Category Archives: environment

Is anyone listening?

anyone

Thanks to: Twitter / SonyKapoor: “Is this mic actually on?” ….

Astro-turfing for scientific credibility

In my article Anti-fluoridation study flawed – petition rejected  I referred to Bill Hirzy’s flawed paper, Hirzy et al. (2013)on fluoridation chemicals. He has now submitted a correction to this paper. Interested readers can see it at  Corrigendum to “Comparison of hydrofluorosilicic acid and pharmaceutical sodium fluoride as fluoridating agents—A cost–benefit analysis” [Environ. Sci. Policy 29 (2013) 81–86].

Hirzy does admit to embarrassment for the major mistake in his calculations. However, he doesn’t hold back on his political line. He concludes that his arguments for making bottled water fluoridated with NaF available is:

“an economically and socially feasible alternative to putting industrial grade HFSA into 100 gallons per day per capita and flushing more that 98 percent of that into municipal waste water treatment plants. Of course the phosphate industry would have to find some other means of dealing with 250,000 tons per year of HFSA than shipping it from their factories to drinking water treatment plants, passing it through households and into waste water treatment plants.”

Well, I guess he is primarily a political activist (this paper and its correction seem to be the total of his scientific publication list).

American Environmental Health Sciences

However, I was interested to see his contact details given in the paper as: “American Environmental Health Sciences, 506 E Street, N.E., Washington, DC 20002, USA.” I wondered, who the hell is the American Environment Health Science organisation, so did an internet search. Try it and see if you can find out anything more than I did.

Sum total was 2 links. One to a Chinese Hardware Co which referred to:

” American Environmental Health Sciences researcher One study found that 99 percent of American families with dogs and cats allergens, but only less than half of which the family cat or dog . Most of the family pet allergens from schools, hospitals , shopping malls , cinemas and other public places .”

Not much sense there.

The other was to a conference programme (The Middle East Waste Summit 2009). One of the speakers (our old friend Paul Connett) was described as “Director, American Environmental Health Science Projects.” Not as coincidental as one might think – Bill Hirzy works for Paul Connett’s Fluoride Action Network as a paid political lobbyist.

Still – how credible is this organisation. A search of its postal address showed it to be a residential house in Washington. In fact, it seems to be the house in which Bill Hirzy lives!

My conclusion – another astroturf organisation with a sciency name used to give some sort of credibility to Bill Hirzy and Paul Connett. I know the anti-fluoridation movement has a track record in setting up astro-turf organisations for this sort of purpose (see my article Anti-fluoridationist astro-turfing and media manipulation). But I wonder how widespread this practice is for supplying credibility in scientific journals and conferences?


Note: A reader brought to my attention that the address for the International Society for Fluoride Research Inc., publisher of the Fluoride journal, is 727 Brighton Road, Ocean View, Dunedin 9035. Another residential address.

By the way the  International Society for Fluoride Research Inc. is registered in New Zealand as a charity where you can view details of its rules and financial reports.

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Conspiracy theorists misuse analytical evidence

The normal cherry picking and confirmation bias approach to science of the ideologically driven is annoying enough. At least we can discuss this and offer alternative scientific findings. And let’s face it – we are all prone to cherry picking and confirmation bias.

But some peopel carry this opportunist and naive use of science  to extremes. This is particularly true of conspiracy theorists obsessed with contaminants. For them, the very fact that a contaminant is detected, irrespective of its extremely low concentration, is “proof” of contamination. The means they can feed their obsession with analytical evidence which actually does not support their argument.

Reminds me of the old days when some people used to claim radioactive contamination of the environment because they could get a few background clicks on a Geiger counter.

Here’s one from NORTHLAND NEW ZEALAND CHEMTRAILS WATCH. (It is hard to get a more extreme conspiracy theory than chemtrails!). In Rainwater Test Result From Nelson Shows Aluminium, Barium & Strontium Present  they cling to an analytical report showing the presence of “three elements known to be linked to geoengineering globally” in Nelson rainwater.

(Click image to enlarge)

ana-chemtrails

For them, simply the ability to detect something (or maybe even to include the elements in an analytical report, feeds their conspiracy theory.

Despite the fact  amounts detected are barely over the detection limit!

Of course, when we reject this sort of “evidence” as meaningless this becomes evidence for another conspiracy theory.

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Where is the heat going?

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It is a good article but a lousy headline.  The December 7 issue of New Scientist has a cover head-line Climate showdown: Is it time to stop worrying about global warming? That will create the wrong impression among those many people who get no further than headlines. And it certainly doesn’t convey the message of the article itself.

