Damore's Pseudoscientific Google manifesto is a better evidence for sexism than it is for intellectual sex differences

Pseudoscience is effective. If it weren’t, people wouldn’t generate so much of it to try to justify opinions not supported by the bulk of the evidence. It’s effective because people trust science as a method of understanding the world, and ideological actors want that trust conferred to their opinions. They want their opinions to carry that authority, so they imitate science to try to steal some of that legitimacy for themselves. However, science is not flattered by this behavior, it is undermined and diminished.

The Damore Manifesto (PDF with hyperlinks) or “Google anti-diversity memo” is just such an example of pseudoscience, and largely by accident, it has gained outsize attention for what is essentially a C-grade highschool research paper. We will get to a deconstruction of Damore’s scientific case for gender differences in a moment (See the Scientific Critique section below), but I would first like to point out that it has served as an excellent bellwether for those who have more sexism than sense when it comes to evaluating scientific claims. It has proven itself compelling to a large number of people in the media, for example intellectual lightweight David Brooks, who finds it so compelling he calls on Google’s CEO to resign. He makes the astonishing claim that Damore is championing “scientific research” while his opponents are merely concerned with “Gender equality” (Classic false bifurcation fallacy). He also declares Evolutionary Psychology to be “winning the debate” and goes on to talk about superior female “brain connectivity”, and with a sigh, I wonder what Snapple cap he learned these “facts” from. Not only is this highly debatable, but even if male vs female patterning exists there is no reason to think that it is unaffected by environment and cultural patterning on brain plasticity. If boys supposedly have more developed motor cortex and girls more emotional wiring is that because the boy’s first toy was a ball, and the girl’s is a doll? The declarations that this is a settled question is absurd. We don’t know, and there are too many confounders to be making statements about biological inevitability with regards to gender when we are positively soaking in gendered norms of behavior.

XKCD evo-psych

Brooks conclusion, an example of being incompetent and unaware of it, is the Google leadership either “is unprepared to understand the research (unlikely), is not capable of handling complex data flows (a bad trait in a C.E.O.) or was simply too afraid to stand up to a mob”. He never considers the possibility, and given this is Brooks the inevitability, that he is wrong and has been hoodwinked by rather mediocre pseudoscientific argumentation. In these reactions, we learn more about these authors’ biases than we have learned about the suitability of women to write code, as the “manifesto” conforms to Brooks’ rather predictable biases and therefore receives almost no skepticism relative to the weight of the claims, which are hefty. Why is Brooks so blind to the shoddy scholarship of the Google memo?

Ironically, within the memo itself, we have the answer:

We all have biases and use motivated reasoning to dismiss ideas that run counter to our internal values.

With this we see the continuing evolution of pseudoscience, as they continue to evolve and mimic actual scientific debate and knowledge, the scientific language of motivated reasoning (the cultural or identity-protective cognition responsible for denialism), has filtered into their lingo. This is fascinating in itself, as the author has clearly read about motivated reasoning, yet is completely blind to it for the rest of his essay. This essay is classic pseudoscience, built on motivated reasoning, that uses a half a dozen references, cherry-picked from the literature, to make the astonishing claim that women are underrepresented in his white-collar workforce because of fundamental biological differences (read defects) affecting their capability to perform in a purely intellectual job. It is another in a long line of “just so” pseudoscientific justifications of gender or racial disparities that just happens to defend the status quo (subtext – “why I shouldn’t have to sit through any more mandatory diversity training”).

This is a wonderful example of Panglossian reasoning and if you haven’t read Candide, here is an example:

Master Pangloss taught the metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigology. He could prove to admiration that there is no effect without a cause; and, that in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of all castles, and My Lady the best of all possible baronesses.

“It is demonstrable,” said he, “that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles. The legs are visibly designed for stockings, accordingly we wear stockings. Stones were made to be hewn and to construct castles, therefore My Lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Swine were intended to be eaten, therefore we eat pork all the year round: and they, who assert that everything is right, do not express themselves correctly; they should say that everything is best.”

Candide listened attentively and believed implicitly, for he thought Miss Cunegund excessively handsome, though he never had the courage to tell her so. He concluded that next to the happiness of being Baron of Thunder-ten-tronckh, the next was that of being Miss Cunegund, the next that of seeing her every day, and the last that of hearing the doctrine of Master Pangloss, the greatest philosopher of the whole province, and consequently of the whole world.

Everything old is new again. What Voltaire was mocking were the glib and facile justifications of injustice in his time, which presume the current state of the world is in its best possible state and everything you see is the result of natural inevitability. Candide in Silicon Valley would exclaim, “Oh Pangloss, why is it that men are so over-represented in tech?” and Pangloss’s response, “For men are better at tech because of their intrinsic personality traits, and in this best of all possible worlds, male personality traits and even their flaws make for the best-possible technology and business practices.”

Anyone who has been following the Uber saga might question Panglossian reasoning about why tech is male. Even if the tech sector, as it exists today, is male-dominated because men perform better in the current pathological and Machiavellian environment, that doesn’t mean this is ideal, that it isn’t hugely, culturally flawed, and maybe desperately in need of womanly empathy. Taking such data at face value, an industry that is blind to the needs of fully half of its customers, or blind to the potential benefit of the perspective of the other half of the population, is playing with fire. Do we really think situations like Uber’s are a coincidence given the toxic masculinity of its leadership? The male-dominated model is not the best of all possible worlds. The male-dominated model was built by men, for men, so why be surprised when less women are attracted to it and fare worse within it?

A Scientific Critique of Damore’s Claims

Other authors have already done some of the heavy lifting, tackling the low scientific credibility of these claims and placing them in the historical context of the usual power-dynamic of trying to scientifically justify the status quo. These are useful, but we can expand upon them and use this essay as a learning opportunity for how to detect pseudoscience, so one hopefully doesn’t have to go through all the effort of endless debunking every time an ideologue vomits up some new dreck to explain why it’s only natural males, or whites, or whomever comes out on top.

And that is one thing we should immediately detect, the similarity to historical “just-so” arguments of scientific racism from the last few centuries. These arguments are old news, as anyone who has read Stephen Jay Gould’s Mismeasure of Man can tell you, and crop up whenever the dominant class in society has to explain why they’re on top without admitting it’s because they pushed everyone else down then pulled the ladder up after themselves. Once you hear people talking about why current race or gender divisions are natural, one should immediately take whatever argument is coming with a massive dose of skepticism. We have heard this nonsense before.

Let’s start with Damore’s words so it’s clear I’m addressing the scientific claims of his argument, contained in the last element of his TL;DR section and supported by the handful of actual scientific citation.

Differences in distributions of traits between men and women may in part explain why we don’t have 50% representation of women in tech and leadership. Discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business.

Now keep in mind, this is in the context of an 69:31 M:F ratio at Google which is even higher in the engineering at 80:20, and arguments there is a strong business case for diversity.

Possible non-bias causes of the gender gap in tech
On average, men and women biologically differ in many ways. These differences aren’t just
socially constructed because:
● They’re universal across human cultures
● They often have clear biological causes and links to prenatal testosterone
● Biological males that were castrated at birth and raised as females often still identify
and act like males
● The underlying traits are highly heritable
● They’re exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective

Note, I’m not saying that all men differ from all women in the following ways or that these
differences are “just.” I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men
and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why
we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership. Many of these differences
are small and there’s significant overlap between men and women, so you can’t say anything
about an individual given these population level distributions.

It’s so nice that he cleared that up about not applying these findings to individuals this is hard to reconcile with the fact he is suggesting the 69:31 ratio or 80:20 engineering ratio at Google is in some meaningful way affected by these differences. Further, each of these statements lacks citation and can not be taken at face value, and I would describe them as either all wrong or grossly oversimplified. While the differences in gendered personality he subsequently describes is consistent within any culture examined, they are not consistent between cultures, which shows these are still culturally-dependent and not purely biologically deterministic (And of course, there is no matriarchal culture for comparison 😉 ) I have no idea why he conflated the research on androgens on personality development using CAH or androgen insensitivity with studies of personality changes in castration related to sex-reassignment, and prostate cancer treatment (if anyone can find a study of those “castrated at birth” please show me as I cant find it – I suspect he’s confused). He mixes two effects by saying androgens in the womb have effects on subsequent personality (likely but difficult to separate from gender norms) but then saying traits are heritable. Which is it? The Y chromosome or exposure to androgens? One is genetic, one is congenital. Finally, it’s rare to find examples where EP is truly “predicting” anything and not just indulging in the just-so stories and adaptationism (my favorite example of an evo-psych just so), i.e. more Panglossian logic. The field is…problematic, and strong statements about EP predictions like “exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective” should set off alarm bells.

Each of these statements are gross simplifications of large bodies of research, some of which are highly problematic areas with reproducibility problems, to justify a 2:1 or even 4:1 difference in hiring of men:women at Google. There is a general rule that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof”, well here is a man saying the reason Google has 2-4x as many men as women isn’t just the known, historic, institutional sexism that kept women from voting, owning property, having access to college education, equal pay etc., but fundamental biological differences across all cultures, that exists from birth, programmed by testosterone yet highly heritable (wah?) and conforming to predictions of a controversial scientific field that starts with conclusions and works backward to explanation. These effects are large enough, apparently, that Google should not try for parity in hiring and stop diversity training. Riiight. You better have some rock solid data to back this up.

Let’s look at the extraordinary data on why the women are so terribly disadvantaged based on their biology for software engineering (heads up, it’s a couple of wikipedia articles, and about 3 scientific citations)

Personality differences
Women, on average, have more:

Openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas. Women generally also have a stronger interest in people rather than things, relative to men (also interpreted as empathizing vs. systemizing).
These two differences in part explain why women relatively prefer jobs in social or artistic areas. More men may like coding because it requires systemizing and even within SWEs, comparatively more women work on front end, which deals with both people and aesthetics.
Extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness. Also, higher agreeableness.
This leads to women generally having a harder time negotiating salary, asking for raises, speaking up, and leading. Note that these are just average differences and there’s overlap between men and women, but this is seen solely as a women’s issue. This leads to exclusory programs like Stretch and swaths of men without support.
Neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance).This may contribute to the higher levels of anxiety women report on Googlegeist and to the lower number of women in high stress jobs.
Note that contrary to what a social constructionist would argue, research suggests that “greater nation-level gender equality leads to psychological dissimilarity in men’s and women’s personality traits.” Because as “society becomes more prosperous and more egalitarian, innate dispositional differences between men and women have more space to develop and the gap that exists between men and women in their personality becomes wider.” We need to stop assuming that gender gaps imply sexism.

For this segment he cites the wikipedia page on “sex differences in psychology; personality traits”, only useful for some background, not proof women!=engineers.

He cites This paper, which summarizes meta-analyses in the literature of personality with a reproducible effect showing that in a 6 dimensional model of personality traits women and men consistently score differently on being interested in “persons” vs “things”, and also that these sex differences in behavior are consistent across cultures. To be fair supporting literature exists which correlates these personality trends with differences in vocational choices, so it’s plausible that, all things being equal, there may be a gender gap in some professions based on personality traits.

