Monday, September 26, 2011

Berezow cherry-picked in "Who is antiscience?" smacktown

"I don't care who you voted for."

The whole left-antiscience vs right-antiscience dust-up has left me strangely cold. Should be right up our alley here at ITracker ("IT support" when we're at home). Climate denial is anti-science. Climate denial is associated with the far right, and especially prevalent among Tea Partiers. And while it doesn't make them very happy, we've argued on this blog that emphasizing the ideological roots of so-called skeptics is constructive.

So you might say that this is a debate the whole corpus of IT has helped set the stage for. So why the diffidence?

For me I guess the reason why you are antiscience on a given issue is less important than the fact that you are. If it matters what the political, social, and religious motivations of that denial are, it matters because by recognizing the motive, by elucidating the bias, antiscience is less likely to be confused with a legitimate critique of particular science.

Further, this debate seems destined to shed more heat than light. If Nate Silver has taught us anything, it's that when talking heads start debating a point like this, you need to fall back on some sort of objective numeric assessment, with reasonable caveats. Otherwise this is the kind of nonsense you end up debating (from the Alex Berezow blog post at USAToday that started the recent dust-up):
Unfortunately for Democrats, their progressive political allies often hold blatantly anti-science beliefs themselves. And in some cases, progressives actively undermine technological progress.  
Federal health data suggest that anti-vaccine sentiment is more common in progressive areas.
The "left" has been conflated with Democrats, so you would think we are about to hear about the beliefs and activities of Democrats. No such luck: the blogger holds them guilty by association with their "progressive allies." Who are they? How are they defined as progressive? How are you determining them to be the Democrats "allies"?

Guilt by association is all very well -- "Tell me what company you keep and I'll tell you who you are" -- but you need to show the association somehow! And Alex's evidence is, to put it mildly, underwhelming:
Federal health data suggest that anti-vaccine sentiment is more common in progressive areas.  With the exception of Alaska, the states with the highest rates of vaccine refusal for kindergarteners are Washington, Vermont and Oregon — three of the most progressive states in the country.
Unlike denying evolution, refusing vaccinations can be deadly.
Whoa. That's some ironclad reasoning there (*).

So Berezow is calling these states "progressive" and blaming that for their low rates of vaccination. Wouldn't it be more straightforward to poll progressives on their attitudes towards vaccines (maybe because what polling there is shows no connection between progressive politics and vaccine denial)? Other commentators pointed out that the conservative, rural eastern regions of Oregon and Washington had vaccine refusal rates just as high as the liberal west edges. Berezow glosses over the fact that Alaska, one of the most conservative states in the nation, is a top refuser.

So by Berezow's own calculation, he has an n = 4, and of that 4, one state is very conservative while the others are a mix of urban progressive/rural conservative where progressives (or at least Democrats) dominate statewide elections.

Not exactly persuasive. What if you took a slightly larger sample -- the top ten -- and used their votes in a tight national election, like Bush/Gore 2000, to gauge how progressive they are?

Wyoming did not even report its data last year, and no wonder: until 2010, they didn't even require children over the age of nine to be vaccinated. An effort to strengthen the law met with fierce resistance. So let's include Wyoming -- the unreported number is likely high. The top ten:

1. Washington (6.2%) (Gore)
2. Vermont (5.8%)      (Gore)
3. Alaska (5.5%)         (Bush)
4. Oregon (5.4%)        (Gore)
5. Michigan (4.4%)     (Gore)
6. Illinois (4.3%)         (Gore)
7. Utah (3.8%)            (Bush)
8. Nebraska (3.8%)     (Bush)
9. Idaho (3.8%)           (Bush)
10. Wyoming (?)         (Bush)

Five for Bush, five for Gore. "Progressive states are anti-vaccine" turns out to be a massive cherry pick; total nonsense. Seven out of the ten states are western states, both the Gore and the Bush states. That's kind of interesting. Really, all we learn from this is that vaccination rates depend on the strength of the mandatory vaccination law, and laws vary from state to state and region to region for any number of reasons.

I may have more on this anon, but in the meantime: beware of talking heads bearing cherries.


* It's a bit of a side issue, but I should point out that if doctors and biologists ever came to doubt the theory of evolution, the evolved resistance of bacteria to antibiotics would quickly kill a great many people. And by encouraging their children to see their biology teacher as the enemy of their faith, who knows how many potentially great scientists and physicians never got started on the path to realizing their talent, to the determent of us all.


  1. As to your footnote, hospital strains -- developed partly due to careless and unnecessary use of antibiotics, also in cattle breeding -- already kill lots of people. Obviously evolution denial, i.e., development-of-resistance denial, is a large factor in this carelessness, as seen from the contrast between the U.S. and Europe, where attitudes on antibiotics mis-use are clearly more restrictive.

    BTW, a curiosity on the left/right vs. climatology denial thing: look up Martin Durkin and 'Living Marxism' :-)

  2. "Climate denial is anti-science."

    Um, you know what, I'm tired of hearing people tell me that climate denial is anti-science. Climate denial is not anti-science, it is anti-climate science only. I am a scientist, I work in an office with about 15 scientists, we're all climate deniers but none of us is anti-science. How could we be, we all work in science 40 hours a week. We have serious concerns about the conclusions of climate sceintists, most of thier conclusions are not conclusions at all, they are speculation. Anyone can speculate, but their actual conclusions are untestable. We are not anti-science, we are anti-climate science only.

  3. To all your points, I think there is a difference between not taking the conclusions of science as seriously as we might like (as in the careless and wasteful overuse of antibiotics) and science denial.

    A great example of this is the recent Jared Diamond/Mark Lynas post on Easter Island. Curry's regulars effortlessly shirt from climate denial to archeology denial: