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The Unfortunate Necessity of Fear Mongering

TDGonDP

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A prominent scientist has issued a warning for governments to evacuate the west coasts of North and South America because of the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant:

David Suzuki's Fukushima Warning Is Dire And Scary (VIDEO) | HuffPost Canada

Obviously governments are not going to do this. Other not-so-well known scientists have denounced this claim. And those of us who remember C1V1=C2V2 in our high school chemistry should realize that all the radioactive waste of Fukushima cannot contaminate the Pacific Ocean to the extent of being uninhabitable for humans. Why, then, would this scientist be making this kind of claim?

Let us all agree with the scientist that radioactive material should not be entering the Pacific Ocean. Some possible results are the upsetting of certain ecosystems and contamination of the food chain for humans. Plus adding radioactivity to the current waste of oil and plastics and chemicals and debris in the Pacific Ocean could have some further consequences we can’t yet fathom.


Note the words “possible” and “could” in these statements. They are tentative. The stated consequences might happen. They “could” be worse, or they “may” not be so bad. Or even they “might” yet be ameliorated by Mother Earth somehow. Who knows for sure? However, this scientist has learned that speaking tentatively on environmental issues yields a low return on political action in proactive protection of the environment: the public—and the politicians elected by the public—won’t pay attention to such tentative talk.

If the end of effective environmental action justifies the means of overstating the outcome and framing it as a 100% possibility, then all is well. The only problem is that when the sky doesn’t actually fall, a significant sector of the public becomes skeptical of future scientific claims of this extreme (though some of them may indeed be true). With enough skepticism from the public, politicians are swayed to delay effective and much needed environmental reforms.

So here’s the first of two paradoxes: sky-is-falling, fear mongering approaches have marketing appeal to get public attention and discourse. They can generate a small army of activists willing to march in the streets, write letters to politicians, and post graphics all over the internet. But such fear mongering also indirectly induces a counter force of scientific skepticism which then hinders an otherwise appropriate political movement. It becomes a case of four steps forward and three back.

The scientist could be more realistic with his statements. He could state the outcomes are only possibilities, and they may not be that severe. He could provide a thorough societal risk analysis that weighs the pros and cons of several possibilities—and looks beyond the first order of ramifications. But such talk will never make it very far in the media. The public will tune out rather readily—and the good cause goes no further.

Hence comes the second paradox: it is better for scientific fear mongering to move public opinion slowly in the right direction rather than for more realistic science to move it nowhere. We have to admit that this scientist has been one of the most influential people in the world in the environmentalist movement—even though his science is sometimes not very good. Maybe he knows what he is doing.

What a strange world we live in when we must distort the truth to find the truth!
 

Jack Hays

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Except that you're not finding the truth, you're obscuring it.
 

Lord of Planar

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Note the words “possible” and “could” in these statements. They are tentative. The stated consequences might happen. They “could” be worse, or they “may” not be so bad. Or even they “might” yet be ameliorated by Mother Earth somehow. Who knows for sure? However, this scientist has learned that speaking tentatively on environmental issues yields a low return on political action in proactive protection of the environment: the public—and the politicians elected by the public—won’t pay attention to such tentative talk.

If the end of effective environmental action justifies the means of overstating the outcome and framing it as a 100% possibility, then all is well. The only problem is that when the sky doesn’t actually fall, a significant sector of the public becomes skeptical of future scientific claims of this extreme (though some of them may indeed be true). With enough skepticism from the public, politicians are swayed to delay effective and much needed environmental reforms.

This is why there is no trust in the climate sciences any more.
 

Tim the plumber

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We need a law that says lie and call it science then go to jail.
 

TDGonDP

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We need a law that says lie and call it science then go to jail.

In this case, such as law might be useful. But it should also be applied to other aspects of society, not just science.

Then comes that "freedom of free speech" thing again. Maybe it's better to let this scientist spout off.
 

Tim the plumber

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In this case, such as law might be useful. But it should also be applied to other aspects of society, not just science.

Then comes that "freedom of free speech" thing again. Maybe it's better to let this scientist spout off.

Generally it is in the case of fraud.

However to regulate all social interactions in that way you not allow many people to opperate. Thus it is impracticle.

It could be done with science though.
 

TDGonDP

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Generally it is in the case of fraud.

However to regulate all social interactions in that way you not allow many people to opperate. Thus it is impracticle.

It could be done with science though.

Who would judge which scientists are fraudsters?

If we leave it the general public, their understanding of how science is supposed to be conducted is not sufficient to make this call. If we leave it to panels of scientists, they too can fall under the spell of political correctness to further their careers.

