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:

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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:

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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:

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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.

Summary

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:

stormertweet

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.

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.

Bill Maher is an astonishingly anti-science anti-vax crank

This week’s Realtime with Bill Maher was just about the most perfect example I’ve seen yet that maybe reality doesn’t have a liberal bias. Due to the measles outbreak becoming a hot-button issue, and the realization that his smoldering anti-vaccine denialism would not go over well, our weekly debate host decided to instead unleash all of his other incredibly stupid, unscientific beliefs about medicine.

This was astonishing. And because his panel, as usual, is composed largely of political writers and journalists, there was no one to provide a sound scientific counterpoint to the craziness. The sole non-crazy person (on this topic) was the conservative guy!

What a turn around for liberalism. It turns out, the problem hasn’t been that conservatives hold the key to anti-science crazy, we just haven’t had a good issue to expose the anti-science of the left wing for a while. Maher goes into a list of things he decides are examples of failures of “Western” medicine (because Eastern medicine has figured out cancer or something).

1. Bill Maher repeats the trope that the vaccine schedule is too much too fast – straight out of the anti-vax denial playbook! Human beings of course can handle thousands upon thousands of antigenic exposures daily. It’s called living on a planet where everything on it is trying to kill everything else all the time. It’s why we have an immune system.

2. Then in a feat of mental gymnastics only an unthinking crank can manage, he jumps into the hygiene hypothesis! He says he’s “not so sure that people who get a lot of them [vaccines] have as “robust” an immune system.” He then goes on to say we’re seeing more allergies and autoimmune disease, maybe vaccines or “environmental factors” are to blame. Now our children suddenly aren’t getting enough antigenic exposures! Our immune systems need to be challenged in order to grow and become strong. This is a fascinating feat of mental gymnastics. The antigen exposure of vaccines is “bad”, but somehow the antigen exposure from, say, measles is “good”. Granted those who have had actual infections develop stronger responses to those infections, there is no evidence that getting these childhood illnesses is protective from other illnesses, or against autoimmune disease. There is no reason to think that exposure to specific viral disease antigens would be protective for autoimmunity, not to mention since the vaccine is viral antigen exposure why wouldn’t it then serve the same purpose? The immune system just doesn’t work that way, and the hygiene hypothesis is about routine exposure to common antigens.

3. He complains none of his doctors have ever asked about his diet, because in his mind, what you eat is the most important thing ever. I can understand this for a couple of reasons. For one, Maher is thin. Generally if patients are thin, seemingly taking care of their bodies, a physician won’t typically interrogate them on their diet. If you then get a screening cholesterol panel that shows a high LDL and low HDL or triglycerides, the physician may start asking questions about diet, recommending exercise, more vegetables, less meat etc. Doctors aren’t here to micromanage your life, we are here to address problems, caution against the more harmful behaviors, and provide general recommendations for which there is good evidence. But in Maher’s mind, which seems to be the mind of the toxin fanatic, the only path to good health is through diet, so a doctor that doesn’t buy into this particular nonsense is a bad doctor. The reality is, there is not great data on which diet is best. There is no evidence that some foods are “super”, or carry some life-extending property. None of the claims made by the promoters of these foods has evidence of the caliber Maher is demanding from vaccines, and most of them have no evidence at all.

A good rule of thumb is, if a website uses the word “super” as a prefix, they’re full of it. Worse, the toxin hypothesis is nonsense. Toxins are not a significant source of human disease (at least not in Hollywood). Humans are extraordinarily good at detoxifying foods, and just because you’re eating plant material – the diet he promotes – doesn’t mean you’re not eating toxins. Plants are full of toxins they’ve developed over the years to prevent pests from consuming them and their fruit. It just happens that when a human eats a tomato, or chocolate, or one of the many plants we’ve genetically-modified through breeding and selection to suit our diets or learned to process since the birth of agriculture, we have an effective means of detoxifying them. Worse they make claims that non-toxic chemicals are actually toxic. Like glucose! The fuel your own body naturally makes to feed your brain is routinely castigated on the natural foody websites as a killer. This is the chemical your own body turns all these super-foods into! The inability to understand basic physiology is just wonderful.

