Tag Archives: science policy

Correlation, causation – and reason for precaution

“Correlation is not the same as causation.” This is a core catechism that is drilled into most of us scientists, along with “I might be wrong,” and “build your competitive science reputation by demolishing the half-baked work of others.”

Alas, “Correlation is not the same as causation” has become an incantation parroted by Fox-Watchers, as part of the Murdochian campaign to undermine science and claim that nothing can ever be proved. In fact, sifting for correlations is how experimental science begins. A strong correlation demands: “hey, check this out!”

But it’s more than that. A strong correlation shifts the Burden of Proof. When we see a strong correlation, and the matter at-hand is something with major health or safety or security implications, then we are behooved to at least begin taking preliminary precautions, in case the correlation proves to be causative. Sometimes the correlation is later demonstrated not to be causal and a little money has been wasted. But this often proves worthwhile, given long lead times in technology.

For example, we were fortunate that work had already begun on alternative refrigerants to CFCs, when their role in ozone damage was finally proved. Indeed, valid concerns over the health and environmental effects of tobacco and leaded gasoline were dismissed for years. Two must reads: Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, as well as the story of Clair Patterson and the obstructionism of the oil industry.

Another example: terrorism experts sift for correlations and apply intelligence resources to follow up, while giving potential targets cautious warnings. Many correlations don’t pan out. But a burden falls on those saying “ignore that.”

Parse this carefully. Strong correlation demands both closer examination and preliminary precautions.

But the underlying narrative of the crazy, anti-science right is: “Correlation is not the same as causation… and any ‘scientist’ who talks about a correlation can thus be dismissed as a fool. And since that is most of science, this incantation lets me toss out the whole ‘science’ thing. Yippee!”

Those who spout this incantation aren’t all fools, but you can tell by watching to see if they follow “Correlation is not the same as causation” with… curiosity! And acceptance of both precaution and burden of proof. Those who do that are “Skeptics” and welcome to the grand, competitive tussle known as science.

Those who use “Correlation is not the same as causation” as a magic incantation to dismiss all fact-using professions are fools holding a lit match in one hand and an open gas can in the other, screaming “one has nothing to do with the other!”

See my earlier list of examples  – including well-justified concerns over tobacco, smog and leaded gasoline – where this and other incantations delayed the proper application of science to public policy, leading to hundreds of thousands… maybe millions… of deaths worldwide.

Another central mythos: We all know that:  “Just because someone is smart and knows a lot, that doesn’t automatically make them wise.”

It’s true. But in the same way that Suspicion of Authority is wholesome, till it metastasizes, this true statement has been twisted into something cancerous:  “Any and all people who are smart and know a lot, are therefore automatically unwise.”

The first statement is true and we all know it. The second is so insanely wrong that anyone believing it is hence a stark, jibbering loony. And yet, the latter is now a core catechism of the confederacy, because they have been allowed to leave it implicit.

Of course, blatantly, the average person who has studied earnestly and tried to understand is wiser than those who deliberately chose to remain incurious and ignorant. When cornered, even the most vehement alt-righter admits that. But cornering them takes effort and – above all – careful parsing of the meme. It is a logical corner they’ve painted themselves into! But their memes are slippery.

Suspicion and distrust – of universities and smart people, as well as of people with knowledge and skill — now extends from the war on science to journalism, teaching, medicine, economics, civil servants… and lately the “deep state” conspiring villains of the FBI, the intelligence agencies and the U.S. military officer corps. This is bedlam. It is insanity that serves one purpose, to discredit any “elites” who might stand in the way of a return to feudalism by the super rich, which was the pattern of 6000 years that America rebelled against.

We need to be more proactive and tactically effective in fighting back against these agents of darkness and promoters of feudalism. There are clever shills who get rich providing incantations against science and other fact-professions.  We must show every uncle and aunt who parrots this nonsense how they have been hoodwinked. That is where phase 8 of the American Civil War will be won, in the trenches, getting one friend at a time to snap out of the hypnotics spells…

… by using evidence and logic and compassion to draw our neigjhbors back to a nation of progress and science and pragmatic accountability and hope for an ever-better future.



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The death of science-based policy

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) was one of our jewels. It normally had about 60 staffers, to help assist White House staff in creating fact-grounded policy. President Obama expanded it well past 100 personnel, bringing in more question-asking consultants, scientists and speakers… like yours truly (twice in 2016 alone). “The size of the office under the Obama administration reflected Mr. Obama’s “strong belief in science, the growing intersection of science and technology—”

Beyond advising the President on scientific discoveries and their implications for national policy, OSTP was involved in encouraging breakthroughs in STEM education and re-igniting a generation of skilled programmers. It is also responsible evaluating investments in Research and Development, as well as for crisis response. Heading the OSTP was the Presidential Science Adviser, a position generally filled by some of humanity’s sharpest minds.

white-houseAll of that is over. President Trump has attrited the Science Office of OSTP to zero…  that’s zero staff to consult with West Wing policy makers over anything scientific or related to science. OSTP as a whole is down to a couple of dozen placeholders.

Elsewhere, I wrote about David Gelernter, who seemed a front runner for the Science Adviser post, under Trump. A bizarre and polemically-driven person, Gelernter apparently would have been far too scientific for this White House. Perhaps they sensed that he would be capable – in extremis – of saying the hated phrase: “um… that’s not exactly true.”

Trump has not yet appointed a Science Advisor. And yet… “The Oval Office is surrounded by interest groups who would sculpt the facts to fit their agendas, and the president desperately needs an expert who can de-spin the facts,” writes Brian Palmer in Slate.

