26 March 2013

A primer on the buffoonery of Simon Chapman for Australian IWT opponents (part 2)

There is a self-deprecating joke in academia how to recognize a scholar (I am talking about myself here, not giving credit for that status to the subject of the post):  You know you are a true scholar if you consider every project you have ever worked on to be a work in progress.  I wrote Part 1 about what a buffoon Simon Chapman is a while ago.  But, hey, it was not even a full year ago, so of course it was still a work in progress.  Also on this blog I have written this and this and especially this.

There has been a renewed flurry of interest in what a dangerous oaf he is.  See, e.g., the Stop These Things blog or the new Twitter parody of him -- though a search for him in any of several other forums will show that there has never been any end to his dangerous games -- e.g., Nannying Tyrants, Dick Puddlecote (especially this recent gem -- read through to the end to get to the punchline), Velvet Glove, Iron Fist.  So I realized it was time to return to this project a bit.

It is quite remarkable how much damage this one nasty individual has inflicted on the lives of smokers (especially those who he killed because he kept them smoking, campaigning for Australia to ban low-risk alternatives rather than letting smokers switch to those alternatives as they have done elsewhere), and now to people suffering the effects of wind turbines in Australia (fortunately he has little reach beyond the sea, though there are hints that he has meddled in UK politics).  He has also done rather substantial damage to the scientific integrity of public health, and has contributed to a general feeling in the rest of the world (among those who are aware of "public health" and nanny state issues) that Australia might be better off being re-colonized.  Influential nasty idiot is a bad combination.  The only saving grace is that he does not have the self-discipline of a high-functioning sociopath, which would have allowed him to succeed in politics, else he might have done even more damage.

And, yes, I know that people like him thrive on the attention generated by their vandalism, bullying, and bravado.  It is so transparent in his case that I feel kind of silly taking the time to mention it.  But this particular vandal does so much damage that trying to avoid rewarding his antics with attention, like we might if trying to train a pet or educate a child, is not socially responsible.  Those of us who care about public health and good public policy have to fight back against people like him.  In the big picture it does not matter that we are just playing into what he wants, because it is his victims that matter. 

So, just one point of substance today and more later (work in progress, you know).  As those involved with the wind turbine and health issue know, despite Chapman spouting off in support of the electric power industry's denialism about the harms that are being caused, he has only made one "contribution" to the knowledge base:  He poured through the adverse event reports (AERs) of nearby residents who suffered the health effects looking for mentions of odd diseases that were probably not actually caused by the wind turbines.  He then proceeded to claim that because so many diseases were mentioned once, somehow the clear pattern of diseases that is consistent across these reports somehow does not count.  And, no, I have no idea why someone might think such a thing.  (For more information on the importance the adverse event reports as epidemiologic evidence and how to properly interpret the evidence, you can read my paper on that topic.)

He seems to have spent most of a year on this utterly pointless exercise.  And yet I debunked the whole thing in one paragraph in some testimony I wrote recently:
It is true that many individual AERs also report various health problems that are not apparently related to wind turbine exposure.  This is not surprising since people will have various health problems that start after they are exposed to wind turbines purely by coincidence, just as they would have had those problems had they not been exposed.  We would expect people to report these, along with the common outcomes that do seem to be caused by the exposure, in an attempt to provide a complete record of their experiences.  Indeed, such reporting is good scientific practice; it is optimal to report all of your data because you do not know what might prove to be useful information.  Some non-expert commentators have tried to claim that this scattering of apparently unrelated problems is evidence that the AERs are uninformative.  But this is obviously not true, since the occasional apparently unrelated disease does not change the almost universal pattern of commonly reported diseases.  The misinterpretation represents a failure by non-experts to understand that scientific analysis always involves identifying the signal amidst the inevitable noise (which in this case is quite easy), rather than obsessing about the noise.
And, yes, I think this means that the rough equivalence is that 5 minutes of my time is what is required to rebut a year's worth of Chapman pseudo-science.  I did not take the space in that testimony to mention that in most cases, he was probably misrepresenting the claims (though because he did not actually report actual results or methodology it is hard to be sure -- he not only got the science wrong, but he did not even know enough to ape how science is done):  He presents these claims as if everyone expressed certainty that the ailments were caused by wind turbines, when in fact many probably did not make such causal claims, but merely reported their experiences.  This is good scientific practice (what the residents did, that is); someone reporting adverse events they have experienced cannot necessarily know which of them might fit a pattern, and thus be scientifically useful, so the proper thing to do is to report everything and let the experts who have the big picture sort it out.

