Update: Stories vs. Facts

This post revisits a previous discussion of how public discourse is increasingly governed by stories at the expense of facts.  The recent street violence provides another example.  NYT columnist Bari Weiss provides an insider’s look at how the media produces stories instead of reports.

Bari Weiss Twitter Thread

The civil war inside The New York Times between the (mostly young) wokes the (mostly 40+) liberals is the same one raging inside other publications and companies across the country. The dynamic is always the same. (Thread.)

The Old Guard lives by a set of principles we can broadly call civil libertarianism. They assumed they shared that worldview with the young people they hired who called themselves liberals and progressives. But it was an incorrect assumption.

The New Guard has a different worldview, one articulated best by @JonHaidt and @glukianoff. They call it “safetyism,” in which the right of people to feel emotionally and psychologically safe trumps what were previously considered core liberal values, like free speech.

Perhaps the cleanest example of this dynamic was in 2018, when David Remnick, under tremendous public pressure from his staffers, disinvited Steve Bannon from appearing on stage at the New Yorker Ideas Festival. But there are dozens and dozens of examples.

I’ve been mocked by many people over the past few years for writing about the campus culture wars. They told me it was a sideshow. But this was always why it mattered: The people who graduated from those campuses would rise to power inside key institutions and transform them.

I’m in no way surprised by what has now exploded into public view. In a way, it’s oddly comforting: I feel less alone and less crazy trying to explain the dynamic to people. What I am shocked by is the speed. I thought it would take a few years, not a few weeks.

Here’s one way to think about what’s at stake: The New York Times motto is “all the news that’s fit to print.” One group emphasizes the word “all.” The other, the word “fit.”

W/r/t Tom Cotton’s oped and the choice to run it: I agree with our critics that it’s a dodge to say “we want a totally open marketplace of ideas!” There are limits. Obviously. The question is: does his view fall outside those limits? Maybe the answer is yes.

If the answer is yes, it means that the view of more than half of Americans are unacceptable. And perhaps they are. https://theweek.com/speedreads/917760/plurality-democrats-support-calling-military-aid-police-during-protests-poll-shows

“A plurality of Democrats would support calling in the U.S. military to aid police during protests,…
President Trump on Monday threatened to call in the United States military in an effort to curtail protests across the United States, and it turns out most Americans — even some of those who think the president is doing a poor job of handling the demonstrations against police brutality — would support such an action.”

Background from Previous Post

Facts vs Stories is written by Steven Novella at Neurologica. Excerpts in italics with my bolds.

There is a common style of journalism, that you are almost certainly very familiar with, in which the report starts with a personal story, then delves into the facts at hand often with reference to the framing story and others like it, and returns at the end to the original personal connection. This format is so common it’s a cliche, and often the desire to connect the actual new information to an emotional story takes over the reporting and undermines the facts.

This format reflects a more general phenomenon – that people are generally more interested in and influenced by a good narrative than by dry facts. Or are we? New research suggests that while the answer is still generally yes, there is some more nuance here (isn’t there always?). The researchers did three studies in which they compared the effects of strong vs weak facts presented either alone or embedded in a story. In the first two studies the information was about a fictitious new phone. The weak fact was that the phone could withstand a fall of 3 feet. The strong fact was that the phone could withstand a fall of 30 feet. What they found in both studies is that the weak fact was more persuasive when presented embedded in a story than alone, while the strong fact was less persuasive.

They then did a third study about a fictitious flu medicine, and asked subjects if they would give their e-mail address for further information. People are generally reluctant to give away their e-mail address unless it’s worth it, so this was a good test of how persuasive the information was. When a strong fact about the medicine was given alone, 34% of the participants were willing to provide their e-mail. When embedded in a story, only 18% provided their e-mail.  So, what is responsible for this reversal of the normal effect that stories are generally more persuasive than dry facts?

The authors suggest that stories may impair our ability to evaluate factual information.

This is not unreasonable, and is suggested by other research as well. To a much greater extent than you might think, cognition is a zero-sum game. When you allocate resources to one task, those resources are taken away from other mental tasks (this basic process is called “interference” by psychologists). Further, adding complexity to brain processing, even if this leads to more sophisticated analysis of information, tends to slow down the whole process. And also, parts of the brain can directly suppress the functioning of other parts of the brain. This inhibitory function is actually a critical part of how the brain works together.

Perhaps the most dramatic relevant example of this is a study I wrote about previously in which fMRI scans were used to study subjects listening to a charismatic speaker that was either from the subjects religion or not. When a charismatic speaker that matched the subject’s religion was speaking, the critical thinking part of the brain was literally suppressed. In fact this study also found opposite effects depending on context.

The contrast estimates reveal a significant increase of activity in response to the non-Christian speaker (compared to baseline) and a massive deactivation in response to the Christian speaker known for his healing powers. These results support recent observations that social categories can modulate the frontal executive network in opposite directions corresponding to the cognitive load they impose on the executive system.

So when listening to speech from a belief system we don’t already believe, we engaged our executive function. When listening to speech from within our existing belief system, we suppressed our executive function.

In regards to the current study, is something similar going on? Does processing the emotional content of stories impair our processing of factual information, which is a benefit for weak facts but actually a detriment to the persuasive power of strong facts that are persuasive on their own?

Another potential explanation occurs to me, however (showing how difficult it can be to interpret the results of psychological research like this). It is a reasonable premise that a strong fact is more persuasive on it’s own than a weak fact – being able to survive a 3 foot fall is not as impressive as a 30 foot fall. But, the more impressive fact may also trigger more skepticism. I may simply not believe that a phone could survive such a fall. If that fact, however, is presented in a straightforward fashion, it may seem somewhat credible. If it is presented as part of a story that is clearly meant to persuade me, then that might trigger more skepticism. In fact, doing so is inherently sketchy. The strong fact is impressive on its own, why are you trying to persuade me with this unnecessary personal story – unless the fact is BS.There is also research to support this hypothesis. When a documentary about a fringe topic, like UFOs, includes the claim that, “This is true,” that actually triggers more skepticism. It encourages the audience to think, “Wait a minute, is this true?” Meanwhile, including a scientists who says, “This is not true,” may actually increase belief, because the audience is impressed that the subject is being taken serious by a scientist, regardless of their ultimate conclusion. But the extent of such backfire effects remains controversial in psychological research – it appears to be very context dependent.

I would summarize all this by saying that – we can identify psychological effects that relate to belief and skepticism. However, there are many potential effects that can be triggered in different situations, and interact in often complex and unpredictable ways. So even when we identify a real effect, such as the persuasive power of stories, it doesn’t predict what will happen in every case. In fact, the net statistical effect may disappear or even reverse in certain contexts, because it is either neutralized or overwhelmed by another effect. I think that is what is happening here.

