Zac Goldsmith: Dense About Science


12:23 pm - January 6th 2010

by Unity    


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It looks like being a long, drawn-out general election campaign and that mean plenty of opportunities for politicians to demonstrate their scientific illiteracy and statistical ineptitude.

This is a field in which, as might readily be expected, the Tories have already taken an early lead courtesy of Cameron’s Greenwash Guru and ex-Non-Dom, Zac Goldsmith, who’s clearly failed to take to heart the first rule of writing fact-check articles; make absolutely sure your own facts are correct before you publish:

Every few months, an organisation called Sense About Science (SAS) issues a pamphlet that makes fun of celebrities getting their science wrong. It is full of what it regards to be false assertions by celebrities about the benefits of homeopathy and so on, and ends with an offer by the organisation to act as a fact-checking service.

Actually, Sense About Science’s Science for Celebrities series is an annual publication but that’s the least of Zac’s problems when compared to the abject intellectual dishonesty and general ineptitude of the rest of his commentary.

Yes, as Goldsmith points out, some of the principle figures in the organisation do have historical connections with the long-defunct RCP and Living Marxism magazine and it’s also true that the organisation’s chairman, Lord Taverne, does not have a background in the sciences – he’s actually a barrister and has a first degree in Philosophy and Ancient History. Nevertheless, if we are be scrupulous in reporting the facts then we should not that ten of organisation’s thirteen trustees are scientists and that one of the board’s three ‘lay’ members, the broadcaster Nick Ross, has a degree in psychology. The organisation also has an advisory council that boasts an impressive array of scientific experience.

Amongst science-bloggers the omission of relevant evidence that materially weakens or disproves your argument is called ‘cherry-picking’ and it’s generally taken to be a sign that you’re dealing with either a quack or an idiot, a view that’s certainly reinforced by Goldsmith’s next statement:

Sense About Science’s director UK, Ellen Raphael, said “a little checking goes a long way”. This is the same organisation that claimed, in response to concerns raised by various celebrities: that if cancer is increasing, “it’s more common mostly because people are living longer”. This is hard to substantiate for all kinds of reasons, not least the fact that according to the US National Cancer Institute, childhood cancers have been increasing by 1% every year since the 50s.

Actually, the organisation does, itself, not make claims of this kind in its pamphlets. What it does is put the comments made by celebrities to actual scientists who then provide the facts, which SAS report. So, in this case, the dumb opening statement was made by Britain’s Queen of the Gurkhas, Joanna Lumley, who said (in 2007):

“We cannot go on force-feeding animals chemicals and growth stimulants the way we are. Why do you think cancer is roaring ahead at the moment?”

And the response to this statement came from Professor John Toy, the medical director of Cancer Research UK, who said:

Cancer is not ‘roaring ahead’. It is more common mostly because people are living longer. It is essential that ‘cancer causing’ claims are based only on scientifically proven facts, not scaremongering. There is no definitive evidence that controlled food additives cause cancer. We do know that half of cancers are caused by lifestyle factors such as being overweight.

Contrary to Goldsmith’s uninformed and statistically innumerate opinion, Prof Toy’s statement is extremely easy to substantiate, even though it’s also true that the incidence of all childhood cancer did increase, in the UK, by 0.8% a year between 1962 and 1998.

Goldsmith is making two very basic statistical errors here.

First, he’s relying on a relative increase in the incidence of childhood cancers without giving any consideration to what this actually means in terms of the absolute incidence of these conditions. Had he bothered to check his facts he might have noticed that, as a result of this 0.8% increase in the relative incidence of childhood cancer, the absolute incidence rose from 102 cases per 1 million UK children in 1962 to 140 cases per 1 million children in 1998.

(BTW, all data in this next bit comes from Cancer Research UK)

Having failed to check the absolute incidence, he then makes his second mistake and compounds his original error by failing to take account both the fact that the childhood cancers are extremely rare, relative to the incidence of cancer in adults and, therefore, have little or no impact on the overall incidence of cancer in the UK population and that the risk of developing cancer increases with age. In fact, getting older is by far the largest risk factor associated with most cancers, with the possible exception of lung cancer, which is definitively linked to smoking.

