Monthly Archives: January 2012

Unhealthful News 199 – Good study, expected boring result, no coverage (smoking bans and heart attacks)

My friend Michael Marlow just published a solid (i.e., economics quality rather than public health quality) analysis of the effect of implementing place-based smoking bans (which is mostly restaurants and bars for this time period) on heart attacks.  He used data from the entire USA and a long period, which avoids the cherrypicking problem that is common in this literature.  He found that the bans had no detectable effect.  This is not surprising to anyone expert in the area, since all of the high-quality studies on the topic have found the same thing.  (If you wish to become expert, I suggest reading back through Chris Snowdon’s posts on the topic — his blog is probably the best repository of information and analysis on the topic.)

However, this result presumably would presumably be surprising to most of the people involved in political discussions about bans — implementing new ones, posturing about the importance of existing ones, trying to justify going even further, etc.  It might tend to deflate some of the hype that is still influencing policy.

So with that in mind, what is striking is the news coverage of Marlow’s article: as far as I can tell, none whatsoever.  Striking, but not surprising.  This is, of course, a perfect storm for not appearing in the news: a workaday analysis that the author did not try to overhype (in particular, he was incredibly modest and restrained in suggesting the better-known results suggested there was an effect, explaining how those authors engaged in the worst behaviors of of politicized junk science without ever actually saying so); a non-dramatic result — in other words, the real core of science rather than some wild flight of fancy; and a result that displeases those who control or influence most of the press.

Indeed, this observation about the unhealthfulness of the the press is almost so boring that it makes for probably the most boring and shortest #UnhealthfulNews post ever.  But someone needed to mention this.

Krugman on dealing with fools and frauds

Paul Krugman is one of the greatest intellectuals of our era, though not because of that Nobel in economics (some total fools have won that), but because he is one of history’s best callers of bullshit.  I may be a bit biased, because his dispositions and fights remind me of my own.  I sometimes assume that fame, being on television whenever he wants, a column at NYT op-ed, and one of the best-read blogs in the world makes it rather easier for him to deal with the bullshit.  On the other hand, if I get frustrated, I can just ignore it all for a while with little harm done, while he has that whole weight of the world thing to deal with.  I am not sure how it works out in terms of stress levels.

Anyway, for those who do not read him, I like to periodically collect some of his recent analysis of the nature of bullshit (just that, not the substance of the fights, which you can find in the original) that reminds me of the fights that I write about.   For example, from his blog:

I view the primary race through the lens of the FOF theory — that’s for “fools and frauds”. It goes as follows: to be a good Republican right now, you have to affirm your belief in things that any halfway intelligent politician can see are plainly false. This leaves room for only two kinds of candidates: those who just aren’t smart and/or rational enough to understand the problem, and those who are completely cynical, willing to say anything to get ahead

…..So what you have are fairly dim types like Perry, on the one side, and the utterly cynical Romney, on the other. (Gingrich manages to be both a fool and a fraud).

Sound familiar, dear readers?  That seems to be the same qualifications for being part of the establishment anti-harm-reduction tobacco regulation authorities, like the “expert” panel and other US FDA decision makers that I talked at last week.  I wonder what would happen if I started a poll of who among those regulators is fool and who is fraud.

In another recent blog, Krugman reminded us of why (even beyond the above naming of names) he will never be a Senator or Secretary of the Treasury, even though he should be:

…this is an example of why policy debate is so frustrating, and why I’m not polite. The key thing about how the conservative movement handles debate is that it never gives up an argument, no matter how often and how thoroughly it has been refuted. Oh, there will be more sophisticated arguments made too; but the zombie lies will be rolled out again and again, with little or no pushback from the “respectable” wing of the movement.

In comments and elsewhere I fairly often encounter the pearl-clutchers, who want to know why I can’t politely disagree, since we’re all arguing in good faith, right? Wrong.

This came out at a time when I was trying to explain to a discussion board populated mostly be lefty activists why industrial wind turbines are so bad.  The conversation, such as it was, ran like this (highly paraphrased and abbreviated obviously):

Possibly well-meaning person who might genuinely care about the truth:  “But coal is so terrible.” 

Me: “I agree, but IWTs can do basically nothing to reduce the use of coal because….  The best way to reduce coal use right now is to replace it with gas.  At best IWTs perhaps reduce the burning of gas a bit.”

Now clearly doctrinaire, though perhaps still well meaning person: “If there is any benefit at all in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it is worth doing.”

