reviews of their narrow areas of expertise for psychologists who might be experts in relatively distant areas, so they can get a quick overview:

        http://www.annualreviews.org/journal/psych

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      • Agreed! Lit reviews serve such an important purpose, are an absolute grinding task to do right, but are not always given much publishing credit because it isn’t original research.

        There are aspects to peer review & academic credentialing that sucks.

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  7. I quite enjoyed this post and don’t have much to quibble about other than Rousseau. I think you give the old blowhard too much credit. Cities have existed a long time and up until relatively recently they were especially unpleasant places to be. I’d blame much of our nature fetishing on that basic historical phenomena more than Rousseau.

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    • If I had time, I’d start with Rousseau, as I did here. Then I’d continue through Romanticism, which Rousseau by all accounts did much to inspire, including the back-to-nature ethos and the suspicion of scientific research: Consider Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; the antimodernism of so much of nationalistic literature; even The Last of the Mohicans for a regurgitated idea of the noble savage.

      In science, the romantic impulse doesn’t get much of a hearing, but in popular health fads and quack medicine, it certainly does, and the nineteenth century is the heyday of patent medicines. What sells a patent medicine? It has to strike the prospective buyer as intuitively right. (Scientific medicine urges us to try all kinds of intuitively wrong things, like deliberately injecting disease-causing agents into our bodies. Yikes!)

      Patent medicines, fad diets, and quackery never really went away after that. They just changed their names and their claims to suit the times. But they all trade on the idea that the scientific establishment has made things worse, that they’re hiding the truth, and that — if we are but virtuous enough to see it — the truth can set us free. Just sign on the dotted line…

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      • Fair enough but weren’t the old aristocracy lauding the fresh air, high spirits and doughy wholesome peasants long before Rousseau penned his screeds?
        That said, I’m arguing angels on the heads of pins here. I have very little quarrel with you on this post and almost infinite contempt for my anti-science leftemporaries*.

        *Though Whole foods, antivax’s, antifloridation**, is also a right wing phenomena. Remember crunchy cons?
        **And anti-floridation was quite a libertarian bugaboo when it was duked out in Portland wasn’t it?

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  8. Having read through the comments to this point, it seems worth noting that most of the shouting is not about science but about drawing lines that engineering shouldn’t cross. I use the term broadly, and would include both selective breeding and gene splicing of crop plants as engineering. Even the “noble savage” stuff falls into that category, at least based on the examples in literature. Certainly the Romanticists didn’t seem to have any problems with flint knapping or leather tanning or birch bark canoes and shaped paddles. There’s a growing body of data to suggest that various groups of American Indians made extensive use of fire to modify the local ecology; unclear to me what the Romanticists would have thought about that.

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  9. Be a dissenter for science!

    Unless you’re dissenting from the obvious truth of the Ptolemaic Epicycle model, which fit perfectly to all recorded and observable data.

    Or if you’re dissenting from the obvious truth of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, championed by none other than Charles Darwin himself.

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    • Scientific consensus is smarter than you. It’s smarter than your political allies. But it’s not perfect, and it can change its mind.

      What’s so hard about that? I mean, I’m pretty sure I said all of that already. Just in big words, which I guess might have been confusing.

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      • “What’s so hard about that?”

        Galileo got excommunicated because he disagreed with the scientific consensus. He also was not wrong. Lamarckian evolution was accepted as the obvious method of heredity for thousands of years. It was responsible for the starvation of millions in the former USSR.

        You’re tossing off “oh, well, science can change its mind” like that fixes everything. I’m not worried that science can change its mind. I’m worried that people tell me how I shouldn’t question the position they’re advocating because It’s Based On Science Which Isn’t Ever Wrong. Especially when the position they’re advocating is something like “the moral course of action is voluntary sterilization to stave off the war of extinction that will result from overpopulation, and it has to be right now because twenty years from now will be too late”. Or when they position they’re advocating is “black people should not be educated past the fourth grade level because their minds are incapable of retaining complex concepts like algebraic mathematics”.

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      • Especially when the position they’re advocating is something like “the moral course of action is voluntary sterilization to stave off the war of extinction that will result from overpopulation, and it has to be right now because twenty years from now will be too late”. Or when they position they’re advocating is “black people should not be educated past the fourth grade level because their minds are incapable of retaining complex concepts like algebraic mathematics”.

        Granted, those are pretty bad, but they’re also kinda old.

        I mean, one thing about science is that it builds upon itself, too… it’s one reason why it *does* get better, because if you build a bunch of stuff on top of a false premise, it starts to contradict itself and fall apart. You can only be so wrong for so long before it starts to impact stuff that provides a lot of negative feedback for your wrong theory.

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      • Congratulations, Mr. Heffman. The views you ascribe to me are so silly and so far removed from what I have written that even the dimmest commenters here should have no trouble seeing where you went wrong.

        Thus saving both of us the need to discuss the matter further. I hope you have a lovely evening instead.

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      • Kim:

        We still have eugenics laws on the books in America.

        Yes, I know. We have lots of laws on the books in America.

        They are STILL enforced.

        Yes, but infrequently enough that I doubt the law itself is still the problem, really. Abuse of power is abuse of power, it’s going to flow down easy paths and all.

        Put another way, if you find someone who participates in the leveraging of still on the books law to do something like this, you’re going to be looking at someone with the position and the authority and the willingness to probably do lots of other things.

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      • “Granted, those are pretty bad, but they’re also kinda old.”

        American slavery is also kinda old and yet we still talk about it.

        My point in all this is that when Jason says “at least put science first” he needs to understand that this means something other than “get your nose out of Exxon’s ass and agree with me, you simpletons”.

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      • Jim,
        towards your actual point: we should be aware that Science Can Change, and be relatively open to new controversies. This should not be read that we should sensationalize data into “The new Ice Age” as some stupid journalist did in the 1970’s (letting a simple extrapolation become entertainment).

