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Saturday
Aug292015

Weekend update: What is this "science of science communication" thing?

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Reader Comments (6)

My question about the “science of science communication” concerns commercial pressures.

I assume (a very dangerous thing I know) that views on gun possession are determined through identification with a cultural group. No scientific study demonstrating the increased safety or lack of it with gun ownership will change minds – any more than mass shootings do.

Other than gun ownership, in the topics discussed in Dan's paper, the biggest bifurcation occurs with fracking and climate change. On both of these issues huge industries have spent fortunes to bend the scientific debate. This may happen with GMOs and nanotechnology in the US but has not yet to a great degree.

We know how the tobacco industry managed for decades to sell its product of doubt about science.

We now see Coca Cola is attempting the same strategy with the health effects of sugar.

How does the “science of science communication” control for commercially generated pressures on the scientific consensus?

August 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Bazell

"How does the “science of science communication” control for commercially generated pressures on the scientific consensus?"

By rejecting the concept of "consensus" as unscientific 'ad verecundiam' argument, and demanding objective standards of evidence which are thoroughly checked by sceptical challenge. If the evidence backs you up, then it doesn't matter whether a commercially-funded or politician-funded entity produced it. If the evidence doesn't back you up, then it doesn't matter if it was a government-funded or commercially-funded challenger who found it out.

To argue for the truth or otherwise of a statement on the basis of the person saying it, as happens when science is dismissed purely because it is "commercial", is classic ad hominem argument.

Science depends on being challenged for its proper function. It is essential that commercial interests challenge scientific concerns about safety, to ensure the science is done right, just as it is essential for the safety-minded to challenge scientific claims of safety. Our only assurance in science's truth is the degree to which it has survived informed, motivated challenge. If you disallow or discourage such challenges, you subvert the strength and reliability of science at its root.

When the health risks of tobacco were first suspected, the evidence was weak. Eminent statisticians quite rightly pointed out that there were many gaps in the argument. So researchers devoted many years to gathering that evidence, beating down all the counter-arguments until no more valid objections could be found, and in the process developed the science of statistical epidemiology. We only have such high scientific confidence in the risks of tobacco use precisely *because* the tobacco companies funded the scientific challenges. If even the tobacco companies can find no gaps, we can say, the argument must be solid. They were essential to the scientific process, and to the scientific credibility of the result.

As it happened, the prohibitionists turned out to be correct in that case, and have used the victory ever since to argue for dismissing or suppressing any sceptical challengers to their later claims, many of which are as unsupported by evidence as their tobacco concerns initially were. It betrays a lack of understanding in how science works that nobody calls them on it.

September 2, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

“Consensus” is indeed an abhorrent word for those holding out for a Platonic ideal of scientific truth. But how can public policy be made on anything other than consensus? Science must remain open to challenge. Policy makers must act or not based on what is known at decision time.

The evidence of danger of tobacco was not weak starting in 1950. And it quickly grew ever stronger. But the tobacco companies holding actions continue to put off effective actions to this day -- costing hundreds of millions of lives.

I don't see how "demanding objective standards of evidence which are thoroughly checked by sceptical challenge"
could have changed that. There was plenty of that. It was mostly buried by one of the most effective PR campaigns in history.

I don't see how the ideal of skepticism can be conflated with massively funded efforts to misinform the public.

September 2, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Bazell

"The evidence of danger of tobacco was not weak starting in 1950."

They say: "nor can we ourselves envisage any common cause likely to lead both to the development of the habit and to the development of the disease 20 to 50 years later."

Their evidence for that is ...?

The "I can't think of a reason so there isn't one" argument is called argument from ignorance.

They observe a very strong correlation between smoking and lung cancer, but correlation does not imply causation. Eliminating possible common causes is very difficult, because there are are lots of factors and influences that are unmeasured and unknowable. An obvious possibility is poverty - the poor tend to have poorer health outcomes, and tend to be more likely to smoke. Have they tested and eliminated the possibility? Where do they show that? They note that more men than women get it, and propose that this is because more men smoke. Could be - but there are lots of things men do that women don't. If it was partially sex-linked, then you would get a spurious correlation with smoking because of more men being smokers. Their explanation is plausible, but not proven.

Was it something they ate? Somewhere they lived? Something they did? Could it have been something they *didn't* do, that would otherwise have protected them? Was it something they were exposed to in the places they bought it, or the places they smoked it? Are people inclined to smoke also inclined to take other risks with their health? Did people with a genetic predisposition to lung cancer also have a genetic predisposition to enjoying smoking? It's actually an extremely difficult problem to solve in general, which is why medical researchers have to pay a fortune on double-blind trials and so on.


"But the tobacco companies holding actions continue to put off effective actions to this day -- costing hundreds of millions of lives."