Me: “The only studies I know that actually do the numbers suggest there is not such benefit, and if there is, it is tiny, comes at the expense of creating serious health problems and destroying communities, and costing a fortune that could be better spent elsewhere.”

Now clearly not a genuinely well-meaning person: “Quit your whining about hurting people.  Coal and global warming are terrible.”

Zombie lies do not even require a few days or weeks before they pop up again.  Sometimes they circle back just a day and few posts after they were refuted in the very same conversation.  And as for the pearl-clutchers:

Me: “What part of ‘does not actually address those problems to any significant extent’ eluded you?  I have made this as simple as possible.”

Random person who has never bothered to join the substantive conversation, to me: “You are a complete arrogant asshole.  How dare you tell people that you are right and they are wrong just because you are extensively citing the science based on your decades of relevant expertise and they are merely quoting from bumper stickers.”

(Ok, I obviously added that last bit of subtext myself, but it does sum things up nicely.) 

Dealing with zombie lies is like trying to reason with a three-year-old.  And there is something about it that is much more bothersome than other forms of bullshit. 

Consider:  In this particular case, there is no push-back from anyone respectable, by which I mean that no environmental group I am aware of has had the balls to step up and say that installing IWTs is a bad policy that does little or nothing for the environment and clearly does more harm than good.  They do not have to actively oppose it, but they need to explicitly dis-support it.  Until they do, I (and lots of others, from what I can tell) will refuse to support the “green” agenda, by donating money, signing petitions, etc.

Why such a strong reaction?  We all join, donate to, and cast votes for groups and people who have some policies that we tend to disagree with, and speak politely of some of our opponents.  Why do I et al. change our politics and Krugman et al. lash out about these?  I think it is because of how particularly maddening it is to try to deal with someone who should be an honest adult, but who is arguing like a petulant three-year-old who just cycles through his “arguments” while ignoring the responses to them.  It makes polite disagreement impossible. 

This is compounded by the violent reaction of some others to any attempt to treat the zombie lies with the disdain they deserve.  As Krugman put it, some people…

…start from the presumption that when people…make strong statements, that they must have a defensible model behind their assertions. And so if someone…says that there is no such defensible model, we must be engaged in a “rant”, treating these people unfairly. ….  So what purports to be a demand for fair-minded argument ends up, in practice, being a demand that we pretend to find a coherent position where none exists, that we basically invent a high-minded debate out of thin air.

As a final point, this has gotten me thinking about the much decried tendency of internet communities to separate people into like-minded subgroups who never talk to each other.  Maybe it has less to do with a desire for reinforcement, as is usually claimed.  Many of us quite like the opportunity to present our thoughts to people who do not agree.  But we depend on them being honest and open-minded, or at least possessed of a deep enough position that they mount a valid argument, rather than being fools or frauds who just repeat zombie lies.  Indeed, a large majority of people I present thoughts to are indeed honest and open-minded, I genuinely believe.  But enough of the loud-mouths are not.  And when you try to call bullshit on the fools/frauds, you trigger the pearl-clutchers who freak out about “rants”. 

At some point, dealing with that just becomes intolerable.  So it just becomes easiest to stick to forums where everyone’s views and intellectual capacities are fairly well aligned already.  Indeed, I anticipate it is pretty likely I will leave the group that produced the dialogue above.  Poor Krugman, though, has to stick with dealing with economic policy makers; at least the enormous speaking fees must be some consolation.

Unhealthful News 198 – Reporters think science is Magic: the case of the Iowa vote

It seems that Rick Santorum actually won the Iowa primary for the Republican nomination for president.  (And whatever you might think about him, at least he scored ok on his concern for animal welfare; on concern for people, well, not so good.)  This is not a health news story, but it is a great example of dangerous innumeracy in the press, one that illustrates why decent science reporting is so rare.

I happened to catch a few minutes of Fox News yesterday morning after this broke, though I am sure this was not unique to them.  There was a discussion among the reporters (or is that “reporters”?), which included near apoplexy about how terrible it was that the revised vote estimate changed the “winner”.  Rather than Santorum losing to Romney by a single-digit number of votes, as originally estimated, he actually won by about 30 out of the 120,000 cast.  The press were blasting the clerks who count and record the votes and calling for an investigation about how an error could be made in such an important process.  Granted, Fox News is more intent on stirring controversy out of nothing than the other networks, but I would be surprised if any of them offered a realistic perspective.

Notice that in the previous paragraph I used the word “estimate” rather than the typical “count”.  This was to illustrate that the process of figuring out how many votes were cast is a complex combination of human actions, not some kind of Revealed Truth or flawless mechanistic process.  It should be obvious that there are many ways that errors can be made in counting, recording, and compiling over 100,000 observations.

