Fawlty Towers and Ivory Towers

Fawlty_Towers_title_card[1]Guest opinion by Charles Battig

John Cleese’s 1970’s “Fawlty Towers” of BBC fame provided a satirical view of an inept hotel manager in his dealings with potential guests, “who is tortured by ‘that annoying section of the general public who insist on staying at hotels.’” Today, the torture is to that “annoying section of the general public” who insist on scientific integrity in the reports issued by the science community. Today’s “Fawlty Towers” are the “Faulty Ivory Towers of Science.”

A 2011 article in Scientific American titled “An Epidemic of False Claims” presents evidence of this general lack of scientific integrity in the biomedical field. More recently, the resurgence of measles illustrates the dangers to the public when medical research is taken to heart by the trusting public, and that research is later found to be “a fraud.” The prestigious medical journal The Lancet published a 1998 article by Andrew Wakefield claiming a link between the triple vaccine combination (measles-mumps-rubella) and inflammatory bowel disease and autism. An article by Brian Deer details the tortuous history of these claims leading to the eventual retraction of the article by the Lancet in 2010, and Dr. Wakefield’s removal from the U.K.’s doctor registry. With the seed of doubt of vaccine planted in the minds of anxious parents, many have since chosen to refuse vaccination for their children. The recent resurgence of measles in unvaccinated children demonstrates the public health risks resulting from incomplete vaccination of the childhood population. The controversy now continues into the realm of sound-bite political campaigning and pronouncements… an unwelcome development presaging the further loss of trust in both medical and political pundits.

Science has failed the public by not acknowledging adequately that research findings are always provisional awaiting some future refutation or affirmation, and that life can never be completely risk free.

Children and grandchildren have become the political tools in yet another area of scientific controversy… clean air. The U.S. EPA and activist environmental lobbying organizations have elevated dubious climate change concerns into emotional cries for the clean air well-being of one’s children and grandchildren. How clean is clean enough? Is it to be pure air; is it to be healthy air; safe air?  The exact level of air purity appears to be an ever-receding goal just over the next funding-grant horizon. Asthma rates have increased even as the air has become cleaner… never mind. EPA-acceptable, airborne particulate matter (PM) concentrations are being set ever smaller because computer programs have found observational correlations between air particulate levels and some parameter of health or disease. Never mind that the composition of the particulate matter in one part of the country may be quite different from that in a location thousands of miles away. Never mind that the pathophysiology for such a presumed linkage is lacking. Proposed EPA rules simply focus on particulate size concentration, such as PM2.5 (microns). Carbon dioxide has been targeted as harmful to humans; an EPA oversight is that we all normally exhale carbon dioxide at the four to five per cent level, as the EPA frets over parts-per-million.

A computer program can tease many “correlations” out of a sea of data. Some graphs show correlations blatantly meaningless correlations. One example shows that  per capita consumption of cheese (U.S.) correlates with the number of people who died by becoming tangled in their bed sheets. These two unrelated parameters appear follow each other in synchrony, yet they have no rational relationship.  Observational relationships require some testable hypothesis in order to tie the two variables together in a meaningful manner. Computer programs can be instructed to look for specific correlations amongst chosen parameters.  This differs from constructing a logically coherent hypothesis and then using a computer to provide supporting data points.

Comedian Lenny Bruce antedates the modern computer era, but one of his comedy routines illustrates the use of the computer to blindly follow instructions… with unintended consequences. A shopkeeper finds a genie’s magic lamp, and gets his three wishes granted. Left in charge of the shop, the unsupervised genie obligingly fulfills the wish of a hapless customer who asks “make me a malted.” The genie blindly obeys the command, and the customer is made into a malted. Modern computer data dredging programs obediently follow their master’s coded commands, and find what they are told to find.

