A cautionary lesson in amateur fact-checking: What was wrong with Sarah Kaplan’s article

 

So in my last post, I recounted how I was attacked, by name, as collateral damage in a smear piece on PEOTUS Trump. The culprit was the Washington Post, in the person of reporter Sarah Kaplan (@sarahkaplan48 if you want to offer your assessment of this on Twitter). It was an effort to sling mud at Trump (and that really is the right way to put it) for citing some of my work about the harm to the health of nearby residents caused by industrial wind turbines (IWTs). Not only did Kaplan clearly have no understanding of the science on the topic, but she intentionally identified me only with what was obviously intended to be a smear, rather than with my credentials.

Kaplan and WaPo ignored my comment on the article and my email. But after three or four rounds of tweets demanding a response (perhaps because they got a lot of retweets and likes — thank you all for that), I finally received this:

Interestingly, it was only on the same day that I saw this bit of wisdom in my feed:

Granted, Mr. Whittier is being a bit over-general there. For example, the many cases of Trump saying “I never said that” and someone presenting a recording of him saying it — or a recording of what he really said, and how that was not really what was claimed — are well within the forensic skills of the self-styled fact-checkers. Misrepresentations of specific statistics, effects of laws, etc. are similar. But it indeed descends into opinion journalism — usually very ill-informed opinion — when it is about the existential truth of a substantive matter. It becomes particularly problematic in cases where “everyone” “knows” something is true and it turns out that the only people who disagree are the ones with the greatest expertise. That is when the self-styled fact-checkers tend to fall on their faces. Needless to say, areas of unsettled science present the biggest minefields for nonexperts.

Of course, they are not the only minefield. I was reminded of this quote I tweeted:

So, minefield.

But moving onto the question, Ms. Kaplan asked what was “untrue” in her article. Perhaps she expected me to try to tweet the answers, but instead I will respond with this. After all, Twitter is an even worse place to try to engage in scientific discourse than the Washington Post.

Before getting to the specifics, it is important to note that something can be untrue without being a factually incorrect sentence. Those who read antiTHRlies.com will know that I have addressed this point quite extensively. For example, I can state that Kaplan does not seem to be guilty of more than two cases of manslaughter resulting from her history of DUI. Of course, I actually assume she is not guilty of even a single such case, and I have no affirmative reason to believe she has ever once driven under the influence. But that technically factual sentence I wrote untruthfully implies two or more manslaughter events. Less generically, I could point out that Kaplan, who dismissed my research on the health effects of IWTs, is employed by a giant multinational business empire that is heavily invested in IWTs. That is factually true, and saying it tends to imply she wrote what she did because she has been ordered to smear critics of wind power under the guise of doing honest reporting. While I would certainly not rule that out, it is not actually my belief about why she messed up so badly — and I have no evidence to support the unstated but inevitable interpretation of the observation. My actual belief is that she, as a non-scientist, had a Dunning-Kruger problem of not even realizing how little she understands.

The first paragraph of Kaplan’s article is proper reporting:

In the hours after the election of Donald Trump, Michael Lubell, director of public affairs for the American Physical Society in Washington, told the journal Nature that Trump will be “the first anti-science president we have ever had.”

That is the type of information — that someone with particular credentials made an accusation — that news reporters can convey accurately. (Of course, that itself might communicate untruth if the quoted individual is not really so expert or has ulterior motives. But that problem, of reporters acting as stenographers for those in power, is not the topic for today.)

But in the second paragraph:

But Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence do not have a great track record. In the course of their careers and this campaign, they have made several false claims about science, eliding complexity and sometimes outright rejecting the conclusions of the vast majority of researchers.

I would not doubt that they have made “false claims about science” but that is quite different from making a false scientific claim, which is what Kaplan makes the fundamental mistake of trying to argue in what follows. The former is an example of that simple “he was, in fact, recorded saying just that” fact-checking that any competent reporter can do. The latter is a very problematic claim, because an existential scientific assertion itself is characterized only by degrees of (subjective) confidence, never falsity. That is, you can accurately say it was false when Kaplan claimed about science that “reviews of the research on the purported health impact of ‘infrasound’ [sic]  from wind farm turbines found that there was none”, since it is literally impossible for any review of any evidence to ever establish there is no risk. You can also make narrow technical claims like, “it is false to say that the data from this particular study suggests there is a health risk from e-cigarettes.” What you can never claim is something like, “he falsely says humans are not causing global warming” because the nature of science is such that the author cannot know that position is false.