        But it’s not like our views on evolution aren’t changing… Heck, our views on climate change are changing too (New Models! Better Models! More Data!).

        It’s pretty easy to get trapped in one side or the other of a scientific argument. I think we ought to be aware of this trap, as it happens to scientists just as much as economists or politicians.

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      • You honestly, seriously, not-joking read me as saying “Jason Kuznicki supports eugenics”?
        Wow, just…wow.

        No, I honestly, seriously, not-joking thought that you were saying this:


        It’s Based On Science Which Isn’t Ever Wrong.

        Which was silly, and not my point at all. Rather my point was an a fortiori. It goes like this:

        Science is the best we’ve got, and yet even it makes mistakes. Be careful when you presume to know more than scientists.

        Politics is demonstrably crappy, and it makes mistakes all the time. So it takes a lot of gall for political types to criticize scientists.

        How you pulled “science, which can do no wrong” out of that… is beyond the ken of anyone here, I expect.

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      • “Science is the best we’ve got, and yet even it makes mistakes. Be careful when you presume to know more than scientists.”

        So, science can be wrong, but only scientists are in any position to claim that?

        Which means that Science Isn’t Ever Wrong…as far as any non-scientist is concerned.

        Since you can’t seem to put two and two together, I’ll lay it out. The reason I brought up the examples I did is that for a very long time, those were science. They were at least as scientific as any climate modeling we’re doing these days–supported by observed evidence, capable of predicting the results of not-yet-performed observations (although they had some trouble with predicting future events), and accurate to within the degree of measurement error (at least within the range of observed evidence.) And the people challenging those ideas were only noble wisdom-seekers in retrospect; contemporaneous society responded to them the way we look at the Time Cube guy these days.

        And to go back to your original examples, the anti-vax movement exists because of scientific studies showing harm. “But wait, those studies were shown to be false!” Yeah, but not until recently. Up until a couple years ago, anyone saying “where’s your scientific evidence for that claim” would have been slapped with a copy of Wakefield’s work.

        Denial that evidence from a purportedly-scientific source is not convincing is not “anti-science”.

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      • Up until a couple years ago, anyone saying “where’s your scientific evidence for that claim” would have been slapped with a copy of Wakefield’s work.

        Yes, and then you would have backed a truck up next to them and dumped the 47 tons of non-confirming studies on their head. Which really is how that story should have gone.

        So, science can be wrong, but only scientists are in any position to claim that?

        Which means that Science Isn’t Ever Wrong…as far as any non-scientist is concerned.

        No, that’s not what it means. I get that non-scientists like to think that way, though. It lets them throw turds at the ivory tower for being the problem. Wah, it’s all the scientist’s fault for not explaining themselves!

        Even scientists buy into the weaker version of this (which is a valid concern).

        Science, regarding a particular question, is either likely right or likely wrong, based upon how much we currently know.

        You either know a good chunk of the relevant science, or you don’t. If you do, you’re probably a scientist. If you don’t, you’re probably not.

        If you just reach into the grab bag of science studies in a particular field and pick out a half-dozen that are recommended to you by some “skeptic”, you will usually find the half-dozen that are cherry picked to lead you, by the nose, to a conclusion that flies in the face of most of the rest of the science.

        Really, “only scientists get to say” is bullshit. You can have an informed opinion on the outstanding research in any field, if you’re willing to do the work.

        But you have to do the work, and show that you understand the field, and usually non-scientists don’t want to do that. Hell, usually scientists don’t want to do that for fields that aren’t their own.

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      • I’m worried that people tell me how I shouldn’t question the position they’re advocating because It’s Based On Science Which Isn’t Ever Wrong.

        Who says science is never wrong? Surely not scientists. Surely not anyone who understands scientific reasoning even if they’re not a scientist. I think the people who are telling you that are exactly the type of people Jason was thinking of when he wrote the OP, actually. So you’re indirectly confirming his point.

        Re: the first claim: Who’s telling you not to question the position scientists are advocating? Again, surely not scientists or people who understand scientific reasoning. Question those claims all you like. But if you choose to do so, you need to understand a huge body of literature which requires understanding a bunch of subdisciplines at a very high level. It’s only until you understand that stuff that you can intelligently challenge the various theses you might reflexively disagree with or dispute for political or other ideological reasons. Which, again, is engaging in precisely the type of behavior Jason is pointing out in the OP.

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      • “Who’s telling you not to question the position scientists are advocating?”

        Well, there’s all those people talking about “global warming denialism in the face of an overwhelming scientific consensus”.

        “Who says science is never wrong? Surely not scientists.”

        And if the scientists were the ones making decisions and setting policy, that would matter. But people take the statements of scientists and say “see? This is science. Unless you have a science-based counterargument then you have to concede that I’m right. And if you want to question the science then you have to be a scientist, and you’re not, so bleeeh.”

        You say “oh, I’m not saying you have to be a *scientist*”, but then you say “you need to understand a huge body of literature which requires understanding a bunch of subdisciplines at a very high level. It’s only until you understand that stuff that you can intelligently challenge the various theses you might reflexively disagree with or dispute for political or other ideological reasons.” Which is functionally identical to “only scientists can disagree with science”.

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      • Jim,
        I don’t give a fuck if you personally want to deny global warming.
        Buy a seaside home if you want, but pay fucking cash, as I’m NOT going to bail you the fuck out for your stupidity.

        Me? Hon, I can count (have you read exxonsecrets?). The scientists have achieved a remarkable, multidisciplinary consensus that “Something Is Up, and we’re causing it.” Now, size and scale? Those are quite up for debate. [How To Fix it? Also up for debate. Not fixing it? Well, if you want to sign up for genocide, be my fucking guest. I’ve already got one genocide on my conscience, I don’t want any more thank you fucking kindly.]

        The global warming denialists are being run by people with a vested interest in getting shmucks like yourself to Hold The Bag.

