In Search of Settled Science

The media coverage of last weekend’s March du Jour, this one supposedly a celebration of Science (capitalization mine), portrayed the event as just that – celebratory.  But when Progressives get together carrying signs it almost always means a demonstration, and this gathering was as much a vehicle for the Left to chide conservatives about their refusal to accept the “settled science” of human-caused climate change as it was a paen to Science itself.

Watching the festivities unfold, I thought of a recent commentary by Vincent Carrol in the Denver Post.  He reported that Boulder County Commissioners had just voted to ban the growing of all genetically modified (GMO) crops on land owned by the county.  This edict will be problematic for farmers who have been raising GMO corn and sugar beets for many years on this leased land because, according to Carroll, there no longer are any non-GMO strains of sugar beet.  The farmers will have from three to five years to eliminate GMOs from their rotations. Case closed.

Here’s the Science rub.  There is no scientific evidence – none – that genetically modified crops are harmful to humans, insects or anything living.  The decision to flatly ban them flies in the face of all the research that has been done on the subject, and will do nothing but cause harm and hardship to the affected farmers, many of whom have tens of thousands of dollars tied up in equipment used to grow and harvest a crop which they can no longer plant.

The GMO ban was met with loud approval by liberal Boulderites, many of whom no doubt paraded last week in unwavering support of Science. In fact, Boulder liberals show the same disregard for GMO research that conservatives hold for the study of man-caused climate change.   Clearly science denial knows no political affiliation.

Why this distrust of science cutting across the political spectrum?  Science is supposed to be provable, reliable, the epitome of fact.  Remember junior high science class, where we learned the basics of the Scientific Method?  Start with a theory – what do you think is happening and why.  Then try to dream up an experiment that proves your theory, or disproves someone else’s.  Compile your results.  Then the most important step; submit your findings to others who will try to duplicate them, using your methodology.  If your experiment can be repeated by others, your “peers”, then and only then are your conclusions scientifically valid.  That’s how science works.  Or used to.

Peer review has been the backbone of scientific investigation since Isaac Newton lounged beneath his apple tree, and the science it produced seemed for the most part apolitical.  These days science methodology is becoming bastardized, thanks in large measure to our newfound reliance on computers and algorithms instead of beakers and Bunsen burners.  For example, our seemingly unlimited capability to gather and analyze massive quantities of data has led to the proliferation of often agenda-driven studies that arrive at their conclusions by asking a large number of subjects a long series of questions under the assumption that a small but publishable number of queries will yield a positive result (i.e., the result the authors wish to see).  This statistical alchemy was used in a study released last year which pointed to an increased incidence of certain types of cancer in communities located downwind from good old Rocky Flats.  More traditional studies have found no such link.  More recently, another megadata study found an increase in dementia and strokes in people who drink diet soda.  The researchers relied on data from massive numbers of soda sippers (full disclosure: I drink two or three cans a day) but somehow failed to correct for obesity and several other possible variables.  Another junior high science lesson: Correlation does not automatically equal causation.

Each of these studies was ostensibly peer reviewed.  But that most vital step in the process, according to many in the scientific community, has become sloppy and incestuous, bowing to political pressures and the “publish or perish” dictum so pervasive in academia.  The problem has become so epidemic, according to a study published last year in Nature, that researchers attempting to replicate other scientists’ experiments were failing to get the same results more than 70% of the time.  More than half the time the results could not even be duplicated by the original researchers.  When the supposedly peer reviewed (and widely publicized) study that claimed to find a link between vaccinations and autism was debunked, the British Journal of Medicine in which it was featured took nearly 10 years to publish a retraction.  That study triggered a public health crisis in Britain and the author was eventually tried and found guilty of gross ethical misconduct and fraud.   In spite of the criminal misapplication of science involved, thousands of American parents continue to cite the study when refusing to have their children vaccinated.  Most of these doting parents are well-educated (and liberal).  So much for the robustness of peer review.

