Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Alcohol, Warming, and Professionally Correct Speech

Recently, while driving, I listened to a satellite radio program called "Doctor Radio," talk radio by doctors.

In the course of the program, the question of alcohol and health came up. All of the participants agreed that evidence showed that a moderate level of alcohol consumption, something like one beer a day for a woman, one or two for a man, or the equivalent in other drinks, was good for you, better than no alcohol at all. All of them also agreed that they would not advise their patients to act on that evidence.

They did not offer an adequate explanation  for the apparent inconsistency. There was mention of the fact that a higher level of consumption was dangerous, in particular likely to lead to auto accidents, and that there were problems with prescribing something that depended on the exact dosage—but distinguishing one beer a day from three is not  a difficult problem, even for those who are not doctors. 

My conjecture was that the real explanation was the reluctance of doctors to appear to be on the wrong side. Everyone knew that alcohol was a bad thing, a source of auto accidents and various medical (and other) problems. By giving a truthful account of the medical evidence, the doctors on the program might appear to be pro-alcohol, when all good people were  anti. Hence they had to qualify their conclusion as a purely theoretical matter, not something that would actually affect what they told their patients. Think of it as a different version of PC—Professionally Correct speech.

It reminded me of a similar pattern in a different context. From time to time, I see a news story on some piece of scientific research that somewhat weakens the case for taking strong action against global warming—for instance, work suggesting that, while the IPCC projections were correct about the expected magnitude of warming, they overstated its uncertainty, and hence the risk of some outcome much above the center of the reported distribution of results.

I believe that every time I have seen such a report, it was accompanied by a quote from the researchers to the effect that global warming was a serious problem and their work should not be taken as a reason to be less worried about it. They almost certainly believed the first half of that. On the other hand, their work was a reason to be less worried, if not a reason to stop worrying. 

Good people are on the side that believes that warming is happening, is anthropogenic, and is a serious problem that needs to be dealt with immediately. Bad people deny one or more of those claims. If that is what all the people who matter to you, in particular the fellow members of your profession, believe, and you are so unfortunate as to produce results that strengthen the bad people's case, it is prudent to make it clear that you are still on the side of the angels. Just as, if you are so unfortunate as to be an honest doctor aware of the evidence in favor of alcohol, it is prudent to make it clear that have not transferred your allegiance to demon rum.


jcast said...

Every person I know, or have read online, who has cited that medical evidence, has cited it to support a habit of drinking more than 1 or 2 drinks a day.

These doctors most likely expect, correctly, that advice to drink very small quantities of alcohol would be taken as a justification for drinking to excess; so that the effect of advising their patients to drink 1-2 drinks/day would be that their patients would drink an unhealthy amount, worse than no alcohol at all. So, in practice, advice to drink 1-2 drinks/day may be sound, but the effect of that advice would be undesirable.

Xerographica said...

Would it make a difference if "global warming" was merely a scare tactic we employed to encourage environmental protection? Kind of like how parents tell their kids that they better behave or else Santa Claus won't bring them any presents. Kind of like how Christians are told by their preachers that they better behave or else they won't go to heaven.

When I was in the infantry stationed down in Panama they would regularly march us into the theater and show us larger than life image after image of the worst possible manifestations of STDs. Perhaps you would have shook your fist and said, "hey! you're not considering the actual statistics here".

Like I've said before...it's kind of hard for me to turn a truly critical eye towards anything that encourages behavior that I value.

Instead, I prefer to turn my critical eye towards the fact that we allow 538 congresspeople to allocate a huge portion of our nation's resources. We both agree that this is a problem...yet we disagree as to the solution. If you get a chance I'd really appreciate your perspective on perspectives...Perspectives Matters - Economics in One Lesson.

Unknown said...

My first thought on reading this was that the two have nothing in common: doctors don't recommend alcohol to their patients because they're afraid of lawsuits; climate scientists say you shouldn't be any less worried about climate change because you really shouldn't be any less worried about climate change.

But jcast's comment helped me to see a connection. In both cases, the experts are trying to correct for irrationality in their audience. In the doctors' case, they're worried that patients will actually drink more than recommended. In the case of climate scientists, they have observed that some people tend to seize on every less-worrisome study as a confirmation of their current beliefs, while barely noticing the more-worrisome studies. In reality a single study might be cause for being a very tiny bit less worried, but it is probably negligible compared with the huge number of studies that have led to the current consensus.

