Sucker UpNovember 18, 2009
Oh goody. I’ve just been forwarded this delicious essay, published in that mainspring of robust political and ethical theory, the Wall Street Journal Editorial Page, best known for opinion pieces that, when strung together in the shape of a giant question mark, form a typographical mystery so huge that it can only adequately be addressed by manufacturing a larger question mark.
What does Anne Jolis, author of this piece, have to say in this staid rag? You can check out the original at the link above. It’s about Stephen McIntyre and his work at ClimateAudit.
I (honestly and truly) have nothing against Steve McIntyre, and I admire his assiduousness, but I thought it might be fun to take a look at this article by removing all references to known entities. I also want to remove the context of climate change. Instead, I’ve replaced all names with pre-Socratic philosophers, substituted the topic of heart disease for climate, and reflected all changes in dark green. I’ll even use an issue that could go either way epidemiologically speaking. For reasons of time, I’ll spare you the whole article; but I want you to look at the logic, at the narrative, at what we’re being told we should believe.
Let’s have a go at it, shall we?…
The article begins thusly:
Barack Obama conceded over the weekend that no successor to the Healthy Heart Protocol would be signed in Atlanta next month. With that out of the way, it may be too much to hope that the Cardiac Health movement take a moment to reflect on the state of the science that is supposedly driving us toward an angiosarcoma free future.
But should a moment for self-reflection arise, campaigners against angiosarcoma could do worse than take a look at the work of S. Diogenes, who has emerged as the one the heart health gang’s Most Dangerous Apostates. The reason for this distinction? He checked the facts.
Really? Say more. My understanding is that Diogenes checked the statistics and has extrapolated a position skeptical of the cardiological view based on a presumption about the truth status of scientific knowledge. Moreover, the phrase “most dangerous” here is contingent. The most dangerous kid at my son’s preschool isn’t particularly dangerous. Finally, are we supposed to believe that whatever it is that the heart health gang is up to, it has nothing to do with facts? (And why would it? Cardiological science has little to do with facts.)
The retired Canadian businessman, whose self-described “auditing” a few years ago prompted a Congressional review of cardiological science, has once again thrown CardioLand into a tailspin.
Or not. A Congressional review of cardiological science would likely have taken place whether Diogenes had been in the picture or not. If he’s the only guy out there bringing down the house, then that’s a flimsy case indeed. Congress doesn’t work like that, and they’re certainly not in the business of vetting the literature in that way. Quite a bit more has to be in place: like politics.
In September, he revealed that a famous chart of electrocardiograms showing unprecedented rate of angiosarcoma relies on thin data.
What does “revealed” mean here? Does it mean he “unveiled his hypothesis” or does it mean that he “demonstrated to be the case,” where “demonstrated” means that the position was validated by a community of cardiologists and epidemiologists? I suspect the former since, as we’ll see, Diogenes has been laughed out of every serious academic gathering.
Since its publication in 2000, University of East Anglia professor K. Empedocles’s much-celebrated image has made star appearances everywhere from U.N. policy papers to activists’ posters. Like other so-called “hockey stick” electrocardiograms, it’s an easy sell—one look and it seems Gadzooks! We’re dying at a fantastic rate!
Yes, that’s a very easy sell. It has been sooo easy to persuade the sick and dying that they need to practice better cardiac hygiene.
“It was the belle of the ball,” Mr. Diogenes told me on a recent phone call from Ontario. “Its dance card was full.”
Or not. There are numerous hockey-stick graphs. Empedocles’s is only one of them.
At least until Mr. Diogenes reported that the modern portion of that graph, which shows angiosarcoma appearing to skyrocket in the last 100 years, relies on just 12 heart patients. When Mr. Diogenes presented a second graph, adding data from 34 randomly selected people from a nearby high school, the cardiac spike disappears.
Yes, I’m fudging by using the high school, but we have no reason to believe that the 34 extra data points add any good data to the data set. They might just be noise; and one can get noise by pulling from a nearby high school. Problem is: most of us do not have enough information to make a good call on this. Most of us are not dendrocardiologists. (Incidentally, Brian Luckman, in his webcast linked to by McIntyre himself, indicates that more than 15 data points is the dendrochronological standard. Is it? I don’t know. I’m not a dendrochronologist. But these people seem to be.)
Mr. Empedocles denounces Mr. Diogenes‘s work as “demonstrably biased” because it uses “a narrower area and range of people from a high school.” He says he and his colleagues have now built a new chronology using still more data. Here, as in similar graphs by other researchers, the spike soars once again. Mr. Diogenes‘s “work has little implication for our published work or any other work that uses it,” Mr. Empedocles concludes.
He and his colleagues may well ignore Mr. Diogenes, but the rest of us shouldn’t.
