Experts Agree! Or, What I Hope Becomes #ExpertsAgree! — Rob Long

 

Because I love the idea of “settled science,” I try to keep track of what experts agree on, or agreed on, that was found to be wanting.

For instance, fleas caused the Black Death, right?  (That’s what I learned in 9th Grade history.) Not so fast.  From The Guardian:

The 25 skeletons unearthed in the Clerkenwell area of London a year ago may hold the key to the truth about the nature of the Black Death that ravaged Britain and Europe in the mid-14th century.

A Channel 4 documentary on Sunday will claim that analysis of the bodies and of wills registered in London at the time has cast doubt on “facts” that every schoolchild has learned for decades: that the epidemic was caused by a highly contagious strain spread by the fleas on rats.

Settled science? Nope:

According to scientists working at Public Health England in Porton Down, for any plague to spread at such a pace it must have got into the lungs of victims who were malnourished and then been spread by coughs and sneezes. It was therefore a pneumonic plague rather than a bubonic plague. Infection was spread human to human, rather than by rat fleas that bit a sick person and then bit another victim.

In other words: we don’t know what caused the Black Death of the 14th Century.  Here’s how you know you’re a conservative: because your reaction to this is, Yes, of course.  There are lots of things we don’t know.

Another way to tell is if the following causes you to chuckle meanspiritedly. It’s from a Marketwatch column from 2007, entitled: “Apple Should Pull the Plug on the iPhone”:

The hype over the unreleased iPhone has actually increased over the past month despite the fact that nobody has seen or used the device. This, if nothing else, proves the power of branding and especially the power of brand loyalty.

It’s the loyalists who keep promoting this device as if it is going to be anything other than another phone in a crowded market. And it’s exactly the crowded-market aspect of this that analysts seem to be ignoring.

Experts agree!  And there’s more:

There is no likelihood that Apple can be successful in a business this competitive. Even in the business where it is a clear pioneer, the personal computer, it had to compete with Microsoft and can only sustain a 5% market share.

And its survival in the computer business relies on good margins. Those margins cannot exist in the mobile handset business for more than 15 minutes.

And note that the Microsoft Corp. versus Apple battles are laughable compared to the frenzied marketing mania in the handset business. Even Microsoft itself has troubles with its attempts to get into a small sub segment of the handset business with its operating system.

What Apple risks here is its reputation as a hot company that can do no wrong. If it’s smart it will call the iPhone a “reference design” and pass it to some suckers to build with someone else’s marketing budget. Then it can wash its hands of any marketplace failures.

It should do that immediately before it’s too late. Samsung Electronics Ltd. might be a candidate. Otherwise I’d advise you to cover your eyes. You’re not going to like what you’ll see.

I know: this is anecdotal reasoning. It’s not transferrable, say, to the current hysterical reaction to climate variations, or the efforts by global warming enthusiasts to silence their critics. Still, it’s fun to think about, yes?  

 

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  1. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    AGW folks remind me a lot of those trumpeting Lysekoism back during the 20th century, complete with governmental suppression of those objecting to it. (For that matter, Trofim Lysenko looks as if he could have been Al Gore’s grandfather.)

    What is more relevant is the scientific consensus about scurvy back in the 18th century.  Ways to prevent scurvy had been discovered in the 17th century and were in use by the end of that century.  However, it did not fit with medical theory of that era, and the use of antiscourbics such as spruce beer and citrus were rejected as “old wives tales” for nearly a century in favor of ineffective “cures” more in line with the accepted wisdom. 

    It was not until James Lind put aside his preconceptions and proved through trials that citrus fruit prevented scurvy that the Royal Navy finally reverted to using lime and lemon juice to prevent scurvy.

    • #1
  2. Pencilvania Inactive
    Pencilvania
    @Pencilvania

    But 3 out of 4 doctors agree!

    Paging Dr. Moe, Dr. Larry, Dr. Curly . . .