Stories like these invite skeptics of all political lineages to dispute the results of what may be credible, critical studies, and contribute to the ideological fog that is threatening to smother the legitimate, rigorous methodology behind the bulk of science research.  They also infer that there are both liberals and conservatives (and evidently some scientists) willing to bend science to their ideology.  So forgive those misguided wretches who choose to take the assertion that human activity is the primary cause of global warming with a grain or two of salt.

We all want and need Science to be worthy of celebration, but clearly the science establishment has some housecleaning to do.  To regain our confidence those who do science right and proper have to be willing to call out the ones who distort its process for their own ends.  The rest of us, meanwhile, need to improve our science literacy so we can recognize questionable science when we see it, even if it means looking past our ideology.  Best that we reach consensus on climate change, among other headline issues, before the research findings become moot.

Events will eventually settle the scientific disputes that bedevil us.  Hopefully we will survive the proof.

The Democratic Party and Trump Derangement Syndrome

GUEST POST by G. Zepernick

Well, here we are. Not quite three months into the Presidency That Could Never Be and most of the country, liberal to conservative, is still dealing with emotions ranging from disbelief and denial to outright shock.  The political landscape is looking like a small town that just got hit by an F4 tornado.  Half of the populace has emerged, dazed and blinking, from basements and bathrooms to find their lives relatively intact but changed in ways they can’t yet fathom.  The remaining souls, if they have been lucky enough to survive, have seen everything they hold dear wiped away.  Safe to say, nobody is happy about the outcome, but some are much more upset than others.

Republicans, having committed one of the monumental miscalculations in the party’s history, were fully prepared to see their nominee suffer an equally monumental whupping on Election Day. Democrats were already sending Two Men and a Truck up to Chappaqua to bring all the Clintons’ furniture (and a few misplaced White House odds and ends) back down to Pennsylvania Avenue when the returns started to trickle in.  The media coverage from that evening revealed the barely concealed amazement on almost every Republican face.  Democrats were also amazed.  None of them had imagined that their world could end, so suddenly and completely, at the somewhat undersized hands of Donald J. Trump.

Since November 8, the political Right has lifted its collective jaw off the floor and moved cautiously into the winner’s circle. The Left’s amazement meanwhile has morphed into a kind of madness. Wags have named it Trump Derangement Syndrome.  It is marked by an irrational fear and vitriolic hatred of all things Trump, from his Cabinet picks to Melania’s dress choices.  Democrats are by nature an emotional cohort, but the election of Donald Trump seems to have turned them into wounded animals, lashing out mindlessly at anyone who might try to mollify them and seizing upon every rumor and leak as grounds for impeachment.  Time was that, for any Democrat, hoping to put Mike Pence in the Oval Office would be the very definition of derangement.  But, as I said, here we are.

Not to say that all the Left’s worries are unfounded, or that only the Left is worried. Donald Trump is inarguably a classic Narcissist with poor impulse control and no apparent core principles who shoots from the lip and has raised unpredictability to an art form.  But the recent battle over the appointment of Neil Gorsuch has shown the depth of derangement among Democrat Senators.  Asked to accept a jurist of character and unparalleled qualification who was confirmed 99-0 to the second highest judgeship in the land, and whose approval would do no more than restore a balance to the Supreme Court that has existed since Bush One, Schumer and Co. chose to waste their only bullet.  When the next appointee, who is likely to be much more odious to liberals and will likely replace one, comes before them, Senate Democrats will be all but powerless.  Republicans may have killed the filibuster, but Democrats tied its hands, led it to the wall and put on the blindfold.  Sound logical?  Not unless Donald Trump is inside your head.

Now consider the Great Trump-Russia Election Conspiracy. One of the Left’s favorite talking points is to claim that Trump is somehow an illegitimate president because he, or someone he knows, or someone the person he knows knows, may be implicated in Russia’s clumsy attempt to influence our election.  Missing from this narrative is any sort of mechanism by which Putin and his Cold Warriors could have pulled this off.  Words like “collusion” are tossed around with no real context offered.  The line is that Putin dislikes Hillary Clinton (as did a few too many American voters) and loves The Donald and so was moved to hack only the Democrats and leak their damaging emails.  If Putin is half the schemer we all believe him to be, would he not make every effort to gather dirt on both parties and their candidates?   Perhaps the Republicans used more secure passwords?  This cannot be, screams the Left.  Russia conspired with Republican “operatives” (a wonderfully pejorative term lifted right from the Watergate investigation) to defeat Hillary.  The evidence is there, somewhere!  Trump must be impeached before he can do further mayhem.  Never mind that Russia needed no help from any Trump operatives to spread disinformation through social media or to plant fake news stories on shady websites, or that any supposed collusion a) would not involve Trump personally and b) would have occurred before he was elected.  Not impeachable.

