Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Teasing out the Truth

One of the problems all of us face is how to figure what things we read are true and what are false. This has always been a hard problem and still is. But the internet sometimes makes it easier, makes it possible, from information we can obtain at first hand, to judge whether a particular information source can be trusted.

Let me offer two examples, one in scientific controversy, one in political.

I've recently been reading The Seven Daughters of Eve by Bryan Sykes, a book describing research, much of it by the author, that used mitochondrial DNA to investigate human prehistory, questions such as where the Pacific islanders came from and whether modern Europeans are the descendants of European hunter/gatherers who learned to farm or Middle-eastern agriculturalists who spread into Europe.

One of the incidents described in the book involved a clash between the author and a geneticist by the name of Erika Hagelberg who reported results from genetic analysis of the population of a particular Pacific island that appeared inconsistent with the accepted view of how mitochondrial DNA worked, casting serious doubt on the results of Sykes' (and other people's) research. Sykes happened to have some samples from the same island; he analyzed them and failed to find the results she had reported. He asked her for samples to analyze so that he could check her results; she did not send any. Eventually they clashed at a conference; she insisted that her results were correct but offered no explanation of why she had been unwilling to let him check them.

A year later, under pressure from her coauthors, she conceded that the results were bogus, due to a mistake in her analysis.

All of this is Sykes' account of what happened. A skeptical reader should recognize that he is getting only one side of the story and has no way of knowing how accurate it is.

Except, in this case, he does.

Out of curiosity I googled "Erika Hagelberg" and found, among other things, a book review she had written of The Seven Daughters of Eve. Its final paragraph read:

It may seem churlish to criticize a personal story of research in human evolutionary genetics designed to appeal to the public, but the tedious narrations of the lives of the clan mothers, lack of bibliography, and casual treatment of facts, rules the book out of the category of serious popular science. In the context of Sykes's commercial venture, Oxford Ancestors, which markets DNA-based genealogical information to people hungry for roots, the book makes sense as an advertising tool. However, for an accurate account of an inspiring field of science, readers should look elsewhere.

The review contained no mention of the fact that its author was herself was a character in the book and that its portrayal of her was unflattering, facts surely relevant to anyone who read the review and wanted to know whether her evaluation of the book could be trusted. That fact provides me evidence, first hand evidence, about the author of the review, evidence that supports Sykes' version of what happened.

My second example is from the world of political controversy, specifically the recent attempt by various writers to focus attention on the Koch brothers, two very wealthy men who have donated substantial amounts of money to causes the writers disapprove of. One prominent article was by Jane Mayer and appeared in the New Yorker. One of its themes was that the Koch brothers spent their money subsidizing causes that were in their corporate interest, such as opposition to government regulation of business and legislation related to climate change, and that their money was at least in part responsible for the Tea Party movement.

In this case, unlike the first, I actually knew something about the subject. The Kochs have been major funders of libertarian causes for decades. As a libertarian writer and public speaker, I have almost certainly at some point or other been paid money that ultimately came from them.

For the most part, my inside information does not tell me whether Mayer's account is true, since most of it deals with activities by the Koch brothers that I have not come in contact with. It is clear that her selection of facts leaves out things that don't fit her narrative, such as the fact that the Institute of Justice, funded in part with Koch money, has been a leading opponent of the use of eminent domain to seize property and give it to corporations, or the consistent antiwar position of the, also Koch subsidized, Cato institute, or the large contributions that the brothers are reported to have made to an ACLU attack on the Patriot Act during the Bush administration. But none of that tells the reader anything more than that the author has an axe to grind, which is in any case obvious.

There is, however, one minor detail in the article that struck me because it is demonstrably false and the author ought to have known it was false. She writes:

Indeed, the brothers have funded opposition campaigns against so many Obama Administration policies—from health-care reform to the economic-stimulus program—that, in political circles, their ideological network is known as the Kochtopus.

