Saturday, November 17, 2012

Reclaiming Libertarianism, Part 3 (cont.): Science works, conspiracy theory doesn't

The electoral shenanigans are over – back to serious matters. I am going to move from anti-science to less embarrassing ways in which libertarians have gone awry, but before I do there’s at least a bit more that needs to be addressed. Here are four propositions. Each of them is nonsense.

"Vaccines don’t prevent disease but rather cause disease, especially autism."

"HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) doesn’t cause AIDS and anti-retroviral medications are useless if not downright harmful."

Note that these first two statements are assertions about the field of medicine. But if they are true, they imply that the vast majority of medical researchers, physicians, pharmaceutical makers, and government officials are either deeply confused or lying. It’s only a short step to concluding they are all conspiring, for reasons of profit or something worse. Conspiracy and pseudo-science are close bedfellows. Our next two propositions:

"9-11 was an inside job."

"We never went to the moon."

Most readers likely have heard all four of these odd assertions. Again, all of them are nonsense. But all four have been promoted by organizations that claim to be libertarian. There’s some truly crazy pseudo-science being hawked under the libertarian label. I’ve documented some of this nonsense previously – Mark Skousen has had an anti-vaccine nut speak at his Freedom Fest. I’d hoped it was a one-off, just some cranky guy who happens to speak at Skousen’s gig? But no, anti-vaccine, anti-germ-theory, and all sorts of “alternative medicine” are festering among the libertoonists, along with, of course, conspiracy theories galore. And why not conspiracy theory? After all, if you really believe it’s possible to get the vast majority of research scientists, private foundations, universities, and medical professionals are utterly, systematically, repeatedly wrong, then either they must be organized into a vast conspiracy, or duped into following the conspiracy’s disinformation.  And if so, then what can’t the conspiracy do? Why not believe the moon landings were faked, the CIA (or Mossad, or Bilderbergers, or Illuminati) put TNT in the Trade Centers, and on and on and on?

I didn’t pay that much attention to this idiocy until I encountered PL and his “transcend the madness” campaign, and initially I supposed he was overstating the problem. But he’s not. There’s a real sewer of libertoonistic anti-science. If libertarianism is to be taken seriously as a political philosophy for the future, the anti-science insanity must stop.

I’ve already given libertoonists grief over climate denialism, but I can understand why one might be a climate skeptic and even, to some degree, a denialist. Climate change is a relatively new hypothesis, and it’s not something one can easily observe. In fact, personal direct observation is useless in this matter because hypothesized climate change is a global phenomenon, while personal experience is always local. Anything one personally observes is consonant with AGW and also with absence of AGW. To follow the arguments for AGW one must follow some fairly difficult and specialized science.

But some kinds of skepticism are more reasonable than others. Denying, say, the germ theory of disease would be, at this point in history, stupid. Similarly, denying other obvious achievements of modern medicine, such as the eradication of smallpox and the imminent eradication of polio would be stupid. Denying the moon landing would be incredibly stupid.

Most Unforeseen Contingency readers are likely aware that there is an extremely vocal anti-vaccine movement claiming vaccines cause autism, shaken baby syndrome, cancer, MS, paralysis, and heaven knows what else. Furthermore, the anti-vaccine crowd claims vaccination is part of an enormous conspiracy by modern medical practitioners, medical researchers, pharmaceutical makers ("big pharma"), and government. Once you’ve gone that far, it’s a short step to blaming the New World Order, the Bilderbergers, the Illuminati, and the rest of the “usual suspects.” And sure, the anti-vaccine crowd often takes that step.

But isn’t this just a lot of parents desperate for any explanation at all of their children’s problems, plus medical Luddites and con men who are scamming them? Libertarianism, on the other hand, is a philosophy of reason, and libertarians celebrate the great advances of science, technology, medicine, etc. that have occurred under capitalism, don’t they? Yes. At least real libertarians do. Unfortunately, today’s “libertoonists” are well represented among the medical Luddites.

Needless to say, Lew Rockwell and his band of loons turn out to be important purveyors of alternative medicine pseudo-science. But they aren’t the only ones. There’s a professional organization, the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, that opposes government intervention in the health care sector, and publishes its own journal. Its writers frequently adopt libertarian viewpoints.  For example, in a recent message AAPS president Julie Madrigal-Dersch, M.D. includes a quote from Atlas Shrugged in a sidebar. Wonderful – Rand is eloquent and underappreciated, and the promotion of individual liberty, personal responsibility, and limited government is a good thing. So is working to promote the rights and abilities of health care workers to serve patients without bureaucratic interference (AAPS opposes both government interference and interference from bureaucrats in the private sector e.g. HMO and hospital administrators). 

