When Scientists Commit Scienticide

So, I’m a language guy, and one of my favorite things about knowing Latin is adding the suffice “-cide” to the ends of things to create words that mean “the killing of ___”.

There’s lots of fun outcomes from the familiar (regicide) to the useful (ludicide–which is what high school actors do to good plays) to the sad (genocide, which was the goal of Margaret Sanger*).

Scienticide is, to be Latin-y, the killing of knowledge.  But I think we should also get to include in it the deliberate obfuscation of knowledge or the short-circuiting of the scientific method to present something as good science when it is, in fact, not good science.

I’m a big fan of science.  When I was a kid, I used to hide things in the refrigerator to pull out weeks later and examine mold growth on.  When I told my middle school science teacher that I had become a language teacher, she was disappointed I hadn’t wound up surrounded by test tubes and beakers.  My wife is a capital-S Scientist and I appreciate what she does.

But me, I’m a statistician, and statisticians look at knowledge or “knowing things” a little differently than other people.  I guess, in a way, it’s because statisticians write the code, so to speak, for how modern science knows things.

Like, okay, some science also uses mathematics, so let’s talk about the two for a second.

Mathematics is a set of philosophical tools, based on logic and reason.  Mathematics is aloof and very, very self-assured when it says that something is true, because it is.  The more mathematics a field uses (I’m looking at you, physics), the better ground it has for when it says that something is true or not.

Statistics is a lot more wishy-washy in what it can do.  Statistics can do a super great job at telling you when something is probably true (and even how probably true it is).  It can do a super great job telling you when something is probably not true (and how probably not true it is).  What the field of statistics cannot do (and don’t believe anyone who tells you differently) is tell you that something is absolutely true or absolutely not true.

And here’s the thing, pretty much all modern sciences use statistics, not mathematics, to make judgements about the truth of a claim.

This means that if, say, a psychologist, sociologist, or climatologist tells you that something is true or not true, you should immediately be skeptical of their claims and tell them that you want to see the confidence intervals.

Confidence intervals are the wiggle-room that statistics produce as a byproduct of creating an estimate.  They are the fuzziness inherent in statistical sampling of data.  (When you see a poll, and it says “margin of error xxx%” or “plus or minus xxx%”, those are the confidence intervals, only phrased differently).

When a biologist has 10,000 flies and weights 100 of them to get an average weight, it doesn’t just produce the right, true answer.  It produces a range of probably true right answers. (“Range of probably true right answers” is probably as good a definition as any for what a confidence interval is).

So let’s say the biologist has two groups of 10,000 flies.  She feeds diet A to group A and diet B to group B.  At the end of the study, she weighs samples from group A and from group B.  She’ll get a RoPTRA (Range of Probably True Right Answers or “confidence interval”) for group A and group B.  If there is any no overlap between the two groups (say group A was between 14 and 20, and group B was between 21 and 27), then the biologist is allowed to say “there is a statistically significant difference between the two groups.”

However, if there is aaaaaannnnnnyyyyy overlap at all between the two groups (say 14-20 and 19-25), then she is not allowed to say that there is a difference, she is only allowed to say “there was not a statistically significant difference between the two groups.”

Note, either way, she’s not allowed to say anything about “truth.”  She’s only giving the most likely result based on the data.

And this is the basic rule for any two sets of confidence intervals.  Let’s say that instead of flies, she was measuring dudes at a college to see if they were getting chubbier over time.  If she took the confidence intervals from one year to the next, and then compared them, and they overlapped, then she should conclude that there’s no statistically significant changes happening between those two years.

So, here’s the data claiming that 2015 was the hottest year on record:


From this, climatologists claimed that 2015 was the hottest year on record.

Sigh.  See where there is overlap between 2015 and 2014?  That means that what the scientists who used this data said is the exact opposite of what they were allowed to say.

Because there is overlap between 2014 and 2015, statistics does not allow them to say that there was a statistically significant

It’s easier without the deceptive blue line there:


In fact, if you look at the data from 2001 to 2014, they all look pretty similar.  Even 2015 is within the range of 2014, 2010, and 2005.

