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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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« They'll Fake the Journal if You'll Fake the Papers | Main | Tramadol Turns Out to Be a Natural Product »

September 30, 2013

A War On Expertise?

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Posted by Derek

I see that Popular Science is shutting down the comments function on their web site. Like a lot of news organizations, I think that their signal/noise was pretty low in the comments. (And that prompts me to express, again, my appreciation for the commenters on this blog - one of the first questions I get when I talk to anyone else who runs a web site is how on Earth the comments section around here stays so readable and sane!)

They're citing some experiments that seem to show that fractious comments sections actually make the original posts above them seem less reliable, and that may be how it works. In reality, my impression is that if a site seems to have a lot of fist-waving in the comments section, that pretty soon most readers don't even bother with it, and the only ones that show up are there for the fights. I'll say this for the Popular Science folks - they're not doing this for monetary/traffic reasons, because wildly argumentative comments sections also drive traffic from the people who just can't stay away (and hit "Refresh" over and over in the process).

Here's the key quote from their article:

A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to "debate" on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.

I know where they're coming from, but I'm not so sure about that "again". My belief is that there hasn't been a time when evolution was not controversial with many people, nor climate change/global warming. The internet, it's true, gives everyone with a point of view a chance to ventilate, so it brings this sort of thing to the surface much more easily than in the past. (Look back a few decades, and ask yourself what was available to someone with a strong opinion. Letters to the editor? Soapbox in the park? Handling out flyers on the corner?)

And I don't think that there's been any big, coherent, "decades-long war on expertise". If there is, then there always has been. It makes a person feel better to believe these things, but that's the sort of self-congratulatory thinking that I believe one has to avoid. "I'm too smart for the crowd, the mob - a member of a persecuted minority just because I see the truth. . ." That doesn't do anything to help your own reasoning.

No, most people don't understand scientific topics, but most people never have. If anything, I'd be willing to bet that the population today is more literate in these matters than ever before. The sorts of people who go hunting through web sites looking for things to confirm their own opinions have always been with us. As have groups who'd rather obfuscate topics than debate them, for reasons of their own. We just have a better look at the whole process these days.

Comments (45) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Blog Housekeeping | General Scientific News


1. johnnyboy on September 30, 2013 11:32 AM writes...

"No, most people don't understand scientific topics, but most people never have."

True, but I think that thirty or forty years ago, many people who didn't understand scientific topics still had some respect and deference for the experts who did. It is that respect that is now gone, in a culture where everyone believes that their own opinion is just as good as anyone else's, even on topics they know nothing about. Remember Virginia Heffernan, the 'journalist' who went public in Slate with her belief in creationism ? Her support for it boiled down to the fact that god creating people felt to her like just a prettier story than evolution. If she had been born fifty years ago, she might have believed the same thing, but she sure as hell wouldn't have felt entitled to publish it in a national outlet. I suppose some people will feel that this is the beauty of democratization of speech, and will support this with feel-good claptrap about the beautiful plurality of voices now available to all. To me it just feels like all the morons on earth are all shouting simultaneously from their own pulpit.

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2. Ted on September 30, 2013 11:39 AM writes...

We, the commenters of In The Pipeline, believe in free speech as strongly as we believe in free videos of animals dressed like other animals. Therefore, we hereby declare: you can make up to 88 dollars an hour working from your house. Click here for one weird tip on how to lose your bellyfat. U R homo. Ron Paul 2012!


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3. cirby on September 30, 2013 11:49 AM writes...

"They're citing some experiments that seem to show that fractious comments sections actually make the original posts above them seem less reliable, and that may be how it works."

That's not what the study actually shows. The actual result is that most people aren't affected at all by rude comments, and people who are on the extremes of an argument take a slightly more extreme position when confronted with rude posters arguing for the other side.

The real problem? PS has a bunch of "science writers" who aren't that good at science, and mostly fail at arguing their own points. When they whine about "anti-science" comments, what they're really complaining about are "people who disagree with us in basic ways we're not equipped to argue with, over things we pretend to know about."

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4. Derek Lowe on September 30, 2013 12:03 PM writes...