But Chapman did not merely demonstrate that he lacks a rudimentary understanding of how science works.  He opened a window into a rather evil soul.  As he was collecting these examples, he repeatedly published expressions of his glee about what he was finding, openly mocking and actively expressing his joy in people's reports that they had gotten cancer or some other disease.  Any normal human being who actually cared about people -- someone who was honestly disagreeing with a particular causal claim -- would say something like "I am sorry to hear about your suffering, but it seems there is really no basis for claiming the cause is what you think it was".  I realize that people in "public health" often get away with doing junk science that is proven wrong, time and again, for a very long time.  But it is difficult to understand why anyone listens to him after he has also so clearly revealed his lack of humanity.


  1. I opined some time ago that the people whom we think form the government, do not form the government. I am speaking of the prime minister and his appointees as ministers who form the cabinet in the UK.
    We wonder how dunderheads like Chapman can be so influential. The fact is that we are seeing the situation the wrong way round.
    He is not influential. He is a front. The influential people are those who form the actual, real government, and these people are to be found in government departments. These are the people who fund people like Chapman to produce 'the evidence' and these are the people who instruct the puppets in parliament.

    This is the only viable reason that Chapman et al get away with it. We have many similar people in the UK - Prof Gilmore readily springs to mind. In the USA, you have the current surgeon general and S Grantz.
    The awful thing is that we do not even know the names of our real rulers, never mind elect them.

    1. Sigh. I hate it when someone is more cynical about the process than I am, and makes such a convincing point.

    2. Carl, the following, although dated, does backup what Junican has stated. Also a name that might be familiar to you is Neil Collishaw,currently the Research Director of Physicians for a Smoke Free Canada.

      - Disease Prevention as Social Change: The State, Society, and Public Health in the United States, France, Great Britain, and Canada. Constance A. Nathanson page 152

      Key to the legislative success of the NSRA and its allies in the mid-1980's was their relationship with a career civil servant within the health ministry (Neil Collishaw)and through him, with the health minister, Jake Epp:

      “He [Collishaw] couldn’t be a lobbyist but he could produce things that would be valuable...research that you need to move the agenda ahead. We [NSRA and Collishaw] could work very well as a team. [Further] we could short circuit the system [that is, bypass the bureaucratic hierarchy, go directly to the minister]. A good bureaucrat would say, “look, you know, you gotta get something pretty quick done by Tuesday.” And you say, “does it have anything to do with a cabinet meeting on Wednesday?” and he says “yeah.” (Interview with NSRA staff member, August 1995).

      As these comments suggest, outside pressure not only was welcomed but actually was also promoted from with the government itself. Collishaw recalls that in the early 1980’s citizens’ antismoking groups were “weak and disorganized.” Aware that he “needed citizens groups making noise” to advance the tobacco-control agenda at the federal level, Collishaw actively sought out these groups, and found ways to direct funding, and other resources (for example, insider information and access) to them.......

      Having a few doctors that were proactive makes all the difference in the world because they are able to give credibility to all the other people. Having a few doctors was absolutely key, but they’ve got to be the right ones (Interview with CCS staff member, August 1995)

  2. He has made a wonderful career out of being, what I like to call, a scientific biographer. This individual has numerous articles published with his name on it. I haven't done a full inventory but looking at his last 10 years or so, he hasn't actually done research himself. He collates other people's work, misrepresents the data and passes it off as novel findings. This is not research and shames science. I admit it is not just his wrong doing. It is actually the academic instituion as a whole. A phd in epidemiology is a disgrace and passing it off as science is just plain wrong. Unfortunately this is the type of "science" lay people understand and make legislation by.

    1. I would be the first to agree that most epidemiology education and most published epidemiology is pretty poor. I did, after all, spend a lot of years trying to improve those. But it is (by definition) the only science that can tell us about actual health outcomes, so we are kind of stuck with it. Anyway, it can be taught well and can be done well, but it is very tricky (and thus easy to pervert when someone is more interested in a political goal than doing good science).

      I think you will find that Chapman's degree is in sociology or some such. Not that really matters anymore late in someone's career. But there is indeed no evidence that he has even the basic quantitative science skills taught in even mediocre epidemiology programs.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.