Was 2015 the warmest on record?  Maybe, but the data doesn’t show this.

The worst part is that the same scientists reported 2014 as the warmest on record, when the confidence interval for that year clearly overlaps with almost the entirety of the rest of the data presented.

Climate scientists aren’t using mathematics in their work, they’re using statistics, which means they have to explain their data in terms of statistics, which these scientists clearly are not.

So why would a scientist explain that a graph means the opposite of what it actually means?  There’s only two options:

  1. They’re not good at their jobs, i.e. they don’t know how to read a graph.
  2. They’re liars.

Now, Hanlon’s Razor notwithstanding, option 1 is probably not what’s going on here.

So what would cause someone who struggled all the way through graduate school and, let’s face it, you don’t become a climatologist for the chicks and drugs–you do it because you care about the job, to risk their career fabricating results?

A few options spring to mind:

  1. They really, really think that global warming** is happening, even if the data doesn’t support it.  They feel that in order to head off a catastrophe, it’s okay for them to tell some white lies about science to save the planet.
  2. They need the money.  Scientists who publish “we didn’t find anything” papers don’t, uh, get published.  So they get fired.  This is a huge problem in academia, and I’d assume, at all research institutes.
  3. They want to be important.  They want to be the guy who broke the story and that everything thinks is so great and now they all listen to him

Here are my tips for combatting such non-science from scientists.

  1. Ask to see the confidence intervals when people tell you stuff.  If they can’t show them to you (or won’t), they’re not actually doing science.
  2. Be skeptical of experts until they prove that they’re not trying to game you.
  3. Become an expert yourself.


[*I’ve always felt a certain kinship with African Americans and Jews in this regard.  Being of Sicilian heritage, we three groups were the poster children of the unfit that Sanger sought to eradicate from the earth.  Goddam WASPs, always coming for us.]

[**Even after “climate change” got popular because of all those years when there was no rise, the true believers never abandoned “global warming”]

[***Additional note:  I’m not even nitpicking on methodology for how these things are measured, which is a whole lot of other cans of very wormy worms.]


Obamacare, and what it broke

Both my mother and brother were kicked off of their health plans as a result of the ACA being passed.  Both of them had health policies for around $250 a month.

My mother, recently widowed, received very heft premium discounts (around $500 a month) since she had very minimal income that year and ended up paying $250 a month for her new policy.  However, a few death benefits for my father sent her checks, which counted as income, and at the end of the year, my mother had a tax bill of $3000, based on repaying those premiums since her “income” had gone up.

So, my mom went from paying $250 a month on a plan that was fine for her, to paying $750 a month for an equivalent plan.  Moreover, even had the subsidies that she thought she was entitled to kicked in, someone(s) else would have paid an extra $500 a month for her to have coverage.

In essence, either way, the world was poorer $6000 because of what happened to my mother.  But in this case, it was specifically my widowed mother who was $6000 poorer.

The American people did not want the Affordable Care Act.  Lots of people in congress did not want the Affordable Care Act.  This makes it very different than other times when America governmentized parts of its collective life.

People wanted Social Security and were okay with governmentizing retirement (even though its a bad system).  People wanted Medicare and Medicaid and welfare checks and job training and food stamps and were okay with governmentizing charity (even though its a bad system).

These were giant, massive (and bad) programs started by the government to make citizens’ lives better.  But they were bipartisan.  They were politicians on both sides giving the people what they wanted.  Trying to unentangle America from Social Security, Medicaid, and the rest of the “security net” we’ve woven for ourselves is impossible.

The same will be true of Obamacare.  Regardless of repeal and replace plans, the genie is out of the bottle.  There’s no more going back to “26 year olds should be parents at that point, not still children” or “we can’t put you in the insurance pool because you have cancer already”.

It is a crazy, very slow, economic suicide that we’ve set ourselves upon.  Imagine if we did this with house insurance and let people buy policies after their homes were flooded.  For the price of a single premium, the other people in the insurance pool would have to cover their damages.  Or if a car owner could buy an insurance policy after he’s in a wreck.  It’s an insane way of running any kind of risk-management system.

