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Orthodoxy, Heresy, and Junk Science

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“What if everything we think we know about fighting influenza is wrong? What if flu vaccines do not protect people from dying—particularly the elderly, who account for 90 percent of deaths from seasonal flu? And what if the expensive antiviral drugs that the government has stockpiled over the past few years also have little, if any, power to reduce the number of people who die or are hospitalized?” -- Shannon Brownlee and Jeanne Lenzer; “Does the Vaccine Matter?”; The Atlantic; November 2009

“Some of the most prominent climate experts in Britain and America, seem so focused on winning the public-relations war that they exaggerate their certitude — and ultimately undermine their own cause.” -- John Tierney; “E-Mail Fracas Shows Peril of Trying to Spin Science;” The New York Times; December 1, 2009

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Travis says: You wrote in a previous column about how marketers use uncertainty to drive behavior; perhaps false certainty is an even more dangerous tactic.

Brownlee and Lenzer’s excellent piece in The Atlantic suggests that despite the faith that the public health community puts in the flu vaccine (whether for seasonal flu or H1N1), the evidence that flu vaccines are highly effective is scant or nonexistent. The best way to move forward would be to actually test the efficacy of the vaccine in randomized tests – with half the participants receiving a vaccine and half getting a placebo. The problem with such a plan is getting an Institutional Review Board to approve it. Many vaccine-promoters find the idea of withholding the vaccine from anyone (randomly or otherwise) as highly unethical. Brownlee and Lenzer point out that if the medical establishment is wrong about vaccine and antiretroviral effectiveness, this would hardly be the first time they backed the wrong horse. For example, the standard protocol for advanced breast cancer in the 1980s and 1990s, “high-dose chemotherapy followed by a bone-marrow transplant,” proved more dangerous than less aggressive therapy. “Trials, [oncologists] said, were unethical, because they knew [bone-marrow] transplants worked. When the studies were concluded, in 1999 and 2000, it turned out that bone-marrow transplants were killing patients.”

The “Climategate” controversy alluded to in the Tierney quote brings up similar issues. Emails illegally obtained from a leading research center in the United Kingdom indicate that some of the best-known climate scientists supporting the mainstream view, anthropogenic causation of global warming, have been less than forthright about their methods and conclusions. It seems that some of the people involved had a conclusion in mind before they undertook their analysis. To be clear, I had a flu shot, and I still believe in human-caused climate change, but the unwillingness of the establishment to engage heterodox views in the examples above are indeed disheartening.

We need a new ethic for basic research: “open-source science.” Researchers, especially when funded with public dollars, should make their work as transparent as possible. If the methods are robust and well-executed, the results will stand up to scrutiny. If evidence is cherry-picked to support a flawed theory, the truth will eventually out. Unfortunately, provocative conclusions build a reputation faster than methodological rigor. Research findings that challenge the prevalent view or fail to meet an arbitrary bar of “statistical significance” are relegated to third-tier journals or ignored completely.

Perhaps more importantly, the policy environment encourages scientists and other advisors to overstate their claims. If an honest climate researcher thinks that the most likely scenario is that unchecked emissions will result in serious negative consequences but allows for the possibility that outcomes might be milder, the opposition will focus on the uncertainty and ignore the point estimate. In another example, I well remember the certitude expressed in the lead-up to the latest Iraq war that Saddam Hussein had an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction ready to deploy at a moment’s notice. To question such a notion was heresy and marked the doubter as unpatriotic or worse. (I am not trying to pick a fight here, I just want to point out that while a case could have been made that Saddam was a bad guy and we had to take him out before he could do any more harm to innocent Iraqis, that was not the argument used to sell the war to Congress and the American people. We were told there was an imminent threat to the United States, a claim that, in retrospect, seems to have been overstated – at best.)
 
In any pressing policy arena, the best approach is to move forward with today’s information but be willing to change course as better data becomes available. If we wait until The Maldives are under water it will be too late to save them; if we don’t engage Iran seriously until they build a huge nuclear arsenal, our bargaining position will be greatly reduced. In the real world, we have to make tough choices with incomplete information.

Getting to the world of business, my questions to you are these: What can businesses do to maintain a flexible approach? What are some orthodox views that the pulp and paper industry holds that you question? How can we motivate researchers to do top-notch work with minimal bias instead of prodding them to promote a particular agenda?

