31 January 2012

Unhealthful News 199 - Good study, expected boring result, no coverage (smoking bans and heart attacks)

My friend Michael Marlow just published a solid (i.e., economics quality rather than public health quality) analysis of the effect of implementing place-based smoking bans (which is mostly restaurants and bars for this time period) on heart attacks.  He used data from the entire USA and a long period, which avoids the cherrypicking problem that is common in this literature.  He found that the bans had no detectable effect.  This is not surprising to anyone expert in the area, since all of the high-quality studies on the topic have found the same thing.  (If you wish to become expert, I suggest reading back through Chris Snowdon's posts on the topic -- his blog is probably the best repository of information and analysis on the topic.)

However, this result presumably would presumably be surprising to most of the people involved in political discussions about bans -- implementing new ones, posturing about the importance of existing ones, trying to justify going even further, etc.  It might tend to deflate some of the hype that is still influencing policy.

So with that in mind, what is striking is the news coverage of Marlow's article: as far as I can tell, none whatsoever.  Striking, but not surprising.  This is, of course, a perfect storm for not appearing in the news: a workaday analysis that the author did not try to overhype (in particular, he was incredibly modest and restrained in suggesting the better-known results suggested there was an effect, explaining how those authors engaged in the worst behaviors of of politicized junk science without ever actually saying so); a non-dramatic result -- in other words, the real core of science rather than some wild flight of fancy; and a result that displeases those who control or influence most of the press.

Indeed, this observation about the unhealthfulness of the the press is almost so boring that it makes for probably the most boring and shortest #UnhealthfulNews post ever.  But someone needed to mention this.

26 January 2012

Krugman on dealing with fools and frauds

Paul Krugman is one of the greatest intellectuals of our era, though not because of that Nobel in economics (some total fools have won that), but because he is one of history's best callers of bullshit.  I may be a bit biased, because his dispositions and fights remind me of my own.  I sometimes assume that fame, being on television whenever he wants, a column at NYT op-ed, and one of the best-read blogs in the world makes it rather easier for him to deal with the bullshit.  On the other hand, if I get frustrated, I can just ignore it all for a while with little harm done, while he has that whole weight of the world thing to deal with.  I am not sure how it works out in terms of stress levels.

Anyway, for those who do not read him, I like to periodically collect some of his recent analysis of the nature of bullshit (just that, not the substance of the fights, which you can find in the original) that reminds me of the fights that I write about.   For example, from his blog:
I view the primary race through the lens of the FOF theory — that’s for “fools and frauds”. It goes as follows: to be a good Republican right now, you have to affirm your belief in things that any halfway intelligent politician can see are plainly false. This leaves room for only two kinds of candidates: those who just aren’t smart and/or rational enough to understand the problem, and those who are completely cynical, willing to say anything to get ahead
.....So what you have are fairly dim types like Perry, on the one side, and the utterly cynical Romney, on the other. (Gingrich manages to be both a fool and a fraud).
Sound familiar, dear readers?  That seems to be the same qualifications for being part of the establishment anti-harm-reduction tobacco regulation authorities, like the "expert" panel and other US FDA decision makers that I talked at last week.  I wonder what would happen if I started a poll of who among those regulators is fool and who is fraud.

In another recent blog, Krugman reminded us of why (even beyond the above naming of names) he will never be a Senator or Secretary of the Treasury, even though he should be:
...this is an example of why policy debate is so frustrating, and why I’m not polite. The key thing about how the conservative movement handles debate is that it never gives up an argument, no matter how often and how thoroughly it has been refuted. Oh, there will be more sophisticated arguments made too; but the zombie lies will be rolled out again and again, with little or no pushback from the “respectable” wing of the movement.

In comments and elsewhere I fairly often encounter the pearl-clutchers, who want to know why I can’t politely disagree, since we’re all arguing in good faith, right? Wrong.
This came out at a time when I was trying to explain to a discussion board populated mostly be lefty activists why industrial wind turbines are so bad.  The conversation, such as it was, ran like this (highly paraphrased and abbreviated obviously):
Possibly well-meaning person who might genuinely care about the truth:  "But coal is so terrible." 

Me: "I agree, but IWTs can do basically nothing to reduce the use of coal because....  The best way to reduce coal use right now is to replace it with gas.  At best IWTs perhaps reduce the burning of gas a bit."