It depends what effect you're after. If you're a liberal, then the effect you want is that anyone taking up smoking or continuing the habit is aware of the risks, and makes an informed choice when they decide to continue It might cost hundreds of millions of lives, but the pleasure given might make that price worthwhile. I'm not aware of any smoker who isn't very aware of the risks, so I'd count that as a success. If you're an authoritarian, then the effect that you want is that they do what you tell them for their own good, and authoritarians would use the metric you suggest.

Authoritarianism has itself cost hundreds of millions of lives. On the same sort of basis, should we therefore allow it?

September 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

“It's actually an extremely difficult problem to solve in general, which is why medical researchers have to pay a fortune on double-blind trials and so on.”

I eagerly invite proposals for double-blind trials on the alleged health effects of smoking or of anthropomorphic climate change. Meanwhile I await suggestions for recommendations to offer policy makers.

As for the many hypothetical objections to the case control studies published in 1950, the sheer brilliance of Doll and Hill’s 1954(and onward) study of more than 41,000 British male physicians demolished most of those arguments with very clear, straightforward data. As for women, the smoking rates of women and their subsequent development of lung cancer, have been well documented

“I'm not aware of any smoker who isn't very aware of the risks”

It is very curious that is precisely the argument that the tobacco industry adapted after the US Surgeon General’s 1964 report when previously the industry argument was that the health risks were in doubt.

The statement that tobacco “cost hundreds of millions of lives, but the pleasure given might make that price worthwhile.” leaves me unable to reply. Maybe I am a liberal in need of re-education.

"Authoritarianism has itself cost hundreds of millions of lives. On the same sort of basis, should we therefore allow it?"

Indeed Hitler was the first world leader to stand up to the tobacco industry. Is that the lesson?

September 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Bazell

"I eagerly invite proposals for double-blind trials on the alleged health effects of smoking or of anthropomorphic climate change."

Double blind experiments on smoking would require the development of a simulator that was able to provide randomly selected subsets of tobacco smoke to non-smokers (who never having smoked would find it difficult to tell whether they were getting the real thing) for 25 years and then observe outcomes. It wouldn't be allowed for ethical reasons, but it's not a particularly hard experiment to design.

For a blind test on anthropogenic global warming, how about this picture? One of those lines is the HadCET temperature record during the late 20th century period and claimed to be due to manmade global warming, the other two are from earlier periods (1680 and 1850), with purely natural background variation (unless of course you believe the 17th century theory that the bad weather was caused by witches). Can you spot which one of them is climate change?
:-)

But I would tend to agree with your main point on this one. You can't actually do detection/attribution of climate change without a validated statistical (or physical) model of the natural background variation of the climate, which nobody has yet managed to produce. So this one's a scientific unknown. We have no way to tell.

"It is very curious that is precisely the argument that the tobacco industry adapted after the US Surgeon General’s 1964 report when previously the industry argument was that the health risks were in doubt."

I would assume they used both arguments prior to the confirmation, and dropped one of them after.

It's actually JS Mill's "Harm Principle" from his essay "On Liberty" published in 1859, and is a core bedrock principle of the liberal moral philosophy developed during the Enlightenment - Freedom of speech, freedom of belief, women's emancipation, the abolition of slavery, all that stuff. This is where it comes from.

Mill's essay is well-worth reading, if you never have.

"... leaves me unable to reply. Maybe I am a liberal in need of re-education."

Or maybe, like a lot of people, you're not a liberal. It's not compulsory, you know. Freedom of belief, and all that...

(There's a potential source of confusion here in that the Americans have redefined the word "liberal" away from its original meaning, which was a supporter of the general principles of liberty such as the Harm Principle. American political "liberals" are not particularly liberal, except in certain narrowly defined areas. Confusing, huh?)

The liberal-authoritarian axis of the Nolan diagram continues to be a major aspect of politics (and political conflict) today, and there are plenty of people up at the authoritarian end. It periodically comes and goes out of fashion. When it's out of fashion the word "authoritarian" is sometimes taken as a pejorative, but I don't mean it that way. I'm using it in its purely descriptive technical meaning.

"Indeed Hitler was the first world leader to stand up to the tobacco industry. Is that the lesson?"

Yes. Authoritarianism operates as a general principle - if it's justified and adopted in one policy area, it's subsequently much harder to argue exceptions for other policy areas.

(Although strictly speaking I don't think he was the first. Like the use/prohibition of alcohol and other drugs, tobacco has come and gone out of fashion several times since it was first adopted.)

Unfortunately, Hitler himself has also become a bit of an emotionally-incendiary pejorative that derails civilised debate, which tends to obscure the lessons that can be drawn from a more dispassionate consideration of his policies. If you take most of his early policies and change a few words here and there (e.g. 'nation' for 'Germany', 'rich banker' for 'Jew') and don't tell people who wrote them, you can find plenty of people today who believe the same sort of things. They have a persistent appeal to a large part of human nature. That's something we need to recognise.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, and we've forgotten a large part of what people like Hitler actually stood for and why they were so popular at the time. That's why education is so important.

September 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

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