Unfortunately, AAPS also promotes stupid things; the organization appears to be friendly ground for a number of “alternative” medicine viewpoints. For example, here’s the TOC of one issue of JAPandS, the journal of the AAPS. Six of the seven main articles address, favorably, some aspect of “alternative” medicine. And they tend to be bad papers – mostly anti-vaccine nonsense. JAPandS is even willing to publish pieces skeptical of peer review of research and randomized experiments. It’s difficult to be more unscientific than this. Promoting freedom is important. But what the hell do opposing randomized experiments, vaccinations, peer review, and science based medicine have to do with promoting freedom?

Here’s why this stuff is so destructive. Surgical oncologist and researcher David Gorski, M.D. exposes AAPS in this post on Science Based Medicine. Read the whole thing. It’s horrific how crazy some of these AAPS people can be, and how much damage they do by claiming libertarian roots. I don’t think Gorski is always fair – so what if AAPS quotes Ayn Rand, believes federal intervention in health care is unconstitutional, and opposes Medicare, those are political positions. I likely side with AAPS and disagree with Gorski on matters political and economic, and no, evidence-based medicine can’t tell us a damn thing about them. But mostly Gorski is quite fair in his analysis and quite measured in his conclusions. AAPS presents nonsense as science, and then links it with libertarianism. Keep in mind that most readers of SBM are not libertarians but are intelligent, thoughtful, decent people, fairly well-informed on scientific matters. This is what libertarianism means, in their eyes, because it is the face that libertoonists present to the world.

Given that the AAPS also takes conservative positions on abortion, immigration, and climate change, their credentials as libertarians aren’t very good (Gorski notes this) – but that’s the problem. What’s being marketed as “libertarian” is not libertarian in any meaningful sense. Frederic Bastiat observed “The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.” This isn’t inept defense, but outright destruction of a good idea.

But Lew Rockwell and his LvMI boys are not to be outdone. As always, they set the standards for insanity masquerading as libertarian thought, and it is a very high bar they set: anti-vaccine propaganda (from a “natural health expert” who can also “cancer-proof” you!), HIV does not cause AIDS but an infected person might cure AIDS simply by refusing to take her/his retrovirals, bad diet won’t increase the risk of heart disease and genetic mutation can’t cause cancer (I’m not sure what this latter is about, but it is all from an M.D. who has also determined that AGW is a hoax), and, and,

Oh, while we’re at it: 9-11 was an inside job, and we never went to the moon, either. Yes, it’s the Illuminati, and they’ve been conspiring since at least the 1700s to bring about today’s New World Order, as we suspected all along.

OK, this is idiocy. Most of it has no connection at all to political philosophy and can’t possibly be an inherent part of libertarian political philosophy. Political philosophies do not include stances on the effectiveness of particular medical interventions. Political philosophies do not take positions of what does and does not increase the risk of particular diseases. And if anyone is worried that maybe Neil Armstrong didn’t walk on the moon, well, that’s a matter of history, not political philosophy. And Wikipedia can set ‘em straight.

Regular readers of Unforeseen Contingencies (there are a few of you out there, aren’t there?) no doubt share my aversion to this craziness, and I won’t waste time with refutations of all this stupidity. If you’re interested in vaccine and other medical issues, Science Based Medicine is the place to start – it features excellent posts that include citations to actual medical literature and serious scientific research (albeit peer-reviewed randomized trials, shudder). If you’re seriously wondering about conspiracies, the two things to read are The Illuminatus Trilogy by Shea and Wilson, and Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco. If you are convinced that 9-11 was an inside job, well, all I can say is good for you. You have a remarkable ability to combine creative imagination with unusually shallow thought.

There are two kinds of harm in all this: First, it discredits libertarianism in the eyes of well-informed, intelligent people. Half-baked “refutations” of scientific work on vaccines, HIV, climate change, etc. are utterly unconvincing to anyone familiar with science. The more one knows, the more ridiculous these things become. And if ridiculous things are presented as being what libertarianism is, then libertarianism becomes ridiculous.

