True absinthe (the name is from a Greek word meaning “undrinkable”) has been illegal in most places for a long time. It is, or was, flavoured with the herb wormwood, which, as the French authorities noticed after years of using absinthe in their army to combat fever, “acts powerfully on the nerve-centres, and causes delirium and hallucinations, followed in some cases by idiocy” (Encyclopaedia Britannica). The perfectly wholesome successors to absinthe are flavoured with anise, or aniseed. The result always reminds me, not unpleasantly, of those paregoric cough-sweets children ate before the war, and I see that paregoric does contain aniseed, but throws in opium, camphor and benzoic acid as well, so I am probably just being nostalgic. Anyway, when recipes call for absinthe, as they can still do if their compilers and revisers have been too ignorant or lazy to make the change, use Pernod or Ricard instead.
Kingsley Amis, Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis, 2008.
July 28, 2014
July 23, 2014
In the ongoing investigation into why Westerners — especially North Americans — became obese, some of the early studies are being reconsidered. For example, I’ve mentioned the name of Dr. Ancel Keys a couple of times recently: he was the champion of the low-fat diet and his work was highly influential in persuading government health authorities to demonize fat in pursuit of better health outcomes. He was so successful as an advocate for this idea that his study became one of the most frequently cited in medical science. A brilliant success … that unfortunately flew far ahead of its statistical evidence:
So Keys had food records, although that coding and summarizing part sounds a little fishy. Then he followed the health of 13,000 men so he could find associations between diet and heart disease. So we can assume he had dietary records for all 13,000 of them, right?
Uh … no. That wouldn’t be the case.
The poster-boys for his hypothesis about dietary fat and heart disease were the men from the Greek island of Crete. They supposedly ate the diet Keys recommended: low-fat, olive oil instead of saturated animal fats and all that, you see. Keys tracked more than 300 middle-aged men from Crete as part of his study population, and lo and behold, few of them suffered heart attacks. Hypothesis supported, case closed.
So guess how many of those 300-plus men were actually surveyed about their eating habits? Go on, guess. I’ll wait …
And the answer is: 31.
Yup, 31. And that’s about the size of the dataset from each of the seven countries: somewhere between 25 and 50 men. It’s right there in the paper’s data tables. That’s a ridiculously small number of men to survey if the goal is to accurately compare diets and heart disease in seven countries.
Getting the picture? Keys followed the health of more than 300 men from Crete. But he only surveyed 31 of them, with one of those surveys taken during the meat-abstinence month of Lent. Oh, and the original seven-day food-recall records weren’t available later, so he swapped in data from an earlier paper. Then to determine fruit and vegetable intake, he used data sheets about food availability in Greece during a four-year period.
And from this mess, he concluded that high-fat diets cause heart attacks and low-fat diets prevent them.
Keep in mind, this is one of the most-cited studies in all of medical science. It’s one of the pillars of the Diet-Heart hypothesis. It helped to convince the USDA, the AHA, doctors, nutritionists, media health writers, your parents, etc., that saturated fat clogs our arteries and kills us, so we all need to be on low-fat diets – even kids.
Yup, Ancel Keys had a tiny one … but he sure managed to screw a lot of people with it.
H/T to Amy Alkon for the link.
July 12, 2014
Sriracha fans were relieved when the Huy Fong plant in California was allowed to re-open after a farcical ‘elf-and-safety’ shakedown (original story here). Reason‘s Zenon Evans has more on the behind-the-scenes bullshit that triggered the near-national panic among hot sauce consumers:
The public just got some new insight into one of the last year’s spiciest (and fishiest) political kerfuffles: the push by the city council of Irwindale, California to shut down Huy Fong Foods, the makers of Sriracha hot sauce. The tireless freedom-of-information requesters at MuckRock yesterday published internal council documents, revealing theatrically furious communication among the local government officials and a desire to exploit regulations to force the company into submission.
The newly revealed memos and emails show that some members of government were actually “happy to report the scent of chilies” emanating when production began in 2012, but, a year later Ortiz and Councilman David Fuentes, who also lived near the factory (and also ultimately recused himself from the matter), saw a total shutdown as the first and only appropriate course of action.
“I just received notice that the odor at this place is very strong. We must proceed with SHUT DOWN immediately,” demanded Ortiz in an email, despite the fact that he had previously applauded how much safer that part of town had become since the $80 million business moved in.
Fuentes was even more adamant. “THIS PROBLEM NEEDS TO BE TAKEN CARE OF NOW, NOT LATER!!!!!,” he emailed his fellow council members in October. Notably, he also suggested that “if we need to shut them down for non compliance, then let’s do what we have to do.”
Although it’s not clear exactly what Fuentes meant by “non compliance” or if the council made moves based on his plot, the city did sue Huy Fong and got a judge to order a partial shutdown in November, even though that the judge acknowledged a “lack of credible evidence” regarding the health risk claims. Likewise, California’s health regulators stepped in and changed their own food rules in December as they demanded a 30-day hold on operations, which created fear of a national Sriracha shortage.
July 11, 2014
DSM-5 turns “everyday anxiety, eccentricity, forgetting and bad eating habits into mental disorders”
Helene Guldberg reviews Saving Normal: An Insider’s Revolt Against Out-of-Control Psychiatric Diagnosis, DSM-5, Big Pharma, and the Medicalization of Ordinary Life by Allen Frances.
