Demonisation of Science – A trend to be fought

As I write this, my wife of 46 years is in intensive care fighting to live. She is there partly because of bad medical science and partly because of what had become a widespread syndrome in many scientific disciplines, the demonization of a person or a concept by people who can be wrong.

My wife does not provide the best example of demonization, but it is current, motivational and recent and on my mind. Please excuse me if I become too personal. The important part is not the personal part. It is the insidious danger of demonization.

I am a chemist, with a B.Sc. and part-time honours, chemistry major, from the University of Queensland, Australia. I also did a couple of years of aero engineering before a car crash curtailed further flying in the Air Force. My career covered many aspects of science, some engineering and much politics at the end. In retirement I can draw on a diverse set of experiences, but can also appreciate points of the philosophy of science. Mostly, that only comes with age and experience.

“Demonisation” is not my term. Maybe it originated with alcohol, the “demon drink”. It is now in fairly wide and expanding use. It was used a few years ago in climate circles to describe CO2 as a troublesome compound for all people, probably before the facts were complete. More recently, it has been used in a people context, as in the demonization of denialists.

Scientists to whom the demon label is attached can have a harder time than they should. In the case of Colleen, I was demonised by the general physician in charge and by senior nursing staff because I consistently told them that they should look beyond the easy diagnosis they had made. When you know a person for nearly 50 years, you can detect changes that are not so obvious to the casual observer, but then the doctor has the training and his word should be accepted. As it turned out, Colleen had a diagnosis of post-operative constipation following a repair of a broken hip – not an uncommon happening. What had really happened was that she had had an earlier colonoscopy where a cut had been made and marked with methylene blue die in case follow-up was need. This had weakened the bowel wall. Several days of large doses of morphine had dehydrated her and the combination resulted in a blocked and perforated bowel, the hole about an inch in diameter, with a couple of pounds of faecal material mingled with her other abdominal organs.

It was necessary for me to be quite forceful of expression for several days before the correct tests were done and the problem – perhaps then 6 days old – was rectified by lengthy surgery. This demonised me in the eyes of some of the medical profession involved. A lay person cannot diagnose, only a doctor can do that. But, unless I had persisted I would now no longer have a wife. Experience, observation, open mind, thinking about the evidence, reinterpretation, explaining every little observation, insisting on more data – these were the life-saving ingredients.

In my career I have met demonization several times. We inherited a site where lead batteries had been recycled and there was residual lead in the soil. We were told “authoritatively” that lead poising affects the IQ of young children. A “Team” has worked for years to prove this alarming hypothesis – but they have demonised the authors and the possibility of a simple and strong reverse causation explanation. See
http://www.mja.com.au/public/bookroom/2001/rathus/rathus.html
http://dnacih.com/SILVA.htm

Two comments follow about lead and children. First, in the mid 1980’s, when some intensive work was done, published estimates of the weight of daily soil ingestion by children differed by well over an order of magnitude. So the models had uncertainty – as do today’s global climate models. Second, this question is relevant to climate change because of the discontinuation of leaded petrol and the resultant increase of fuel use by cars and trucks. This affected the so-called GHG load on the atmosphere.

Another case from Australia, again medical, resulted in 2 Nobel Laureates, Barry Marshall and J. Robin Warren. See
http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2005/index.html
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2005/oct/04/science.health
Barry Marshall in particular was demonised for his astounding proposition that ulcers were caused by bacteria and could be cured by antibiotics. He even self-administered a dangerous concoction to drive home his point. Personally, I feel that the “Team” opposition to their work should be documented better and spread more widely, so that those who demonise will know that they can be shamed in public when shown wrong.

Getting closer to climate matters, there was widespread demonization of the peaceful use of uranium for large scale electricity generation from the late 1960s onwards. From 1972 I consulted to and then joined the company which had discovered the immense Ranger uranium deposits in 1969. It was soon apparent that there were considerable learning curves for science sub-sets like radioactive decay, assaying, ore resource calculation and particularly radiation health measures. Well, the mines are still operating today and no person appears to have been harmed by them (though we did lose one employee to a crocodile attack).

The second steep learning curve for nuclear was to counter the demonization of radioactivity. You probably know that there are still many people today who have absolute belief that nuclear power generation wastes have to be managed for 250,000 years. This is simple psycobabble as can be shown in a few minutes. Of course, the future of nuclear electricity interacts with fossil fuel use and projections for atmospheric composition of GHG.