This may be the only item of interest in his entire paper, as it is reproducible and there is evidence it impacts what choices the different sexes make about jobs. The problem I have with it is there is no way to control for the effect of how humans, starting when we’re toddlers, start to consolidate gender roles. If the image of the engineer or tech industry is predominantly male, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It also assumes that the current male-dominated status of tech couldn’t benefit from traits on the female axis including better interest in “persons” and creativity/artistic expression. The argument becomes a tautology, men are attracted to the tech sector because the tech sector is male. Add to that the tendency of institutions to maintain homogeneity by effects like in-group bias, and you see why male-dominated fields may remain static. Just imagine if we had accepted similar Panglossian logic 50 years ago that these gender-distributions as some kind of inevitable consequence of natural gender preferences, we’d still have only male doctors, lawyers, and executives, because, this is the best of all possible worlds, and there must be some evolutionary psychology to explain why there are no women doctors, or lawyers, or executives.

Damore then cites the wikipedia article on the Empathizing–systemizing theory. This appears to be moderately central to his argument, but again it is weak evidence. Not to beat a dead horse, but we are once again starting with the assumption that the current state of affairs represents some kind of ideal – the dominance of men in the field is “just so” because they’re more adapted to it, rather than they adapted the field to themselves or that there’s a host of historical factors such as women only got the right to vote in the last 100 years, co-ed schools in the last 50 years, they are still treated as second-class citizens including when it comes to pay. It also accepts one of the authors underlying assumptions, which is outside of my experience, which is that empathy is bad for engineering at Google. I can’t debate that, but least one former Googler has responded to this assertion and says absolutely not:

What I am is an engineer, and I was rather surprised that anyone has managed to make it this far without understanding some very basic points about what the job is. The manifesto talks about making “software engineering more people-oriented with pair programming and more collaboration” but that this is fundamentally limited by “how people-oriented certain roles and Google can be;” and even more surprisingly, it has an entire section titled “de-emphasize empathy,” as one of the proposed solutions.

People who haven’t done engineering, or people who have done just the basics, sometimes think that what engineering looks like is sitting at your computer and hyper-optimizing an inner loop, or cleaning up a class API. We’ve all done this kind of thing, and for many of us (including me) it’s tremendous fun. And when you’re at the novice stages of engineering, this is the large bulk of your work: something straightforward and bounded which can be done right or wrong, and where you can hone your basic skills.

But it’s not a coincidence that job titles at Google switch from numbers to words at a certain point. That’s precisely the point at which you have, in a way, completed your first apprenticeship: you can operate independently without close supervision. And this is the point where you start doing real engineering.

And once you’ve understood the system, and worked out what has to be built, do you retreat to a cave and start writing code? If you’re a hobbyist, yes. If you’re a professional, especially one working on systems that can use terms like “planet-scale” and “carrier-class” without the slightest exaggeration, then you’ll quickly find that the large bulk of your job is about coordinating and cooperating with other groups.

Essentially, engineering is all about cooperation, collaboration, and empathy for both your colleagues and your customers. If someone told you that engineering was a field where you could get away with not dealing with people or feelings, then I’m very sorry to tell you that you have been lied to. Solitary work is something that only happens at the most junior levels, and even then it’s only possible because someone senior to you — most likely your manager — has been putting in long hours to build up the social structures in your group that let you focus on code.

All of these traits which the manifesto described as “female” are the core traits which make someone successful at engineering. Anyone can learn how to write code; hell, by the time someone reaches L7 or so, it’s expected that they have an essentially complete mastery of technique. The truly hard parts about this job are knowing which code to write, building the clear plan of what has to be done in order to achieve which goal, and building the consensus required to make that happen.

Tom Smykowski says, engineers need more empathy
If true, this kind of knocks the teeth out of this particular “just so” justification that empathy is maladaptive. Is it possible, that the current culture of masculinity and therefore insularity is holding tech back? Couldn’t one make just as good an argument here, that Google hasn’t maxed its potential until it harnesses women’s superior social and interpersonal skills to help with things like teamwork and management? Is there no positive side to hiring women? And that is assuming these are large enough difference between women and men on these behavioral traits to justify hiring twice as many men as women.

Take a look at a recent paper from the theorist behind the E-S scale – Simon Baron-Cohen – and the differences on his Autism Spectrum Quotient scores (a newer scale Baron-Cohen has validated from the EQ SQ research and seems to have moved onto) for women vs men and STEM fields vs others that Damore is alluding to (I have to make some leaps here, Damore links the “E-S scale” wikipedia, which is a touch dated, without indicating a specific study, and ostensibly is referring to this work by Baron-Cohen who has advanced the idea of the “male mind” and autism being an excess of male mental traits – this itself has been critiqued as “neurosexist”). Studying an enormous database Baron Cohen finds a statistically-significant difference in AQ score between men and women, and women and those in STEM:


While this may be statistically significant, it’s still a tiny difference – a matter of about 3 points on this scale between men and women, and women and STEM workers who, on average, also tend to have a similar 2-3 point higher AQ score than the female mean. To put this in perspective, this is a 50 point scale, and the nonclinical range of AQ is consistently in the teens to twenties while those diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder have a mean around 35. It is also hard to conclude the differences between women’s score and STEM isn’t due to intrinsic or cultural factors – again, the best of all possible worlds fallacy, and it is no evidence to believe that 2-3 points difference in the mean score explains 2-4 fold gaps in hiring of men vs women. Draw a line at about 21 and ballpark an SD, of +/- 8 points, are there 2-4x as many men under the curve right there? Of course not. There’s too much meat under that curve to justify more than a couple of points difference in outcomes, assuming the effect is highly meaningful or beneficial. Alternatively, you could make an argument from the tails, that you could conceive of the extremes of the population such as AQ > 40 having approximately 2x as many men with this trait. One would have to believe that the population at google is so far shifted to the right in terms of male braininess, that the majority of the population at google has a mean AQ beyond 40, basically suggesting they all would score higher than the mean for those with autism spectrum disorder.

At the same time that Damore is critical of reducing populations to their means when there is significant overlap, to believe his argument – that tech is segregated by gender because not enough women have the “male mind” described by Baron-Cohen – requires one to believe that the status-quo ratio represents the ideal workforce, that these tiny differences in gender behavior are so debilitating as to explain the 2-4x difference in hiring, and that nothing beneficial is brought to the table by “empathic” team members. This makes no sense, these differences are slight. The area under the curve doesn’t support that these tiny differences – even if they were intensely meaningful, could generate such large differences in hiring. The areas where the variance between the populations becomes larger than the female population size is far above typical scores for ASD. Is the contention that the neurotypical can’t code?

Barely worth mentioning, he alludes to negative female personality traits by including a link to this wikipedia article on Neuroticism. This is a similarly weak argument. Again the effect is meaningless in size, if you go to the primary literature it’s consistent but small. There is no evidence such an mild difference in gender behaviors with regards to neuroticism would result in such a dramatic difference in hiring or performance, nor is it explained why neuroticism would be less adaptive in engineering vs other fields.

Finally he cites this opinion piece dismissing wage gaps between genders from a Libertarian online magazine, ignored without comment.

Does anyone maybe feel already the evidence here is a bit…light? You’re going to tell an entire gender they can’t do engineering based on a 3 psychology papers showing small and likely irrelevant differences in gendered behavior, a couple of wikipedia pages, and a libertarian opinion piece about how the wage gap is imaginary? You are surprised when women read this and they’re pissed? Do those saying this is “science” like David Brooks want to maybe rethink their expertise on this topic? Because they’re not looking too competent right now. This is classic pseudoscience – a weak, cherry-picked literature is flogged to support extreme ideological nonsense.

Next Damore asks why might men be more suited for software engineering? Well he’s got a whole paragraph and three more “sciencey” citations to justify that:

Men’s higher drive for status
We always ask why we don’t see women in top leadership positions, but we never ask why we
see so many men in these jobs. These positions often require long, stressful hours that may not
be worth it if you want a balanced and fulfilling life.
Status is the primary metric that men are judged on4, pushing many men into these higher
paying, less satisfying jobs for the status that they entail. Note, the same forces that lead men
into high pay/high stress jobs in tech and leadership cause men to take undesirable and
dangerous jobs like coal mining, garbage collection, and firefighting, and suffer 93% of
work-related deaths.

To justify this he cites the Atlantic opinion piece “The War Against Boys” which counter-intuitively suggests women are better at school than boys, and it’s boys whose performance is undermined (and this helps Damore’s argument how?). He cites this paper on gender differences in mate selection criteria, sadly is paywalled but it’s conclusions are college men prefer good looks, and college women want financial success in a mate, therefore men are more competitive for status jobs in order to satisfy female sexual selection. One could point out, this is a gross simplification of human mating dynamics and is one effect among many in human attraction or every woman alive would coo over Donald Trump. Finally he cites this paper on effects of testosterone on college age men that found when injected with additional testosterone in an Ultimatum game they behaved more aggressively, but also more generous to those who made them bigger offers thus supporting the idea testosterone enhances “status seeking” behavior. Again one would have to believe this is a large enough effect that women and men have no interest in tech or engineering for any other reason than mate selection. Or show that those engineers seeking status are running higher testosterone levels than men in other “high status” jobs to show this is anything other than a suggestive result. It is further discredited by the fact that over the last 40 years women have pursued more and more “high status” jobs. Although their numbers are more uneven with regards to “things important” type (read engineering) fields, to say this is biological determinism and not male obstructionism is not justified based on a single testosterone experiment done in college students and a oversimplified view of mate selection. It ignores that women are perfectly capable of being engineers and functioning at the top of fields like physics or mathematics, and human mating behaviors are far more complex than “women are gold-diggers.”

Again. Does anyone here find the evidence here a bit light? David Schmitt seems to agree and his research is that being cited by Damore:

Still, it is not clear to me how such sex differences are relevant to the Google workplace. And even if sex differences in negative emotionality were relevant to occupational performance at Google (e.g., not being able to handle stressful assignments), the size of these negative emotion sex differences is not very large (typically, ranging between “small” to “moderate” in statistical effect size terminology; accounting for perhaps 10% of the variance1). Using someone’s biological sex to essentialize an entire group of people’s personality is like surgically operating with an axe. Not precise enough to do much good, probably will cause a lot of harm. Moreover, men are more emotional than women in certain ways, too. Sex differences in emotion depend on the type of emotion, how it is measured, where it is expressed, when it is expressed, and lots of other contextual factors. How this all fits into the Google workplace is unclear to me. But perhaps it does.

As to sex differences in mate preferences and status-seeking, these topics also have been heavily researched across cultures (for a review, see here). Again, though, most of these sex differences are moderate in size and in my view are unlikely to be all that relevant to the Google workplace (accounting for, perhaps, a few percentage points of the variability between men’s and women’s performance outcomes).