#2 Ted: I think that about sums it up! What, though, is your opinion on the still contentious issue of yo' mama?

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5. Anonymous on September 30, 2013 12:03 PM writes...

It doesn't help that we have individuals who come off as even-keeled experts but who are still very biased, even to the point where they distort the science (eg Gary Taubes and his belief that the 1st law of Thermodynamics does not apply to calorie consumption)

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6. Hap on September 30, 2013 12:06 PM writes...

I think it's perhaps a case of bad comments driving out good ones - just as people stop commenting when a thread becomes a flamewar between idiots, lots of dishonest argument drives away people who might actually know something about a topic. While the lack of inherent trust in a group in theory means that people can evaluate arguments on their own worth, there tend to be so many arguments (and because people have little time and knowledge to evaluate them all) that the default becomes either 1) listen to people who think like you do or 2) listen to the people who scream loudest. Neither of those scenarios is likely to end well.

I don't think there's been a war on expertise, but there have been lots of concerted efforts to counter ideas dishonestly, paid for by people and companies with something to lose if people actually follow the advice of the people with expertise (certainly in evolution, probably in global warming). Much of that "argument" revolves around throwing enough crap to make people think that no one knows anything ("crap" because the "facts" aren't or are distorted enough to constitute torture). In that sense, it is a "war on expertise", because the logic (cough) of the arguments implies the impossibility of expertise and thus that no distinction can be made between between good and bad information.

The problem with closing down comments (or of feeling the need to) is that once we decide that people who disagree can't talk anymore, what are the alternatives? Even if I assume that some of the people I would talk to aren't being honest, to me or to themselves, what do we do? When couples stop talking, and get to the point of deciding that they can't talk, divorce or other bad things are generally not far behind. We (the US, the world) don't really have that option.

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7. ROGI on September 30, 2013 12:07 PM writes...

#4 Derek, I think he is a fine cellist.


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8. Puff the Mutant Dragon on September 30, 2013 12:11 PM writes...

You're absolutely right, I think. There is no "war on expertise". The trolls and the haters and the morons have always been out there...only difference is now they have a free soapbox.

Where climate change and evolution are concerned...the problem we have nowadays is that one of our two main political parties -- the Rethuglicans -- has decided they don't believe in climate change (because it might hurt their pocketbooks) or evolution (because their Evilgelical constituents don't want to accept they are apes) and so they have now committed to positions that require them to deny reality in service to a political agenda. This is not a war on expertise or a war on is a war on reality waged by a political party for its own short-sighted short-term political gain.

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9. Jeff on September 30, 2013 12:25 PM writes...

#8 Puff: From the tone of your second paragraph, I would say you miss the point of Derek's post. If your point of view has merit, you should be able to defend it without resorting to crude name calling.

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10. Jeff on September 30, 2013 12:25 PM writes...

#8 Puff: From the tone of your second paragraph, I would say you miss the point of Derek's post. If your point of view has merit, you should be able to defend it without resorting to crude name calling.

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11. Another Derek on September 30, 2013 12:34 PM writes...

For a light-hearted view on how the Internet has changed things, take a look at today's "Non Sequitur" cartoon.
On a more substantive note, it is indeed pleasant to read a blog where the comments don't descend into flame wars. Thanks!

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12. MoMo on September 30, 2013 12:50 PM writes...

Popular Science should shut down its comments section.

I am still waiting for my Moller Skycar, underwater breathing lungs, and X-ray specs that I bought from the back of their magazine when I was child.

Popular Science is anything but.

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13. Someone who actually reads on September 30, 2013 12:51 PM writes...

#5 Regarding your comments on Gary Taubes, you seem to have proven the opposite of what you intended. From his blog:

"The reason people believe we get fat because of overeating and sedentary behavior is because they believe the laws of thermodynamics somehow dictate this to be true..."
"But now imagine that instead of talking about why we get fat, we’re talking about a different system entirely...we want to know why a particular restaurant gets so crowded."
"If you asked me this question — why did this restaurant get crowded? — and I said, well, the restaurant got crowded because more people entered the restaurant than left it, you’d probably think I was being a wise guy or an idiot."

In other words, calories in-calories out is strictly true, but completely worthless at the same time, because it does not answer "Why".

