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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

We Keep Getting Reasons for Doubting Experts

There are very many examples of huge blunders by experts who dogmatically made unwarranted claims. In a previous post, I discussed 9 examples of disastrous expert blunders that caused huge deaths, enormous harm or gigantic risks. At various times in the past hundred years we had the following goofy and harmful examples of expert advice:

  • that we should keep fighting in Vietnam;
  • that we should invade Iraq to look for weapons of mass destruction;
  • that we should keep prescribing opioid medicines, on the grounds that they weren't very addictive (more than half a million have died from this blunder);
  • that we should keep building ever-more-destructive nuclear weapons (this blunder almost destroyed all of us);
  • that Vioxx (a medicine that ended up causing about 100,000 cases of heart problems) was a fine medicine to prescribe;
  • that the way to treat ulcers (now known to be caused by a microbe) was to live a more placid lifestyle;
  • that the risk of a Housing Bubble wasn't very great around 2006 or 2007 (shortly before that bubble burst in a trillion-dollar meltdown);
  • that eugenic recommendations (including things like forcible sterilizations) were important things to follow in public policy;
  • that stents should be inserted in arteries to reduce angina (after 100,000+ such operations to reduce angina pain, it was found such stents are not effective in reducing angina pain).

Despite the fact that some of these examples are very recent, many will say “that was then, this is now,” and will claim that we should kowtow to the pronouncements of today's experts. But we continue to get reasons for distrusting our esteemed experts. 

Recently the Washingon Post published a big story making it sound as if a fair fraction of the Afghanistan experts in the military-industrial complex have been pretty much lying their silly heads off from  the word "go" on the topic of the war in Afghanistan.  The long story is entitled "At War with the Truth." Below are some excerpts:

A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable....U.S. officials acknowledged that their warfighting strategies were fatally flawed and that Washington wasted enormous sums of money trying to remake Afghanistan into a modern nation....The documents also contradict a long chorus of public statements from U.S. presidents, military commanders and diplomats who assured Americans year after year that they were making progress in Afghanistan and the war was worth fighting....Several of those interviewed described explicit and sustained efforts by the U.S. government to deliberately mislead the public. They said it was common at military headquarters in Kabul — and at the White House — to distort statistics to make it appear the United States was winning the war when that was not the case....John Sopko, the head of the federal agency that conducted the interviews, acknowledged to The Post that the documents show 'the American people have constantly been lied to.' “

For further evidence that our experts are making doubtful pronouncements, we may look in the world of health.  A November 2019 headline in the New York Times stated, "Surgery for Blocked Arteries Is Often Unwarranted, Study Finds."  The article reports, "The findings of a large federal study on bypass surgeries and stents call into question the medical care provided to tens of thousands of heart disease patients with blocked coronary arteries, scientists reported at the annual meeting of the American Heart Association on Saturday."

Then there is the matter of dietary advice. For decades food scientists told us that saturated fat in food is bad for your heart. You can still read the same story being pitched on current web sites of some of our leading authorities. For example, a current page on the site of the American Heart Association tells us that saturated fat is bad for your heart. It says:

"Eating foods that contain saturated fats raises the level of cholesterol in your blood. High levels of LDL cholesterol in your blood increase your risk of heart disease and stroke."

Later the same page makes a recommendation:

"The American Heart Association recommends aiming for a dietary pattern that achieves 5% to 6% of calories from saturated fat. For example, if you need about 2,000 calories a day, no more than 120 of them should come from saturated fats. That’s about 13 grams of saturated fats a day."

This is a particularly stringent recommendation far more severe than the one made by some other major groups, which only recommend limiting saturated fat to less than about 10% of your diet. What is interesting is that in 2017 there was published a massive scientific study in the very prestigious British medical journal The Lancet, a study entitled “Associations of fats and carbohydrate intake with cardiovascular disease and mortality in 18 countries from five continents (PURE): a prospective cohort study.” The study looked into the dietary intake of 135,335 individuals (a very large sample size for studies like this).

The study reached these startling conclusions:

"Intake of total fat and each type of fat was associated with lower risk of total mortality...Higher saturated fat intake was associated with lower risk of stroke...Total fat and saturated and unsaturated fats were not significantly associated with risk of myocardial infarction or cardiovascular disease mortality."

Note that this very large 2017 study produced results completely contrary to the claims of the American Heart Association web page. While the American Heart Association page insinuated that saturated fats increase your risk of stroke, the Lancet study found that “higher saturated fat intake was associated with lower risk of stroke.” While the American Heart Association page insinuated that saturated fat increased your risk of heart disease, the Lancet study found that this is not at all true.

This year there was another scientific paper that seems to cast great doubt on the dogmatic claims of the American Heart Association page. The paper (published on April 6, 2019) is a meta-analysis, which is when scientists simply methodically judge the results of previous studies. After applying various quality criteria to get the most reliable studies, the paper found 43 studies dealing with the relation between fat and heart health, and the paper summed up the net results of such studies.

The bottom line was this: the meta-analysis found “no association was observed between total fat, monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA), saturated fatty acids (SFA), and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), and risk of CVDs [cardiovascular disease or heart problems].” So the meta-analysis told us loud and clear: the medical literature does not support the claim that there is a link between saturated fat intake and heart disease. Similarly, a 2010 paper stated, "there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD [coronary heart disease] or CVD [coronary vascular disease]."  But the American Heart Association page is still towing the same line of "saturated fats are so dangerous." 