The article does acknowledge that “the average surface temperature of the planet seems to have increased far more slowly over [recent years] than it did over the precious decades.”

But says:

“This doesn’t mean that climate change has stopped, any more than the very rapid warming seen in the 1990s meant it had accelerated.”

Several reasons

The article a describes several reasons that help explain the current situation. To do this it stresses “it helps to think about heat energy rather than temperature.” In summary:

“In terms of heat. There are three possible reasons why the Earth’s surface temperature hasn’t increased much recently”

  1. Less heat arriving from the sun. “The sun’s heat output rises and falls in an 11-year cycle and measurements by spacecraft such as SOHO show it did dip particularly low recently.”
  2. Increased levels of sulphur aerosols in the atmosphere could have reflected more of the sun’s heat back into space. “Levels of sulphur dioxide have risen in the past decade, mainly due to lots of small volcanic eruptions.”
  3. More of the heat gained by the planet “ends up somewhere other than the lower atmosphere, whose temperature we focus on.”

Ocean – the main culprit

The article points out the most likely storage place for this heat is the ocean.

“Water covers more than 70% of the planet and the stuff has a huge capacity to absorb heat: around 3000 times as much energy is needed to warm a given volume of water by 1°C as is needed to warm the same volume of air.

“Observations show that a whopping 94% of the heat energy gained by the planet since 1971 has ended up in the oceans, with another 4% absorbed by land and ice. . . . So all the surface warming since 1971 is due to just 2 per cent of the heat. If just a little more heat than usual has been going into the oceans, it will have had only a slight effect on ocean surface temperatures, because of water’s huge capacity to absorb heat, but a large effect on atmospheric temperature. And several studies show that the oceans have indeed been soaking up even more heat than normal.”

The article goes on to suggest this is because there have been lots of La Niňas (which cause the Pacific to soak up heat – thus cooling the planet) lately but no major El Niňo (which extract heat from the Pacific to the atmosphere and warm the planet) for the past 15 years.

The graphic from the article illustrates where the heat has gone.

energy

The whole process is obviously complicated and there are various opinions among climate scientists about the relative importance of the different processes distributing heat. There is even a suggestion “that soaring aerosol emissions from China may have contributed to the slowdown” of surface temperature increases. However:

“the mainstream view expressed in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report is that about half of the surface slowdown is due to the oceans, and the other half due to the sun and extra volcanic aerosols.”

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NZ climate change “sceptics” abandon appeal

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Credit: Rod Quantock: global warming’s just not funny

Most of us by now have moved on and forgotten the NZ High Court ruling which rejected attempts by local climate change “sceptics” to get a judicial review of the climate change data held by the National Insitute of Water and Atmospheric Research  (NIWA) (see High Court ruled on integrity – not science). But these “sceptics” were persistent and the “New Zealand Climate Science Education Trust” had decided  to challenge the ruling in the Court of Appeal

But this week the group withdrew the appeal:

“Barry Brill, who acted as solicitor for the trust, said his clients could not see a way forward after coming upon a procedural issue. The judges had noted two scientists involved in the reports were not cross-examined – something his clients were unaware could be done during the earlier court process.”

Sounds like sour grapes, or the group had gone into the original court case unprepared.

I guess they didn’t want to throw good money after bad. Although there will be further costs related to the aborted appeal (see Sceptics bail on climate court case).

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Fluoride sensitivity – all in the mind?

anecI have had a few letters from anti-fluoridation activists lately assuring me they have symptoms of fluoride sensitivity, or hypersensitivity. The local campaigners have even produced a video of one of their members discussing his own symptoms (see Gus Hastie on fluoride hypersensitivity).

Now, I never want to be in the position of ignoring people’s symptoms, but really – self-diagnosis is always dangerous. What they attribute to fluoride sensitivity may turn out to be something far more serious. People should always check out their health problems with a qualified professional.

Like all claims based on anecdotal evidence fluoride sensitivity and hypersensitivity could be nothing more than an attempt to produce damning evidence against fluoridation – without actually having any evidence. I have had an upset stomach and headaches for a few months – ever since fluoridation was stopped! I would be a fool to just assume this was due to lack of fluoride, wouldn’t I?

Perhaps health authorities could have taken advantage of the Hamilton City Council’s decision to stop fluoridation to carry out a social experiment – to check if people’s claimed symptoms of fluoride sensitivity actually coincided with fluoridation, or its absence.