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14. newnickname on September 30, 2013 12:59 PM writes...

Pipeline's "Eight Toxic Foods" (350+ comments) exposed the weak grasp that many lay people have on important scientific concepts.

I remember usenet (sci.chem, etc.) and some groups were moderated. There were frequent flame wars (often informative; often funny) but as spammers figured out how to bypass posting controls, they totally killed usenet. RIP. (Love him or hate him, Uncle Al Schwartz is a smart guy.)

Private forums (using software for organizing forum discussions) can also be moderated. There is a big difference between posting to forums and plain blog (or news) + commenting. Threads, topics, comments, replies are more well organized and you can follow discussions more easily in forums, but they are also a dying breed.

Suggestion to Derek: Add something to the page template to ask people to insert a reference to a previous Comment when Commenting on a Comment. (Some people are using a "@#" or "@Name" method.) When there are many Comments, it can be hard to figure out what someone is talking about.

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15. Anonymous on September 30, 2013 1:09 PM writes...

@13: But, in fact, it does answer the question, why: Obesity is due to an energy surplus, plain and simple. The fact that Taubes clearly misunderstands this has been taken up over and over again:

And Taubes went to Harvard? LMAO!!!!!

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16. bmcburney on September 30, 2013 1:18 PM writes...

It seems to me that #3 is closest to the truth here. But the problem is not so much climate change and evolution together as just climate change. Even writers at PS can defend evolution effectively.

Defenders of anthropomorphic catastrophic global warming invariably fall back on arguments from authority or resort to shutting down the debate altogether. PS shut down its comments section because it is easier and less threatening than learning about the subject.

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17. Scarodactyl on September 30, 2013 1:29 PM writes...

@6: "Much of that "argument" revolves around throwing enough crap to make people think that no one knows anything ("crap" because the "facts" aren't or are distorted enough to constitute torture). In that sense, it is a "war on expertise", because the logic (cough) of the arguments implies the impossibility of expertise and thus that no distinction can be made between between good and bad information."
This is exactly right. Creationists will quickly resort to arguing essentially that data can be interpreted any which way depending on the bias of the interpreter--effectively saying that there's no way to separate the reasonable from the unreasonable with, well... reason. All while ironically trying to cloak their position in what looks like conventional scientific evidence. As a geology major and a Christian it drives me absolutely nuts.

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18. anomalous on September 30, 2013 1:30 PM writes...

@12: I'm still waiting for my soylent green.

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19. Ed on September 30, 2013 1:33 PM writes...

Don't take Puff the Mutant Dragon seriously. He is just having fun imitating the the kinds of comments that Popular Science was referring to.

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20. tED on September 30, 2013 2:11 PM writes...

Censoring dictators around the world rejoice! They totally feel the pain of PS editors.

I also want to echo @8 Puff above--Americans only have to look at the leaders they have elected (plus their youth's top-10 role models) to see most of their society's problems (and hopes as well, of course), because they are the windows to a nation's soul.

Most people from other countries know to feel shameful of ignorance. Here it is something you are taught from very early on to feel "special" about--and don't let anybody tell you otherwise!

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21. daen on September 30, 2013 2:32 PM writes...

I am disappointed that there is no possibility of 'liking' individual comments. I suspect #4 and #7 would accrue quite a few fans. Well played, Derek and ROGI; well played.

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22. MTK on September 30, 2013 2:57 PM writes...

I'd like to post my non-expert opinion on the topic of a "war on expertise".

(I should probably stop right here.)

I don't believe it has anything to do with understanding science or valuing expertise in any field. Rather what we have as a society is a trust issue. There has been a remarkable erosion of trust in all of our institutions whether it be our politicians, scientists, journalists, etc. Everyone believes everyone else has an agenda and therefore no one is telling the truth no matter what there credentials or expertise may be.

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23. Philip on September 30, 2013 3:24 PM writes...

@MTK, I think you hit the nail on the head. The anthropogenic climate change deniers often site the climate scientists desire for grant money as a reason not to believe them. Seems strange that they believe the Koch brothers, but I digress. Following the money (or fame) often leads to finding why a position is taken. That makes it hard for the general public to know who to trust. Do you trust the medical community or an MTV VJ about vaccinating your kids? The medical community makes money from the vaccinations, and Jenny does not.