What do you do when you are trying to be persuasive, then? The answer has to be – it depends? Who is your audience? What claims or facts are you trying to get across? What is the ultimate goal of the persuasion (public service, education, political activism, marketing)? I don’t think we can generate any solid algorithm, but we do have some guiding rules of thumb.

First, know your audience, or at least those you are trying to persuade. No message will be persuasive to everyone.

If the facts are impressive on their own, let them speak for themselves. Perhaps put them into a little context, but don’t try to wrap them up in an emotional story. That may backfire.

Depending on context, your goal may be to not just provide facts, but to persuade your audience to reject a current narrative for a better one. In this case the research suggests you should both argue against the current narrative, and provide a replacement that provides an explanatory model.

So you can’t just debunk a myth, conspiracy theory, or misconception. You need to provide the audience with another way to make sense of their world.

When possible find common ground. Start with the premises that you think most reasonable people will agree with, then build from there.

Now, it’s not my goal to outline how to convince people of things that are not true, or that are subjective but in your personal interest. That’s not what this blog is about. I am only interested in persuading people to portion their belief to the logic and evidence. So I am not going to recommend ways to avoid triggering skepticism – I want to trigger skepticism. I just want it to be skepticism based on science and critical thinking, not emotional or partisan denial, nihilism, cynicism, or just being contrarian.

You also have to recognize that it can be difficult to persuade people. This is especially true if your message is constrained by facts and reality. Sometimes the real information is not optimized for emotional appeal, and it has to compete against messages that are so optimized (and are unconstrained by reality). But at least know the science about how people process information and form their beliefs is useful.

Postscript:  Hans Rosling demonstrates how to use data to tell the story of our rising civilization.

Bottom Line:  When it comes to science, the rule is to follow the facts.  When the story is contradicted by new facts, the story changes to fit the facts, not the other way around.

See also:  Data, Facts and Information

Media Turn Math Dopes into Dupes

Those who have investigated global warming/climate change discovered that the numbers don’t add up. But if you don’t do the math you wouldn’t know that, because in the details is found the truth (the devilish contradictions to sweeping claims). Those without numerical literacy (including apparently most journalists) are at the mercy of the loudest advocates. Social policy then becomes a matter of going along with herd popularity. Shout out to AOC!

Now we get the additional revelation regarding pandemic math and the refusal to correct over-the-top predictions. It’s the same dynamic but accelerated by the more immediate failure of models to forecast contagious reality. Sean Trende writes at Real Clear Politics The Costly Failure to Update Sky-Is-Falling Predictions. Excerpts in italics with my bolds.

On March 6, Liz Specht, Ph.D., posted a thread on Twitter that immediately went viral. As of this writing, it has received over 100,000 likes and almost 41,000 retweets, and was republished at Stat News. It purported to “talk math” and reflected the views of “highly esteemed epidemiologists.” It insisted it was “not a hypothetical, fear-mongering, worst-case scenario,” and that, while the predictions it contained might be wrong, they would not be “orders of magnitude wrong.” It was also catastrophically incorrect.

The crux of Dr. Specht’s 35-tweet thread was that the rapid doubling of COVID-19 cases would lead to about 1 million cases by May 5, 4 million by May 11, and so forth. Under this scenario, with a 10% hospitalization rate, we would expect approximately 400,000 hospitalizations by mid-May, which would more than overwhelm the estimated 330,000 available hospital beds in the country. This would combine with a lack of protective equipment for health care workers and lead to them “dropping from the workforce for weeks at a time,” to shortages of saline drips and so forth. Half the world would be infected by the summer, and we were implicitly advised to buy dry goods and to prepare not to leave the house.

Interestingly, this thread was wrong not because we managed to bend the curve and stave off the apocalypse; for starters, Dr. Specht described the cancellation of large events and workplace closures as something that would shift things by only days or weeks.

Instead, this thread was wrong because it dramatically understated our knowledge of the way the virus worked; it fell prey to the problem, common among experts, of failing to address adequately the uncertainty surrounding its point estimates. It did so in two opposing ways. First, it dramatically understated the rate of spread. If serological tests are to be remotely believed, we likely hit the apocalyptic milestone of 2 million cases quite some time ago. Not in the United States, mind you, but in New York City, where 20% of residents showed positive COVID-19 antibodies on April 23. Fourteen percent of state residents showed antibodies, suggesting 2.5 million cases in the Empire State alone; since antibodies take a while to develop, this was likely the state of affairs in mid-April or earlier.

But in addition to being wrong about the rate of spread, the thread was also very wrong about the rate of hospitalization. While New York City found its hospital system stretched, it avoided catastrophic failure, despite having within its borders the entire number of cases predicted for the country as a whole, a month earlier than predicted. Other areas of the United States found themselves with empty hospital beds and unused emergency capacity.

One would think that, given the amount of attention this was given in mainstream sources, there would be some sort of revisiting of the prediction. Of course, nothing of the sort occurred.

This thread has been absolutely memory-holed, along with countless other threads and Medium articles from February and March. We might forgive such forays on sites like Twitter and Medium, but feeding frenzies from mainstream sources are also passed over without the media ever revisiting to see how things turned out.

Consider Florida. Gov. Ron DeSantis was castigated for failing to close the beaches during spring break, and critics suggested that the state might be the next New York. I’ve written about this at length elsewhere, but Florida’s new cases peaked in early April, at which point it was a middling state in terms of infections per capita. The virus hasn’t gone away, of course, but the five-day rolling average of daily cases in Florida is roughly where it was in late March, notwithstanding the fact that testing has increased substantially. Taking increased testing into account, the positive test rate has gradually declined since late March as well, falling from a peak of 11.8% on April 1 to a low of 3.6% on May 12.

Notwithstanding this, the Washington Post continues to press stories of public health officials begging state officials to close beaches (a more interesting angle at this point might be why these health officials were so wrong), while the New York Times noted a few days ago (misleadingly, and grossly so) that “Florida had a huge spike in cases around Miami after spring break revelry,” without providing the crucial context that the caseload mimicked increases in other states that did not play host to spring break. Again, perhaps the real story is that spring breakers passed COVID-19 among themselves and seeded it when they got home. I am sure some of this occurred, but it seems exceedingly unlikely that they would have spread it widely among themselves and not also spread it widely to bartenders, wait staff, hotel staff, and the like in Florida.