The Finnish experiment

Well, I found out recently the experiment has already been done. Fluoridation was stopped in the Finnish town of Kuopio at the end of 1992. (see Lamberg et al. Symptoms experienced during periods of actual and supposed water fluoridation.)

The public had been well informed of the change, but what they did not know is that fluoridation was actually stopped a month earlier than planned. The public were surveyed about their symptoms using questionnaires in the month of November (when water was till fluoridated and citizens believed it was), December (when water was no longer fluoridated but citizens believed it was) and March (when the water was no longer fluoridated and citizens knew that it wasn’t).

The graph below shows the percentage of respondents to the surveys reporting symptoms at the three times. Data is the average of the 5 most often reported symptoms (joint and muscular pain, headaches, skin itching and skin dryness).

Kuopio

These results do suggest that the prevalence of symptoms is more connected with the psychological and not the actual physical effects of exposure to fluoridated water.

Not surprisingly the mean number of symptoms reported was lower among those who supported fluoridation than among those who opposed it. A similar relationship occurred with people reporting that they could taste the fluoride in the water – both in November (when the water was fluoridated) and in December (when it wasn’t). The numbers reporting the taste dropped to nearly zero in March when they knew fluoridation had stopped.

One should always be suspicious of anecdotal evidence – no matter how passionately advocates of a particular cause use it.

Thanks to Ian at Making Sense of Fluoride for drawing my attention to this research.

See also:

New Zealanders for Fluoridation

Other articles on fluoridation

News media influences public trust in science

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No one will be surprised at the headline on ‘s Guardian blog - Fox News found to be a major driving force behind global warming denial. Still, the article references a new research paper by Hmielkowski et al. in the Public Understanding of Science (see An attack on science? Media use, trust in scientists, and perceptions of global warming). The conclusions from this research affirms we are right not to be surprised, but also shows links between climate change denial and trust in science and scientists. They also conclude that the news media people read can influence both their attitude towards climate change issues and their trust in science and scientists.

Trust in science related to your news sources

These researcher found that:

“the more Americans use conservative media, the less certain they are that global warming is happening. Conversely, the more Americans use non-conservative media, the more certain they are that global warming is happening.”

This confirms previous findings. But they went further and found their results:

” . . demonstrate that the negative effect of conservative media use on global warming belief certainty is due, at least in part, to the negative effect of conservative media use on trust in scientists. The positive effect of non-conservative media use on belief certainty is likewise explained by the positive effect of non-conservative media use on trust. Furthermore, the use of within-subject panel data and longitudinal analysis shows that media affects people’s level of trust in scientists.”

I find this last point disturbing. It’s one thing for a group of people to disagree with current scientific findings, but far more serious if they are motivated to disagree by lack of trust in scientists. That does create a defense mechanism for the protection of beliefs against the evidence of reality.

Conservative media promote distrust in science

Further disturbing is the implication that such distrust is actively promoted by some conservative media.

It is probably not surprising that trust, or lack of trust, are cognitive mechanisms enabling people to draw conclusions without the need for intensive analysis of the evidence. consequently people are effectively programmed, by the nature of their normal news media reading, to draw politically motivated conclusions, whatever the evidence.

There are two implications from this work. Firstly, changes in public perceptions on climate change have probably had more to do with media either promoting or undermining trust in scientists than in evidence:

” . . it appears that climate change contrarians have successfully raised questions about scientists in the public mind. Polling data from 2008 showed that 83 percent of the US population at least somewhat trusted scientists as a source of information about global warming; however, trust declined in 2010 to 74 percent. By contrast, these results demonstrate that use of non-conservative media outlets increases trust in scientists, suggesting that mainstream and liberal-leaning media coverage plays an important role in limiting (and countering) the effects of the climate skeptic movement. Therefore, continued use of mainstream news media outlets by the public should help sustain the credibility of scientists as a source of information about global warming. Thus, mainstream news media should be cognizant of this role and continue to highlight scientists as a trustworthy source of information on climate change.”