(Note:  In a deeper sense, it is not entirely obvious that there even is a True value for the number of votes.  There are probably genuine ambiguities in the process.  From that perspective the count does not reveal the truth so much as create it.  But we can set aside that level of analysis and just stick to the version where we believe there is a truth, but errors happen.)

Another cut at toting up, or an audit, will almost inevitably yield a different number.  Even some things that seem like “just counting” are attempts to measure complicated worldly phenomena using created methodologies (a combination of actions that is called “science”), and so involve scientific error, even if there is not the random sampling that some people think is the only source of error in science.  (I wrote a paper about quantifying error in the absence of random sampling years ago, which was well received and is easy to understand, so you might be interested.  It did not change the world of course — it was widely read by people who probably already agreed with the main points, but who understandably do not want to go out of their way to actually act according to that knowledge.)

What the angry reporters were oblivious to is the fact that the most serious error was theirs, not the Iowa vote counters’.  By presenting as it it mattered that the original estimate put Romney ahead by 8 votes rather than behind by a few, they are the ones who made it a problem that a revision changed that.  That razor’s edge only seemed to matter to the press because they are really only very good at reporting on sports, and so try to treat everything else as if it were sports.  Iowa was a tie for all practical purposes.  It was a low-stakes vote in a little state, but matters because it is a show of strength that might predict or influence the big votes later.  In that context, a few votes more or less obviously do not matter.

If this were a winner-take-all process, then there would need to be a legal definition of who won, and then there would be genuine room for complaint if later audits showed that it was not assessed properly (as with Bush v. Gore, Florida).  But that is not the case, so it was just the reporting itself that created the notion that the “winner” mattered.

The error that the reporters made is confusing a question like who won a game of football or tic-tac-toe or chess (based on rules, without error in the process unless someone is truly subverting the system) with a question of who won a war or who is more popular, which is sometimes obvious, but sometimes rather more complicated to assess, and involves no bright lines.  The reporters were treating the Iowa vote was a football match, and in a football match if the initial declaration of who won is later reversed then then it both changes everything and may genuinely result from some unacceptably serious problem in the process.

What does this have to do with health science and science reporting more generally?  Well if the reporters cannot even visualize how 0.01% errors cannot creep into a process of gathering data about a process they understand — counting how many people moved to which side of the room to support a particular candidate in local community centers etc. across the state, and then gathering all of these notes together without losing any, and then adding them up without keying something in wrong — then there is no way they can hope to understand how measurement, sampling, modeling choices, and countless other points of decision and possible goofs, along with confounding and faulty instruments (to say nothing of intentional political manipulation), introduce errors into scientific estimates.

Interestingly, reporters will occasionally use a phrase like “no statistical difference” or “statistical tie”, but presumably only because it is fed to them.  I suspect they have no idea that it means “the limits of our analytic abilities are such that this could be an exact tie, or it might go a bit in either direction, and we cannot tell”.  But reporters would never be willing to accept, “the vote in Iowa was a statistical tie” because they think that uncertainty only comes from some magical force called “statistics” (which I suspect most of them, if they think about it at all, think refers only to the concept of random sampling error).

Similarly, reporters think that “a relative risk of 1.92” is more scientific than “it doubles the risk”, even though the latter is almost certainly a much better description of what we know because it does not pretend to knowledge that is much more precise than what we actually have.  I cannot claim to be free of guilt in contributing to this.  E.g., having calculated the point estimate that the epidemiology suggests that smokeless tobacco has about .01 of the risk from smoking, I often say “99% less harmful” and that estimate been picked up as the conventional wisdom.  But what I really found was that there was not compelling evidence of any risk at all, that some not-unreasonable assumptions gave numbers in the range of 1% or maybe 2% of that from smoking, and (most important, really) there was no remotely plausible way to get a figure as high as 5%.

The proper statement of the risk would be most of the information in the previous sentence.  But most non-scientists (e.g., science reporters) would interpret a precise-sounding assertion “it is 99% less harmful” as being more scientific than the rougher statement that is actually more accurate.  They treat science as if it is some magical process that either is silent on a question or tells us an exact quantitative answer.  There is a tendency for people to think that any method of inquiry that they do not personally understand must be magically perfect.  But “method of inquiry they do not understand” is most everything; after all, reporters seem to not even understand the concept of a bunch of people writing down some counts and then trying to gather them all for tallying.  If they did understand that, they would not be shocked to hear about 0.01% error.