Florida was also one of the first states to experiment with reopening. Duval County (Jacksonville) reopened its beaches on April 19 to much national skepticism. Yet daily cases are lower today than they were they day that it reopened; there was a recent spike in cases associated with increased testing, but it is now receding.

Or consider Georgia, which one prominent national magazine claimed was engaging in “human sacrifice” by reopening. Yet, after nearly a month, a five-day average of Georgia’s daily cases looks like this:

What about Wisconsin, which was heavily criticized for holding in-person voting? It has had an increased caseload, but that is largely due to increased testing (up almost six-fold since early April) and an idiosyncratic outbreak in its meatpacking plants. The latter is tragic, but it is not related to the election; in fact, a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel investigation failed to link any cases to the election; this has largely been ignored outside of conservative media sites such as National Review.

We could go on – after being panned for refusing to issue a stay-at-home order, South Dakota indeed suffered an outbreak (once again, in its meatpacking plants), but deaths there have consistently averaged less than three per day, to little fanfare – but the point is made. Some “feeding frenzies” have panned out, but many have failed to do so; rather than acknowledging this failure, the press typically moves on.

This is an unwelcome development, for a few reasons. First, not everyone follows this pandemic closely, and so a failure to follow up on how feeding frenzies end up means that many people likely don’t update their views as often as they should. You’d probably be forgiven if you suspected hundreds of cases and deaths followed the Wisconsin election.

Second, we obviously need to get policy right here, and to be sure, reporting bad news is important for producing informed public opinion. But reporting good news is equally as important. Third, there are dangers to forecasting with incredible certitude, especially with a virus that was detected less than six months ago. There really is a lot we still don’t know, and people should be reminded of this. Finally, among people who do remember things like this, a failure to acknowledge errors foments cynicism and further distrust of experts.

The damage done to this trust is dangerous, for at this time we desperately need quality expert opinions and news reporting that we can rely upon.

Addendum:  Tilak Doshi makes the comparison to climate crisis claims Coronavirus And Climate Change: A Tale Of Two Hysterias writing at Forbes.  Excerpts in italics with my bolds.

It did not take long after the onset of the global pandemic for people to observe the many parallels between the covid-19 pandemic and climate change. An invisible novel virus of the SARS family now represents an existential threat to humanity. As does CO2, a colourless trace gas constituting 0.04% of the atmosphere which allegedly serves as the control knob of climate change. Lockdowns are to the pandemic what decarbonization is to climate change. Indeed, lockdowns and decarbonization share much in common, from tourism and international travel to shopping and having a good time. It would seem that Greta Thunberg’s dreams have come true, and perhaps that is why CNN announced on Wednesday that it is featuring her on a coronavirus town-hall panel alongside health experts.

But, beyond being a soundbite and means of obtaining political cover, ‘following the science’ is neither straightforward nor consensual. The diversity of scientific views on covid-19 became quickly apparent in the dramatic flip-flop of the UK government. In the early stages of the spread in infection, Boris Johnson spoke of “herd immunity”, protecting the vulnerable and common sense (à la Sweden’s leading epidemiologist Professor Johan Giesecke) and rejected banning mass gatherings or imposing social distancing rules. Then, an unpublished bombshell March 16th report by Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College, London, warned of 510,000 deaths in the country if the country did not immediately adopt a suppression strategy. On March 23, the UK government reversed course and imposed one of Europe’s strictest lockdowns. For the US, the professor had predicted 2.2 million deaths absent similar government controls, and here too, Ferguson’s alarmism moved the federal government into lockdown mode.

Unlike climate change models that predict outcomes over a period of decades, however, it takes only days and weeks for epidemiological model forecasts to be falsified by data. Thus, by March 25th, Ferguson’s predicted half a million fatalities in the UK was adjusted downward to “unlikely to exceed 20,000”, a reduction by a factor of 25. This drastic reduction was credited to the UK’s lockdown which, however, was imposed only 2 days previously, before any social distancing measures could possibly have had enough time to work.

For those engaged in the fraught debates over climate change over the past few decades, the use of alarmist models to guide policy has been a familiar point of contention. Much as Ferguson’s model drove governments to impose Covid-19 lockdowns affecting nearly 3 billion people on the planet, Professor Michael Mann’s “hockey stick” model was used by the IPCC, mass media and politicians to push the man-made global warming (now called climate change) hysteria over the past two decades.

As politicians abdicate policy formulation to opaque expertise in highly specialized fields such as epidemiology or climate science, a process of groupthink emerges as scientists generate ‘significant’ results which reinforce confirmation bias, affirm the “scientific consensus” and marginalize sceptics.

Rather than allocating resources and efforts towards protecting the vulnerable old and infirm while allowing the rest of the population to carry on with their livelihoods with individuals taking responsibility for safe socializing, most governments have opted to experiment with top-down economy-crushing lockdowns. And rather than mitigating real environmental threats such as the use of traditional biomass for cooking indoors that is a major cause of mortality in the developing world or the trade in wild animals, the climate change establishment advocates decarbonisation (read de-industrialization) to save us from extreme scenarios of global warming.

Taking the wheels off of entire economies on the basis of wildly exaggerated models is not the way to go.

Footnote: Mark Hemingway sees how commonplace is the problem of uncorrected media falsity in his article When Did the Media Stop Running Corrections? Excerpts in italics with my bolds.

Vanity Fair quickly recast Sherman’s story without acknowledging its error: “This post has been updated to include a denial from Blackstone, and to reflect comments received after publication by Charles P. Herring, president of Herring Networks, OANN’s parent company.” In sum, Sherman based his piece on a premise that was wrong, and Vanity Fair merely acted as if all the story needed was a minor update.

Such post-publication “stealth editing” has become the norm. Last month, The New York Times published a story on the allegation that Joe Biden sexually assaulted a former Senate aide. After publication, the Times deleted the second half of this sentence: “The Times found no pattern of sexual misconduct by Mr. Biden, beyond the hugs, kisses and touching that women previously said made them uncomfortable.”

In an interview with Times media columnist Ben Smith, Times’ Executive Editor Dean Baquet admitted the sentence was altered at the request of Biden’s presidential campaign. However, if you go to the Times’ original story on the Biden allegations, there’s no note saying how the story was specifically altered or why.

It’s also impossible not to note how this failure to issue proper corrections and penchant for stealth editing goes hand-in-hand with the media’s ideological preferences.

In the end the media’s refusal to run corrections is a damnable practice for reasons that have nothing to do with Christianity. In an era when large majorities of the public routinely tell pollsters they don’t trust the media, you don’t have to be a Bible-thumper to see that admitting your mistakes promptly, being transparent about trying to correct them, and when appropriate, apologizing and asking for forgiveness – are good secular, professional ethics.