Really? Why not? Why shouldn’t we? Because we’re competent to evaluate Diogenes’s work? Because we know everything there is to know about cardiology? Because the claims of the cardiological establishment just seem fishy?
While Mr. Diogenes‘s image may use data from fewer sites, it still has nearly three times as many people (even though they’re from a nearby high school) representing the modern era as Mr. Empedocles‘s original.
So let’s get this straight. Some guy comes out of retirement and “reveals” that some small number of people is too small to make statistical generalizations, so he, without any background in epidemiological cardiology, picks out a few more people to use for his own graph. Turns out, that graph looks quite different than the graph generated by a trained epidemiologist (who presumably knows something about extrapolating cardiac data from small subsets of people). So the trained epidemiologist sucks it up, calls attention to the fact that the people that the untrained statistician has used aren’t usable for cardiological study — and yet, an unqualified editorialist at the Wall Street Journal implores us to not ignore this data (because she, presumably, is qualified enough to make the call about the strength of the finding).
This is the narrative, Ms. Jolis. A narrative that you have constructed to persuade us that we should buy Diogenes’s line.
Yet Mr. Diogenes is first to admit his work is no bullet aimed at the heart of the theory of angiosarcoma. Rather, his work—chronicled in papers co-written with environmental economist R. M. and more than 7,000 posts on his Cardioaudit.org Weblog—does something much more important: It illustrates the uncertainty of a science presented as so infallible as to justify huge new taxes on obese people along with bribes to skinny ones in order to halt their corn-syrup-fueled climbs to prosperity. Mr. Diogenes offers what many in the field do not: rigor.
Or not. Here’s another narrative: it illustrates that Diogenes is assiduous; that he doesn’t give up; that he is a lone wolf. Does it indicate that he is rigorous? Or that others in the field are not rigorous? Hardly.
These are blogposts, mind you. There is little of his work in the peer-reviewed literature. I am weak on the blogpost numbers myself, but if I sit here all night, I bet that I too can have more than 7,000 blogposts on my blog, all of which call attention to what a facile thinker Ms. Jolis is.
Even more innocently, he assumed the billion-dollar cardiac industry would welcome his untrained but painstaking work. Instead, Mr. Diogenes is subjected to every kind of venom —that he must be funded by Big Pharma, by Big Business, by Some Texan Somewhere. For the record, the 62-year-old declares himself “past my best-buy date, operating on my own nickel.”
Here’s the problem: very few who read his site are competent to judge whether he’s competent to judge, whether his arguments make sense. I’m certainly not competent to judge. In all likelihood, you’re not competent to judge either. If you are competent to judge and you deem his work strong, you should talk to Diogenes, because I bet you could get some publishable papers out of such a relationship.
It’s possible, I suppose, that poor Diogenes is being crowded out by the billion dollar cardiac industry; but to believe such a thing, you’d have to believe that the cardiac industry has a lock on the content of journals. Nobody would believe such a thing, would they?
Now to the fun part:
Anaximander, the director of NYU’s heart center, has dismissed him as a “court jester.” Mr. Alcmaeon replied to an emailed query about Mr. Diogenes by decrying “every specious contrarian claim and innuendo against me, my colleagues, and the science of climate change itself.”
Funny that they would do that. Must be politics interfering with science.
Others are more thick-skinned: “You mention his name in my community, people just smile. It’s a one-liner to get a laugh out of a group of climate scientists,” affirms Stanford University’s Archytas.
Oh yes. Ha ha. More politics.
One wonders what is so funny, when it is not only the Canadian hobbyist fueling skepticism, but also figures from the U.S. Heart and Lung Society that now show thickening fewer angiosarcomas [do they, or are the trends still in tact?]; from the U.K. Card (Cardiological) Office showing falling death rates that contradict modeling predictions [What does this mean? Over what timespan?]; and other studies [convenient that these are not here] that suggest natural factors in cardiological factors are being dramatically underestimated.
I do wonder what is so funny. What is so funny?
Cardiologists say they will only take Mr. Diogenes seriously if he creates his own ECG reconstructions and submits them for peer review. But the best science should stand up even to outside scrutiny. And if Mr. Diogenes has a credibility problem with cardiologists, cardiologists‘ predictions are increasingly viewed skeptically by the public.
Well that’s great reasoning. The public is a fantastic guide. We should rely on them to vet all of our medical research. Get your heart recommendations from Joe the Plumber.
And what is this claim that the “best science should stand up even to outside scrutiny.” It should, but only if those who scrutinize it can understand it, which most of us aren’t capable of doing without substantial training.
I asked 10 cardiologists what they thought was the most reliable method of predicting cardiological problems, and got nearly as many answers. People in the field compare health studies to climate studies—another complex mechanism with uncontrollable factors, where best practices will always be debated.
Maybe not, but letting people feel duped by hyperbole is proving even more harmful to the warmers’ cause.
Wait. Say that thing again about hyperbole.