The term "Kochtopus" was coined by the late Samuel Konkin, a libertarian activist critical of the Kochs' influence on the movement, about thirty years before Obama was elected president. That is a fact that Mayer could have discovered with a few minutes on Google or a quick look through Radicals for Capitalism, a history of the libertarian movement that she mentions in her article. Either she did not bother to check her facts, which is a reason to be skeptical of other facts she asserts, or she deliberately transferred the term to a context that better fit the narrative she was constructing, which is a reason to distrust everything she writes.

One virtue of the Internet is that it makes it easier for me to learn, from first hand evidence, something about the honesty and competence of a source of information. A second virtue is that it makes it easier for me to convey my conclusions in a form my readers can check. I have provided links to both Erika Hagelberg's review of Bryan Sykes' book and Jane Mayer's New Yorker article, and enough information about the history of the term "Kochtopus" so that a reader can readily verify my account. And, if you follow my link to the Amazon page for Sykes' book and use their "search inside this book" option to search for the name "Erika," you can check my account of the book's description of the clash between the author and Erika Hagelberg. You thus have all the tools to do for my writing what I did for theirs.


dWj said...

I often find myself trying to convey the idea that P is not NP (probably) to interlocutors; that is, it's much easier to verify facts than to conjure them up on your own. I find myself making this point particularly with regard to Wikipedia; for the math articles, the fact that it is easier to verify mathematical arguments than to construct them from scratch doesn't even require looking for other sources.

Miko said...

It is clear that her selection of facts leaves out things that don't fit her narrative

While she leaves out some things, she doesn't leave out everything that casts doubt on her narrative (as you've defined it). For example, she mentions that the Koch brothers were strong opponents of the stimulus. Seeing as the "stimulus" was essentially the robbery of all Americans (or, through inflation and the dollar's role as a reserve currency, the robbery of most everyone on the planet) in order to give kick-backs to favored corporations, surely the Kochs would have favored it if they really were motivated solely by what Mayer suggests.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps Erika Hagelberg finds it unnecessary to point out, since she is, presumably, mentioned by name in the book and also appears by name as the author of the review?

Perhaps it would take too much space, and distract from the review, to write an elaborate refutation on Sykes' claims?

Regardless, there must exist some evidence of Sykes' claim that she admitted faulty analysis? Was she published?

RKN said...

Thank you for the information on the Koch brothers activities, especially those activities certain "left leaners" would not expect the Koch brothers to have been involved with. The info is timely; useful for a discussion I'm presently having in e-mail.

David Friedman said...

"Perhaps Erika Hagelberg finds it unnecessary to point out, since she is, presumably, mentioned by name in the book and also appears by name as the author of the review?"

Book reviews are mostly read by people who haven't read the book, so I don't see the relevance of that. How will the reader of the review know that she is mentioned by name in the book?

Simon said...

Erika Hagelberg concludes her review like this:

"However, for an accurate account of an inspiring field of science, readers should look elsewhere."

The reader who follows the advice will of course never know that Hagelberg is mentioned in the book.

Milhouse said...

I can personally verify that I heard Sam use the term "Kochtopus" at least ten years ago. He also used to hold "dead Crane" parties, instead of "dead dog" ones, and gleefully explain that the reference was to Ed Crane, whom he described as the Kochs' lapdog.

Sam and everything he said needed to be taken with a huge helping of NaCl, and his vitriol was so broad and thick that the only way to take it was as an extended campy performance. He was so offensive that one (or at least I) couldn't really take offense. I miss him.

Andrew said...

That's what I like about libertarians. Never do you see them selectively using facts and ignoring all other ones that don't support their point of view. They're always fair and balanced.

Anonymous said...

That's a lot of work. Also, it seems to me that if I work hard enough, I could find issues with most authors. I just go with the assumption that most of what I read is wrong or misleading anyway. You would be wise to do the same, starting with this comment!

TGGP said...

Cato should be proud that "Kochtopus" has more currency today than "partyarch".

Radley Balko points out the lack of transparency behind the groups complaining about the hidden influence of the Koch brothers.

Razib says modern genetic data is upending the simple narrative of Sykes.

Seth Goldin said...