On Following the Science

H/T to Luboc Motl for posting at his blog Deborah Cohen, BBC, and models vs theories  Excerpts in italics with my bolds

Dr Deborah Cohen is an award-winning health journalist who has a doctor degree – which actually seems to be related to medical sciences – and who is working for the BBC Newsnight now. I think that the 13-minute-long segment above is an excellent piece of journalism.

It seems to me that she primarily sees that the “models” predicting half a million of dead Britons have spectacularly failed and it is something that an honest health journalist simply must be interested in. And she seems to be an achieved and award-winning journalist. Second, she seems to see through some of the “more internal” defects of bad medical (and not only medical) science. Her PhD almost certainly helps in that. Someone whose background is purely in humanities or the PR-or-communication gibberish simply shouldn’t be expected to be on par with a real PhD.

So she has talked to the folks at the “Oxford evidence-based medicine” institute and others who understand the defect of the “computer models” as the basis of science or policymaking. Unsurprisingly, she is more or less led to the conclusion that the lockdown (in the U.K.) was a mistake.

If your equation – or computer model – assumes that 5% of those who contract the virus die (i.e. the probability is 5% that they die in a week if they get the virus), then your predicted fatality count may be inflated by a factor of 25 assuming that the case fatality rate is 0.2% – and it is something comparable to that. It should be a common sense that if someone makes a factor-of-25 error in the choice of this parameter, his predictions may be wrong by a factor-of-25, too. It doesn’t matter if the computer program looks like SimCity with 66.666 million Britons represented by a piece of a giant RAM memory of a supercomputer. This brute force obviously cannot compensate for a fundamental ignorance or error in your choice of the fatality rate.

I would think that most 3-year-old kids get this simple point and maybe this opinion is right. Nevertheless, most adults seem to be completely braindead today and they don’t get this point. When they are told that something was calculated by a computer, they worship the predictions. They don’t ask “whether the program was based on a realistic or scientifically supported theory”. Just the brute power of the pile of silicon seems to amaze them.

So we always agreed e.g. with Richard Lindzen that an important part of the degeneration of the climate science was the drift away from the proper “theory” to “modeling”. A scientist may be more leaning towards doing experiments and finding facts and measuring parameters with her hands (and much of the experimental climate science remained OK, after all, Spencer and Christy are still measuring the temperature by satellites etc.); and a theorist for whom the brain is (even) more important than for the experimenter. Experimenters sort of continued to do their work. However, it’s mainly the “theorists” who hopelessly degenerated in the climate science, under the influence of toxic ideology, politics, and corruption.

The real problem is that proper theorists – those who actually understand the science – can solve basic equations on the top of their heads, and are aware of all the intricacies in the process of finding the right equations, equivalence and unequivalence of equations, universal behavior, statistical effects etc. – were replaced by “modelers” i.e. people who don’t really have a clue about science, who write a computer-game-like code, worship their silicon, and mindlessly promote what comes out of this computer game. It is a catastrophe for the field – and the same was obviously happening to “theoretical epidemiology”, too.

“Models” and “good theory” aren’t just orthogonal. The culture of “models” is actively antiscientific because it comes with the encouragement to mindlessly trust in what happens in computer games. This isn’t just “different and independent from” the genuine scientific method. It just directly contradicts the scientific method. In science, you just can’t ever mindlessly trust something just because expensive hardware was used or a high number of operations was made by the CPU. These things are really negative for the trustworthiness and expected accuracy of the science, not positive. In science, you want to make things as simple as possible (because the proliferation of moving parts increases the probability of glitches) but not simpler; and you want to solve a maximum fraction of the issues analytically, not numerically or by a “simulation”.

Science is a systematic framework to figure out which statements about Nature are correct and which are incorrect.

And according to quantum mechanics, the truth values of propositions must be probabilistic. Quantum mechanics only predicts the “similarity [of propositions] to the truth” which is the translation of the Czech word for probability (pravděpodobnost).

It is the truth values (or probabilities) that matter in science – the separation of statements to right and wrong ones (or likely and unlikely ones). Again, I think that I am saying something totally elementary, something that I understood before I was 3 and so did many of you. But it seems obvious that the people who need to ask whether Leo’s or Stephen’s pictures are “theories of everything” must totally misunderstand even this basic point – that science is about the truth, not just representation of objects.

See also: The Deadly Lockdowns and Covid19 Linked to Affluence

Footnote:  Babylon Bee Has Some Fun with this Topic.

‘The Science On Climate Change Is Settled,’ Says Man Who Does Not Believe The Settled Science On Gender, Unborn Babies, Economics

PORTLAND, OR—Local man Trevor J. Gavyn pleaded with his conservative coworker to “believe the science on climate change,” though he himself does not believe the science on the number of genders there are, the fact that unborn babies are fully human, and that socialism has failed every time it has been tried.

“It’s just like, the science is settled, man,” he said in between puffs on his vape. “We just need to believe the scientists and listen to the experts here.”

“Facts don’t care about your feelings on the climate, bro,” he added, though he ignores the fact that there are only two biological genders. He also hand-waves away the science that an unborn baby is 100% biologically human the moment it is conceived and believes economics is a “conservative hoax foisted on us by the Illuminati and Ronald Reagan.”

“That whole thing is, like, a big conspiracy, man,” he said.

The conservative coworker, for his part, said he will trust the science on gender, unborn babies, and economics while simply offering “thoughts and prayers” for the climate.

Jimbob Does Coronavirus

Humor is important as a means of poking holes in narratives that assert beliefs contrary to reality. Jimbob has become a force skewering notions of climate change, as well as other distorted ideas comprising the “woke” PC canon. Those inside the believer bubble will not be affected, but the important audience are those ignorant or agnostic about the so called “progressive, post-modern agenda.”

A previous post Best Cartoons Madebyjimbob provided an introduction to this artist, along with his point of view.  This post presents his more recent images related to present pandemic foibles.

Another Way Carbon Makes Life Better


With wall thicknesses of about 160 nanometers, a closed-cell, plate-based nanolattice structure designed by researchers at UCI and other institutions is the first experimental verification that such arrangements reach the theorized limits of strength and stiffness in porous materials. Credit: Cameron Crook and Jens Bauer / UCI

Brian Bell, University of California, Irvine, writes at phys.org announcing a new way that carbon will serve humanity in years to come.  It’s another example of scientific progress making human life better. The article is Team designs carbon nanostructure stronger than diamonds. Excerpts in italics with my bolds.

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine and other institutions have architecturally designed plate-nanolattices—nanometer-sized carbon structures—that are stronger than diamonds as a ratio of strength to density.

