Thursday, October 04, 2007

Scientific Methods for Kids

I was looking through ancient emails, and found one from my niece about a school project, which was supposed to be about a controversial topic. She chose researching whether HIV might be a bio-engineered weapon. So she wrote the family scientist Uncle Dave about lots of troubling stuff she had read. I recall talking back and forth about her project a few times, but in the beginning, I wanted to equip her with some basic skeptical attitudes. I'm not sure of all my facts or reasoning here, as I wrote off the cuff. My goal was to seed the conversation with humor and skepticism from the beginning, so I responded as follows:

Grandpa said you were going to email me about HIV or something. I’d be happy to help you evaluate whatever evidence you want to look at. I’ve heard those rumors about AIDS coming from a bioweapon since I was at Thomas More College (around 1988, I guess), so the idea has floated around for a while. I have not followed up at all until today, so I don’t know the state of the argument. I will say it does not get play in peer-reviewed science journals, which are not the ultimate arbiter of truth by any means, but they let you know what experts are up to, and what they think is important.

I am a little skeptical, though, for a few reasons involving the most basic science, psychology, and politics:

1. There is no story except at the very fringe. All big revelations start like that, you might think, but they only start on the fringe, and quickly become pervasive. The value of breaking this story in a credible fashion is hard to calculate, but it would guarantee some journalist’s career, even their place in history. There are a lot of fearless people who would not be dissuaded by less than credible fear of death, and some that would not be dissuaded even at that, who would love to expose this if it were true.

Politicians would salivate even more than journalists. Imagine if Republicans could prove that HIV was developed when Carter was president. Boy, Howdy! Or if someone had documents showing Ronald Reagan had commissioned research to develop a means for controlling the weather as a weapon. Science aside, the payoff politically would be huge, and there would be more people killed in the stampede to use the information against the other side than die from dread disease in a year.

This is not disproof that HIV is a bioweapon, and I don't want you to think that I am ridiculing the idea, but it does calibrate just how clandestine, and therefore expensive, it would be to keep this secret from the thousands of people all working independently on HIV. To be this expensive, it would have needed to be a very important project indeed, and for reasons I’ll give later, I think it could be argued logically that HIV is a emphatically not a valuable weapon.

2. Some people argue that ‘they’ (they could be the govt, the media, evil scientists) are keeping it a secret. Not likely, for the same reasons as in number 1. There have certainly been things that have remained undercover- the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment went on for a long time, and was racist and evil to the core. However, this was in a time when the money, fame and available outlets for exposure did not exist, and it was done to a group that was ignorant of what to expect in treatment and powerless. Notice that once outlets did exist, the story came out! Things that could be concealed 50 years ago would be damned near impossible today, and victims of AIDS, though tragic, are rarely ignorant or powerless, at least in the US. Keeping secrets gets harder and harder, especially those that require lots of people who are not easily controlled.

A favorite 'they' is evil scientists. I'd be the last to suggest that there are not evil scientists. But 'scientists' are not members of some sort of well-coordinated organization, and getting scientists to either cooperate or be quiet is not a task that I think anyone could do for long. Scientists worked in secret on the atomic bomb, but only a few, very isolated, for a few years. It is hard to keep technical secrets.

3. If HIV is a bioweapon, it certainly isn’t a very good one. It really isn’t transmitted very easily. It has a very long incubation period. Weapons are supposed to do something to someone. Generally, you shoot someone because you want them to stop doing something (beating you up, shooting you, stealing your money, occupying your land) in a relatively short time frame. You wouldn’t stop a robber by giving him AIDS. Serious bioweapons like smallpox or anthrax are much more deliberate and quick killers. If anyone wanted to rid the world of gay people, AIDS wouldn’t do it, because it is easy enough to avoid. Governments that spend gazillions on weapons expect them to work, and quickly. Maybe a failed bioweapon? Maybe. Is that really more likely than a natural source, though? And to what end? What is it that could be gained by doing this? Evil is an expensive business, and 'they' want a return on their investment, I would guess.

4. There is a lot of independent scientific work that shows that HIV is very closely related to an SIV (simian immune virus), and that it is a simple and not human-caused set of mutations that caused it to jump species, probably in Africans that butcher and eat apes. This is a known route for trans-species infection (just like the bird or swine flu varieties that break out in human populations). There would likely be markers if HIV had been human engineered, because genetic engineering is done by very specific methods, and they leave tracks. And people are not smart enough to ‘create’ a virus yet. They can recreate one that already exists, but that's a different task.

5. HIV sucks, and people think of it is as horribly dangerous, but compared to what? No one believable claims that Spanish (or bird, or hong kong) flu is a bioweapon, and they kill or could kill a lot more efficiently. 20 million in 1917-1918 by flu vs 32 million worldwide from HIV from the 1980s till now. I think that because certain populations that are most likely to transmit HIV are also sort of persecuted in other ways, they might feel like it must be a plot against them. If everybody got it easily, it wouldn't be a 'gay' disease (which it isn't, but for the practices of gay men that put them at special risk) and the fear of it causing, or being because of, homophobia would be less pronounced.

6. Transmission by IV blood exchange or by fairly (ahem) vigorous sexual contact is unlikely a weapon designer’s goal. Nor would it be likely that one could single out these factors.

