Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Cargo cult police science

Jerry Stratton, January 13, 2016

Green tea

“Leaves and stems”. It looks like what we want to see, therefore it must be what we want to see. These cops could be climate scientists.

Four years ago, Robert and Addie Harte were raided because they went to a gardening store and, eight months later, drank tea:

  1. On August 9, 2011, Robert Harte and his children went to a hydroponics gardening store, emerging with a small bag of gardening supplies for a school project.
  2. On March 20th, 2012, seven months later, the police officer surveilling the gardening store reported this to the Johnson County, Kansas, Sheriff’s Office.
  3. On April 3, 2012, Deputies Mark Burns and Edward Blake found plant material in the Hartes’s trash, but their tests (which aren’t documented) came back negative. Their conclusion was that the marijuana, which must have been there, “was misidentified”.
  4. On April 10, 2012, eight months after initially suspecting the Hartes, Burns and Blake took a second look at their trash. This time, the field test (barely documented) showed a positive result.
  5. On April 17, 2012, eight months and one week afterward, they performed a second trash pull and redid the barely documented field test, which also came back positive. The field test is extraordinarily unreliable, according to the manufacturer. It specifically was so unreliable that it should only be used to justify sending the “sample in to a qualified crime laboratory”.
  6. That same day, April 17, Burns asked a judge for a warrant.
  7. They executed the warrant at 7:38 AM on April 20. After holding the family for over two hours and searching the house, they found nothing.

After eight months, they couldn’t wait less than two weeks to get a more definitive result from a more reliable test. The error rates of their field tests are incredibly high—possibly 70% or more because the test is apparently more unreliable for kitchen matter, which the tested trash obviously was.

What struck me while reading about the police behavior is that they acted like bad scientists: specifically, like climate scientists. They kept trying over a long period (8 months in this case) until they got the result they wanted, and then, despite the long period to get the evidence they demanded immediate action, rather than waiting for confirmation.

They had a theory: the Hartes were marijuana growers. When their first examination came back that no, the evidence does not support that, they did not reexamine their theory. They tried again to prove their theory. In a sense, Deputies Burns and Blake were better than climate scientists: they tried twice, but, of course, it was the same unreliable test that they tried twice, and they didn’t even follow the appropriate methodology for that test.

They should have sent the sample in for a more reliable test, but that ran the risk of coming back negative and they were not trying to falsify their theory; they were trying to prove their theory. That’s why they used an unreliable test that they knew had already come back positive once: they were engaging in cargo cult science, which is most of the “science” they see in the news today. Even if they read popular science magazines, the most celebrated scientists do the same thing that Burns and Blake did.

They never looked at the failure rate of their field tests; they never even bothered to publish their failure rates or even their data: much of what they claimed they have no proof for, such as the serrated tea leaves that they said looked like marijuana leaves, or even the positive test results. We’re simply supposed to take them at their word, because of their profession.

And who’s to blame them? Most of the science they see on the news today is exactly like the science they performed, but with fancier equipment. Focusing on equipment and tests rather than method and error is pure cargo cult science. And anyone who questions the cargo cult of climate science is ridiculed, and even threatened with imprisonment and public punishment. There have been several calls by climate activists to put skeptics of their cargo cult science under the authority of these police officers.

Why should police officers be expected to perform better science than the bad science celebrated daily?

In response to We’re all drug lords now: Will we still support prohibition when we all know someone who died because of it?