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      • Mike,
        yes, after the pope had expressed sympathy for Galileo’s version, and allowed him to use the pope as an intermediate position between the Platonists and himself.

        He was making fun of the pope. I suppose even the pope had limits.

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      • You say “oh, I’m not saying you have to be a *scientist*”, but then you say “you need to understand a huge body of literature which requires understanding a bunch of subdisciplines at a very high level. It’s only until you understand that stuff that you can intelligently challenge the various theses you might reflexively disagree with or dispute for political or other ideological reasons.” Which is functionally identical to “only scientists can disagree with science”.

        Jim, if I tried to have a discussion about mechanical engineering and I didn’t know anything about mechanical engineering, I wouldn’t be having a real conversation if I was just spouting off ill-or-non-informed bullshit.

        I can’t tell an airline pilot how to land a plane, I can’t tell a farmer how to plan his crops, I can’t tell a blacksmith when the steel is ready to take an edge and I can’t tell Mike how to hunt duck, and I can’t tell a plumber that he’s wrong about what size septic tank I should have unless I do the work to understand those things.

        That’s on me, not them. People want to have an informed opinion on science, they need to do the work. I don’t know what else to tell you, dude. Things that require expertise to understand require expertise to understand. Your choice is to take the time to acquire the expertise, or listen to the experts – actual experts, not pundits or reporters – distill it for you. I don’t really have a third option for you, besides “live in ignorance”.

        And if the scientists were the ones making decisions and setting policy, that would matter. But people take the statements of scientists and say “see? This is science. Unless you have a science-based counterargument then you have to concede that I’m right.

        About what?

        I mean, I get that people say dumb shit all the time and claim they’re offering a science-based argument, but that doesn’t mean that they actually are providing a science-based argument. Oftentimes it’s a lot easier to recognize a faux science-based argument than it is to actually argue about the actual science. You’ve seen actual science-based arguments before, right? Even here on the blog? Where people have argued about the science? By arguing about the science, not just denying what the other person says because they’re on the Opposing Team?

        Jesus, Jason and I probably disagree more than we agree about normative principles and what we ought to do about various problems, but we don’t actually often disagree on the actual evidence concerning the problem.

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      • “if I tried to have a discussion about mechanical engineering and I didn’t know anything about mechanical engineering, I wouldn’t be having a real conversation if I was just spouting off ill-or-non-informed bullshit.”

        But if someone says “we should do it this-way because mechanical engineering” then it’s incumbent on them to explain why that is. If they just wave their hands and say “because mechanical engineering like I told you” then it’s just another Argument From Authority.

        “That’s on me, not them. People want to have an informed opinion on science, they need to do the work. I don’t know what else to tell you, dude. Things that require expertise to understand require expertise to understand.”

        I like your philosophy. The next time one of my customers wants me to put together a set of slides describing how my design is going to meet his requirements I’ll tell him to fuck off because I’m a mechanical engineer and he hasn’t got the expertise to tell me whether I’m doing it wrong. I expect great results from this plan.

        “I don’t really have a third option for you, besides “live in ignorance”.”

        It’s interesting how you’re telling me that my choices are “blindly follow the word of experts” and “live in ignorance”.

        “I get that people say dumb shit all the time and claim they’re offering a science-based argument, but that doesn’t mean that they actually are providing a science-based argument. Oftentimes it’s a lot easier to recognize a faux science-based argument than it is to actually argue about the actual science.”

        And our argument from authority has turned into a No True Scotsman. “Oh that was a science-based argument that was wrong? Well I guess it wasn’t really a science-based argument then!”

        “You’ve seen actual science-based arguments before, right? Even here on the blog? Where people have argued about the science? By arguing about the science, not just denying what the other person says because they’re on the Opposing Team?”

        Congratulations, you agree with me. And we’re done.

        “but wait no I–” No, you agree with me that merely saying “science” isn’t sufficient, that there needs to be explanation and justification and understanding, and that arguments based in science are just as subject to criticism as any other sort.

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      • But if someone says “we should do it this-way because mechanical engineering” then it’s incumbent on them to explain why that is. If they just wave their hands and say “because mechanical engineering like I told you” then it’s just another Argument From Authority.

        Um, yes and no.

        I like your philosophy. The next time one of my customers wants me to put together a set of slides describing how my design is going to meet his requirements I’ll tell him to fuck off because I’m a mechanical engineer and he hasn’t got the expertise to tell me whether I’m doing it wrong. I expect great results from this plan.

        I think you’re coming at this from an entirely different perspective than I am. No, that’s not what I’m saying.

        See, if a customer wants you to put together a couple of slides describing how your design meets his requirements, then they’re seeking to learn, right? Presumably they have requirements, those requirements are based in something. If you told them to fuck off because he doesn’t have the expertise to tell you whether you’re doing it wrong… yes, I’d also expect “great” results from that approach.

        That’s not what I’m talking about.

        I’m talking about someone saying, “this is/isn’t a problem”, and when you say, “yes, it is, see, a whole bunch of research supports…” they interrupt with “the science isn’t settled” or some other nonsense. In your analogy, it would be like this conversation happens:

        Customer: Here’s my RFP. Please follow the guidelines
        You: Huh. These guidelines call for something that isn’t possible using current materials science. Hey, do you seriously think that you can build a building HVAC system using yogurt?
        Customer: Certainly, you’re saying that you can’t?
        You: Well, see, the thermal transfer properties of yogurt are such that…
        Customer: You’re saying words, but they sound complicated and I’m not interested in actually learning anything about what you’re saying. Also: I want pink ponies with unicorns and if you can make them fly while you’re at it, that’d be great.
        You: I don’t want to work for you, thanks. Because it would take me too long to explain to you why you’re wrong, and you’re not going to pay me to do that, and you won’t believe me anyway.

        It’s interesting how you’re telling me that my choices are “blindly follow the word of experts” and “live in ignorance”.