You want non-toxic? Eat meat. It’s just protein, water and fat, just like us (although even a complete non-toxin like water can of course be toxic at high enough exposure). If you’re feeling sadistic and want to see the toxic effect of a superfood, feed these human foods to a non-omnivorous animal like a cat. They’ll get sick. Many of our “super foods” which the morons on these websites sell as “detoxifying” or laud their anti-oxidant properties (another bogus and unfounded diet hypothesis), are actually full of various plant toxins which we have no problem with because we have awesome livers. So thank your liver, and don’t buy into this toxin nonsense.

Finally other reasons he feels like he’s never heard a doctor ask about his diet (because we do) is he’s either not listening, or maybe he just sees a crappy doctor? So whoever is this magical “Western” doctor that Maher sees, please just ask this silly crank about his diet during the next visit so we don’t have to hear this tired nonsense anymore that doctors don’t care about diet. We do, we just don’t buy into the silly unfounded nonsense of the toxin hypothesis which is likely his real complaint.

4. He says “we overdid antibiotics” – This could be a fair point, however, the doom and gloom about antibiotics not working anymore and our whole medical system collapsing is a bit overblown. After all, most of the antibiotics we have developed over the years were discovered, not invented. We have been taking chemicals developed in the environment by various organisms and using them to suit our purposes. However, the targets of those chemicals have been engaged in this evolutionary war for millennia before we ever even got into it. Bacterial resistance is not “new”, or something created just by humans. We have to see this problem as an eternal struggle that’s been going on between micro-organisms for eons, and if we’re going to participate in it, we have to continue to innovate, just as life has, since the beginning. There is no “winning” here. There will never be a time when we can say we have solved bacterial resistance or have a perfect antibiotic, because we’re learning more and more we have to live with our bacteria in our biome, we can’t kill them all. We just have to keep working, keep innovating, and keep learning so we learn to develop antibiotics that are more specific, more targeted, and yes, more cautiously applied so we can continue to benefit from the ability to control these ubiquitous organisms that help us, are part of our normal physiology and function, but also occasionally overgrow and kill us.

5. He points out “not one country in the world does nearly as much surgery we do” – I recuse myself as I have conflict of interest.

6. He complains “I’ve heard on the news endlessly 2 drinks a day is good for you, I think no drinks a day is good for you.” And again Maher would be wrong. For one, no real medical authority has come out and said, “drink 2 drinks a day.” I’m sorry that the news misled you. I have no doubt there’s a bunch of crummy journalism out there that could be interpreted this way, but it’s not the medical establishment’s fault that science and medicine reporting is so full of bogus nonsense. This is still a controversial medical issue. The data from sources like NHANES show that there may be a protective effect for alcohol consumption with 1-2 drinks a day. This has been seen in multiple other studies, and in other countries. The effect is more profound in men. It might disappear if you eliminate co-morbidities (in other words some people may not be drinking because of health issues making the teetotaler data look worse). Ultimately doctors can’t really recommend you drink, but we typically won’t castigate you for drinking 1-2 drinks a day because the health effects are likely small, and for 1-2 drinks a day, their might be a slight cardiovascular protective effect. Prospective trials suggest 2 maybe even too many. So I would rate this as a major straw man argument. As a doctor I would say, 1-2 drinks a day is probably not harmful, but no one should be drinking saying “this is for my health”.

7. He wails we are Ok with aspartame, and GMOs! / and “One word, Monsanto” – and here we have it, Bill Maher’s clearest example of total crankery, his complete hysteria over GMO. There is a moment then when the conservative John McCormack butts in and points out there is no evidence that GMOs are harmful, and Maher and his panel of ignoramuses are shocked into silence, and one panelist gives this weighty sigh and covers her face in horror and Maher simply sighs. No, Bill Maher, it is we that should be asking you to justify your foolishness here, McCormack, the conservative who should supposedly be the one without the liberal bias of reality asked the right question. Where is your data? Where is the proof? There is no evidence, and worse, no even plausible mechanism by which he can describe the current GMO foods on the market to be harmful to humans. Despite consumption of billions by billions, you can’t point out one sickness or death. Instead they can only resort to the classic denialist correlation trope, which is exactly what the anti-vaxers have done for decades. And if someone wants to talk about the Seralini rat study, please don’t bother. Another retracted paper being the sole source of proof for a bunch of denialists, where have we heard this before?