Now clearly doctrinaire, though perhaps still well meaning person: "If there is any benefit at all in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it is worth doing."

Me: "The only studies I know that actually do the numbers suggest there is not such benefit, and if there is, it is tiny, comes at the expense of creating serious health problems and destroying communities, and costing a fortune that could be better spent elsewhere."

Now clearly not a genuinely well-meaning person: "Quit your whining about hurting people.  Coal and global warming are terrible."

Zombie lies do not even require a few days or weeks before they pop up again.  Sometimes they circle back just a day and few posts after they were refuted in the very same conversation.  And as for the pearl-clutchers:
Me: "What part of 'does not actually address those problems to any significant extent' eluded you?  I have made this as simple as possible."

Random person who has never bothered to join the substantive conversation, to me: "You are a complete arrogant asshole.  How dare you tell people that you are right and they are wrong just because you are extensively citing the science based on your decades of relevant expertise and they are merely quoting from bumper stickers."
(Ok, I obviously added that last bit of subtext myself, but it does sum things up nicely.) 

Dealing with zombie lies is like trying to reason with a three-year-old.  And there is something about it that is much more bothersome than other forms of bullshit. 

Consider:  In this particular case, there is no push-back from anyone respectable, by which I mean that no environmental group I am aware of has had the balls to step up and say that installing IWTs is a bad policy that does little or nothing for the environment and clearly does more harm than good.  They do not have to actively oppose it, but they need to explicitly dis-support it.  Until they do, I (and lots of others, from what I can tell) will refuse to support the "green" agenda, by donating money, signing petitions, etc.

Why such a strong reaction?  We all join, donate to, and cast votes for groups and people who have some policies that we tend to disagree with, and speak politely of some of our opponents.  Why do I et al. change our politics and Krugman et al. lash out about these?  I think it is because of how particularly maddening it is to try to deal with someone who should be an honest adult, but who is arguing like a petulant three-year-old who just cycles through his "arguments" while ignoring the responses to them.  It makes polite disagreement impossible. 

This is compounded by the violent reaction of some others to any attempt to treat the zombie lies with the disdain they deserve.  As Krugman put it, some people...
...start from the presumption that when people...make strong statements, that they must have a defensible model behind their assertions. And so if someone...says that there is no such defensible model, we must be engaged in a “rant”, treating these people unfairly. ....  So what purports to be a demand for fair-minded argument ends up, in practice, being a demand that we pretend to find a coherent position where none exists, that we basically invent a high-minded debate out of thin air.

As a final point, this has gotten me thinking about the much decried tendency of internet communities to separate people into like-minded subgroups who never talk to each other.  Maybe it has less to do with a desire for reinforcement, as is usually claimed.  Many of us quite like the opportunity to present our thoughts to people who do not agree.  But we depend on them being honest and open-minded, or at least possessed of a deep enough position that they mount a valid argument, rather than being fools or frauds who just repeat zombie lies.  Indeed, a large majority of people I present thoughts to are indeed honest and open-minded, I genuinely believe.  But enough of the loud-mouths are not.  And when you try to call bullshit on the fools/frauds, you trigger the pearl-clutchers who freak out about "rants". 

At some point, dealing with that just becomes intolerable.  So it just becomes easiest to stick to forums where everyone's views and intellectual capacities are fairly well aligned already.  Indeed, I anticipate it is pretty likely I will leave the group that produced the dialogue above.  Poor Krugman, though, has to stick with dealing with economic policy makers; at least the enormous speaking fees must be some consolation.

20 January 2012

Unhealthful News 198 - Reporters think science is Magic: the case of the Iowa vote

It seems that Rick Santorum actually won the Iowa primary for the Republican nomination for president.  (And whatever you might think about him, at least he scored ok on his concern for animal welfare; on concern for people, well, not so good.)  This is not a health news story, but it is a great example of dangerous innumeracy in the press, one that illustrates why decent science reporting is so rare.

