NY Times Unsettles Some Science
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  • thibaud

    These points apply equally well to certain political and ideological tropes one could name – such as a tendency to cram or reduce every political and economic phenomenon into, say, a “Blue Social Model.”

    To paraphrase Mr Mead:

    “… where _ideology_ meets journalism and politics, funny things happen, distinctions get blurred, and the tentative findings of _political analysts_ turn into iron laws. This is almost always a cause of bad policy.”

    Case in point: arguing for going way beyond reform of corrupt practices as regards public employee pensions to conclude that we need to gut social service funding overall.

    The “Blue Model” construct is a canard. You can have clean, reasonable, solvent pensions AND have decent social service (and public safety etc) provision.

  • Anthony

    Quick Take’s analysis provides concrete reasoning why fundamental science knowledge and literacy ought to be a required part of elementary/secondary educational instruction in public schools.

  • Widmerpool

    Talk about canards. All that Mr. Meade seems to be arguing for in his many posts on the “Blue Model” is that we as a society have “clean, reasonable, solvent pensions AND have decent social service (and public safety etc) provision AT A COST THAT AS A SOCIETY WE CAN AFFORD.

  • This reminds me of the famous quote by F.A. Hayek.

    “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”

    We recently saw the same thing with the “fat is bad” crusade. http://merciarising.wordpress.com/2007/10/26/informational-cascade/

  • “Simple systems are easier for scientists to analyze; complex ones are much harder.”

    Quite a nice mouthful. As I was reading it, too, I immediately thought: “Damme if that doesn’t bespeak both the limitations and the pitfalls of ‘science’ in many other areas – and in particular when the the ‘application’ is imposed on systems far more multi-factored and unpredictable than the human body.” And then I read on to your gem of a final paragraph, and found (as I think) my impression confirmed utterly.

    Via Meadia continues to amaze me in ways I’m not always prompt to acknowledge. NOW if only it can bring that same quality of insight to bear (as thibaud has suggested) on certain conceptual labels of convenience, like the “Blue Model,” that can themselves easily become mental – and policymaking – straitjackets . . .

  • Jim.


    Overgenerous public pensions and overgenerous social service / public safety met have this in common… taxpayers are unwilling to fund either one.

    Reform of each involves much the same process– cutting them back to match what we’re willing to pay. Corruption in each case involves making promises we can’t continue to keep. I agree, the corruption should stop.

  • thibaud

    @#3 – We could afford a much greater amount of services if our healthcare administration costs per capita were thousands of dollars lower – ie, in line with those of all of our peer nations that have universal health insurance…

  • Adam

    “But where science meets journalism and politics, funny things happen, distinctions get blurred, and the tentative findings of scientists turn into iron laws. This is almost always a cause of bad policy.”

    In a nutshell, why this is the best blog out there.

  • Next to go down, the notion that fat is bad for you.

    BTW, did you know “science” recommends we all drink 8 glasses of water a day? How that one got past the laugh test I’ll never know.

  • Eurydice

    There were also reacent articles about how Omega-3 isn’t heart-healthy, and that even though HDL is called good cholesterol nobody’s really sure why it’s good (let’s not discuss how Lipitor is the widest-sold drug in the world).

  • (Dr.) Michael Crichton spent the last years of his life arguing these points. A pity his heirs have had to pull most of these words from his web site as it detracted from their efforts to benefit from his estate. The good news is the Internet Archive still has all his testimony, papers and talks available online:


  • thibaud

    No deep fat, or cream pies or hot fudge?

  • John

    As someone who has bipolar disorder, I have learned that doctors have no idea how most of the drugs they give me work. They have no way in general of predicting how people with this disorder will react to any given type of medication with the exception of anti-depressants which clearly are a negative for most people with this disorder.

    We in the 21st Century have very little understanding of our own bodies in spite of all the knowledge we profess to have.

  • Jack McHugh

    Reminds me of Woody Allen’s “Sleeper” (you already know where I’m going, don’t you? 😉 ), where he finds living 200 years in the future:
    Dr. Melik: This morning for breakfast he requested something called “wheat germ, organic honey and tiger’s milk.”
    Dr. Aragon: [chuckling] Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.
    Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or… hot fudge?
    Dr. Aragon: Those were thought to be unhealthy… precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.
    Dr. Melik: Incredible.

    Looking that up on IMDB I came across another relevent quote:

    Luna Schlosser: Oh, I see. You don’t believe in science, and you also don’t believe that political systems work, and you don’t believe in God, huh?
    Miles Monroe: Right.
    Luna Schlosser: So then, what do you believe in?
    Miles Monroe: Sex and death – two things that come once in a lifetime… but at least after death, you’re not nauseous.


  • NW

    Dr. Mead, nice post as usual.

    Point of language, which I know you care about, here:

    “The human body is so complicated, with so many feedback mechanisms and independent variables at work, that it is often extremely hard to answer seemingly simple questions.”

    I think you really should have said “mutually dependent variables” rather than “independent variables” here. For most statistically and scientifically inclined readers, “independent variables” suggests variables that are NOT themselves caused by other variables in a complex system. And I think that, in this passage, you really meant to be calling attention to a situation where truly independent variables are few and far between–that is, where causal arrows point every which way, so that almost all variables are mutually dependent.

    Otherwise, very nice writing as always.

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