Air quality issues come with prejudicial opinions as to health impacts. If the air looks dirty, smoggy brown, or is smelly, it is assumed that it has detrimental health effects on humans. Data pools are mined by computers designed to find the assumed correlations, and they find them…just barely. The strength of such correlations are quantified by such statistical measures as relative risk (RR), and a RR of 1 and a fraction is taken as valid proof of cause-and-effect by those researchers looking for confirmation of their favored assumption. Robust RRs are taken to be 2 or greater.

When the actual medical records of hospitalized patients are compared to prevailing ambient air-quality measurements there is no confirmation of presumptive ill-health effects. In 2008, University of California researcher James Engstrom’s analyses contradicted the accepted finding that diesel emissions were responsible for a big health toll in California. His reward was the threat by UCLA to terminate his employment, even though is research findings were not refuted.

Bio-statistician Stephen Milloy did a study of hospital admission records in central California and reported that: “Average ground-level ozone (O3) and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) measurements were not correlated with 19,327 patient admissions for asthma at the University of California-Davis Medical Center (UCDMC) during 2010-2012.” Examination of actual hospital records trumps blind data, and this study refutes EPA claims of increased hospital admissions related to air quality.

Similar commentary and elucidation of the statistical pitfalls of blind data mining is explained in a joint article by physician J.D. Dunn and S. Milloy. EPA’s reliance on computer mining in support of preconceived positions on air quality contrasts with traditional concepts of testable theory and rational biological associations to support such theories.

However, the EPA seems satisfied with Lenny Bruce’s genie’s task of “make me an association” willingly provided by the faulty ivory towers.

Charles G. Battig, M.D. , Piedmont Chapter president, VA-Scientists and Engineers for Energy and Environment (VA-SEEE). His website is www.climateis.com

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65 thoughts on “Fawlty Towers and Ivory Towers

  1. Part of the problem is that there is a misunderstanding of the significance of the dose. Simplistically, we assume everything is linear down to homeopathic levels. At least the media and legal systems do.
    ‘Air Quality’ may be harmful to health at 5000ppm.
    And half as bad at 250ppm.
    But that doesn’t mean that 50ppm will necessarily be harmful at all. At some point the effect becomes overwhelmed by noise or compensated by other natural buffers.
    As we have developed better and better monitoring devices we have spotted more and more. But we haven’t proven it is a problem at those new levels we can see.
    And cheese causes nightmares, of course.

    • True. “California-style” EPA regulations tend to be based on the idea, “If we can detect it, we have to ban it!”.

      • “If we can detect it, we have to ban it !”
        And as our detection technology improves, we have many more scares and bans.
        What will happen when we can detect parts per trillion or quadrillion ?

      • True. “California-style” EPA regulations tend to be based on the idea, “If we can detect it, we have to ban it!”.

        I would like to amend that to:
        True. “California-style” EPA regulations tend to be based on the idea, “If we can detect it, we have to regulate it. If we can’t pronounce it, we have to ban it!”.

  2. Using the EPA estimate of $9 million as the “societal cost of a life unnecessarily shortened”, almost any expenditure to comply with new or expanded regulatory requirements can be “economically justified”.

    • The whole “societal cost” calculation is bogus to begin with. You can only calculate “cost” with respect to a specific balance sheet, say the US Treasury for instance. From this point of view, people dropping dead the day after they retire is a societal benefit, as you’ve collected all the taxes from said individuals that you ever will, but you haven’t started the really big disbursements for retirement and medical payments. On the other hand, people getting killed by bungee jumping accidents the day they graduate college is a huge cost — you’ve disbursed a lot of money getting them through school and haven’t collected a penny in taxes.
      If you want to minimize “societal cost” as the US Treasury views it, you pass laws outlawing bungee jumping for young people and wearing seat belts for retirees.
      You see where this kind of thinking leads?

      • I would add that, for instance, many of the warnings on tobacco packages should be put on a plethora of other consumer items, starting with every bottle of wine. Unless, of course, the FDA considers alcohol to be “safe” for pregnant woman.
        These inconsistencies (and outright mistakes) are the result of policies whose intent is clearly political even when claimed to have medical justification (again, pregnant women must stay away from tobacco but wine is ok?)
        Yet, sadly, this mess is also the best we can do as a society.

