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.