Political Correctness: another personal failing made virtuous

In my silence over the past week, I’ve made use of the internal monologue. I am in a state of transition, with many elements of my personal and professional self brought to the table for evaluation.

In my heart of hearts, I will admit to you, this is what I want most. I care first and foremost about our future. Whether it is the wonder I feel as I watch my children grow or the joy I find when I hear other children laugh, the future belongs to them and I believe I can offer something of value to the relevant discourse. Whatever that actual topic is, I’m yet to define.

The realist in me reminds me not to hold my breath however and enjoy what placing I have with NewAnthro. So, as the initial paragraph stated, I’ve been thinking whilst unable to write.

My attempt at taking a break was entirely without my enthusiasm. If anything, I’ve wanted to write more. However, it was at odds with my current situation and, as you and I are now aware, a futile act against my better judgement and will. I tried political correctness as a compromise, but like the new clothes belonging to the emperor, I felt uncomfortable and all who know me saw right through it.

One of the results of this has been my reflection upon political correctness itself. I won’t bore you with much additional detail but to say that I have heard a lot of it recently and come to the conclusion that the term “political correctness” is nothing more than a politically correct term for lying. In short, someone will ask, how best can I explain something to be bullshit, without saying so? Or, how can I say this is a great thing without sounding bias?

How to say without saying. Whether by choice or under coersion, political correctness is about avoiding direct accountability for ones beliefs and/or statements.

Political correctness has taken centre stage in most discussions, from human rights to environmental governance, replacing philosophy and empirical evidence with a muse. It nullifies the true message of the speaker and makes a mockery of any potential critical review. We talk of free speech, but while we are free to be politically correct in our speech, our speech is never free when politically correct. Our value in the discussion is well and truly lost.

By being politically correct, we trade honesty, disclosure and integrity for wordcraft.

How best could I frame the disgusting environment, terrible species lost and the level of pollution that we are handing to our children other than to say that it is inexcusable and repugnant, with a straight face?

We simply cannot if we wish to remain honest. Likewise when we talk about the level of human suffering, not only globally, but locally, with even the wealthiest of us wrapped up warmly in our nests while someone sleeps in rags under some overhanging infrastructure a short drive away.

While life choices remain unsustainable, allowing valuable resources to degrade, erode and disappear, we have failed. While we continue to turn a blind eye to human suffering, we have failed. We could be politically correct and say, well, look, the situation is complex and we are endeavouring to formulate a meaningful and ongoing dialogue on the subject… or we can be honest and say, this is not good enough and if we care about our children and our community, we better clean up our act and do so fast.

Otherwise we risk being a generation able to whitewash over some of the worst acts upon ourselves and those who follow. Political correctness is true doublespeak. Honesty is always the best policy.


My Statement

My writing is the independent and unsolicited work of my own. It does not reflect the opinions of my employer, whomever that may be at the time nor does it reflect any political leaning, as I do not align myself with any party.

My writing is entirely motivated by an interest in scientific evidence and policy. My aim is to play a role in the public discourse in matters that I feel are important to me, my family and all Australians.

I am not infallible. Mistakes occur and I am happy to admit to any that I make as this improves my overall understanding.

My aim is not to incite malicious antagonism, but where I disagree, I provide a detailed reply and do not apologise if, in debunking a belief, I hurt feelings.

I invite contribution and hope, where possible, that my writing is of value to my readers.

Anti-science arguments: How do we respond?

I’ve been very interesting with the problem of responding to anti-science. This is mostly due to the frustration that arises from taking them seriously only to be subjected to a cheap magic show rich with fallacious arguments. Diethelm and McKee (2009) provide excellent examples, including;

“The normal academic response to an opposing argument is to engage with it, testing the strengths and weaknesses of the differing views, in the expectations that the truth will emerge through a process of debate. However, this requires that both parties obey certain ground rules, such as a willingness to look at the evidence as a whole, to reject deliberate distortions and to accept principles of logic. A meaningful discourse is impossible when one party rejects these rules.”

In seeking out certainty in reality, this objection to the best developed tools for obtaining high quality empirical data remains baffling. Moreover, anti-science provides no serious alternative, but instead dynamite to the dam walled placed up against the baseless ideation popular prior to the enlightenment.