The public role of scientists

Secondly scientists should attempt to make sure their public role on issues like climate science promotes trust, rather than the opposite. They need to defend their credibility when attacked by conservative media in this way:

“Scientists could remain on the sidelines and exclusively produce research for peer-reviewed journals and reports. Although this strategy may help keep scientists above the fray, this does not mean that they will remain neutral actors in the eyes of the public. Indeed, climate contrarians and conservative media outlets are already attacking the credibility of climate science and individual scientists. Remaining uninvolved gives climate contrarians and conservative media free rein to redefine how the public thinks about climate scientists and their research. Alternatively, scientists could use their trusted position in society to engage the public by providing them with understandable analysis and information about the causes, risks and potential solutions to climate change. However, this proactive stance may lead some members of the public to view scientists as increasingly politicized. In both scenarios, some members of the public may lose trust in scientists, which may be difficult to regain . Importantly, however, the sidelines strategy will likely lead to a greater total loss of public trust than the public engagement strategy – especially among the Cautious, Disengaged, and Doubtful audiences identified in prior research, if climate contrarians are allowed to shape public discourse uncontested. Regardless, scientists will play an important role in how different publics perceive the issue of global warming. The question is whether it is on their terms or the terms of climate contrarians and their allies.” My emphasis.

It’s an important issue for scientists – particularly in the US where the news media is so polarised and political factions concentrate around specific examples. The authors finish by stressing how important the role of the media there has become:

“This political polarization is contributing to national climate change policy paralysis in the USA, and it is becoming clear that the news media itself plays an important role in this process.”

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The “consensus message” in communicating science

Here is an interesting talk by John Cook from the University of Queensland. He is presenting results from his PhD research on the effect of consensus information on public attitudes towards climate science. He surveyed representative samples of Australians and Americans about their political ideologies and the effect of consensus on their acceptance of human-caused global warming. After being shown evidence of the consensus on human-caused global warming, Australian acceptance of this scientific reality grew across the political spectrum, but especially among conservatives.

I found his debunking of several myths about the negative role of consensus information valuable.

Cook is the founder of the climate science blog Skeptical Science will be a red flag to some of the conservative commenters here  who will no doubt lauch into personal attacks on him. But his message is valuable. And, I think, worth extrapolating (intelligently) to other areas where scientific consensus gets attacked.

AGU Chapman Conference — Climate Science: John Cook.

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Is this the way to reorganise science?

Well, this brings back memories – and they aren’t very nice. AgResearch revealed today they are planning a huge reorganisation involving the relocation of almost 300 jobs (see AgResearch Jobs Move in Planned Restructure).

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I used to work at the Ruakura Research Centre’s AgResearch campus in Hamilton . In my time there were about 600 jobs based at, or related to, that campus. Under these new plans about 180 “roles” will transfer from the Ruakura campus – leaving it with only about 90 “roles” remaining!

I really feel for AgResearch, and particularly Ruakura, staff at the moment. I have memories of the stress and emotions landed on staff in previous reorganisations – and those reorganisations were smaller than this.

Unfortunately, this sort of upheaval – together with diversion of energy away from research into stress, emotions and cynicism – has been a regular feature of scientific research since the reorganisation of New Zealand science about 20 years ago.

At the beginning, after the initial staff losses there was the intense ideological pressure to think in terms of “profit” instead of science. I remember being jumped on when I tried to point out that no commercially sensible corporation would want to buy our research capability of our science was not good. “Science” became a dirty word.

Then, at regular intervals with each change of CEO, board composition and reallocation of research funding we faced another round of uncertainty, staff losses and staff relocations. These sorts of reorganisations always cause a loss of staff morale, and I was particularly struck, and concerned, by colleagues who actively discouraged their children from following a science career. That seemed to say a lot to me about the negative effects of bureaucratic decisions.

I do not nave enough contact now with my former employers and colleagues to evaluate the current plans. There could well be a lot of sense in concentrating research staff closer to the universities (although why continue to ignore the potential of AgResearch-Waikato University links?)

But why do we always have to be so brutal about such restructuring? I thought science funding was being used to redirect research effort. That itself can be unpleasant enough but surely a milder pressure over a longer period is a more humane way of bringing about restructuring. To me, such a radical restructuring looks more like the result the deliberations of a committee of bureaucrats and not a natural evolution of research priorities and locations.

Bureaucrats often seem to be completely unaware of the value of staff feelings and attitudes towards an organisation. This value is particularly important in science where researchers have less interest in monetary returns and working condition than in the pursuit of knowledge. But make inroads into those working conditions and remuneration, start treating staff like  “full-time equivalents” that can be moved around on a spreadsheet, and suddenly the working environment becomes the major issue. Reorganisation can end up creating a stressed workforce who are resentful towards their managers and resistant to imposed changes and bureaucratic demands. Not good for the organisation.

It also does not correspond to the ideals which attract people into research. Considering the messages these alienated staff will give their children – not good for the future of science in this country.