Almost by necessity, I lowered my involvement in geochemistry and increasingly went political about late 1980s to counter the anti-nuclear protest. Slowly but surely, the arguments put up in opposition were demolished by demonstration and logic, until no realistic viable case exists to further hold back on nuclear expansion. Demonisation has however resulted in Australia still having no nuclear power generators, despite a large output of mined uranium.

Demonisation has distorted the science, in a way costly to power users and the environment.

Demonisation is resurgent in relation to the Climategate emails and inquiries. Those who have submitted words critical of the science are not all extremists. There is a weight of experience and intelligence in these contra submissions, but those who make them are being ignored or derided. This is not a civil way to act. The inquirers have done shoddy work (with the exception of Graham Stringer MP from Britain; and now the penny is dropping for the Commons Inquiry leader Phil Willis.)

Wherever you look, it is not hard to find evidence of demonization in science. The anti vaccination movement is an example. There is widespread chemophobia, for example in framing where “organic” or “natural” methods are suddenly trendy, despite the certainty that many people would die of starvation if global organic farming was made compulsory. Ditto for genetic modification of crops, a human extension of a process of Nature. The demonisation of science is an insult to the truly professional scientist. I worked several years in the synthetic fertilizer industry in a very large new plant and mixed with people whose skill and dedication was too prominent to be insulted.

Recently was saw the terrible example of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences publishing lists of names of good people and demons with respect to attitudes, as they interpreted them, towards man-made global warming. This is ugly. . PNAS should take a long look at its charter, purpose and methods.

Deductions.

1. We frequent bloggers need to check if we are falling into the demonization trap ourselves. I am guilty, especially a few times when blogging was new to me.
2. Demonisation is antithetic to good science. Good science equates to open minds.
3. There are more effective ways to make an example than by demonising. Shaming is an acceptable alternative sometimes, but most effective of all is the dispassionate analysis that is done by people like Steve McIntyre and several others whom you know too well to need mentioning here. Lead by example.
4. Emotion and politics interact with science, but in an ideal world they are separate from it. It is harder to set out to do good science when you have made up your mind on the outcome.
5. Try to avoid making a mellow generalisation from data. In a surprising number of cases (well, surprising to me) the solution is in the exception to intuition. Data points that are averaged out of existence often take with little Rosetta stones.

It was the devil in the detail that led to intervention in the case of my wife, at the start of this essay. It was not helpful to be demonised for pointing out that misdiagnosis was possible.

There is more that can be written on this theme, more in the context of climate. Should our host feel that responses below warrant it, I would be honoured to write more.

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0 thoughts on “Demonisation of Science – A trend to be fought

  1. I’d say ‘Save us from experts’ except that experts are now working to save your wife. ‘Save us from tired or arrogant experts’?

    Crossed fingers.

  2. All the very best for your wife’s recovery Geoff.

    The concept of emotional intelligence has way too low profile IMO. Touchy self image continually gets in the way of real progress in most areas of life. Truth by way of supported fact should be sacrosanct irrespective of how long a particular view has been held or where contrary evidence comes from.

  3. I'd say 'Save us from experts' except that experts are now working to save your wife. 'Save us from tired or arrogant experts'?Crossed fingers.

  4. Geoff

    You have my complete sympathy and empathy.

    IMHO is so much more than simple ‘demonization’ which is involved here.

    In my view we need to face the plain fact, sometimes very, very painfully, that we humans have had a million or more years to evolve from being aggressive, opportunistic and tribal apes to being………..aggressive, opportunistic and tribal apes.

    I once had a much loved, clever son and hard working aged 26 – both a fully qualified avionics engineer (Qantas trained) and commercial pilot. He was killed flying a plane which crashed due to negligent maintenance by his employer. The company – already on notice by CASA for slack practice in fact had not one attempt, but two to kill my son in the one week – failing on the 1st due to his own professionalism but succeeding on the 2nd (even more outrageous) ‘attempt’.

    Three horrible years in a Queensland coronial inquest taught me two things:

    there is just no limit to the depths to which people will sink to hide their own negligence;

    there is just no limit to the level of communal or ‘consensual’ dissembling in which people will indulge themselves – even judges, for the most trivial of ‘social motives’; and

    failures to bring these crass human tendencies to account and reveal the basic truth are more common than not and can be the bitterest pills, challenging us to the very limits of sanity.