I happened to catch a few minutes of Fox News yesterday morning after this broke, though I am sure this was not unique to them.  There was a discussion among the reporters (or is that "reporters"?), which included near apoplexy about how terrible it was that the revised vote estimate changed the "winner".  Rather than Santorum losing to Romney by a single-digit number of votes, as originally estimated, he actually won by about 30 out of the 120,000 cast.  The press were blasting the clerks who count and record the votes and calling for an investigation about how an error could be made in such an important process.  Granted, Fox News is more intent on stirring controversy out of nothing than the other networks, but I would be surprised if any of them offered a realistic perspective.

Notice that in the previous paragraph I used the word "estimate" rather than the typical "count".  This was to illustrate that the process of figuring out how many votes were cast is a complex combination of human actions, not some kind of Revealed Truth or flawless mechanistic process.  It should be obvious that there are many ways that errors can be made in counting, recording, and compiling over 100,000 observations.

(Note:  In a deeper sense, it is not entirely obvious that there even is a True value for the number of votes.  There are probably genuine ambiguities in the process.  From that perspective the count does not reveal the truth so much as create it.  But we can set aside that level of analysis and just stick to the version where we believe there is a truth, but errors happen.)

Another cut at toting up, or an audit, will almost inevitably yield a different number.  Even some things that seem like "just counting" are attempts to measure complicated worldly phenomena using created methodologies (a combination of actions that is called "science"), and so involve scientific error, even if there is not the random sampling that some people think is the only source of error in science.  (I wrote a paper about quantifying error in the absence of random sampling years ago, which was well received and is easy to understand, so you might be interested.  It did not change the world of course -- it was widely read by people who probably already agreed with the main points, but who understandably do not want to go out of their way to actually act according to that knowledge.)

What the angry reporters were oblivious to is the fact that the most serious error was theirs, not the Iowa vote counters'.  By presenting as it it mattered that the original estimate put Romney ahead by 8 votes rather than behind by a few, they are the ones who made it a problem that a revision changed that.  That razor's edge only seemed to matter to the press because they are really only very good at reporting on sports, and so try to treat everything else as if it were sports.  Iowa was a tie for all practical purposes.  It was a low-stakes vote in a little state, but matters because it is a show of strength that might predict or influence the big votes later.  In that context, a few votes more or less obviously do not matter.

If this were a winner-take-all process, then there would need to be a legal definition of who won, and then there would be genuine room for complaint if later audits showed that it was not assessed properly (as with Bush v. Gore, Florida).  But that is not the case, so it was just the reporting itself that created the notion that the "winner" mattered.

The error that the reporters made is confusing a question like who won a game of football or tic-tac-toe or chess (based on rules, without error in the process unless someone is truly subverting the system) with a question of who won a war or who is more popular, which is sometimes obvious, but sometimes rather more complicated to assess, and involves no bright lines.  The reporters were treating the Iowa vote was a football match, and in a football match if the initial declaration of who won is later reversed then then it both changes everything and may genuinely result from some unacceptably serious problem in the process.

What does this have to do with health science and science reporting more generally?  Well if the reporters cannot even visualize how 0.01% errors cannot creep into a process of gathering data about a process they understand -- counting how many people moved to which side of the room to support a particular candidate in local community centers etc. across the state, and then gathering all of these notes together without losing any, and then adding them up without keying something in wrong -- then there is no way they can hope to understand how measurement, sampling, modeling choices, and countless other points of decision and possible goofs, along with confounding and faulty instruments (to say nothing of intentional political manipulation), introduce errors into scientific estimates.

Interestingly, reporters will occasionally use a phrase like "no statistical difference" or "statistical tie", but presumably only because it is fed to them.  I suspect they have no idea that it means "the limits of our analytic abilities are such that this could be an exact tie, or it might go a bit in either direction, and we cannot tell".  But reporters would never be willing to accept, "the vote in Iowa was a statistical tie" because they think that uncertainty only comes from some magical force called "statistics" (which I suspect most of them, if they think about it at all, think refers only to the concept of random sampling error).

Similarly, reporters think that "a relative risk of 1.92" is more scientific than "it doubles the risk", even though the latter is almost certainly a much better description of what we know because it does not pretend to knowledge that is much more precise than what we actually have.  I cannot claim to be free of guilt in contributing to this.  E.g., having calculated the point estimate that the epidemiology suggests that smokeless tobacco has about .01 of the risk from smoking, I often say "99% less harmful" and that estimate been picked up as the conventional wisdom.  But what I really found was that there was not compelling evidence of any risk at all, that some not-unreasonable assumptions gave numbers in the range of 1% or maybe 2% of that from smoking, and (most important, really) there was no remotely plausible way to get a figure as high as 5%.