And that is still true if the “vast majority of researchers” think it is true. Notice that this means that some researchers also reject the conclusions. More important, history is littered with hypotheses that are now overwhelmingly believed to be false that once were believed by the vast majority of researchers.

As for “eliding complexity”, irony much? (Oh, also, a note from someone who did not major in English but is perhaps better at communicating as a result: “omitting” would be a better word choice, and “glossing over” would be far better still.)

Kaplan leads off with the issue that is basically the only reason anyone is even bothering with Trump’s statements about other scientific topics, climate change. There are a few specific quotes from Trump, but they are fairly immaterial because he has made hundreds of climate change skeptic statements of various sorts. Kaplan responds:

In September, hundreds of U.S. researchers, including 30 Nobel laureates, published an open letter criticizing Trump for his stance on climate change and highlighting the risks of failing to comply with the Paris climate accord. Studies published in peer-reviewed journals find that at least 97 percent of all actively publishing scientists believe that global warming in the past century is a consequence of human activity.

So if Kaplan were restricting herself to her what she (presumably) can do right, report what people are saying, that first sentence would be fine. Lots of scientists disagree with Trump’s claims and policy statements. That is true. But she falls apart completely in the second sentence. First, there is no plural there — it was just one paper. More important, that statistic has been quite thoroughly excoriated as bullshit junk science (example). That is not to say that Trump has not endorsed positions on this topic that are indefensible. It is to say that even in spite of that that, Kaplan still wrote a critique of his position that was patently untrue, relying entirely on a baseless pop factoid. (Note: To avoid any more lame ad homs from Kaplan here, I will point out that I happen to believe, at the level of a skilled scientist but nonexpert on the particular topic, that people are causing a level of global warming that is somewhat threatening to humanity and quite threatening to the rest of the ecosystem. Of course, even if I didn’t, what I just said would still be true.)

The next bit is about Trump repeating the vaccines-autism claim in one of the debates. Kaplan’s response is basically adequate for a dumbed-down news story. But this is supposed to be a critique of someone else’s scientific claims, so the standards are a wee bit higher. As with everything else, she grossly oversimplifies it (sorry, elides complexity), and she endorses the always unsupportable zero-risk position.

The next one is about Trump doing some drama-queen panic about Ebola-infected patients being transferred to U.S. hospitals in 2104. It is just silly. The one after that is about me, and I have already covered that and will circle back.

The next one is pretty trivial, but still telling about Kaplan:

Lightbulbs and cancer 

Trump tweet from 2012: “Remember, new “environment friendly” lightbulbs can cause cancer. Be careful– the idiots who came up with this stuff don’t care.”

Kaplan response: Compact fluorescent lamps, which use 25 to 80 percent less energy than traditional incandescent lightbulbs, do contain small amounts of mercury — but the total quantity is 600 times less than the amount in a traditional thermometer. They need to be carefully handled and properly disposed of, but by reducing energy usage, they also reduce overall mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, the single-largest U.S. source of mercury pollution. A 2012 study also found elevated UV radiation from damaged CFLs, but the dose is low — no more than you would receive standing in direct sunlight. The FDA recommends that any risks from UV can be avoided by buying double envelope bulbs and not spending prolonged periods directly in front of the light.

Notice the misdirection Kaplan leads with. Trump did not indicate what pathway from the bulbs to cancer he was claiming, but she implied that by dismissing one possible pathway, she was denying his claim. This is untruth of a different sort. The second bit actually implicitly concedes Trump is right, albeit only to a degree that would make his statement one of those technically true untruths.

The next section recounts how Trump made a truly boneheaded statement about ozone depletion on the campaign trail. Kaplan’s response is such a hash that I am mostly going to gloss over it (you can read it if you want). She actually does not hone in on his actual stated error (that only releasing a highly stable gas inside a building magically keeps it from getting into the atmosphere), though she hits it in passing. She also grants him credit for getting something right that he did not actually say (he claimed hairspray no longer exists; it does, just not with CFC propellants). She then goes on to make an assertion — based on a single source, a common fatal problem with non-scientists trying to make scientific claims — about the danger of ozone depletion. It seems quite possible Trump doubts that broader claim too, but what she quoted from him does not actually indicate he does not.