So the Left continues to cast about wide-eyed for an explanation of the why and how of President Donald Trump, looking everywhere, it seems, but in the mirror. Did the Republicans screw up by allowing Trump to hijack their party?  Certainly.  Was his election victory aided and abetted by the hacking of the Democrat National Committee?  Highly likely.  But when all the cards are down, nothing the Republicans or the Russians did or didn’t do equals the culpability the Democrat Party bears for not only the loss of the White House but the failure to gain a Senate majority.  No Russian operatives placed an unsecured server in the Chappaqua basement.  No Republican dictated the ridiculously damaging emails that were so easily snatched from John Podesta’s account.  When Donald Trump secured the nomination, was there a single Democrat in the country, starting with HRC, who didn’t believe he or she had not been given a great gift?

And yet.

This election shouldn’t have been close for the Democrats, let alone a loss. At its core, the Great Democrat Election Debacle of 2016 hinged not on what Trump, the disarrayed, gobsmacked Republicans, or even the Russians did.  It hinged on what the Democrats didn’t do. They didn’t secure their internal communications.  They didn’t deal fairly with their base (a mistake also made by the Republicans).  They nominated, by a process that must have made the Russians proud, a deeply flawed candidate of their own, who took her firewall states for granted and campaigned poorly.  They didn’t take their opponent seriously (a mistake, it must be noted, made by virtually everyone).  But their most galling error was never considering for a second that they might not be right, and in the right, about everything.  To fall from so high a perch and then realize that you sawed off your own branch might drive anyone around the bend.

So perhaps the Democrats’ derangement does not stem only from their loathing of Donald Trump. Perhaps they have been looking in the mirror.

 

What About Healthcare?

I watched the Republican train wreck of “repeal and replace” while figuratively holding my breath. Full disclosure – I buy my health insurance on the “Obamacare” exchange, am relieved that the ACA will remain intact, and can only hope the Congress won’t commit too much sabotage in the coming months.

But I think we’re asking the wrong questions and having the wrong discussion. We shouldn’t be talking about insurance but about health care. There’s no way to agree on “how” or “to what extent” until we agree on “what.”

Do all Americans deserve health care? (I’ll leave aside the politically-laden word “entitlement.”)

  • I thought we’d reached a lasting consensus on health care for those over 65, but various proposals to replace Medicare with vouchers makes me wonder.
  • I thought we’d agreed children deserve health care, though not with methods as well settled as Medicare.
  • There’s less agreement on health care for the disabled since suspicion of fraud seems to be a big worry, and there’s a lot of downright skepticism on health care for addiction and other mental health illnesses – at least in part because we don’t seem to believe anyone knows how to treat these illnesses. (Many professionals will disagree with that last bit, but I think a lot of people feel that way.)
  • That leaves the rest of working age adults. There is some support for the idea that anyone who has a job should not have to live in poverty – and I’ve read that most Medicaid recipients in this category are working. But again the fear of fraud and anger at the notion that someone is getting away with something seems to overwhelm the issue.

Surely we’re all opposed to fraud, and there should be ways to guard against it. And evidence-based research should be able to prove which treatments work, even if they may run counter to some social tropes. May I assume those problems are solvable?

It leaves the core question: Do all Americans deserve health care?

Until we arrive at a generally accepted consensus, we’ll never figure out what to do about it.

