Of course, pigs can fly; you can find photos of it on the internet/Wikimedia Commons
Anyone who has been paying attention since the pandemic started has surely noticed that “science,” much as today’s journalism, has become loaded with speculation disguised as fact, but there is some good news in a study out of Princeton University.
It suggests that despite all the ranting and fear-mongering about how susceptible to “fake news,” the average American everywoman and everyman, the collective of them who form that “cloud” in the internet might be smarter than the nation’s professional and ruling classes think.
Princeton researchers looking at the history of “retracted” scientific papers – those found so so flawed as to be unreplicable and thus likely bullshit (for lack of a better word) – discovered that “discussions on social media express more criticism toward subsequently retracted results” than do scientific forums and, of course, journalists.
The latter have a good and legitimate excuse for their lack of questioning. Most of them have no training in the sciences, and thus their scientific literacy tends to be at or below that of average Americans who, when the Pew Research Center tested them in 2019, didn’t do well.
About a third qualified as having some understanding of science with about a third more scientifically illiterate.
“Roughly one-third (32 percent) are classified as having medium science knowledge (five to eight correct answers),” Pew reported, “and about three-in-ten (29 percent) are in the low science knowledge group (zero to four correct answers).”
Pew also concluded that “Republicans and Democrats are about equally knowledgeable,” (God forbid) but did not look specifically at journalists. Judging from the East Coast-based coverage of Alaska affairs one could, however, surely put journalists with the three in ten with low science knowledge.
And these are the folks who regularly like to promote themselves as America’s “fact checkers.”
The supposed pillar of American journalism, the New York Times, in 2018 headlined that “A Dwindling (Salmon) Catch Has Alaskans Uneasy” in a period when scientists were reporting more salmon, especially Alaska salmon, in the North Pacific Ocean than at any time in recorded history.
A year later, The Nation, a Progressive publication, put “The Last Salmon” on its cover while declaring “Bristol Bay “one of Alaska’s few healthy salmon habitats” and pondering whether the fish there could “survive the twin threats of a rapidly changing climate and a massive, Trump-backed mine.”
The Nation story was so over the top that Alaska Commissioner of Fish and Game Doug Vincent-Lang pushed back with the simple observation that Alaska is now producing more salmon than ever.
Bristol Bay is this year headed toward an unheard-of return of more than 75 million sockeye, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which noted that “this is 44 percent larger than the most recent 10-year average of Bristol Bay total runs (52.09 million) and 111 percent greater than the long-term (1963–2021) average of 35.73 million fish.”
This is happening not because a warming climate is threatening the fish, but because global warming is benefiting the fish. That could change. The future is hard to predict. Ocean waters could warm to a point that the fish suffer, but there is no sign of that so far in the Bay.
Some Gulf of Alaska runs of some salmon species are struggling, but whether that is due to warming or the competition from prolific pink salmon whose numbers have been hugely boosted by Alaska salmon hatcheries and a state policy of managing wild pinks for maximum sustained yield, or some combination of the warmer water and overall management practices, remains a big unknown.
What is factually documented is that the average, annual Alaska salmon harvests have gone up and up and up for every decade since the 1970s, and they have done so because, overall, the North Pacific is producing more salmon than ever even if some of them – those “mild” tasting pink salmon – are not the species salmon connoisseurs might prefer.
Many, if not most, Alaskans were likely able to see through the nonsense of the NYT in 2018 and The Nation in 2019, and the Princeton study, published in the peer-reviewed Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), would indicate they were likely not alone.
Power in numbers
Given the observations of the Princeton researchers, there is even some reason to hope that the quarter of Americans former presidential candidate Hilary Clinton placed in that “basket of deplorables…the racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it” of Americans, are still capable of some critical thinking no matter what prejudices they might possess.
“Our analysis of (science) papers’ critical mentions indicates that subsequently retracted papers are questioned relatively more often on Twitter after their publication than control papers,” the Princeton researchers found. “This is nontrivial since retracted papers passed the peer review system that science relies on to legitimize new findings through expert evaluation. Our finding validates at a population-wide scale a recent case study of three retracted COVID-19 papers in suggesting that collective attention on Twitter includes meaningful discussions about science and may contain useful early signals related to problematic papers that could eventually contribute to their investigation.”
Twitter, the sewer of the tubes, proving useful for detected bad science might at first seem surprising, but it probably shouldn’t be if you factor in the infinite monkey theorem.
The infinite monkey theorem holds, according to Harvard University, “that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter given an infinite amount of time will eventually write the completed works of William Shakespeare. While the example text varies from saying to saying – sometimes replaced with Hamlet or the King James Bible – the essence remains the same. Because there are a finite number of characters on a keyboard and thus finite combinations of those keys, it can be said with certainty that an infinite span of time will result in every single one of those permutations of characters being typed. The theorem has applications everywhere from probability to evolution to multiverse theories.”
The theorem is to some degree nonsense. No gang of monkeys is going to replicate the works of Shakespeare, but literature isn’t science.
Literature is about telling great stories. Science is more about asking great questions, and here the infinite monkey theorem has greater applicability because even a group of morons can sometimes come up with a great question or two.
And said group of morons might actually be better at coming up with an outside-the-box question than the experts working in a box because it is in the nature of intellectual boxes to encourage “groupthink,” a now well-studied and documented human phenomenon.
“The term ‘groupthink’ was first introduced in the November 1971 issue of Psychology Today by psychologist Irving Janis,” according to that publication today. “Janis had conducted extensive research on group decision-making under conditions of stress.
