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First they came for the communists,
but I was not a communist, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the socialists
and the trade unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they
came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew, so I did not speak out. And when they
came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.
– Pastor Martin Niemoeller.
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|Fooling with the Data - Thursday, March 11, 2010
Fooling with the Data
From the 2000 Election to Climategate
David C. Stolinsky, MD
What do the 2000 election and global warming have in common? At first glance, we might say nothing. But on reflection, we see something of fundamental importance. The underlying problem is not merely a dispute about the reality of the situation, but a dispute about the nature of reality itself.
When we were growing up, if our mother read us a story, we waited to see how it came out. When we learned to read, we also unconsciously learned to accept the story as written. The same was true when we listened to radio programs or watched movies. In the early days of television, there were few stations, and changing channels required getting up and going to the set, so we usually watched the program to the end.
Now remote controls make changing channels easy, and there are many channels, so people “channel surf” whenever the program is unexciting. Today’s young people grow up in this environment, so their attention span is shorter. They “surf the Web.” There are interactive video games in which the player alters the outcome. And if the game gets boring, or if the player is losing, it’s easy to switch to a new game. Meanwhile, reading continues to decline.
Most people who grew up before the 1960s grew up in religious homes. As adults, we may have fallen away from the practices of our parents, but we remember the truths they imparted. Religion often plays a smaller or nonexistent role in child rearing today.
Not having been taught that there are great truths, the current generation may also have grown up without appreciating that there are lesser truths. With no authority higher than themselves, facts become subjective choices. Truth is downgraded into how they feel about something. There are many examples.
● Some minorities were underrepresented among college entrants. Did we expend money and effort to ensure that they were prepared for college by improving their primary and secondary schools? No, we added subjective criteria, so we could admit students whether or not they were prepared for college − with a resulting high dropout rate. And when SAT scores fell, did we improve the schools? No, we “renormed” the SAT to conceal the decline.
● Environmentalists won out over safety advocates, so Congress pushed for smaller cars despite their higher injury rate. But the truth was obscured by renaming large cars “very large,” medium-sized cars “large,” compact cars “midsize,” and subcompacts “small.” The leading consumer magazine ignores the poorer safety record of small cars. We may die in a car crash, but we’ll die “green.”
● Suicide among people ages 15-24 was more common in Seattle than in Vancouver. But overall suicide rates were nearly identical for both cities, because suicide among people ages 35-44 was more common in Vancouver. But a leading medical journal published a “study” claiming that Vancouver’s stricter gun laws prevent suicide. Of course, the journal did not add that if gun laws “prevent” suicides in younger people, they must “cause” suicides in older people. If the journal is biased and unreliable in this area, how can we know whether it is trustworthy in others? For example, can we trust its advice on childhood immunizations?
● Many people saw nothing wrong with changing the rules after the 2000 Florida election results were known, or with “correcting” the results to yield the “right” answer. They believed that facts can be altered as desired. They attempted to deconstruct reality itself by counting “hanging chads,” “dimpled chads” and even “pregnant chads.” They pretended to sense the “intent” of voters, while changing the rules to obtain the desired result − that Gore would win.
The mainstream media told us that the people who wanted to continue “correcting” until Gore won were the honest ones, while the people who wanted to accept the “uncorrected” results were cheaters. The ploy is to alter our perceptions, until we ignore what is actually happening and accept the alteration as reality. This works some of the time on everyone, and even more often on younger people, who were raised on fleeting electronic images.
But how did they know when to stop “correcting”? When a researcher presented “corrected” data to Richard Feynman, Nobel laureate in physics, Feynman was sure to ask how he knew when to stop “correcting,” or if he knew beforehand which way the “correction” would move the result. A real correction gets rid of known errors. A phony “correction” alters results to make them into what the person wanted in the first place.
● This brings us to global warming. It seems clear that there was a Medieval Warm Period, which was as warm as or warmer than the present. It occurred, like warm periods in the more distant past, without any influence of human CO2 emissions. Then came the Little Ice Age, also without human intervention. It ended about 1850, and then temperatures began to rise.
That’s where the trouble starts. If you take 1850 as the baseline, warming may seem impressive. But why take a cold year as baseline? If we take the Medieval Warm Period as baseline, recent warming is unimpressive.
But that’s not where the trouble ends. The climategate scandal has yet to be uncovered fully, but already we see “cherry-picking” of favorable data while ignoring opposing data. We see suppression of opposing scientific articles. We see using data from weather stations near cities, which are slowly encroached upon by heat-trapping buildings and streets, while neglecting data from rural stations, many of which were simply abandoned. We see “losing” records before they can be examined by impartial experts.
What are we to think when a leading advocate of global warming admits there has been no warming for 15 years, and the news is filled with reports of record snowfalls and record low temperatures − but at the same time, other scientists claim this January was the 4th warmest on record? Is it any wonder that many people are losing faith in the honesty of scientists, and in the integrity of science itself? Trust is precious, but very fragile. It takes years to build, but only a short time to destroy.
Global warming never killed anyone. But the loss of scientific integrity exemplified by climategate has killed people, mainly children. Thousands of children have not been vaccinated against preventable diseases, because their parents lost faith in anything scientists say. The parents are probably mistaken, but who can blame them? When scientists alter their results to suit a political agenda, they should expect to be trusted as little as we trust politicians − that is, hardly at all.
First we deconstructed law by disguising capricious decisions as “the law.” Then Democrats tried to deconstruct presidential elections by re-counting ballots until the “right” vote was obtained. Then leftists deconstructed the liberal arts by rewriting “history” to suit their agenda. Now activists are trying to deconstruct even the physical sciences by “correcting” climate data until the “right” result is obtained − that is, a result that justifies government regulation of every aspect of life.
Many people do not merely disagree on what the truth is, but − consciously or not − doubt that truth itself exists. Then it is futile to argue about whether something is a fact, or even to call someone a liar. The truth is whatever the individual, or whoever is in power, says it is today. Tomorrow it may be something else, just as Orwell predicted in his novel “1984.”
Elections, climate research and many other important areas are becoming like video games. If you don’t like the result, just start over and keep at it till you “win.” If reality isn’t to your liking, “correct” it. If the facts don’t fit your agenda, just push Delete and fabricate new “facts.” Of course, eventually the outside world brushes aside our illusions and forces us to confront reality. But then it may be too late.
A long time ago, someone asked, “What is truth?” We had better consider our answer carefully.
Dr. Stolinsky writes on political and social issues. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.