Monday, June 16, 2008

Silly Science or Pseudo-science

I continue to despair over the continuing erosion of science and critical thinking, by various pundits, academics, and alleged scientists. It seems there has just been some sort of definitive study linking smoking and deaths. This study was conducted by examining approximately 30,000 death certificates. At first glance this would appear to be old news and in fact it is and for the same reason – there is no proven link. No death certificate has ever listed the cause of death as “smoked too much” or as “smoking related”. So studying death certificates by themselves is meaningless and any connection has to be made by interviewing friends, family, or neighbors who may or may not have any accurate view of the deceased habits. The entire argument against smoking lies not on any empirical evidence but entirely on statistical analyses which frequently rest on the A Priori assumption that there is a link, which permits the “scientist” to throw out any contradictory findings.

The total silliness of this sort of science seems to escape the media, the government, and even what passes for the scientific community. This same study based on death certificates could easily find a direct correlation between people who ate lettuce and who died of cancer. So where is the hue and cry to ban lettuce, to stop serving salads, and to force McDonald’s to stop putting this very dangerous item on their hamburgers? Obviously this is just a silly argument because eating lettuce doesn’t have any connection – other than statistical – with cancer, but this is the precise argument used relative to tobacco and smoking. The causation link is totally missing in both of these arguments but crusade against smoking and smokers marches on because “science” says so. Is this really science or pseudo-science?

More recently the crusaders and elitists having won the smoking war have moved on to the obesity band wagon. In fact the Social Security Administration has stated that “Obesity is a complex chronic disease”. Not only are Americans FAT but it is an epidemic disease. An NYU scientist has stated that purveyors of food products (read fast food sellers) should be subject to the same scrutiny and control as sellers of tobacco. In fact the hue and cry is for the government to tax all food products which these elitists deem to have little nutritional value. Clearly Americans are FAT because they are too ignorant and stupid to make proper decisions regarding their diet and since they have demonstrated this irresponsible behavior the government should force them through government restriction just like tobacco.

But what triggered this epidemic disease of obesity? It seems that from 1960 until 1980 about 45% of all Americans were classified as over weight but from 1980 until 2000 that percentage jumped to 64% or roughly two thirds of all Americans are overweight. How can this be? What has caused this “disease” to become an epidemic infecting over half of the population and rising? Well like all silly and pseudo science some critical thinking is in order. The reality is that the federal government – acting on your behalf and not on the behalf of purveyors of dietetic products changed the definitions of over weight and obesity. So at a stroke of the bureaucratic pen people who were not overweight or obese yesterday became obese and overweight over night. But has anyone challenged this change? Of course not because some other bureaucrat has determined that there is a direct correlation between fat people and healthcare costs.

The argument is that fat people are driving health care costs up because they require more medical attention. What is missing from this statistical argument is any comparison between the healthcare needs of those people who were previously not overweight or obese and those who suddenly became overweight and obese without gaining an ounce. This is a statistical shell game because the healthcare needs of those were suddenly reclassified and now be used to justify the conclusion that obesity is growing, that it is an epidemic, and that it is driving up healthcare costs.

What is missing of course is the other side of this argument, which is fat that people die sooner so the best way to reduce healthcare costs is to encourage people to eat more so they will die sooner. After all thin people live longer so they actually require more health care over their lifetime – statistics support this scientific conclusion. This argument would be funny if it weren’t so ridiculous, but this love affair with statistics doesn’t stop with health issues, it is permeating science at all levels.

Perhaps the real issue is not how statistics is replacing science but rather how critical thinking seems to be on the wane. For example there is a trend to establish various behaviors as “diseases” rather than as consequences of those behaviors. Thus we have alcoholism as a “disease” rather than the result of poor decisions. A French study concluded that rats could become addicted to cocaine. In this study 17% of the rats showed symptoms of addiction, meaning that the rats couldn’t control their need or desire for cocaine. Obviously what is missing here is that 83% didn’t become addicted and that the 17% who showed signs of addiction might just have been more tenacious than those rats that gave up. The conclusion was that addiction could be classed as a “disease” and thus the addict is not responsible and should not be held accountable. By this rationale virtually all anti-social behavior from an addiction to speed, sex, coffee, or even beer can now be excused on the basis that the individual is powerless to stop his compulsion. Those who have the temerity to challenge these diseases are subjected to the same intolerance now reserved for those who think that Evolution is a THEORY.

The state of science is unfortunately in sad repair. The idea that people should bear personal responsibility for their decisions and be accountable for the results of those decisions has virtually disappeared. Universities no longer seem to be centers of learning and bastions of critical thinking but have somehow evolved into propaganda machines spewing out graduates who accept virtually anything that they read or hear and believe that science based on statistics has the same value as science based on the scientific model. Silly science and pseudo-science are on the rise and empirical science seems to be in decline.