    • #2
  3. user_1938 Inactive
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    According to scientists working at Public Health England in Porton Down, for any plague to spread at such a pace it must have got into the lungs of victims who were malnourished and then been spread by coughs and sneezes. It was therefore a pneumonic plague rather than a bubonic plague. Infection was spread human to human, rather than by rat fleas that bit a sick person and then bit another victim.

    Does this add new depth to the tradition of saying “Bless you!” after someone sneezes?

    • #3
  4. user_86050 Inactive
    user_86050
    @KCMulville

    I argue that the current wave of Groupthink and Settled Science (but I repeat myself) are based on the Coherence Theory of truth. This theory states that people deem a statement to be true if it “coheres” with the body of other statements that we already deem true.

    The other big-time theory of truth is the “correspondence” theory (we’ll leave pragmatism aside for now). The correspondence theory says that your statement is true if it “corresponds” to reality. The problem with Correspondence is that it’s damned near impossible to prove. It begins (critics say) with some metaphysical assumptions about Reality, and that language is supposed to mirror that Reality. Harrumph to that! 

    While it may be difficult to prove correspondence to metaphysical reality, coherence only has to agree with other statements. Coherence is the “workable” measure of truth. In other words, we believe something is true if it fits with our other beliefs.

    (1 of 2)

    (NOTE: Because Ricochet temporarily allows 200+ words, I am voluntarily breaking up my post into parts. I encourage others to do the same self-discipline.)

    • #4
  5. user_86050 Inactive
    user_86050
    @KCMulville

    (2 of 2)

    Ah, but here’s the innovation that’s behind all our troubles … it’s the Wikipedia problem.

    You and I, as individuals, have a set of beliefs. But increasingly, we don’t compile those beliefs ourselves. We download them from public information sources.

    We rely on the internet. We rely on Wikipedia. There are so many topics within easy reach of an iPhone that we fantasize that we have an authoritative wealth of “proven” knowledge at our fingertips.

    Surely Wikipedia wouldn’t lie. Surely the compiled and collective public opinion carries the weight of authority, doesn’t it?

    The technology of the internet has bestowed a false sense of authority. Lazy human beings are notorious for letting someone else do their intellectual work for them … and now the internet has accelerated that laziness. The set of beliefs that we take as true is determined by the all-pervasive internet, and the internet is willing to “authoritatively” define everything.

    • #5
  6. user_514162 Inactive
    user_514162
    @MarkDriscoll

    Pencilvania:But 3 out of 4 doctors agree!Paging Dr. Moe, Dr. Larry, Dr. Curly . . .

    Actually, that’s, “Paging Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard.”  :)

     

    • #6
  7. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    KC Mulville:

    The other big-time theory of truth is the “correspondence” theory (we’ll leave pragmatism aside for now).

    I thought about looking this up on Wikipedia, but I’m just too lazy.  I’ll take your word for it instead.

    • #7
  8. Pilli Inactive
    Pilli
    @Pilli

    Mark Driscoll: Paging Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard.”

     Paging Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard.  Sorry, I couldn’t resist.  I remembered watching it as a 7 year old.

    • #8
  9. Marion Evans Inactive
    Marion Evans
    @MarionEvans

    The author of the Apple article predicted in another piece that Apple will start selling a TV in 2013. This guy has the touch. See here http://www.marketwatch.com/story/apple-hdtv-is-coming-in-2013-2012-11-16

    • #9
  10. Roberto Inactive
    Roberto
    @Roberto

    The discovery that bacteria rather than stress cause stomach ulcers and that antibiotics can cure the condition has won this year’s Nobel prize in physiology or medicine…

    Until the two scientists carried out their pioneering research, it was widely believed that nothing could live in the extremely acid environment of the stomach, and that ulcers and gastritis were the result of lifestyle and stress.Professor Warren said it took a decade for others to accept their findings. “Everybody believed there were no bacteria in the stomach. When I said they were there, no one believed it,” he said….

    The two scientists managed to challenge prevailing dogmas with tenacity and a prepared mind, the assembly said. They presented an irrefutable case that the bacterium H. pylori is the cause of the disease, it added.

