Balneus

Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Stalin’s children – Western “democracies”

Posted by Dave Bath on 2009-11-03


I propose what seems to be a general rule of politics these days:

The probability of policies being set in harmony with the opinion of experts is inversely correlated to the unanimity of expert opinion and the importance of that policy.

Climate change is but one example where unanimity of relevant experts is near total, yet scientists are ignored at best, and often punished

Economic policy is an example where there is no unanimity, so the politicians choose the expert opinion that suits them or political sponsors.

Nature ("Sacked science adviser speaks out" doi:10.1038/news.2009.1053 2009-11-02) has a depressing interview with a recently sacked advisor on non-therapeutic drug use, who made the following comment.

It just seems to me a nail in the coffin of evidence-based government.

– David Nutt
University of Bristol

Almost every toxicologist will point out the irrational way biologically active compounds are regulated, and how the regulations bear little relation to toxicological data – whether we are talking about recreational drugs, food additives (such as the mild neurotoxin Aspartame), herbal supplements, or standard medicines).

Nutt had simply been pointing out the toxicological, sociological and economic data, all of which lead to the inescapable conclusion that controls should be relaxed on certain compounds, tightened on others.

Home Secretary Alan Johnson demanded the resignation of psychopharmacologist David Nutt on Friday, after Nutt reiterated his views on the relative safety of various drugs in a lecture at King’s College London Centre for Crime and Justice. Nutt gave the lecture in July but his comments came to light when the centre last week published a briefing based on the lecture.

But politicians took offence at this, claiming that this strayed into policy, which is the politicians domain.

If straight toxicological data, how dangerous something is, shouldn’t determine regulatory controls on a compound, then what should?

It wasn’t as if the briefing related to national security, so there is absolutely no reason why the briefing should not have been publically available.  Indeed, there are good arguments to say that all briefings, apart from perhaps those relating intimately to national security plans, should be publically available.

Sociologists are relevant to the debate on recreational drug policy.  They line up with the toxicologists.

Economists line up behind the sociologists.

What right have politicians to lie about these matters in a way analogous to determining that we should teach children in schools that 2+3=23, and exactly like Hilter did with "evidence" against Jews, and Stalin did pushing genetics that conformed to his pseudo-lefty ideology?

Politicians seem to want to exercise their skill in the dark arts of spin, whipping up a storm to appear more hairy-chested than their opponents.

Scientific literacy in the community, and at least some rigorous thinking at school, constrains the ability of politicians to use their dark arts to their own advantage, not that of the community.

Therefore, politicians of all major parties have a major incentive for decreasing the quality of education, while encouraging "grade inflation" so that it looks as if educational standards are improving.

And the dumber the population, the less the population is disturbed by sacking scientists, by castrating or censoring scientific papers.

The politicians are well served by scientists valuing truth more than money – for those scientists will generally be prepared to work for a pittance, and will usually be receiving funds directly or indirectly from government, and therefore, they can be silenced.

In the Nutt case, others on his advisory committee are resigning in sympathy.  Perhaps a whole lot of scientific advisors on other committees should do the same.  Perhaps if enough scientific advisors "went on strike" the evidence-free preferences of politicians would touch on the minds of the public.  No, that’s hoping for too much.

Yet censorship of films or photographs generates huge debate in the newspapers, and the celebrities get out in force.

But then a dumb public can only relate to bread and circuses, give attention to celebrity.

And that’s the way politicians like it.

How is this treatment of evidence by politicians when determining policy any different from a theocracy?

And the god of the modern "western democratic" para-theocracy is….?


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9 Responses to “Stalin’s children – Western “democracies””

  1. Climate change is but one example where unanimity of relevant experts is near total, yet scientists are ignored at best, and often published.

    Are you saying that somewhere near 100% of scientists agree on the current government action toward climate change? Are you saying that somewhere near 100% of scientists agree on what is happening or needs to be done? How near 100%?

  2. Dave Bath said

    Michael@1
    Yes, Michael, I /am/ saying that rounded to an integer, the scientific opinion is 100% that climate change is anthropogenic, extremely risky, and government responses (of almost all nations) are totally inadequate, if you discount those scientists employed or sponsored by big-carbon consortia. It’s the same sort of figure as you had on issues like the links between cancer and smoking in the 50s/60s/70s, or that same sort of ratios you’d find supporting evolution vs evolution-is-bunkum.

    The press reports almost every single climate change denialist/minimizer, just like they inflate the number of “intelligent design” biologists out there.

    There’s probably as much evidence for the teachings of L.Ron Hubbard as there are reasons do play down the worrying statements from the most reputable experts in the field. (Come to think of it, the “conspiracy/discrimination” bleatings of the climate change denialists/minimizers are pretty much the same as those of the scientologists.)

    The tactics of the IPCC were quite simple: they wanted to avoid ANY accusation they were overstating things by being beyond reasonable doubt, and all their “worst case scenarios” are looking more likely every time a new paper comes out.

    I’ve been keeping an close eye on Nature News and Nature Reports Climate Change, and unless you think that the Nature Publishing Group isn’t the most reputable mob out there (in which case, what is?) then you’re left with the need to accept that the denialist/minimizer position is faith-based (or more correctly, direct monetary-gain based) – again just like the scientologists.

    (And I should have said “often punished” not “often published” in the bit you quote. Fixing.)

