Apr 21 2014

Patterson and Kehoe, and the great lead debate

You know what is really impressing me about Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos? That he doesn’t hesitate to draw connections between science and how we live our lives — there is an implicit understanding that science has become fundamental to how we see the universe. Last night’s episode was no exception. What started as an explanation for how we know the age of the earth (4.55 billion years), as established by the rigorous measurement of the ratio of lead to uranium in meteorites by Claire Patterson, became an exploration of health and the misuse of science, as personified by Robert Kehoe.

Patterson was an expert in analyzing trace elements; Kehoe was a doctor who was in the pocket of the petroleum industry. Patterson saw rising levels of lead in the environment as a consequence of its use as a fuel additive; Kehoe was getting paid to sow doubt. Patterson focused on the effects of environmental lead on human health; Kehoe was more concerned with the profit margins of industry. The campaigns for lead additives in fuel resemble the abuses of science used to promote cigarette smoking and to fight actions to curb greenhouse gases. I dug up a review from the 1990s by Jerome Nriagu, and it also reminded me of something else: the damned limited perspective of proper science by the non-scientists in the skeptics movement.

Here’s the first part of the abstract.

In 1925, Robert A. Kehoe enunciated a paradigm predicated upon categorical distinction between expectations and conjecture (“show me the data” mentality) from hard scientific facts on exposure outcomes. It led to a precedent-setting system of voluntary self-regulation by lead industry as a model for environmental control and implicitly signaled the level of industrial responsibility for lead pollution.

“Show me the data”? What could be wrong with that? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?

What that attitude fails to do, though, is to recognize degrees of uncertainty — that we don’t have absolute knowledge, but that all of our information comes with two measures: here’s what we’re pretty sure is true, and here’s a measure of variability or uncertainty to give you an idea of the bounds of our confidence. So Patterson measured the age of the earth at 4.55 billion, ±70 million years (that bound is now down to around 20 million years). The uninformed or the devious can choose to emphasize that uncertainty of 70! Million! Years!, which is a very long time, while the scientists are looking at the 4.55 billion part.

That is the Kehoe Paradigm: emphasize the noise in the data. Talk about nothing but the variability. Make it sound like the scientists are baffled by their own data, simply because they are aware of the limitations of their knowledge.

Cosmos was relatively gentle with Kehoe; he was clearly the villain of the story, but it didn’t make a big deal of the fact that he was a paid hack of the oil industry who was hiding the evidence in the name of profit. Well, not as big a deal as they could have, anyway — Kehoe was enabling world-wide environmental poisoning.

Here’s the rest of that abstract.

It combined a cascading uncertainty rule (there is always uncertainty to be found in a world of imperfect information) with a highly skewed cost-benefit concept (immediate benefits of tetraethyl lead additives must be weighed against possible future health hazards). Many studies were funded by the lead industry to develop a theoretical framework for the paradigm which served as a strong defensive strategy against lead critics. It resulted in an unfettered growth in automotive lead pollution to over 270,000 tons per year in the United States and 350,000 tons per year worldwide during the early 1970s. Clair Patterson is credited with being the first person to mount an effective challenge against the Kehoe paradigm, and with his success came an upsurge of activity and attention to the risks of environmental lead pollution on public health.

That should sound familiar: multiply uncertainty, and balance it with a biased cost-benefit analysis. How libertarian!

Maybe not all of you remember the 1960s-1970s, but I do: I remember the ads everywhere touting one brand of gasoline that put a “tiger in your tank!” I didn’t know at the time that the tiger was tetraethyl lead, and that a rather nasty environmental toxin, in addition to the carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, was pouring out of everyone’s exhaust pipes.

The heart of the Kehoe Paradigm was to first piously state that if it could be conclusively shown that tetraethyl lead was a public health danger, then of course the lead industry would stop, as the only rational and morally acceptable response. But then he would go on to argue that it wasn’t conclusive at all, yet — so the default response should be to allow industry to continue to profit until the consequences to public health were undeniable. And this neglect of responsibility was all neatly wrapped up in the claim that it was the “scientific” way of thinking — that somehow, science only deals with absolute truths and that you can’t draw scientific conclusions until every detail is knitted up with complete certainty.

The signals that this was all wrong should have been recognized early. Science is about a gradual convergence on a truth, and we make provisional statements about reality that are always subject to revision. If the preponderance of evidence leans one way (and that breathing tetraethyl lead was bad for humans was rather obvious), the onus is on dissenters to provide strong counter-evidence…not to natter on about what the scientists don’t know for sure. Need I point out that this is also familiar creationist strategy, that rather than actually providing a coherent theory and supporting body of evidence, they’d rather go on and on about our areas of uncertainty?