So, the absolute incidence of childhood cancer is currently around 150 -160 cases per year for every 1 million children living in the UK.

The absolute incidence of cancer in the UK population as a whole is currently 375.4 cases per 100,000 population, which means that childhood cancers account for just under 4 out of every 1,000 newly diagnosed cancers each year in a population in which 19 out of every hundred individuals is a child (i.e. under 16).

To put that fully into its proper perspective, the absolute incidence of cancer in people aged 35-44 is currently 140 cases per 100,000 population, ten times higher than the incidence in children and this rises as you move up through the age groups for which incidence statistics are collated.

For people aged between 55 and 64, the annual incidence of all cancers is 822 cases per 100,000.

At 65-74, it rises again to 1592 cases per 100,000 and once you get into the 75+ age bracket, the incidence rises to 2430 cases per 100,000 population.

It’s a very simple equation. The older you are the more likely you are to develop cancer, in fact you are around 175 times more likely to develop cancer if you’re over 75 than you are if you are if you’re under 16, so the more people you have who live well into their seventies and beyond, the more prevalent cancer will become in the general population.

What Goldsmith is trying to allude to, by citing the increase in the incidence of childhood cancers is the widespread belief, amongst environmental activists, that cancers are commonly caused by pesticides and other man-made chemicals in foodstuffs and in the environment, generally, but the reality is that much of the scientific evidence for this is weak to non-existent and the number of cases that can be definitively linked to environmental pollution is relatively small and, typically, highly localised in communities and segments of the general population in which there’s a well-documented history of contact with known carcinogens. So far as the increase in the incidence of childhood cancer since the 1950’s is concerned, although there has been much speculation about possible environmental causes, there is still little or no concrete supporting evidence for such claims and this remains very much an open research field.

Cancer is a  subject that scares the bejeebus out of many people, which is why its important that the public are given clear and accurate information about its incidence. mortality and survival rates and its known and established causes, rather than the kind of innumerate bullshit that Goldsmith spouts here.

That said, it’s only in the final couple of paragraphs that we find the real reason for Goldsmith’s ham-fisted attack on Sense About Science, and its turns out that their primary offence on this occasion has been that of turning its attention to the banal outpourings of the macrobiotically saintly Gwyneth Paltrow.

Gwyneth Paltrow for instance is ridiculed for saying: “When I read about what pesticides can do to small animals, I thought, ‘Why would I want to expose my child to that?'” It’s a comment that resonates with many people. SAS, however, counters that “if studies produce doubt about the safety of a pesticide, it is not approved for use”.

Again, Goldsmith’s article shows a marked degree of factual economy. The full Paltrow quote runs as follows:

The American actress Gwyneth Paltrow has ap­peared again in our review, this time stressing the importance of eating “foods that were organic, grown locally, and not processed or full of preservatives[…] When I’d read about what pesticides do to small animals, I thought, why would I expose my child to that?”

And SAS give this one the benefit of not one but two responses:

Gwyneth misses the point that it is the dose that makes the poison, the amounts found in our food are very low and there is no evidence of any ill-effects. – Dr John Cherrie, human exposure scientist, Institute of Occupational Medicine

Experimental animals are ex­posed to doses substantially greater than those to which consumers will ever be ex­posed and the mechanism by which pesticides cause harm will not operate at the levels to which humans are exposed via their food. If these studies produce doubt about the safety of a pesticide, it is not ap­proved for use. – Professor Alan Boobis, Toxicologist, Imperial College London

To which Goldsmith responds by citing a case in which a chemical has been banned by the EU on environmental grounds but, again. Omits some important facts:

Perhaps SAS is unaware of the story of Atrazine, a pesticide that causes male frogs to grow ovaries in their testes living in water containing levels 30 times lower than those set by the US Environmental Protection Agency for drinking water. Like countless other dangerous chemicals, it slipped through the safety net and was only banned in 2004 by the EU – after years of campaigning by environmentalists.