Of course ignoring anti-science outright is not the answer as the anti-fluoridation campaign illustrates; while in essence it is fringe and largely based upon “Nazi chemical mind control” fears, packaged right, it has the power to infiltrate communities, leading to a decrease in dental health with no additional benefits, as has been witnessed in various towns in Queensland, Portland, Oregon and elsewhere.

We need to respond.

However, as Christopher Monckton illustrated with climate change, taking them seriously comes with the inherent risk of lending undue credit; he is now regarded as an “expert” in some quarters due solely to the fact that he has publicly debated with scientists and seemed to have won. That his waves failed to reach the shores of scientific endeavour is telling nonetheless.

What to do?

Recently, I analysed the components of an anti-science speech to show how it does not aligned within the same arena of critical thought to scientific methodology and thus presents a sideshow distraction rather than a rebuttal. Yet, what to do with a wordplay debate?

I provided the following basic questions to use to assess the quality of someone’s argument;

  1. Does the article in question refer solely to genuine scientific material?
  2. Does this material genuinely bring into question the validity of given conclusions held in the highest certainty within the scientific community?
  3. What have other genuine scientific material made of this conclusion?

Here, I will look at the comments of “Dan” who is an individual I’ve spotted haunting both NewAnthro and Watching the Deniers of late to give some suggestions.

Dan’s Stand

Dan takes an anti-science approach to climate science. This is not to poison the well, but a factual stances he must admit to simply because his position rejects the standing position held with high confidence within the scientific community, namely, he rejects the conclusion that CO2 can impact on the global climate.

His argument hinges on looking at the global temperature anomaly and atmospheric concentration of CO2 since 1800 to today. He claims that no warming in the global temperature anomaly exists beyond 2001 while concentrations of CO2 continue to increase, which he uses to base his position.

His argument against the standing position within the expert community of climate science hinges on a quote he found on Wikipedia by, Richard Horten, editor of the Lancet, which is critical of the peer review process.

The Analysis

To answer the three questions above;

  1. No; Dan refers to Wikipedia and his own blog posts.

It fails on step one. Furthermore, rather than illustrating how the conclusions drawn within climate science are wrong, he instead attacks the review process. Yet, if the science is wrong and he knows it is, he should be able to illustrate as much, for the validity of a conclusion does not sit on the opinions of people, but on the merit of the finding. His argument does not challenge the the scientific conclusion itself.

Mainly, he relies on three fallacies; the single cause, composition and authority.

Eddy Covariance: one way to obtain data on latent energy. My old site at Calperum, SA
Eddy Covariance: one way to obtain data on latent heat. My old site at Calperum, SA

Just as you wouldn’t attempt to measure the volume of a pool by a sole measurement of the depth of the shallow end, it is a failure of understanding to assume that climate change is restricted to the temperature anomaly.

Add energy to a pot of water and the temperature will increase. Eventually, around 100°C, the rate of temperature will reduce, even if the energy input continues. This is because the energy is now going into a physical process not measured by a thermometer; the conversion of liquid to gas.

Climate change is dynamic, with energy going into the atmosphere, but also the oceans and ice, leading to latent heat; ice melt and water vapour, both ignored by thermometers, but measured by other methodologies, such as physical measuring and eddy covariance measurements respectively.

His quote also assumes that, as one person in a health journal is critical of peer review, we have evidence enough that the entire process is flawed. The quote itself is somewhat fallacious – ad populum – and how it is applied is fallacious through authority and composition.

As previously noted, rather than fault the conclusions, he attempts to fault the entire scientific process with this one small quote.

How to respond?

I know first-hand that pointing out these faults do nothing to the argument being presented – shifting goalposts may be applied or semantics may come into the debate, alongside repetition of the same fallacious claims. Eventually, the moral high ground will come up and your efforts will have been a waste as the individual goes on to continue the same debunked claims elsewhere unmoved by your exchange.

It may be useful to respond concisely;

Do the following claims by Dan seriously challenge climate science?

“No warming over the past decade while CO2 levels increase…” – No; warming is only one part of climate change, with energy also being taken up in processes not measured by thermometers, eg. latent heat.

“Richard Horten says peer review doesn’t work…” – No; in no way does this even critique the empirical evidence base for anthropogenic climate change, but is a fallacy of composition based upon appeals to authority, serving no purpose but to subvert critical reflection of the evidence base at hand.