Culturally universal sex differences in personal values and certain cognitive abilities are a bit larger in size (see here), and sex differences in occupational interests are quite large2. It seems likely these culturally universal and biologically-linked sex differences play some role in the gendered hiring patterns of Google employees. For instance, in 2013, 18% of bachelor’s degrees in computing were earned by women, and about 20% of Google technological jobs are currently held by women. Whatever affirmative action procedures Google is using appear to be working pretty well (at least at the tech job level). Still, I think it’s important to keep in mind that most psychological sex differences are only small to moderate in size, and rather than grouping men and women into dichotomous groups, I think sex and sex differences are best thought of scientifically as multidimensional dials, anyway (see here).

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Damore’s use of his research and the data on increasing “status” vs “things” jobs suggests women might have been settling for those jobs only as they were in enforced gendered roles. Schmitt also seems to agree, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and these effects are small. Linking gendered behavioral differences to massive differences in performance in tech or engineering is an enormous stretch of logic. Schmitt emphasizes uncertainty, and the need to recognize complex role of gender on human behavior, he sure sounds like a scientist (for an Evolutionary Psychologist 😉 ).

The one who doesn’t sound like a scientist is Damore, who it turns out falsely claimed to have a PhD, gave his first interviews to alt-right youtubers, compared Google to Soviet prison labor camps even wearing a “Goolag” shirt for his WSJ editorial. He sounds less like a scientist, and more like he’s read the Crank Howto. I don’t understand how he ever expected to keep his job, after it turns out he did not have a PhD, he blasted a crank manifesto at his workplace that demeans a significant portion of the Google workforce, managed to embarrass his company on a national level, and ultimately demonstrated fundamental incompetencies in analysis and workplace etiquette. He would probably benefit from some training along the empathy axis, but instead is nursing a google-sized persecution complex.

To summarize, a junior, not-PhD employee of Google has written a 10 page document which purports to explain that the massive imbalance in male:female ratio at the company is not necessarily due to historic struggles of women for equal representation in equality, readily measurable bias, or structural sexism, but is instead due to female biology. The evidentiary basis for this argument is 3 bullet points followed by 3 short paragraphs that cite a few wikipedia pages, some libertarian/rightwing opinion pieces, a handful of papers on gendered differences in behavior showing some interesting but small differences between men and women, a bizarre reference to data from males castrated at birth (please someone find me that paper), some handwaving about male/female sex selection and “status” belied by a 40 year trend in women increasingly taking higher status jobs, and a borderline sexist psychological theory about “masculine brains” with similarly small differences between men and women. Notably, all of his arguments are dependent on the assumption that the male brain is fundamentally better at engineering because they got these jobs first and are thus appropriately over represented, and qualities like empathy and interpersonal skills don’t contribute to what is already a flawlessly healthy corporate culture in tech. By this logic women don’t do well in this culture because female cognition is inadequate to the task, not because it’s hard to fit in as a woman in at the boys club.


He does not discuss or cite any of the extensive literature for the constant measurable bias women undergo in the workplace. His argument dismisses the more probable negative effects of historical oppression of women (denial of the vote, of property, of jobs, of education) well into the last century as well as ongoing structural sexism. He fails to link these effects to actual performance or interest in software engineering, he grossly oversimplifies the relationship between culture and behavior in favor of radical biological determinism, and wraps it into a typical Panglossian “just-so” story.

After predictably being fired for sending a crudely-argued, c-grade essay on why “girls like talking not math”, he has now made the rounds of the alt-right internet, the antediluvian editorial page of the WSJ, and has cried persecution at Google comparing himself to a slave laborer. He denies he’s an ideologue, even though as example of left wing denialism he cites John Tierney of the Manhattan Institute, and his argument that global warming scientists are the real threat to science (plus Rachel Carson DDT revisionism – yay!). By their fruits you shall know them.

What this shows is, the people who are impressed by his line of argumentation and series of events are ideologically-primed to accept it, not that they are particularly good judges of science. Pay attention to who buys into this uncritically, it’s better evidence for weak, sexist minds than it is for weak minds of a sex.

ACSH is astroturf, here's why

The American Council on Science and Health recently got some exposure on twitter, then a little too much exposure, after publishing this highly problematic (and hysterically bad) op-ed/infographic on twitter and on their site.

This opinion piece, presented as if there is some method or objective analysis, purports to show which are the best and worst science news sites. But this immediately started to fall apart on the most cursory inspection. First of all, notice the x-axis, it’s clearly some kind of subjective assessment, and it immediately fails to be credible as the New York Times is classified as “more ideological” than Forbes (a source of global warming denialism including writing by James Taylor), or Fox News. Then twitter started in on it and quickly the y-axis started to come apart as well. Phil Plait points out that just on basic inspection it’s a joke:

Screen Shot 2017-03-08 at 11.49.03 PM

Other commentators on Twitter tried to science it up for them by making the y-axis based on pageviews only to learn that oh, that axis was subjective too, based on the author’s idea of what compelling is.

And insult to injury, Nature (from the top left no less) weighs in and calls it garbage in the nicest, Naturiest way possible:

It’s a curious exercise, and one that fails to satisfy on any level. It is, of course, flattering to be judged as producing compelling content. But one audience’s compelling is another’s snoozefest, so it seems strikingly unfair to directly compare publications that serve readers with such different interests as, say, The Economist and Chemistry World. It is equally unfair to damn all who work on a publication because of some stories that do not meet the grade. (This is especially pertinent now that online offerings spread the brand and the content so much thinner.)

Come to think of it “Fails to satisfy on any level” is a bit harsh coming from Nature.

Naomi Oreskes, noted science historian of Merchants of Doubt (albeit wrong on nuclear power and likely GMOs) weighed in:

Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 12.04.06 AM

So basically, no one is fooled here.

Scienceblogs is also listed as ideological and of little value, maybe because our sciblings from angrytoxicologist to Effect Measure to the Pump Handle, to me (all the way back in 2007) and the excessively thorough Orac (see also) have been pointing out the obvious for years – the ACSH is astroturf. MotherJones, who admittedly have ideological problems from time to time on GMO and nutrition, are also frequent critics of ACSH, pointing out the felonious past of their one-time Director and their funding from industry for whom they provide excellent cover.

The newly revealed documents say that ACSH staffers should approach potential corporate financial backers with pitches geared toward specific issues. Last year, the documents note, the group planned to “seize opportunities to cultivate new funding possibilities (Prop 37, CSC, and corporate caving, etc.).” Proposition 37 was a 2012 California ballot initiative mandating the labeling of genetically modified foods. (It failed.) “CSC” is shorthand for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a consumer watchdog group that seeks to eliminate dangerous chemicals from cosmetic products. The documents suggest ACSH planned to mention CSC in its fundraising pitches to L’Oreal, Avon, and Procter and Gamble.

Lately, ACSH has become a vocal player in the debate over hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” In February, the council posted an outline of a “systematic, objective review” it intends to publish on the scientific literature covering the potential health effects of fracking. In an April op-ed for the conservative Daily Caller website, Whelan criticized Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) for dithering on whether to allow fracking in New York State and asserted that “publicity savvy activists posing as public health experts are spearheading a disingenuous crusade to prevent the exploitation of the vast quantities of natural gas.” Fracking, Whelan wrote, “doesn’t pollute water or air.”

These links to industry have made their efforts to take on notable quacks such as Mehmet Oz backfire spectacularly because they are easily dismissed as so contaminated with ideology themselves. And we should not be surprised, founded in 1978 as a counterpoint to Nader’s CSPI, they basically exist to push back against attempts to regulate industry in the consumer’s interest.

So what we have here is basically an op-ed in chart form, in which media such as NYT, CNN, Motherjones, and historic critics of ACSH are “ideological” or “not compelling” whereas basic science journals like Nature who do not usually wade into their political waters are high impact along with media politically-aligned with ACSH such as Forbes and the Economist. Great stuff. I agree with Nature, it fails at every level. And in the end such an exercise, even if not performed in such a amateurish and obviously fraudulent way, would be enormously difficult to undertake. Almost all news sources screw up, and I have been critical, at some time, of almost every single one of those sources from MotherJones, to Forbes, to the NYT, the Guardian (where I have also published), Wired etc. This is not a straightforward exercise and only saying Nature itself is reliable for news would be incredibly limiting and absurd, as would saying you should believe sources of journalism such as the NYT without question. It also is a conflation of science reporting with periodic garbage in opinion section (Pollan in the NYT for instance is usually in opinion or food sections, huffpo has a separate science entity that is passable), and if we’re going to weight media down by opinion sections of course Nature will likely win. They’re loath to express an opinion on anything.

On to more important matters, what is the deal with the ACSH anyway? It seems a very contradictory organization. They seem to have lots of legitimate scientific content, a staff with legitimate credentials, and a list of distinguished policy advisors, as well as good articles on anti-vax, ag, alti-med etc. The American Council on Science and Health, is not just astroturf, but may be one of the best astroturf investments out there for those interested in advancing their industry message. Why is this? Because they are really good at using legitimate science reporting and advocacy to camouflage a freemarket fundamentalist product. While railing against politicization of science, they happily submit deeply political material as some kind of nonideological exercise in scientific expertise. Take their review of Trumps nominees for cabinet positions with a scientific mission, in an article entitled Evaluating President Trump’s Science and Health Choices guess what? There were no bad choices.

Given all that, not to mention overruling scientists on Yucca Mountain, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Keystone XL, and more, it seems strange that some activists worry the incoming President will be any more anti-science than the last. The reality is presidents embrace science when it agrees with policy.

Ok that’s a start, apparently scientists are for Keystone XL, Obama is apparently anti-science, or at least, there is no reason to expect Trump (Global Warming is a Chinese Hoax) to be more anti-science than Obama. Fascinating. They clearly hate politics, and are very serious people that aren’t political in their opinions, but Obama is anti-science, and Trump apparently is not. Oh my. It gets better:

Health and Human Services – The position of HHS Secretary is often given to party loyalists with little or no relevant expertise in healthcare policy, but President Trump instead chose Dr. Tom Price, a medical doctor and Congressman. Dr. Price recognizes that the Affordable Care Act needs to be fixed, a necessary reality in 2017. This office also oversees the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Given the attention the opioid crisis has gotten, along with concerns in the science and health community that the CDC has been too aggressive in promoting crises to lobby for funding about, there are a number of challenges that Secretary Price faces beyond health insurance.

Tom Price, plagued from the start with ethics violations for self dealing through legislation (and – failure to disclose – an ACSH supporter!) is great for HHS. The ACA needs to be fixed (apparently not a political statement), and the CDC is “promoting crises to lobby for funding”. For a non-political, non-ideological group this is starting to sound a bit crazy-pants.

His critics tried to drum up controversy, noting that Dr. Price has been affiliated with an organization that has been critical of mandatory vaccines and also some essential ones. However, in Senate testimony, he unequivocally rejected them and embraced evidence-based medicine.

He actually did not reject the AAPS (they who shall not be named), it was not unequivocal, and that organization is more than antivax, it promotes lies about abortion and breast cancer, the link between HIV and AIDS, and Tom Price is a member. But apparently since he’s on the freemarket fundamentalist side, we’ll just ignore this, gloss over his weak non-disavowal, and not even mention the name for fear of reminding people just how anti-science this group is.