Finally Maher complains, “we can’t ask any questions.” The classic cry of the persecuted crank! The same whiny response you see from the 9/11 truther, the climate science denialist, or any other individual who has found their ludicrous ideas has bought them some much needed societal shame. No on is telling them they can’t ask questions, but when you repeat the same question, that has been answered, and answered, again and again, and you don’t listen, eventually we are going to lose our patience and say enough! The debate is over! Vaccines do not cause autism. Enough with your crankery. Enough with the harm that has come from this bogus skepticism. We have an outbreak now. We are tired of hearing this question which has been answered and the accompanying obstinance has caused real-world harm.

Maher in this episode performs an astonishing Gish-gallop proving, once again, he deserves to be called out for denialism and being an infectious disease advocate. Can we drop the notion that liberalism is somehow protective against anti-science? Do we remember when he tried to blame cell phones for colony collapse disorder? (I couldn’t resist going to the old blog for that) Maher is resentful that his anti-vax nonsense is compared to global warming denialism. This is exactly like global warming denialism because all denialism ultimately comes down to the same tactics. I think we’ve a good example here of conspiracy (in one word! monsanto!), moving goalposts, cherry-picking, and a whole host of logical fallacies in his little Gish gallop (that’s four of five of the classic tactics). Let us dismiss him as a spokesman for science. He’s too easily impeachable as an anti-science crank.

Hand washing? Really Libertarians?

The latest entry in the “OMG really?” wars is brought to us by the libertarians, who, using the example of the brutal oppression of hand washing regulations, make total fools of themselves.

Speaking during a question-and-answer session at the Bipartisan Policy Center on Monday, Tillis related a story from his tenure in the North Carolina legislature to help explain his overarching philosophy on the finer points of hand-washing.

“I was having this discussion with someone, and we were at a Starbucks in my district, and we were talking about certain regulations where I felt like maybe you should allow businesses to opt out,” Tillis said, in remarks first reported by the District Sentinel. “Let an industry or business opt out as long as they indicate through proper disclosure, through advertising, through employment, literature, whatever else. There’s this level of regulations that maybe they’re on the books, but maybe you can make a market-based decision as to whether or not they should apply to you.”

When Tillis’ interlocutor noticed a Starbucks employee coming out of the restroom and inquired whether Tillis would apply his anti-regulation stance to employee hygiene, Tillis affirmed that he would.

“I don’t have any problem with Starbucks if they choose to opt out of this policy as long as they post a sign that says, ‘We don’t require our employees to wash their hands after they use the restroom,’” he said. “The market will take care of that.”

That’s right folks, now pillars of basic public health and sensible regulation to prevent things like typhoid fever or hepatitis A represents an undue burden on businesses serving the public. I guess we should all have to be our own public health department, and upon entry of any business should have to sign a EULA in tiny print freeing them of responsibility if they have filthy food prep areas, warm refrigerators, and potato salad left at room temperature for days on end. Just imagine this brave new world where every decision you make as a consumer you get to individually vet for basic things like, “will this product poison and sicken me?” or “am I about to die if I consume this?” Because we all have time for such nonsense, or the knowledge, or access to information, and I’m sure we can rely on businesses to always be forthright with consumers about risks of their products.

And we thought anti-vax was bad. At least they’re not denying germ theory, just the last 100 years or so of public health and sanitation measures that have drastically-reduced food-borne illness. I guess freedom means the ability to sell poison and tainted meat, albeit with a disclaimer and the wonderful reassurance that if I die from a tainted taco my family can sue for damages (unsuccessfully if the business has a good lawyer).