The proper statement of the risk would be most of the information in the previous sentence.  But most non-scientists (e.g., science reporters) would interpret a precise-sounding assertion "it is 99% less harmful" as being more scientific than the rougher statement that is actually more accurate.  They treat science as if it is some magical process that either is silent on a question or tells us an exact quantitative answer.  There is a tendency for people to think that any method of inquiry that they do not personally understand must be magically perfect.  But "method of inquiry they do not understand" is most everything; after all, reporters seem to not even understand the concept of a bunch of people writing down some counts and then trying to gather them all for tallying.  If they did understand that, they would not be shocked to hear about 0.01% error.

19 January 2012

My testimony at today's FDA tobacco center meeting

[Update, 23 Jan 12: Official video is now posted at https://collaboration.fda.gov/p49817128/  I start just after 6:13.  The other public comments start at about 5:22.)

Today I departed from my usual practice of fiercely avoiding any "science by committee" setting or engaging with government overlord-types, and gave some testimony at the Center for Tobacco Products TPSAC meeting.  Greg Conley and Bill Godshall talked me into make the trip as an advisor to the tobacco harm reduction advocacy group CASAA.  It was worth it -- there were several great presentations by harm reduction advocates in the "citizen comments" that our public mastersservants grudgingly allow because they have to.  Greg recruited several people who had quit smoking by switching to low-risk products, and there were great THR presentations also by Greg, Bill, Elaine Keller, Jeff Stier, Gil Ross, and others.  I was pretty pleased with mine too, given that I wrote it while sitting through the talks earlier in the day (something to do during the tedious and pointless presentations by the well-paid consultants and others who were invited to speak by the hosts).

To appreciate my talk, I need to offer some background (which kind of spoils the freshness, I know, so if you are familiar with all this, you might want to skip right to the text of my talk).

Background for those who know nothing about CTP etc.:  The US FDA was fairly recently given authority over tobacco products.  The unit that formed is dominated by dedicated anti-tobacco extremists who are opposed to harm reduction, and its external scientific advisory group (TPSAC) is stacked with extremists and junk scientists, and contains no harm reduction experts even though most of their role is to evaluate harm reduction products.  There is a serious threat that FDA will substantially restrict, one way or another, low-risk alternatives to cigarettes.  They are particularly notorious for playing the chemophobia game, obsessing (or pretending to obsess) about detectable chemicals in products, implying that these have health effects even though the evidence about actually effects suggests otherwise.  No doubt they are annoyed about having to deal with public comments, because (in a complete perversion of the term) they consider the stakeholders to be the busybody activist groups and not include the actual primary stakeholders, the product users.  Public comments also are a challenge to their preferred way of dealing with information they do not like, which is to declare it to not exist and claim we do not really have any information (they still do that, of course, but they probably momentarily feel worried that someone is going to realize they are bullshitting).  Indeed, the defining characteristic of this whole process seems to be to pretend that evidence about THR does not exist, because it is not exactly the "right" form of evidence, or is not collected by the "right" people, or whatever.  That is the same old game used by the anti-harm-reduction extremists for a decade, but now it is official government policy.

Bits of background on this meeting:  Today's meeting was dedicated to dissolvable tobacco products, smokeless tobacco mixed with confectionary which dissolve in the mouth.  These face particularly great existential threat from the regulators, probably because they compete with the almost identical products from the pharma companies who many of the extremists carry water for.  The citizen comments period allowed for only 16 of us, and only for 3 minutes each -- "government for/by the people" in action!  It was quite clear from various comments and questions from the floor that many members of the committee did not understand key points about THR, despite supposed expertise and a year on the committee, and even more clear that they had never talked to any actual product users.  (They appeared genuinely astonished to hear one of the presenters say that he has kept using an e-cigarette, even though he is sure he could quit, because he likes it.)