        It’s interesting how whenever you get in a conversation with someone that has nuance, you keep wedging everything they say into a false dichotomy so that you can fight your favorite rhetorical battle, again and again.

        Those are not your choices. Indeed, that’s not even remotely close to what I said.

        I said your options are: follow the advice of experts, learn enough about the subject that you have some expertise yourself, or live in ignorance.

        But hey, if you’ve got a fourth option, hit me with it.

        Optimally, of course, you’ll know enough about a subject that you can actually identify an expert, but if you can’t, you’re going to have to outsource your expertise-recognition to other experts. Yes, this is a rabbit hole. No, it isn’t turtles all the way down. Transitive trust problems are real problems.

        In the context of the OP, this is where we get into trouble; people don’t have the expertise to evaluate the science, people don’t have enough basic science knowledge or math skills to evaluate experts, people do not rely primarily on the community of actual experts to tell them who the experts are… they instead rely on the community of non-experts to tell them who the experts are.

        They don’t seek to learn, they don’t seek out the domain experts, instead they listen to some other proxy community of non-experts that have been sold to them under the guise of acceptable experts, due to ideological conformity, usually.

        And our argument from authority has turned into a No True Scotsman. “Oh that was a science-based argument that was wrong? Well I guess it wasn’t really a science-based argument then!”

        Um, what? Science-based arguments are wrong all the time. That doesn’t make them non-science based arguments. That makes them science based arguments that lost out to better science based arguments.

        No, you agree with me that merely saying “science” isn’t sufficient, that there needs to be explanation and justification and understanding, and that arguments based in science are just as subject to criticism as any other sort.

        Yes, Jim, I basically agree with that. I don’t recall anywhere that I said otherwise, or implied otherwise. What are we arguing about?

        Maybe this is why we’re talking past each other.

        In the context of the OP, Jason’s talking about an actual problem. The actual problem being that people won’t depart from their political ideology’s orthodoxy in spite of actual evidence to the contrary.

        That boils down to the “Party Line is Foo, but Evidence says Bar”. Jason’s saying, “Stick up for Evidence, by default.” Your response has been to say, “Except Evidence isn’t always right!”

        Well, yes, we know that. It’s still more likely to be right than wrong, right?

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  10. For whatever reason I sometimes have a certain knee-jerk sympathy for the “anti-science” positions mentioned here, even though I disagree with most of them. (I believe in AGW; I’m pro-vaccine; I believe in the theory of evolution.) Even I, however, really liked the OP.

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  11. I’m all for a political discourse that respects science, that pays attention to it. I worry that in some circles today (and perhaps in 18th century France), there is a tendency to treat science as sacrosanct, as the word of scientists as above that of other types of experts (including policy experts), and treat science as a prescriptive institution. Ultimately, because science is not prescriptive, because it is largely amoral in its findings (though not in its practice), and because in its application it requires interpretation, this can only lead to science as a tool of power, a tool that becomes difficult to question because it wields the power of Reason and Nature.

    If this makes sense, I’ll try to flesh it out when I have a bit more time.

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    • I think I agree in your comment in its entirety, which is one of the reasons why I tend to be suspicious of science and have at least some sympathy for supposedly “anti-science” positions. And this thread is as good a place to raise your concerns as any.

      One reason I liked this OP, however, was that it struck me as a call for intellectual honesty. It reminded me of something Orwell said (I forget where). He believed that socialism would result in a lower standard of living for a lot of people, especially for those in places like England that in his view lived off the wealth from their empire. His reasoning was that ensuring the basic equality and material security his brand of socialism would bring about, would require people to sacrifice a lot. This was inconvenient for his pro-socialism position. But because he believed it true, he acknowledged it regardless. (Whether it is true or not, I don’t know.)

      So for me at least, the OP is less about science than it is about facing truth, even when or especially when, that truth goes against our inclinations.

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      • If the point is only that we should face the truth, even when it goes against our preconceptions or our goals or our ideology, that’s fine as far as it goes. I’m not sure “put science first” takes you there, though. Science doesn’t deal in truths, it deals in facts and models of facts, and the predictive validity of the models. I mean, I suppose we could say “truth just is predictive validity,” but, well, that narrows the span of truth to, well, science. And math (or formal systems), of course. It’s a self-defeating position, if we’re speaking strictly philosophically, but practically, it gets us nowhere except right back to where we thought we’d left when we got rid of church in politics.

        Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think people should claim that it is a fact that, for example, genetically modified foods are harmful to people or the environment when there is no evidence that this is the case. Not putting science first doesn’t mean just making shit up. It just means that we take science, we take the opinion of scientists, we take our values, we take our goals, we take history, and we take the realities of the systems within which we’re operating, and we try to build something coherent and productive out of all of that. Science is one piece of the puzzle.

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      • I’m of two minds about this. I’m a public reason guy so sometimes I think that the mere fact that scientific reasoning leads to true (or true-ish) theories is insufficient to justify using it as a source of reasons. Catholics used the same reasoning to oppress protestants when the former were in power and vice versa. On the other hand, I do think that an argument could be made that science relies on inferential norms that are already publicly accepted. Science, is therefore itself an exercise in public reasoning. Failure to accept the results of scientific enquiry is thus unreasonable in a significant and politically relevant way.

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      • Except that science is, in many ways, the creation and work of a relatively small elite.

        Don’t get me wrong, I’ve spent the bulk of my adult like doing it, so I am not anti-science. I just worry about using what is, for the vast majority of us, a relatively opaque process as our primary guide.

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      • we take science, we take the opinion of scientists, we take our values, we take our goals, we take history, and we take the realities of the systems within which we’re operating, and we try to build something coherent and productive out of all of that. Science is one piece of the puzzle.

        That’s pretty much what I interpreted Jason’s OP as saying. However, the Rousseau stuff was over my head, so I just skimmed it. If he made a different point there, I would’ve missed.

