Some Comments on an op-ed by Mona Charen – May 14, 2014

Here we find ourselves in the political season again and I will put in my first 2 cents worth of the season and abandon astrology for a while.

I spent much of the winter writing a reference manual for the statistical language R, so, I am behind in my newspapers.  By today I have gotten caught up to one week and one day back.  A few days ago, I read Mona Charen’s May 14th op-ed on “bad science”.  In the op-ed, Ms. Charen spends most of the op-ed writing about the changes in the beliefs based on scientific research as to what kinds of foods are good for us and what kinds are not – particularly with regard to fat.  In the last paragraph of her op-ed, she suggests that if scientific consensus on nutrition can change over 50 years, that scientific consensus on climate change might too.  I am certain that the last paragraph was the reason for the op-ed.

I am quite certain the Ms. Charen is not a scientist.  I am a statistician with an undergraduate degree in physics.  In medical research, there is a tradition of using ‘risk factors’ to give people an idea of the risk of a behaviour on their health.  I think, although I am not a medical statistician, that a risk factor means that persons with a given medical condition have been observed to have commonly also had a certain behaviour or genetic marker.  This is where the statistician steps in.

Correlation does not imply cause!!!

It is unfortunate that so much of the medical community thinks the opposite.

Cause can sometimes be determined from controlled experiments, which use statistics.   Or, cause can be determined by figuring out physically what is going on, in which case statistical measurements can either support or not support the science.

When I first read Ms. Charen’s op-ed, my reaction was that the science behind climate change is over a century old.  Einstein received a Nobel Prize for his insight into this science.  On the scale of the earth, the science is old and known and straightforward.  (Nutrition is quite a young science and, also, has not had as many research dollars as medical or hard science over the years.)

The specific effects from global warming and how the warming affects the climate of the earth is a young science, like nutrition.   A lecturer I recently heard, when asked about how knowledge about climate change has changed over the years, said that the basics that led to the concern over 50 years ago have not changed, but that our knowledge continues to increase in depth and meaning (I am paraphrasing.)

I think that Ms. Charen, in her writing about nutrition, was actually writing about trans-fats versus animal fats.  In the 50’s, Adele Davis was writing about the dangers of hydrogenated fats.  It took until the 2010’s and a great deal of research for the medical community to come to the same conclusion.  I do not know how powerful the vegetable oil lobby was in the 50’s, but I do know that the petroleum, natural gas and coal lobbies are very powerful at this time.

The climate scientists are hard scientists, almost certainly not very well paid compared to industry scientists,  and know of what they speak.  As a disclaimer, I have been concerned about the green house effect since the early 1970’s.

 

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