But also there was another obvious problem. Kehoe was bought and paid for.

Robert Kehoe and the lead industry were very closely entwined in more ways than just the theory and practice of occupational health protection — the lead industry built and equipped a laboratory for him, paid his salary (minus the $1.00 per year he received from the University of Cincinnati), and financed most of his research. The return for the symbiosis included an unprecedented control on research and knowledge about occupational and environmental lead hazards and the stifling of environmental pollution control programs in the United States for many decades.

I’m sure you’ll be pleased to know that this villain lived in prosperity and prestige to the ripe old age of 99, dying in 1992, after a lifetime spent making sure that Big Oil could freely poison all the children in the country.

Another approach of the Kehoe Paradigm was to emphasize “thresholds”. A little bit of poison is OK; it’s only when it reaches some particular threshold that it becomes bad for you, and as long as the industry doesn’t cross that line, it is doing you no harm. In the case of lead, Kehoe argued that the threshold was 100 µg/m3 — which is a hell of a lot of lead. It’s also not true that there is a “threshold”. I recall getting harangued by my old genetics professor, George Streisinger, who had been testifying for the Downwinders (people who had been exposed to fallout from nuclear tests), that there is no such thing as a threshold for radiation exposure — it’s a continuous sliding scale of increasing probability of damage with increasing dosage. But if you draw an arbitrary line, sanctify it with the label of science, and say anything below the line can’t hurt you…well, Science says it’s safe, so it’s fine. Unfortunately, the evidence doesn’t say any such thing.

Patterson really was a hero, and I was happy to see Cosmos give the man credit. He used evidence to fight against Kehoe; for instance, he did measurements (as shown on the program) to show that pre-industrial levels of lead were 0.0005 µg/m3, in contrast to the modern American levels of approximately 1µg/m3 — we were breathing in 2000 times as much lead now. To argue that the lead industry was not making a massive contribution of poison to the environment was raw nonsense.

He also found fault with the whole “threshold” idea. The clinical responses to acute lead poisoning were just an extreme on a continuum — he speculated that “below the then accepted threshold concentration there were some effects which clinically might be difficult or impossible to detect or ascribe to their real cause.”

But he also emphasized the problem of bias. “You can use the data to justify your purposes. If your purpose is to sell lead alkyls, then you look at these data one way. If your purpose is to guard public health, you will look at this data in another way, and you will reach different conclusions.” Ataxia, coma, convulsions, and death are easy to diagnose, so using those as markers for a threshold may be convenient, but it ignores the subtle neurological effects, which might be important, too. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that crime levels have been in decline since lead emissions were limited (this is another case of a purely correlational measure, but let’s not ignore it — we’ve removed a neurological poison from the atmosphere, and simultaneously see a shift in human behavior? Reasonable mechanism, measurable response, worth pursuing more).

Patterson testified before congress, as shown on Cosmos, and really chewed out industry and Kehoe for their misappropriation of science.

It is clear, from the history of development of the lead pollution problem in the United States that responsible and regulatory persons and organizations concerned in this matter have failed to distinguish between scientific activity and the utilization of observations for material purpose. [such utilization] is not science…it is the defense and promotion of industrial activity. This utilization is not done objectively. It is done subjectively. … It is not just a mistake for public health agencies to cooperate and collaborate with industries in investigating and deciding whether public health is endangered—it is a direct abrogation and violation of the duties and responsibilities of those public health organizations. In the past, these bodies have acted as though their own activities and those of lead industries in health matters were science, and they could be considered objectively in that sense.

Patterson eventually won on this one specific issue, and we’re no longer burning tons and tons of lead. I wish I could say he’d won on the broader principle, though, because he didn’t — the Kehoe Paradigm is still the standard pseudoscientific approach used by industry to justify great evils. For instance, CEI is arguing that we shouldn’t expand regulation of industrial chemicals just because of a little ol’ spill in West Virgina with a slew of half-truths…including the claim that MCHM has “low toxicity”. It’s the threshold argument again.

We’re still trying to unravel the tangle he made of science policy, though. Kehoe’s Paradigm lives on at various right-wing think tanks, for instance, the Heartland Institute, where the headline that greeted me when I just visited was Climate Change Reconsidered, which concludes that the human effect is likely to be small relative to natural variability, and whatever small warming is likely to occur will produce benefits as well as costs. Change climate change to environmental lead, and it could be straight from Kehoe, and is just as honest.