  3. The problem is we are no longer doing science because we’re curious, we’re doing it because we hang incredible dollars out there to “prove” something. If I offered $1M to a team to “prove” that an increase in cheese consumption increased the risk of death by strangulation by bed sheets, you can be sure I would soon have a paper claiming exactly that.

      • Hello Kit and readers
        Is being tangled to death in your bed sheets really really an accident?
        Have you checked your accidental insurance policy lately?
        Does your partner encourage you to sleep long, often and tight. Have they developed a bent for tucking you in tight as tight can be?
        Something to ponder on a cold, dark,stormy night when wolves howl at the moon as you snuggle beneath those enclosing blankets.
        To sleep. Perchance to dream.
        If you can Sleep.
        If you Dare!

  4. Much is made of the dangers of mercury from power plant stacks, yet the predicted disease and deaths are all hypothetical, based on computer models. If the hazards of coal fired power were so dire one would expect that the thousands of those coal fired plant employees over the past fifty years would be dropping like flies.

    • Well to be fair 60 years ago here in the UK people WERE dying like flies as the result of uncontrolled burning of coal as a domestic fuel. I recall walking home from school in the early 60’s through swirling masses of gray-green smog that was mostly unburned hydrocarbons. At that time deaths from bronchial conditions were extremely high. The single incident known and The Great Smog of 1952 in London is estimated to have killed as many as 12,000 people across greater London. The hospitals were overwhelmed by patients with lung problems and there was a shortage of morgue spaces and coffins.
      Mercury was of course the least of the problems but part of the solution was the banishment of coal fired power stations from the city centres.

  5. of course a hit of multiple doses of foriegn bodies injected into blood stream with mercury and aluminium could never??? cause any autoimmune or other problems?
    ever looked at the adverse events registry at all?
    or wonder why vax pharmas are exonerated from being sued?
    the govt has it own legal area for that?

      • There is little science about vaccines.
        Most of the vaccine “science” is Big Science for sale.

    • Yes, the only immunity is Big Pharma from damages. If they intentionally put poison into the vaccines, the Feds would pay $250k per dead child.
      But every injection has a “package insert”, http://vactruth.com/vaccine-inserts/ has a collection. Reading what the manufacturer says should be sufficient to avoid getting the vaccine unless there is an actual instead of ppossible risk.
      Consider the Climate problem, if the “hockey stick” is only a 1 in 10 thousand probability, if it happens, it will still be severe. But there are costs for the 9999 cases.
      This is similar to the false positive v.s. negative. If you are looking for 1 in a million, yet check 100 million samples, a 0.1% false positive rate will yield ten thousand false positives, while looking for the 100 actual positives.
      Over 100 children were reported as dying from the MMR vaccine. ZERO were reported dying from measles. This is not 1930, or 1870, or 1500, but 2015 with modern ICUs and ERs. So far, under 1000 have actually gotten measles. How many have been vaccinated?
      And if the vaccine works, and you have vaccinated, how is me not vaccinating any of your business?

  6. Can’t speak for the UK, but asthma levels are increasing among the young, smoking amongst the public is decreasing, car numbers have increased through the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, & ooos, yet their exhaustgases have consitently got cleaner. At 57 years of age (yes I’ve outlived Michael Jackson) I & practically anyone else my age & older lived at some point in a house filled with cigarette smoke, yet when I was a schoolboy asthma was all but unheard of except in a very few children! The thing is they don’t to date have a clue what causes it, unless of course they want to try & link it into Global Warming…..now there’s a thought! The EU here in the EUSSR/PDREU have PM2.5 on a back-burner at the moment, it probably isn’t ready for full power in the PR section as they haven’t manufactured enough “convincing” evidence just yet, give them time, give them time & I dare say the USEPA is doing likewise!