This particular scientist has made more than a few bad claims. But he has also made many right calls, effecting good questions that require good answers. If he were a total fool, he wouldn't be where he is today. Do we throw the baby out with the bath water?

And if we can do this for science, we can also do it for political reporting.

Best to let this scientist spout off--and let people make up their own mind.
 

Tim the plumber

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Who would judge which scientists are fraudsters?

If we leave it the general public, their understanding of how science is supposed to be conducted is not sufficient to make this call. If we leave it to panels of scientists, they too can fall under the spell of political correctness to further their careers.

This particular scientist has made more than a few bad claims. But he has also made many right calls, effecting good questions that require good answers. If he were a total fool, he wouldn't be where he is today. Do we throw the baby out with the bath water?

And if we can do this for science, we can also do it for political reporting.

Best to let this scientist spout off--and let people make up their own mind.

This argument is equally not true for all cases of complex fraud.

For cases where a financial advisor has given the worng advice he can be charged here in the UK. If an advertiser lies about a scientific claim on a product they can be charged. Even if they make unfounded claims. Even if the claims they make are not generally supported.

This proposed law would have a bar considerably higher to pass than that. The state would have to show that the person has deliberately lied or mislead.
 

TDGonDP

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This argument is equally not true for all cases of complex fraud.

For cases where a financial advisor has given the worng advice he can be charged here in the UK. If an advertiser lies about a scientific claim on a product they can be charged. Even if they make unfounded claims. Even if the claims they make are not generally supported.

This proposed law would have a bar considerably higher to pass than that. The state would have to show that the person has deliberately lied or mislead.

Interesting points. We would have to be very careful going in this direction.
 

Tim the plumber

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Interesting points. We would have to be very careful going in this direction.

Yes, the bar would be very high. Very very difficult to show that a scientist was lying given that he could always have been mystaken and I would further have a devils advocate clause where if he had pre-informed the ethics committe then he could, if public policy was not going to be effected, present an argument he thought was beaten but needed fully defeating. See group selection.
 

Lord of Planar

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Yes, the bar would be very high. Very very difficult to show that a scientist was lying given that he could always have been mystaken and I would further have a devils advocate clause where if he had pre-informed the ethics committe then he could, if public policy was not going to be effected, present an argument he thought was beaten but needed fully defeating. See group selection.

At the same time, some ethics committee should perhaps question scientists on their outcomes.

Any time they make a paper that says something like "if we assume..." then some pundits claims the results as fact, this should be brought to the publishers attention, and an explanation is in order.
 

Tim the plumber

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At the same time, some ethics committee should perhaps question scientists on their outcomes.

Any time they make a paper that says something like "if we assume..." then some pundits claims the results as fact, this should be brought to the publishers attention, and an explanation is in order.

Well, you have hit the big nail on the head.

If we assume... Pundit "The sky is falling". The pundit lied. Pundit would be on very thin ice unless he got the scientist to sign off on his stuff before publishing. The question of why he did not run it past the scientist would hang heavy in the court. If you are doing an attack thing against the scientist then you would not expect to get their approval but if you are doing a co-operative thing then why would you not get them to run through the finished thing? Unless you were lying.
 

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Well, you have hit the big nail on the head.

If we assume... Pundit "The sky is falling". The pundit lied. Pundit would be on very thin ice unless he got the scientist to sign off on his stuff before publishing. The question of why he did not run it past the scientist would hang heavy in the court. If you are doing an attack thing against the scientist then you would not expect to get their approval but if you are doing a co-operative thing then why would you not get them to run through the finished thing? Unless you were lying.
I see something often like with the sea level predictions, the study will say something like "The range of expected sea level rise
is between .2 and 2 meters by 2100, and the article will phrase it like, Scientist say the sea level could raise by as much as 2 meters.
The upper boundary is then stated as the prediction.
This is then leveraged by using an unrealistic RCP scenario like 8.5 as the basis of the predictions.
 

Tim the plumber

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I see something often like with the sea level predictions, the study will say something like "The range of expected sea level rise
is between .2 and 2 meters by 2100, and the article will phrase it like, Scientist say the sea level could raise by as much as 2 meters.
The upper boundary is then stated as the prediction.
This is then leveraged by using an unrealistic RCP scenario like 8.5 as the basis of the predictions.

Yep. Jail time.
 

longview

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Yep. Jail time.
Not exactly, what they stated is technically, correct, we need to educated our children to be skeptical
of extraordinary claims, and to always look to the source material.
It is easy to see that a tabloid headline should cause skepticism, but not so easy when
the mainstream media is stating hyperbole.
Everyone should have a good BS meter, but most do not.
 

