The expected Powerline slapdown

Powerline. Round about these parts, that name is pretty much a synonym for stupid, and I see they’re doing a good job of maintaining their reputation. You’d think they’d learn that whenever they step into the domain of science, their level of ignorance is even more palpably apparent than usual.

Their latest embarrassment was prompted by an egregiously idiotic article from Michael Fumento, which catalogs an error-filled collection of so-called biases in science. The assrocket’s conclusion?

The moral of the story is that the leading scientific journals have been taken over by liberals who value politics over truth. So any time you see a news report on a “scientific” journal article that ostensibly has political implications, you should greet it with skepticism.

Wow. So any science article that discusses, say, evolution, climate, energy, reproduction, conservation, petroleum geology, glaciers, pesticides, extinction, wetlands, materials science, transportation, agriculture, neurobiology, HIV/AIDS (shall I go on?), demographics, deforestation, habitat loss, human genetics (I could keep this up all day), influenza, psychiatry, ethanol production, sexually transmitted disease, medicine in general, stem cells, weather, sex (OK, enough), all issues that have political implications, and which are therefore automatically suspect and tainted by <hiss>liberals? Jeez, John and Michael, why not just say, “Science is EVIL” and be done with it?When all the scientists are disagreeing with you, though, maybe instead you should wonder if you, people with no scientific competence at all, might just be wrong.

I’m pleased to say that we here at scienceblogs.com seem to be presenting a united front on this one, unsurprisingly. Chris Mooney also points out the absurdity of rejecting in its entirety the so-called “liberal” academy, and Tim Lambert rips into the bogus interpretations of the Fumento article. I’ll have to gnaw on a few scraps that are left over.

Here, for example, is an instance of Fumento illogic.

Consider a report
by three environmentalist authors back in 1988 in Journal of the American
Medical Association (JAMA)
, analyzing male-female birth ratios between
1970 and 1990. The authors found male births declining, and predictably
blamed man-made chemicals. Yet public data going
back to 1940
showed gender ratios are always changing, for no obvious
reason. Years that disproved their thesis were simply sliced out.

Look at that bit where he cites public data, with a link to a report by the CDC. He claims that the interpretation of the report is that “gender ratios are always changing, for no obvious reason”—I can only assume that he figures absolutely no one who reads his column will actually, like, look at his links. The report says nothing of the kind. Right at the top of the report is a graph that shows year-by-year variation, with trend lines on it to show that there is an overall decline in the number of males born. The report specifically discusses the reasons for it, explaining that it only looks at a few relationships and listing others. Here’s the CDC’s conclusion, plainly stated in the final paragraph.

Changes in the sex ratio at birth in the United States have been
attributed to many different factors. The factors examined in this report
include age of mother, birth order, and race and Hispanic origin of
mother. Other factors not examined here but cited by others in determining the sex of a child and, thus, the sex ratio at birth are weight
of mother, stress, age of father, family size, geographic and climatic
conditions, environmental toxins, and a preference for male offspring.
As such, the effect of these factors should be considered in under
standing the annual variation and overall decline in the sex ratio at birth.

How does he get away with this? He cites a report and claims that its conclusions are the exact opposite of what it actually says!

Assrocket just gullibly swallows it all whole. There is a whole parade of similarly mangled science results in Fumento’s article, and another is the recent Hwang Woo Suk scandal.

Fumento’s second example is embryonic stem cell research, where the most important “science” underlying public enthusiasm for cloning turned out to be fraudulent:

Even Science’s awful stem-cell embarrassment wasn’t purely a matter of fraud. I have written repeatedly on how both Science and Nature have turned themselves into cheerleaders for any supposed advance in ES cell science, while opening their pages to laughable attacks on what many see as both medically and ethically superior — namely adult stem cells.

Neither Powerline nor Fumento understand this result. It was an important and expected step in stem cell research, but it was only one result, and certainly wasn’t the foundation of public or scientific enthusiasm for this line of research. Nor does it in anyway invalidate the promise or past results of stem cell researchers, and the claim that everyone is sitting around wondering “How could I have been fooled?” is ridiculous.

  • Hwang Woo Suk flat out lied. I don’t know how journalists, editors, and scientists are supposed to know that until it gets worked over by other researchers, as it was. Of course we can be suckered by someone who is malicious and dishonest, for a while at least; the point of science as a community enterprise is that there is frequent cross-checking and examination of result, which means the truth will eventually out.
  • The Korean teams have had a string of successes in stem cell technology that are valid and have been double-checked. This wasn’t some nobody coming out of nowhere, but a research team with a good track record.
  • This technique of transforming somatic nuclei has worked in other animals than humans. There is no reason to think it isn’t doable—and I expect the work will be done someday. The fraud picked a good target, one that is just within our reach, nothing too outrageous, and all he did was nudge himself over the finish line first, not invent something outrageous.
  • the ridiculous cheering over adult stem cells from a scientific ignoramus is absurd. Probably one of the most prominent researchers in adult stem cells is Dr Catherine Verfaillie, right here at the University of Minnesota, and she has flatly said that she thinks the embryonic stem cell research is an invaluable complement to her work. Get that? She’s a person with a strong vested interested in AS work, and SHE is saying we need more ES work. Do Hindrocket and Fumento think they know better than a genuine researcher in the field? (yeah, probably. Incompetents don’t know the limits of their competence.)

This happens every time Powerline mentions anything about science. I think we ought to encourage a new reflex: every time Powerline mentions the word “science”, come check out scienceblogs.com, and you’ll find several of us howling with laughter.