02 November 2011

Unhealthful News 183 - Greetings from the middle (of history (of science))

Hello, everyone.  I promised you 180-some more UNs, and while I will obviously not fulfill my hope of doing that within 2011, I will continue toward the goal.  I will get started by including some general observations I have been wanting to write about, interspersed with the unpacking of recent news that is the central theme of the series.

This is hardly the first time this has occurred to me, but I have been struck over the last few months by how most people, notably including those with the experience to know better, seem to think that they are living at the end of the history of science.  People who understand how Newtonian physics, which seemed doubtless correct for centuries, had errors that were fixed by Einstein's relativity are remarkably unwilling to allow for any possibility that the current theory has some flaws, such as the possibility that a particle could move faster than the speed of light.  Of course, I am more interested in science and technology that is more immediately practical.

One place I observed the phenomenon of people not realizing they are living in the middle of history is with regard to "renewable energy".  I have been in some interesting battles about industrial wind turbines, which regular readers will know cause serious health problems for nearby residents and are so incredibly inefficient that they arguably offer no benefits at all.  I will come back to some details of what I have written and been dealing with there, but will start with my observation about what seems to be motivating some IWT proponents.

I have noticed that the well-meaning people (i.e., I am not talking about the industry and their hirelings) who argue in favor of building IWTs persistently fail to understand the technological reality that we are not at the end of history.  Their view seems to be the following:  The natural dynamics of the planet -- wind, waves, sunlight, temperature gradients -- contain plenty of energy that should be harvestable for electricity.  Moreover, we will probably (they would say inevitably) come to need those sources of electricity.  Typically they also point out that burning coal has huge environmental costs.  But the erroneous syllogism is the next bit, where they argue, "...and therefore, since the only technology that harnesses those dynamics that can be built on a large scale right now is IWTs, must be a good idea to build them."

I assume the gaping failure of logic here is obvious.  Decades or centuries before the Apollo Program, it was clear that it was possible to use develop technologies to send people to the Moon.  But that did not mean that getting aboard the best rocket that could be slapped together in 1950, wearing a diving suit, would have been a bright idea.  Yet when I or others point out that (a) IWTs are so incredibly inefficient that their net contribution to energy generation is quite possibly negative (i.e., installing new IWTs actually increases fossil fuel consumption), and even if the contribution is actually positive, the cost of that tiny benefit is enormous, (b) IWTs cannot affect baseline generation like coal or nuclear (which basically need to operate at full capacity all the time) because the wind is intermittent, and so only affect how much gas is burned (gas plants can be turned on and off -- it is not terribly efficient, but much better than it would be with coal), and (c) IWTs do terrible damage to local residents' health and the environment, I frequently get the response "but we cannot burn fossil fuel forever! and coal is evil!!!"  

Translating that charitably (i.e., resisting the very strong urge to scream "what part of 'approximately zero net energy contribution' and 'does not replace coal burning' is too complicated for you to understand?"), I can only conclude they they are falling victim to the end of history fallacy.  Since at some point in time we might be forced to get our electricity from "renewable" sources, and improving technology will make such generation efficient long before then, then doing so must already be a good idea.  After all, how could something possibly be a good idea in the future, but not a good idea now?  Aren't we the pinnacle of human civilization?  The evidence-based truth, that renewable technology (except for damning rivers for hydroelectric) is currently not ready, and thus immediate installation is a terrible idea, simply cannot penetrate that prejudice.  

A second version of the "end of the history of science" fallacy can be found in blind faith in the perfection of current health science methods and knowledge.  This problem explains much of the unhealthful research and news reporting I have covered in this series.  If only there were a bit of epistemic modesty and use of the phrase "the best we can do now" or "given the limits of current knowledge", there would not be nearly so many errors in health reporting.

Allopaths (mainstream Western medics) are particularly guilty of lacking modesty, epistemic and otherwise, and the tendency to mistake medics for scientific thinkers is particularly damaging to health science.  For a profession that so recently engaged in such practices as therapeutic blood letting (which physicians of the time were absolutely positive it was a good treatment) and was quite likely to kill those it was supposedly helping because physicians refused to wash their hands (and were absolutely positive that doing so would be madness), medics and their enablers show a remarkable arrogance in insisting that everything they currently believe is absolutely, positively, beyond-and-doubt correct.  What is worst, >99% of the time, the belief is not based on any scientific knowledge, but rather was just something someone was told.  And so they believe it with certainty.  If this this sounds a bit like another major social institution that has a history of being absolutely sure of highly destructive baseless claims on the basis of faith alone, you are not wrong.

I am not just talking about how many clinicians are absolutely positive that smokeless tobacco is highly risky and other areas where they are the victim of directed propaganda (though there is no excuse for that either).  I am talking about things like medics whose education includes the equivalent of one semester of epidemiology, one semester of immunology, and zero semesters of nutrition making absolute pronouncements about the evidence about food allergies, and often being very wrong.  I'll probably come back to that theme.

At a less dramatic level, the "end of history" mentality contributes to the reporting of every trivial, highly-technical research finding as if it were of huge practical importance by itself.  This is not the only reason for that, of course, and I have written extensively about some of the others.  But if consumers of the report (editors, reporters, consumers, policy makers) understood that they are sitting in the middle of history, they would not be so vulnerable to venal self-aggrandizement by researchers.

The metaphor that occurred to me is that this is like polishing roadway gravel.  Gravel is very useful in a workaday way, making it possible to move forward over otherwise muddy terrain.  But picking up a piece of gravel, polishing it to a high sheen, and putting it in a glass case does not make it a gemstone.  In a way, the unpolished bit of the road forward was arguably contributing more to the world than a gemstone.  But even if you do not take such an extreme workmanlike view of value, it should be clear that trying to polish and display a large portion of the gravel is a disservice to the value of both gemstones and gravel.

So, we should not polish the gravel, but should wait until we reach the end of the road where there will be a gemstone.  (Hint for interpreting that: like a rainbow, the road has no end, so that statement, like the one about the pot of gold, is true because it is vacuously satisfied.)

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