In yesterday's session, the committee had been offered a lesson in the Swedish experience, about how smokeless tobacco use had caused the world's best reduction in smoking and had been shown to have trivial health risks.  They then tried to make up every possible reason about why that is not a good reason to encourage (i.e., allow) the marketing of new smokeless products in the US -- because that is just not the same thing, so we really have no idea whether something similar could happen.  Oh, and there was a trumped-up obsession with how children might get poisoned by these products (never mind that it had never happened, or the question of why they should be worse than existing pharma products that are almost exactly the same but much easier to unpackage, or other medicines) and resulting tangents about safe packaging.

Anyway, since (a) I figured several of the other presenters were already covering any basic information that I could communicate in 3 minutes, (b) Bill submitted 200 pages of written testimony (which they clearly did not read), and (c) the members of the Center and committee have had months to learn things, and if they did not already know them it was not because they had not heard them.  In short, they either already knew what I could tell them as a THR expert, or the reason they did not know is that they were intentionally ignoring the information.  So, I decided to go a different direction with my testimony.  Here it is (in full -- 3 minutes is a very short time):
I speak today as an educator with an interest in the nature of science and its role in the functioning of our society, and from that perspective would like to say, "won't someone please think of the children?" 
If an impressionable young mind stumbled across how science is often portrayed in this corner of our nation's government, he would be at risk of never becoming scientifically literate, let alone to wanting to be a scientist. 
First, science is supposed to be an honest truth-seeking process that attempts to figure out the best possible answer to a question, often via methods that require innovative thinking.  Our impressionable young mind, however, might come away: 
-believing that science consists of just a few narrowly-defined recipes, rather than taking in all the information we have in myriad forms, available from many forums, and thoughtfully making the best use of it; 
-believing that health science focuses on looking only under streetlamps and obsessing about easy but not directly informative work like chemistry, rather than trying to do the more difficult work to translate this and other information into what we really want to know about health effects;  
-from today's session, he might believe that science involves such methods as manipulating children into giving the answers you want, speculation-laden anecdotes, limiting reviews of the evidence to exclude any evidence that you wish did not exist, and counting unsupported assertions by authors as evidence; 
-and he would be taught that science it is not about identifying how we maximize our knowledge, but that it is involves declaring that we just do not know anything, when in fact we know quite a lot. 
Our impressionable young mind is not going to think very highly of science, and he might reasonably conclude that the best way to get involved America's version of science is to go to law school.  And, yes, that means that misguided ways of looking at science may be a gateway to more dangerous behaviors. 
Second, this poor child would get the impression that a hypothetical cardiovascular condition or cancer 40 years from now will be just as harmful as a near-term case in a current smoker, a case that was caused because smokers are discouraged from switching to low-risk alternatives.  Do we really want to tell that child that we expect so little of him, that his generation's health science will be so lousy that the 40-year-out cancer will be no more treatable that it would be today? 
Finally, at the very least, I would urge this committee and Center to make sure that any such anti-scientific writing is kept in child-proof packaging, rather that being left laying around on the internet where anyone could stumble across it and damage their developing minds.
In case you are wondering, still more background re that third bullett (explaining the joke does not make it funny, but it can clarify):  The "manipulating children" refers to the the Indiana Health Department who presented there and are the darling of the anti-tobacco extremist nutcase faction; their infamous "study" consisted of assembling some children, mixing dissolvable tobacco products (which the children had never seen or heard of before) in with some candies, and asking the children what they thought they were looking at.  Obviously, they "discovered" that the kids thought the dissolvables were candies like the other items they were presented with.  This is what passes for evidence for these people.  I suspect it would be possible to convince the kids that the dissolvables were cats if you worked at it.

The "anecdotes" point refers to someone who presented statistics about thousands of tobacco poisonings which were meant to imply that dissolvable products were dangerous, but in fact showed the poisonings were from other products.  Perhaps realizing how worthless her data was, she threw in a single story about a mild poisoning that might have possibly maybe been the result of dissolvables that someone had unpackaged and left around, maybe.  The "unsupported assertions" referred to a really stupid report presented by someone from RTI (for which they probably got paid a fortune of our government's money) reviewing some of the studies on the topic; the report highlighted whatever random conclusions the authors asserted, regardless of the fact that most were unrelated to the evidence reported in the study.  In other words, they did work at the level of a bad MPH student (which I suspect is exactly what most of the researchers were).  The "limiting reviews" referred to that RTI report, in which they every-so-conveniently had reasons to not include all papers not written by opponents of harm reduction, as well as similar behavior in all the other reviews of the day.

