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.

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