Gorsuch and Rocky Flats

There seems to be a consistent effort of the Colorado media to support confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court of the United States. I admit I’ve been impressed by what I’ve read and seen about his intelligence and demeanor. I can’t help but be impressed by a man who says things such as “Gosh” and “Golly.” However, I must register a significant concern. Gorsuch was a key to the 10th Circuit issuing a legal decision that will result in significant compensation to landowners near the Rocky Flats Plant (and their attorneys).

The case is very complicated, and I’ll do my best to summarize. (I’ll warn that the discussion to follow is a very simplistic summary of an incredibly complicated story.) A jury decided to award multi-millions in compensation was due to landowners near Rocky Flats, but that decision was overturned by the 10th Circuit Court. The ruling was overturned because it was determined that there was no proof of damage from the operations of Rocky Flats, to include reduction of property values. Effectively, it was ruled that perception of damage was insufficient to award damages.

Enter Gorsuch, and my concern about the Judge’s qualifications. The original ruling was vacated. The new ruling mentions that Dow and Rockwell managed the Plant under contracts with the federal government. “But everything ground to a halt in 1989. That’s when FBI agents raided the plant and unearthed evidence of environmental crimes. It turns out plant workers had mishandled radioactive waste for years. Some had been poured into the ground and leached into nearby bodies of water. Some had been released into the air and filtered its way into the soil throughout the area. As news of all this emerged, the plant’s neighbors saw their property values plummet.”

I published a book a few years back titled “An Insider’s View of Rocky Flats: Urban Myths Debunked.” Its obvious Judge Gorsuch hasn’t read the book, because it, as suggested by the title, debunks many of the urban myths that are repeated in the Gorsuch summary. I’m going to refer to the book and will provide specific page numbers to respond to several salient points. The FBI did not unearth evidence of environmental crimes. Items listed in the eventual plea bargain had been reported to the public and regulators before the infamous raid of the plant. A key member of the team that investigated Rocky Flats told the Wolpe Congressional Committee, “Virtually none of the allegations contained in the search warrant were borne out by full investigation” (page 82 of my book).

On the issue of offsite contamination from the plant, the Wolpe report adds that in retrospect that the investigation found that the issues should have been resolved civilly and not criminally. It is explained “That is primarily because of the marginal evidence of criminal intentional misconduct and the lack of any significant environmental harm” (also on page 82). Not convinced? The Judge in the United States District Court Sentencing of the resulting plea bargain forced by the Justice Department commented “.  .  .the environmental harm caused by the charged violations was generally limited to inside the plant’s boundaries” (page 89).

The Grand Jury investigating Rocky Flats operations charged that the plant had engaged in activities “. .  .which violate(s) Federal environmental laws.” This may have been the source of the Gorsuch comment about “.  .  .evidence of environmental crimes.” Gorsuch et al apparently were unaware that the U.S. Justice Department responded that the Grand Jury had been repeatedly told that the charges “.  .  .are not crimes and are covered by various orders and regulatory agreements” (page 93)

So what? Gorsuch et al issued a legal decision that results in $375 million dollars of taxpayer money being awarded. The contractors were indemnified and the Department of Energy will have to cover the costs. The award (forty percent of which will be paid to the plaintiffs lawyers) will be based on the fact that Rocky Flats was a “nuisance” and not because there was any environmental damage or reduction in property values.

I’m going to make a sales pitch. My book “An Insider’s View of Rocky Flats: Urban Myths Debunked” is available at Amazon, and it contains many more details than what are in this summary. (The online version is only $3.99, and that version includes several pictures to include burning plutonium and two different plutonium ingots.) I don’t profit from royalties, so I offer this information without a benefit for myself. I’ll also comment that a second book is currently in editing, and that book will present a detailed justification for why the Rocky Flats Plant was crucial to preventing World War III through implementing the policy of Nuclear Deterrence. Rocky Flats being a “nuisance” seems to be a trivial price to pay for such a momentous outcome?

Should Gorsuch be confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court? I hope, if he is, that he is more careful to base his decisions on facts and not urban myths that have been inculcated into popular acceptance!