Otherwise, praise the commentator on their prowess and let them know how much you’re looking forward to their radical findings overturning modern science as we know it – surely they will receive their much owed Nobel Prize once their ground breaking research is published in a respected science journal. After that, walk on.

You can waste your life replying to nonsense – fiction is limited only by imagination and our species is capable of many generations worth of imagination. Or less eloquently put;


Climate discussions flat-line where they should be thriving

The climate science news, in reality, has waned in recent months, perhaps over the bulk of 2013.

Sure, the science is still trickling in but within the general media it’s really pretty much flat lined. Monckton’s last Aussie tour was a flop; a hopeful sign that his crackpot star is burning out. The “final nails” are rusted and forgotten…

Climate change is more or less left to the enthusiasts. The tone on the anti-science climate media is increasingly batty and fringe and arguably as drama soaked as any other conspiracy theory one may stumble upon for a chuckle. The lines in the sand have washed away and far fewer are selecting supposed “sides”.

Most people admit that anthropogenic climate change is real, but for the most part, the threat is trivialized by how intangible and far off it seems to the individual right here and now in a given city. The only real fight that seems to persist within the public eye is the rather extraordinary lengths we are going to, to find fossil fuels, be it fracking, offshore drilling or tar pits.

At the same time, the US president has finally joined the true dialogue of climate response policies, China is ever ramping up its activities in response to climate change and little Australia, with its massive per capita climate debt, seriously contemplates over two potential candidates for leadership; one of which goes from calling climate change “crap” to carbon trading “a so-called market, in the non-delivery of an invisible substance to no one”.

As an observer, I can’t help but sit back perplexed.

Does being the lucky country also mean the wilfully ignorant country as well? Are we so scared that changing our behaviour must mean degrading our quality of life? Of course, the longer we take to begin meaningful change the more dramatic and thus uncomfortable change will be. Being honest, this is what motivates me more than anything – I simply do not wish to impose avoidable hardship on those I care about.

Small steps earlier rather than big steps later to catch up.

Globally, financial concerns have only increased over the past five years, leaving many policy makers focused entirely on growth, with the long term impacts of climate change placed on the back-burner for future discussions. Hope and Hope (2013) have illustrated that this may be short sighted as this low growth is likely to lead to a poorer future population, thus less able to match the social costs due to additional CO2 emissions. Under the current global economic pressures, there is even more reason to attempt to tackle greenhouse gas emissions, not less, than if economies were healthier.

There  really is no justifiable reason for the lull. While anti-science groups may be giving communicators less material to respond to (I’ve argued before that this should be done sparingly in any case), we still need strong discussions on what we do now to curtail future emissions to ensure we provide our grandchildren and theirs a climate akin to that we have prospered within. There are many concerns that need to be addressed, to be sure, but climate change is still a high priority.

Furthermore, it presents opportunity for new markets and community-based behaviours that in turn could lead to financial benefits. If we simply get on with the task and demonstrate positives in changing behaviour, we will also erode the platform on which many anti-science communicators stand upon; it will be increasingly untenable to insist anthropogenic climate change is not real, uncertain or exaggerated when communities are progressing and thriving in low-carbon economies.

We never needed the momentum we drew from rebuking anti-science propaganda, but we have been doing it for so long that we have convinced ourselves otherwise. The dialogue belongs to science communicators now and we are not doing our part to assist with the necessary behavioural changes.

Please Follow and nudge NewAnthro to be of value to you

The value of my writing is entirely in its readership.

Please, if you have not done so already, subscribe to NewAnthro however would suit you best, whether email (“follow” button to the right), RSSTwitter, StumbleUpon, Pinterest, or Facebook. Through all these, I provide feeds to all my writing.

Equally, share anything I write with friends, family or colleagues where you believe it might be of interest.

Also, never hesitate in sending me an idea, a repost from your own work or a link to a news article or website which you would like me to comment on. A large amount of my recent posts on fluoridation have come from my readers providing me material, largely through Twitter and email – which I am very grateful for.

I hope NewAnthro is a valuable and interesting resource and plan to stubbornly persist with it for as long as I can see and type and while there remains issues that threaten the long-term prosperity of our species.

Thanks again to all my readers for providing value to my efforts!