Can we please not live in such a world?

Antibiotics in Meat Do Lead to MRSA in Humans

I was extremely disturbed to see in the NYT’s letters a veterinarian’s defense of the practice of overuse of antibiotics in animals that suggested transmission of resistant organisms does not occur. Nonsense! It is abundantly clear that antibiotic use in animals results in resistant strains that then colonize humans. They are being recognized as the newest reservoir for strains of MRSA.

Unlike the GMO nonsense, this is a clear public health issue with a plausible (and demonstrated) mechanism of transmitted risk to humans. The author of the letter, Charles Hofacre, says two, wildly misleading things. For one, he suggests the antibiotics they are using are somehow substantively different from those in humans by saying, “About a third of livestock antibiotics used today are not used at all in human medicine.” Well, that means 2/3rds are the same and just because we don’t use the exact same antibiotics doesn’t mean they don’t share the exact same mechanism. If he’s trying to suggest resistance in livestock antibiotics isn’t relevant to human pathogens, he is just wrong, wrong, wrong. Second he says, “There is no proven link to antibiotic treatment failure in humans because of antibiotic use in animals for consumption — a critical point that is often missed. ” This is such a misleading statement I can’t believe an academic would say such a thing, as it assumes we’re just idiots. This suggests that there is not a transmission issue, or at least none of clinical relevance. But this is also wrong. There is extensive documentation of Methicillin-resistant Staph Aureus (MRSA) becoming more common in livestock, being transmitted to humans, and appearing in hospitals. There hasn’t been a “treatment failure”, because we still have antibiotics that work against MRSA, and MRSA is usually not pathogenic on its own without some failure of the host immune system, broken skin/non-sterile injection, surgery, chemo, etc. That doesn’t mean we should go around spreading MRSA! We have to start taking out the big guns to deal with MRSA infections when they do occur (we don’t treat colonization), and the more we expose these bacteria towards the better antibiotics, the more we’ll train them for resistance to those drugs. But it should be made clear, the transmission of resistant bacteria from farm animals to humans has been documented, just because the patients didn’t die doesn’t mean that there’s no problem here. This is just shameful.

Antibiotic resistance has existed since before we even used antibiotics and will only get worse the more we train the organisms to grow in the presence of antibiotics. These genes for resistance aren’t “new”, but not all bacteria carry them because there is an energy cost associated with production of proteins, and if it doesn’t benefit their survival, those bacterial strains wasting energy will become less common. If we constantly create a selective pressure on bacteria to maintain resistance genes, we are going to increase the proportion of bacteria that carry resistance, and thus the resistant organisms we are exposed to. Then, as we have to use more and more powerful antibiotics to address resistance, we create additional selective pressure on the organisms to carry more and better resistance genes (not all beta-lactamases are created equal), and as they mutate to become more effective, those effective resistance strains will eventually mutate into bacteria for which we have no therapeutic option. These are already starting to emerge as those who followed reports of the MDR-klebs outbreak at NIH know.

In my GMO thread I used the analogy that the beta-lactamase used for genetic modification of organisms by molecular biologists is like a “sharpened stick” it can use against weaker penicillins. This is why those resistance genes aren’t a danger for humans. They’ve been around forever anyway, all the bacteria that are going to carry them already do so we don’t even bother using weaker penicillins on those types of infections, and they can’t beat our stronger beta-lactam drugs like the anti-staph and extended-spectrum beta lactams. The multiple-resistance and pan-resistance bugs that we are finding in our ICUs are the “multiple nuclear warhead” bugs because they beat multiple classes of drugs as well as our extended-spectrum drugs. We’ve created these bugs by the steady application of selective pressure with exposure of the organisms to progressively more powerful antibiotics. The continued injudicious use of antibiotics in animals will invariably lead to the same phenomenon, just all over the place in communities and the workplace rather than just in the ICU. We are going to see a higher prevalence of resistant bacteria, those bacteria will mutate their resistance genes to become more and more effective, they’re already crossing over to humans and hospitals, and we’re going to have to use our big guns more which will speed up the loss of our antibacterials’ efficacy.