But the economy is the least of what Obamacare broke.

Obamacare broke politics.

George W. Bush could still be the president who passed bipartisan education policy (NCLB), and a national, bipartisan drug entitlement.  He could even try to advance a very middle-of-the-road approach to immigration reform.

No president will ever be able to pass a bipartisan policy agenda ever again, because there is no more bipartisanship left.

Because Obamacare broke it.

You’ll forget, perhaps, when it broke.  It was at a meeting between Obama and some Republican lawmakers to discuss health care reform.  The Republicans had a list of things they wanted changed/added to the bill.  They weren’t going to stop it, they just wanted a hand in it (for pork or pet projects or whatever.  They’re politicians, not saints.  If 30 million Americans are going to get insurance, they want a say in how that happens or they can’t brag about it to their constituents).

And that’s when a very young Barak Obama looked at a very old war hero named John McCain, who was a very middle-of-the road Republican, and said “The election’s over.”

And that’s when politics in America broke.

There would be no compromise.  Democrats would not give an inch.  They would not seek to include Republicans on this.  They had won.  But not like Eisenhower or Kennedy had won, where there was a sense that winning didn’t mean powerlessness for the losers.

This new kind of winning was a “fuck you” kind of winning.  There would be no bridge building, no bipartisanship, because it was no longer a goal of legislating.  The goal was now to win an election and then do anything you can get away with, and screw the guys on the other side.  You won, you don’t have to listen to anything they say.

My dad used to tell a story about a kid he played sandlot baseball with when they were kids.  Because there were never any refs, this kid would never swing at any pitch he didn’t like, whether or not it was a good pitch and would have been in the strike zone.  “No ump!” he’d call out, and then wait for the frustrated pitcher to just send him up something soft to get the game moving.  There was nothing except human decency to keep the kid from doing this, but human decency isn’t really enforceable, and so this kid got to dictate the rules of the game.

It’s the same idea as not bringing a knife to a gun fight.  Both sides can agree on what they’re going to bring (like in West Side Story), but if one side unilaterally starts bringing pistols, the other side isn’t going to take the high road and stick to switch-blades.

The lowest, meanest, dirtiest guy sets the rules and drags everyone else in the fight down into the mud with him.

Obamacare wasn’t just about playing for victory, though.  It fundamentally changed the level of caution politicians required of themselves when changing the American compact. The really big changes to the role the government plays in people’s lives (income tax, social security, the welfare system) had always come from at least some confluence of the right, center, and left.  Even if there was disagreement from the fringes, the center held.  (And still holds.  There are virtually zero real national politicians who talk openly about eradicating the welfare state, instead merely discussing ways to improve its efficiency and solvency. These programs are overwhelming popular with the voting classes).

These, like the ACA, weren’t another law or regulation or statute like “no more BPA in plastic bottles,” which are nuisance laws, but don’t change the interplay between citizen and government.  The are un-reversable.  And for that reason, politicians had always cautiously sought to pass them with support from both sides.  The ACA was the first time this did not happen.

So politics is broke now.  The precedent is set.  There are no more decency standards Trump will be held to.  Executive orders?  Governing by pen and phone? Obama did it.  Governing without input from the minority party?  Claiming that the election results give you carte blanche? Obama did it.  Ramming whatever you can get away with down the throats of your enemies?  Cue Butters complaining.

The Republicans were the party of “no” for six years (it’s easy to forget that Obama had two years of Democrat control over both camera and the White House and that, if he’d wanted, immigration reform, entitlement reform, other bipartisan things could have happened then.  There were no TEA party members wearing vaginas on their heads at Obama’s first inauguration.).

And now the Democrats will be the part of “no” for the foreseeable future. Although Dems assure us that they are standing on principal and American values when they obstruct, unlike those filthy, racist Republicans who obstructed because of filthy racism.

It might not be Obama’s fault.  I don’t know if he knew what was going to happen because of those three words.  Maybe he was just the spark that lit off a powder keg after Clinton’s impeachment and the “Bush lied /people died” crowd had started infiltrating DC.