Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Golden Goose Versus the Golden Fleece, Part I

By Rich Kozlovich
Recently Dan Moreland of Pest Control Technology published an article on September 26th, 2013, declaring, Scientists Deserve Our Respect, Not Our Ridicule”!  The truth is there are so many logical fallacies in this article I can’t list them all, but I’ll do my best. 
Dan goes on to tell us about a scientist by the name of Dr. John Eng, who received the ‘Golden Goose Award’ because of his research to help diabetics.  Anyone who knows someone who suffers from this affliction has to be grateful for his efforts, because these people truly suffer as they age.  He and his associates “discovered that the venom of some animals can impact the human pancreas”.  In the end the work he and his colleagues did with the saliva of Gila allowed them to develop a compound that stimulated the pancreas, helping to prevent those “debilitating health problems from blindness and nerve damage to kidney failure and heart disease.” And they should be commended!  He clearly deserved the recognition he received.  So what’s fallacious about that?  Nothing, if that was all there was to the article.  Let’s explore this. 
After outlining the recognition this man so richly deserved Dan goes on to discuss the “Golden Fleece Award” that Senator Proxmire (I know, most of you are too young to remember him) presented to those whom he felt wasted government money, including grant money to academia.   While the “Golden Goose Award” is presented positively, The “Golden Fleece Award” is presented negatively in this article.  That’s a logical fallacy known as an  incomplete comparison – “in which insufficient information is provided to make a complete comparison.”
The comparison made between the Golden Goose Award and the Golden Fleece Award also gives way to a fallacious logic known as fallacy of division – assuming that something true of a thing must also be true of all or some of its parts.” 
Just because Eng was deserving doesn’t mean everyone else who portrays themself as a 'scientist' is deserving - of awards that is.  They are certainly deserving of things commensurate with their work - which I will discuss in a later article - and receiving awards isn't among them.   The implication from Dan is that scientists as a whole are being treated unfairly. You may wish to view the false dilemma fallacy (false dichotomy, fallacy of bifurcation, black-or-white fallacy) – two alternative statements are held to be the only possible options, when in reality there are more. 

Then to further enforce this line of false logic Dan states;
“Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and forward-thinking legislators like Congressmen Jim Cooper (D-TN) and Charlie Dent (R-PA), as well as our industry’s own Robert Dold Jr., who represented Illinois' 10th Congressional District from 2010-12, Eng’s work was honored at the “Golden Goose” Awards earlier this month in Washington, D.C……. “This was a bi-partisan effort to highlight the benefits of science,” Dold told PCT. “Frankly, we need to highlight all the great things that are occurring in the sciences so we are encouraging our young people to pursue careers that find solutions to problems.”
“Dr. Eng’s research demonstrates the necessity of federally supported basic research,” added Rep. Dent. “In 1992, there was no way of knowing that Gila monster venom contained a compound that would one day change the lives of millions of diabetics. We owe it to future generations to lay the groundwork now for tomorrow’s breakthroughs.”
“Dr. Eng’s research shows that we can’t abandon science funding only because we don’t know where it might lead,” said Rep. Cooper.
While Cooper acknowledges that ‘not every dollar’ is spent worthily he claims he chooses to “support those men and women who think differently about the world, who look at a Gila monster and don’t simply see a common lizard, but a creature with untapped scientific possibilities that could have a positive impact on the health of millions of people around the globe.”
Okay, let’s explore this.  First of all claiming that “legislators like Congressmen like Cooper, Dent and “our industry’s own Robert Dold Jr.,” support this is a logical fallacy known as an appeal to authority, “where an assertion is deemed true because of the position or authority of the person asserting it”    Perhaps all these politicos also believe in standing on a hill and waving a flag that says “I stand foursquare for consensus”.  Well quite frankly, I don’t care what they think because - it isn’t their money.  Its money we don’t have, and the most disturbing thing is most of this borrowed money we give to academia is wasted in a big way, which I will demonstrate in a follow up article.  And consensus isn’t science, its politics. 
He goes on to call them “forward-thinking”, which clearly implies that those who disagree are backward thinking.  And naturally, that makes him and those who agree with him just a little better than those who don’t agree, committing another logical fallacy known asmoral high ground fallacy – in which a person assumes a "holier-than-thou" attitude in an attempt to make himself look good to win an argument.”  Is this rhetoric of going “forward” in fact steps backward?  I will address this later in the article.
The reality is the very foundations for Dan’s article, and apparently his views on this subject, are founded on another fallacy known as cherry picking (suppressed evidence, incomplete evidence) – act of pointing at individual cases or data that seem to confirm a particular position, while ignoring a significant portion of related cases or data that may contradict that position.”
The basis for this article is a false analogy – an argument by analogy in which the analogy is poorly suited, and he clearly made a hasty generalization (fallacy of insufficient statistics, fallacy of insufficient sample, fallacy of the lonely fact, leaping to a conclusion, hasty induction, secundum quid, converse accident) – basing a broad conclusion on a small sample.”
While I think research grant money can be an important step toward human progress in medicine, as well as other disciplines; it’s my contention that the vast majority of it amounts to nothing more than academic welfare.   
Many years ago 60 Minutes Morley Safer interviewed a ‘scientist’ who received a $100,000 grant ( that was when $100,000 was really a lot of money) to show that people really liked parks, especially when they had grass, trees, streams, rocks, etc.  Safer said that to him this appeared to be nothing more than academic welfare?  I could have told them all of that without charge.  But even more important, just how valid are all these studies on which we have spent billions and impact public policy?
A friend of mine, Dr. Jay Lehr, one of the original group that helped create the EPA and its foundational pieces of legislation, co-wrote the book titled, The Fluoride Wars.  He noted over the years there had been thousands of studies regarding fluoride and the impact it may play on human health, many of them conflicting, and many of them with methodological flaws.  A team of researchers attempted to establish a minimum acceptable set of standards for the inclusion of a study in their assessments.  Among those from York University found only 214 studies out of the thousands that have appeared in print during the period 1951 – 1999 that met their acceptance criteria, and of these, only 26 provided a defensible analysis of the direct impact of fluoridation on dental caries. 
Twenty six out of literally thousands were found worthwhile.  There are two questions that need to be asked now.  First, what was the reaction from the anti-fluoride crowd, and secondly, is this pattern repeated over and over again. 
First of all, no study – no matter how well done, no matter how many times it’s replicated, no matter how much evidence we see with our own eyes that supports its conclusions will be acceptable to activists, if it doesn't support their views.  One of the anti-fluoride activist leaders, Don Caron, stated;
“I guess the York study wasn’t actually a study as studies go,” he wrote, “because this study didn’t study animals or people, it simply studied studies.  Although this was touted to be the study to end all studies, almost immediately both the green party and Fluoride Action Network published their studies of the York study that studied the studies pointed out that this study that studied the studies had left some 3000 studies unstudied, and they called for a study of studies that would study all studies and therefore not necessitate a further study of the study of the studies as the study had done.”
The authors of this study expected kudos for taking a network of foggy studies and creating as system that would lend clarity to this issue in hopes of developing understanding.  Instead they received ridicule.  The point is this – studies may generate money – but they don’t necessarily generate facts or understanding, and there sure seems to be a large majority within the scientific community that doesn’t care, because 'truth' isn't the holy grail of science.  Its grant money!
So then, who are the forward thinkers here, and what award should the majority of these people of science receive?   The Golden Goose or the Golden Fleece?   Respect or ridicule?  I will deal with that in a much larger way in following articles.  And the answer to the second question – Yes! 

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