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Lying with science: a guide to myth debunking

February 28, 2019

By Paul Homewood

 

 

h/t Joe Public

 

 

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Matt Ridley has thought provoking article in the Spectator today:

The whole aim of practical politics,’ wrote H.L. Mencken, ‘is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.’ Newspapers, politicians and pressure groups have been moving smoothly for decades from one forecast apocalypse to another (nuclear power, acid rain, the ozone layer, mad cow disease, nanotechnology, genetically modified crops, the millennium bug…) without waiting to be proved right or wrong.

Increasingly, in a crowded market for alarm, it becomes necessary to make the scares up. More and more headlines about medical or environmental panics are based on published scientific papers, but ones that are little more than lies laundered into respectability with a little statistical legerdemain. Sometimes, even the exposure of the laundered lies fails to stop the scare. Dr Andrew Wakefield was struck off in 2010 after the General Medical Council found his 1998 study in the Lancet claiming a link between the MMR vaccine and autism to be fraudulent. Yet Wakefield is now a celebrity anti-vaccine activist in the United States and has left his long-suffering wife for the supermodel Elle Macpherson. Anti-vax campaigning is a lucrative business.

Meanwhile, the notion that chemicals such as bisphenol A, found in plastics, are acting as ‘endocrine disruptors’, interfering with human hormones even at very low doses, started with an outright fraudulent study that has since been retracted. Many low-quality studies on BPA have pushed this theory, but they have been torpedoed by high-quality analyses including a recent US government study called Clarity. Yet this is of course being largely ignored by the media and the activists.

So the habit of laundering lies is catching on. Three times in the past month, pseudo-science flew around the world before the scientific truth had got its boots on (as Mark Twain did not say, but Jonathan Swift almost did): in stories about insect extinction, weedkiller causing cancer, and increased flooding. The shamelessness of the apocaholics is increasingly blatant. They know that even if a story of impending doom is thoroughly debunked, the correction comes too late. The gullible media will have relayed the headline without checking, so the activists have made their fake-news hit, perhaps even raised funds on the back of it, and won.

https://www.spectator.co.uk/2019/03/lying-with-science-a-guide-to-myth-debunking/

 

The article, which should be viewable online, covers three recent examples of pseudo science, two of which will be familiar to readers of this blog.

Below are the relevant extracts:

Take the story on 10 February that ‘insects could vanish within a century’, as the Guardian’s Damian Carrington put it, echoed by the BBC. The claim is, as even several science journalists and conservationists have now reported, bunk.

The authors of the study, Francisco Sánchez-Bayo and Kris Wyckhuys, claimed to have reviewed 73 different studies to reach their conclusion that precisely 41 per cent of insect species are declining and ‘unless we change our way of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades’. In fact the pair had started by putting the words ‘insect’ and ‘decline’ into a database, thereby ignoring any papers finding increases in insects, or no change in numbers.

They did not check that their findings were representative enough to draw numerical conclusions from. They even misinterpreted source papers to blame declines on pesticides, when the original paper was non-committal or found contradictory results. ‘Several multivariate and correlative statistical analyses confirm that the impact of pesticides on biodiversity is larger than that of other intensive agriculture practices,’ they wrote, specifically citing a paper that actually found the opposite: that insect abundance was lower on farms where pesticide use was less.

They also relied heavily on two now famous recent papers claiming to have found fewer insects today than in the past, one in Germany and one in Puerto Rico. The first did not even compare the same locations in different years, so its conclusions are hardly reliable. The second compared samples taken in the same place in 1976 and 2012, finding fewer insects on the second occasion and blaming this on rapid warming in the region, rather than any other possible explanation, such as timing of rainfall in the two seasons. Yet it turned out that there had been no warming: the jump in temperature recorded by the local weather station was entirely caused by the thermometer having been moved to a different location in 1992. Whoops.

Talking of payouts, the third inexactitude to fly around the world two days later was the claim by the left-leaning political thinktank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) that, ‘Since 2005, the number of floods across the world has increased by 15 times’, which was directly quoted by the BBC’s Roger Harrabin, in the usual headline-grabbing story about how we are all doomed.

