Friday, December 26, 2008

The peanut as an analogue of our times

Never before have so many people had so much information at their disposal, and yet so many of us seemingly lack the ability to understand this information and use it in a rational and considered fashion.

Health concerns, and particularly concerns about children's health, is a particular example of this phenomenon.

Lies, half-truths, distortions and misunderstandings are packaged up along with publicity seeking professionals and even scientific journals and leavened with doses of inane and stupid conspiracy theories. The completely unfounded and ridiculous fears about vaccinating children, especially with the MMR vaccine, is a perfect illustration of this toxic cocktail of fear and misinformation.

That a once reputable scientific journal, that is The Lancet, actually helped to spread disinformation about the MMR vaccine by publishing poorly conducted research findings that somehow made their way through peer review, shows that we can no longer just dismiss this kind of thing as the crazy beliefs of a few nutcases on the fringe.

Even scientific journals now feel they have to compete for attention in a crowded market place and the temptation to go for the headline grabbing over the substantial is more and more in evidence.

(The Lancet is of course the journal that published idiotic claims about so-called surplus deaths in Iraq, pulling first a figure of 100,000 out of thin air and then desperately gazumping that with a claim of over 650,000. It is worthwhile remembering two things here. Firstly, the editor of the magazine is noted for his far-Left politics and penchant for activism and actively took part in events organised by the Trotskyist front group - the Stop the War Coalition. Secondly, and most importantly, the figure of 650,000 or more was an extrapolation based upon just 547 actual deaths.)

Despite being proved by one double-blind trial after another to be useless and ineffective, so called "complimentary medicine" is actually being taught in increasing numbers of supposedly top rank universities.

But when a failed American politician can win a Nobel Peace Prize, not for actually stopping a war or bringing peace to anywhere, but for making a pseudo-documentary horror film later found by a court to be so riddled with basic scientific errors as to be only suitable for showing in British schools if there was an appropriate warning attached to it, anything is possible it seems and nothing is too absurd to be taken seriously.

But anyway. Peanuts and children's health and the often irrational fears of parents and the lessons they can teach us about being careful in responding to often exaggerated or just misleading claims about health or diet etc.

Sandy from
Junkfood Science takes the time to examine the actual evidence versus the all too common hyped-up claims that food allergies are increasing amongst children.

As she observes, it is not actual rates of allergies that are increasing, but rather numbers of parents who think their children are suffering from them.

These reports might seem to be saying that more children today have diagnosed food allergies, but that is not what they are actually reporting. The studies behind these claims were surveys, all of which found that the percentage of parents who report they believe their children have food allergies has increased over the past decade.

But these reports have also neglected to reveal that repeated studies have found that 5 times more parents report their children have food allergies than actually do when tested in double-blind, placebo-controlled food challenges; and as many as 12 times more report food allergies in their infants and children than actually have food allergies when given skin prick testing. The discrepancy between perceived and actual food allergies is growing.

With that introduction, let’s all take a deep breath and see what the research can tell us.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Some good news as we go into the new year

Okay, it's mixed up with some not so good news, that is, the appointment by Mr Obama of Dr John Holdren as his science advisor.

But this goes to the heart of why the pessimists about the future and the ability of people to think their way through problems, and come up with never before seen solutions to them, have always ended up being wrong and why we should have hope and confidence about the future.

As you'll see The New York Times' science writer observe below, the famous bet between the doom mongering crank Paul Ehrlich (aided by Holdren) and the economist Julian Simon wasn't an obscure disagreement about the future prices of a selected bunch of metals.

The next time you see in the media a story based upon the WWF or some such group claiming that we are using up the world's resources faster than they can be replenished, think about this famous bet and then ignore the story.

Because it is, quite frankly, bullsh*t.

The position of Ehrlich and Holdren was based entirely on such a simplistic assumption.

And of course people such as David Suzuki even today have failed to learn the lesson from this and continue to make the same elementary mistake.

But instead of shortages and hunger, as predicted by Ehrlich (and you can check out below just how dire and gloomy and extreme they were below), the decades since his famous book The Population Bomb was published have seen the cost of resources and food continually fall in real terms. Which is to say that in relative terms they have become not less abundant, but more.

Hunger and poverty have declined steadily around the world.

Things have actually been getting better and better, even as groups such as Greenpeace and Oxfam, seeking to generate income from donations, have tried to tell us otherwise.

Right, now before reproducing the two blogs posts about Dr Holdren and that bet, can I just send a special Christmas message to the attention seeking idiot from the
CSIRO who felt it necessary to issue a warning about how much carbon dioxide your Christmas lights will generate (in reality a tiny, tiny fraction of a percent of the 40 billion tonnes or so produced every year globally), and how they are endangering the planet - F*CK OFF!

December 24, 2008

My post on John P. Holdren’s appointment as presidential science advisor prompted complaints that I was making too much of Dr. Holdren’s loss of a bet to the economist Julian Simon about the price of some metals. But that bet wasn’t just about metals. It was about a fundamental view of how adaptable and innovative humans are, and whether a rich modern society is “sustainable.” Dr. Holdren and his collaborator, Paul Ehrlich, were the pessimists. . . . They declared that “present technology is inadequate to the task of maintaining the world’s burgeoning billions, even under the most optimistic assumptions,” and of shortages of food and water that would have to be overcome in the next two decades for humans to “be to be granted the privilege of confronting such dilemmas as the exhaustion of mineral resources and physical space later.”