7. What little looking I have done shows classic, paranoid and unfounded innuendo rather than scientific arguments to support the claim. The basis of the argument often seems to be “Since they (government, racists, corporations, jihadis,whoever) has done evil in the past, and they would like to get rid of (blacks, gays, foreigners, infidels, communists, whoever) then it makes my theory plausible”. Well, not really. Yes, all those guys are capable of evil, and yes, many have groups they’d be happy doing evil to. These facts are independent of whether there is evidence that someone in fact did create HIV as a weapon. A Klansman might cheer for sickle cell anemia, but that doesn’t lend credence to the idea that the Klan bioengineered the malady. Wicked for cheering SCA, yes. Responsible for developing SCA, well, no.

8. A favorite tactic of people pushing extreme ideas is “Well, how do you explain X?”, with a lot of knowing innuendo and looks, as if a question proves anything. The answer is first I’d have to believe that the burden is on me to prove or disprove the bioweapon theory, which it isn’t. This doesn't get said often enough: the person making a goofy-assed claim has the responsibility to prove it. The logical extension of this is something worth internalizing: When someone makes an assertion that something alarming is true without providing evidence for the claim, you are free to not respond to them at all. You do not have to refute a claim to be free of obligation to believe it. This is not well understood. You carry no burden to believe or refute something someone says. If they present no evidence, there is no burden on you at all. It all rests on the person claiming that an invisible dog talks to them, or that HIV was developed by the CIA, or that the Roswell aliens gave us the technology to make Pringles. They may call names and says things that they think are very meaningful like "You need to wake up!" or "Don't be a sheep."

But playing along, I’d first have to be certain that X needed explaining. It might be wrong, made up, or obviously explainable. If it was none of these, I’d evaluate the evidence and look for what it means. At the end though, remember- the guy with the theory is obliged to prove it, and we have no burden one way or the other. No proof, and you are justified (scientifically, even) to just shrug and go about your business.

Don’t be dissuaded, though. None of my arguments are disprovers, just reasons to require very high levels of proof. Find out what you can. We can run it through the bullshit detector and see if anything survives. Real evidence would likely be pretty technical, but that’s what I’m for. Let’s see what turns up, if you want.


At Thursday, October 04, 2007, Blogger Ψ*Ψ said...

I think I heard the statistic lately that straight women now have the highest rates of infection. There's also some speculation that some states might begin requiring annual HIV tests along with Pap smears.

At Thursday, October 04, 2007, Blogger David Eaton said...

I'm not surprised, given the mechanics of infection, as it were.

Testing is a great idea, and though I tend to be pretty libertarian, I'm convinced that the spillover benefits from testing (and from vaccinations against anything dread and/or transmissible) are so great we should publicly fund it. I can't shake my squeamishness about forcing adults to do anything, but I'd consider it for public health more than most any other reason.

There were some 'conspiracies' concerning HIV, but they were of neglect, which eventually outraged enough people that things changed.

Like I told my niece- it's perfectly reasonable to imagine the worst out of the government or corporations, but not if it involves them being especially smart or competent. Thuggery, stupidity and first-order evil are much more likely than delicately designed technical malfeasance.

At Friday, October 12, 2007, Anonymous Energy Turtle said...

According to the CDC ( the groups with the highest rates of HIV infection are African Americans, gay men, and IV drug users. The most common ways to get infected is through IV drug use and male-to-male sexual contact.

Be careful of stats from special interest groups. A lot of times it's just a ploy to scare us into giving them our money to fund programs like the one you mentioned.

At Friday, October 12, 2007, Blogger David Eaton said...

I agree. Statistics is the first refuge of scoundrels.

I was just reading a paper that started off telling how most scientists, including the most mathematical subspecies (i.e. physicists) have abysmal training in statistic, and as such, are ill-prepared to evaluate statistical arguments.

I know my own scientific upbringing (starting as an undergrad in physics, then grad school in chem) was very stats light. Past a little least squares, some curve-fitting, and the probability and stats needed to understand stat mech and thermo, I know squat.

It turns out to be key to epidemiology, climatology, econometrics, and plenty more. It appears, from what I read, that some of these areas are not using stats as well as they should.

Not that I know first hand; I'm reading critiques by statisticians. I have a cousin with a math PhD that is an actuary that I want to ask advice on learning some of these things so I'm less retarded about them.

At Tuesday, October 16, 2007, Blogger Ψ*Ψ said...

A good friend of mine is a stats fanatic. I'm not sure why. She's one of the strangest people I know, but fun.

At Wednesday, October 17, 2007, Blogger David Eaton said...

A really good book is How we know what isn't so by Tom Gilovich. He talks a lot about how our lack of intuition about things like randomness and regression to the mean is a huge source of errors for us. It sounds a little dry but it is great.

My guess is that stats, when truly understood, is like any science- it opens up vistas that everyone who is not an initiate is missing. Chemistry certainly colors everything I see, and I feel sorry for people who don't see it.

Just like chemistry gets a bad rap and is only associated with pollution and poison, statistics takes heat for the fact that most people who are quoting stats are actually using them poorly or to deceive.

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