    • My guess is there is no more asthma now than there was 20,30,40 years ago. It’s just being diagnosed properly now.

    • Increasingly cleaner homes, less children playing outside leads to poorly primed over reactive immune systems.
      AKA The Hygiene Hypothesis
      Dirt is good 🙂

      • The most obvious answer is that the human immune system is evolved to live with worms (helminths). worms suppress the human immune response in order to survive inside the host. to counter this, the human immune system has evolved to expect this suppression.
        when the suppression is not present (no worms) the immune system is over-active. worms are ancient. the most common land animal by weight. only recently have humans developed drugs that have eliminated worms as a normal human condition.
        Helminths (worms) are able to survive in their mammalian hosts for many years due to their ability to manipulate the immune response by secreting immunomodulatory products.[3]
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helminths
        when multiple sclerosis patients become infected with helminths, the disease stops progressing and circulating myelin-recognising regulatory T cells appear in the peripheral blood.[31] This indicates that helminths act as adjuvants (modifier) for regulatory T cells. This observation led to clinical trials.[32]
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hygiene_hypothesis

      • Experimentally, helminths have been successfully applied in animal models of allergic and autoimmune diseases, including colitis, arthritis, type 1 diabetes, and experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis.2,9,10 In addition, beneficial immunomodulation by helminths in humans has been demonstrated in an observational study of relapsing–remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS) patients with asymptomatic, community-acquired gastrointestinal infections.11,12 Safety and benefit have also been demonstrated in controlled clinical trials of Trichuris suis (porcine whipworm) ova (TSO) in inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), including ulcerative colitis13 and Crohn’s disease,14 although a clinical trial of TSO in allergic rhinitis did not demonstrate a change in symptom scores.15 Recently, a comprehensive cellular and molecular analysis of changes in the intestinal mucosa of a patient with IBD before and after colonization by the human whipworm, T. trichiura, demonstrated that active colitis was associated with T helper cells producing IL-17 and expression of proinflammatory genes such as IL-17 and IL-13RA2; during parasitic colonization, colitis remitted, and a decrease in IL-17-producing cells, a dramatic increase in IL-22-producing cells, and relative reduction in proinflammatory gene expression were observed.16
        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3894910/

      • Hello Mikerestin
        Don’t worry about the EPA cops or even the Fashion Police.
        I am from The Peer Reviewed Government Approved Climate Science Blog Police and We got you Surrounded Punk!
        Now we wanna know if you are, or ever have been or are currently engaged in reading, and or contributing, to a Non Peer Reviewed Non Government Approved Denier Climate Science Blog.
        You do not have the right to legal representation and anything you say will, like Climate science itself, be manipulated, twisted, fudged and adjusted to prove your guilt.
        Well what do ya gotta say for yourself Criminal Boy!
        I got myself a nice couple of Rottweilers, Kleiny and Oreskes here, and they wanna know something.
        Are Ya Feeling Lucky Punk?
        And if you reckon you can run and hide, maybe in a University, then we will call in The Peer Reviewed Government Approved Climate Science Academic Control Cops and I promise that you do not wanna be messing with those hardcore and take no prisoners police. Just ask the few academics with a mind of their own how much those coppers really enjoy their work. Particularly that part that takes place away from the public eye. If you get my drift
        So! you got anything to Say Punk?
        Or has the cat got your tongue and i don’t mean Schrodingers moggy. Or when you consider the Closed Box and Alive or not Alive… maybe I do.
        We got your name and your number Mister! And We got control of all the guvmint contracts and grants.
        And that applies to you all out there!!!!! Every one of Youse lot
        Sleep well and tight. The Bedsheets are your Friends.
        KLYMIT KOPS ROOLZ ABSOLUTELY!!!!!

    • asthma is often related to allergies and allergies have increased significantly as has a general phobia for anything that is microscopically small, leading to super hygienic situations with disinfectants everywhere. Any correlation there?