Unlike some of the other presenters, I did not get any questions from the committee.  What could they say?  The one question/comment I thought might come was something like "do you think this committee is some kind of joke".  I was prepared with an answer -- "well, if you really cannot understand the seriousness of what I was communicating, then, I guess the answer is yes".  Alas, no one asked the question.

But I still wonder how many of them even began to understand what I was saying.  I know that many of my THR-expert colleagues got it, but I kind of doubt a sufficient level of intellect is common among the officials and committee members.  Long-standing science committees are generally populated by political hacks and former scientists who cannot or do not want to think hard any more.  I was told that the top FDA guys looked like they were amused at least part of it (but whether that is a good sign or just a smug "yes, you caught us, but who cares -- we are still the ones in power" is not clear).  I noticed that at least one committee member, Jonathan Samet, perhaps was also getting it, but he knows my style from crossing paths over the years and, though I am pretty sure he does not like me, he gets it.  He a clever guy, albeit someone who has risen to seemingly dominate institutionalized American epidemiology, due to position and connections, not scientific skill, and then perverted it with politics, further damaging and already shaky field.  (No mystery why he might not like me, huh?)

Anyway, I am pretty sure they missed my final bit of satire.  Before the citizen comments, the chair read this ridiculously long statement about how we are encouraged to start by disclosing our conflicts of interest, who paid for us to be there, etc.  This is in keeping with the "look for any excuse to dismiss what someone has to say" mentality.  It is ironic, since that committee is notorious for being stacked with people with enormous conflicts of interest.  Anyway, I was not about to waste time from three minutes with that, but since I spoke a bit faster than I expected, I had 15 seconds left at the end.  So I added,
Oh, and no one has ever paid me for my work doing history and philosophy of science like this. 
And CASAA paid the two-figure cost of me coming here.
I am guessing that they had no idea that I was ridiculing their conflict of interest obsession.

The meeting was painful, but it is good to be reminded sometimes:  I generally know with how little wisdom the world is governed, but sometimes it is useful to remind myself of some of the details.  It was just so absurd.  The committee would ask presenters questions the presenter could not answer but which (a) everyone on the committee should have already known and (b) someone in the audience was clearly the top expert on.  But we peons in the audience were not asked to solve the conundrum, because science-by-committee does not allow for stepping outside the box (or in this case, beyond the plastic chain with "no one past this point" signs that separated the audience -- I am not kidding).  Several of the answers were in Bill's submission, but they could not be bothered with looking at that.  My favorite was when the committee was asking about some details of what one company had reported and the speaker was not sure; representatives of that company who undoubtedly knew the answer were sitting in the room, and no doubt some or all of the committee knew that, but the people up front went around and around without being able to figure out the answer rather than actually doing the research (asking) needed.

This kind of consultation among the privileged ignorant, which never actually seeks data, passed for scientific inquiry in the Dark Ages.  But dark ages never really die.  They just take refuge in government and religious institutions.  So try not to think too much about the children -- it is just too damn depressing.

[UPDATE: lots of typos fixed.  Sorry -- it was a long day.  And I cannot figure out what I did with the formatting, so it just has to stay as it is.]

17 January 2012

Unhealthful New 197 - What do easy interventions against global warming have in common with e-cigarettes?

I have a dozen big topics on my backlog list, but I will ease myself back with a simple one that showed up in today's news.  In his column, John Tierney (aka one of the handful of writers at the New York Times who consistently reports accurately and with genuinely useful analysis) wrote about a book and a new study in Science, that suggests that the best (both effective and practical) strategies for reducing the threat of global warning are not the "ecologically correct" ones we hear about.  The new study suggests focusing more on "black carbon" (basically, soot) and methane, which contribute more to global warming immediately than does the CO2 that we focus on (though CO2 lingers longer - a problem, but one we have more time to deal with).  They advise:
encouraging a switch to cleaner diesel engines and cookstoves, building more efficient kilns and coke ovens, capturing methane at landfills and oil wells, and reducing methane emissions from rice paddies by draining them more often.
As an added bonus, moving those in the third world from dirty 19th-century-style techs to modern alternatives will reduce local health-affecting pollution too, and improve crop yields.  And they are cheap interventions – indeed, they are estimated to be money-saving the near-medium term.