Simplifying the counter-measures to the anti-fluoridation mob

Pondering on what I could do to further assist science and other whom also challenge the anti-fluoridation advocates, I’ve decided to adopt a layout of the anti-fluoridation rebuttal page to something similar to the SkS Myths rebuttal page.

Now, the anti-fluoridation page contains a simple reply to the debunked anti-fluoridation arguments, which is linked to a sub-page with additional details. Further, alongside this, is an icon which allows readers to quickly tweet the simple reply with a link to that additional detail, for example:

Simple replies

(click for details)

Tweet the Detail

Fluoridation chemicals are NOT industrial waste


With this, I hope to make it easier for my readers to target their replies to save effort and time, while also providing the arguments in “bite-size” sections rather than one huge page of text.


There’s consensus and then there’s consensus: Climate “Sceptics” Just Don’t Get It

Every single time researchers go to the otherwise wasted effort of reviewing the standing position of climate research in relation to anthropogenic climate change (for, in what other field of science do scientists undertake such analyses?), we hear the same backlash from the committed sceptics.

In fact, looking at the dismissal charges of conservative columnists in relation to climate change, Elsasser and Dunlap (2013) found that attacking the scientific consensus was by far the favoured approach. This illustrates just how much such anti-scientific groups understand the scientific consensus hurts their position, if it is against them.

And it is against them.

Time and time again, I comment that these committed sceptics just don’t get what scientific consensus is. Without blinkers, when one reads such consensus research papers as the recent Cook et al (2013) they find that such an analysis is NOT the result of questionnaires sent to scientists. It is in fact asking, “what is the position drawn from the conclusions of the paper and are these conclusions pro-anthropogenic climate change or not?”

Scientific consensus here is weighed by the evidence presented within peer-reviewed literature and not merely the expert opinion of a few. This is why it hurts the committed sceptic so much and needs such venomous denigration. Donna Laframboise sounds silly when she says, “science isn’t done by consensus” when one looks at what real scientific consensus is.

Moreover, local gold hoarding conspiracy theorist, Jo Nova, presents just how little she gets science in her reply to Cook et al (2013) by referring to her beloved, Oregon Petition Project;

“You want authority? Skeptics can name 31,500 scientists who agree, including 9,000 PhDs, 45 NASA experts (including two astronauts who walked on the moon) and two Nobel Prize winners in physics.”

Righto – is that what’s supposed to challenge empirical evidence? A bunch of names of people – the vast majority of which, regardless of their other achievements, are without any relevant training or contributed any relevant analysis to the related fields of science – signing on the dotted line…?

The Oregon Petition Project is a one-sided vote. It is irrelevant.

Science isn’t done by consensus and the scientific consensus isn’t done by people. It is done through evidence. Hence the print in Cook’s infogram; 97% of climate papers stating a position on human-caused global warming AGREE global warming is happening – and we are the cause.

Nowhere do the positions of people come into it. It’s an argument made on evidence, not opinion.

Yet the climate sceptics attempt to denigrate it as opinion, whilst providing evidence that IS based purely on opinion!!

There’s consensus and then there’s consensus. The body of scientific evidence simply does not support  the committed climate scepticism and the sceptics know this fact and do whatever they can to present a sideshow and misrepresent the body of scientific evidence because of this.

There is no debate over consensus because the definition of it is different for those who accept scientific evidence and those determined to remain “sceptical”.

Being Wrong: How we deal with it makes all the difference.

I’ve talked a lot about similarities between the so-called “climate sceptics”, anti-vaccination activists and creationists in the past, and much of those similarities could also be shared with the anti-fluoridation camp as well, but there is one aspect of similarity between each of these four groups that I have yet to discuss.

From my experience, each one is happy to name-call and partake in science paper fight – both pointless, ego-centric activities – but yet typically fall silent when one takes their evidence seriously and finds it lacking.

A very public example which many of us witnessed is that between Peter Hadfield and Christopher Monckton. The latter was pompous, bombastic and feverish in his initial replies to Peter’s work, but when Peter offered to debate with him, the only conclusion an observer can make is that Ol’ Chris scampered.

With my own work, I have increasingly come to the realisation that pointing out where the best science stands does little to convince the true believers – it only solidifies their bogus positions through a supposed arrogance / ignorance within established scientific methodology.

This is the fertile grounds for propagating “ivory tower” conclusions or secret agendas.