Sound horrific, yes? But let’s consider the facts that Goldsmith omits to mention…

Atrazine was first licensed in the US in 1958 and continues to be licensed for use over the other side of big pond on the back of a series of revisions to the regulatory regime imposed by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Oh, and I should mention that it’s a herbicide (weed killer) not a pesticide, as Goldsmith claims, and is still used in the US on 75% of the country’s field corn acreage, as well as being popular with domestic gardeners in Florida and the South-East, where its used to treat lawns.

It was, however, banned by the EU in 2004 as a result of scientific evidence which demonstrated a causal link between Atrazine and the incidence of male amphibians developing ovaries that Goldsmith mention, although he fails to point out that this connection was only demonstrated in 2003 following the publication of two papers by Dr Tyrone Hayes of UC Berkeley, the first reports of which appeared in 2002. Although environmental groups did campaign against its use for some time before the evidence of its impact on amphibians emerged, they did so on the basis of unproven claims that chemical seepage into groundwater was contaminating drinking water and could, therefore, prove harmful to humans, a claim for which there is still no credible supporting evidence.

All of which means that although Atrazine has been banned by the EU, this has nothing whatsoever to do with the ill-informed and unspecific maunderings of either celebrities or even environmental activists but because of the results of a rigorous and exacting piece of scientific research, this being precisely the point that Sense About Science are making with their Science for Celebrities pamphlets.

As for Goldsmith’s final comment…

A little fact-checking, indeed.

… I suspect that a picture really does say a thousand words.

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About the author
'Unity' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He also blogs at Ministry of Truth.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Conservative Party ,Environment ,Science

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Reader comments


All power to your elbow but the RCP is not “long defunct” – it is alive and well and operating as Spiked Magazine and the Institute for Ideas.

This is actually an important point in terms of rebutting Goldsmith because, while SAS take a pro-science position on things, Spiked in particular has become famed for its tinfoil hat wearing climate change denialism. To claim therefore that the two work hand in glove is highly misleading.

Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?

2 – You’ve not read Unity before? The sledgehammer is remorselessly accurate; the nut duly crushed…

Although in this case, Goldsmith is standing to be an MP, and so having his various inaccuracies pointed out to him, in detail, by a blogger is hardly bullying.

Tim has it spot on with regards to the hardline and quite wonderful accurate efficiency of Unity.

And Goldsmith is no butterfly…

5. Shatterface

‘Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?’

Ophelia Benson?

Good article but as James Graham points out the RCP’s latest incarnation doesn’t always practice what it preaches, while Goldsmith’s hysteria over pesticides (or herbicides) wouldn’t be out of place among the Greens. Evidence-based science isn’t supported *consistantly* by any part of the political spectrum.

6. Donut Hinge Party

Professor Alan Boobis, Toxicologist

Heh. Boobis.

The reason for increase in childhood cancers is more looking for them. There are many tumours that develop that the body succesfully overcomes & which previously would never have been seen & thus recorded. This is proven because the rate of child cancer deaths has not risen.

Cherry picking is not a sign of stupidity, since it is deliberate. It is a sign of dishonesty & as you point out he has cherry picked even from the quotes he takes from points he is attacking. I will accept that the intelligence may not be Goldsmith’s own but that of the researchers he, being a billionaire by inheritance, can hire to “help” write his articles & magazine.

A sterling example of the best of eco-fascism.

8. Chris Jones

What a delightful response to the manure the Goldsmith spewed out in the Guardian this morning.

Once again, a right-wing figure deliberately distorts the science. I thought it was mainly limited to Global Warming Denialism, evidently I’m wrong.

As a scientist I have no problem with non-scientists discussing science as long as it is done with respect and intelligence.

Spending an hour or two (or even significantly more) researching an article and then claiming to find the flaw that was missed by trained and qualified scientists who have spend significantly more time collectively, is either the work of an idiot or of someone deliberately trying to mislead their readers.