In the next section, Kaplan quotes a 2013 tweet from Trump. (Notice a pattern here? I wonder how well the WaPo would stand up to a cherrypicking of dumb statements it made over the last five years.) Trump wrote “Fracking poses ZERO health risks…”, a paraphrase of the (genuinely bad) Daily Caller guest commentary he is tweeting out. Zero risk is indeed an absurd claim (careful readers will already be noting a certain irony here). Kaplan fails to notice this. Instead she quotes a few studies that suggest there are measurable and quantifiable risks. But what she reports is so specific that anyone familiar with the problems in epidemiology (which, of course, I have been writing about for most of two decades) has to laugh. I am not familiar enough with the topic to be able to offer any specific response. But I am pretty confident that Kaplan has absolutely no idea whether those cherrypicked references are representative of the overall evidence, let alone has the skills to assess whether the studies appear sound.

Kaplan finishes with a cheap shot about Pence, the only actual mention of him despite the claim the article was about both of them. The criticism is of his dogmatic (that is not a slur — look it up) belief in the literality of the Hebrew creation myth. It is a cheap shot because it is not really about science, but about metaphysics. I seem to recall that Pence has made criticism-worthy scientific statements about various topics relating to sexuality and reproduction. These seem to be rather better targets. The fact that a lot of people simply deny the scientific method as a way to explain the nature of biology is not exactly news. Kaplan’s response reads like a dutiful middle school exam answer about what scientists agree upon and what it means. This again would be fine if she had stuck to her competency as a reporter of what other people say. But she makes the mistake of declaring one epistemic view to be right because those who accept that epistemic view agree it is right. I suspect that even after reading this she will not recognize why that is a fundamental error.

At this point, some readers may think I am being unfairly brutal to the poor kid. But let’s keep in mind that this was not a college term paper. She presumed to publish this deep dive into way-the-fuck-over-her-head-in-eight-different-ways in a national newspaper. At that point, everything is fair game. Of course, if she had not personally attacked me, no one would have ever bothered to write this much-deserved excoriation. Without that attack, I would not have bothered even if I had happen to read the article anyway (note: there is no chance I would have read the article anyway).

But tell you what: I will offer to apologize for being so brutal, and I will even delete this post (something I have never done before), in the charitable spirit of not tarnishing someone’s permanent record for a stupid mistake she made one day. I will do that if the WaPo posts a proper correction. (Note that I am not terribly worried about having to violate having to violate my policy of not deleting over this. See above observation about heavy investment in IWTs.)

What would be the proper correction? Or put another way, what was untrue about what Kaplan said related to me? Much of that appeared in the previous post (so Kaplan’s question about what was untrue is rather disingenuous, and also practically asking me to pile on) and above. But to itemize:

  • No study, and thus no review, can ever establish an exposure causes no risk, so her main claim about my research conclusions (“Multiple reviews of the research on the purported health impact of “infrasound” from wind farm turbines found that there was none…”) is patently false. One might find it interesting that she seems to understand this about issues where understanding it favors her apparent political preferences.
  • The “multiple reviews” she refers to cites just one paper which was not really a review and was written by the industry’s hired consultants. To the extent that other reviews have also dismissed the harm, they too have patently dismissed the evidence that I point out is the most compelling that exists. (And they have been written by those with a financial or political stake in denying the evidence, if you prefer to think that way about things.) Meanwhile, there are other reviews that reach the opposite conclusion. As I noted in the previous post, Kaplan pretends there is settled science that Trump is wrong (which, presumably, she mistakenly believes), when the most she could possible say is there is controversy (even ignoring that it is manufactured controversy).
  • There is an ever-growing body of evidence (recall she was going back years to populate her attacks) about the health effects of wind turbines. One has to be either completely ignorant or in full-on shill mode to pretend it does not exist.
  • Infrasound does not belong in petty scare quotes; it is a well-defined scientific term referring to sound energy that is too low in frequency to be detected by the human ear. More important, no study of effects can be sure whether the infrasound produced by IWTs or some other hypothesized pathway was the cause of the observed health effects. I note that explicitly in my work, and even the industry consultants who wrote the paper pretty clearly get it. Thus the unsupported inclusion of an assumption of a single candidate pathway is in itself an untruth. The fact that Kaplan presumably has no understanding of anything in this bullet, but presumed to declare The Truth on this topic is an untruth of a different sort.
  • And, of course, the personal note: I should be identified with my credentials, not the cheap attempted smear, “a wind power opponent who previously worked as a paid expert for the tobacco industry.” It is an untruth (elidition of complexity?) to say I am an opponent; the accurate statement would be that I am a proponent of not covering up the harms. It is pathetic to note the tobacco industry work — which I am also quite proud of by the way — as at all relevant. It is also untruth, since the average reader will think that rather than my work being about encouraging the use of low-risk substitutes for smoking, I am a lung cancer denier or something. Kaplan undoubtedly knew that when she wrote that bit of defamation.
  • Trump’s tweet was perfectly valid, and most certainly not Wrong, as Kaplan portrayed it.