Rather, I try to critique the counter evidence provided to me and explore this myself within the real world.

I’ve looked at the arguments provided by The Queenslanders for Safe Water, Food and Air inc. president, Merilyn Haines, after I became aware of her through her comment on NewAnthro. All of my work has been, thus far, devoid of any Merilyn “approved” rebuttals.

Equally, the day and half I wasted exploring data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics relating to bladder and lung cancer on the behalf of Dan Germouse, after his comments on NewAnthro, went by without comment.

In the early years of my blogging, I was foolish enough to play into the hands of such trolls and become frustrated by their personal attacks. I did waste countless hours researching papers to provide the scientific reasoning for a given position, or in reply to their proposed argument, only to be hurled back favoured scientific material (regardless of the quality or the actual standing of the paper); what merely descended into a paper war.

These activities, I felt at first to be worthwhile – I was at least engaging them. However, they are emotionally draining and circular; deliberate attempts to wear one down rather than advance understanding.

Developing my work into my current approach, I’ve noticed that such pet theorists are inclined to avoid arguments they cannot refute. Regardless of my efforts to correct and engage Merilyn, from her recent interview on ABC radio, it is clear that she still parrots off the same nonsensical claims. I suppose Dan moved on to greener pastures following my effort, to continue to moan on supposed “pain and suffering” due to water fluoridation.

The hardened and indeed committed “sceptic” to such matters as anthropogenic climate change, vaccination, evolution, fluoridation and whatever other conspiracy ideation you wish to mention will simply side-step an argument they cannot refute rather than acknowledge personal error.

In reality, the biggest insult they produce is entirely upon themselves. Such avoidance of counter-evidence is as debilitating as that we all seem to shake our heads over, such as parents whom deny their child medical assistance on the basis of religion or “natural medicine”. It’s incapacity to accept fault and improve.

I’m not stating that my work on NewAnthro is faultless and know that some of my analyses must include certain caution, acknowledgement of error bars, due to confounders. For instance, with my look into rates of bladder and lung cancer, I assumed that other factors that may confound my results, such as the average age of the population, immigration and emigration, are more or less homogenous between the study groups at a state level.

My analysis largely hinged on exploring Hirzy et al (2013) whom state that there is additional “pain and suffering of citizens” due to “the use of technical grade fluoridation agents”. I expected that, if there is indeed evidence of this, it should be evident within the Australian dataset with Queensland the obvious control group.

Within my analysis of the Australian Coalition’s Direct Action Plan, I even make a note of criticisms I would expect and attempt to provide my argument in reply.

Being wrong is as valuable as being right, provided you can admit fault and move on. The true believe remains true, entirely at the cost of any credibility they may have held.

How the Enlightenment Has, So Far, Let Us Down

As a child, learning of the Enlightenment, I came to think of it as a revolution. To me, I saw it as a point where our species finally developed a critical tool kit, leading us to empirical evidence and thus a solid basis for understanding. I saw it as a turning point from ancient unfounded thinking to the modern era, leading to the industrial revolution and ultimately all that surrounds us today. I felt pride for our achievements and lucky to have been born in such an enlightened age.

I suspect most people see the Enlightenment in much the same way. However this is entirely wrong.

Yes, a small group of our species turned from philosophical reasoning to the more concrete tools that would develop into scientific methodology which in turn created the technological wonders of recent centuries, but this wasn’t universal.

Even today, in affluent countries where individuals are exposed to greater education than ever before, opinion and reason are simply not given their due weighting. Look for instance at media where the hard won lessons of research compete on even grounds with the cleverly designed opinion of a few and the reader is more often unaware of the absurdity.

How often have I heard, “because I believe in [a favoured holy scripture], I think…” as an opening of an answer to a question about the natural universe as though it were virtuous and sensible.

When one chooses to tackle any alternative to scientific reasoning, from the various alternative medicine ideologies (eg, natural therapy, anti-fluoride, anti-vaccination etc), religion to the popular climate change “scepticism”, one finds the same fundamental problem; faith in an idea that holds little to no empirical grounding. Such belief ultimately rejects reality as it is understood in favour of the unsubstantiated idea.

What’s more, the larger community tends to give them the respect of airing; everyone has an opinion and each opinion deserves a voice.

