Thursday, August 11

On the difference between intelligence gathering and scientific method: a lesson for serious news consumers

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9:45 AM Update:
To answer letters asking if intelligence gathering isn't science:

While intelligence gathering (IG) can make use of scientific methods, it's not science because IG is free to draw conclusions that are outside the results and paradigm of the scientific experiment.

IG relates to decisions in war and more broadly to strategies that are directly and immediately connected with survival decisions. Because so much news doesn't relate to your survival decisions, it can be hard to think of taking in the daily news as an intelligence gathering activity. That's why I've taken pains to note the connection between consuming news and IG and the difference between IG and scientific method.
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Here are two links: Flu mortality rates -- from a PBS Special (probably well-researched):

The second one -- possibly valuable, but I'm a bit dubious (among other reasons, I have to wonder about the statistical validity of the measures -- how many people, were all cases under medical care and therefore counted, etc.):

Glad to see your skepticism re the Ebola-H5N1 combo. I worry about quality blogs biting on something so juicy they fall prey to the MSM need-for-speed disease.
Liz in USA"

Dear Liz:
I appreciate your point about the speed disease. However, Pundita is not skeptical; indeed, I have warned against skepticism -- as I've warned against uncritical acceptance of the reports about Ebola and Virus X.

Yet I'm not sure my stance is fully understood because many Americans have been conditioned to accept 'general' scientific thinking -- and to such extent that often they often misapply it when trying to determine the validity of news reports.

At this time the lay public as well as medical/scientific professionals are foolish if they are weighted to accept or reject statements made about an Ebola outbreak in China and/or an Ebola-H5N1 strain. That is because they would be basing their conclusion on anecdotal reports (notably, the interview with "Dr. Wang.")

This doesn't mean the reports are necessarily in error or represent a fabrication; it means we're still where we've always been while examining Dr. Wang's statements: at a blank wall. We must remain there until reliable blood samples and accurate official reports relating to patient and cadaver disease symptoms can be obtained from China. Since it's more likely Hell will freeze first, speculation about an Ebola outbreak in China -- and the nature of "Virus X" -- is useless within a purely scientific context.

What we can do is place Wang's statements in a broader context; i.e., view his statements about Ebola as a 'mosaic' or piece of 'intelligence' about the recent appearance of an infectious disease in China and most notably in Sichuan and Guangdong provinces.

There are now several mosaics (or pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, if you prefer); notably:

1. Official Chinese reports about the number of human deaths they claim are associated with infected swine.

2. Official Chinese reports about the symptoms of the those exposed to the purported infected swine.

3. Official Chinese claim that the purported swine infection is streptococcus suis that was transmitted to humans.

4. Contradictions between the pathology of strep suis and the symptoms in humans noted by both the Chinese officials and the anonymous reports posted on and other Chinese 'underground' websites.

5. John Loftus report and reports on Boxun, etc., that there are many more deaths in Sichuan from a disease outbreak than Chinese officials have reported.

6. John Loftus report and other reports that China's military have recently used draconian means to halt the spread of a highly infectious lethal disease in Sichuan; e.g., bulldozing villages.

7. Chinese officials' refusal to share medical evidence on Virus X with outside health agencies, including WHO, and the use of draconian measures to silence medical opinion in China that questions or flatly contradicts the official Chinese version.

The best we can do at this point is continue to gather mosaics about Virus X and place them alongside another set of mosaics: evidence about the advance and mutations of H5N1 in Asia, including China, and Beijing's refusal to be transparent about evidence relating to H5N1 in China.

The question is whether both sets of mosaics are actually one. At this point, any answer would be highly speculative. Yet considering the gravity of the subject we must place both sets of mosaics within a larger context: public health and the threat of pandemic. Thus, for now and the foreseeable future, we should keep a close eye on the trend of news about Virus X and H5N1.
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Dave Schuler replied on his blog, The Glittering Eye, to comments I made in yesterday's post regarding his observation that rural China is a special breeding ground for new diseases. Frankly, I suspect the Chinese military's tendency to dabble in biowar experiments has more to do with China being a special case, as distinct from other countries that have human overcrowding coupled with close human proximity to livestock. However, I thought Dave's additional comments on the subject were interesting enough to publish here:

"I continue to think that China is a special case from an epidemiological standpoint. There are a number of factors which have led to high population densities over long periods of time there including partible inheritance, rice cultivation, Confucian practice, and so on.

"Look at the development of a new strain of a disease as the results of rolling a pair of dice. Look at infection of each new person as a roll of the dice. If you roll the dice more often, more combinations show up. If you keep rolling the dice long enough, all possible combinations will show up eventually.

"I’m not saying that Chinese people are dirtier or have more disease or anything of the sort. I wouldn't be at all surprised if they were cleaner and less disease-prone than us Westerners. I’m just saying that the conditions there -- particularly in rural China with large numbers of people living in close proximity to domestic livestock -- may make the development of new strains of diseases more likely."

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