In a recent study in Nature Communications, the scientists report success in conceptualizing and fabricating the material, which consists of closely connected, closed-cell plates instead of the cylindrical trusses common in such structures over the past few decades.

“Previous beam-based designs, while of great interest, had not been so efficient in terms of mechanical properties,” said corresponding author Jens Bauer, a UCI researcher in mechanical & aerospace engineering. “This new class of plate-nanolattices that we’ve created is dramatically stronger and stiffer than the best beam-nanolattices.”

According to the paper, the team’s design has been shown to improve on the average performance of cylindrical beam-based architectures by up to 639 percent in strength and 522 percent in rigidity.

Members of the architected materials laboratory of Lorenzo Valdevit, UCI professor of materials science & engineering as well as mechanical & aerospace engineering, verified their findings using a scanning electron microscope and other technologies provided by the Irvine Materials Research Institute.

Bauer said the team’s achievement rests on a complex 3-D laser printing process called two-photon lithography direct laser writing. As an ultraviolet-light-sensitive resin is added layer by layer, the material becomes a solid polymer at points where two photons meet. The technique is able to render repeating cells that become plates with faces as thin as 160 nanometers.

One of the group’s innovations was to include tiny holes in the plates that could be used to remove excess resin from the finished material. As a final step, the lattices go through pyrolysis, in which they’re heated to 900 degrees Celsius in a vacuum for one hour. According to Bauer, the end result is a cube-shaped lattice of glassy carbon that has the highest strength scientists ever thought possible for such a porous material.

Nanolattices hold great promise for structural engineers, particularly in aerospace, because it’s hoped that their combination of strength and low mass density will greatly enhance aircraft and spacecraft performance.

Other co-authors on the study were Anna Guell Izard, a UCI graduate student in mechanical & aerospace engineering, and researchers from UC Santa Barbara and Germany’s Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg. The project was funded by the Office of Naval Research and the German Research Foundation.

Footnote: This material adds to the many ways our lives are already enriched by carbon-based materials.

Don’t Confuse The Virus and the Disease

Over several decades since 1981 we have learned to distinguish between one virus and the disease it can cause:

HIV: Human Immunodeficiency Virus, and
AIDS: Acquired ImmunoDeficiency Syndrome.

And of course over time scientists have identfied two main virus strains:
HIV-1 is more virulent, easily transmitted and is the cause of the vast majority of HIV infections globally.
HIV-2 is less transmittable and is largely confined to West Africa.

In the rush to inform people during this current pandemic, the terminology for public consumption has glossed over important distinctions between coronavirus, the Wuhan novel virus and the disease fatal to some people.

Some technical terminology from WHO: Naming the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and the virus that causes it.


First characterized in the 1960s, these are a group of related viruses that cause diseases in mammals and birds. In humans, coronaviruses cause respiratory tract infections that can be mild, such as some cases of the common cold (among other possible causes, predominantly rhinoviruses), and others that can be lethal, such as SARS and MERS.

Novel coronavirus originating in Wuhan, China.

SARS-CoV-2 (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome CoronaVirus 2)

WHO’s International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV)announced “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)” as the name of the new virus on 11 February 2020. This name was chosen because the virus is genetically related to the coronavirus responsible for the SARS outbreak of 2003. While related, the two viruses are different.

2019 Coronavirus Disease Pandemic

COVID-19 (COronaVIrus Disease 2019)

WHO announced “COVID-19” as the name of this new disease on 11 February 2020, following guidelines previously developed with the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)

A Timeline of Historical Pandemics
(link goes to visualization by Flourish team)

Technical accuracy with these terms is important to understand testing and reports of the pandemic progress. A helpful guide is published in Scientific American today Here’s How Coronavirus Tests Work—and Who Offers Them. Excerpts in italics with my bolds.

PCR-based tests are being rolled out in hospitals nationwide, and the Food and Drug Administration is fast-tracking novel approaches as well

Virus Testing

The first step in any coronavirus test is collecting a sample. Doing so involves placing a sterile swab at the back of a patient’s nasal passage, where it connects to the throat via the nasopharynx, for several seconds to absorb secretions. Scott Wesley Long, a clinical microbiologist who directs Houston Methodist Hospital’s diagnostic microbiology lab, says the swab is thin—less than three millimeters in diameter at its tip. “Once you place it in the back of the throat, it’s uncomfortable, but you can still breathe and talk,” he says. “It’s not as bad as it looks.” After a sample is collected, the swab goes into a liquid-filled tube for transport.

To determine whether a nasopharyngeal sample is positive for the coronavirus, biotechnicians use a technique known as reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction, or RT-PCR. The World Health Organization’s and CDC’s test kits both use this method, as do all of the kits the latter has approved to date. [This detects signs of the virus’s genetic material.]

Stephanie Caccomo, a spokesperson for the FDA, says the positive predictive value, or likelihood a positive test result correctly reflects that a patient has COVID-19, depends on how widespread the disease is—and that situation is changing quickly. “Based on what is known about the pathophysiology of COVID-19, the data provided and our previous experience with respiratory pathogen tests, the false-positive rate for authorized tests is likely to be very low, and the true-positive rate is likely to be high,” Caccomo says.

Person loads a Mesa Biotech cartridge into a dock for testing. Credit: Mesa Biotech

On Saturday Cepheid, a Silicon Valley–based molecular diagnostics company, said the FDA had granted it authorization for a COVID-19 test that can deliver results in about 45 minutes. And on Tuesday Mesa Biotech in San Diego announced it had received the go-ahead for a handheld test kit that Hong Cai, the company’s CEO, says can deliver results at bedside in about half an hour. Cai says the tests will begin shipping this week to “several hospitals” and that her company has tens of thousands of units ready to go, adding that Mesa is planning to triple its production capacity.

Antibody Testing

Another approach relies on identifying antibodies to the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) in a patient’s bloodstream to determine whether that person previously had COVID-19. Florian Krammer, a microbiologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, recently developed one of these tests, which is described in a preprint study posted last week on medRxiv. “This is not a test for [ongoing] infections,” he says. “It basically looks for antibodies after the fact, after you had an infection.” Like other serological, or antibody-based, diagnostic assays, it uses an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), which employs a portion of the target virus to find antibodies. Although serological tests are not useful for quickly identifying whether a patient currently has COVID-19, Krammer says they can help researchers understand how humans produce antibodies to the virus.