It gets even better:

Environmental Protection Agency – On its science findings, the EPA can be terrific, but the accusation by critics has been that they have been picking political goals first, and gathering data later. As mentioned above, the EPA’s “Waters of the United States” rule, where private ponds and creeks can be defined as “navigable waters” that fall under the EPA’s jurisdiction, remains mired in the courts, while pollution experts argue that its mandates on emissions were made using narrow data and ignoring studies which showed pollution is not causing any acute deaths in the U.S. now.

The EPA needs to return to being a data-gathering agency that recommends policies to elected officials and less of an unassailable oligarchy that skirts around Congress by issuing green decrees.

How is this not an intensely political position? The EPA, which has “protection” in its name should no longer be proactive but instead should just gather data? This is a radical reorientation of the function of an agency of government, can you pretend that’s anything but a political goal?

Also they love Scott Pruitt:

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt successfully challenged EPA rulings on scientific grounds, while acknowledging that the office has an important role to play in regulating pollution, including carbon dioxide. The challenge will be convincing lawmakers and the public that EPA is again evidence-based and making decisions to protect the long-term health of all Americans, rather than, as critics claim, used as a way to pass laws without involving Congress.

Tasking someone who has defeated EPA with reforming its work is a bold move, but it won’t be easy taming this bureaucratic leviathan or undoing the carefully groomed relationships anti-science groups have created with career bureaucrats there.

That’s right, antiscience groups are in the EPA now, and the guy who is going to fix it is the Oklahoma AG who sues the EPA so his state can have more earthquakes than any other, and who submits proposals from the oil and gas industry to the EPA as if they are his own. But the ACSH, they hate mixing politics and science. Heavens forbid.

Finally my favorite:

Department of Energy – Former Texas Governor Rick Perry has been tapped to head a department that he once said should be eliminated. However, he since admitted he was wrong and had changed his mind – a rare trait in a politician. While many states floundered with the low GDP of the last eight years, Texas did well, and that was because of energy production.The Obama administration too often used this department to subsidize the alternative energy industry. Solyndra, which went bankrupt and cost taxpayers $535 million, is just one example. Tens of billions of dollars were squandered because we subsidized corporations to compete with cheap Chinese labor on solar panels, or promoted wind, which hasn’t been a viable large-scale solution in the last 700 years and isn’t now.

To be successful, Gov. Perry should redirect funds away from corporate subsidies and back to basic research in alternative energy. As a bridge to a pollution-free future, he should encourage the development of America’s natural gas resources which, if done with proper regulatory oversight, will reduce greenhouse gas emissions even farther than it has. Smart natural gas extraction will increase our country’s energy independence and poke Vladimir Putin in the eye, since evidence has shown that the Russians were manipulating environmental activists to prevent America from attaining energy independence and being an energy exporter.

Obama’s secretary of Energy was Ernest Moniz, a nuclear physicist and an expert in the issues that are DOEs mission. Rick Perry’s greatest interaction with the DOE was forgetting its name on a debate stage while trying to list agencies to eliminate. Also I can’t resist this, here is his college transcript.

Note he, unlike Obama’s nominee, is not a nuclear physicist, and he got a D in a class called “meats”. But, the ACSH assures us, they hate politics! Rick Perry is going to be great because he will direct us away from renewables (hey the Chinese have those down anyway) and he’s probably learned a lot about nuclear physics since nearly failing “meats”. There is nothing political to see here. No siree.

Wow. That is the ACSH being apolitical and purely scientific. This is also consistent with a long history that I’m sure they’d wish we’d ignore, for instance of climate denial. Here is S Fred Singer, notorious denialist and ACSH former staff, waxing poetic about fellow climate denier Michael Crichton’s book State of Fear (porn for climate denialists per Chris Mooney)

The not-so-hidden message of State of Fear, spelled out in copious footnotes, a lengthy afterword, an appendix, and a twenty-page bibliography, is an oddly reassuring one for a Crichton book, even if many scientists would disagree with it: There is no such thing as global warming, or at least nothing that anyone can prove or predict — and when it comes to climatic change, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, and the experts who are in the business of purveying it.

For good measure, Crichton’s protagonist, “MIT professor on special leave” John Kenner, also delivers a number of mini-lectures challenging some of the Green movement’s most cherished beliefs, arguing, for example, that DDT is safe enough to eat, that the giant sequoias are practically junk trees, and that the methane emitted by termites is potentially a greater hazard than the atmospheric buildup of carbon dioxide.

I suspect that Michael Crichton is motivated by the same anger as so many of us who don’t want to see science misused for political purposes — or used just to gain grants from government and foundations. These are the sentiments that led to the founding of my organization, the Science and Environmental Policy Project. I was therefore pleased to see the great respect paid by Crichton to the late UCal professor Aaron Wildavsky, a founding director of SEPP.

Tellingly, the book points out that critics of the “consensus” and skeptics about global warming tend to be mainly retired academics — scientists who are no longer in the rat race for tenure, research grants, and career-building honors.

As Crichton states disarmingly (p.573): “Everybody has an agenda. Except me.” Well, there are a few others like him. The hundreds of scientific skeptics who have signed the Heidelberg Appeal, Leipzig Declaration, and Oregon Petition against junk science share the same agenda as Crichton.

There you have it, from the ACSH site, Climate change is fake, it’s a conspiracy to get grant money (by mostly retired scientists? wah?) and insert politics into science, and the noble scientists of the Oregon petition prove Crichton right.

But remember, the ACSH is not political! They don’t deny climate science, or maybe they don’t anymore, they’re very reasonable people. They’re much better these days I’m sure! Except how they refer to Al Gore as “still demented” for his advocacy of climate science, promoting the Lomborgian distraction:

The real cause of so much suffering in the world is not climate change but poverty. In a more prosperous world, diseases like malaria and cholera largely will go away. And deaths from preterm birth complications and birth asphyxia/birth trauma — both of which are in the top 10 causes of death in poor countries — will also vanish.

When it comes to human disease, climate change is mostly a distraction. Eliminating poverty will do far more to save people’s lives than lowering the temperature a notch.

That’s Steve Berezow, who insists he is not a climate denialist. Here is Steve calling David Gorski (an MD/PhD surgeon, scientist, and tenured professor) a liar over it:

Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 12.57.22 AM

Note Gorski was saying ACSH denies climate change, which as we can see from Singer’s article above, is without question at least a historical fact. These days though, ACSH being the savvy astroturf that they are, they don’t take the same hard line. Instead they go for the Lomborgian middle – don’t deny climate change, just say there is no point doing anything significant to address it, address poverty instead, because hey, we can’t chew gum and walk at the same time and only one issue should get funding at a time. All problems will be addressed serially, starting with Malaria. Charming. If someone holds a gun to your head say, “I support a carbon tax”, which is safe because it’s now probably inevitable (move those goalposts!).

Berezow, who in his free time does cosplay as a cantankerous middle-schooler, also loves climate denialist Richard Lindzen, and as we can see above, “maverick” social scientist Bjorn Lomborg of the “do-nothing” school of climate change:

Consider Alfred Wegener, the father of plate tectonics. In his day, he was mocked and ignored. Today, his theory forms the foundation of geology, but it took more than 30 years for that revolution to occur.

Surely, there are other scientists in the world today whose ideas are scorned but may very well be correct. Only time (and more data) will tell. Let’s consider a few of those “scientific outcasts” here.

Bjorn Lomborg, Roger Pielke, Jr., Cliff Mass, and Richard Lindzen. These four distinguished thinkers come from different backgrounds. Lomborg is a political scientist and statistician; Pielke, Jr. is an environmental policy analyst; Mass is a meteorologist; and Lindzen is an atmospheric physicist. What they all have in common is a rejection of climate change alarmism. And that has unfairly earned each of them the label of “climate denier.”

To varying extents, all of them have caused trouble for themselves by daring to question the common refrain that global warming is the world’s #1 problem and is exacerbating most other problems. Lomborg believes, for instance, that fighting infectious disease and malnutrition are far bigger priorities than fighting climate change. Pielke, Jr. disagrees that climate change is responsible for the increasing cost of disasters. Similarly, Mass refuses to blame climate change on phenomena such as oyster deaths and unusually warm weather in the Pacific Northwest. Lindzen critiques climate models as inaccurate.

This is the classic Galileo Gambit. These are the Galileos (or Wegeners) of our day, misunderstood geniuses or “distinguished thinkers”. They should be listened to, not Michael Mann, or Gavin Schmidt. They aren’t ideological hacks who have no countervailing theory to explain the data, nothing to offer that survives in the literature. They are just geniuses oppressed by the dogmatic consensus scientists! Just like Galileo!

But of course, they’re not like Galileo, they’re denialists. Well documented (Lomborg Lindzen) fact-denying, politically-motivated denialists moving the goalposts and making up conspiracies about climate scientists and emails and trying to convince us that global warming might just be a party and not a threat to civilization. **Cliff Mass, it should be noted, is mixed in with less reputable scientists by Berezow, but he doesn’t deserve this company. While he does have his critics it’s more about conflict over framing the debate on climate change, he accepts the science and is not a denialist. I would argue this is another example of ACSH mixing the real with the fake, and if this wasn’t clear I was targeting Lindzen and Lomborg for my criticism then this was an error. Finally, Roger Pielke Jr. is also problematic, characterized as a climate misinformer by John Cook, he doesn’t deny the science but is something of a lukewarmer like Lomborg, downplaying our knowledge of global warming in a fashion that some believe is dishonest. **

On topics relative to their industries ACSH are of course quite favorable. It’s easy for them to be good on antivax, or big ag, their agenda has been consistently documented for almost 40 years to deny any harm from these industries (minus tobacco). But where there is ideological (or likely financial) conflict with the industries they serve and protect we of course see denialism. Their response is to scream “liar” at the top of their lungs but all we’re doing is pointing out their words. When challenged, they go into hysterics, the thread on the BS infographic alone is hysterical with Berezow responding to any critique with ad hominem at anyone – reporters, scientists, whoever – calling them liars and lunatics. They certainly comport themselves as cranks when criticized, and despite being challenged by legitimate scientists from Phil Plait, to Oreskes, to Nature itself their little BS infographic stands and I’m sure they remain quite proud of it. But that’s pretty typical of cranky denialists, they can’t even tell when they’re generating crap because they tend to be so incompetent at evaluating science they probably think their little Op-Ed in graph form is super clever. And certainly not political. Never that. It’s not I tell you!

This hypocritical refrain is my favorite part of all this, I had previously mocked their arguments against a science march and it’s part of a general pattern in their writing. They admonish us to keep science out of politics, and politics out of science (an impossibility as I argued), don’t march against Trump, it will stain science as political, then they publish op ed pieces saying Trumps picks are great on science and Political correctness prevents advancement of science. They’re trying to have it both ways, they don’t want politics out of science, just the politics they disagree with, which kind of proves my point. Science is fundamentally political since it’s a human endeavor, and humans think ideologically, not scientifically – including these guys.