Some will suggest that it is all conspiracy theories, particularly in relation to global warming, but also with MMR, Mobile Phones and numerous other things. However, the chances of keeping a conspiracy quiet between so many scientists, and all the other people necessarily involved is so small that to believe it would require you also to believe in fairies, Santa and the tooth fairy.

More info about Sense About Science and their Living Marxism pals http://www.spinprofiles.org/index.php/Sense_About_Science

10. Brian Ashton

After reading Goldsmiths article this morning and detecting a foul stench – I’m glad I found this site. Nice work & comments.

11. So Much For Subtlety

An excellent article, in general, however this is dubious:

“And the response to this statement came from Professor John Toy, the medical director of Cancer Research UK, who said: …. We do know that half of cancers are caused by lifestyle factors such as being overweight.”

We don’t know that as it happens. There appears to be a correlation between some types of cancer and being overweight. But we do not know that there is causation nor can any plausible causation mechanism be put forward, or at least none has up to now. Suppose that KFC’s deep fried chicken was causing cancer. You would be likely to find more people eating it in the obese category, but it wouldn’t be the obesity that caused the cancer. People get fatter as they get older, they are more likely to be fat if they are poor. These are also two risks for cancer. So it is likely to be a spurious correlation.

No body take Goldsmith seriously as an environmentalist. Look at how he got his wealth. Inherited wealth from a corporate raider.

He then takes up a position as a so called environmentalist ,and uses that position to attack the Labour Govt for not doing enough. This in turn helps to get him a name, and then surprise ,surprise he joins the tory party and wants to become a tory MP.

Fucking priceless.

SMFS:

Granted, the reference to obesity is not the one I would have chosen to highlight the lifestyle aspects of cancer but when you consider that smoking/lung cancer will be one of big ticket items in this area, I would necessarily rule out the possibility that lifestyle factors could account for a sizeable proportion of cancers.

This is likely, I think, to be one of those occasions where there may be a bit of a conflict between the detail of the evidence and the general mores of public health promotion, which favour the use of clear, straightforward, messages.

14. So Much For Subtlety

12. sally – “No body take Goldsmith seriously as an environmentalist. Look at how he got his wealth. Inherited wealth from a corporate raider.”

I see. Sally thinks that Zac Goldsmith’s ideas are rendered wrong by the fact that his Father made a lot of money in ways Sally does not approve. It is an opinion I suppose. Not one that I hold. You may as well say Goldsmith can’t be an Environmentalist because he is a Jew.

“This in turn helps to get him a name, and then surprise ,surprise he joins the tory party and wants to become a tory MP.”

Environmentalists come in all shapes and sizes. It is not an inherently Left Wing ideology but merely a place the Hard Left has gone since the USSR collapsed and they had to fend for themselves. Fifty years ago many of them were former Nazis. There have always been Ultra-Right environmentalists – and it is not surprising as the concept of “genetic purity” and the like fits in with both. But then there have been liberal ones, socialist ones and so on. So he is a Tory? So what?

“Fucking priceless.”

Indeed.

13. Unity

“Granted, the reference to obesity is not the one I would have chosen to highlight the lifestyle aspects of cancer but when you consider that smoking/lung cancer will be one of big ticket items in this area, I would necessarily rule out the possibility that lifestyle factors could account for a sizeable proportion of cancers.”

I think that Doll’s success has made too many researchers too ambitious. I think the entire lifestyle/environmental approach to cancer has been a disaster. Virtually no link can be shown between almost anything and cancer apart from smoking. What we have are some very small cancers which are associated with some very rare chemicals and just about nothing else. Doll was strict in his level of proof and about the only thing I can think of that has come close since has been thalidomide. It may be lifestyle factors are important, but there is next to no evidence of it. There is not even a good link between lifestyle and heart attacks.

“This is likely, I think, to be one of those occasions where there may be a bit of a conflict between the detail of the evidence and the general mores of public health promotion, which favour the use of clear, straightforward, messages.”