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    • zic, Oh, that would be a fun OU series. I’d love to read Jason on early moderns (and I know a guy who’s actually a philosopher specializing in Hume and early modern philosophy, maybe I could talk him into doing something). I’d bet Rufus would have some early modern gold, too. We’d have Rose for contemporary ethics, too.

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      • I’m not sure I know how to formulate this question, so guidance on the question to ask would be welcome:

        There must be people making philosophy now. Obama or the Pope, for instance? Articulating perspectives on values that had, previously, have been outside the pantheon of philosophical thought. People in academia at work discussing and cataloging that new philosophy as it’s made. Who are the people shaping insights today that will be taught at the university as philosophy tomorrow?

        http://existentialcomics.com/comic/14

        /a really clumsy and silly question, I fear asking it reveals a simpleton.

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      • There are lots of people doing philosophy today, as opposed to just studying it. I’m not nearly as familiar with the state of the art as I am with history, but I know a little bit.

        Derek Parfit is probably the most important living ethicist. Martha Nussbaum is also very worth reading and quite prolific. Possibly because she scrupulously avoids the Internet.

        Among political philosophers, G. A. Cohen is only recently deceased, but undoubtedly important. Michael J. Sandel is both important and still alive, as is Michael Walzer, whom I find infuriating. Among classical liberals, I recommend David Schmidtz and Jason Brennan, particularly if you’re not already a classical liberal.

        My favorite philosopher of mind is Daniel Dennett.

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      • I think Nussbaum would be someone you would really enjoy reading, based on what little of hers I’ve read – meaningful to lay people, not just philosophy wonks.

        Dennett is, well. He’s doing his thing and a lot of what he does is valuable, but (and I’m not citing because it’s been several years since I read him), I do remember thinking that a lot of his assertions about the *science* of mind were pretty dubious / that he sometimes leaned way to heavily on studies that were way too ephemeral. So and both mesh with my perceptions on him.

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      • , are you looking for philosophy of mind, specifically, or philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, and a few of the other things Dennett deals with in his recent works?

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      • I’m looking for a door; one that opens from the world I live in, and leads back into philosophy. I have no formal education, beyond free public, so am self-educated, and I learn best as Merlin lived, backward; starting from here, picking apart the paths that led to this place.

        I’m also curious about people who aren’t considered professional philosophers but who I’d consider to be philosophers, Bill McKibben might be a good example; or Gloria Steinam.

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      • , today’s Anglo-American philosophy (what’s sometimes called “analytic philosophy”) is, for better or worse, highly specialized, such that most works within the discipline are going to be pretty specialized, or at least dealing with an overview of a particular area (metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, philosophy of science or of a particular science, political philosophy, aesthetics, philosophy of religion, etc.). It may be better to dive into something at that granularity, rather than trying to find something general.

        On the other hand, there is what is often called “continental” philosophy, despite the fact that a lot of it is now done in English-speaking countries, and looks a bit more like what philosophy looked like before Frege and Russell, but can be incredibly opaque to people just getting into it.

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      • OK.

        Let’s step down to my appropriate grade level. What books would you give a bright high-school kid to introduce them to philosophy? Reading list for Introduction to Philosophy, the prerequisite to Philosophy 101?

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      • Someone else can chime in, but I found Anthony Kenny’s 4-volume A New History of Western Philosophy to be really good, particularly in the areas where I didn’t know much (medieval philosophy, cough cough). It might not be the most exciting read, but I think it’s pretty accessible. Each volume is manageable, too. You could probably read all four in 6 weeks and get plenty out of it, or take longer with each and get even more (I’ve read Volume 2 a few times now).

        That series will bring you right into the contemporary divisions within philosophy, as well, so from there you could branch out into the areas you find most interesting. If I were a betting man, I’d bet ethics and philosophy of language, though you might dig metaphysics, phil of science, and epistemology too.

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      • Not at all; how do I get you an email address short of posting it here? There are people with magical abilities who can provide it for you, or me with yours.

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      • — Myself, I find the vast bulk of Western Philosophy pretty unhinged, and outside of historic curiosity, I’m rather skeptical of its continued value.

        Which is not the same as saying I reject philosophical thinking, by which I mean trying to figure out the big questions and all of that. I am making a more narrow claim, that this big, awkward, fumbling mess of knowledge stacked atop Plato is full of more confusing dead ends than what it is worth.

        This opinion won’t make me popular, but there it is.

        All that said, if you do want to explore philosophy, the book {my adversary who I shall not name} suggests is quite good. All four volumes are now published in one binding, so it makes a fun tome. (I have a soft spot for books that emit a perceptible gravitational field.)

        But on the topic of the big questions about deep topics, I think there is tremendous value to be had from the Lesswrong folks. I mean, they’re really, really weird, but also deeply brilliant. Plus, math.

        http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Rationality_materials

        Spend a few days browsing around their articles. Worth your time.

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      • That’s awesome. Excuse me, I’m going to go stick my head back in the bubble, now that I’ve finished counting my sheep.

        The 4-vol. book is a good addition to my ref. library; I fully expect to be somewhat amused by the dead ends. I’m tired of standing outside in the cold, looking through the window, when I can easily learn the secret codes that unlock the door.

        Thank you.

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      • Wool’s my medium, usually. Right now, it’s linen, to wrap around your head, shoulders, or hips, the project inspired by this:

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    • I that is a possible failure mode, but there are two things to bear in mind to avoid making that mistake:

      1) Scientists are domain experts – that means they are worth offering a lot of deference to in their domain of expertise, but outside that they are nothing special.

      2) Science answers “is” questions, not “ought” questions.

      It’s the failure to remember these two points that can lead people to go from respecting science to worshipping it.

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  12. Good post, . I don’t know much about Rousseau so I’ll just trust you on that part, but I certainly agree with your thesis.