Some caveats. One, this represents more of a threat for farm workers than consumers, as MRSA is not carried in the meat itself, although it will likely contaminate the meat at higher frequency (this has indeed been shown) as the prevalence increases from slaughterhouse contamination. MRSA usually colonizes the outside of the animal, the nares, etc., not the inside of the animal. Two, standard practices of food handling will also decrease, but not eliminate our risk. Cooking meat and washing hands with soap after meat handling (which should be your standard practice) kills MRSA. Don’t prepare hamburger then pick your nose people. Clean surfaces on which meat has been prepared etc. However, the packaging, your cutting board, your trash can, all are likely to get contaminated if the meat was surface contaminated. Three, realize MRSA is not pathogenic in normal healthy people. But, something as simple as a cut can introduce staph and create a serious infection. Staph is everywhere, and the human body generally has no problem handling it. But when those defenses are down, MRSA reduces our therapeutic options. You don’t want that. Fourth, this is just one bug we may be exposed to, we’re also training the animals e. coli and enterobacter to become resistant too, and with poor food prep and exposure, you can get colonized with these bugs as well.

From a public-health standpoint it’s important that we reduce the prevalence of resistant bacteria we’re exposed to, so fewer of our infections will require the big-gun antibiotics. There is good news though, and we shouldn’t just develop a fatalistic attitude towards this problem. As we stop the overuse of antibiotics, selective pressure on the bacteria will cause some of them to shed the resistance genes, and there won’t be a reason for the bacteria to maintain and improve their antibiotic resistance genes. Without consistent exposure to antibiotics, they have far less selective pressure to produce proteins and maintain plasmids that provide them no advantage. While the resistance genes will still be out there (always have, always will), we can still benefit from common-sense measures that decrease their prevalence, and thus our individual risk of exposure to resistant organisms. And, the less we have to take out the big guns to treat infections, the fewer multiply-resistant organisms we’ll see.

The Web of Web Lobbying

The Wall Street Journal reported on a battle developing between privacy advocates and internet companies concerning AB 1291, a transparency measure that is in part based upon some of my privacy research:

The industry backlash is against the “Right to Know Act,” a bill introduced in February by Bonnie Lowenthal, a Democratic assemblywoman from Long Beach. It would make Internet companies, upon request, share with Californians personal information they have collected—including buying habits, physical location and sexual orientation—and what they have passed on to third parties such as marketing companies, app makers and other companies that collect and sell data.

Instead of discussing the merits of the bill, here I want to show an aspect of industry association lobbying. As noted previously, these groups are useful to companies for several reasons: they can be used to “launder” policy, they can air controversial views without attribution to any one company, they can help hide companies advocacy when it appears to conflict with previous commitments, and they defray critical reporting. They also amplify power, because they place legislators in a house of mirrors–trade groups allow companies to mask the provenance of their advocacy and to multiply it. This creates a kind of echo chamber for companies.

The Journal’s Vauhini Vara and Geoffrey Fowler reported:

The coalition includes such trade groups as the Internet Alliance, TechNet and TechAmerica, all of which represent major Internet companies

This past week, Will Gonzalez, a Facebook lobbyist based in Sacramento, aired concerns in a meeting about how the bill would hurt Facebook’s business, according to a legislative aide. Mr. Gonzalez didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Representatives for Facebook and Google declined to comment on the bill.

Vara and Fowler are on the right path–break through these groups and talk to their principals about their stance on the bill. Facebook and Google won’t comment to the Journal, I imagine, because AB 1291 is fundamentally a transparency measure. Opposition to it creates some dissonance with these companies’ rational choice/transparency/openness rhetoric.

But back to my point–the trade groups help companies hide their advocacy positions, and amplify them. Check out my poor man’s version of the web of web advocacy below.

This is the letterhead of the opposition letter submitted by tech companies against California's AB 1291.
This is the letterhead of the opposition letter submitted by tech companies against California’s AB 1291.