Their other defense is one of distraction. They’re not antiscience because – look over there! We’re fighting antivax! And altie-meds! This is true. But this is like standing over a dead body with blood on your hands and exclaiming, “But I give to charity!” It doesn’t matter that they’re very good on other topics. This is part of the slickness of this operation. They generate lots of good content to mix with the bad, package it as “apolitical” and pure science, then pass off their politics and their brand of anti-science with the rest of the good stuff. It’s camouflage. It’s very clever, and it clearly works. Lots of folks I respect will defend ACSH because they are good on their issues. I would just ask them to take the 30,000 ft view here of what is going on.

So, yet another piece of hackery from a very old, very ideological, astroturf organization. One of the oldest, and to their credit, one of the best at the game. I can’t wait for them to lose their minds at me, spew childish insults and try to attack me personally (per usual). They can’t deny their words though, and they can’t defend the ideological garbage they insist is “apolitical”. Anyone who has eyes to see understands their record, their own words, and their actions dealing with critics show who they really are.

**updated to clarify Cliff Mass is not to be confused with Lindzen or Lomborg as a denialist or lukewarmer.

Science always has been, and always will be, political

Inevitably, with the announcement of The March for Science on Earth Day, April 22nd of this year, come the inevitable naysayers decrying the politicization of science. Astroturf groups such as ACSH (diversity excludes white dudes and scientists from industry!), have of course decried the effort as a liberal conspiracy, but I was sad to see even the New York Times found a scientist to rain on our parade.

A march by scientists, while well intentioned, will serve only to trivialize and politicize the science we care so much about, turn scientists into another group caught up in the culture wars and further drive the wedge between scientists and a certain segment of the American electorate.

The problem is that science is inextricably a political endeavor, always has been and always will be. That does not, however, mean it should ideological, these “apolitical” critics just fail to understand or express that ideology is the real problem. Politics doesn’t have to be ideological either, it’s perfectly possible to find solutions to problems based on data and evidence rather than “beliefs”. In the interests of promoting a March for science, which is a worthy endeavor, let’s put this “politics” argument to rest forever.

Science has always been political. Even before the scientific method was described, knowledge was political power. In the modern era, spending on science, therefore control of science, is in the hands of politicians. Science is the basis of modern healthcare which extends all of our lives. And finally, science is political because it informs politics, whether people want to hear the answers or not.

Science has been political forever

Everyone has heard of the myth of Daedalus and Icarus, and the lesson of Icarus flying too close to the sun, an allegory for failing to heed warnings, or carelessness of youth. (Image Wikimedia) But the real lesson of this myth is ignored in popular culture, and informs this debate. We never talk about why Daedalus was in prison in the first place!

In the Greek myth of Theseus, the inventor and technical genius Daedalus plays a complex role symbolizing the fraught relationship between knowledge and power. First, he (possibly) plays a role enabling the conception of the Minotaur, to the shame of king Minos who forces him to make a labyrinth to contain the human/bull hybrid. The labyrinth is then used by Minos for killing the children of conquered Athens, Hunger Games style, 14 tributes every nine years. Daedalus then undermines Minos again by providing Theseus and Ariadne a trick for solving the labyrinth with string, and finally, imprisoned, with Icarus, for his careless use of knowledge against Minos (or to keep the labyrinth’s secrets), he escapes using wings he constructs of feathers and beeswax, losing his son. The fatal flaw that propels Daedalus from disaster to tragedy is his thoughtless application of knowledge. He provides knowledge and inventions without regard for the consequences of their use. He represents intelligence without wisdom.

Daedalus is also an allegory for the relationship with science and power. Science can aide the powerful for good or for evil (killing Athenian children for instance), and Daedalus is a tragic because he fails to account for how his knowledge will be used. He seems to think he will be immune to the politics.

Now, consider from the previous century, Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb. After seeing the potential ruin nuclear weapons could visit upon the world, he devoted his post-war years to non-proliferation and control of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes such as power generation. Einstein too, and many of the Manhattan project leaders saw the importance of acknowledging the importance of politics in how the creations of science are used in the face of such immensely powerful technology. As scientists, and citizens, they realized they had a responsibility not just provide powerful technology to politicians and step aside, but to make sure their creations were vehicles for more than gross destruction and human malevolence.

Control of Science is in the purse

Then you must consider the modern role of government as an engine of discovery. Since the Manhattan project there have been numerous examples of government-funded collaborations with the sciences with world-changing results. We tend to remember the big projects, like the moon landing or the human genome project (which one must note was basically scooped by private industry research), but we forget that government is also the major engine of basic science research. Industry spends more research dollars overall than government, but they only spend half as much as the government does on basic research . (NSF Data via SSTI) This is a shame, as labs like Bell labs have won numerous Nobel prizes for basic science research (they invented the transistor – all modern solid state electronics depend on this!), but Bell notably ended its basic research program in Physics in 2008.the first transistor.  Really. The first transistor. Really. And it’s basic research that opens up new frontiers in human knowledge and revolutionizes scientific fields. For instance who would have predicted that Isidor Rabi, a physicist (and immigrant) working on nuclear magnetic resonance would make discoveries that would revolutionize medical imaging with MRI? Or how research into antibodies in the 70s at Cambridge would result in monoclonal antibodies (another Nobel prize), a revolution in diagnostics and therapies from human transplant to cancer. Or how about unexpected consequences of goal-directed funding? Who would have predicted research efforts poured into understanding HIV (more Nobel prizes) would teach us about how to manipulate the immune system for immunotherapeutics? In the last 20 years we’ve opened a whole new world of gene regulation, and likely a new therapeutic revolution with Mello and Fire’s discovery of RNAi (from their control dsRNA no less) another revolutionary discovery in a basic science lab. Electronics, computers, the internet, modern medicines, communications, all of these things were birthed from basic science discoveries, and almost all can be tied to government, university and industry scientists who had no idea what the application of their ideas may one day bring.

So, surely the government unabashedly supports basic science then right? Not so much. Congressional representatives and Senators routinely mock the government as wasteful for basic science funding. The most egregious examples tend to come from Rand Paul and Jeff Flake, who publish lists of scientific grants they consider “wasteful” but invariably on closer inspection have been described incorrectly, out of context, or fundamentally misunderstood. Many scientists have become fearful about their work being taken out of context in this fashion, and are forced to construct their grants into narrower and safer language whenever possible. The sequester was further devastating to research funding, and poor leadership has seen paylines at agencies like NIH drop dramatically (meaning fewer researchers/grants get funded) while the cost of administration and funding for the offices of the director at NIH have increased exponentially from a few million a year to > 100 million. We have failed, politically, to explain the benefits of basic science to the public and to our representatives in government, and failed to defend our colleagues from misrepresentation of their work for cheap political gain by small-minded demagogues.

The transactional nature of Trumps worldview is anti-thetical to basic science. Basic science is an investment in exploration, and can not guarantee specific results. We know we need basic science to learn new things, and we need to learn new things in order to propel our medicine, our technology, and our economy into the future. I also sincerely doubt he can appreciate basic science as he appears to be pathologically incurious, exhibits below-average knowledge from history to basic biology and medicine, and seems actively hostile to intellect, seeming to believe anyone who espouses knowledge he does not have is lying. Because that is what he does, he lies, repeatedly, consistently, to the point even the paper of record, the NYT has described him as lying on the front page of their paper, which is historically unprecedented (or unpresidented as it were). We need to march to reassert the importance of exploration, of curiosity, and of intellectualism, against leadership which denigrates these virtues.

Science provides answers to political questions, often providing answers no one wants to hear

Then, there are the representatives who go beyond misrepresentation, and are actively hostile to science, namely where science and certain ideologies collide. Evolution, Vaccines, GMO, global warming, all have the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community on their side, but are attacked, from the left and the right, using the same denialist tactics. Some of them, like James Inhofe, are cranks who deny multiple fields of science from vaccines to global warming (and makes jokes about being a Holocaust denier too).

Here’s Inhofe with, no joke, a snowball in winter, declaring it proof global warming is a hoax.

These are the people representing us in congress. People who presume to be wise on matters of science, but, as in this example, still can’t distinguish between “climate” and “weather”. In other words, incompetents.

Then there is the science proscribed by ideology. Research into gun violence for instance is vastly underfunded for how serious a public health crisis it is.

We know that gun violence spreads like an infectious disease but without funding to see how it can be contained and controlled, we let the disease spread, infect our citizens, and kill them, over and over.

Science has some uncomfortable things to tell people- things people do not want to hear. Like the best way to decrease abortion is to pay for birth control, not ban abortion (there are more abortions in countries where it is illegal Lancet Link). Abstinence education just doesn’t work. Gun violence is a disproportionate problem in the United States and certain laws appear to have decreased the problem by as much as 90% in some states. Now do we have definitive data to suggest that these results can be generalized? No. Because we can’t even fund the studies to find these answers. Note the funding sources for the article just cited, “none”.

Science prolongs our lives

The most self-interested reason to support science is it prolongs our lives. Modern healthcare is science applied to longevity. In the last century we’ve seen the average lifespan double due to improved knowledge. The next public health challenge is making sure all our citizens have access to the healthcare that prolongs life.

We’ve known for over 2 decades that lack of health insurance increases mortality. This is an effect that has been consistently observed in the following decades. It extends not just to chronic health problems but even to unexpected medical problems such as trauma and even in child trauma victims. Being insured saves lives. Lacking insurance causes death at all ages from all sorts of medical problems. The ACA has decreased the uninsured and has undoubtedly saved lives. Loss of insurance coverage will kill people. Is there any political issue more important than life and death? This should be nonpartisan. We need to find a way to make sure healthcare is accessible and paid for, or say we don’t value preservation of life as a society. If that’s the case, it needs to be debated and stated honestly, that’s a possible ideological position, but the data, the science shows that access and insurance saves lives. This debate is enormously complex but there are critical things we know from studying universal health care system. The general findings are that universality saves lives, they save money, they slow cost inflation, and that the US system provides poorer care because of administrative cost, drug costs, and solvable obstacles, not because of the fundamental “quality” of our care.


The fact is, science is inextricably linked to politics, always has been, always will be. If only because science is a human endeavor, and we are political creatures, science is political. If only because we recognize science is an effective tool for answering questions, including political questions, science is political. If only because the modern model of scientific exploration and discovery is paid for in large part by government, science is political. If only because science drives the health care that keeps us alive, the loudest debate raging today in the halls of power, science is political. And if only because science has provided answers about our bodies, our planet, and our universe that people don’t want to hear, science is political.

So those who ask for science to remain apolitical are either grossly missing the point, as I believe Dr. Young is in his NYT piece, or they are trying to coax scientists into disarray and silence, as I think is typified from the commentary from ACSH. Science can never be apolitical, it’s too powerful a force in our lives to remain divorced from politics. What science must be, however, is non-ideological.