    Apart from the pure nut-jobs though, it seems to me# that what we’re all calling anti-science are really different phenomena when looking at the mainstream left, right, or libertarians.

    The first difference I note is that the left seems prone to false positives, seeing dangers where none may actually exist, or at least where the evidence isn’t conclusive, or a real danger is exaggerated. On the other hand, the right (including libertarians) seems more prone to false negatives, failing to recognize or acknowledge, or seeking to minimize, real hazards for which good evidence exists.

    The second difference, that I think explains the first, is the motivation for those errors. The left doesn’t really distrust science so much as distrust the manner in which corporate capitalism puts science to use. Likewise for much of the right, the real issue is a distrust of the government use of science. On the right as well, at least much more than the modern left, you have folks who see science as the enemy of their religious faith.

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    • I really like this false positive/false negative typology.

      My sense is that the divergence comes from competing strains of nature-knows-best-ism.

      In the conservative strain, nature knows best, she’s already taking very good care of us, and nothing we could do is ever really going to break the system. God’s in charge, and all is right with the world.

      In the liberal strain, nature knows best, but we’ve already ruined everything, and we’d better un-ruin it, now if possible.

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  13. Since we’re talking science, are you sure your Rosseau hypothesis isn’t just confusing correlation of views with causation?

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    • It could be. But that’s also how pretty much all of intellectual history proceeds.

      The idea that we need to go back to nature because nature was right all along is so strongly associated with Rousseau that I’ve been surprised to be challenged on it at all. But it seems like the thing people are maybe the most skeptical about. I’d urge people to read his discourses, which I’ve linked. If he’s not the source of modern thinking along the very same lines, that would be one heck of a coincidence.

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  14. , down here on patent trolls.

    Patent and copyright offer different types of intellectual property protection. A patent on a mechanical process makes total sense; so patents on computer chips, license people to build them; and you own the right, as first to conceive it and file for a patent, on that device.

    A copyright protects written or recorded or performed work, and gives you the right to distribute that work; but it doesn’t prohibit someone else from making their own original work. Copyright gives me the right to sell posters of my painting of a tree; and allows you to paint your own tree, sell your own posters; but you would be violating law if you screenprinted my trees onto shopping bags and sold those. It allows for the creation of similar works, as long as they meet some low bar of originality, and it allows for fair use by others. I’d suggest that the bars of originality need clarifying in the digital age; fair use has been pretty well hashed out, though there are still issues. Varying national laws confuse issues, and I suspect there needs to be some revising of the Berne Convention in face of the ease digital reproduction creates; it should be easier to defend copyright than it currently is.

    In software, copyright protection allows for organic development of competing products; this is often precluded by patent, and in great part, because a bunch of crap, generic software patents have been handed out by the US patent office.

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    • I’m sure there are improvements which can be made to the status quo. But I often here people say, “It is ridiculous that this guy can sue me! He’s just a patent troll! He shouldn’t be allowed to sue me!” However, if we disallowed the so-called patent troll, we would similarly disarm him of any right to sue were someone to violate his patent. “But I’m not a patent troll!” he’d argue. But how do we determine that before the case actually goes to court? Very hard to do.

      Patents should require a relatively high degree of specificity. They should allow for simultaneous or independent discovery (though I admit there are warts to that that I haven’t quite figured out). They should be easily searchable so potential for infringement can be identified in advance. They should require proof of concept.

      None of these ideas aren’t without their drawbacks. And I’m not necessarily married to any of them. But these conversations are where positive change is likely to happen. Not people railing against some abstract concept of “patent trolling”.

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      • Patents should require a relatively high degree of specificity. They should allow for simultaneous or independent discovery (though I admit there are warts to that that I haven’t quite figured out). They should be easily searchable so potential for infringement can be identified in advance. They should require proof of concept.

        Specificity and independent discovery is exactly what copyright covers — this particular work and its derivatives. And two people can write code, completely independently, that does the exact same thing; it happens every single day. Patent law would mean you often have to research, license, and use code others have written instead of just writing your own. Patent might be appropriate for some highly specific software, but I’m guessing that this would always go in conjunction with patented hardware.

        It’s the wrong type of IP rights for most software.

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  15. About the anti-vaxxer thing. Looked like a bunch of loonies to me, too, until I read Sandy Reider’s piece in Reason. Now I think of (most of) them more as over-reacting to having been pushed around by the medical/pharmaceutical complex. Sure, vaccination is a good idea. But consider a few points from this article:

    * The number of vaccines given to children has increased significantly over the last 70 years, from four antigens in about five or six injections in 1949 to as many as 71 vaccine antigens in 53 injections by age 18 today.

    * In 1986 the National Vaccine Injury Act was passed, prohibiting individuals [from suing] vaccine manufacturers… At the time, vaccine producers were threatening to curtail or discontinue production because of the mounting number of lawsuits… Once relieved of all liability, pharmaceutical corporations began rapidly increasing the number of vaccinations brought to market [and today] are now actively targeting both adolescents and adults for cradle-to-grave vaccination against shingles, pneumonia, human papilloma virus, influenza, whooping cough, and meningitis. There are many more vaccines in the pipeline. Who wouldn’t love a business model with a captive market, no liability concerns, free advertising and promotion by government agencies, and a free enforcement mechanism from local schools? It is, truly, a drug company’s dream come true.

    * Lumping skeptical parents with the crazies is a way to avoid legitimate questions. Such as: Should tetanus vaccination be required for entrance to school, given that tetanus is not a communicable disease? Why should hepatitis B immunization be required for school entrance, when the disease is found primarily among adult drug users and sex workers? Do we need to keep immunizing against diseases, such as chickenpox, that are almost always mild?

    *

    Finally, Jason, the Daily Beast article you cite was a little too quick to point the finger. Here is a more nuanced perspective in the NY Times. Not that I would recommend against measles vaccination – that, at least, still seems like a good idea!