  7. It’s not just science it’s the ivory tower in general. You have whole university departments not interested in reality. They just spend their tenure in the echo chamber pontificating to themselves. The problem is every stupid idea born in the ivory tower eventually ends up walking the streets…..or sitting in the oval office.

    • Amongst the books that everyone should read is ‘That Hideous Strength’ (subtitled A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups) by CS Lewis.
      It predicted the changes in Universities spot on and it was written at the end of WW2.
      I know his faith is out of fashion these days but this book is definitely worth tracking down.

      • That Hideous Strength is the 3rd of a trilogy. Anyone interested might start with Out of the Silent Planet. I thought Perelandra was a bit uninteresting, but I’ve wondered why Hollywood has never done anything with That Hideous Strength. Lewis’s windup is hilarious, unlikely as it would seem

    • It’s interesting this divestiture from reality has occurred at the same time as sky-rocketing tuition and sky-rocketing university administration overhead. It is like the extra money created an overbearing, cancerous administrative bureaucracy that in turn made the faculty stupid.

      • I have noticed in my long association with the US government that they have a much stronger tendency to have [too] many chiefs and not enough indians than for profit companies have but everywhere has empire builders.

      • Maybe we could send Messers Gore, Hansen, Mann et al there.
        What an opportunity for a Psychoanalyst.
        Not a psychotherapist, though – don’t want to be too kind to them all.

      • The building used in the exterior shots burned down, or burned anyway. It’s still there?

      • The building used in the exterior shots was chosen as a prop because it was more attractive than the hotel where Cleese et al had their bad experience that prompted the show.The real hotel was in Torquay and is now a Best western. The other one used in the show for the exterior shots was in the home counties I think.
        To this day Fawlty tower evenings are held locally in various hotels and cafes
        Tonyb

  8. My counterargument to the organic food movement is always this: life expectancy climbed rapidly with the increasing use of preservatives in food–surely then, preservatives are a positive addition to our diet and improve our health and longevity. If preservatives can preserve food, then they can do the same for us!

  9. Dr. Battig focuses on one disease, asthma, which is not well understood, and is actually believed to have several “strains” (both allergic and non-allergic), and several risk factors:
    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-are-asthma-rates-soaring/http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-are-asthma-rates-soaring/
    Also, asthma is of course not the only health impact of air pollution, but the (false) implication is that none of the linkages is well understood:
    http://www.epa.gov/region07/air/quality/health.htm

    • “…one disease, asthma, which is not well understood, …”
      Not well understood?
      Tell that to the “government scientists” at EPA.
      They not only claim to “understand” asthma, but they have all the answers, too.
      They just need more control over our lives, industry, carbon, energy. If only we imbecilic members of the public would just shut up and get with the program!
      EPA’s vast trove of knowledge on asthma and the environment:
      http://www.epa.gov/asthma/about.html#Asthma_Initiative
      And the EPA’s front-line presence in the war on CO2 conflates CO2 with “asthma triggers.”
      So, yeah, the EPA does claim to “well understand” asthma. And they’re actively destroying America’s energy production capacity in a fake “war on asthma.” It is for the children’s sake, though. So it must be okay?
      Nice try, though.
      “President Obama and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy are selling their onerous regulations on CO2 from existing power plants by disingenuously claiming co-benefits of reduced asthma attacks and heart attacks:
      “in just the first year that these [CO2] standards go into effect, up to 100,000 asthma attacks and 2,100 heart attacks will be avoided — and those numbers will go up from there.”

      • for many years the observation has been that asthma is increasing while air pollution is decreasing. on this basis our government concludes that air pollution causes asthma.

  10. Mod: please fix “… Some graphs show correlations blatantly meaningless correlations…” to “… Some graphs show blatantly meaningless correlations.”
    [Which post? ~mod.]