Additionally, serological tests can also help determine if a person has been infected whether or not the individual had symptoms—something an RNA test kit cannot do after the fact, because it only looks for the virus itself. That means serological tests could be used to survey a population to determine how widespread infection rates were. It also could allow public health agencies to figure out who is already immune to COVID-19. “So if you would roll this out on a very wide scale, you could potentially identify everybody who is immune and then ask them to go back to their regular life and go back to work,” Krammer says. This approach could be especially useful for health care providers who are working with COVID-19 patients. “They might feel much more comfortable working with those patients, [knowing] that they can’t get sick anymore, knowing that they can’t pass on the virus to others,” he says.


In common discourse, we talk about “disease” or “illness”, refering to how we feel, that is our awareness of symptoms.  In fact, the entry of a virus (or other pathogen such as bacteria, fungi or parasite) sets up a battle with our immune system even before we know it.  When the virus is defeated quickly, we have mild or no symptoms, and at least in the case of seasonal flus, we can be immune to further infection.  In some cases, people weakened by fighting other pathogens will need hospital help and may not survive.  The subtle point is that presence of the virus and the state of the disease are two different things.

This video is helpful in getting the basics right (published March 9, 2020)

See also: Progress on Covid19 Antibodies

Fight Coronavirus with Global Warming

An important study of our experience with the covid19 pandemic shows that warmer, more humid weather works against transmission of the disease.  The paper is High Temperature and High Humidity Reduce the Transmission of COVID-19 by Jingyuan Wang, Ke Tang, Kai Feng and Weifeng Lv. Excerpts in italics with my bolds.

Abstract: This paper investigates how air temperature and humidity influence the transmission of COVID-19. After estimating the serial interval of COVID-19 from 105 pairs of the virus carrier and the infected, we calculate the daily effective reproductive number, R, for each of all 100 Chinese cities with more than 40 cases. Using the daily R values from January 21 to 23, 2020 as proxies of non-intervened transmission intensity, we find, under a linear regression framework for 100 Chinese cities, high temperature and high relative humidity significantly reduce the transmission of COVID-19, respectively, even after controlling for population density and GDP per capita of cities. One degree Celsius increase in temperature and one percent increase in relative humidity lower R by 0.0383 and 0.0224, respectively. This result is consistent with the fact that the high temperature and high humidity significantly reduce the transmission of influenza. It indicates that the arrival of summer and rainy season in the northern hemisphere can effectively reduce the transmission of the COVID-19.

Discussion: Rough observations of outbreaks of COVID-19 outside China show a noteworthy phenomenon. In the early dates of the outbreak, countries with relatively lower air temperature and lower humidity (e.g. Korea, Japan and Iran) see severe outbreaks than warmer and more humid countries (e.g. Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand) do. Considering the natural log of the average number of cases per day from February 8 to 29 as a rough measure of the severity of the COVID-19 outbreaks3 , in Figure 1, we show that the severity is negatively related to temperature and relative humidity using 14 countries with more than 20 new cases during this period.

Figure 1: Severity of COVID-19 outbreaks v.s. temperature and relative humidity for countries outside China.

Inside China, the COVID-19 has spread widely to many cities, and the intensity of transmission and weather conditions in these cities vary largely (shown in Table SI 1), we can, therefore, analyze the determinants of COVID-19 transmission, especially the weather factors. In order to formally quantify the transmission of COVID-19, we first fit 105 samples of serial intervals with the Weibull distribution (a distribution commonly used to fit the serial interval of influenza[8]), then calculate the effective reproductive number, R, a quantity measuring the severity of infectiousness[9] , for each of all 100 Chinese cities with more than 40 cases.

Figure 3: Effective reproductive number R v.s. temperature and relative humidity for 100 Chinese cities

Figure 2 shows the average R values from January 21 to 23 for different Chinese cities geographically. Compared with the southeast coast of China, cities in the northern area of China show relatively larger R values and lower temperatures and relative humidity. The scatter plots in Figure 3 illustrate two negative relations between the daily air temperature and R value and between the daily relative humidity and R value, respectively.

Our finding is consistent with the evidence that high temperature and high humidity reduce the transmission of influenza[10-14] , which can be explained by two possible reasons: First, the influenza virus is more stable in cold temperature, and respiratory droplets, as containers of viruses, remain airborne longer in dry air[15, 16] . Second, cold and dry weather can also weaken the hosts’ immunity and make them more susceptible to the virus[17, 18] . These mechanisms are also likely to apply to the COVID-19 transmission. Our result is also consistent with the evidence that high temperature and high relative humidity reduce the viability of SARS coronavirus[19,20] .

If omitting control variables, 7 the fixed-effects model of Table 2 provides an estimation of the R value for a certain city given its temperature and relative humidity:Assuming that the same relationship of Equation (1) applies to cities outside China and that the temperature and relative humid of 2020 are the same as those in 2019, we can draw a map of R values for worldwide cities in Figure 4 by plugging the average March and July temperatures and relative humidity of 2019 into Equation (1). This figure cautions people of the risk of COVID-19 outbreak worldwide, in March and July of 2020, respectively. As expected, the R values are larger for temperate countries and smaller for tropical countries in March. In July, the arrival of summer and rainy season in the northern hemisphere can effectively reduce the transmission of the COVID-19; however, risks remain in some countries in the southern hemisphere (e.g. Australia and South Africa). If we plug the normal summer temperature and relative humidity of Tokyo (28oC and 85%, respectively) into Equation (1), the transmission of the COVID19 in Tokyo will be seriously reduced between March and the Olympics: the estimated R value decreases from 1.914 to 0.992, a 48% drop!

Postscript:  Some Context on US Situation from Conrad Black

The United States is now outdone only by Germany and Canada, among countries with sophisticated public-health systems that publish believable numbers, in the small proportion of reported cases who die from the coronavirus. This is 674 people out of 51,542 cases reported, as of late afternoon Tuesday, or 1.25 percent of identified cases, and if those who are immune-challenged are removed from that figure, the percentage descends to less than half of 1 percent of the identified cases. Even though most of the people tested appeared to have possible coronavirus symptoms, only a little more than 15 percent of those tested have tested positively. Because the United States is ramping up its treatment capabilities so quickly, it has an inordinate number of the world’s reported cases, 23 percent of the world’s new cases reported on Monday, though it only has about 4 percent of the world’s population, but the world fatality rate is about 4 percent, more than three times the American rate. The disease is still spreading unavoidably, but if care is taken to insulate the elderly and infirm from contact, the mortality rate descends to a point not greatly above seasonal flu fatality numbers.