OK, maybe it is not so hard if you take just a cursory look at the data. The problem is that most news stories leave out the data and just have one or two talking heads spewing how stupid the other side has got to be for believing such BS.

PS, I am not a scientist, just a computer geek that works with doctors and scientists.

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24. Harrison on September 30, 2013 3:44 PM writes...

While on some level I agree with Derek that these voices have been there all along, I think that some media outlets (*cough* Foxnews *cough*) have given a "legitimate" home to people who do not rely on facts, but rather bullying, to force their often unsubstantiated views into the mainstream. O'Reilly, Hannity, Palin, etc just empower people without all that inconvenient evidence gathering.

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25. Saul on September 30, 2013 4:15 PM writes...

Why are scientists always such a stick in the mud? Why can't they just roll in it and feel blessed as normal people would? NOOOO, they have to bore us with data, facts and TRUTH! What's wrong with you nerds! We just want to feel rich, over eat and be entertained...all the time! We are NOT interested in learning your so-called science. Is that too much to ask?

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26. Anonymous on September 30, 2013 4:39 PM writes...

~15: "obesity is due to an energy surplus, plain and simple."

No, it is not. And stop appealing to the first or second laws of Thermodynamics please. Hiroshima bomb converted 600 mg into the energy (one Tylenol pill I am taking now reading this assured gibberish). If you follow some fancy diet and lose 10 pounds in a week that would certainly obliterate the Earth. Thankfully, that did not happened yet. So the key is human body reaction to excess of nutrients, not calories counting. And that we might be able to manipulate and produce life saving medicines.

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27. Anonymous on September 30, 2013 4:50 PM writes...

~26 Hiroshima energy was not liberated from chemical bonds, unlike calories, so they are not comparable.

You pretty much decimated yourself with your "analogy" LMFAO!

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28. Anonymous on September 30, 2013 5:22 PM writes...

Not at all. E=mc^2 is universal. Nuclear or Wind farms. Chemical energy in the food does not convert to the body mass in humans. It simply can not. The very idea that "energy consumption" is the reason of obesity has no physical meaning. 30%+ of Americans are obese. But 70% are fine. Do they eat less or exercise more ? Or they have some subtle genome variations which stops weight gain? Surely we can learn more here.

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29. sgcox on September 30, 2013 5:36 PM writes...

#27 Perfect ! " Hiroshima energy was not liberated from chemical bonds, unlike calories, so they are not comparable."

Read it again and again and I think we have here a final proof of the original thesis, "A War on Expertise". From now on the calories are very specific and magical measure of energy. For everything else, there is an Joule.

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30. Anonymous on September 30, 2013 5:44 PM writes...

I meant the SOURCE of the energy is not comparable. ~27 implied that energy changes in due weight gain/loss could possibly be derived from the nuclear (atomic) sources, which is absurd.

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31. sgcox on September 30, 2013 6:23 PM writes...

Yes, my point exactly - the whole concept of the weight gain from the energy surplus is absurd. Being it nuclear or chemical (food for you) or hydroelectric. Weight gain is due to animals horribly complicated biology. Can you feed a mouse with enough energy (food) to convert it into Elephant - No, but they are almost 80% genetically identical nevertheless.

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32. Lunar landing on September 30, 2013 7:03 PM writes...

My issue is with the anonymity of internet posts. Gone are the days of the soap box or newspaper editorial where people are held accountable for their opinions. Today the anonimity of internet postings can at times sink civility and reasoned debate to a very low common denominator. If people were forced to sign their name to their posted comments or opinion the nature of comment pages would change immediately.

PS my real name IS Lunar Landing

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33. Anonymous BMS Researcher on September 30, 2013 7:44 PM writes...

Big Tobacco waged war on medical science for decades, now Big Oil and Big Coal are waging war on climate science. Nasty but not fundamentally new. What is new right now is the country has 1.5 political parties so public debate is even worse than usual.

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34. Lighter Fluid on September 30, 2013 11:55 PM writes...