But the predicted famines and resource shortages never arrived. Instead, the amount of food consumed per capita around the world increased over the following decades, and the prices of food and natural resources continued their long-term downward trend.

Let’s hope for better performance in the future. Or maybe I’ll write a book about the politicization of science under the Obama Administration!

Politicizing Science
December 24, 2008

On Saturday, Barack Obama named Harvard professor John Holdren director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Obama said:

Because the truth is that promoting science isn't just about providing resources -- it's about protecting free and open inquiry. It's about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology. I could not have a better team to guide me in this work.

The AP seconded Obama's sentiment, editorializing that Obama was "signaling a change from Bush administration policies on global warming that were criticized for putting politics over science." Actually, as I've noted many times, anthropogenic climate change theory, as espoused by Holdren and others, isn't science at all, it's a combination of politics and faith. On empirical grounds, global warming theorists are losing the debate badly to the "skeptics."

What I want to comment on, though, is something else: Holdren's history as a politicizer of science, which is by no means limited to climate change. Holdren has long been a leading advocate of the theory that there are too many people, economic growth is unsustainable and the world is running out of resources. In fact, he collaborated on these theories with Paul Ehrlich, one of the most spectacularly and notoriously wrong-headed scientists since Ptolemy.

This is the kind of stuff
Ehrlich wrote in 1968:

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate, although many lives could be saved through dramatic programs to 'stretch' the carrying capacity of the earth by increasing food production and providing for more equitable distribution of whatever food is available. But these programs will only provide a stay of execution unless they are accompanied by determined and successful efforts at population control.

In 1974 he predicted:

...[a] nutritional disaster that seems likely to overtake humanity in the 1970s (or, at the latest, the 1980s). Due to a combination of ignorance, greed, and callousness, a situation has been created that could lead to a billion or more people starving to death.... Before 1985 mankind will enter a genuine age of scarcity [in which] the accessible supplies of many key minerals will be nearing depletion.

Ehrlich is best remembered today for the bet that he made with Julian Simon that the prices of certain commodities selected by Ehrlich would rise--a certainty, Ehrlich believed, given his theory of imminent and catastrophic scarcity of raw materials. The prices all fell.

While nowhere near as famous as Ehrlich, Holdren collaborated with him on two books and several articles, and fully shared Ehrlich's pessimistic theories on the future of the human race. In fact, as
John Tierney notes, Ehrlich went to Holdren for advice on which commodities to choose for his losing bet with Simon.

Consistent with these preoccupations, Holdren postures himself today as an expert on "sustainability." In 1995, he co-authored
this article, titled "The Meaning of Sustainability: Biogeophysical Aspects," with Ehrlich. Since Holdren is listed as the principal author, it sheds significant light on his alleged commitment to the "de-politicization of science."

Holdren begins by identifying the "ills that development must address." It's a pretty plain-vanilla list: poverty, war, oppression of human rights. Next, Holdren purports to identify the "driving forces" behind these ills. This is where we start to get political. First on the list is Ehrlich and Holdren's old hobbyhorse, "excessive population growth," which is "a condition now prevailing almost everywhere." Next comes "maldistribution," as "between rich and investment poor" and "between military and civilian forms of consumption and investment." (No one here but us scientists, right?)

This is where Holdren can no longer keep his left-wing politics under wraps. He identifies another "driving force" behind humanity's ills:

Underlying human frailties: Greed, selfishness, intolerance, and shortsightedness. Which collectively have been elevated by conservative political doctrine and practice (above all in the United States in 1980 92) to the status of a credo.

There you have it! This is the man upon whom Barack Obama is counting to "ensur[e] that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology."

It could be a long four years.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

What TV taught me: Chocolate cake and bariatric surgery

Funny world where you can get better medical advice from an episode of House MD than from much of the mainstream media.

Whereas programs like 60 Minutes in the US and most newspapers run completely uncritical "infomercials" for gastric bypass surgery, inflating its benefits and ignoring the often terrible consequences for people who have had the procedure, it takes a TV drama to actually deal with the more complicated and disturbing truth.

For those of you who might be interested, Junkfood Science has a series of articles on bariatric surgery including The Other Side of the Story Parts I & II (listed on the right hand side of the page, just scroll down) which was written in response to a hopelessly simplistic and positive treatment of it by CBS's 60 minutes, which includes details of a man who had the surgery and who's life was ruined by it. Yes, he'd lost weight, but all his teeth had fallen out, he was down to the last four foods he could eat without vomiting or passing out and had to continually go into hospital to have his electrolytes rebalanced.

He said every day he felt less healthy.

As Sandy from Junkfood Science points out, even the 'father' of bariatric surgery, Dr Edward Mason, has sounded the warning about the use of increasingly invasive procedures and their side effects.

Here's the opening paragraphs of her post:

The writers of House MD on Fox-TV did a public service last night. Unlike most television shows, House continues to punch through popular stereotypes about fat
people and take on obesity sacred cows with that cutting, impudent honesty that only Dr. Gregory House can get away with. Last night’s drama, weaved a difficult story line with subplots of humor and sexual tension and even medical ethics. Simultaneously, it brought an important educational message to bariatric surgery
patients and medical professionals that no other media has dared to touch.

Like all entertaining television, everything on House moves faster than life and teeters at the brink of reality. But while the diagnostic investigations are sensational, the underlying message last night was genuine.

Full post here