This was (to borrow a phrase from Sir Nicholas Soames) ocean-going, weapons-grade, château-bottled nonsense. There has been no increase in floods since 2005, let alone a 15-fold one. When challenged, IPPR said it was a ‘typo’, and that it meant since 1950. Well, that is nonsense, too. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change regularly reviews data on floods and says it can find no trend: ‘In summary, there continues to be a lack of evidence and thus low confidence regarding the sign of trend in the magnitude and/or frequency of floods on a global scale.’

Fortunately, the IPPR gave a source for its absurd claim. This was ‘GMO Analysis of EM-DAT 2018’. Paul Homewood, a private citizen who regularly catches climate alarmists out, explained in a blog what this meant. EM-DAT is a database of disasters that is wholly worthless as a source for such a claim, as it admits, because it only includes very small disasters such as traffic accidents but only for recent years. There is no evidence here of a trend at all.

GMO is a big Boston asset management firm, whose founder and owner, Jeremy Grantham, just happens — you guessed it — to fund the Institute for Public Policy Research.

In the old days, investigative journalists would be all over this: a billionaire funding a pressure group that issues a press release that quotes the billionaire making a Horlicks of science but that nonetheless gets amplified, helping the pressure group attract more funds. But journalists’ budgets have been cut, and it’s easier to rewrite press releases.

  

The full article is well worth a read though.

Incidentally, GWPF have now sent a formal complaint to the PNAS, publishers of the Puerto Rico paper, demanding full retraction due to fundamental flaws.

Matt Ridley and I are co-signatories.

Watch this space!

19 Comments
  1. February 28, 2019 12:40 pm

    The Puerto Rico paper may turn out to be a big political football, with its ludicrous claim that insects don’t like heat and humidity, which will be news to anyone who has visited the tropics. The paper matters because if it remains it can and surely will be included in the next IPCC science reports, which will inevitably claim even more certainty than before that Life on Earth is doomed, without … you know what.

  2. February 28, 2019 12:45 pm

    Reblogged this on ajmarciniak.

  3. Europeanonion permalink
    February 28, 2019 1:36 pm

    It is the statement and not the refutation that is reported and so myths perpetuate.

  4. Gerry, England permalink
    February 28, 2019 2:03 pm

    The Booker & North book Scared to Death is a good read on the subject of false scares to which you can include ‘asbestos’. I remain to be convinced there is not something that needs researching regarding MMR and autism because what are the chances of knowing three people with autistic children that were fine up until they had the MMR vacine? Ranged against anyone questioning this are the big pharma companies and the government. With regards GMOs, the benefits are dubious and the risks of mixing thinks up so badly that we cause a catastrophe are too high for me. Mad cow disease covered up something real that again government partnered by big agrochem would not want exposed – organophosphate pesticides.

  5. terryfwall@hotmail.com permalink
    February 28, 2019 3:23 pm

    Gerry asks: “I remain to be convinced there is not something that needs researching regarding MMR and autism because what are the chances of knowing three people with autistic children that were fine up until they had the MMR vacine?”

    Well, my understanding is that autism is not recognisable, typically, until after the age at which the MMR vaccine is administered. So, the question is actually “what are the chances of knowing three people with autistic children?”. If your chances of knowing one are, let’s say, 1 in 4 (if you know 50-100 parents that sounds realistic) then the chances of knowing three are around 1 in 64. So, in every million adults in the UK there are 15 thousand just like you who also know of three autistic kids who were diagnosed after having the MMR vaccine.

    What are the chances of knowing three people with autistic children that were fine until they went to nursery school? Sounds dumb, doesn’t it, but it’s the same question. More importantly, what are the chances of knowing someone who rejected the MMR vaccine and whose child developed one of those diseases because they mixed with other children who hadn’t been vaccinated?

    Regrettably, much higher than they used to be.

    • A C Osborn permalink
      February 28, 2019 3:51 pm

      To add to your point there are many Autistic people in the world who have not even had the MMR jabs at all.
      I know someone with ADHD and slightly autistic and their problem appears to be excessive Testosterone.

      As far as I am concerned with so much evidence for GMO crops I can’t see how you get a Catastrophe, perhaps Gerry can explain how it would happen?
      After all Selective breeding and gene splicing has been going on for many years.