What makes this an Unhealthful News topic is not the coincidence that my previous post was a link to a talk I gave explaining why current wind power tech is terrible, no matter how much you are worried about global warming.  Nor is it that Tierney is writes unhealthful news – quite the opposite.  Rather, it is the subtext from all of the authors, sometimes not so subtle, suggesting that these ideas face an uphill battle because they do not demand meritorious sacrificial pain inflicted on rich countries, and because pursuit of theoretical perfect permanent solutions is the enemy of the good action that we can take now.  Tierney observed the:
…lack of glamour: Encouraging villagers to use diesel engine filters and drain their rice paddies is less newsworthy than negotiating a global treaty on carbon at a United Nations conference.  Another [concern] is the fear of distracting people from the campaign against carbon dioxide, the gas with the most long-term impact.
That should feel familiar to regular readers.  There seems to be the same urge for sacrifice – imposed on others, of course, not oneself – and refusal to pursue favorable cost-benefit ratios that dominates "public health" nannyism.  Encouraging active recreation, building sidewalks, and other welfare-improving and non-confrontational alternatives are not nearly as glamorous as trying to ban Happy Meals and tax soda.  Encouraging the use of e-cigarette or smokeless tobacco as substitutes for cigarettes is violently opposed, and newsworthy global treaties and bans are favored, even though substitution is by far the most promising current intervention and has amazingly low costs.  The "problem" is that dealing with the most immediate threats (protecting the health of today's smokers; climate change over the next few decades) distracts us: that is, it buys us time to develop better science and technology, distracting from the urge to pursue whatever half-assed, expensive, ineffective "solution" is in vogue right now. 

There is a perverse preference for more costly solutions, even if they are not effective, so that people are forced to repent and suffer for the sins of modern decadence.  Funny how the math works out:  when the costs are added to the benefits as part of what is good about a policy, rather than being subtracted, then expensive and ineffective can score better than cheap and effective.

I find myself in the middle of numerous conversations following my talk and video about industrial wind turbines, some of which are productive, but many of which touch on some or all of these same themes.  The upshot of many comments is that we should be willing to pay any price – or, more precisely, that other Americans (Canadian, Europeans) should be forced to pay any price – for anything that reduces global warming at all.  We should not wait for good technologies that are just a few years off, or take advantage of increasingly cheap natural gas as a good substitute for coal.  No, we have to do something that is really really painful, and never mind that it actually does not do any good at all. 

Like Tierney and the researchers, I am not holding my breath waiting for those who claim to be so worried about climate change to jump on the black carbon bandwagon.  Like, say, e-cigarettes, it offers huge benefits with little sacrifice, and gives us a lot of slack to make further improvements in the still imperfect situation, rather than desperately flailing around for a glamorous, top-down, immediate, perfect solution.  We can't have that, now can we?

Back again (and video about why industrial wind turbines are so bad)

Hi, everyone.  Has it really been almost three weeks since I posted?  Sorry about that.  I got quite sick (which is to say, poorly -- I know about half my readers speak English rather than American) and just could not get better for two weeks.  When I finally did, I was behind on everything.  Not only did it make a mess of the holidays, but I missed a prime time for bloggers and feature writers, when we can look back over the year or prognosticate about the new one.  I might do just a tiny bit of that -- after all, if I could not live with being late, I would not be able to live with myself.

I will start posting again this week.  In the meantime, I will post a link to a talk I just gave and then recorded a voiceover slideshow version, an overview of the case against industrial wind turbines (which is roughly synonymous with "the case against wind power" given current practice).  Caveats: it is long (50 minutes; it is not a topic that can be covered quickly), I cannot claim it is the best version of that overview available (there are others by people who specialize in making that overview, whereas I normally focus on the health effects), and there are bits that are for the specific audience (though that is explained  at the beginning and should not be a problem).  Otoh, I think it is pretty good, or I would not have recorded it, and there are some interesting things to learn about the topic.  So if you are interested in that topic or just like the way I give talks, here it is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EpzVgK5s1VU