At least Cosmos is making an effort to show that good science matters, and matters everywhere in your life.

Nriagu JO (1998) Clair Patterson and Robert Kehoe’s paradigm of “show me the data” on environmental lead poisoning. Environ Res. 78(2):71-8.

Apr 21 2014

I hate the HuffPo, too. I hate them all.

My complaint about Salon seemed to resonate with a lot of people…but then we acquired some wackaloon named Johny in the comments, raving about auras and magic energy sources and all kinds of idiocy, and then he reminds me that there is a site far worse than Salon: the Huffington Post. Ariana Huffington plunged deep into the worst aspects of tabloid journalism and, damn it, she was successful…and now every left-leaning news site seems to be diving in right after her.

Johny cited this article as some kind of touchstone of reason: 8 Ancient Beliefs Now Backed By Modern Science (yeah, notice the listicle click bait — I am now so conditioned by hatred of that format that I avoid any link that begins with a number, but here I go, linking to it.)

It’s an awful list.

There are things that are trivial in it, things that are ambiguous and misinterpreted, and things that are just plain wrong. Here’s what Huffington says has been confirmed by science:

Helping others can make you healthier.

She cites a single study that somehow confirmed that helping others improved your health and longevity on a genetic level. The study was done with phone interviews.

Acupuncture can restore balance to your body.

Again, she cites a single study, a meta-analysis of the whole dubious mess of acupuncture studies. It concludes, actually, that acupuncture is no better than placebo.

We need the support of a community in order to thrive.

Again, another meta-analysis that found that health is correlated with strong social networks. There is a big problem with these studies: they don’t know cause and effect. It is unfortunately true that one common consequence of serious illness is loss of mobility, loss of connection, and changes in social activity, so yes, if you study sick and dying people, you often find that they are isolated and alone. It doesn’t mean that being alone makes you sick.

Tai chi can help alleviate a variety of health conditions.

Same story. Physical activity and maintaining mobility are good for you. Tai chi is nothing special — get out and take a walk, go square dancing, swim.

Meditation can help you reduce stress and discover inner peace.

Right. Taking a break and focusing on something other than the stressors in your life helps you relax. You don’t need to babble about Tibetan Buddhism to know this.

Compassion is the key to a meaningful life.

Compassion is part of it. But I’ve found a little rigor, aggression, and pursuit of uncomfortable truths to be far more meaningful.

Accepting what you can’t change is key to reducing suffering.

Yay! Platitudes!

All you need is love.

Yay! Beatles lyrics!

Turns out you also need oxygen, food, water, shelter, good health, and security, but I’m happy to allow these loons to try to live on Tai chi, acupuncture, kumbayah, and love. And since it is the HuffPo, apparently you also need celebrity gossip, clickbait, and religious fluff.

So as all media descends into lowest-common-denominator Idiot America noise, where do we go for actual information? This is what worries me. All of the media, not just the obvious examples like the History and Discovery channels on TV, seem to be sinking into the abyss of patent misinformation. Don’t tell me about the New York Times, which publishes kooks like Douthat and Brooks; it used to be the national standard, but it’s long been crippled by an attitude that it can do no wrong, and by a pretense of false objectivity.

I’m a little happier with the BBC and Al Jazeera; if I want informed opinion, I turn to Maddow or Pierce. Who or what do you read to keep abreast of news and politics? Let me know; we’ve got to start ignoring the idiots like the HuffPo, and start corrupting a new set of opinionators with popularity.

Apr 21 2014

I guess I don’t know the right Christians

Right now, I get more vicious hate mail from atheists, a little bit from Christians, and almost none from Muslims — but I shouldn’t take that as representative. You have to look in the right place to find Christian hatred.

You know if any of you commenters said anything like that about any group here, it would be grounds for banning, right?

Apr 20 2014

Oh, OK, here’s a happier Easter message


Apr 20 2014

How to celebrate Easter

Here’s how I did it: I’ve been composing a genetics exam all day, and updating stuff for a review session tomorrow. And in a little bit, I’m going to sit down with a cup of tea and watch Cosmos.

The best way to celebrate? Leave Jesus and church out of it. Also, no magic eggs.

Apr 19 2014

Salon sucks so bad

I give up. I’ve deleted my bookmarks to Salon. The final straw: two articles published today that are appalling in their inanity.