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      • The takeaway here is that vaccination played a very minor role in the steep decline in mortality due to infectious disease during the late 19th century and early to mid- 20th century. Improved living standards, better nutrition, sanitary sewage disposal, clean water, and less crowded living conditions all played crucial roles.

        No. No. No. No. No.

        NO.

        In 19-fucking-55 Salk produced the polio vaccine. Improved living standards, better nutrition, sanitary sewage disposal, clean water, and less crowded living conditions had very little to do with the astronomical drop in polio.

        Pertussis, Measles, all of them saw their incidence drop after the vaccine was produced, after mid-century.

        AAAARGH.

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    • The number of vaccines given to children has increased significantly over the last 70 years, from four antigens in about five or six injections in 1949 to as many as 71 vaccine antigens in 53 injections by age 18 today.

      The number of vaccinations has increased, sure, but the amount of antigen per vaccine has decreased. As the CDC website points out “The number of vaccine antigens has decreased in recent years. Although the routine childhood vaccine immunization schedule in 2013 contains more vaccines than the schedule in the late 1990s, the maximum number of vaccine antigens that a child would be exposed to by 2 years of age in 2013 is 315, compared with several thousand in the late 1990s. This is due to changes in the vaccines. ”

      http://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/Concerns/Autism/antigens.html

      As far as how many vaccines, you say that Hep B is only found in sex workers and adult drug users. The CDC says that about 12.5 million Americans have been infected with hepatitis B virus at some point in their lifetime (that’s a lot of sex workers and drug users!). Hep B can be spread at birth, and through being bitten, which can happen in schools. In the US, cases have been reduced: 19,000 new cases occurred in 2011 down nearly 90% from 1990 (again CDC data). Chicken Pox? 100 deaths and more than 11,000 hospitalization per year before the virus.

      As far as the vaccine injury prevention act, before it’s passage vaccine manufacturing was being driven out of business by an increase in lawsuits- by 1984 one company was manufacturing the tetanus vaccine. And vaccines are low profit margins, so without some government protection, pharma companies would spend all their resources chasing the next Lipitor and Zoloft. Think about this, which makes more money for the pharmaceutical companies: a one time preventative shot? Or treating a disease over time (especially for lifetime diseases)?

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  16. On Rousseau, my favorite line about him has to have been:

    ‘Rousseau?’
    said Stephen, returning to the immediate present and composing his features to a more sociable amenity or at last adopting a less grim and even sinister expression.

    ‘Rousseau? faith, little do I know of him, apart from the Devin du Village, which I enjoyed; but his theories have been floating about me for ever, and once an admirer made me swear to read the Confessions. I did so: an oath is sacred. But all the time I was reminded of a cousin, a priest, who told me that the most tedious, squalid and disheartening part of his duty was listening to penitents who having made the act of contrition recounted imaginary, fictitious sins, unclean phantasms. And the most painful was the giving of an absolution that might be blasphemous.’

    ‘You surely did not doubt Rousseau’s truthfulness?’

    ‘Out of common charity I was obliged to do so.’

    ‘I do not understand you, sir.’

    ‘You will recall that in this book he speaks of four or five children his mistress bore him, children that were at once dismissed to the foundling hospital. Now this does not agree very well with his praise of the domestic affections, still less with his theories of education in Emile. So unless I was to think of him as a hypocrite where bringing up the young was concerned, I was compelled to regard him as a begetter of false babies.’ The ransomer merchants at the end of the table, earthy creatures who unlike their serious hosts had been growing more and more restless, burst into a great horse-laugh at the words false babies, and clawing one another on the back they called out, ‘Hear him. Very good. Hear him.’

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  17. What I ask is much simpler: Whichever side you’re on, left or right, at least put science first. If you have to, be a dissenter for science…

    What politicians may choose to do about global warming is a completely separate question from the science. Policymakers ought to consider the tradeoffs presented by various regulations, the groups harmed and helped by them, and the chances of a policy’s overall success or failure. That’s if they were honest and disinterested, which of course they typically are not.

    I agree with both these points. If there’s overwhelming scientific evidence for something (the effectiveness of vaccines; the existence of human-caused global climate change), then that shouldn’t be subject to politics. At the same time, science by itself can’t tell us the best policy response to those facts, because the best policy response will always depend on our values and what we desire to accomplish. And there’s no shortage of scientific issues in the present day that impinge on ethics; science divorced from ethics is at best less useful than it could be, and at worst extremely dangerous.

    I find the anti-science left deeply frustrating, both because of attitudes such as opposition to vaccination are deeply harmful, and because – as regards farming – they make it harder to point out genuine issues. I support GMOs and believe that they can be of great benefit to humanity, but I oppose many of Monsanto’s actions (such as claiming intellectual property rights over strains that have been developed by First Nations, without recognizing the First Nations groups’ intellectual property. Or such as bringing lawsuits against farmers for having seeds blow onto their property). It’s next to impossible to find a group that highlights Monsanto’s unethical actions that doesn’t also treat GMOs as harmful to health. I also think there’s reasonable issues to be raised with factory farming, and with environmental effects of herbicides and pesticides, but they’re obscured by the New Age-style organic movement and rhetoric that treats “chemicals” as poison (pro tip: everything in the world is made of chemicals). And the Green Revolution undeniably had an overwhelmingly positive impact, despite any downsides.

    It’s strange to me that things like anti-vaxx-ism, anti-GMO, and anti-medicine views arouse a lot less outrage on the left than young-earth creationism: they have a more direct and immediate influence on how we act in our everyday lives than believing the earth is 6000 years old does. If you don’t vaccinate your kids, you’re harming both them and everyone around you. In contrast, a person could go through their whole life believing the earth is 6000 years old without having that view cause harm to anybody.

