Unhealthful News 70 – Four random points for the day

1.  I just finished up a paper about the epistemology and ethics of interpreting the epidemiologic evidence about the health effects of wind turbines.  (Wow, that is a mouthful.)  Here are the abstract and the final paragraph.  The most Unhealthful-News-relevant of my points for the day can be found in the latter.  (Anyone who wants to offer comments on the working paper version of this, please drop me a note.  I am not going to post this version, and would like to limit circulation to those who might want to offer comments, but if you are one of them, please ask for a copy.)

Abstract: There is overwhelming evidence that wind turbines cause serious health problems in nearby residents, usually stress-disorder type diseases, at a nontrivial rate.  The bulk of the evidence takes the form of what are probably thousands of adverse event reports.  There is also a small amount of systematically-gathered data.  The adverse event reports provide compelling evidence of the seriousness of the problems and of causation in this case because of their volume, the ease of observing exposure and outcome incidence, and case-crossover data.  Proponents of turbines have sought to deny these problems by making a collection of contradictory claims including that the evidence does not “count”, the outcomes are not “real” diseases, the outcomes are the victims’ own fault, and that acoustical models cannot explain why there are health problems so the problems must not exist.  These claims appeared to have swayed many non-expert observers, though they are easily debunked.  Moreover, the last of them, coupled with other information, means that we do not know what, other than kilometers of distance, could sufficiently mitigate the effects.  There has been no policy analysis that justifies imposing these effects on local residents.  The attempts to deny the evidence cannot be seen as honest scientific disagreement, and represent either gross incompetence or intentional bias.

….This is not a case where dispassionate analysis and charitable interpretations of people’s actions are appropriate.  The attempts to deny the evidence of health problems cannot be seen as honest disagreements about the weight of the evidence.  Honest disagreements about scientific points are always possible.  But when proponents of one side of the argument consistently try to deny the very existence of contrary evidence, make contradictory claims, appeal to nonsensical and non-existent rules, treat mistaken predictions as if they were evidence of actual outcomes, play semantic games to denigrate the reported outcomes, and blame the victims, then they are not being honest, scientific, or moral.  They are preventing the creation of optimal public policy and damaging the credibility of science as a tool for informing policy.  Moreover, assuming their lack of plausible arguments really does mean that there are no defensible arguments to be made on that side of the issue, then their persistence in making implausible arguments is directly responsible for hurting lots of people.

2. Today’s news was dominated by the Japan earthquake.  There is no good news about the event (other than that there were not ocean-spanning tsunamis like the 2004 quake), but there was good news about the quality of the coverage.  Everything I saw today had reporters talking about the number of bodies found and new deaths reported, rather than declaring that X people were killed, treating premature estimates as useful information.  Also it was good to hear reporters using the word “epicenter” correctly.  These days their use of that word is correct about as often as the word “literally” is used correctly.  Like, “Nigeria is the epicenter of the remaining polio cases in Africa.”  Really?  The epidemic is centered in mole people living beneath Nigeria?  Who knew?

3.  It is really disturbing that every small plastic baby item – teething ring, toy, sippy cup – is labeled “BPA free” and sometimes “phthalate free”, but it is almost impossible to figure out if they contain latex.  I am not going to go off on the “chemophobia” theme – there are others that write about that almost every day, and there is pretty much never anything new to say about it.  It is silly that there is such fear of these possibly, a little bit, maybe harmful chemicals that ink is wasted on them, and I do literally mean wasted, since I believe that every product is now BPA free, there is no information contained in bragging about it.  But something that can actually kill people (a nontrivial number of people have a serious latex allergy) is kept secret.  Sometimes it is possible to figure out that products have this dangerous chemical because they brag about being “natural” or “bio” (latex is the rubber that is derived from plants).  But when those unintentional warnings are absent it becomes pure guesswork.  It would be like packaged foods all saying “trans-fat free” but not mentioning whether they contain nuts.

4.  Paul Krugman wrote a great bit of presumably cathartic venting today:

Like anyone who writes regularly about what passes for economic and fiscal debate in American politics, I’ve developed a strong tolerance for nonsense. After all, if I got upset every time powerful people were illogical and/or dishonest, I’d spend every waking hour in a state of raging despair.  Yet there are still moments when I find myself saying, “They can’t really be that stupid,” or maybe, “They can’t really think the rest of us are that stupid.”

I am glad that those of us trying to improve the epistemology of health research are not alone.  Of course, my sympathy only goes so far.  The New York Times gives Krugman a hugely visible forum, and they and other newspapers also give prominent forums to those who debunk nonsense about business, technology, and numerous other topics.  But I am not aware of anyone who is capable of serious analysis of, to paraphrase the above, what passes for public health discussions in America having been given an important journalistic forum.

Most of the New York Times’s health news coverage is similar to most of their coverage of U.S. foreign and military affairs:  The writers just transcribe what some obviously biased actor is telling them with no critical thought.  And yet they are still clearly better than almost every other North American news source.  So are they stupid, or do they just think the rest of us are?

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