Oh, and one more thing that I did not go into previously, and is too big for a bullet. That sentence I quoted in the first bullet ends, “…aside from annoyance that could contribute to stress.” What Kaplan does not understand (and maybe her paymasters do not want her to understand — no, sorry, see above) is that “annoyance” in this context is technical jargon for any harm to people caused by noise that is not actual physical damage. So, for example, the practice of blasting loud noises at prisoners as a form of torture is the inflicting of annoyance, in the technical sense — i.e., you are not bursting their eardrums. The stress that can result from such annoyance is one of the worst negative health effects someone can suffer, as I have explained in detail in my analyses (which Kaplan undoubtedly did not actually read before dismissing them). Breaking your eardrum, or even your spine, does not destroy your life. The stress from noise can and does. Kaplan, in her comfortable elite urban life, does not have to worry about that happening. A lot of other people, who she would presumably never deign to talk to, do.

In conclusion, I will note that Trump’s election has caused a lot of soul-searching by the thoughtful proponents of globalization who casually dismissed the harm it has inflicted on some people. But at least they had solid theory that showed the net effects are positive (assuming you count as a positive making a billionaire richer by two dollars at the expense of making a hungry family poorer by a dollar). I am not expecting any similar soul-searching by IWT proponents because, frankly, I have never seen any evidence any of them are thoughtful. And they do not even have a solid theory that there is any benefit. (Really. There is not a single serious study that shows the net environmental effect of IWTs is positive, let alone cost-effective.) Support for IWTs is either pure rent-seeking or naive virtue-signaling by urban elites like Kaplan and her boss. PEOTUS Trump is still a blank slate in terms of actual policies. It is perfectly reasonable to fear that he will do much that scientific evidence suggests is not a good idea. But in this case, it is nice to hope he will eliminate something that scientific evidence suggests is not a good idea.

 

My personal moment of really empathizing with Trump voters

Let me get the mandatory out of the way first: It is a terrible tragedy that those American voters who resent how the elite establishment treats them were offered Donald Trump as their only Brexit-like option for expressing that. I blame the Democratic Party establishment that made sure their other option was the epitome of that elite establishment, rather than the man who should now be President Elect Sanders.

I cannot imagine a level of resentment that would cause me to support Trump (though that may be due to limits of my imagination, due to my modestly comfortable life). The clearest reason is that his was just a more successful version of the standard Republican big con: Get economically distraught voters to support you, and then use their votes to implement tax and financial policies (basically the only concrete policy plans Trump has offered) that benefit the rich at their expense. In addition, the Affordable Care Act is the most positively transformative piece of domestic policy of my adult life, and I would not vote to lose it. Then there is the overt racism and associated policy statements and empowerment of the worst people in our society; I would never want to be associated with that. And finally there is the dire threat to the foundations of the republic, the barely-veiled facism, including the incitement of mob violence, the statement he would imprison his opponent, and the like. I would not support a candidate who did that even if I agreed with all of his policy positions.