Another Potential Disaster Caused by Global Warming

Several aspects of the Global Warming debate fascinate me. One is argument that there is no debate. I consistently read that 97 percent of scientists believe it is real and is caused by man. There was a petition by Dr. Art Robinson that disputed that assertion, and over 33,000 people with at least Bachelor of Science degrees signed it. It was attacked because there were a few “fake names” used in the signatures. Let’s pretend some portion of the signatures were valid. I’ll pick that there were 30,000 legitimate scientists who signed the petition. There would have to have been 1,000,000 scientists who disagreed with the petition for the 97 percent assertion to be valid. Another attack against the petition is that the scientists who signed it weren’t experts in climate science. I signed it, and am guilty as charged. I am not an expert in climate science, but consider that I have a rudimentary understanding of scientific methods.

One of my work assignments was pretending to be the manager for several scientists with advanced degrees. They often enjoyed arguing with each other about scientific interpretation. I’m trying to imagine how disgusted they would have been if I had stepped into the middle of a discussion and declared “The science is settled.” (I think that statement, which I consider to be absurd, explains why I persist in questioning/denying.)

Another aspect of the discussion or debate is that the lower temperature last year was optimal. It seems that only negative effects can result from the temperature increasing. Of course there are several positive effects of warmer temperatures, such as increased yields for some crops. But, according to NPR, even that isn’t a positive. Global warming, according to the reports, could cause a shortage of salad. Warmer temperatures caused the Arizona lettuce harvest to wrap up early and central California, which fills the salad needs after Arizona drops off, had heavy precipitation that delayed some plantings. I agree this is terrible, because I really like salads. And apparently there will be a shortage unless we stop the many human activities resulting in carbon dioxide emissions that cause higher temperatures and increased localized precipitation? Or maybe it’s too late! So far I’ve been able to buy all the salad-making materials I want, but I guess I should live in fear that is about to end because of global warming?

Facts and Truth – Will Your Brain Let You See the Difference?

Facts are not as important as the truth that defines who you are, and every idea you have is a physical thing in your brain. The circuits become fixed and new information is modified to fit, because some things simply must be true.

That’s my summary of a recent interview I heard with academician George Lakoff, but what really caught my attention is that he implies you can’t change this. Even if you know your brain is filtering facts, you can’t help it. Not all facts may challenge your sense of self, and you can deal with those. But when the topic is part of your identity, you’re trapped.

That defies my sense of free will, which, of course, would only prove Lakoff’s point.

Lakoff says he can explain why certain positions that seem independent go together – for example, pro-life and flat-tax. I’ve often thought about this – if I know you’re a vegetarian I bet I can guess your politics. Why should that be so?

As it relates to politics, Lakoff says we see our nation through the metaphor of a family, and there are two kinds of families: the strict father and the nurturing family. Most people use a mix of these two approaches (so maybe there’s hope for a fact to get through!) but the basis of the strict father is that authority and morality go together – right and wrong are clear, tough love creates a disciplined person who will succeed, and if someone doesn’t succeed it’s their own fault and they deserve what they get. Continue reading

Predatory Lawsuits

I’ve been disgusted with the power of the litigation industry since President Bill Clinton vetoed a law that would have addressed frivolous medical lawsuits. The veto came, as I recall, after it was passed by the House and the Senate. Fast forward to today and consider the number of ads on television asking for people to sign up for money available because of “medical malpractice.”

My disgust was reinforced by a Denver Post editorial titled, “Predatory lawsuits only hurt ADA compliance.” There has been a profitable litigation industry that has evolved from the laws that were passed to protect the rights of disabled citizens. There are several examples given in the editorial of people who have, with legal help, profited from the ADA legislation. One is a person named in the article who has succeeded at getting out of court settlements for 64 lawsuits against small businesses who weren’t given the chance to make corrections to the violations before being required to pay. Others have found this to be a lucrative process. A Floridian who travels to Colorado has filed 71 lawsuits. There are other examples of people who have successfully filed lawsuits based on the law. They often do not even need to pay filing fees for their lawsuits “because of their income level.” Apparently income from out of court settlements doesn’t count as “income.”

Our legislators seem to be eager to pass regulations that protect “fairness.” Perhaps they can find time to pass something that protects small business owners from predators who are interested in financial gain and not the protection of disabled customers.