Before obsessing on arsenic risks in apple juice which the news cycle most likely has forgotten about by now, here’s an exploration of something likely to become a current topic of discussion. Over on io9 there’s an article titled “Democracy Needs Ignorant People Too” which riffs off of the Miller-McCune post which isn’t titled much better – “Why a Democracy Needs Uninformed People”, both of which are riffing off of a paper by Iain Couzin of Princeton published last month in Science. It’s behind the firewall which means a trip to the library before I can comment on the specific paper. However, based on these news accounts, the key message seems to be that the group dynamics of decision-making are influenced by having a diverse mix of “informed” and “uninformed” opinions – which is something different from what’s conveyed in the headlines of the articles; the articles capture the research findings better than what’s reflected in the headlines. I wouldn’t have bothered reading these and commenting on them without the sensational headlines, and I’d rather think that the editors are kind of clever in coming up with eye-catching headlines to draw attention to a geeky story about evolutionary biology research rather than being stupid or corrupt or both. It puts the “information dilution” concept (from the previous post) in a new light.
I’m actually dealing with this problem at work right now (a small group of vocal and opinionated subject-matter experts are driving decision-making about how to solve a problem, and possibly not in a good direction either).
Originally published in July 2005. Edited slightly to accommodate now-dead links.
From Jorn Barger’s Robot Wisdom Weblog I linked to a great article by Edward Tufte about how the findings of primary studies gradually lose their power and meaning, when they become repackaged and redistributed by secondary organizations (journalists, public relations firms, think tanks, nongovernmental organizations, governmental agencies, and on and on – see the posts from the previous couple of days):
In repackagings, a persistent rage to conclude denies the complexities, ambiguities and uncertainties of the primary evidence. A substantial selection bias also operates: news wins out over olds, as recency of evidence decides relevance of evidence.
You must see the original to get the subtext behind the phrase “rage to conclude”, which is a wonderful quote from Flaubert.
It was easy enough to be dismissive when Dr. Oz was flogging the issue of arsenic in apple juice being purchased by U.S. consumers. However, the issue just doesn’t seem to be settling to the level of importance that it deserves, which, in the larger scheme of things environmentally-healthy-related, is not much. Thoughtful journalists and those not-so-thoughtful seem to feel compelled to make it grow unduly in an already overgrown media landscape. The proximate cause of this media attention is the current issue of Consumers’ Report, which by itself appears to be a reasonably insightful discussion – more on that later – through once again through the magicks of short attention spans and the news cycle, momentary uproar and alarm and another opportunity to be stupid about this issue have been created. Read the rest of this entry »
Climate hawks can get annoying with their “why you don’t see the danger that I see” message. And, I’m saying this as one of the allies – we’re long overdue for acting affirmatively about climate change, and our options are probably down to hunkering down and adapting to the hammering we’ll get from Gaia. Another annoying message that’s part of the climate hawk conventional wisdom is that people dismiss climate change because their unable to understand it. Confronting that conventional wisdom is a new paper, “The Tragedy of the Risk Perception Commons”, published by a group of risk communicators (one the names I recognize is Paul Slovic, at Oregon University). I saw this browsing through Scienceblogs, with the findings being characterized as “troubling”, and something’s not quite right”.
I’m surprised there is any surprise that education and numeracy doesn’t necessarily translate into concern about climate change. A few observations come to mind: the science around assessing climate change hazards is dominated by uncertainties – that’s not a bad thing, it just is when it comes to using the findings for decision making. The research published by Tversky and Kahaneman indicates that we’re generally really bad at making decisions with uncertainty. The research published by Gerd Gigerenzer indicates that even smart people aren’t as numerate about risks as they think. As an aside, it’s probably a fallacy to think that all educated people will converge onto one answer, regardless of other cultural factors.
The simple issue with climate change is that the mitigation and adaptation that might be needed is going to require society-transforming changes and the leadership to compel or persuade a lot of people to take actions that aren’t in their short term interest, for the benefit of future generations. And, we don’t even know if any of this is necessary – but, by the time we’re more certain, it may be too late and we as a species (particularly in Western societies) will be screwed. That seems to be the key issue, and more education about climate science is unlikely to help resolve this dilemma.