In this vein, a contributor over at LessWrong designed an exercise to test your rationality and ability to assess the truth, from polarized, conflicting news articles.



Anonymous said...

How do you mean she does not point out she is mentioned in the book? Did we read the same review?!? "Every hero’s story needs a villain, and that’s where I fit in. After I left Sykes’s laboratory in 1989, I pursued research on the analysis of DNA taken from bones. While he and his team worked on the Cook Islanders, maternal European lineages and the DNA sequence from Cheddar Man (a 9000-year-old skeleton), I applied DNA typing in a number of other cases, including the identification of the skeletal remains of the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele and the Romanovs, the evolution of the woolly mammoth, and the origins of the prehistoric Easter Islanders and other Pacific peoples. Then, a few years ago, while working on present-day populations of Melanesia, I generated data that made me doubt the exclusively maternal inheritance of mitochondrial DNA. Because the Mitochondrial Eve hypothesis depends on the premise that it is passed on from mothers alone, without recombination (i.e. without the shuffling of paternal and maternal DNA that happens from generation to generation in our chromosomes), the publication of my observations, providing almost perfect evidence of the paternal inheritance and recombination of mitochondrial DNA, caused consternation.

I eventually discovered that I had misread the DNA sequences in question. My conclusions were invalid, and I published a correction. Sykes claims the credit for my having done so, and devotes several pages of his book to describing how he ‘set the record straight’ at a scientific meeting. His version of events has me appear in the worst light, even as having deliberately withheld the truth. According to Sykes, ‘mitochondria had survived the recombination scare,’ though ‘getting to the truth had been an exhausting, unpleasant and distressing experience.’ I am at a loss to explain why a successful Oxford professor, who at one time or another has been a Parliamentary scientific adviser and a member of steering committees and funding boards, should feel that he needs to denigrate a former colleague in a popular book. The usual way to pursue scientific disputes is through peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals.

In addition to being a vehicle for self-promotion, often at others’ expense, The Seven Daughters of Eve serves as a marketing device. The dust cover of the hardback edition proclaimed that Sykes ‘has always emphasised the importance of the individual in shaping our genetic world. The website www.oxfordancestors.com offers people the chance to find out for themselves, from a DNA sample, where they fit in.’ Oxford Ancestors is Sykes’s own company, which, for a fee, will submit a sample of your DNA to a MatriLine™ DNA test so that you can find out which of the seven ancestral mothers is yours. You don’t have to be European to benefit from the service; customers will be matched to one or another of the clans so far discovered throughout the world and will receive a certificate, suitable for framing, identifying their maternal ancestor. Oxford Ancestors also offers Y-chromosome tests, so that male customers can identify their paternal lineage."

Gus said...

Excellent article. I just finished reading the book by Sykes. I also attended a lecture by Hagelberg a few years back. Clearly they don't get along. As a geneticist myself I found Sykes's style entertaining but the ideas he presents are just too good and simple to be true. Hagelberg claims that his tone is egotistic but Sykes opens the acknowledgements in his book with this sentence: "Do not imagine for a moment that everything reported here as coming from my lab is exclusively my own work." Yet she may be on the money when she says that the book reads too much like advertising for Sykes genealogical venture.
So, as usual, the truth is probably somewhere in the shades of gray. But I totally agree with you, thank goodness for google and the free internet. Let's keep it free.
Best regards from Australia

Carter Burke said...

What was "demonstrably false" about Jane Mayer's reporting? That the term "Kochtopus" was used prior to the Obama administration in no way suggests or implies that it was invented by the Obama administration. It would be if Mayer claimed that the term was a recent invention, but this is neither said nor implied. The author here seems to have a bit of an axe to grind.

David Friedman said...


I didn't suggest that the term was invented by the Obama administration, but what she writes implies that it originated in that context, which does not happen to be true.

BK said...

Interestingly enough for all the damage done to the reputation of Mitochondrial DNA, Ms. Hagelberg seems to rely on it for her own more recent studies and conclusions. (See http://www.livescience.com/49038-viking-women-colonized-islands.html)