    I sincerely hope you and your wife can move on to a ‘sunny place’ where you both healthier and happier and of course much, much wiser.

  5. All the very best for your wife's recovery Geoff.The concept of emotional intelligence has way too low profile IMO. Touchy self image continually gets in the way of real progress in most areas of life. Truth by way of supported fact should be sacrosanct irrespective of how long a particular view has been held or where contrary evidence comes from.

  6. GeoffYou have my complete sympathy and empathy.IMHO is so much more than simple 'demonization' which is involved here.In my view we need to face the plain fact, sometimes very, very painfully, that we humans have had a million or more years to evolve from being aggressive, opportunistic and tribal apes to being………..aggressive, opportunistic and tribal apes.I once had a much loved, clever son and hard working aged 26 – both a fully qualified avionics engineer (Qantas trained) and commercial pilot. He was killed flying a plane which crashed due to negligent maintenance by his employer. The company – already on notice by CASA for slack practice in fact had not one attempt, but two to kill my son in the one week – failing on the 1st due to his own professionalism but succeeding on the 2nd (even more outrageous) 'attempt'.Three horrible years in a Queensland coronial inquest taught me two things:there is just no limit to the depths to which people will sink to hide their own negligence;there is just no limit to the level of communal or 'consensual' dissembling in which people will indulge themselves – even judges, for the most trivial of 'social motives'; andfailures to bring these crass human tendencies to account and reveal the basic truth are more common than not and can be the bitterest pills, challenging us to the very limits of sanity.I sincerely hope you and your wife can move on to a 'sunny place' where you both healthier and happier and of course much, much wiser.

  7. Geoff,

    I have had my own experiences (more than one) with this sort of thing. It’s very difficult to confront the authority of the medical community and succeed. You are automatically branded as ignorant no matter what you know and in my case once they ordered hormone tests to see why I was so pissed off about the treatment. haha.

    I was right in the end, but it took a new doctor because the doc I was dealing with never figured it out — cause he was fired! Lawyers aren’t much different.

    I wish you and your wife the best and am hoping for a happy outcome.

  8. Thanks for the kind comments. Still holding on.

    Steve, you know what I mean. But the aim of the essay was to try to emphasise demonising and its harm.

    Correction “Data points that are averaged out of existence often take with little Rosetta stones.” should be “Data points that are averaged out of existence often contain little Rosetta stones.” Meaning that anomalous point readings are sometimes information-rich and sometimes lead to a plausible hypothesis.

  9. Geoff,I have had my own experiences (more than one) with this sort of thing. It's very difficult to confront the authority of the medical community and succeed. You are automatically branded as ignorant no matter what you know and in my case once they ordered hormone tests to see why I was so pissed off about the treatment. haha.I was right in the end, but it took a new doctor because the doc I was dealing with never figured it out — cause he was fired! Lawyers aren't much different.I wish you and your wife the best and am hoping for a happy outcome.

  10. Thanks for the kind comments. Still holding on. Steve, you know what I mean. But the aim of the essay was to try to emphasise demonising and its harm.Correction “Data points that are averaged out of existence often take with little Rosetta stones.” should be “Data points that are averaged out of existence often contain little Rosetta stones.” Meaning that anomalous point readings are sometimes information-rich and sometimes lead to a plausible hypothesis.

  11. Sherro; you have my deepest sympathy and hope for a speedy recovery for you wife. I have read your many posts over the time I have been blogging and have the utmost respect for your integrity and honesty. All the best.

  12. Sherro; you have my deepest sympathy and hope for a speedy recovery for you wife. I have read your many posts over the time I have been blogging and have the utmost respect for your integrity and honesty. All the best.

  13. Geoff, I really can sympathise with your frustration with the attitude of doctors and medical staff in Australia; I’ve had some very similar experiences although I won’t go into the details here. I do hope everything works out. Best, Alex

  14. Geoff, I really can sympathise with your frustration with the attitude of doctors and medical staff in Australia; I've had some very similar experiences although I won't go into the details here. I do hope everything works out. Best, Alex

  15. Cohenite, reciprocations. I’ve forgotten too much, you are sharper than I am. So hang in there.

    (Colleen’s condition is improving, but there are battles still.)

  16. Cohenite, reciprocations. I've forgotten too much, you are sharper than I am. So hang in there. (Colleen's condition is improving, but there are battles still.)