Second, it also misleads the gullible. No doubt the gullible should be more critical, but a large share of people falling for the stuff spewed by LvMI et al. seem to be well-meaning college aged kids and laypeople who have sensible concerns about the growth of state power but not-so-well-developed critical thinking skills. Linking these crazy doctrines to the ethic of liberty makes a nicely comprehensive story, but teaches dreadful thinking skills. People who fall for this nonsense are frequently young people on their own for the first time in their lives, perhaps developing their own distinct viewpoints also for the first time in their lives. Instead of teaching them careful reasoning, self-reliance, and strict respect for others rights, the libertooninsts inspire incredibly sloppy reasoning, a paranoid worldview, and contempt for all of us sheeple who fail to see how it “all fits together” and instead fall for "the official version of events."

Here’s an example of what I mean. One of LvMI’s finest, Tom Woods, laments libertarians who are skeptical of pseudo-science and conspiracy theories. His post is not worth reading, but the comment section illustrates what I am talking about – there’s hardly a conspiracy theory his followers won’t defend. A line in one of the comments says it all:

“Being a libertarian almost requires rethinking nearly everything that you were taught throughout the course of your life.”

No it doesn’t! You don’t have to rethink mathematics. You don’t have to rethink biology, or physics, or medical science, or epidemiology, or engineering. You don’t have to rethink historical facts. You don’t have to rethink economics.

Sure, you might have to rethink economic policy or how you evaluate historical events, but not all of medicine, science, and reality.  Libertarianism is a political philosophy, it’s an “ought,” a set of values, not a complete worldview. Reality is reality. Let’s stop the madness.

"JAPandS is even willing to publish pieces skeptical of peer review of research [...] It’s difficult to be more unscientific than this"

Seriously? Criticism of peer review is unscientific? So I guess peer review is scientific? I'm astonished you'd say something like that as if it were an obvious fact.

Do you have any idea how political peer review is? Do you have any idea how conducive it is to herd mentality? Do you have any idea how much good science is thrown out by peer review, and how much garbage goes through?

Peer review is democracy among supposed experts. The majority gets its way and tramples the minority.

I do hope you'd spend some time reconsidering your views on peer review, because I don't think you've ever been more wrong.
Well, if I've never been more wrong, I'm in great shape. Maybe I should head for the stock market.

When I cover this stuff in classes,either History of Economic Thought or Research Methods, I go fairly carefully into problems with peer review as well as good aspects of it. It's a filter for separating the good from the bad, and no human filter for quality is perfect; it never can be. Peer review of journal articles weeds out crap. Sure, it also must weed out some good science. And of course, like all human activity it becomes politicized, with people pursuing ulterior motives. But it works pretty well.

So you are suggesting that the net effect is negative? Evidence please? Do you have any idea what share of good stuff is rejected or bad stuff passed?

The peer review filter doesn't work perfectly, but if a scientific result is really robust, peer review won't kill it. Kuhn observed, correctly, that scientists are mostly very conservative... but also that the inability to address some problem means they can't permanently block new insights that work.

OTOTH, since you seem to think peer review is a bad idea, how should journals select what to publish and what not? Please explain.
This comment has been removed by the author.
The comment I deleted was a duplicate of my first that accidentally posted.

One caveat on the peer review issue: the JAPandS piece I reference is more focused on the awarding of large research grants, and suggests a "science court" made of experts from a variety of fields. Perhaps this would be a good idea in this context. But peer review of journal articles makes sense. If the system is abused, it would make more sense to improve the procedures for appeal.

One other point -- peer review won't work with a crappy editor and sycophants for reviewers. But with conscientious editor and reviewers, it works pretty well. I've observed cases. I don't know any fix that would improve the former situation, other than maybe that journals that employ the latter publish more breakthroughs and drive the bad journals into obscurity.
Why should I provide evidence that peer review doesn't work? Why is the null hypothesis that it does? It seems you're the one who should be pressed to provide evidence.

You say that PR helps separate crap from good research. But should scientists need a nanny to separate their good literature from the bad? Let them decide for themselves what is good and what is crap. If a researcher did not use good controls, let his readers say, "This guy did no use good controls." Why should the stuff be predigested by other scientists before it is read by the general public of scientists?

Do you have any idea how dismissive scientists are of PR? The usual reaction of a scientist to a reviewer's review is, "That idiot doesn't even understand what we were trying to do." Most responses to reviews are along the lines of, "With all due respect to reviewer A, it is already an established fact that protein X interacts with protein Y, and we need not provide evidence for it." Scientific fields are so specialized that reviewers usually know very little about the stuff they review relative to the people who wrote the paper.