That, after all, was the criminal offense of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) which was banished by Newt Gingrich in 1995 for giving honest answers. And the fate now apparently destined for the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), for similar treasons against dogma.

Iscience-policy-ostpt is this fevered spite against all fact-users that makes our current civil war completely unrelated to the old-hoary-lobotomizing “left-right” political “axis.” When all outcomes and metrics of US health and yes, economics and capitalism do vastly better under democrats, fact users become Enemy #1. And that’s ALL fact-users, now including even the FBI, the Intelligence Community and the U.S. Military Officer Corps. (Look up the term “deep state” to see how the mad right is justifying attacking even them!)

The EPA’s head Scott Pruitt recently axed 38 science advisors from the Board of Scientific Counselors — which advises the EPA on its research programs. “This says to me that they do not want objective science,” said Peter Meyer, who resigned in protest last month. Deep cuts are targeted for the EPA budget, as well as reduced enforcement of environmental regulations.  Pruitt defends Trump’s rejection of climate change, and is now launching a program to critique the scientific consensus on the issue.

Fans of the movie “Idiocracy” – and die hard confederates – may openly avow wishing for this rise of the know-nothings. But your conservative aunt might be swayed to pull away from this madness, if you dare her to name one profession of folks who actually know stuff that is not under open attack by her crazy husband and his ilk. She knows she will need skilled people, from time to time.

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Science: To March or Not to March?

I will be marching for science on Earth Day this weekend, to support scientific research… and our future. If you can’t attend the main march in Washington DC, there are over five hundred events in cities across the globe.

What is it all about? The organizers explain, “The March for Science is a celebration of science. It’s not only about scientists and politicians; it’s about the very real role that science plays in each of our lives and the need to respect and encourage research that gives us insight into the world. Nevertheless, the march has generated a great deal of conversation around whether or not scientists should involve themselves in politics.” As Brian Resnick writes in Vox, “The March for Science will celebrate the scientific method and advocate for evidence-based decision-making in all levels of government.”

Specific issues of concern include steep cuts proposed for science and environment budgets, the marginalized role of science in policy decisions and the lack of a science advisor for the current administration. Trump’s view of climate change as a hoax is particularly worrisome.

slate-scienceIs this the best way to engage the public? A recent essay in Slate – Scientists, Stop Thinking Explaining Science Will Fix Things – attempts to show (days before the march) that scientists need better tactics in explaining matters like climate change to the public. And yet, I find the writer’s proposed methods to be little improvement:

Tim Requarth writes, “Research also shows that science communicators can be more effective after they’ve gained the audience’s trust. With that in mind, it may be more worthwhile to figure out how to talk about science with people they already know, through, say, local and community interactions, than it is to try to publish explainers on national news sites.”

Sure, but those suggested methods are way to wimpy for this stage of a civil war, in which every fact-centered profession is under fire. As the author himself shows:

“At a Heartland Institute conference last month, Lamar Smith, the Republican chairman of the House science committee, told attendees he would now refer to “climate science” as “politically correct science,” to loud cheers. This lumps scientists in with the nebulous “left” and, as Daniel Engber pointed out here in Slate about the upcoming March for Science, rebrands scientific authority as just another form of elitism.”

P1010497This kind of tactic needs ferocious, not tepid response. How have I dealt with those who wage war on science?

It’s useful to remind people of the benefits of science. “Science has always been at the heart of America’s progress. Science cleaned up ur air and water, conquered polio and invented jet airplanes. Science gave us the Internet, puts food on our tables and helps us avoid pandemics,” writes Denis Hayes in The Los Angeles Times. Our exploration of space has led to innumerable payoffs, including solar cells, fuel cells, advances in robotics, human health and image processing, as well as communication, navigation and weather satellites — plus a generation of scientists, engineers, artists and teachers inspired by the marvels of space.

Basic research keeps American manufacturing and industry competitive. I find it effective to point out that at least half of the modern economy is built on scientific discoveries of this and earlier generations. And… that Soviet tanks would have rolled across western Europe without our advantages provided by science and research.

I ask whether expert opinion should at least inform public policy, even if experts prove to be wrong, maybe 5% of the time. I ask them if we should listen to the U.S. Navy, which totally believes in climate change, given that the Russians are building twelve new bases lining the now melting Arctic Sea.

I ask why, if they demand more proof of climate change, their leaders so desperately quash the satellites and cancel the instruments and ban the studies that could nail it down.

Sure, it pleases vanity to envision that scientists – in fact the most-competitive of humans – are sniveling “grant huggers.” But if that’s so, then:

1- Where is a listing of these so-called “grants”? After 20 years, no one has tabulated a list to show that every scientist believing in climate change has a climate grant?

2- What about meteorologists? They are rich, powerful, with no need of measly “climate grants.” Their vast, sophisticated, world-spanning weather models rake in billions from not just governments but insurance companies, media and industry, who rely on the miracle TEN DAY forecasts that have replaced the old, ridiculous four-hour “weather reports” of our youth. These are among the greatest geniuses on the planet… and nearly all of them are deeply worried about climate change.

science-haiku3- Funny thing. The Koch brothers and other coal barons and oil sheiks have offered much larger grants” to any prestigious or widely respected scientists who will join the denialist cult… I mean camp. None has accepted. So much for the “motivated by grants” theory.

No, I’ve weighed in elsewhere about how to deal with this cult. And it does not pay to be gentle.

Science matters. If you can’t make it to the March in Washington D.C, find your local Science March and let your voice be heard, loud and clear.

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