TDGonDP

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Yep. Jail time.

This is very good conversation here. We should consider jail time when claims are exaggerated on the grounds that people's opinions are going to be influenced by such "credible" people. However, we should also move this into other fields as well. Politics for starters. And medicine, which is really an offshoot of science.

On a different note, maybe we got to this state because the public is really not well educated on usage of basic probability, let alone statistics. Maybe because there is a 0.0005% chance that sea levels will rise by 8.5 by 2100, that scientist could claim he is indeed right--and thereby he would be exonerated in court even though he kind of framed 0.0005% as being 100%. For much of the public, issues have to be framed as 0% or 100%, there is little in between. But the reality is the truth is somewhere in between---and nobody knows for sure until the experiment has been completed.
 

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Well, you have hit the big nail on the head.

If we assume... Pundit "The sky is falling". The pundit lied. Pundit would be on very thin ice unless he got the scientist to sign off on his stuff before publishing. The question of why he did not run it past the scientist would hang heavy in the court. If you are doing an attack thing against the scientist then you would not expect to get their approval but if you are doing a co-operative thing then why would you not get them to run through the finished thing? Unless you were lying.

I lost count of how many times I pointed out that climate papers often use assumes values and formulas for publication. The scientist is not lying. They are clear in their methodology. The pundits, however, lie lie lie...
 

Lord of Planar

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Not exactly, what they stated is technically, correct, we need to educated our children to be skeptical
of extraordinary claims, and to always look to the source material.
It is easy to see that a tabloid headline should cause skepticism, but not so easy when
the mainstream media is stating hyperbole.
Everyone should have a good BS meter, but most do not.

And that's another thing I have pointed out. Technically correct is often what we live with in science papers. However, a science paper of unbiased value will use the best word that fits, rather than a word they can weasel in for creating a certain assumed condition.

Words have meaning!
 

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A prominent scientist has issued a warning for governments to evacuate the west coasts of North and South America because of the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant:

David Suzuki's Fukushima Warning Is Dire And Scary (VIDEO) | HuffPost Canada

Obviously governments are not going to do this. Other not-so-well known scientists have denounced this claim. And those of us who remember C1V1=C2V2 in our high school chemistry should realize that all the radioactive waste of Fukushima cannot contaminate the Pacific Ocean to the extent of being uninhabitable for humans. Why, then, would this scientist be making this kind of claim?

Let us all agree with the scientist that radioactive material should not be entering the Pacific Ocean. Some possible results are the upsetting of certain ecosystems and contamination of the food chain for humans. Plus adding radioactivity to the current waste of oil and plastics and chemicals and debris in the Pacific Ocean could have some further consequences we can’t yet fathom.


Note the words “possible” and “could” in these statements. They are tentative. The stated consequences might happen. They “could” be worse, or they “may” not be so bad. Or even they “might” yet be ameliorated by Mother Earth somehow. Who knows for sure? However, this scientist has learned that speaking tentatively on environmental issues yields a low return on political action in proactive protection of the environment: the public—and the politicians elected by the public—won’t pay attention to such tentative talk.

If the end of effective environmental action justifies the means of overstating the outcome and framing it as a 100% possibility, then all is well. The only problem is that when the sky doesn’t actually fall, a significant sector of the public becomes skeptical of future scientific claims of this extreme (though some of them may indeed be true). With enough skepticism from the public, politicians are swayed to delay effective and much needed environmental reforms.

So here’s the first of two paradoxes: sky-is-falling, fear mongering approaches have marketing appeal to get public attention and discourse. They can generate a small army of activists willing to march in the streets, write letters to politicians, and post graphics all over the internet. But such fear mongering also indirectly induces a counter force of scientific skepticism which then hinders an otherwise appropriate political movement. It becomes a case of four steps forward and three back.

The scientist could be more realistic with his statements. He could state the outcomes are only possibilities, and they may not be that severe. He could provide a thorough societal risk analysis that weighs the pros and cons of several possibilities—and looks beyond the first order of ramifications. But such talk will never make it very far in the media. The public will tune out rather readily—and the good cause goes no further.

Hence comes the second paradox: it is better for scientific fear mongering to move public opinion slowly in the right direction rather than for more realistic science to move it nowhere. We have to admit that this scientist has been one of the most influential people in the world in the environmentalist movement—even though his science is sometimes not very good. Maybe he knows what he is doing.

What a strange world we live in when we must distort the truth to find the truth!

Everything is relative. That radioactive contamination is approaching the West coast of the Americas by air and sea is a fact. I believe they found trace amounts of cesium off the coast of Washington state as early as 2015. Now, does that mean everyone will die? No. But, it certainly is not a good thing.
 

