Demagogues and YOU

The California legislature is considering a bill that would impose a thousand dollar fine and jail time for a waiter who offers a restaurant patron a plastic straw. For a state that is dramatically reducing its prison sentences, this seems like a terribly counterproductive law. But the worst thing about it might be that the only scientific study that purported to show how many straws there were in the vast California garbage stream was conducted by a 9 year old student on his home computer! Nevertheless, this pre-adolescent’s study got into the political echo chamber and became the source of a law that would criminalize an ordinary worker for doing his job. Before you laugh and say even California would not pass such a ridiculous law, two major California resort towns already have.

With all the talk of fake news, fake social science is just as pervasive. Once a study is published, politicians eager to glam votes assert its findings as completely true and its implementation into law as without negative tradeoffs or unintended consequences.

The social sciences today suffer from a lack of replicable published experiments. The essence of the scientific method is the falsification principle: science progresses when a hypothesis can be shown to be false, which generates new studies to determine what is actually closer to the truth. A corollary of that is that if a scientific study can be replicated by other scientists its truth is at least temporarily vindicated. Shockingly, it has been shown recently that only 39 of 100 psychology studies could be replicated, and pre-clinical cancer studies showed a dismal 11 percent replication rate.

Part of the problem is confirmation bias. The facts seem often fixed for a desired outcome that would please a donor or political constituency. The social scientists are 80 percent liberal, and conservatives feel discriminated against.

Conservatives themselves are also guilty of confirmation bias. One of the most dangerous examples of bias is the ready acceptance of the sex trafficking statistics published by the rescue industry to hype the number of underage and coerced women in sex work. Nevada Attorney General and Republican gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt has uncritically linked the AG website to Polaris, a rescue industry non profit—but very profitable to its founders—organization whose statistics on sex trafficking have been successfully challenged by fact checkers like Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post.

One of the few branches of the social sciences that has been replicated in different countries are mega studies of sex workers. Recently, in England, a major study replicated findings in Canada of the working conditions of women, men and transsexuals involved in sex work.

The study confirms that very few women begin sex work under 18 years of age. The vast majority begin the occupation between 18 and 29 years old. Women over 30 constitute four times the number of novice sex workers as underage teens do.

The English study confirms that most sex workers are enthusiastic about their work, and sex workers are generally treated with respect by their clients. Most important of all, the study confirms that the internet has changed their lives for the better, enabling their work to be safer and more rewarding than it was before.

On Jan. 10, the New Hampshire House passed a bill to establish a commission to study decriminalizing sex work. Republican Gov. Chris Sununu is opposed, saying the people aren’t ready. The legislation was sponsored by Kathleen Edwards, a Democrat with ties to the libertarian Free State Project. She says even if Sununu vetoes the commission, it will be a first step to end the stigma surrounding sex work.