So they are lying to us for our own good? Perhaps. Except that being slightly obese means you are likely to live longer than if you meet the Government’s weight targets. I think that the State’s health policy has been seized by cranks and quacks and they are intent on bullying us with their marginal and mostly unscientific theories in mind, not evidence. As we have seen with alcohol levels they are mostly making it all up. In the long run that will do us all damage.

So they are lying to us for our own good?

That’s putting it a little harshly but there is a tension between the perceived need to deliver straightforward and effective public health messages, which tend to be fairly simplistic in order to get over, and the underlying scientific evidence, which can be rather more equivocal.

Some of the scepticism that’s emerging in this area is certainly healthy, inasmuch as its the kind that demand more information and a more accurate and exacting picture of the strength of the evidence.

Much is, however, far from healthy in the sense that it promotes conspiracy theories and pseudoscience.

As ever, the issues are complex, when you delve into them. Its not that health policy has been taken over by cranks and quacks, most of the public health information and advice that emanates from health professional stems from good intentions but loses almost all nuance when translated into the kind of sound bites that the media and politicians too often demand.

Their are no tory environmentalists just NIMBYS. And that is what Goldsmith is, a big NIMBY.

He lives very well on the back of money made by his father screwing up the environment. His Father was a well know tory and only fell out with the tory party
over Europe.

It will be delicious watching Goldsmith in the Cameron cabinet not resign every time the tories do some deal with big business that screws the environment.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    :: Zac Goldsmith: Dense About Science http://bit.ly/4QKI2n

  2. Daniel Selwood

    RT @libcon: :: Zac Goldsmith: Dense About Science http://bit.ly/4QKI2n

  3. Leon Green

    RT @Unity_MoT: New post from me at @libcon – Zac Goldsmith tries to smear Sense About Science and facepalms himself – http://bit.ly/4QKI2n

  4. Dave Cross

    RT @Unity_MoT: New post from me at @libcon – Zac Goldsmith tries to smear Sense About Science and facepalms himself – http://bit.ly/4QKI2n

  5. Thetis

    RT @Unity_MoT New post from me at @libcon – Zac Goldsmith tries to smear Sense About Science and facepalms himself – http://bit.ly/4QKI2n

  6. Julie Bristow

    RT @libcon: :: Zac Goldsmith: Dense About Science http://bit.ly/4QKI2n

  7. James Hepplestone

    This man is apparently qualified to edit a magazine. Please can I edit a magazine? I am also capable of dressing myself http://bit.ly/4nACXU

  8. thabet

    Liberal Conspiracy: Zac Goldsmith: Dense About #Science http://ow.ly/TpC6

  9. Tweets that mention Liberal Conspiracy » Zac Goldsmith: Dense About Science -- Topsy.com

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Liberal Conspiracy, Daniel Selwood. Daniel Selwood said: RT @libcon: :: Zac Goldsmith: Dense About Science http://bit.ly/4QKI2n […]

  10. Unity

    New post from me at @libcon – Zac Goldsmith tries to smear Sense About Science and facepalms himself – http://bit.ly/4QKI2n

  11. Craig Russell

    Missed this last week. Zac Goldsmith attacks #senseaboutscience http://tiny.cc/2M0gz Unity provides well aimed rebuttal http://tiny.cc/sKe8T

  12. Sam Cook

    Zac Goldsmith's take on #senseAboutScience http://tinyurl.com/y9kcwnp and a deconstruction of his rubbish: http://tinyurl.com/ybkoy7u

  13. uberVU - social comments

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by libcon: :: Zac Goldsmith: Dense About Science http://bit.ly/4QKI2n

  14. Danny Moules

    Zac Goldsmith – Dense About Science: http://bit.ly/dsYjy4 Fire with fire and everybody burns. #ten23

  15. David Briggs

    RT @Rushyo: Zac Goldsmith – Dense About Science: http://bit.ly/dsYjy4 Fire with fire and everybody burns. #ten23

  16. Alan Henness

    RT @Rushyo: Zac Goldsmith – Dense About Science: http://bit.ly/dsYjy4 Fire with fire and everybody burns. #ten23





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