    Settled science.

    • #10
  11. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    It’s interesting that large shifts in science often take a full generation, because the old generation never accepts the new idea, but has to die off for the new paradigm to become widely agreed upon.

    • #11
  12. user_1938 Inactive
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    Until the two scientists carried out their pioneering research, it was widely believed that nothing could live in the extremely acid environment of the stomach

     Had they not heard of chemosynthesis?

    • #12
  13. user_1938 Inactive
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    Arahant: It’s interesting that large shifts in science often take a full generation, because the old generation never accepts the new idea, but has to die off for the new paradigm to become widely agreed upon.

    It’s more amazing to me how quickly absolute loyalty to one paradigm can be replaced by absolute loyalty to another. When my dad studied geology in college, the theory of plate tectonics was still laughed away as nonsense. Yet I was taught tectonics in Physical Science 101 in middle school, and any scientist then would be laughed away for denying it.

    It’s human nature to desire certainty and agreement, I guess.

    • #13
  14. tabula rasa Inactive
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    Didn’t “experts agree” for several centuries that everything in the universe revolves around the [correction] earth?

    And what about the four humors:  blood, black bile, phlegm, and yellow bile?  Pretty much settled science for at least a millennium, right? [I once thought an overabundance of black bile accounts for my melancholia; now I know it’s an overabundance of the Obama administration].

    • #14
  15. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Actually, it started out as everything revolving around the Earth, then it was everything revolves around the sun, then it became all relative, but there are still heliocentrists out there making fun of the terrocentrists.

    • #15
  16. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    tabula rasa: Didn’t “experts agree” for several centuries that everything in the universe revolves around the sun?

     The Earth, not the Sun.

    By the way we got to the Moon by placing the Earth at the center of the universe.  That was because NASA used the M50 coordinate system in the navigation system of Apollo (and really every space system until the late 1980s).  The origin of the M50 coordinate system?  The center of the Earth.  

    First stage guidance for Apollo used a flat-plate assumption.  Yup.  It treated the Earth as flat.

    So we got to the Moon by using the a flat Earth that was at the center of the Universe.  Like one of Jim Dunnigan’s rules of war states “If it’s stupid and it works, it’s not stupid.”

    • #16
  17. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Rob – Someday as a podcast guest you might want to talk to Samuel Arbesman – he’s a policy fellow at Harvard Medical and the Ewing Kauffman Foundation for Entrepreneurship. He wrote a book called The Half-life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date.

    • #17
  18. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    EJ, someone was looking for you in another thread.  I think it was the War on Married Women.  But since I’m taking my afternoon nap right now, there is a possibility I could misremember.

    • #18
  19. user_1938 Inactive
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    tabula rasa: And what about the four humors:  blood, black bile, phlegm, and yellow bile? 

    I’ve long considered that an example of a good theory based on limited knowledge. It’s easy to laugh at it now. But the theory wasn’t completely off base. There are indeed separate but codependent systems within the body which require a balance of chemicals. The liver is indeed a pivotal organ, as is the immune system (phlegm). 

    I don’t know what they teach in science colleges. But the impression I get from popular media is that modern scientists often don’t appreciate rudimentary scientists and pretend science is a modern invention. Knowledge and discovery are exponential. Science has picked up in recent centuries, but it justifiably took a long time to get here. Aristotle was no superstitious witchdoctor.

    • #19
  20. Vald the Misspeller Member
    Vald the Misspeller
    @

    Arahant:It’s interesting that large shifts in science often take a full generation, because the old generation never accepts the new idea, but has to die off for the new paradigm to become widely agreed upon.

     Max Planck stated this succinctly — perhaps in paraphrase —  as: “Science advances one funeral at a time.”

    • #20
  21. Horace Svácz Inactive
    Horace Svácz
    @HoraceSvacz

    Some of these posts should go to the discussion on vaccines. Some people find hard to believe that anyone would have reasons to be skeptical of vaccines… Settled science, they say.