Though it is hard to be precise about it, less than 1 percent of the adult population of the U.S. have apparently reported coronavirus-like symptoms; of those, about 20 percent have been tested; of those, about a quarter have tested positive; and of those, apart from clearly vulnerable people, fewer than half of 1 percent have died. In epidemiological terms, this is a very serious penetration of the population by a very nasty virus, but it does not justify continuing the extreme restrictions on the economic life of the country, and specifically this lethal threat to the economic well-being of tens of millions of Americans.


Doomsday Deja Vu

Ronald Stein writes at Eurasia Review Greta Preaches Many Of The First Earth Day’s Failed Predictions. Excerpts in italics with my bolds.

20 million Americans participated in the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. That was more than three decades before the birth of high school dropout Greta Thunberg, the Swedish environmental activist on climate change, diagnosed with Asperger’s, high-functioning autism, and obsessive-compulsive disorder,

We now look back at quotes from Earth Day, Then and Now,” by Ronald Bailey, Reason.com. May 1, 2000 of the spectacularly wrong apocalyptic predictions from Earth Day 1970.

Considering the current doomsday predictions scaremonger activists are verbalizing about global warming that will result in the demise of civilization within the next decade, many of those unscientific 1970 predictions are being reincarnated on today’s social and news media outlets.

Many of the same are being regurgitated today, but the best prediction from the first earth day five decades ago, yes 50 years ago, was that the “the pending ice age as earth had been cooling since 1950 and that the temperature would be 11 degrees cooler by the year 2000”.

The 1970’s were a lousy decade. Embarrassing movies and dreadful music reflected the national doomsday mood following an unpopular war, endless political scandals, and a faltering economy.

The first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970— okay, “celebrated” doesn’t capture the funereal tone of the event. The events (organized in part by then hippie and now convicted murderer Ira Einhorn) predicted death, destruction and disease unless we did exactly as progressives commanded.

Behold the coming apocalypse as predicted on and around Earth Day, 1970:

  1. Civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind.” — Harvard biologist George Wald

  2. “We are in an environmental crisis which threatens the survival of this nation, and of the world as a suitable place of human habitation.” — Washington University biologist Barry Commoner

  3. “Man must stop pollution and conserve his resources, not merely to enhance existence but to save the race from intolerable deterioration and possible extinction.” — New York Times editorial

  4. “Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make. The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.” — Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich

  5. “Most of the people who are going to die in the greatest cataclysm in the history of man have already been born… [By 1975] some experts feel that food shortages will have escalated the present level of world hunger and starvation into famines of unbelievable proportions. Other experts, more optimistic, think the ultimate food-population collision will not occur until the decade of the 1980s.” — Paul Ehrlich

  6. “It is already too late to avoid mass starvation,” — Denis Hayes, Chief organizer for Earth Day

  7. “Demographers agree almost unanimously on the following grim timetable: by 1975 widespread famines will begin in India; these will spread by 1990 to include all of India, Pakistan, China and the Near East, Africa. By the year 2000, or conceivably sooner, South and Central America will exist under famine conditions…. By the year 2000, thirty years from now, the entire world, with the exception of Western Europe, North America, and Australia, will be in famine.” — North Texas State University professor Peter Gunter

  8. “In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution… by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half.” — Life magazine

  9. “At the present rate of nitrogen buildup, it’s only a matter of time before light will be filtered out of the atmosphere and none of our land will be usable.” — Ecologist Kenneth Watt

  10. Air pollution…is certainly going to take hundreds of thousands of lives in the next few years alone.” — Paul Ehrlich

  11. “By the year 2000, if present trends continue, we will be using up crude oil at such a rate… that there won’t be any more crude oil. You’ll drive up to the pump and say, ‘Fill ‘er up, buddy,’ and he’ll say, ‘I am very sorry, there isn’t any.’” — Ecologist Kenneth Watt

  12. “[One] theory assumes that the earth’s cloud cover will continue to thicken as more dust, fumes, and water vapor are belched into the atmosphere by industrial smokestacks and jet planes. Screened from the sun’s heat, the planet will cool, the water vapor will fall and freeze, and a new Ice Age will be born.” — Newsweek magazine

  13. “The world has been chilling sharply for about twenty years. If present trends continue, the world will be about four degrees colder for the global mean temperature in 1990, but eleven degrees colder in the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age.” — Kenneth Watt

History seems to repeat itself as there will be a disproportionately influential group of doomsters predicting that the future–and the present–never looked so bleak. I guess we’ll need to critique the 2020 doomsday predictions in the year 2050 and see if they were any better than those from the first Earth Day 50 years ago.

Footnote: For a thorough discussion of recent environmental predictions of doom, see Progressively Scaring the World (Lewin book synopsis)

And let’s not leave out the Atomic Clock:

Doomsday was predicted but failed to happen at midnight.

Life on Arctic Seafloor Under the Ice

In some places, life manages to get a toehold in an otherwise barren landscape. (Photo: AWI, OFOBS team)

This is a great science story, untainted by activist agendas or grandstanding.  An article at ScienceNorway describes Here’s what it looks like 4000 meters below the Arctic ice.  Excerpts in italics with my bolds.

Far below the Arctic ice lies a special area with volcanic activity. What lives down there? Scientists have gone on a journey to find out.

Hydrothermal vents were first discovered in 1979. They look like pipes sticking out of the seabed and emit warm “smoke”, which is actually hot fluid loaded with minerals.

In the Atlantic and Pacific, many of these vents, also called chimneys, are surrounded by unique ecosystems with clams, blind shrimp, beard worms and extremophile bacteria.

Life there does not get its energy from the sun, but from the interior of the earth.

Microorganisms use reduced compounds from the vents as an energy source to make organic matter, just as plants and algae use photons from the sun. Larger animals live in symbiosis with these microbes.

However, no one has previously looked at the fauna in this type of area in the Arctic.

What lives in these cold, deep waters, 4,000 metres below the ice?

“We wanted to see if this ecosystem had developed in isolation — whether it is very different from other places with hydrothermal vents, or whether the fields are interconnected,” says Eva Ramirez-Llodra.

“It was hard to plan the days, because you work at the mercy of the ice,” says Ramirez-Llodra.

Arctic sea ice is not quiet. It breaks up, freezes, and varies in thickness. That made it difficult to get to the right place. The researchers towed a camera after the boat to film the seabed.

On October 3, they finally got a good position over what they believed was the field. Everyone’s eyes were fixed on the screens in the control room and the tension was high.

The pictures show the typical fauna on the Aurora volcanic field. The first picture shows a large sinkhole. (Photo: AWI, OFOBS team)

It was a huge hydrothermal vent, a black smoker, and later the researchers found two others.

“We could see that we were approaching the vents, because the sediments became coarser, and there were more stones and colours on the sea floor,” Ramirez-Llodra says.