One line of inquiry Jim Hrynyshyn might consider is how opinions about climate change correlated with income and education – people who are well-off are the ones who will be asked to make the most significant changes to their lives (i.e. give up stuff they already have) to achieve climate mitigation or adaptation.
Mehmet Oz is a physician who’s made the most of the opportunities afforded him as a television celebrity. He supports complementary and alternative medicine, which draws in criticism from advocates for evidence-based medicine. Dr. Oz most recently emerged in the news with a “study” highlighting the health risks from arsenic in fruit juices, which given the size of his megaphone engendered nationwide controversy. The FDA took him to task over it, and I picked it up from reading PZ Myer’s blog. PZ does a public service drawing attention to the issue and in particular highlighting FDA’s opinion of Dr. Oz’s data, but didn’t convey anything about the nature of the risks, either significant or insignificant, about arsenic in apple juices. Deborah Blum has a great story about what real arsenic risks look like, depicting arsenism in Bangladesh including a brain-curdling picture of someone with an arsenic-related hyperkeratosis (a disabling thickening and roughening of the skin). She also takes Dr. Oz to task for doing bad risk assessment and bad risk communication. Read the rest of this entry »
Hard on the heels of the President (through the OMB) canceling EPA’s rulemaking on a more stringent ambient air quality standard for ozone, comes Walter Russell Mead fatuously intoning the death of environmentalism. The point he brings forward is a pretty punchless and poorly founded way of saying, “hah, loooosers”. I expected better from someone with Mr. Mead’s gravitas, and other people have foretold the “death of environmentalism” with far more eloquence than his. None of this concerns me terribly because it’s just conservatives vaporing, and people will be back as soon as the real environmental crises kick in, as if Hurricane Katrina or Texas burning up with drought this year aren’t real environmental crises.
Environmental progress seems to be more difficult compared with the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s. The early successes resulted from going after low-hanging fruit (DDT, burning rivers, smog) which didn’t require a lot of individual sacrifice or change. It’s understandable that Western governments are reluctant to confront their citizens with the news that confronting climate change or resource depletion could involve curtailing everyone’s standard of living. The future of environmentalism involves a social revolution over values, and I’m not sure the professional environmentalist class is cut out for that. In the US, the professional environmentalists are still looking for legal/bureaucratic solutions from a system that’s either corrupt (Congress), or has undergone regulatory capture (the agencies), is too conservative for them (the courts) or has thrown them under the bus (the current Administration). Without governmental allies, against the money and media influence exerted by the regulated industries environmentalists are bringing a knife into a gun fight.
There appears to be some growing awareness of this problem. Some would argue that environmentalism needs to get more religious (see Lynn White for the definitive statement on faith and the environment). Someone is advocating a crowdsourcing approach blending today’s social networking tools with the values of the Summer of Love, though I’m with Terry Mann, the writer character played by James Earl Jones in “Field of Dreams”.
What’s an environmentalist to do if money, mainstream media and government aren’t in your corner, and you have difficult truths to convey? Satire and ridicule is a start, perhaps. Recognize that you’re fighting a culture war and start reading about 4GW. Stop being reactive and start preparing to play the long game. Time is on the side of environmentalism.
Over a glass of wine this week with a colleague from the office, we got to talking about television and how neither of us watch much any longer. I confessed to my Internet surfing habit, which had become a TV replacement, and about as unhealthy for my intellect and use of time. However, my internet habits are changing. At one time, I found myself frequenting lefty political blogs. I even posted to the Great Orange Satan for several years, until I stopped three years ago became convinced it simply an echo chamber and that most of the folks commenting on my posts weren’t being terribly insightful or thoughtful. Hard on the few folks who are trying to think and engage meaningfully, I know, but there really are better uses for my time. And, as with many, I’ve fallen into the intellectual trap of not reading broadly across the spectrum of political and social thought, outlined by Susan Jacoby in a book I’m currently reading, The Age of American Unreason. But this is tempered by my growing awareness that most commentary on the Internet is wholly unreadable. So, when I can summon the will, I’ve stopped reading most of it. By extension, its arguable this essay is also unreadable. But that’s ok, I think, because it’s unlikely to be read.