The alternative? It's simple, and it is already used in math and physics. It's called You write a paper and you put it, unreviewed, on You send a few emails to people in the field and you say, "Please let me know what you think." People read, respond, correct, and make suggestions. After a few months or a year, you submit it to a journal. In the meantime, it's there for those who want to use it. Those journals that won't accept a paper that was available as a preprint on should be boycotted. Whatever was not accepted to a print journal is still available on the arXiv. The journal is accountable: if it rejects something most experts believe is good, its reputation will suffer. If it accepts crap, its reputation will suffer.

As an aside, I reject the idea that, in the US and in the natural sciences, PR is anything other than a tool for control, censorship, and revenge. Evidence? Simple: I know of no scientific journal in the US that employs a double-blind review system. It is single-blind, and in the wrong direction: the author's identity is known to the reviewers. The idea that a review can be valid under these circumstances is preposterous.

I can go on and on, but Higgins is playing Trump in the ET 4 final in twenty minutes, and I gotta get some pizza.
You don't actually say PR doesn't work -- you simply ask things along the lines of "do you have any idea how badly it works." That's no argument.

In social sciences and humanities PR is generally double blind. I'm surprised to hear this isn't the case in the sciences.

Did you read the essay I linked to in the article? Or anything else from JAPandS? So far as I can tell, their selection process is to test for political correctness according to their defn.
I know, that's why I specified natural sciences. When I ask scientists why this is so, they all give the same dumb answer: a reviewer can tell who the author is, anyway, by the field, writing, methods, etc., so why bother with double-blind?

What's your argument that PR does work? You've give none. My initial point was to point out that you attacked people for attacking PR. You said that their attack on PR is unscientific. It's not. PR is not some holy institution that should not be assailed. It sucks in a million different ways. And I've shown how is an excellent substitute.
By the way, I'm not too impressed when I hear people say that PR works, when what they mean is that it works for them. Try writing a paper about the negative influences of welfare on the poor and send it to the American Journal of Sociology or whatever. Let three Marxist vegan feminists review your paper and see what reviews you'd get.

Now imagine that you are actually a professor of sociology and that your tenure decision depends on publishing in journals such as these. How's PR looking now, ha? But when your academic career consists of sending papers to buddies at GMU, things look a bit less bleak, don't they?

PL, you've missed the point. This isn't a piece about peer review. In context, this is one more bit suggesting that AAPS is about political correctness rather than science. The AAPS article suggested that non-experts from other fields be brought in to pass judgement. But I don't really think PR is a major point -- I am well aware that there are problems with PR, and how PR is set up and executed matters. In the end, regardless of what system is used, it will not be better than the humans using it.

"buddies at GMU" What? Is this supposed to be a reference to something I should understand?
Well, yes. The journals to which you send your papers--who are the editors there? Is it safe to say they're sympathetic to your views? Or are you naive enough to believe that your papers get published because you were able to convince non-sympathetic reviewers that your ideas are good? Is it safe to say that there are journals to which you never send papers because you know they'll never get through?

Don't interpret "GMU" too narrowly. I simply use it as a genericized brand name for "a homogeneous group of single-minded individuals who take care of each other." You know, in the same way that "to xerox" means "to photocopy".
Very interesting. Then papers should only be submitted to journals where one thinks they won't be accepted, or else it's a sham?

The funny thing is, I don't have any particular love for the peer review system; I recognize that it, like all human institutions, has some drawbacks. I'm unsure why you are so excited about this issue. You seem to think PR so fundamentally flawed that it calls into question the whole of science... so how do you reconcile this with your insistence that libertarians respect science?

I don't really need an answer. You've already made it clear that self-contradiction is a standard part of your stock-in-trade.
Well, since you insist, here's my answer:
"You seem to think PR so fundamentally flawed that it calls into question the whole of science... so how do you reconcile this with your insistence that libertarians respect science?"

I don't know what "calls into question the whole of science" means. It undermines science, to some degree. But even that is not my point. My point was that your point("It's difficult to be more unscientific than this") was preposterous. Peer review has its place alongside other systems, but it has devoured all of them and it rules alone and out of control.

As to your point about reconciling, I don't see that there is anything to reconcile. My criticism of PR is pro-science, so I don't see a contradiction.

What's your stock-in-trade? Putting words in my mouth, or misinterpreting my views?
PL, you write as if the abuses of peer review are characteristic of all peer review. They are not. Having been involved in and observing peer review in a variety of capacities, I've seen it work very well. While I am familiar with the horror stories of its abuse, I've never observed these. I suspect they are a distinct minority of cases.

The crazy thing about your objections here is that my piece refers to AAPS' objections to controlled experiments and peer review. You ignore the context and act as if I've said peer review is flawless. You are being disingenuous at best.
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