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    • It’s strange to me that things like anti-vaxx-ism, anti-GMO, and anti-medicine views arouse a lot less outrage on the left than young-earth creationism: they have a more direct and immediate influence on how we act in our everyday lives than believing the earth is 6000 years old does. If you don’t vaccinate your kids, you’re harming both them and everyone around you. In contrast, a person could go through their whole life believing the earth is 6000 years old without having that view cause harm to anybody

      This. While I think creationism is incredibly dumb, it is the kind of incredibly dumb which doesn’t directly harm people.

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      • First, those views are in the fringe; at least, I don’t recall Democratic politicians endorsing them. To be the equivalent, they’d need to be held by most Democrats, *and* few Democratic politicians would be willing to go against them.

        Second, creationism is not a stand-alone syndrome; it carries a massive amount of science-denial with it.

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  18. One other note – Jim Heffman above actually has a point. Science is subject to all the same biases as the society surrounding it, and those social biases can prevent it from self-correcting effectively. For nearly a century there were eminent scientists using all kinds of “evidence” – in particular, skull size – to “prove” that women and non-white people were less intelligent than white men. Archaeologists favoured bad evidence on nationalistic grounds – everyone in Europe wanted to prove that their country was where humankind originated, so the Piltdown Man fraud (orang-utan, human, and chimpanzee head bones thrown together) of 1908-1912 was believed for decades, and wasn’t proven a fraud until 1953. Similar attitudes led archaeologists to dismiss the size of Great Zimbabwe as built by displaced white people, by the Chinese, by anyone other than Africans, because they didn’t consider Africans advanced enough to build such a thing. And such views have continued into fairly modern “scientific” writings, such as The Bell Curve (also positing that black people are less intelligent).

    This doesn’t mean that science is useless; it does mean that science is subject to the same biases as the society it occurs within, and must be engaged with critically. We don’t have the luxury of simply accepting all its conclusions and waiting for it to take 20 or 50 or 100 years to self-correct.

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    • I wonder whether its a practicable principle though. Consider the research setting. While it is not perfect at eliminating biases, it is better at doing so than lay enquiry, and the scientific community seems to be getting better at eliminating bias. Us lay people are almost never in an epistemic position to call into question the results of science. This is not because science is perfect, but because however imperfect scientific enquiry is, lay enquiry is even worse. Given that lay enquiry is almost always worse than scientific enquiry, there seems to be very little grounds to challenge any consensus that obtains among scientists in their field. To insist on doing so just because our own ideological ox is gored seems to miss the point of Jason’s post.

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      • I have a BSc in biology; is that sufficient to be a “scientist” rather than a “lay person”? Or is an MSc in the relevant field the correct level of education to be allowed to comment on policy? A PhD?

        At any rate, I do have enough science knowledge to understand that The Bell Curve is a big pile of crap because (among other things) “black” is not a genetic category.

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      • Lately, with science discussions, I sometimes feel like I’m in an Emo Phillips joke, where if my education\experience is not exactly what someone thinks it should be to argue to topic du jour, my opinions are dismissed, no matter how well informed they might actually be (although I generally avoid getting pushed off the bridge).

        I’ve caught other scientists doing this as well.

        In a way, , , I think this is what is getting at.

        I can kind of understand it, as a way of cutting out the ignorant who are repeating some crap they read on some blog but who don’t actually know what they are talking about because they haven’t done the work to grok the topic sufficiently, but it is fishing annoying as hell when the credential interrogation gets granular in an effort to dismiss.

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      • MRS,
        Yeah, It kinda sucks when you’re saying “I’ve looked at your models” — I may not be a computer scientist, but I know the math, dammit!

        I only get a bit teed off when folks start coming to chicken-crazy ideas, and then saying “but I’m a surgeon” — and wtf does that have to do with not understanding global warming??

        Seriously, I assume a general level of competency out of most folks. When people start heading into paranoid fantasies, well, you make the judgement call. Is they crazy, or is the rest of the world?

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    • Add to this all the terrific 20th century science that proposed to explain me.

      Often many narratives can fit the same raw data. Thus, does it surprise anyone that sexist, homophobic men would, when confronted with trans women, paint a particularly uncomplimentary picture, in fact a hostile picture? That they would furthermore dress up their shitty opinions of as “science” and “scholarship”? And that overcoming this stuff, waiting for science’s lauded “self-correction,” would involve a generational change, while my sisters suffered?

      I hope you’ll allow me to cautious regarding the authority of science.

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    • “This doesn’t mean that science is useless; it does mean that science is subject to the same biases as the society it occurs within, and must be engaged with critically. ”

      Exactly. Science is a process, not a result. I can try to back up a position with data and rational analysis, but those data and that analysis are themselves subject to criticism. It’s not “anti-science” to ask whether someone’s sample size was big enough and free of bias.

      Let’s also not forget the vast amounts of totally settled, data-support science showing that saturated animal fats were extremely unhealthy, led directly to increased occurence of cardiovascular disease, and the only acceptable solution was to replace animal fat with vegetable oil.

      Except it turns out that the data which “proved” that diets low in saturated fat led to reduced risk of cardiovascular disease were taken from a population which was impoverished (meaning they got little enough food of any kind) during Lent (when, being Catholic, they were intentionally avoiding meat). Populations with high fat consumption but similarly long lifespans (like the French and the Scandanavians) were not included in the study because something something. (knowing what I know about how science sausage is made, they were dropped from the study because otherwise there would have been no clear conclusion at all, leading to a revocation of the author’s grant because why spend thousands of dollars proving the null hypothesis?)

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      • Jim,
        Respectfully, he may have chosen particular populations to prove his point, but he certainly wasn’t dropping entire countries. (Dropping from 600 ppl down to a few dozen does seem really questionable. That’s a low rate of survey response from the getgo).

        The reason why everyone liked the “no saturated fat” thing so much was that margarine was a hell of a lot cheaper than butter.

        Buy Trader Joe’s Cookies! They’re still made with butter!

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