To understand why the American Heart Association keeps giving us a dogmatic story line without mentioning the evidence that conflicts with its claims,  you must understand the nature of overconfident stubborn biological dogmatism (something that is all over the place in our science literature). The biological dogmatist is typically someone convinced that he understands many of the deep mysteries of biology. Such a person will generally not admit that he erred merely because contradictory evidence appears. Failing to recognize the wise principle that “social proof is no proof,” such a person may believe that his dogmatic opinions must be right because they are shared by so many other of his peers.  If there is both evidence for and evidence against a belief he holds, the biological dogmatist is likely to only inform you about the evidence supporting his belief. 

Then there are our experts in the field of cosmology. One of their jobs is to tell us whether the geometry of the universe is one of three types of geometry: open, flat or closed. For the past few decades cosmologists have been dogmatically asserting that we definitely live in a flat universe. But a recent paper based on evidence from the Planck space instrument tells us that there are "betting odds of over 50:1 against a flat universe."

Then there are our experts in the field of physics. A very small but noisy minority of them these days teach the raving nonsense of the Everett "many worlds" theory, the groundless notion that there are an infinite number of parallel universes. Then there are physics experts such as Daniel Baumann, who recently made the utterly misleading claim that "there’s just no freedom in the laws of physics that we have."  A story about this person's ideas has been published in the science magazine Quanta, with the ever-so-false title "Why the Laws of Physics Are Inevitable." 

Nothing in the article does anything to support the goofy claim that the laws of physics are inevitable.  There is actually nothing less inevitable than the laws of physics. 

Consider physics from the standpoint of the three fundamental forces of nature indisputably relevant to life.  These are the forces of gravitation, electromagnetism, and the strong nuclear force. There is no intrinsic reason why any one of these has to exist.  We can imagine without contradiction a universe in which there is no gravitational attraction between particles, no electromagnetic attraction or repulsion between particles, and no strong nuclear force allowing an atomic nucleus of multiple protons to exist.  There could also be any of a near-infinite number of other possible forces between particles. 

We can also imagine the rules associated with these three forces to be totally different.  Gravitation, for example, could be either an attractive force or a repulsive force.  Something like the strong nuclear force might be attractive or repulsive, and might have a range much different, forcing all electrons near an atomic nucleus to be dragged into the nucleus.  Besides having a totally different range characteristic (such as not acting according to an inverse-square law), the electromagnetic force could just as easily have any of these configurations (bold represents the actual configuration):

Proton to proton electromagnetic relation
Attractive, repulsive, or neutral
Proton to electron electromagnetic relation
Attractive, repulsive, or neutral
Proton to neutron electromagnetic relation
Attractive, repulsive, or neutral
Electron to electron electromagnetic relation
Attractive, repulsive, or neutral
Electron to neutron electromagnetic relation
Attractive, repulsive, or neutral

We could make the number of possibilites look three times greater by changing each "attractive" in the second column into "slightly attractive, moderately attractive or highly attractive," and by changing each "repulsive" into "slightly repulsive, moderately repulsive or highly repulsive." 

When we consider that each of the forces (gravitation, electromagnetic and strong nuclear force) has a contingent strength level that could be higher or lower by a factor of a billion times or more, we start to realize that the possible configurations of the laws of physics is nearly infinite. When we also realize that the masses and charges of the stable subatomic particles could be greater or smaller by a factor of a trillion or more, and that there could be any number of types of fundamental particles rather than just three stable types of subatomic particles in our universe (the proton, neutron, and electron), then we start to realize that the possible configurations for the ways in which fundamental forces could work is nearly infinite.  And such fundamental forces are only part of the laws of physics. 

The numerical values of the fundamental constants are "part and parcel" of the laws of physics, and such values are contingent numbers that have no necessity. We know of no reason why any one of them could not be any number between the actual value and a number a billion times lower or a billion times higher. 

So the "Why the Laws of Physics Are Inevitable" title of the recent Quanta magazine article is pure nonsense. Nothing is less inevitable than the laws of physics.  Our learned experts in charge of Quanta magazine are making a great big claim that is the exact opposite of the truth.  But that's what many an expert does, such as some neuroscience experts who preach the supremely goofy doctrine that consciousness or the self is an illusion. 

Having touched on the worlds of the military, medicine, physics and cosmology, I should also mention the field of chemistry, where our experts gave us the important blunder discussed by this press release on a NASA web site:

"For decades, scientists believed that the atmosphere of early Earth was highly reduced, meaning that oxygen was greatly limited. Such oxygen-poor conditions would have resulted in an atmosphere filled with noxious methane, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, and ammonia....Now, scientists at Rensselaer are turning these atmospheric assumptions on their heads with findings that prove the conditions on early Earth were simply not conducive to the formation of this type of atmosphere, but rather to an atmosphere dominated by the more oxygen-rich compounds found within our current atmosphere — including water, carbon dioxide, and sulfur dioxide. 'We can now say with some certainty that many scientists studying the origins of life on Earth simply picked the wrong atmosphere,' said Bruce Watson, Institute Professor of Science at Rensselaer."

For much of my lifetime, mainstream media sources have fed us misleading claims based on such experiments of scientists who "simply picked the wrong atmosphere" to simulate the early earth. 

1 comment:

  1. I think you undermine your argument by citing cases in which policy decisions were made, not by experts, but by corruptly motivated individuals posing as experts. Experts can be wrong, but their honest advice is generally the best available at the time they make it. Automotive experts correctly warn us that we should not put water in our gas tanks. Used car salesmen, on the other hand . . .