This is where science has gone wrong in the past. For example eugenics was the application of racist ideology to science, and bias was so pervasive that for decades it was accepted into the mainstream, even resulting in state-sponsored sterilization programs. Science has fallen victim to ideology before, and when it has the results have been disastrous. A more modern example? Complementary/altie med infiltrating the NIH. We’ve literally spent billions trying to validate these modalities that are not based on science, that have been forced on us by politicians who have no capacity to judge science and what is the result? After billions of dollars none of these modalities has been validated by rigorous study.

On the individual level, we see scientists fall for ideological traps as well, and suddenly even highly-intelligent, experienced scientists will look like fools. No one is fully immune from ideology, because humans don’t think like scientists by default. Most people form a belief first then gather data to support it. Beliefs are formed in our upbringing, are based on unrealistic ideals, and are solidified for ego protection. People’s belief form who they are, and when scientific facts challenge belief, do you think people change fundamentally who they are? Nope.

Scientific thinking requires one to constantly address one’s own biases, and that is not how we naturally think. When scientists fall from grace, again and again, it’s when their rationality has been poisoned by some political ideology. Even Nobel prize winners have been susceptible to foolish pseudoscience from creationism, to believing in psychic powers, to global warming denialism – hence the “Nobel disease”. Ideological beliefs are a very human flaw and ideology is poison to reason.

Now, how should the March for Science organize without being political? It can’t! Science is inextricably linked to politics at every level, from history, to funding, to the questions it asks to the results it provides. What it can do is be non-ideological. We have to accept the results of science even when they offend our worldview, which should change when they are in conflict with its results. What does that mean? Vaccines work, global warming is real, GMOs are safe, gun violence is a solvable problem, contraception prevents abortion, and universal healthcare saves lives. Let’s let the March for Science be political and let’s divorce our beliefs from ideology and let the data speak to the truth of things.

Two articles, from vastly disparate sources, that do a better job promoting this view are this balanced discussion from Kavin Senapathy at Forbes and Kevin Folta at Huffpo. From the capitalist anti-regulatory right to the nature-worshiping left, we should all agree the data are real, and they will not always agree with our preconceived beliefs or ideologies.

Holocaust Denial from the White House

The White House in its statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day engaged in Holocaust denial. Then they doubled down on the action and via Reince Priebus on Meet the Press expressed no regret about the wording which had no mention of the Jews in their supposed “remembrance”. This has been criticized from both ends of the political spectrum, from John Podhoretz in Commentary Magazine (a Reagan speechwriter and conservative columnist) to Tim Kaine characterizing it, correctly, as Holocaust denial.

You may ask, why is this denial? Is this hyperbole? You may even find the administration excuse that they are trying to be more “inclusive” of all the others who were victimized in the Holocaust plausible. And to the uninitiated it probably seems reasonable, and so the administration will likely get away with it.

But the reality is, this is part of a long history of Holocaust denial, in which the experience, memory, and truth of Jewish survivors and victims is diminished and denied. The first step of Holocaust denial isn’t an outright denial of the Holocaust, the deniers have become more subtle in the decades since Paul Rassinier outright denied its existence in the aftermath of WWII. Holocaust deniers instead start with the exact kind of minimization and distraction that the White House engaged in with this statement. They say, “well, the Holocaust was about so many other groups, not just the Jews.” This argument seems to have a patina of credibility, but on any real inspection it is foolish.

The Holocaust was a deliberate, systematic attempt by the Nazis to eliminate Jews from the face of the Earth. That other groups such as homosexuals, dissidents, and others despised by Nazis were also targeted does not change or diminish the fact the primary intent was to destroy the Jewish people.

These distracting arguments undercut the truth about the purpose of the Final Solution and are thus a denial of history and truth. They are the same as the arguments that diminish the numbers of victims, that suggest the Nazis weren’t specifically targeting Jews, or inevitably, the crimes of the allies (such as the bombing of Dresden) were just as bad.

Deborah Lipstadt wrote a book Denying the Holocaust: The growing assault on truth and memory that is as relevant today as two decades ago. It a major influence on my writing about denialism because Lipstadt systematically exposes the tactics deniers used to subvert legitimate scholarship and scientific fact, which, it turns out, are pretty universal to denialist movements. One of the key points she makes is that denial doesn’t have to start with dismissal of the entire horror of the Holocaust, but rather is a chain of lies that begins with the kind of minimization of the Holocaust such as the White House espoused on Remembrance Day. Lipstadt is now the focus of a film entitled “Denial” about a libel case brought against her by the Holocaust denier David Irving. Irving, like most deniers did not like being called a denier, even though it was true. Deniers know that to be a Holocaust denier is bad, and makes them bad people, so they like to pretend they’re not Holocaust deniers even while they deny the Holocaust. Spoiler alert, she won, because Holocaust deniers are lying liars who lie.

Finally, you may ask, what proof was there this was purposeful? Should intent be included in the accusation of Holocaust denial rather than mere incompetence? Well, for one thing, when this was pointed out to the White House they defended the language twice – both Hope Hicks and Reince Preibus expressed this specific language excluding Jews was purposeful and a lack of regret that it specifically leaves Jews out of Holocaust remembrance. They deny that it was Holocaust denial but Holocaust deniers usually lie and say they’re not denying the Holocaust. Second, we have seen a pattern from this administration of courting and hiring white nationalists, including Steve Bannon (also an alleged anti-Semite), and repeating propaganda from white supremacists (eg whitegenocide) and neo-nazis repeatedly during the campaign (anyone remember the “Sheriff’s Star”?).

via USA Today
via USA Today
Chuck C. Johnson, who engaged in holocaust denial on a recent Reddit thread also claims to be advising the White House on nominees. Finally, you see how these signals from the White House are received by racists like David Duke and neo-nazis, who now represent the administration’s most ardent supporters:


To summarize, this is classic Holocaust denial from an administration that (1) has been documented courting racists and neo-Nazis, (2) has a known white nationalist as a political advisor to the president, (3) has admitted the exclusion of the Jews from the statement was purposeful, (4) has expressed no regret about excluding Jews from the statement, and (5) received acclaim from neo-Nazis for the use of this language.

This is a clear-cut case of deliberate Holocaust denial presented on a day that was meant for remembrance of this specific history. It was accompanied by an attack on refugees, many of whom are fleeing murder and oppression, based on religion, which is horrifically reminiscent of this period of history. This will surely represent a low point in the history of our own country, and will forever stain the politicians and leaders who fail to speak out against this denial of history and human decency.

What a conspiracy theorist president means Part 2 – Amanda Marcotte interviews me for Salon

Amanda Marcotte, who I’ve enjoyed reading since her days at Pandagon, was curious about what having a CT president might mean. For some crazy reason, she thought she should ask me about it. Briefly, I tried to summarize the patterns of thought conspiracy theorists engage in, their willingness to accept any belief if confirmatory of their guiding ideology, and their tendency to project their own darkest behaviors onto others. Overall, I thought she provided a great summary of the problem. My only critique would be it’s not all doom and gloom.

One thing we talked about that didn’t make it to the article but is worth mentioning is that America has had really, really bad leadership in the past. For those of you who may want a deeper history of stupid, incompetent, small-minded, bigoted and conspiratorial American political, religious and social movements, I recommend Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Winner of the 1964 Pulitzer for non-fiction, it is an illuminating history of our stupid politics and stupid politicians over the preceding 200 years.

Ultimately, the book is reassuring, our system has sustained significant stresses before (don’t take that to suggest I endorse testing it like this monster surely will). Despite decades of small-minded, ignorant bigots dominating the discourse of our country, the Republic survives; almost as if our founders were clever people who could predict the dangers of demagoguery and illiberal democracy. The history we learn in school is one viewed through rose-tinted glasses, glossing over not just the endless injustices, but also the rank cupidity of our leadership. Most people have the sense that most, if not all of our presidents have been wise, or at least qualified men, with a couple of glaring exceptions. In fact one point Hofstadter makes is that since the founders, our country’s leadership has been in steep intellectual decline, and even the founders themselves were susceptible to attacks of controversy, conspiracy and demagogy. It sounds unbelievable, but even in 1796, people attacked Jefferson for being a wishy-washy intellectual. Hoffstadter quotes a pamphlet released by William Loughton Smith against Jefferson:

The characteristic traits of a philosopher, when he turns politician are timidity, whimsicalness, and a disposition to reason from certain principles, and not from the true nature of man; a proneness to predicate all his measures on certain abstract theories, things and circumstances; an intertness of mind, as applied to governmental policy, a wavering of disposition when great and sudden emergencies demand promptness of decision and energy of action.

You heard it right. Jefferson was “low energy”. If not for the presence of grammar and coherence, this could have been written by our president elect. Hofstadter describes how shortly after the founding of the country, we fell into the politics all of us recognize and love today:

The shabby campaign against Jefferson, and the the Alien and Sedition Acts, manifested the treason of many wealthy and educated Federalists against the cultural values of tolerance and freedom. Unfortunately, it did not follow that more popular parties under Jeffersonian or Jacksonian leadership could be counted on to espouse these values. The popular parties themselves eventually became the vehicles of a kind of primitivist and anti-intellectualist populism hostile to the specialist, the expert, the gentleman, and the scholar.

The ensuing chapters, a history of political movements and their incessant hostility to intellectualism, education, experience, expertise, and liberal values of equality and tolerance, show that if anything, the president-elect is a more typical of American presidents than he is not. The story is of an endless cycle of smart, forward thinking intellectuals and movements of all political persuasions, being torn down, routinely and predictably, by populists espousing bigotry, hatred of elites, and suspicion of education and intelligence.

My personal belief is that the last 60 or so years were the aberration; what little respect we’ve shown for knowledge, scientific progress and expertise was kickstarted by the national fear of Sputnik, and the sudden implication of national survival being dependent on having a thriving educated and technological class. With the end of the cold-war, and our current greatest enemy an anti-modern movement of antediluvian religious fanatics, the pressure to maintain an intellectual elite has waned.

The anti-intellectual populists are back to their same old games – demonizing experience in government, attacking our universities as dens of liberals feminizing our good young men, and electing to power the bigoted dregs of our business class. Despite the technical nature of our current greatest challenge – that of global climate change – the perceived need for technically-competent, scientifically-literate and intellectually sound governance has disappeared. Partly this is due to the anti-intellectual climate denialist movement, which has convinced our morbidly-incurious president elect that climate science is little more than a political game being played by socialist nerds, possibly at the behest of China. But this is also due to the fact that Democrats failed to make the case the climate change, or really that any science was important during this election, and the media happily ignored such real issues to chase meaningless scandal. One question was asked about climate change during the debates and we spent the next week jubilant because the questioner was wearing a red sweater. We don’t have good science debate because we allow ourselves to be distracted from the issues. The Office of Technology Assessment is no more, meanwhile Al Gore invented the internet, John Kerry is an effete wimp, and misuse of email is the only disqualifying sin for a presidential candidate.