Eric Jacobus said...

Scientists also have an incentive to repeat the dangers of AGW because this is the only way they continue receiving funds for their research. Concluding no further dangers are present is self-defeating, hence the typically harsh reaction to skeptics.

Jared Imbler said...

It seems to me that there are two additional reasons for this type of behavior. First, people who behave like this are in essence hedging their bets against being wrong. No one likes to be incorrect. Suppose after further research 1-2 drinks per day turns out to cause an increase in some affliction. The doctors are able to say, "Hey, we told you the evidence was not conclusive." Should the claim be strengthened down the road, the doctors are able to take the stance of, "See, we told you 1-2 drinks per day might be better."

The second reason this type of behavior is common could be the tendency of humans to avoid becoming the outsider. I imagine it stems from some advantage gained during our tribal heritage where outsiders were literally kicked "outside" the tribe, rationalized by some "better safe than sorry" type of thinking.

HH said...

Although I believe that your interpretation of the doctors' behavior is correct, there is a plausible rationalization for their seemingly contradictory statements on alcohol: specifically, the slippery slope. It's not an argument I usually appreciate, but in this case, it could apply: recommending one drink would make sense if the drinker could commit to stop at 1 or 2. However, the person deciding whether to have a third drink isn't the sober person, it's the person after two drinks who is more likely to give in and drink a third. And fourth. And so on. In the absence of a credible commitment to stop, the doctors' hesitation makes sense, since zero is a good Schelling point.

HT: http://lesswrong.com/lw/ase/schelling_fences_on_slippery_slopes/

MikeP said...

On the other hand, their work was a reason to be less worried, if not a reason to stop worrying.

An alternative explanation of the climate scientists behavior...

If the climate scientists believe that the common man is not worrying enough -- as they surely do -- then the new evidence is not a reason for the common man to worry less. They still believe he should worry more than he does.

Anonymous said...

Professor Friedman, I thought you would be interested to hear something I learned today about global warming. I heard a lecture today from Cato Scholar Pat Michaels on global warming. Overall he asserted that global warming is happening, although much slower than many of the predictions would like to suggest for obvious public choice reasons. Anyways, I asked him about your point regarding whether global warming might actually have more benificial effects than negative ones. He showed that in increased CO2 levels, plant growth is greatly increased. In addition, in greater amounts of heat, heat death actually goes down, contrary to what logic might suggest. Overall, I believe the position has real merit. He will eventually be releasing a counter report to the USGRCP report titled "Global Climate Change Impacts in the US."

Joseph said...

The analogy might work better in the opposite direction. I suspect that, even if global warming is a potential problem, there is a danger it might be used as an excuse to regulate to excess just as the alcohol research might be used as an excuse to drink to excess.

Mercy Vetsel said...

I think the doctors understand at some level that the studies showing benefits from alcohol are crap and arise from two huge problems with the sample:

1) people stop drinking because of poor heath

2) there is a very strong positive correlation between SES and drinking

These problems are hard to adjust for adequately, but once they are the benefit of even modest drinking goes away.

Bogus research showing a benefit from alcohol gets hyped because drinking is still socially acceptable to the people doing the research and the people in the media pushing it.


B. Kalafut said...

The behavior could be less tribal than you think.

Climatologists have seen their fellows' arguments mis-cited by the phony "skeptics", seemingly in bad faith, over and over. It's reasonable to leave the clarifying note as a signal to the outside, not the inside. "No, you are not justified in my professional assessment, given the state of the literature, to take this result to mean that X isn't true and Y is no longer a problem."

neil craig said...

Since government is strongly pushing the catastrophic warming scare - either because "the practical purpose of politics is to keep the populace scared and eager to be led" (Mencken) or because most of the politicians are irrational or for some 3rd reason nabody can name - researchers are more likely to get grants id their research shows catastrophic warming and virtually certain to be denied it is it shows it is a scam. When the latter happens the best a researcher who wants to keep working can do is downplay it.

transcendentape said...

Perhaps it's different where you live, neil craig, but generally, in the US, funding for research is committed before the findings of that research are available. Perhaps you instead meant to claim that once a researcher publishes a report counter to the norm, research funding will be harder to source. If so, do you have evidence to support this assertion?

neil craig said...

Are you suggesting that it has ever come as a surprise when Hansen's "research" has claimed to find catastrophic warming... time after time?