  11. Neither correlation nor statistical significance provide logically consistent measures of evidence. I’ve often wondered if one could take Koch’s postulates and convert them into logically meaningful equivalents in disciplines outside of disease pathology. Then one would have a pretty solid basis for proving hypothetical associations in those disciplines. I don’t even know for certain if the EPA, when deciding to lower the level of some standard, even bothers establishing a credible dose-response curve.

  12. It’s 2214, and Tommy, a fifth grade student, is listening to a lecture by his teacher about 21st Century American society. Just like other students’ bafflement at the health practices of 14th Century English city dwellers, Tommy blurts out an incredulous question: “But, you mean they drank fluoridated water, and used alternating current to power their homes that were filled with wall to wall carpeting, and they didn’t know? How could they not know?” (sarc)

  13. Alan the Brit
    February 19, 2015 at 7:26 am
    Can’t speak for the UK, but asthma levels are increasing among the young, smoking amongst the public is decreasing, car numbers have increased through the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, & ooos, yet their exhaustgases have consitently got cleaner.
    ————————————————————————————————————————————
    No they have not,
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/motoring/green-motoring/10190942/Why-is-killer-diesel-still-poisoning-our-air.html

  14. When I was growing up, I only knew one child who had asthma. She was so skinny that I could circle my hands around her waist!
    But, then, she WAS fashionably slim! /sarc
    P.S. I wonder if it’s not a disease of cholesterol-deficiency or gut dysbiosis. 😉
    P.P.S. They’ve brought back Fawlty Towers to our local PBS affiliate. I am amazed that he manages to keep the place open for business!

  15. I was diagnosed with asthma when I was 4 years old. That was in 1979. I was born in, and lived most of my childhood in, a very rural town in Alaska. You could not get purer air… in the summer at least. Lots of wood burning in winter, but that has never bothered my asthma in the slightest; just certain animals and strenuous physical activity. I’ve since lived in a wide range of climates, in big cities and tiny villages. Never noticed any difference in asthma; it’s only triggered by certain animals and physical activity. I find it very difficult to believe ‘air quality’ has anything to do with it, in my case at least.
    There’s some really interesting research being done into treating, even eliminating, asthma with antibiotics.

  16. Fawlty Towers was a great show. May I suggest to readers that they check out reruns of “Father Ted” on youtube. Enjoy.

  17. Ask anyone who’s ever traded stocks, bonds or commodities about how easy it is to see correlations and patterns were not exist. Hundreds of indicators Have been constructed that supposedly quantify the data and give insight into the future, and to the novice they seem like they have predictive abilities.

  18. After reading the Brian Deer material [ http://briandeer.com/mmr/lancet-summary.htm ], I can only conclude that Science is dead, dead, dead. The same lies, evasions, data molestation, data concealment, abuses of process, phony “investigations,” ad hominem attacks, conflicts of interest, journal misconduct, and outright fraud found in the MMR case exist in AGW and elsewhere in the Science-Academic Complex. Lancet took 12 years to inter their stinking Wakefield zombie paper. Academics, government, journals and journalists have turned Science into a rotting corpse.

  19. Strange that the cure for hyperventilating is to get the person to breath into a bag of some description increasing the amount of CO2 in the bag and slowing the reaction ..More CO2 for the asthmatics (being one myself) I say !!
    Oxygen is a killer.

  20. Am I the only one who sees a certain irony in Scientific American printing “an epidemic of false claims”? With attendant whinging about lack of scientific integrity?
    It’s disappointing that the author doesn’t identify two other bases of the problem – a lazy, compliant, pig-ignorant communications arena, where only sensationalism is rewarded; and the role of lying, misrepresenting, forging, misinterpreting PR departments in both business and academe. Many times when you read the actual papers themselves they don’t say at all what the press releases say.
    Another problem I find is that, especially in climate “science” what is being presented and reported isn’t anything more than data collection and presentation. There generally isn’t any science in it. No hypothesis to explain what is supposedly observed for instance.

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