On the other hand, it is sometimes pretty easy to understand one aspect of the latter, the disdain for the arrogant establishment press. For what did I see in the Washington Post this morning, in one of the many attack pieces about Mr. Trump’s relationship with science that everyone seems to be running today? This:

wapo-attacks-me

Trump’s tweet represents one citation more from him than I have gotten from any previous POTUS, as far as I am aware, so I have to like that (though I would not say that makes up for losing the ACA). I am not trying to defend Mr. Trump’s scientific views or future policies in general. I am not even suggesting that a 2012 tweet means that he will improve policy in this one area, though I would really like to think so. I am not expecting to become a special advisor on the issue or anything — especially not after that second paragraph above.

But the present post, like the election result, is not about Mr. Trump himself. Rather, it is about the other player in this, the Washington Post (in the person of its shoddy reporter, Sarah Kaplan), and the arrogant Acela Corridor elite it represents. Before getting to the personal empathy from the title, a few objective points:

Did Kaplan contact me for a comment before including me by name as collateral damage in her hit piece on Trump? Nope. Did she identify me as a professor of public health and evidence-based medicine, or as an award-winning expert in how we can improve health science methodology? Or (as I might have suggested), as the most methodologically skilled scientist to delve into the evidence in this particular area of public health? Nope. That would not fit with the narrative she was trying to concoct, after all. And to the elite insiders, impressing their pals with their narrative is more important than doing their jobs properly.

Instead of citing my credentials she noted another area in which I worked. WTF? Was that informative to the reader? Obviously not — some of the best minds of the generation have worked for tobacco companies, as well as some very subpar researchers. People who have done such work are, on average, better than the average researcher in health science (to overstate comically), but there is a lot of variation, so the information is not useful. Did she note that my paid expert work for industry had (and still has) all been about the truth about low-risk products, including some of the more important contributions to that field? Or that I have done similar work as a professor and a paid expert consumer advocate, and plenty of unpaid work too? Of course not. Because her intentional game, in her out-of-touch arrogance, was to construct lazy smears — in this case to imply that I appeared via a wormhole from 1970, when some scientists working for the industry denied truth rather than doing the extraordinarily careful science they do now.

But most important, does she have any idea whatsoever what she is talking about on the subject of industrial wind turbines. Clearly no. Ironically, her link from “Multiple reviews” is actually a single junk science paper written by the hired guns who were paid by the wind power industry to write it. Yes, that’s right, Kaplan, who baselessly tried to smear me by referencing industry association does not even know enough about this topic to avoid citing the most obviously intentionally-biased “review” out there, a paper that blatantly ignores the data I show to be most informative (to say nothing of the fact that the people who wrote it are hacks with no apparent skill in interpreting public health evidence). And yet there she is saying Trump is wrong on a point where he happens to be right. The worst she could have legitimately said about his statement was that the issue is controversial (which is the case only because of doubt about the evidence that has been expertly and successfully manufactured by industry and its allies using — more irony — the tactics the tobacco industry used c.1970). But presumably she did not know that because she thought it was just fine to smear two people based on her arrogant confidence in some incorrect assertions that she heard at a cocktail party.

So bringing this back to the point about empathy, I am not suggesting that my life’s experience is nearly as bad as the canonical frustrated Trump voter. I am not someone who saw his father and grandfathers help make this country what it is, only to be forced to scrounge for minimum wage jobs and wonder if his kids have any hope at all, and after seeing his brother commit suicide and his son get hooked on opioids. But I have suffered some of the frustrations of a lifelong outsider, watching the insiders march on in ever-increasing comfort and arrogance. In my scientific work, I have made quite a few serious original observations. I am usually ahead of their curve when working in insider circles. And not once have I ever had to reverse a scientific position I have taken due to counter-evidence or compelling contrary analysis (yes, really). A few times during that journey I have had personal success and gotten a lot of respect in some circles, but that life as a whole has been a story of a frustrating lack of credit and respect. Like, for example, when some of my more important work — in this case, done on behalf of rural residents who are treated like crap by the wealthy urban elite by having noxious electric generators forced into their neighborhoods — is casually dismissed by a clueless arrogant reporter. (Aside: Many of those people may have voted for Trump as a result of that treatment. Ultra-blue Vermont elected a Republican governor on Tuesday, and a lot of his support was due to his opposition to building more wind turbines.)