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More government involvement in the sciences is the cause of the problems, not the solution.

If you are house suvayor and lie you are liable for your report.

I as a gas fitter am liable for any gas appliance in the house even if I did not go into the room it is in.

A mechanic is liable for his work. If the brakes fail due to poor workmanship he is liable.

A scientist should have a degree of responsibility to be honest. Science is far too powerful to allow the conartist to have free reign.
 

Tim the plumber

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This is very good conversation here. We should consider jail time when claims are exaggerated on the grounds that people's opinions are going to be influenced by such "credible" people. However, we should also move this into other fields as well. Politics for starters. And medicine, which is really an offshoot of science.

On a different note, maybe we got to this state because the public is really not well educated on usage of basic probability, let alone statistics. Maybe because there is a 0.0005% chance that sea levels will rise by 8.5 by 2100, that scientist could claim he is indeed right--and thereby he would be exonerated in court even though he kind of framed 0.0005% as being 100%. For much of the public, issues have to be framed as 0% or 100%, there is little in between. But the reality is the truth is somewhere in between---and nobody knows for sure until the experiment has been completed.

I think you are worring about an extreme of the situation. The issue will only be there if the state can show that the person presenting the science knows it is false beyond reasonable doubt.

A very high bar for the scientists. A low bar for those who would distort other people's work as it would be very obvious when the scienist concearned said that this was not what he had said.
 

Tim the plumber

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I lost count of how many times I pointed out that climate papers often use assumes values and formulas for publication. The scientist is not lying. They are clear in their methodology. The pundits, however, lie lie lie...

Yep, that would not be an attempt to eliminate all bias. Just stop the blatant lying, That should do 90% of the needed work and the rest would not matter. The good stuff would be able to be ther with confidence and the dodgy stuff elluding to and implying doom would look weak.
 

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A prominent scientist has issued a warning for governments to evacuate the west coasts of North and South America because of the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant:

David Suzuki's Fukushima Warning Is Dire And Scary (VIDEO) | HuffPost Canada

Obviously governments are not going to do this. Other not-so-well known scientists have denounced this claim. And those of us who remember C1V1=C2V2 in our high school chemistry should realize that all the radioactive waste of Fukushima cannot contaminate the Pacific Ocean to the extent of being uninhabitable for humans. Why, then, would this scientist be making this kind of claim?

Let us all agree with the scientist that radioactive material should not be entering the Pacific Ocean. Some possible results are the upsetting of certain ecosystems and contamination of the food chain for humans. Plus adding radioactivity to the current waste of oil and plastics and chemicals and debris in the Pacific Ocean could have some further consequences we can’t yet fathom.


Note the words “possible” and “could” in these statements. They are tentative. The stated consequences might happen. They “could” be worse, or they “may” not be so bad. Or even they “might” yet be ameliorated by Mother Earth somehow. Who knows for sure? However, this scientist has learned that speaking tentatively on environmental issues yields a low return on political action in proactive protection of the environment: the public—and the politicians elected by the public—won’t pay attention to such tentative talk.

If the end of effective environmental action justifies the means of overstating the outcome and framing it as a 100% possibility, then all is well. The only problem is that when the sky doesn’t actually fall, a significant sector of the public becomes skeptical of future scientific claims of this extreme (though some of them may indeed be true). With enough skepticism from the public, politicians are swayed to delay effective and much needed environmental reforms.

So here’s the first of two paradoxes: sky-is-falling, fear mongering approaches have marketing appeal to get public attention and discourse. They can generate a small army of activists willing to march in the streets, write letters to politicians, and post graphics all over the internet. But such fear mongering also indirectly induces a counter force of scientific skepticism which then hinders an otherwise appropriate political movement. It becomes a case of four steps forward and three back.

The scientist could be more realistic with his statements. He could state the outcomes are only possibilities, and they may not be that severe. He could provide a thorough societal risk analysis that weighs the pros and cons of several possibilities—and looks beyond the first order of ramifications. But such talk will never make it very far in the media. The public will tune out rather readily—and the good cause goes no further.

Hence comes the second paradox: it is better for scientific fear mongering to move public opinion slowly in the right direction rather than for more realistic science to move it nowhere. We have to admit that this scientist has been one of the most influential people in the world in the environmentalist movement—even though his science is sometimes not very good. Maybe he knows what he is doing.

What a strange world we live in when we must distort the truth to find the truth!

"Fukushima" is what a nuclear plant maintenance worker shouts when he stubs his toe.
 
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