    • #21
  22. Horace Svácz Inactive
    Horace Svácz
    @HoraceSvacz

    Roberto:

    The two scientists managed to challenge prevailing dogmas with tenacity and a prepared mind, the assembly said. They presented an irrefutable case that the bacterium H. pylori is the cause of the disease, it added.

    Settled science.

    In 2001 I was diagnosed with gastric ulcer, after a particularly stressful semester in graduate school. The doctor explained that we used to believe that the cause was stress and the treatment had to include dietary changes, but he gave me antibiotics and acid blockers. I called my trusted family doctor in Mexico (a homeopath, an admission that will earn me scorn around here). He said, “of course you have  H. pylori, but why you have it is the question.” He told me not to take the antibiotics or acid blockers and instead gave me a strict diet, a homeopathic remedy, and told me to take it easy. The first doctor couldn’t be happier at the follow up visit. I was cured and he is to this day convinced that antibiotics and acid blockers did it. Settled science, indeed.

    • #22
  23. Roberto Inactive
    Roberto
    @Roberto

    Horace Svácz:Some of these posts should go to the discussion on vaccines. Some people find hard to believe that anyone would have reasons to be skeptical of vaccines… Settled science, they say.

    That is certainly a fair argument however one must keep in mind that the current anti-vaccine movement has its origins in Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent research foisted on the British Medical Journal. Any who wish to persuade others on the issue of vaccine efficacy have a long road ahead them and for good reason. 

    • #23
  24. Vice-Potentate Inactive
    Vice-Potentate
    @VicePotentate

    Most of the assumptions about the black death came from India by way of Britain right around 1900.

    • #24
  25. Lady Randolph Inactive
    Lady Randolph
    @LadyRandolph

    Experts! Gotta love ’em. I admit that every time I read that “experts agree” upon anything, I automatically raise an eyebrow or two.

    This is a funny collection of failed “expert” predictions: http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2013/12/worst-predictions-2013-crystal-balderdash-101360.html#.U0fvQMfm1hA

    • #25
  26. Johnny Dubya Inactive
    Johnny Dubya
    @JohnnyDubya

    Here’s something fun to think about:

    In the 14th century, Sir Albert, a member of the political elite, leaves the sovereign’s court, puts on a few stones, grows a beard, and travels the countryside warning of the dangers of rats and their fleas.  He also happens to make a good living selling rat poison.

    • #26
  27. captainpower Inactive
    captainpower
    @captainpower

    Ah yes, things we learned as children that no one bothered to chase us down and correct for us.

    I was taught that you shouldn’t do drugs because your brain doesn’t create new brain cells, unlike the rest of the cells in your body, you are born with the total number of brain cells you will ever have. Turns out brain cells divide like normal cells. [source 1] [source 2]

    Brontosaurus (as featured in the children’s cartoon The Land Before Time) was a fake: [source 1] [source 2]

    There are probably more such instances that I can’t recall, or am still ignorant about.

    • #27
  28. captainpower Inactive
    captainpower
    @captainpower

    Found a couple more “conventional wisdom” things that turned out to be wrong.

    Ulcers are caused by stress. WRONG. bacteria.

    Finding on Ulcers Nets Pair a Nobel
    The World
    Australians will share the prize for discovering that the stomach ailment is caused by bacteria, not spicy foods or stress.
    October 04, 2005|Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writer
    http://articles.latimes.com/2005/oct/04/science/sci-nobel4

    Cirrhosis of the liver is causes by malnourishment. WRONG. Alcohol directly causes it.

    Dr. Charles S. Lieber dies at 78; researcher demonstrated that alcohol is a liver toxin
    Lieber showed that excessive drinking could change metabolism in the liver to convert a number of normally harmless chemicals, including acetaminophen, into toxins.
    March 18, 2009|Thomas H. Maugh II
    http://articles.latimes.com/2009/mar/18/local/me-charles-lieber18

    • #28
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