“Since then, Janis and other researchers have found that in a situation that can be characterized as groupthink, individuals tend to refrain from expressing doubts and judgments or disagreeing with the consensus. In the interest of making a decision that furthers their group cause, members may also ignore ethical or moral consequences. While it is often invoked at the level of geopolitics or within business organizations, groupthink can also refer to subtler processes of social or ideological conformity, such as participating in bullying or rationalizing a poor decision being made by one’s friends.”
Groupthink was perfectly illustrated early in the pandemic when Francis Collins, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Health, and Anthony Fauci, America’s Covid-19 czar under both former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden, embraced, according to their emails, “a quick and devastating published takedown” of the suggestion there were better ways to deal with the pandemic than lockdowns and school closures.
“At that time,” Dr. Vinay Prasad later observed at StatNews, “Americans would have benefited from a broad debate among scientists about the available policy options for controlling the Covid-19 pandemic, and perhaps a bit of compromise. The emails tell us why that isn’t what we got.”
What America got instead was a bunch of people screaming “listen to the scientists,” when what they were actually preaching was “listen to those in authority.”
The intentions of those in authority were, of course, good. Fauci, Collins and their circle were confident they had the answer to ridding the world of the Covid-19-causing SARS-CoV-2 virus even after it became clear nobody was going to rid the world of this new pathogen.
Like several related coronaviruses and a mob of rhinoviruses associated with the so-called “common cold” and the influenza virus, SARS-CoV-2 illustrated its survivability early on as it began rapidly mutating and jumping from humans to other mammals – mink, whitetail deer, dogs and cats, and more.
Since then, the mutations have only continued with the latest variants of the virus – BA.4 and BA.5 – showing themselves adept at infecting the vaccinated.
“So if upcoming vaccines are based on the original Omicron, called BA.1, there is a real possibility that by the time they are rolled out later this year, circulating Omicron strains will be different. ‘BA.1 is yesterday’s news,’ says John Beigel, a physician-scientist at the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in Bethesda, Maryland, who is leading a trial of potential vaccine updates.
“It is also possible – and some scientists say likely – that an entirely new variant will pop up from a distant part of the SARS-CoV-2 family tree. ‘My concern is that there’s this huge focus on Omicron, and the assumption that Omicron is what we will be dealing with in the future,’ says Penny Moore, a virologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. ‘We have a strong track record of getting that wrong.’
“As a result of such uncertainty, scientists say the next COVID-19 vaccines need to cast a wide net, ideally eliciting an immune response that can recognize variants past, present and future. ‘The broadest response is definitely what I want,’ says Deming.”
Many, if not most, scientists now believe that broad defense would come in boosting the body’s natural T-cell defenses against disease. Exercise has long been shown to do this naturally, but there has been no national effort to accordingly boost exercise.
President Biden in April suggested that would be a good idea and then largely fobbed it off with the observation that “socioeconomic disparities, including a lack of opportunities to participate in sports and fitness programs, have exacerbated the problem. The environments where people live, learn, work, and play also affect physical activity. Other barriers to regular physical activity, such as time, money, safety, and accessibility, impact the health and well-being of children and adults in every community.”
One way to help remedy that situation might be to invest in the infrastructure that encourages people to get out of their motor vehicles and move around under human power, which along with helping boost their T-cells would cut down on emissions of greenhouse gases.
But no one in the U.S. government seems to have the guts to suggest this. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, has a government-funded “Active Travel” agency committed to making “sure getting around our towns and cities on foot or by bike is an easy and attractive option.”
Maybe while all the U.S. experts continue to chase new vaccines, some of the noobs in the tubes could offer them some insights on the healths science these experts have overlooked or chosen to ignore, the science that promises significant health benefits not just on the Covid-19 front but on a wide variety of health fronts.
Increased risks for dozens of diseases have now been linked to lack of exercise, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control calculates “$117 billion in annual health care costs are related to low physical activity.”
That $117 billion estimate came pre-Covid 19. Since then the costs and deaths associated with lack of fitness have only increased. The Covid-19 risks of lack of exercise have been known since early in the pandemic when researchers in the United Kingdom noted the difference in hospitalization and death rates between slow walkers and fast walkers.
Walking pace is a simple measure of fitness, and the researchers found slow walkers were at nearly twice the risk of Covid-19 as fast walkers, and that being fit even offered protection against the Covid-19 compounding co-morbidity of obesity.
“…Compared to normal weight brisk walkers, the odds of severe Covid-19 in obese brisk walkers was 1.39 (greater), whereas the odds in normal weight slow walkers was 2.48,” they reported at MedRxiv, the preprint server for health studies, in July 2020 when partsof the world were still locking people down instead of telling them to get out in some clean, safe, fresh air and exercise.
The study was published in the peer-reviewed International Journal of Obesity about 10 months later. It was never retracted. It was largely just ignored.
The Princeton researchers did not delve into this problem related to scientific research. But they did warn that in the upside down world of today it is the bad research, the research later retracted, that gets the most attention.
“Our study shows that retracted papers attract more attention after publication than comparable nonretracted papers across a variety of online platforms, including social and news media, blogs, and knowledge repositories,” they concluded. “Moreover, their popularity surplus relative to nonretracted papers tends to be higher on curated than noncurated platforms. On the platform accountable for most mentions of research papers, retracted papers remain mentioned more often, even after excluding critical tweets. These findings suggest that retracted papers are disseminated widely and through multiple channels before they are eventually retracted, possibly spreading flawed findings throughout the scientific community and the lay public.”
The takeaway for the average American everywoman and everyman might thus be this:
It’s a good idea to listen to the scientists. Many of them know much. But don’t take what they say as gospel. They’re scientists, not high priests. They are invariably better informed than the average blabbermouth pontificating at the bar, but that doesn’t mean they always get it right.
So think critically about what they say in the same way you should now be thinking critically about a lot of the nonsense passed off as journalism.