    • W McKay said

      Dave Bath said
      “the scientific opinion is 100% that climate change is anthropogenic”

      This is a loose statement the can mean all things to all people and nothing to the greenhouse gas debate.

      Many surveys ask a simple question, is climate change anthropogenic?

      My answer is yes.

      However, this answer has nothing to do with greenhouse gases but relates to the impact of cities on recorded temperature in a location. Many studies have shown that thermal mass, particulate emissions etc have raised local temperatures by as much as 3 degrees C with no input from greenhouse gas. This is also anthropogenic climate change.

      Thus using that claim as support for action is the reason many people become doubtful of the integrity of the debate or the knowledge of the participants.

      The models used to make predictions of temperature changes are the best evidence available but have changed and are changing rapidly. They also have considerable difficulty explaining past climate change and the relationship between some historical CO2 levels and temperate changes.

      This does not say their predictions are wrong but when we consider moving large amounts of the world resources into a limited range of mitigation measures (ie no nuclear power) we have to accept a large amount of questioning of the proposed policies.

      In Australia we have just had the spectacle of the CSIRO a government research organization demanding that a paper accepted for publication in a scientific journal be withdrawn because it criticizes government policy on greenhouse gas control when several papers supporting government policy from scientists in the same organization have been published.

    • Dave Bath said

      W McKay…
      This post wasn’t so much about climate change as the way governments that tout themselves to be open, democratic, and evidence-based ignore the best data and advice.

      But, given that you accept climate change is anthrogenic, or even if you don’t, the consensus is also that the degree of climate change is dangerous, in which case (just as dangerously high body temperatures are treated with anti-pyretics, although low bloods levels of anti-pyretics are hardly the cause of fever) any mitigation, however unrelated to cause, becomes necessary.

      Personally, I think the only action that will make the necessary difference is population reduction – and the choice is whether we manage it, or the four horsemen impose it upon us.

  3. Yes, Michael, I /am/ saying that rounded to an integer, the scientific opinion is 100% that climate change is anthropogenic, extremely risky, and government responses (of almost all nations) are totally inadequate,

    More than 99.5% of scientists of say this? Carn’ Dave, that’s not credible, regardless of what the Nature Publishing Group says. I’d say doctors were pretty universal that smoking causes cancer by the 1970s, but you still wouldn’t have 99.5% agreement. I actually doubt 99.5% of doctors wouldn’t have smoked themselves, let alone called for a government ban on tobacco products. Global warming? We don’t have anything like that level of agreement from the scientific community.

    if you discount those scientists employed or sponsored by big-carbon consortia.

    I’d say this might have something to do with your 99.5%. You sure there aren’t a few more categories in your exclusion process? ;)

  4. Dave Bath said

    Michael.
    Can’t recall where I read this, but it WAS a journal not a newspaper, but there was a meta-analysis of papers where on one side you had those asserting that the climate change threat was real and anthropogenic, vs those that disagreed. Thousands of papers versus about a dozen (including those published by scientists sponsored by big carbon). That’s close enough to near-unanimous for me.

    You say (@3) “regardless of what the Nature Publishing Group says”
    That’s nailing your colors to the mast! I’ve got to give you credit for putting your position so plainly.

    But even if we focus on climate change… the governments of the UK/Oz hand-picked their experts (IPCC/Stern/Garnaut) and basically threw away the results.

  5. To be honest, I don’t know what the Nature Publishing Group is. I’m assuming they are the ones that publish the magazine ‘Nature’?

  6. Dave Bath said

    Michael@5 said “To be honest, I don’t know what the Nature Publishing Group is. I’m assuming they are the ones that publish the magazine ‘Nature’?”

    Ummmm, yes… and the rest at http://www.nature.com/siteindex/index.html

    Got more street cred than economist.com (including the EIU) has for econometrics.

    On climate: http://www.nature.com/news/specials/roadtocopenhagen/index.html series is worth reading… although about as pleasant for denialists/minimizers as reading Darwin and Dawkins would be for Bishop Usher.

    The fact that I get access to all of “Nature Reports Climate Change” without paying through the nose indicates how important Nature thinks of this topic. Read http://www.nature.com/climate/index.html and especially look at the depressing timeline
    1979: In July, a US National Academy of Sciences climate report ordered by the Carter administration offers a comprehensive look at the threat of global warming. Studying the question “If it were indeed certain that atmospheric carbon dioxide would increase on a known schedule, how well could we project the climatic consequences?”, the Academy’s panel envisages a global temperature increase of 1.5-4.5 °C by the mid-twenty-first century. “A wait-and-see policy may mean waiting until it is too late,” their report warns.

    From that report: “One consequence may be that perceptible temperature changes may not become apparent nearly so soon as has been anticipated. We may not be given a warning until the CO2 loading is such that an appreciable climate change is inevitable. The equilibrium warming will eventually occur; it will merely have been postponed.”

    Yep… 30 years intense study and the scientific conclusions have remained stable, if not more threatening.

    QED on politicians and their attitudes as far as implemented policy goes in the face of near-universal and constant scientific concern… or is 30 years of research and worry at the highest levels not enough for you.

  7. I’ll have a look. On the outset I’d say the fact that 30 years of intense study and stable scientific conclusions haven’t achieved universal acceptance might be for a reason. The same reason 30 years of holocaust denial or predictions of Christ’s return haven’t achieved mainstream acceptance!

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