We don’t honestly believe this as there are many ideas that are abhorrent. For instance, racial discrimination is nowadays increasingly left to pockets of disliked groups to complain about within their sub-communities (I suspect gender preference discrimination will follow the same fate over the coming decades).

Yet where the idea holds no emotional response or social rejection, we fail almost entirely to demand solid evidence for the supposed factual claim as part of its right to airing. The Enlightenment may have provided the conception of modern scientific methodology, but it has not improved the awareness of critical reasoning for the vast majority of our species. We are by and large as drawn to myth and misconception as anyone else beyond the scope of the Enlightenment.

For all the talk, debate and correction one finds within various media in response to a certain falsehood, we achieve meagre returns outside of where doubt already exists within the faithful. The devout remain devout if not even further solidified to their delusions for all the effort undertaken to correct the misinformation.

The emphasis must therefore be on education. Religion has applied this for millennia; knowing all too well faith is more likely ensured if the mind is hijacked at a young age. We must shore up the minds of our youth with dedicated teaching in critical thinking prior to insult of erroneous memes and outright assault from faith. In essence, ensuring our children are not credulous through the provision of a personal critical tool kit – by educating them from a young age how to test an idea (that is, how to think, not what to think) – we are effectively vaccinating them against invasive detrimental memes.

A few generations hence with such dedicated effort and maybe we might be able to come close to the common perception of the Enlightenment.

Moderation, Censorship and the Path to Ignorance

Several months ago, I was concerned about writing a post that deplored religious zealots demanding that their faith be held beyond criticism. I was concerned because I feared the hatred such individuals expressed would in turn focus on my call to protect the freedom of speech and I, obviously, did not want that. I have a wife and children to think of as well.

Yet, I do have them to think of, especially my children. What future do I hope to provide for them?

Of course, I want them to have as much freedom as one can have, to develop into the people they would like to be. I refuse to lead them into a world where critically analysing claims made by some is considered taboo.

Good ideas stick. Reality cannot be knocked over. The best way to ensure we obtain the every best for their future is to be able to question and challenge ideas freely and openly. The greater we aspire to this, the more successfully will we erode the ignorant, the backward and the detrimental.

For this reason, I had to write that article and many more since.

The most aggressively denounced articles were those against the inaccuracies of the anti-fluoride movement. Not one of the respondents of these articles seriously challenged my assertions, but instead offered pet theories or hurled insult.

As the religious zealots subdued again and I moved on from the blinkered anger of the anti-fluoride movement, I stopped thinking about free speech and concerning myself about what those whom I challenge may think of my writing. I could instead think about the evidence, as best I understand it, to write about the troubles we face and potential options we may have to maximise our prosperity into the future.

Yet, to my surprise, I stumbled upon even more topics that were held beyond question.

As I have said in the past to anyone I have challenged; if I am wrong, prove it. I can adjust my views, if adequately proven in error. I hold no internal belief beyond question except for the feelings I hold for my friends and family. All I ask for is evidence.

This is what I have often mused over with the climate “sceptic” whom boldly links me to a blog post or news article rather than within the science literature. Why such places? Why aren’t the experts interested?

With the matters that have recently been brought to light, as with any other subjects I concern myself with on NewAnthro, we run a terrible risk through falling prey to taboo which ultimately leads to censorship. I know it sometimes seems like a herd of “wildetrolls” set up camp on your comment thread, but so be it. Let them starve there. Censorship of ideas at the very least slows down the path to better information if not stops it entirely.

The waves sometimes wash up seaweed, sand and dead sea life, but in the long run, it erodes that cliff face. The same can be said about free speech and the wall of ignorance.

Christopher Monckton’s claims only persist become he keeps pumping them up not unlike the priests of yesteryear whom would actually drop by your house to reinforce faith in the scripture. False claims simply cannot stick unless they are propped up and denied the corrosive power of critical evaluation.

For that reason any ideological preference that refuses analysis exposes itself in self-confessed error. If such preference is held in high regard, it makes fools of anyone who hopes to attain reliable information within its shadow.

Again I find myself concerned. Perhaps I ought to moderate myself in the future to avoid such  situations?

Yet, I find myself returning to my children. Moderation is little more than euphemism for censorship and my actions down that path lead my children into the shadow of ignorance only to be made fools. I simply cannot do that to them.