One encounter was a little close. The researchers pulled the camera up over a mound, and suddenly they saw black smoke billowing out of a gaping, underwater crater.

“It’s not actually smoke, but very hot liquid at about 350 degrees C. The camera ran right into it. It went so fast that we couldn’t stop it. Everything went black and we were scared that we had burned everything up,” she says. “Fortunately, we got the picture back after a few minutes. We could continue. This was our first close encounter with a black smoker.”

Scientists saw fields that shone like gold on the otherwise colourless bottom around the chimneys.

The material the researchers saw wasn’t gold but sulphite that is deposited by the black “smoke”, Ramirez-Llodra says, although there are also traces of gold and silver in the fluid that gushes from the vent. Around the vents were clusters of white organisms that glistened as they reflected the light from the camera.

The area around the Aurora field was covered by a thick layer of fine-grained sediments. Where the ground was solid enough for something to stick, there were white, spooky sponges. There were shrimp frolicking in the depths, and sea cucumbers and anemones. The occasional fish also swam around.

But the bulk of the organisms in the depths were glass sponges. They are relatively rare, can grow up to a metre wide, and some of them can live for several centuries, according to an article about the trip written by National Geographic. The sponges are largely made up of silica, and only a little of their mass is organic matter. They can be said to barely be alive.

Glass sponges and shrimp do not depend on the vents but thrive in the cold depths. Researchers aren’t yet certain exactly which species these are. (Photo: AWI, OFOBS team)

The researchers did not find the diversity of life that has been discovered around hydrothermal vents in other ocean areas.

“There wasn’t much life down there,” says Ramirez-Llodra. “But we’re not exactly sure why yet.”

Hydrothermal vents in the Atlantic and Pacific contain colourful communities of beard worms, clams and crabs that have adapted to the special environment around the vents.

“Most of these have a symbiotic relationship with bacteria and microorganisms that live by chemosynthesis. The bacteria can be inside their bodies or in special organs,” says Ramirez-Llodra.

“Some organisms don’t even have a mouth or digestive system, but only live from what the microbes inside their body produce.”

Ramirez-Llodra says the researchers don’t know yet if there is a similar relationship between organisms around the vents in the Aurora field.

Additional studies of the videos and samples the researchers took will reveal more about the previously unknown environment on the Gakkel Ridge.

Ramirez-Llodra says they will embark on a new expedition later, to take samples even closer to the vents.

Postscript:  How refreshing to know about scientists following their curiosity to discover something new about life and the universe.  It encourages one about the future in spite of all the crazy talk of climate “crises” or “emergencies”.  Best wishes and hopes for an unalarming 2020!

Global Volcanism Program, East Gakkel Ridge at 85°E

See Also  Overview: Seafloor Eruptions and Ocean Warming

Activist-Legal Complex Perverts Science

This article was published at the American Council on Science and Health Activist-Legal Complex Will Destroy American Science And Industry by Alex Berezow and Josh Bloom. Excerpts in italics with my bolds and added images.

American science and industry are under threat by this complex, known to be an unholy alliance of activists and trial lawyers who deploy various pseudoscientific tricks to score multibillion-dollar lawsuits against large companies. No industry is safe from these deceptions.

In his Farewell Address, President Eisenhower warned of the military-industrial complex, a partnership between the military and defense industry that was financially incentivized to promote war over peace. Today, we face a different threat – the “activist-legal complex,” which is responsible for scoring multibillion-dollar verdicts against some of America’s biggest companies.

One partner in this unholy alliance are activists who falsely claim that the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the products we use are all secretly killing us. They pervert scientific uncertainty to nefarious ends by magnifying hypothetical risks and downplaying relevant facts, such as level of exposure.

They exploit widespread misunderstanding of science and a general hatred of “corporations” – especially those that manufacture chemicals, drugs, or consumer products – to instill fear into the public.

The other partner is the legal industry, which relies on activist scaremongering to win jackpot verdicts. They identify sympathetic patients, often suffering from cancer or some other debilitating disease, and blame their maladies on a company with deep pockets. They buy television commercials to recruit more “victims” for the inevitable class-action lawsuit.

This formula works nearly every time, and the result is always the same: A giant bag of money. In this way, the activist-legal complex recently won a $4.7 billion lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder for causing ovarian cancer and a $2 billion lawsuit (subsequently reduced to merely $87 million) against Monsanto’s glyphosate for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

There is no credible scientific evidence in support of either verdict.

But the absence of genuine scientific evidence is typically irrelevant in trials of this type. With the aid of flawed or cherry-picked toxicological and epidemiological studies – often published by activists in low-quality journals – the activist-legal complex can subvert science using well-established pseudoscientific tricks.

The first involves undermining long-held truths about toxicity. Thanks to Paracelsus, it has been known since the 16th Century that “the dose makes the poison.” Yet, the activist-legal complex promotes an alternate theory, namely that the mere presence of a chemical is an indicator of its potential harm. It is not.

Given advances in analytical instrumentation, it is now possible to detect almost any chemical in your body or in the environment at levels as minute as “one part per trillion,” which is roughly equivalent to a drop in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. There are very few, if any, chemicals on Earth that pose a health risk at such a low concentration.

But using the activist-legal complex’s doctrine – that we are constantly swimming in a sea of harmful chemicals – it is easy for lawyers to argue that any exposure to a potential carcinogen could be responsible for a cancer that develops decades later. Usually, the chemicals that are blamed have been used for decades and have been present in our bodies in tiny amounts all along without causing health concerns.

The second trick is to play on society’s belief that regulators and activists are righteous, unbiased people with no conflicts of interest. For example, jurors in the Monsanto glyphosate trial heard that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a subsidiary of the World Health Organization, classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen. What they did not hear is that one of the key members of the IARC panel received £120,000 from trial lawyers who stood to benefit financially from the classification.

The third trick is to foment conspiracy theories, usually involving a few old, obscure documents or emails taken out of context. The activist-legal complex uses this tactic to convince jurors, already eager to “punish” Big Business, that the company was engaged in malfeasance.

Game, set, match. The only question left is how big the bag of money is going to be.

Where will the activist-legal complex strike next? It could be anywhere. Maybe there will be a class action lawsuit against Coca-Cola for obesity in America. Perhaps lawyers will go after Facebook for making its social media platform too addictive. Or maybe Apple’s iPhone will be blamed for causing car accidents due to distracted driving.

As long as a company has a sufficiently large bank account, quite literally anything is possible. No industry is safe from the activist-legal complex.


The article points to jackpot justice in general.  A number of posts here have discussed how the same dynamic is at work in Climate Litigation (link is to posts so tagged)