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Jim says: Let’s get Iraq out of the way first. GB (real initials, but all I will reveal), a real person in the pulp and paper industry and fairly well known, was deployed to Iraq and from there sent home pictures of WMDs. However, as he explained it, we were not allowed to count these as WMDs because we knew about these particular ones before we ever went. Enough on that subject — it is water under the bridge.

You have given two different scientific examples, which I think explains some of the problems lay people have. Vaccines can be easily tested, and, as you point out, only potential problems with lawsuits and so forth prevent this from happening: time for tort reform. Medicine is a land of discovery, and what might have been the right thing or believed to be the right thing a few years ago (your breast cancer example) might not be the right thing today. That is why we have research.

To me, medical research is largely a “here and now” problem. It is something like an artist mixing blue and yellow, arriving at green. The experiment of mixing blue and yellow has a result in real time. As an aside, one of the problems with AIDS and its ability to spread was that it did not express itself quickly. If you have a cold and give another person a cold, it is while you are symptomatic. A person with AIDS could be nonsymptomatic and spread it all over the place. Stated another way, if AIDS killed quickly, it would not be a problem — brutal truth.

When it comes to global warming science, some of us would like some more science and a little less “Chicken Little.” Those who want to question the methodology, like me, have been drowned out until the East Anglia debacle raised its head. However, now that some might listen to us, thanks for the microphone, I have a couple of things to say.

I view the entire global warming discussion, from a scientific point of view, as a graphical picture in my mind, one that comes from high school geometry. When 3-D geometry was introduced, it was introduced as a point and a line, the line being rotated about an axis to create a “conic section.” The layperson’s “cone” is really a truncated cone or half a conic section. Bear with me, please.

Then, what we really know is this: We know temperature measurements taken since about the early 1600s. If we accept that the earth is millions of years old and we think about the length of time we have had thermometers, we can see, if the axis of our conic section is a time line, the time we have had thermometers, relatively speaking, can be represented by the point where the two truncated cones touch, creating the entire conic section, sort of like this: ><.

Our absolute data concerning gases and compounds in the air represent an even shorter period. Think about it — Shakespeare is older than the thermometer and gaseous measurements date from about the U.S. Civil War. This is all the real data we have.

Archimedes stated that with a long enough lever, he could move the earth. With enough assumptions about historic and near historic times (the 16th century) for which we have no data, you can postulate anything about what is going to happen in the future. Again, my conic section: ><.

Three stories to demonstrate how little the common person understands about data accuracy.

In the late 1970s, I was part of a team starting up a plant that manufactured an assembled product on an automated line. Okay, the product was feminine tampons, if you have to know. Walking by a line in a room with eight identical production lines, one could easily tell which were working well and which were not. A line that was running at 99.5% efficiency, that is, a line that was down an average of 7.2 minutes per day, was a visibly good line. A line that was running at 95% efficiency, that is, down an average of 72 minutes a day, always looked like a train wreck. I learned something about efficiency and accuracy from this.
 
A couple of years later, I found myself in a miserable backwater of engineering called “steel detailing” (thank goodness, this has been taken over by computers now). What we did was take simple “stick” design drawings and turn them into “shop and erection drawings” that had all the details, such as bolt holes and so forth. I did everything I could think of to try to make our drawings more accurate, for we were backcharged up to $150 per hole when we missed one. I bought an Apple II+ computer (should I get 16K of RAM or the full 48K was the burning question of the day) and wrote my own programs to do the hole dimension calculations for angled bracing and so forth (there was no software available — this was even before the first spreadsheet program). We would not bid on jobs that were less than 1000 tons of steel (roughly a 50-story office building) — we couldn’t make money on jobs smaller than that, we were too big. Those jobs sold for around $50,000. A ton of steel has about 20 holes, so a 1000-ton job had 20,000 holes. When we were 99.5% accurate, a remarkably good number on a job of this size, that meant we missed about 100 holes x $150.00 or $15,000 — 30% of the going bid price! Another lesson in the accuracy of numbers.

Final story — on CBS Sunday Morning, 06 December 2009, they had an opening story about unemployment. The headline was unemployment in the United States is 10%. The very first thing the reporter says is this: “10% of the U.S. population is unemployed.” This is an obvious error, right out of the gate. Why? Because at our best, only about 60% of the U.S. population is employed (one has to take out children, the elderly, farm workers, the incarcerated, and the infirm). The general population and the reporters that feed us “information” have not a clue what they are talking about.

