Field of Science

South Dakota legislature declares that astrology can explain global warming

Here in the U.S. we have a never-ending competition among the states to see which one can enact the dumbest laws. This past week, the South Dakota House of Representatives passed a law that tells schoolteachers how to present the evidence for global warming. The lawmakers who wrote the bill clearly don’t believe that global warming is a reality, so they simply created a law to promote their version of reality. Interestingly, they used the same strategy used by creationists in their efforts to ban the teaching of evolution: the “teach the controversy” approach, where you claim you simply want children to hear both sides of the issue. But the part that really got my attention was the law’s claim that “astrological dynamics” are one of the driving forces behind global climate change.

The South Dakota bill, which was passed 36-30 (not all the legislators are idiots; here’s the roll call vote), includes a number of delightful errors, which are worth examining one by one. Let’s start with the most entertaining claim:

That there are a variety of climatological, meteorological, astrological, thermological, cosmological, and ecological dynamics that can effect world weather phenomena and that the significance and interrelativity of these factors is largely speculative.
Wow! The South Dakota legislature has declared, by majority vote, that the ancient pseudoscience of astrology “can effect world weather”! Astrology, of course, is a superstitious belief that the movements of stars and planets can affect our daily lives here on Earth, a belief that has no basis in science. Some people – including, apparently, the South Dakota legislature – still take it seriously, although most view astrological forecasts as light entertainment.

(Perhaps South Dakota was jealous of all the attention that creationists are getting by attempting to legislate the teaching of creationism in other states. Bradford Plumer over at The New Republic thinks this is their attempt to win the “dumbest state in the nation” prize.)

And we mustn’t ignore “thermological” causes. Do the wise SD legislators realize that thermology is the analysis of detailed infrared images of the human body? I suppose all our warm bodies also affect world weather – it must be true, because the SD legislature says so. And “interrelativity”! They must mean “interrelatedness”, but how nice to bring in Einstein’s theory here. I can’t quite grasp how relativity has anything to do with global warming, but I probably don’t know as much physics as the South Dakota legislators.

Now let’s look at a couple more of the new law’s assertions:

WHEREAS, the earth has been cooling for the last eight years despite small increases in anthropogenic carbon dioxide;
This is equivalent to passing a law stating that the earth is flat. Voting on it doesn’t make it true. Even if it were true, legislators have no business passing laws declaring scientific facts – they shouldn’t pass a law declaring that the earth is an oblate spheroid either. In any case, this one is just wrong. Here’s a plot showing global average temperatures for the past century, which make it pretty clear that temperatures having been warmer the past 20 years.

According to NOAA, “seven of the eight warmest years on record have occurred since 2001 and the 10 warmest years have all occurred since 1995.” (Of course, if you think this is all a government conspiracy, you won't believe NOAA.)

Here’s another entertaining quote from the South Dakota bill:

During the Little Climatic Optimum, Erik the Red settled Greenland where they farmed and raised dairy cattle. Today, ninety percent of Greenland is covered by massive ice sheets, in many places more than two miles thick.
Do the lawmakers in South Dakota really think that the enormous Greenland ice sheet formed in just the past thousand years? The best scientific evidence suggests that the ice sheet is over 100,000 years old. Maybe one of the South Dakota lawmakers is a descendant of Erik the Red, and he just wanted to mention his ancestor in the law.

And here is a lovely non sequitur:

WHEREAS, carbon dioxide is not a pollutant but rather a highly beneficial ingredient for all plant life on earth. Many scientists refer to carbon dioxide as "the gas of life."
The “gas of life” – so I guess this means it can’t possibly harm us. A stunning piece of logic. The mind boggles, the room spins about us. Apparently, though, our friends in South Dakota are just following the lead of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which calls carbon dioxide “earth’s organic fertilizer.” It's funny how CEI, which claims to be dedicated to “limited government,” doesn't seem to mind when the government intrudes in the classroom, as long as it takes the right position.

Finally, let’s look at the opening declaration of the law:

the South Dakota Legislature urges that instruction in the public schools relating to global warming include the following:
(1) That global warming is a scientific theory rather than a proven fact;
This language is identical to that used by creationists in their attempts to undermine the teaching of evolution. Revealing his true agenda, Republican state representative Don Kopp said to the Rapid City (SD) Journal, “If you're going to teach science and there are two sides, you need to teach both, or it's about politics."

Sorry, Mr. Kopp, but no. Any idiot can take an opposing side on any issue – some people think the Earth is flat – but that doesn’t mean we should teach it. For most scientific questions, especially those that we teach to schoolchildren, there is only one well-supported “side.” On the topic of global warming, we should teach the theories that have strong scientific support.

I should admit that the South Dakota Senate, perhaps a bit embarrassed by their House colleagues, passed an amendment (just barely, 17-16) deleting the claims about astrology and thermology in the law. I guess this means that students in South Dakota will never learn the true astrological causes of global warming.

Battlefield acupuncture: pseudoscience for wounded troops

In times of war, it’s tough to cut the military budget. Unthinkable, really. But what if the military is spending money on something that actually harms wounded military men and women coming back from war? Unbelievable? It should be. Today’s article describes a practice that is so bizarre, so obviously ridiculous, that some readers may think I’m making this up. I’m not.

Doctors in our military are now treating severely injured soldiers with “battlefield acupuncture,” a technique where they stick short needles into five points on the ear. Air Force doctors admit that they are using battlefield acupuncture to treat severely wounded troops as they are taken from the battlefield to Andrews Air Force Base and to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. This includes soldiers with brain injuries, severed limbs, burns, and penetrating wounds.

The Air Force news website reported on this nearly two years ago when Major (Dr.) Conner Nguyen began treating wounded soldiers at Landstuhl Air Force Base in Germany, after he received training from Stephen Burns and Richard Niemtzow, military doctors from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. Niemtzow has trained hundreds of military doctors in battlefield acupuncture, a method that he invented in 2001. Niemtzow also boasted in an interview last year that “if the military is using it, then it must be good for the civilian world."

The Lancet finally retracts erroneous study linking MMR vaccine to autism

(A follow-up post to my post from 28 January)

Finally, 12 years after the British medical journal The Lancet published an article by Andrew Wakefield claiming a link between MMR vaccines and autism, six years after serious problems, including fraud, were uncovered, and six years after 10 of the original 13 authors retracted their findings: finally the editors at The Lancet have discovered some backbone, and have formally retracted Wakefield's article.

I should add that it is very unusual for a journal to retract an article over the objections of the original author, as they have done in this case. The editors were responding to the report of the UK General Medical Council, which I wrote about in my previous post, calling Andrew Wakefield's claims "dishonest and irresponsible."
The Lancet should have done this years ago, but it's still good news that they have finally retracted it. Their retraction appears here, and at the bottom of this post.

Unfortunately, The Lancet didn't finish the job. If you go to the original page containing the article, there is no indication that it has been retracted. Even worse, the official retraction links to the original article, but they didn't bother to add a link back to the retraction. There should a large, banner headline on the 1998 article stating that it has been retracted and that the conclusions are erroneous.

Here is the full text of yesterday's retraction, by The Lancet's editors:
"Following the judgment of the UK General Medical Council's Fitness to Practise Panel on Jan 28, 2010, it has become clear that several elements of the 1998 paper by Wakefield et al1 are incorrect, contrary to the findings of an earlier investigation.2 In particular, the claims in the original paper that children were "consecutively referred" and that investigations were "approved" by the local ethics committee have been proven to be false. Therefore we fully retract this paper from the published record."