In all the finger-pointing after the election no single reason is satisfactory to explain why we have once again devolved into the populist bigotry which was for so long our normal. It is clear though, the electorate no longer feels the expert class shares their values or their interests. While electing a kakistocracy is not a rational solution to that problem, they felt they had no other choice, they weren’t being listened to, a significant portion of the population is not satisfied with government by a competent, professional intellectual like Obama or the obstinate, do-nothing Republican opposition. This is the most important lesson for those who wish for a government by thoughtful experts to return. We can not make the coming political struggle about the man, the personality, the corruption, or the bigotry. Clearly, these were not obstacles to the president-elect’s success. There is no reason to think that in four years this will be any different. The electorate clearly likes or at least tolerates these personality flaws because they perceive the president elect cares about them. Whether or not this is true is irrelevant.

Luigi Zingales wrote a compelling piece in the NYT laying out the best shot for a successful strategy and it’s based on the long series of failures in stopping Trump’s Italian analogue, Silvio Berlusconi. Repeatedly his opponents tried to make it about the man, and failed, because they couldn’t get past that his supporters just did not care that he was a terrible, terrible person. They still liked him.

Mr. Berlusconi was able to govern Italy for as long as he did mostly thanks to the incompetence of his opposition. It was so rabidly obsessed with his personality that any substantive political debate disappeared; it focused only on personal attacks, the effect of which was to increase Mr. Berlusconi’s popularity. His secret was an ability to set off a Pavlovian reaction among his leftist opponents, which engendered instantaneous sympathy in most moderate voters. Mr. Trump is no different.

And an opposition focused on personality would crown Mr. Trump as the people’s leader of the fight against the Washington caste. It would also weaken the opposition voice on the issues, where it is important to conduct a battle of principles.

Instead Zingales emphasizes Berlusconi’s only electoral losses came from opponents who made elections about the issues, not the man:

Only two men in Italy have won an electoral competition against Mr. Berlusconi: Romano Prodi and the current prime minister, Matteo Renzi (albeit only in a 2014 European election). Both of them treated Mr. Berlusconi as an ordinary opponent. They focused on the issues, not on his character. In different ways, both of them are seen as outsiders, not as members of what in Italy is defined as the political caste.

We should not forget that the president-elect’s nomination was a rejection of Republicans and their strategy of obstinance just as his election was a rejection of Democrats, and their supposed identity politics. That this election represents rejection of reason, science, tolerance and decency is now moot, Democrats failed to convince enough of the electorate their policies would actually be superior for them personally. They failed to make the case for science, for climate realism, or that solutions to these problems can be of benefit to ordinary people. This should not have been hard. It should not be difficult to convince people their underpaid jobs for dangerous, polluting industries can be replaced with something better, nor should it be challenging to explain why protecting wages, workers, environments and communities is a bad thing, but the Democrats barely tried to make this election a case for economic progress, technological advancement and environmental protection.

The solution will be candidates who effectively make the case that government by the competent, the learned, and the experienced can be of palpable benefit to ordinary voters – not just an expression of right and moral thinking. And should that be so much to ask?

So, you've elected a conspiracy theorist

I’ve not written about this election believing the flaws of the Republican candidate were pretty obvious; further litigating his failures as a candidate is now moot, he is now the president-elect of the United States. However, it is worth discussing what this administration will now bring given what we know about how conspiracy theorists behave and I believe our experience with conspiracy theorists and denialists gives some insight into what we can expect from a conspiracy theorist (CT) politician. There are some questions that may be answered and may help the scientific community develop strategies to respond to unique challenges of the leadership of our country now being dominated by those who reject the scientific method and the advice of scientific efforts in the fields of medicine, biology, and climate. After all, we now have a president and vice president elect who have conspiratorial views on vaccines, evolution and climate change, rejecting, effectively, the most important public health intervention of all time, the underpinning of all modern biology, and arguably the greatest threat to human survival on earth. So, what can we expect from a CT administration? Have there been previous examples that can guide us on what to expect? What type of impact will this have on funding for various agencies, both scientific and regulatory, that study and implement such policies? How will they operate their administration? What types of mistakes will they make? How can we mitigate, and possibly litigate for the advantage of the sciences and scientific progress?

The most important thing to realize about CTs is that they project their worst impulses onto others. Over the years studying denialists and CTs the pattern that emerges over and over is that they routinely commit the wrongs do what they accuse others of doing. The way the CT believes the world works, and how power is wielded, is how they would wield power if they were in control. Take, for example, Mike Adams, regarded by some skeptics as the internet’s number one crank for his work at Natural News. Adams routinely accuses medical doctors and scientists of crimes against humanity, selling medications which do not work and only make us sicker etc. However, a brief foray into his activities show that he is the one who recommends obviously useless medical therapies for profit and incites violence. After studying CTs for years, one sees this behavior replicated again and again, the projection of the CTs own worst behaviors onto others. Need more examples? Look no further than Mike’s competition for number one internet crank Alex Jones, who shouts to the heavens over unending lying by politicians and the media while peddling in an unending torrent of false stories and lies, including Sandy Hook truthism, 9/11 truth, chemtrails, and whatever other conspiratorial nonsense he can find. No national tragedy can occur without Alex Jones instantly inventing a CT narrative from whole cloth, with no evidence, yet everyone else is the liar. His list of beliefs reads like a Hieronymus Bosch painting, and there is ample evidence our president-elect goes to him for news.

So far the empirical evidence assembled by journalists like Kurt Eichenwald suggest the president-elect is no different. Almost every single thing he has claimed about his opponent more accurately described how he ran his business and his life, including crooked business deals, a self-enriching charity, mass deletion of emails in violation of court orders, and an astounding record assembled by fact checkers this year of unending lies for political gain. His opponent’s crimes were actually his crimes. We should not be surprised. The fact that he is conspiracy theorist told us everything we needed to know. It told us he would be promiscuous in his beliefs, unskilled or unwilling to distinguish between fact and fiction, and willing to believe and promote any falsehood if consistent with his ideological bent. That his prevailing ideology seems to only be “I am great” makes me wonder if the secret to his support is just to stroke his ego, and he’ll promote whatever nonsense you like.

What will this mean for the incoming administration? Like most CTs he will be unwilling to tolerate dissent, yet will tolerate almost any kind of madness from those individuals that agree with him. This will be no “Team of Rivals”, this will be a true basket of deplorables. What will be assembled is an administration of similarly factually-deranged crank sycophants who will harbor any number of absurd beliefs consistent with crank magnetism, but who will otherwise be tolerated by their boss no matter what they do, as long as they maintain loyalty to, and stroke the ego of, the president. Evidence suggests this is already happening as he has named a climate denialist to head his EPA transition team from the ideologically deranged Conservative Enterprise Institute – CEI being a bogus “think tank” that presents ideological anti-science as some kind of academic endeavor. These people are the classic example of the fake expert – an agent who has no actual expertise in science or policy but who does share your ideology and a semblance of academic legitimacy with which they can give your BS a patina of truthiness.

Is there any upside to this? Or is this all bad news? What is the upside to hiring criminally-incompetent non-scientists into positions of power? Well for one thing, the spoils system does not change the fundamental institutional structure of these agencies, the hard-working people and scientists who work for the EPA or NIH or NSF will not simply turn around on a dime and accept this nonsense, they will buck against incompetent leadership and still try to accomplish their mission. The bureaucracy is not so easy to replace and only a minority of positions at the top of agencies tend to be political appointments. Second, the people he appoints will truly be criminally-incompetent. I have little doubt that we will find his administration immediately trying to abuse power, criminally, almost the instant they take over. If we are vigilant, and anticipate the type of abuses which will be typical to such actors we should be able to use the institutions of government designed to prevent abuse to limit their damage. I fully expect the same type of self-dealing, self-enriching and fraudulent behavior that have typified his business career to extend directly into the white house. This is the hysterical error that those that want people with “business experience” to run government make. You doom yourself to incompetent leadership because government is not a business and it can’t realistically be turned into one. It is a fool’s errand, and all they will do is run afoul of the built-in protections of our institutions that are designed to prevent people from behaving like petty tyrants.

After all we do have one example in our history of a CT-lead government and that was Richard Nixon. He, however, lived in a time where the loud proclamation of his anti-Semitic conspiratorial beliefs about Jews and the media would actually result in some kind of backlash, while the current candidate ended his campaign with an ad directly alluding to a Jewish banking conspiracy. Instead we know about Nixons behavior from recordings at the time which captured his paranoia and despicable beliefs. Similarly Nixon surrounded himself with loyalists who adhered to the same ideology, and whatever other foibles they had were then forgiven. It was Nixon, after all, who in recordings could be heard suggesting “why don’t we just use the bomb on north Vietnam” and had to be talked down by then secretary of state Kissinger. Conspiracy theorists are not the type of people you want running government. They are quite mad, and dangerous. But they also tend to commit the very crimes they are always accusing others of committing, and indeed, Nixon was ultimately caught in a criminal conspiracy (there’s a difference!) to undermine his political opponents.

So, a piece of advice from another Mark so long ago applies, and we should enter the next 4 years with it in mind at all times. Follow the money.

P.S. It looks like its time for me to start writing more consistently. More to come.

Take Denialism 101

John Cook, of Skeptical Science fame, has created an online course through the University of Queensland and edX, on denialism and climate change. Easy to access and free to take, I found it simple to join from their facebook page, and if you don’t want to join you can still see the lectures from their Youtube channel.

Having gone through the materials so far I have to say Cook nails it. His graphic depicting the 5 tactics is very clear and easy to understand.

Also I think he has done a great job of making clear that the problem isn’t one of education, facts or knowledge. The problem is the way we think, and how our ideology skews what we are willing to believe, setting us up to fall for denialist arguments. That combined with the series of high-quality experts from Oreskes to Mann makes for a really excellent introduction to the problem from real experts in the field.

Bill Maher, the moronic Food Babe, and the NYT discusses what to call climate change denialists

Bill Maher did it again last night, doubling down on his anti-vax nonsense claiming the real problem is we haven’t done a controlled population-based trial on vaccination vs non-vaccination. Sadly, I don’t have a clip, but I have to say this time at least I was gratified that his panel wasn’t composed of complete morons and they actually challenged him on some of his nonsense. This is actually a classic impossible expectations denialist argument, he essentially proposes an experiment that would be wildly expensive, impossible to perform, and highly unethical. Worse, it still is internally inconsistent. He claims, as he did last week that vaccines are somehow preventing us to experience the benefit of fighting our own individual battles with infectious disease, and that in some Nietzschean fashion, this makes us weaker. But this makes no sense, as vaccines, after all, are antigen exposure. Second, there is no evidence that shows that exposure to infectious disease of one kind somehow makes you stronger, or more able to fight off other infections. It is a point unworthy of debate, not-surprisingly, as Bill Maher tends to make lots of such points. Vaccines have made our populations healthier, live longer, and all but eradicated several devastating diseases in plagues in modern times.