So, my skepticism concerning the climate arises from the realization that the only real data we have is a miniscule sample in the big scheme of things, which we have surrounded by a collection of assumptions that, let’s face it, no one has any idea if they are true or not. Add that to what I know about accuracy from personal experience as related above, and you can see why one might have a right to be a bit doubtful.

However, the real problem has yet to be faced, and it is one that concerns me greatly. It is the ability for centers of higher learning, universities, to continue to exist. Couple the layperson reading about “cooked data” as has come out of East Anglia, with the lofty salaries and tenure of professorship, and we might just see the masses turn on this privileged class in a way that makes the wrath directed towards Wall Street look like a cookies and milk squabble in kindergarten, particularly when taxpayers realize they are the ones supporting these institutions. These professorial people do not live in the gentrified land of Fairfield, Connecticut, they live in common communities throughout every country. When I was in New York City recently, it was reported the Wall Street types are obtaining permits to carry concealed guns in record numbers as they prepare for bonus season. It just may be that professors will find themselves in the market for firearms as well.

The university funding and tenure system certainly needs some housekeeping applied, and, if not allowed to get too far out of hand, I don’t think we will return to the Dark Ages. Yet rest assured, change is on the way, change that will make some heretofore cushy people very uncomfortable.

But to your questions. Your first question was “What can businesses do to maintain a flexible approach?” Answer: I don’t think business is the problem; these days it is the environmental advocates and the governmental regulators. Many business leaders I talk to believe these groups, advocates and regulators, are using environmental lawsuits and regulations to turn our economy into a socialist one. Their actions are seen as a means to a hidden end. This attitude is going to have to be changed in order to find businesses willing to be open to society (more below).

What, you ask, are some orthodox views that the pulp and paper industry holds that you (meaning me) question? There are several:
  1. That we should keep rebuilding or using old mills. I think there is enough technology change available to warrant replacing many old mills with new ones that will be energy efficient and more environmentally friendly for reasons management can get excited about: improved profitability. The biggest hindrance to this is state/provincial and local governments that view closing one of the obsolete dinosaurs with the same horror they express when one suggests closing a military base or tiny post office. The North American paper industry could serve its customer base profitability with (wild guess) half the mills and a ¼ of the current workforce if they were allowed to build new ones.
  2. That there is a future in printed papers of any kind. Sadly, but yes, these are rapidly becoming niche products for reasons of convenience, economy, and environmental simplicity.
  3. That the industry’s job is to save jobs. Not true. To be viable it must be profitable.
Finally, you ask, how can we motivate researchers to do top-notch work with minimal bias instead of prodding them to promote a particular agenda? My answers will not make me popular here, either. First, get rid of tenure except in the political science department. The idea of tenure, I think, was originally founded on the idea of allowing social thinkers the freedom to think. Confine it to those disciplines. Second, move to a “prize” model from a funding model. Set prizes with large awards for solving problems. The current model of funding tinkering tenured teachers is not working — it rewards all kinds of bad behavior. A $50 million prize for conclusive proof of the existence or nonexistence of anthropogenic global warming would yield a far more credible answer, one we could all support.

Now for the “more below” part. In the process of writing this, your wife posted an article from the Wall Street Journal about the building she and her coworkers will soon occupy on the National Renewable Energy Laboratory campus in Golden, Colorado. Obviously they are very proud of this, and probably should be. For me, however, I found the description of this building and the behaviors it will impose on its occupants to be absolutely shocking. Expected behavior in this building, if the article is correct, can be described as nothing less than a microcosm of socialism. For instance, if as reported my computer is going to “ping” me to open or close a window in my vicinity, at my next performance review I would be stating, “Sorry, didn’t get anything done this year, the building kept telling me to open and close the window.” Or the idea that only laptops will be allowed because they will use less energy. I have a better idea — throw the laptops out the windows (when you have been told to open them, of course) and use a slide rule — that won’t use any electricity and you won’t be bothered by your computer telling you to open and close the windows. Now, despite my sarcasm, they certainly should be commended for trying and I am sure there will be many things to learn along the way by this particular team being in this particular building. But the kind of behavior expected in this building does nothing to assuage this free market capitalist’s view that a hidden agenda of socialism for all is what is behind the environmental movement.


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