  6. Robin Guenier permalink
    February 28, 2019 4:34 pm

    Matt makes some good points. However, as I commented on the Speccie article, it’s a pity he includes “the millennium bug” as an example of a “forecast apocalypse”. It wasn’t. Here’s what Eddie George, then Governor of the Bank of England said about it:

    ”The financial system – especially in a centre as large and diverse as London – is highly interdependent and the failure of one quite small part can easily have substantial knock-on effects. And the failure of parts of the infrastructure could be catastrophic.”

    That wasn’t a forecast, it was a warning about a real problem.

    Many such warnings were issued. And, fortunately, people acted on them and averted the risk of catastrophe.

    Picking a poor example doesn’t help his case.

    • A C Osborn permalink
      February 28, 2019 5:31 pm

      Robin, you are correct about Y2000, I remember it well.
      However the point was that although practically everybody took any necessary action to prevent it the MSM were still calling it a possible catastrophe right up until midnight on December 1999.

    • bobn permalink
      March 1, 2019 1:02 am

      And millions of people did nothing to change systems and nothing untoward happened to their systems. Y2k bug was a marketing scam that gained billions for the computer industry.

      • Robin Guenier permalink
        March 1, 2019 8:48 am

        Well bobn that’s a myth that’s widely shared. But it’s false. I suggest you download the transcript of Professor Thomas’s lecture (see my link above) and, if you can, tell me where you think he got it wrong. Thanks.

      • terryfwall permalink
        March 1, 2019 10:49 am

        Bobn, systems written in the computing dark ages (1960-80’s) definitely tried to save valuable memory by missing out the “19” when recording the year. Consequently, a check to see if a transaction was this year or last year would ask “if input year is greater than file-record year then do A, else do B”. Procedure B, of course, might be so unexpected that the program misbehaves or simply stops for manual intervention. But that would have happened every time once we compared 00 with 99.

        I was one of those millions who did nothing: reason being, I’m an end-user and I relied on those people running my system to have done it for me.

        Fortunately, they did. A lot of the operating software had been written decades earlier and, despite major modifications, was still in there somewhere. Countless lines of code had to be changed and, of course, countless didn’t, and at great expense.

      • Robin Guenier permalink
        March 1, 2019 11:34 am

        The main problem was in those millions of ancient lines of code. But that wasn’t the only problem. For example, one came to light in 2001 when a Health Visitor in Yorkshire noticed a higher than usual number of babies with Downʼs Syndrome in her area. What had happened was that pregnant women who were referred to the National Health Serviceʼs Northern General Hospital in Sheffield as possibly being at risk of having babies with birth defects were initially screened by a routine designed to identify those at highest risk. A major factor was age (women over 35 were at higher risk) so that was a main focus of the screening process. Unfortunately, the PathLAN computer used for the task used a two-digit system. Therefore, if a woman born in 1962 presented in 1999, the computer deducted 62 from 99, getting 37 – over 35, so she was at risk. But, if the same woman presented in 2000, it deducted 62 from 00, getting minus 62 – under 35, so (it concluded) she was not at risk. This affected over 150 women. Fortunately the NHS had spent a lot of time (and money) investigating and fixing areas of risk, so such failures were rare.

        BBC report here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/1541557.stm

      • terryfwall permalink
        March 1, 2019 11:44 am

        Very interesting example, Robin, thanks.

        It does beg the question: if fewer women were flagged for screening and this resulted in more Downs Syndrome babies (150 more?) does that mean that many of those pregnancies would have been terminated?

  7. February 28, 2019 7:56 pm

    Reblogged this on Climate Collections.

  8. February 28, 2019 7:59 pm

    Good piece in Quilllette today
    Why Renewables Can’t Save the Planet

    https://quillette.com/2019/02/27/why-renewables-cant-save-the-planet/

  9. John Bills permalink
    March 1, 2019 9:51 am

    No scruples in gaining money.
    In 2014 a paper that implicates that all warming from 1993 on is natural:
    https://dspace.mit.edu/handle/1721.1/89054
    In 2018 implicating the way models are used suboptimal:
    https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-018-0355-y
    In 2019 almost 100 % sure:
    https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-019-0424-x

  10. Joseph Sharp permalink
    March 1, 2019 12:56 pm

    I’m surprised at Matt Ridley retailing the false assertion that Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 Lancet paper claimed a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Please read its closing paragraphs, Matt: they state that no link was found. Whether Wakefield thought there was a link is another matter.

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