That needs some context. The group blog Lawyers, Guns and Money, which was a regular reading stop for me until they added as a writer obesity denier Paul Campos, recently posted a blog item about the impact of the meltdown of the Fukashima reactor in the United States. It was the standard cut-and-paste from another blog item which alleges that an apparent increase in infant mortality in the Pacific Northwest, reported on by the Centers for Disease Control, is associated with fallout from the meltdown of the Fukushima reactor. The item gets debunked multiple times in the comments, an example of the self-correcting nature of the Internet, and comments raise the typical issues about the original source (I skim Counterpunch for many things, but not thoughtful commentary). But there are other issues with regard to giving wider distribution to this piece. The original sourcing is understandable – the authors are anti-nuclear activists, though what they’ve written reflects badly on anti-nuclear activists as a whole. The placement is understandable – Counterpunch is a strongly leftist publication, one that I go to for leads or dirt but not thoughtful commentary. What is less understandable is how the item got apparently wider distribution, including Al Jazeera. It’s a statement and not a complimentary one about the judgment and questioning attitude on the part of journalists and Internet commenters.
On the favorable side, there was some good citizen science done at the blog The Capacity Factor, where a guest poster obtained the raw mortality data and conducted an analysis using the professional-grade statistics freeware package R (I’ve recently downloaded and started learning to use it – R is awesome). Events like this restore my faith in blogging and encourage me to get back out there. But the high-traffic blogs such as LGM remain a major disappointment for the ordinary reader such as myself.
I’m just getting around now to reading about Philip Tetlock’s experiment showing that the typical pronouncement from any of the “experts” on current political-social-economic events is as accurate in forecasting trends as is the shooting by the Star Wars Imperial stormtroopers in a firefight with the Rebel Alliance (yes, it’s a dated cultural reference. Screw that. Star Wars is intergenerational). I haven’t read Dr. Tetlock’s book and I’m picking this up second hand from a blog. However, I’d also suspect that many of these experts are the same pundits invited for television interviews and writing op-eds in the mainstream media. I’ve fallen out of the habit of watching television news or reading a U.S. daily newspaper or newsmagazine, in preference to browsing widely at the Internet salad bar. I still surf Huffpo, which while being nutritionally deficient info-smack, still seems to be useful aggregator for maintaining high-level background awareness. These days, I favor of reading more substantial stuff (wait a minute, I meant this), so the overpaid crap purveyors on the mainstream media don’t trouble me personally. While I may only read their stuff for the entertainment value, the thought that lots of people may be taking these expert pronouncements at face value means there is a reasonable expectation that lots of people are being misinformed.
As I’ve found recently in Tom Slee’s blog, Dr. Tetlock was able to identify the traits that made for more or less successful punditry. The experts who were more accurate than others tended to be much less confident that they were right. In addition, the less-unsuccessful experts are described as “foxes” (those who know many things) and the more-unsuccessful ones “hedgehogs” (those who know one big thing), after an essay by Isaiah Berlin. The hedgehogs seem to be winning the battle over eyeballs and consistent with the First Great Premise*, winning that battle determines what becomes truth.
*From Charles Pierce’s book, Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free, Doubleday, 2009. In Chapter Two, he articulates Three Great Premises about how we determine the truth of things these days. The First Great Premise: any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings or otherwise moves units; the Second Great Premise: anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough; the Third Great Premise: fact is that which enough people believe.
Consumer’s Reports published a report on health risks associated with protein powders, including a discussion of the risks associated with heavy metal contaminants found in some brands of powders. I’ve commented previously on the shortcomings in their reporting of the risks from the heavy metal contaminants, which I predict will do more to alarm and confuse people than inform them.
However, far be it for me to simply criticize CR’s work without making the attempt to try and communicate health risk issues with heavy metals in protein powders more clearly. So, I’ll take a run at talking about cadmium, because I kind of ran arsenic into the ground with the last post (Note that an expanded version of this post, providing a more detailed discussion of cadmium risks from protein powders, can be found here).
Consumer’s Reports published a report on health risks associated with protein powders, including a discussion of the risks associated with heavy metal contaminants found in some brands of powders. I’ve commented previously on the shortcomings in their reporting of the risks from the heavy metal contaminants, which I predict will do more to alarm and confuse people than inform them (Note that a condensed version of this post without all of the geeky risk assessment talk can be found here).
However, far be it for me to simply criticize CR’s work without making the attempt to try and communicate health risk issues with heavy metals in protein powders more clearly. So, I’ll take a run at talking about cadmium, because I kind of ran arsenic into the ground with the last post.