@32 I wouldn't be so sure, I've seen many a facebook post that would suggest the opposite.

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35. Anonymous on October 1, 2013 1:37 AM writes...

For those who doubt a war on expertise exists, consider reading "merchants of doubt" by Oreskes and Conway. In addition to the erosion of trust mentioned above, active deceit for political and or economic purposes certainly exists. There is a great interview with Naomi Oreskes on NPR that summarizes many of the main points in the book.

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36. Anonymous on October 1, 2013 1:47 AM writes...

"one of the first questions I get when I talk to anyone else who runs a web site is how on Earth the comments section around here stays so readable and sane!"

Judging by the comments above I guess that must have been some time ago.

Now, back to fat people and calories: Does a hot pie have more calories than a cold pie?

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37. matt on October 1, 2013 2:54 AM writes...

Re: war on expertise, and deference to experts...people need to be re-reminded of William Jennings Bryan. And reconsider why they think a consensus always converges toward truth, or why they think a scientific view should be the most popularly held one.

I think MTK is right: the core challenge is not around facts and logic, but trust. Trust is built up from (positive) personal interactions. So it's no surprise the Internet, which provides access to massive amounts of facts and data but very few additional personal interactions, is still very slow to change people's trust networks.

I sympathize with Popular Science. To #3 cirby, consider that arguing science in the comments section is not paying a penny toward their livelihood. In fact, since it can absorb vast amounts of time, it is taking quite a few pennies away from their livelihood or time from family or time doing other more worthwhile pursuits. And consider how you summarized the research: the vast portion of their customers don't care to even wade into the comments. Furthermore, you assume, very wrongly, that all the anti-science opponents in the comments section need to be convinced is a good argument. In fact, the quality of the argument provided by PS staffers (or even erudite, possibly even Nobel-prize-winning other commenters) is unrelated to what it would take to convince their commenters.

Where I disagree with Popular Science is thinking that it is somehow better to shove these conversations, or even one-sided rants, away from their articles or away from public view. I think it's healthy to allow people to vent, even ignorant positions.

I wonder, Derek, if part of the "magic" of this website is that you invite regular comments on technical and industry topics (layoffs at X, ugly drug candidates, smells of compound Y, etc) that don't involve the zombie hordes, and so those regular commenters then involve themselves in the topic threads that do draw in the crazies. And, by not beating on one particular drum over and over, you avoid feeding a particular group of crazies (water memory treatments, penny stock advocates, Dr. Oz fans, Evil Pharma ranters) enough controversy to hang around. Thirdly, your posts are usually so painstakingly polite and considerate of both sides of an argument, which likely reduces the heat of the replies.

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38. cirby on October 1, 2013 9:28 AM writes...

"Furthermore, you assume, very wrongly, that all the anti-science opponents in the comments section need to be convinced is a good argument."

Not so. I assume that, when someone finds a severe flaw or compromising issue in a story, that it should be addressed. Far too many "science and technology" stories are just retyped press releases from one source or another, and a lot of them are flawed interpretations of much-less-controversial issues, rewritten to make the story newsworthy.

For example, Popular Science's own claim in the story about removing comments was false. Any news organization that doesn't allow for addressing of flaws isn't worth following.

You also use the "anti-science" term, which isn't really so, even though PopSci wants it to be. Pointing out a drastic flaw in a quickly written "science" article is not "anti-science. No, claiming that it was all because of those darned anti-folks and the ones who disagree with the specifics of the AGW hypothesis does not excuse the other 90%+ of articles that PopSci writes - and screws up.

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39. Vader on October 1, 2013 10:21 AM writes...

I am troubled that PopSci ranks evolution with anthropogenic global warming as equally solidly established science. I find the AGW hypothesis plausible, but there are things in the data that really ought to give its advocates pause. It may be right, but it's not yet been proven right to anything like the degree of evolution.

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40. Yancey Ward on October 1, 2013 10:32 AM writes...

The reaction to "scientific doctrine" (and, good grief, what kind of good scientist ever writes that phrase?) may well be politically motivated, but here is the thing the Popular Science writer misses- the reaction is actually a counterreaction to politically motivated expertise.

