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Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Informational Cascade leads to a Consensus Gone Terribly Wrong

John Tierney, author of the NYT article quoted in my previous post, previously published another interesting article describing "a severe case of mistaken consensus" as exposed in a book by Gary Taubes. I'm not going to name the book just yet, because I want to focus on parallels here to the so-called consensus on anthropogenic global warming (AGW).

Let's take a look at what Taubes calls the "informational cascade":

We like to think that people improve their judgment by putting their minds together, and sometimes they do. The studio audience at “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” usually votes for the right answer. But suppose, instead of the audience members voting silently in unison, they voted out loud one after another. And suppose the first person gets it wrong.

If the second person isn’t sure of the answer, he’s liable to go along with the first person’s guess. By then, even if the third person suspects another answer is right, she’s more liable to go along just because she assumes the first two together know more than she does. Thus begins an “informational cascade” as one person after another assumes that the rest can’t all be wrong.

Because of this effect, groups are surprisingly prone to reach mistaken conclusions even when most of the people started out knowing better, according to the economists Sushil Bikhchandani, David Hirshleifer and Ivo Welch. If, say, 60 percent of a group’s members have been given information pointing them to the right answer (while the rest have information pointing to the wrong answer), there is still about a one-in-three chance that the group will cascade to a mistaken consensus.
There's more. Taubes says that wrong assumptions were made about the historical or traditional data and the current data was misinterpreted as representing an increase in occurrences of the "problem" to the point of labelling it an "epidemic". Just like with AGW, a "consensus" was soon formed and skeptics were quickly "excoriated".

The "mistaken consensus", according to Taubes's book “Good Calories, Bad Calories” (Knopf, 2007) is that a diet high in fat and cholesterol correlates to an increase in the rate of heart attacks. This correlation was first identified by Dr. Ancel Keys a half-century ago.
He became convinced in the 1950s that Americans were suffering from a new epidemic of heart disease because they were eating more fat than their ancestors.

There were two glaring problems with this theory, as Mr. Taubes, a correspondent for Science magazine, explains in his book. First, it wasn’t clear that traditional diets were especially lean. Nineteenth-century Americans consumed huge amounts of meat; the percentage of fat in the diet of ancient hunter-gatherers, according to the best estimate today, was as high or higher than the ratio in the modern Western diet.

Second, there wasn’t really a new epidemic of heart disease. Yes, more cases were being reported, but not because people were in worse health. It was mainly because they were living longer and were more likely to see a doctor who diagnosed the symptoms.

To bolster his theory, Dr. Keys in 1953 compared diets and heart disease rates in the United States, Japan and four other countries. Sure enough, more fat correlated with more disease (America topped the list). But critics at the time noted that if Dr. Keys had analyzed all 22 countries for which data were available, he would not have found a correlation. (And, as Mr. Taubes notes, no one would have puzzled over the so-called French Paradox of foie-gras connoisseurs with healthy hearts.)
The consensus was formed, not by scientists but by... by government committee:
After the fat-is-bad theory became popular wisdom, the cascade accelerated in the 1970s when a committee led by Senator George McGovern issued a report advising Americans to lower their risk of heart disease by eating less fat. “McGovern’s staff were virtually unaware of the existence of any scientific controversy,” Mr. Taubes writes, and the committee’s report was written by a nonscientist “relying almost exclusively on a single Harvard nutritionist, Mark Hegsted.”

That report impressed another nonscientist, Carol Tucker Foreman, an assistant agriculture secretary, who hired Dr. Hegsted to draw up a set of national dietary guidelines. The Department of Agriculture’s advice against eating too much fat was issued in 1980 and would later be incorporated in its “food pyramid.”
Skeptics: There were scientists who were skeptical of this new consensus, of course:
Meanwhile, there still wasn’t good evidence to warrant recommending a low-fat diet for all Americans, as the National Academy of Sciences noted in a report shortly after the U.S.D.A. guidelines were issued. But the report’s authors were promptly excoriated on Capitol Hill and in the news media for denying a danger that had already been proclaimed by the American Heart Association, the McGovern committee and the U.S.D.A.

The scientists, despite their impressive credentials, were accused of bias because some of them had done research financed by the food industry. And so the informational cascade morphed into what the economist Timur Kuran calls a reputational cascade, in which it becomes a career risk for dissidents to question the popular wisdom.

With skeptical scientists ostracized, the public debate and research agenda became dominated by the fat-is-bad school. Later the National Institutes of Health would hold a “consensus conference” that concluded there was “no doubt” that low-fat diets “will afford significant protection against coronary heart disease” for every American over the age of 2. The American Cancer Society and the surgeon general recommended a low-fat diet to prevent cancer.
Ah, the old "the science is settled" proclamation. Sound familiar?
But when the theories were tested in clinical trials, the evidence kept turning up negative. As Mr. Taubes notes, the most rigorous meta-analysis of the clinical trials of low-fat diets, published in 2001 by the Cochrane Collaboration, concluded that they had no significant effect on mortality.
Too late. The consensus was by this time gospel. But the dissidents continued to speak out but their words landed mostly on deaf ears. Tierney writes:
Mr. Taubes told me he especially admired the iconoclasm of Dr. Edward H. Ahrens Jr., a lipids researcher who spoke out against the McGovern committee’s report. Mr. McGovern subsequently asked him at a hearing to reconcile his skepticism with a survey showing that the low-fat recommendations were endorsed by 92 percent of “the world’s leading doctors.”

“Senator McGovern, I recognize the disadvantage of being in the minority,” Dr. Ahrens replied. Then he pointed out that most of the doctors in the survey were relying on secondhand knowledge because they didn’t work in this field themselves.

“This is a matter,” he continued, “of such enormous social, economic and medical importance that it must be evaluated with our eyes completely open. Thus I would hate to see this issue settled by anything that smacks of a Gallup poll.” Or a cascade.
Whether you accept the conventional wisdom on high fat diets and heart attacks or not, the point here is the process in which this theory became cemented into our culture and medical practices. There are too many similarities with the process we are currently going through with the theory of anthropogenic global warming.

To paraphrase Dr. Ahrens, this (AGW) is a matter of such enormous global social, economic and environmental importance that it must be evaluated with our eyes wide open. It must be settled on the scientific evidence, not a popular "consensus" created by an informational cascade gone terribly wrong.

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