Monday, June 19, 2023

On Debating Science

Dr. Peter Hotez is a medical doctor in Texas who did his undergrad at Yale and his medical degree at Cornell. He has been successful at creating Covid vaccine technology cheaply and patent-free so it can be distributed to low-income countries. His work has been "nominated for the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize for its innovation in 'decolonizing' the global vaccine ecosystem and making life-saving interventions available to the world."

Robert Kennedy Jr., of the Kennedys, is a lawyer who is adamant that vaccines cause autism.

Joe Rogan is a trained jiu-jitsu fighter and a comedian who did UFC commentary and a stint with Fear Factor before becoming a star and millionaire as a podcaster. His interviews are very entertaining, and clearly, openly, lean to a libertarian position on the far right that misunderstands the nuance of so many things, but he's a comedian. His show isn't news

Rogan wants Hotez to get into the ring to debate Kennedy about vaccines, and the twittered demands are along the lines that if Hotez doesn't, then it proves he's wrong! He even offered him $100,000 to a charity of his choice to show up, and Elon Musk got in on it for kicks. But it's not just on-line harassment. Some of Rogan's more unhinged followers came to Hotez's home on Fathers Day demanding a debate! 

I love debating and watching debates, and I used to sometimes adjudicate at high school debate meets. But the problem with all this mess is that scientific research is not something we determine with a debate. Debates are typically about thing like meaty moral issues that we can't know for sure, so the best arguments can win, like Is Populism the Way of the Future? or Is Political Correctness a Form of Progress? Someone who's completely anti-abortion could be swayed by a persuasive debater. We don't debate if gravity exists or if the world is flat. And if someone is swayed on something scientifically verifiable because they heard a good argument, then they missed the importance of the science part of that. 

So, when someone wants to "debate the science," I think they're really asking someone to explain the science. People need to be shown how to differentiate an excellent study from a weak one, and to be able to read the studies well enough to understand the data, and it would be helpful - now that we're all googling studies - if authors could clarify their results and the limits of their study in plain English in the abstract. There's no shame in a study not being strong evidence - good researchers know this. Research often starts with a very small sample size, for example, to see if there's any effect in order to get funding to do a much better study, a more robust study. 

Okay, I know sometimes scientists say they need to debate the evidence, but that's an ambiguous use of the word debate. What they're doing is scrutinizing the evidence with others in disagreement with them in order to figure out what's right. The key difference is, in a debate, each side wants to win, but in scientific investigation, both sides want to get to the truth. Rogan's goal is to get the biggest audience possible for his show. Hotez's goal is to save lives. 

Right now, the best scientific evidence shows that vaccinations are effective and don't cause autism.  Different vaccinations do different thing because of the way different viruses work, so polio and measles vaccinations were able to almost eradicate the virus through herd immunity, but the Covid shot, like the yearly flu shot, works by reducing the effect of the virus to keep you out of the hospital. Now that anti-vax rhetoric is getting a toe-hold on things, we're seeing measles make a come-back. This is the worst timeline! 

Hotez went on the Mehdi Hasan Show. Hasan wrote a book about debating and advised Hotez against debating: 

"There's a time and a place for a debate. I don't think a historian of WWII should debate a holocaust denier. That's my analogy here. I don't think these debates between experts and cranks do anything but elevate the cranks."

George Lakoff, philosopher and linguist, said this excellent bit of wisdom,

"Don't take the bait! Debating someone with zero credibility or validity only helps them to gain status and spread lies. By trying to negate their false ideas, you'll end up activating them. They win by making the difference between lies and truth seem like a matter of opinion."

This is known as Brandolini's law:

Hotez was never about to take the bait, but it would be nice if people could stop harassing him so he could just focus on the incredible work he's doing!! 

Some relevant tips on what to look for in research:

* Check the quality of the journal publication --> if it's published in a reputable journal, it means it's been peer reviewed and is up to the standard set by that journal -- Nature and Science are two of the highest-ranked journals, so their standards to get in are super high and the studies have to be well done. Just looking into the quality of a journal in Media Bias Fact Check can help to weed out things like Primary Doctor Medical Journal, which was raised as evidence at a school board meeting even though it's not even a journal
* Check for a sample size of at least several thousand people, chosen randomly from a large population --> what happened to a friend of yours isn't scientific evidence, it's just anecdotal 
* Watch for skewed samples --> I got sucked into this from a study that showed more problems with babies born in a hospital compared to those born at home with a midwife, so I had mine at home, and found out that if anything could go wrong at all, they make you go to the hospital. So the sample of homebirths that showed so few issues is because they won't let you stay home if you have an issue! 
* The measuring tool should fit the question - randomized control trials aren't the best tool for every question. We don't use them to test parachutes or masks. 

* Is it showing a correlation, spurious correlation, or causation? --> Two things that randomly happen at the same time is a spurious correlation, like the graph below. 

But many studies can only find a correlation, not certain causation, like we know unemployment and mental health issues are correlated, but we don't know if one causes the other. Causation is hard to prove,
* Watch for confounds, e.g. kids who watch violent TV were later found to commit more crimes --> It doesn't mean violent TV causes criminal behaviour; it could also be because they were left to their own devices more (negligent parenting) or they could naturally gravitate towards violence.
* Look for scientific consensus --> One excellent paper isn't enough. Wait for others to study it or replicate it and look at all available data for quality, and then come to a general agreement that X is highly probable, like the Delphi Consensus on wearing masks and getting vaccinated.

Also check out the Bradford Hill criteria - principles for establishing evidence of causal relationships:

And pay attention to whether you're watching, reading, or listening to news or entertainment. The line is very blurry these days!

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