  17. My sympathies. You are experiencing what might be called the “Expert syndrome” which is rampant in the medical profession. They are trained to be sure of themselves because they have lives in their hands. This makes it psychologically hard to listen to someone who else, especially one who is not part of the correct fraternity.

    The same thing can be seen in the climate community because they feel they are dealing with the fate of the world. Non experts of the fraternity will not be listened to, because that would mean that the experts are not all knowing.

    • The same thing can be seen in ANY community. The medical scenario is not equivalent to the climate scenario. The first deals with but a few individuals where it is easy to ignore, the other deals with entire communities of people. The first is not a scientific, reviewed process the second is. Non-members of the first group SHOULD be listened to, and if the warranted be investigated. Non-members of the second group ARE listened to, the arguments are usually found lacking, and if not investigated. It is political. It is economic. It is complicated. But the weight of evidence does support an AGW theory. Is the story complete – nope. But to do nothing until we are sure could mean we are too late entirely. Then what?

  18. My sympathies. You are experiencing what might be called the “Expert syndrome” which is rampant in the medical profession. They are trained to be sure of themselves because they have lives in their hands. This makes it psychologically hard to listen to someone who else, especially one who is not part of the correct fraternity. The same thing can be seen in the climate community because they feel they are dealing with the fate of the world. Non experts of the fraternity will not be listened to, because that would mean that the experts are not all knowing.

  19. The same thing can be seen in ANY community. The medical scenario is not equivalent to the climate scenario. The first deals with but a few individuals where it is easy to ignore, the other deals with entire communities of people. The first is not a scientific, reviewed process the second is. Non-members of the first group SHOULD be listened to, and if the warranted be investigated. Non-members of the second group ARE listened to, the arguments are usually found lacking, and if not investigated. It is political. It is economic. It is complicated. But the weight of evidence does support an AGW theory. Is the story complete – nope. But to do nothing until we are sure could mean we are too late entirely. Then what?

  20. Colleen made it home yesterday July 26th. She broke her hip on 30 June, so near to 30 days.

    I have bever seen such a disfunctional, stratified, frightened, untrained, dangerous group as I encountered through various phases of hospitalisation. As in any group, there were some top guys and gals, but there were also some who should be serving in soup kitchens for prisons as a display of the maximum extent of their ability and altruism.

    Of the hospital system in Victoria, I am reminded of the Fawlty Towers line that “there is enough inside Basil’s head to fill a week long symposium on psychiatry” or words like that. Can you imagine taking a gravely ill person from Intensive Care Unit and placing her in a room 1 metre away from a plywood wall behind which construction started at 7 am each day on a multi-story extension? Is the sound of a nearby jackhammer really conducive to settling of multiple stitches in a wound? Is the solution a 20 cent pair of plastic earplugs?

    No, greed dominates and the patient is vurtually stripped of rights, decisions and dignity. Suddenly, I know that global warming has a competitor for the dunce of science.

    • Geoff,

      Free medicine is the answer. When you can choose your doc and hospital without restriction. I don’t know your system of course, but the feedback has to be money. We’re all replacing the obvious with government.

      I’m glad to hear your wife out-toughed her fabulous medical care. Most all of us will get our turn at it.

      Thank god though for some more time.

  21. Colleen made it home yesterday July 26th. She broke her hip on 30 June, so near to 30 days. I have bever seen such a disfunctional, stratified, frightened, untrained, dangerous group as I encountered through various phases of hospitalisation. As in any group, there were some top guys and gals, but there were also some who should be serving in soup kitchens for prisons as a display of the maximum extent of their ability and altruism.Of the hospital system in Victoria, I am reminded of the Fawlty Towers line that “there is enough inside Basil's head to fill a week long symposium on psychiatry” or words like that. Can you imagine taking a gravely ill person from Intensive Care Unit and placing her in a room 1 metre away from a plywood wall behind which construction started at 7 am each day on a multi-story extension? Is the sound of a nearby jackhammer really conducive to settling of multiple stitches in a wound? Is the solution a 20 cent pair of plastic earplugs? No, greed dominates and the patient is vurtually stripped of rights, decisions and dignity. Suddenly, I know that global warming has a competitor for the dunce of science.

  22. Geoff,Free medicine is the answer. When you can choose your doc and hospital without restriction. I don't know your system of course, but the feedback has to be money. We're all replacing the obvious with government.I'm glad to hear your wife out-toughed her fabulous medical care. Most all of us will get our turn at it.Thank god though for some more time.

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