First up is Charles Darwin’s Tragic Error: Hitler, Evolution, Racism, and the Holocaust. Just the title tells you it’s a dishonest pile of crap. Most of it has nothing at all to do with Darwin (so why are they blaming him?), but here’s the key graf:

Modern racism had several different intellectual sources, and only with difficulty could one say which of these was most important. I will focus here on the “scientific” strand of racism, which drew its inspiration from Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection. Several factors dictate this emphasis on Darwinian racism. First, Darwinist racism explicitly motivated Hitler and many other leading perpetrators of the Holocaust. Second, Darwin inspired the researchers, most notably in biology and anthropology, who gave racism its aura of scientific certainty. Third, Darwinian thought may well have been more popular in Germany than anywhere else during these years, in part because Germany was the world’s leading center of biological research before World War I and the Germans were exceptionally literate. Finally, Darwinist racism was the brand of racism most easily understood by the widest number of people, in part because Darwin’s theory was astonishingly simple and easy to explain.

Right. “Several different intellectual sources,” but notice the absence of any mention of the Catholic or Lutheran churches, which were far more powerful sources for promoting anti-semitism. All the author has is the claim that Hitler’s racism was “inspired” by Darwin.

No, it wasn’t. Hitler did not make scientific arguments; he did not cite or credit Darwin; he did think God was peachy-keen and justified his actions on behalf of the right German people. His actual sources did not much care for Darwin.

RationalWiki has a good discussion of the subject. In particular, it discusses Houston Stewart Chamberlain — you cannot seriously discuss Hitler’s race arguments without referencing Chamberlain, and it’s a sure sign of a hack when Darwin is given more blame than Chamberlain.

Houston Stewart Chamberlain was an influence on Hitler’s antisemitism. In Chamberlain’s book, “Foundations of the Nineteenth Century” he wrote of “A manifestly unsound system like that of Darwin …” (Author’s Introduction, page lxxxviii), “… Darwinian castles in the air …” (First Part, Division II, Fourth Chapter, “Scientific Confusion” volume 1, footnote beginning on page 264), “… no tenable position can be derived even from the most consistent, and, therefore, most shallow Darwinism.” (Second Part, Ninth Chapter, “Historical Criterion” volume 2, pages 215-216)

The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, an infamous anti-Semitic fraud of some influence, includes Darwin among the Jewish conspiracies:

“Protocol 2: … 3. Do not suppose for a moment that these statements are empty words: think carefully of the successes we arranged for Darwinism, Marxism, Nietzsche-ism. To us Jews, at any rate, it should be plain to see what a disintegrating importance these directives have had upon the minds of the GOYIM.”

The Salon article is the kind of ahistorical hackery I’d expect from the Discovery Institute.

The second article reflects Salon’s recent dumbassed pandering of religion: Science Doesn’t Disprove God: Where Richard Dawkins and New Atheists Go Wrong. It’s embarrassingly bad. The authors argument is that science cannot build an AI, therefore God had to have created consciousness.

No, seriously. That’s his argument.

The question about consciousness is key to everything we are discussing. Modern cognitive science relies on the principles of evolution and posits that consciousness is something that can be produced artificially. Life-forms become more and more advanced through evolution, and eventually consciousness is the outcome. Thus, many cognitive science practitioners believe that machines can develop a consciousness as well, although this has never happened. Consciousness has never been produced in the lab, not even close.

That is not the basis of the anti-dualist argument. We expect that an AI could be constructed, but the reasons that we think the mind is a natural product of the activity of the brain rest on knowledge of how the brain works, how damage and chemical modification affect consciousness, and the mapping of activity in the brain to thought.

I don’t know of any biologist or atheist who is waiting to see a conscious machine before concluding that the mind is a product of the brain; there is simply no expectation that that is a necessary prerequisite. But this wanker is throwing out all of neuroscience because this one experiment can’t be done with current technology. OK, and the stars are only 500,000 miles from the Earth, and you can believe that right now because we haven’t built a starship to fly to Alpha Centauri.

He then makes the usual arguments from ignorance: gosh wow, but you can’t possibly create Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, Picasso’s Guernica, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, or the palaces on Venice’s Grand Canal with brains made of meat, because they’re just too beautiful, therefore…

Therefore… (can you possibly guess what?)

Therefore…GOD. (You couldn’t possibly have seen that coming, could you?)

An alternative explanation is that God gave us the mental abilities and that extra something we use in making decisions and in creating great works of art, sublime music, magnificent architecture, beautiful literature, and science and mathematics. Our incredible brains can do all these things because they contain some ingredients that science has not yet found or explained and whose origin remains one of the deepest mysteries in all of science.

Fuck me. I can’t read this bullshit anymore. The Salon editors are just letting drivel through now.