Of course we can debate whether I have any entitlement to have my ideas taken seriously merely because they are right, and whether that cartoon Trump voter I described is entitled to the American Dream just because he dutifully did what he was expected of him for the first decades of his life. You could argue that I am not very good at marketing and self promotion and he did not equip himself to succeed in the 21st century economy, and so it is our own fault. But whatever side you take on that question, you ought to be able to understand the frustration of people who have worked hard to do a good job in their life, but are treated like crap by a self-perpetuating system.

The analogy does not end there. Those Trump voters who voted for Obama in 2008 and were the key swing in 2016, the forgotten and frustrated in midwestern towns, do not see the insiders of either party as being on their side. The party that we thought of as supporting labor and the little guy when I was a kid is the party that recently maneuvered to make sure Bernie could not be president. I find some similarities in my life, the frustrating experience of insiders adopting or co-opting a half-assed version of my insights, positioning themselves as the alternative, when actually they are no better than the conventional wisdom I am challenging. (Incidentally, that does not describe the topic I was attacked for here, the health effects of wind turbines, where I believe my work is generally respected and important to the opposition. I am thinking mainly about my challenges to the core flaws in epidemiology and my work on tobacco harm reduction.)

Again, I am not trying to suggest my experience is nearly as bad as those lives that make someone turn to the likes of Trump. But the focusing event of being caught up in a WaPo slime job made me feel kind of the same. I worked my ass off, for very modest compensation, to try to help people who are desperately defending their homes against rapacious companies, and the East Coast snobs denigrate me because someone they see as gauche happened to cite my work. I know that Sarah Kaplan’s (multiple) abuses of science in her article were fewer and considerably less momentous than those she criticized as coming from Mr. Trump. I know that she probably thought she was trying to write the truth, and was merely too arrogant to know her limits, whereas it is not exactly clear Trump worries a lot about even trying. Still, it makes me want to say “they are all the same; fuck ’em; it would not be any worse to just blow it all up” about my little niche in the world.

I expect I will get over that. But in the meantime, having this experience in this context washed over me as a wave of genuine empathy with the Trump voters I just described. Not the genuine deplorables, mind you, nor the comfortable suburbanites who voted for him because… well, honestly I have no idea. But in spite of my increased sympathy from reading the work of Chris Arnade over the last few days (if you haven’t, do so at @Chris_arnade or at least here), I would have not otherwise mustered feelings that outweighed my contempt for anyone who cast a vote for Trump that ignored the huge risk to our nation and the overt hatred. But in a flash, there it was: “they are all the same; fuck ’em; it would not be any worse to just blow it all up.” My grudging but limited sympathy became empathy.

My immediate intense feelings about being attacked by WaPo have mostly faded. But I will not forget the empathy with those whose life’s efforts to just do the right thing are ignored or casually dismissed by the ruling class. I will now never think of any of my neighbors here in semi-rural New Hampshire, “he seems like a perfectly nice guy, but he voted for Trump and that is unforgivable”, which I very well might have done yesterday. I get it now.

Working paper: Phillips – Preferences, practices, and intentions of a population of U.S. adult enthusiast vapers (CASAA member survey)

Comments are welcome on this new working paper (pdf), either in the comments here or via email. Some readers will recognize it as an improved version of preliminary reports from this survey (which are referenced in the paper).

Abstract: Existing surveys of e-cigarette users have provided useful information, but have been limited to convenience samples with no identifiable target population. The membership of The Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association, a U.S. NGO, offers a unique opportunity for a survey of enthusiasts vapers. The survey, conducted in 2015, included 20,000 adult current vapers residing in the USA, with a far higher response rate than any previous survey. The results support several pieces of conventional wisdom, also reflected in previous survey results, that enthusiast vapers prefer open systems, interesting flavors (particular sweet flavors), and have a history of failed smoking cessation attempts using most of the “officially approved” methods. Almost all subjects who quit smoking with e-cigarettes believe they would still be smoking without them. About 90% of subjects indicated an intention to flout regulatory restrictions on available products, notably including a scenario that basically describes the effects of the announced FDA regulation. This suggests that assessments of that regulation grossly understate the probability and scope of a black market and do-it-yourself manufacturing, and thus overstate the impact on actual consumption. There are clear contrasts between this population and the average e-cigarette user, which commentators frequently ignore, but these results are probably representative of half a million and perhaps a million U.S. vapers.