The Galileo fallacy and denigration of scientific consensus

Statue of Galileo outside the Uffizi, Florence

It’s one mark of the significance of Galileo to scientific progress that many myths about him exist even today. He seems to still be a focal point in  present day debates between science and religion, pseudoscience and magical thinking.

But one of the most cynical myths is the opportunist interpretation of his promotion of the Copernican heliocentric solar system as being simply a David vs Goliath struggle. And that Galileo was correct because he was standing up to the “orthodoxy,” or consensus, of the then “establishment.”

A recent example is that promoted by British playwright Richard Bean “who reckons  climate change science is junk, the findings alarmist, data frequently tortured into submission and the mainstream media not in a position to confront the complexity of the issue and question whether it’s really happening” (see Herald article Beyond belief). He said in his interview:

“Orthodoxy closes off thinking and if you can’t express an opinion or question an idea, well, Galileo is the perfect example of what happens.

“He declared that not everything revolves around the Earth and paid the price for his beliefs [he was tried by the Inquisition as a heretic, threatened with torture, was forced to recant and spent the rest of his life under house arrest] while human thinking and endeavour were held back.”

But this is wrong on 2 counts:

  1. It relies on the fact of being in the minority, of opposing the consensus, as being “proof” of correctness.
  2. It implies that because the user of the fallacy is in the minority and opposing the consensus then the user is correct. In  other words – “bugger the evidence, I must be right because I am coming out against the consensus.”

As Rational Wiki puts it:

“The Galileo gambit, or Galileo fallacy, is the notion that if you are vilified for your ideas, you must be right.”

It’s a favourite argument used by creationists, by climate change contrarians/deniers/ pseudosceptics (see the egregiously named Galileo Movement in Australia) and, as I have found lately, anti-fluoridationists. A way of claiming superiority while at the same time discounting, even denigrating, the wealth of scientific knowledge with which the user disagrees.

Being vilified doesn’t make you right

And, it didn’t make Galileo right in everything he advanced. Classically he made a big mistake with his theory of tides where he tried to use tides to “prove” the movement of the earth. He was wrong there, and probably wrong in many other places, like all great scientists . Those people comparing themselves to Galileo are opening themselves up to the charge that they are “proving” themselves wrong, and not right.

It’s about evidence, silly

The real lesson from Galileo is not to oppose the “establishment” or current scientific consensus – but to rely on evidence. It was this argument of his, which today most of us accept and see as almost self-evident, that describes Galileo’s real contribution to the progress of science.

His argument for the heliocentric solar system, and against a geocentric solar system, was really an argument of evidence against dogma, prevailing philosophy and the Church’s use of scripture. he expressed it very well in a letter to the Grand Duchess Christina in 1615. He said:

“I think that in disputes about natural phenomena one must begin not with the authority of scriptural passages, but with sense experiences and necessary demonstrations.  . . . and so it seems that a natural phenomenon which is placed before our eyes by sense experience or proved by necessary demonstrations should not be called into question, let alone condemned, on account of scriptural passages whose words appear to have a different meaning.”

He was arguing against the idea that science should be a handmaiden to, or slave of, religion. That for matters of the natural world, in astronomy for example, science trumped scripture (or its specific interpretation). And it did so because it was derived from experience, from interrogating reality, rather than relying on dogma and preconceived “revelations.”

So what about the “scientific consensus?”

Scientific authority no longer rests with the Church and religious philosophers, as it did in Galileo’s time. When we talk about scientific consensus today we usually refer to the widespread acceptance of a scientific idea, theory or facts based on evidence. The consensus on climate change represented by the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for example, are not dogma typical of Galileo’s time. It can in no way be compared with the consensus of theologians who rejected the Copernican heliocentric model of the solar system (see Consultant’s Report on Copernicanism (24 February 1616). It is in fact a consensus on the facts and conclusions based on an extremely thorough review of the scientific literature.

It is actually those people who use the Galileo gambit to support their own dogmatic, contrarian or pseudoscientific views who are not using evidence. They are relying on personal beliefs, religious ideas or magical thinking and not evidence. Their use of the Galileo gambit is a substitute for interrogating reality.

Of course, none of what I have said means that new ideas in science are never in the minority. obviously they often are – and must be fought for. But new ideas don’t win credibility by using the Galileo gambit, by arguing that just because they oppose the scientific consensus they must be right. They win credibility because their proponents gather the evidence that supports them, and evidence which conflicts with the prevailing ideas.

A minority viewpoint can and does win credibility because its proponents provide evidential support. The Galileo gambit is for losers.

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