Scientists can’t build a conscious robot yet, but God-diddlers can imagine superpowerful beings that are magically inserting thoughts into our heads, therefore theology wins.

Apr 19 2014

The murderers of Stormfront

The SPLC has done an analysis of Stormfront’s contribution to murder. It’s a bit unsettling: it has story after story of proud racists posting unashamedly on Stormfront, and then going off to gun someone down. And so many of them fit this profile!

A typical murderer drawn to the racist forum Stormfront.org is a frustrated, unemployed, white adult male living with his mother or an estranged spouse or girlfriend. She is the sole provider in the household. Forensic psychologists call him a “wound collector.” Instead of building his resume, seeking employment or further education, he projects his grievances on society and searches the Internet for an excuse or an explanation unrelated to his behavior or the choices he has made in life.

His escalation follows a predictable trajectory. From right-wing antigovernment websites and conspiracy hatcheries, he migrates to militant hate sites that blame society’s ills on ethnicity and shifting demographics. He soon learns his race is endangered — a target of “white genocide.” After reading and lurking for a while, he needs to talk to someone about it, signing up as a registered user on a racist forum where he commiserates in an echo chamber of angry fellow failures where Jews, gays, minorities and multiculturalism are blamed for everything.

Assured of the supremacy of his race and frustrated by the inferiority of his achievements, he binges online for hours every day, self-medicating, slowly sipping a cocktail of rage. He gradually gains acceptance in this online birthing den of self-described “lone wolves,” but he gets no relief, no practical remedies, no suggestions to improve his circumstances. He just gets angrier. 

And then he gets a gun.

Also chilling: Anders Breivik was a fan. Such a fan that he took care to protect Stormfront by lying about his involvement.

Hours before he began his terror campaign, Breivik E-mailed a copy of his racist manifesto to two other influential Stormfront members, Billy Joe Roper (see related story, p. XX) and Timothy Gallaher Murdock, who runs the racist WhiteRabbitRadio.net. In his manifesto, Breivik claimed he was banned from Stormfront, though a search shows no suspension. Breivik later admitted he was not removed as a registered member.

“I was never kicked out of Stormfront,” he said last September. “Instead, I attacked them in the compendium in order to protect them … [as] an army of leftist journalists otherwise would strike hard.”

Read it and learn how horrible human beings can be…and how participation in Stormfront can be a useful marker for evil.

Apr 19 2014

Free book!

If you’ve got a kindle, you can now download Generation Atheist by Dan Riley for free. For a little while. Steal it while you can!

Apr 19 2014

[Lounge #458]


This is the lounge. You can discuss anything you want, but you will do it kindly.

Status: Heavily Moderated; Previous thread

Apr 19 2014

Uh-oh. I could have warned them.

Some Lutheran churches in Sacramento started a program to lead their members through a close reading of the Bible — the whole Bible, not just the usual study guides.

You’re atheists. You’re already laughing, aren’t you? You know what a huge mistake that is — they were probably expecting an enlightening revelation of God’s Holy Word, but instead, the Bible is sordid work of cheesy pulp fiction.

It’s been an eye-opener: The violence—the sheer level of bloodshed in the Old Testament—has taken many of them by surprise.

“Your Sunday school teachers didn’t tell you about that,” associate pastor Leslie Welton said to a recent class of almost two dozen people.

“How many of you are shocked by the blood and gore and carnage?” asked Welton.

There were nods of agreement around the room: Page by page, chapter by chapter, class members are deeply shocked. With its betrayals, infidelities and lessons stubbornly unlearned, its epic levels of carnage and vengeance, this wild ride through the Old Testament is not the Bible they expected.

You might be thinking that if they’re this shocked, then perhaps they’re also realizing that the foundation of their faith is a piece of crap. Not so!

“For people looking to renew their spiritual lives, the No. 1 thing they should do is read Scripture,” said Jimmy Hurd, minister of Cordova Church of Christ, which launched its own Bible in 90 Days curriculum during the Lenten season. The Rancho Cordova church offers the program each year.

How, though, do they account for the fact that so many atheists know more about their religion, and that more people are abandoning it? They don’t, actually.

To the contrary, the proportion of people who think the Bible is just another book has doubled to about 20 percent in the past three years, the study showed. Two-thirds of the people most skeptical about the Bible are age 48 and younger, the generations most steeped in the solipsism of social media.

That opinion about solipsism is not a quote — it’s the inserted interpretation of the journalist, which I found interesting. She’s got a bit of a bias, doesn’t she?

I hope Facebook isn’t the key to destroying religion. It’d be replacing one evil for another.

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