The second interesting article is Justin Gillis at NYT’s What to call a doubter of climate change? You all probably have an idea where we stand, and we have previously discussed the problematic nature of the use of denier as it gives them easy ammo to dismiss critique of denialist tactics as ad hominem. Unfortunately Gillis fails to actually define the problem adequately, in that he fails to describe the behavior and tactics of denialism. As a result his comment section, already at about 400 at the time of writing, mostly consists of Galileo gambits and comparisons of modern denialists to Einstein or Marshall and Warren. This is a newer modification of the Galileo Gambit which hijacks the work of Thomas Kuhn to suggest the denialists aren’t hacks, but revolutionaries!

Of course, the problem is the scientific revolutions that Kuhn described weren’t accomplished using the tactics of denialism. It’s also very important to understand such revolutions don’t invalidate previous data, which are still true. Einstein didn’t invalidate Newtonian physics, he expanded upon them in areas where they don’t work, such as at high speeds or small scales. Climate change denialists aren’t advancing a radical new theory, or compiling an alternative data set, they’re nitpicking existing science and promoting conspiracy theories about fraud that routinely get pants on fire level ratings. It’s a clever tactic, but totally bogus. When Jim Inhofe says that climate change can’t be dangerous because God is in control, that’s not a scientific revolutionary speaking. That’s a crank.

So Gillis makes a critical error, I believe, in the presentation of this problem because he fails to adequately describe the tactics of denialism being criticized, because the tactics are indefensible, and documented from one side of the internet to the other. It’s psuedoskepticism, and psuedoscience, and the key from distinguishing it from actual science that has the capacity to generate a revolution is to point out that no actual science is being done by these jokers, just cherry-picking, conspiratorial fear-mongering and rhetorical tricks. I think he describes the problem well but has opened himself to undue criticism by not making the issue the tactics rather than the specific belief. (of note Gillis spoke to me in prep for this article about some of the history of the debate)

Finally, the Food Babe. She truly presents an abundance of stupidity to debunk, and Orac does it well. Her newest, shockingly-stupid statement is just mind-blowing. She has apparently said, “There is just no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest, ever.”

Her history of doing this is pretty significant and she follows a pattern – she says things that show that she is so mind-bogglingly ignorant that she proves she has no business representing herself as a source of valid information or expertise on any topic. Then she realizes she’s crossed the line of unbelievable ignorance, and tries to hide it from the internet. Notable examples include her now difficult-to-find claim that pilots flood airplanes with toxic nitrogen gas rather than healthy oxygen during flights. Or her claim that brewers use toxic chemicals to fine beer, ignoring, of course, the toxicity of ethanol or that her sub-high school level of chemistry has not prepared her to understand even very basic concepts in organic chemistry.

Let us be very clear. This isn’t even denialism (although she does make those arguments too). This is just abject stupidity. This is such a low level of knowledge and understanding of the physical world it actually falls more into the Not even wrong category of argument. I don’t even need to debunk such a stupid statement, I trust my audience to be smart enough to see the glaring flaws, and there are a few contained in that special little nugget.

But this ties back into Bill Maher in an important way. As we discussed last week, Bill Maher essentially buys into this same ignorant medical belief that toxins are somehow to blame for a significant portion of human illness. On its surface its an appealing piece of woo, because it accomplishes one of the most important tasks of a really attractive piece of nonsense, that is, it offers adherents a false sense of control over their health. If I just avoid “toxins” I can avoid heart disease! And Cancer! and liver forever! Clearly, there are some toxins that humans frequently ingest that can cause disease, like alcohol (she doesn’t pick up on the toxicity of alcohol amazingly), tobacco, and various chemical exposures that at high levels can cause liver disease, heart failure, cancer. It’s entirely possible for toxins to cause disease, this is true. But it’s not in the way that the toxin fanatics think, in which anything natural is falsely seen as “non-toxic” and anything man-made or processed is “toxic”, and it also fails to understand the most important principle in understanding (most) toxic exposures, that is the general association between dosage and toxicity. For the moment we’ll put aside idiopathic toxic reactions, but generally, dosage is important. A chemical like water, the essential molecule of life, can be toxic to humans at high levels, but essential in the range that our body needs to keep all of its complex chemical reactions in equilibrium.

Further, natural foods, plants, etc., contain toxins as a part of their basic make-up. Consider the tomato. A member of the nightshade family Solanaceae, it contains toxins including solanine (as do many other fruits and veggies). Luckily, humans have an organ called a liver, and for most levels of this toxin contained in your all-natural, GMO-free potatoes, tomatoes, blueberries and apples, you’re going to be just fine (unless you eat like 100 potatoes in a sitting).

Toxins are everywhere, they’re in our food, our natural, wholesome, tasty healthy food. We’re just able to process most of them, at the levels that our bodies have adapted to over the millions of years we’ve been evolving on this planet. When morons like the Food Babe, and Maher vaguely refer to “toxins” and then in the next breath talk about eating veggie, avoiding meat (very low in toxins compared to say a nice plant like belladona – or cherries), they just show they have no clue what contributes to health and human disease.

Disease can be avoided, but the only things we really have good evidence for is that we should eat less, exercise more, and avoid true toxins like tobacco and ethanol (although moderation on booze is probably ok – thank your liver). Most of the rest is out of our control and is a combination of genes and luck. There are no superfoods. There are no panaceas, no magic vitamin supplement which has been shown to substantially effect our mortality (read the link, most supplementation is at best useless, at worse, harmful). It would be wonderful if there were, but there simply isn’t good evidence for this nonsense. When someone shows me some real data that we can fool our body into not aging with some specific diet, supplement or food, I’ll happily eat it, but they just don’t have it (and I’ve read the Mediterranean diet data which is pathetic.)

The best advice I can give after studying this stuff for years is that no one knows the ideal diet. It’s important to avoid obesity. Malnutrition is rare with most typical, varied diets so supplementation is likely unneeded outside of specific illnesses or life changes like pregnancy. Eat more high fiber foods like fruits and vegetables, and avoid junk food, avoid calorie-dense foods like sugary sodas, highly-processed food and fast food. Exercise. Sleep. Until we know better, we can’t say much more. And the certainty with which natural-food pronouncements claim foods are “miracles” or “super” is a sure sign of fraud.

John Oliver, right on drug rep influence

It is amazing how powerful a free lunch is. And the data are real, that people tend to favor those who do nice things for them. That is why, despite new rules about the amount drug companies can give to doctors, or all the rules on disclosure, the pharma reps are always going to push the boundary to try to gain any advantage because it results in real world financial benefits to pharmaceutical companies.

Leave it to John Oliver to nail this. Reps are pervasive. They are influential. Their influence comes not necessarily from the right impulses of science and data, but from attractiveness and free food.

Since I’m a surgical resident, I am mostly immune to this kind of temptation. Not because I’m some kind of special human. Its because I only prescribe a tiny set of medications. In fact only really prescribe one type of drug – pain killers – because I’m a surgeon. I have no business screwing with people’s other meds. At the same time I get invitations to free dinners hosted by these companies designed to tempt even lowly residents like me into changing our prescribing practices. Oliver is right, these things happen.

My joy in this is, if I ever take up one of these offers, all I get is information about drugs I’ll never prescribe and an opportunity to antagonize drug reps, which I usually find entertaining. I have gone to them, gleefully, as I literally prescribe only 1-2 drugs ever, and they can tell me about whatever they want, it is totally irrelevant to me, and hey I get free food! Suckers. As a resident you search out free meals, it’s a matter of survival. If you bring a resident within arm’s reach of a shrimp platter it will be destroyed because we’re hungry and we feel the world owes us for all the other crap we have to endure.

So yes, this is a real. And while the idea there is a quid pro quo relationship is a wild exaggeration, we know, psychologically and because drug companies spend money on this that these tactics work. Money spent on advertising is effective. Money spent on wooing doctors to one prescription vs another will tempt enough to be profitable. I will show up and listen to a drug rep talk about their drug for a candy bar. The difference is, I prescribe almost no medications, so, at least in my case, it’s a losing investment for the reps. For most doctors who have to deal with these influences all the time, I’m sympathetic, it’s easier to listen to an attractive person bearing a free lunch than it is to independently investigate every new drug that is dropped on the market. And to be fair, this isn’t always a bad thing. We need to know about which products are out there and which are most effective for our patients. But a situation in which the drug company with the best reps, or the best market share, or saturation of the market, or whatever, wins, is not necessarily what is best for the patient.

There is a simple solution. Ban the practice of using drug reps and food. It’s not like pharmaceutical companies are selling placebos like herbal supplements. They aren’t devastated by the loss of advertisement. Usually what they’re doing is trying to push equivalent (but usually more expensive) medications, or gain market share for some slight advantage, or advertise some niche they think their drug should enjoy, or some off-label use that some physician should think a lot harder about before they decide it’s appropriate. We’ll still have access to the same meds, but the decisions will be based on things like journal articles, data and research. Instead of diverting money into advertising and drug reps bearing food (I am so jealous I’m not the type of doctor that gets all this free food), maybe they’ll spend the money on the research that bears results that should influence physicians in a legitimate fashion. If the only influence they have to bear is copies of peer-reviewed journal articles you will be sure docs are making these decisions based on the right information.

So let’s ban drug company practices which seek to influence physicians based on meals and perks rather than data. Let’s ban direct to consumer advertising too, because you know who is even easier to influence? The lay public who have little to no access or knowledge to interpret and understand the literature on appropriate treatments for illnesses. The United States is the only country that allows this, because basically every other country figured out long ago it is a terrible idea. Let’s stop all drug advertising period. If a drug company wants doctors to prescribe a drug, they should use the scientific literature to justify its use. Not free food, or stupid advertisements with animated bees, or smiling happy people pushing their kids on swings. Drug reps, if anything, should show up with papers, not sandwiches.

This is a gimme. While people shouldn’t overblow the effect here – most physicians have a great deal of skepticism to claims from reps and are very reluctant to change practice unless they provide good data – there is clearly some influence, and it’s not based on legitimate enticements, which are data, and the interests of our patients.

Are we giving Jon Stewart a pass for his contribution to the measles outbreak?

I’m glad to see clips like this from the daily show appropriately mocking the deluded, and supposedly “educated” types that don’t vaccinate.

But have we forgotten this episode from 2005 when he allowed RFK Jr to basically spout his nonsense about vaccines without challenge?

It’s good and fine for Stewart to mock these people now. But he seems to forget he helped contribute to this problem. Is anyone aware of an apology from Stewart for allowing this crackpot to use his megaphone? Isn’t it precisely members of the media like him that are to blame for failing to vet the claims made by guests such as these?

Sorry for the autoplay. How do you stop this nonsense with code? Everything I have found doesn’t work.

**Update** Carl Zimmer points out that Jon obliquely references the RFK Jr. bit around minute 8:05. I missed it. I’m sorry, I failed there. But I think I still would have posted this and I still ask, are we giving him a pass on this? Is that brief, “I had a guy on 10 years ago” reference enough of a correction to the record? I still think he can do better. It’s not like we’ve learned so much new from 10 years ago. This was bogus 10 years ago as it is today and that is part of our frustration that it had to take an outbreak to change peoples’ minds.

**Update2** The more I think about, the more I’m still mad. Stewart really needs to do more than hand-wave away his role in this.