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41. Semichemist on October 1, 2013 11:46 AM writes...

#32 captured my stance perfectly: "Gone are the days ... where people are held accountable for their opinions."

Everyone on the internet is now an expert on what they're commenting on, and react to criticisms of their beliefs with ad hominem instead of sources, studies, facts, etc.
The commenters were 80% the above example, 10% people legitimately discussing the article at hand, and 10% "Hey I agree with Greg, I was astonished when I made $2452 from just sitting at home! Check".
And nothing important was lost that day...

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42. Crimso on October 2, 2013 11:11 AM writes...

Not trying to stray too far from the original topic, but people arguing over calories, obesity, nutrition, etc. should think about something: the caloric content of what you eat is not necessarily the no. of calories that must be accounted for through exercise, weight gain, etc. Just because you put it in your mouth and swallow it, doesn't mean it ends up in your body. There was at least one study done that attempted to determine how many calories eaten are actually absorbed (don't have the reference immediately at hand, but it was about 40 years ago by Sir Denis Burkitt, it may have been in Lancet). You might be surprised at what % were absorbed by his reckoning (and it varied significantly between the two populations he studied). Before you apply the laws of thermodynamics, you need to carefully define what the system is.

When I heard a physician say on NPR that the Atkins diet violates the laws of thermodynamics, my original training (chemical engineering) shoved aside the biochemistry in my brain and immediately focused on the subject matter of a course I took 30 years ago: Material and Energy Balances.

There are other proxy measures of metabolism that may well render moot the question of how many calories absorbed, but some more direct study of the question might provide some of the answers as to why some diets work for some people but not others. When the no. you're using for "calories in" is incorrect, you're bound to end up with skewed and screwy results.

And anybody who disagrees with any of this should be banned from commenting here.

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43. great unknown on October 2, 2013 5:50 PM writes...

I was certain that Anonymous's remarks were intended as satire, to illustrate the point about pseudo-expertise. But given the comment by Crimso, I realize that I may have been wrong: he may have been serious.

a) Crimso's remark regarding the necessity of defining the system is spot on.

b) Has anybody done a study of the effect of various diets on the caloric content of the body's wastes ?

c) There are thermogenic effects to consider: the energy required to digest different food types varies. Again, this is work being done by the system and consuming some of the input energy.

d) There are interesting studies of the effects of intestinal flora on weight gain. In fact, this was cited on this site

e) There are studies and meta-studies showing that low-carb, high-fat diets are actually effective beyond what would be expected by strict calorie counting.

f) Farmers have long known that certain strains of animals gain more weight than others on isocaloric diets. It would be absurd to suppose that this does not apply to the human species.

Thus, the classic trope of applying the first law of thermodynamics to weight gain/loss is precisely the type of expertise which should be, and currently is, being dismantled.

It is ironic that this comes up so soon after the article about the many papers ultimately resulting in Nobel Prizes that were initially rejected because they violated scientific consensus.

Now I will just sit back in my recliner with some popcorn and observe with dismay the fearful damage being unleashed during this unprecedentedly violent and intense hurricane season.

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44. JK on October 6, 2013 11:04 PM writes...

Commenters often provide links to updated or additional information that wasn't provided in the original article. If people are interested, you can bet they will find out a retracted paper that was quoted in the article before you do.

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45. ChristianKl on October 8, 2013 12:45 PM writes...

When it comes to trust, climate scientists don't really behave in a way that deserves trust.

If someone has an encrypted protocol and wants other to trust his protocol than he has to reveal the source code to allow other to verify that it does what the experts tell us.

I would want a open sourced computer model with open data that produces all the probability values that the IPCC report contains.

In the absence of climate researches who engage into best practices of trustworthyness, we are left with saying that the researchers are probably right but trust is something different.

To the extend that climate scientists complain about lack of public trust, they are guilty of not following good protocols.

You also have people who think they defend climate science who say that human global warming is certain while the IPCC only says it's extremly likely >0.95 (IPCC has a virtually certain category that means >0.99).

Climate change doesn't have the 4 sigma's that theoretical physics results need to be accepted. Everyone who claims that climate change is as settled as evolution is just as scientifically illiterate as the climate change deniers.

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