Frances’ arguments about the dangers of inflating psychiatric conditions and psychiatric diagnosis are persuasive — maybe more so because he honestly admits to his own role in developing such an inflation. He is keenly aware of the risks of diagnostic inflation ‘because of painful firsthand experience’, he writes. ‘Despite our efforts to tame excessive diagnostic exuberance, DSM-IV had since been misused to blow up the diagnostic bubble’. He is particularly concerned about the exponential increase in the diagnosis of psychiatric conditions in children, writing: ‘We failed to predict or prevent three new false epidemics of mental disorder in children — autism, attention deficit, and childhood bipolar disorder. And we did nothing to contain the rampant diagnostic inflation that was already expanding the boundary of psychiatry far beyond its competence.’
Take Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which is ‘spreading like wildfire’. This diagnosis is applied so promiscuously that ‘an amazing 10 per cent of kids now qualify’, Frances writes. He points out that in the US, boys born in January are 70 per cent more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than boys born in December. The reason diagnosing ADHD is so problematic is that it essentially is a description of immaturity, including symptoms such as ‘lack of impulse control’, ‘hyperactivity’ or ‘inattention’. Boys born in January are the youngest in their school year group (in the US) and thus they are more likely to be immature; in the UK, the youngest children in a school classroom are born in August, and so here, August-born kids are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD. We have medicalised immaturity.
Until 1980, the DSMs were ‘deservedly obscure little books that no one much cared about or read’. DSM-I (published in 1952) and DSM-II (published in 1968) were ‘unread, unloved and unused’. Now, says Frances, this ‘bible’ of psychiatry ‘determines all sorts of important things that have an enormous impact on people’s lives — like who is considered well and who sick; what treatment is offered; who pays for it; who gets disability benefit; who is eligible for mental health, school vocational and other services; who gets to be hired for a job, can adopt a child, or pilot a plane, or qualifies for life insurance; whether a murderer is a criminal or mental patient; what should be the damages awarded in lawsuits; and much, much more’.
Today, as a result of various trends, including the impact of the DSMs, many human behaviours, quirks, eccentricities and woes which in the past would have been seen as parts of the rich tapestry of life are now branded mental disorders.
July 3, 2014
We’ve all seen many examples of health news stories where the headline promised much more than the article delivered: this is why stories have headlines in the first place — to get you to read the rest of the article. This sometimes means the headline writer (except on blogs, the person writing the headline isn’t the person who wrote the story), knowing less of what went into writing the story, grabs a few key statements to come up with an appealing (or appalling) headline.
This is especially true with science and health reporting, where the writer may not be as fully informed on the subject and the headline writer almost certainly doesn’t have a scientific background. The correct way to read any kind of health report in the mainstream media is to read skeptically — and knowing a few things about how scientific research is (or should be) conducted will help you to determine whether a reported finding is worth paying attention to:
Does the article support its claims with scientific research?
Your first concern should be the research behind the news article. If an article touts a treatment or some aspect of your lifestyle that is supposed to prevent or cause a disease, but doesn’t give any information about the scientific research behind it, then treat it with a lot of caution. The same applies to research that has yet to be published.
Is the article based on a conference abstract?
Another area for caution is if the news article is based on a conference abstract. Research presented at conferences is often at a preliminary stage and usually hasn’t been scrutinised by experts in the field. Also, conference abstracts rarely provide full details about methods, making it difficult to judge how well the research was conducted. For these reasons, articles based on conference abstracts should be no cause for alarm. Don’t panic or rush off to your GP.
Was the research in humans?
Quite often, the ‘miracle cure’ in the headline turns out to have only been tested on cells in the laboratory or on animals. These stories are regularly accompanied by pictures of humans, which creates the illusion that the miracle cure came from human studies. Studies in cells and animals are crucial first steps and should not be undervalued. However, many drugs that show promising results in cells in laboratories don’t work in animals, and many drugs that show promising results in animals don’t work in humans. If you read a headline about a drug or food ‘curing’ rats, there is a chance it might cure humans in the future, but unfortunately a larger chance that it won’t. So there is no need to start eating large amounts of the ‘wonder food’ featured in the article.
How many people did the research study include?
In general, the larger a study the more you can trust its results. Small studies may miss important differences because they lack statistical “power”, and are also more susceptible to finding things (including things that are wrong) purely by chance.
Did the study have a control group?
There are many different types of studies appropriate for answering different types of questions. If the question being asked is about whether a treatment or exposure has an effect or not, then the study needs to have a control group. A control group allows the researchers to compare what happens to people who have the treatment/exposure with what happens to people who don’t. If the study doesn’t have a control group, then it’s difficult to attribute results to the treatment or exposure with any level of certainty.
Also, it’s important that the control group is as similar to the treated/exposed group as possible. The best way to achieve this is to randomly assign some people to be in the treated/exposed group and some people to be in the control group. This is what happens in a randomised controlled trial (RCT) and is why RCTs are considered the ‘gold standard’ for testing the effects of treatments and exposures. So when reading about a drug, food or treatment that is supposed to have an effect, you want to look for evidence of a control group and, ideally, evidence that the study was an RCT. Without either, retain some healthy scepticism.
June 29, 2014
At Viking Update, John Holler says an old NFL Films product may become very important in the ongoing dispute between the league and former players over concussions:
The ongoing concussion lawsuit that appears to be close to being settled out of court is making progress to be finalized. The bottom line is that players needing help will get significantly more assistance than they have in the past because the spotlight is on and both sides are compelled to try to reach a mutually-agreed upon decision.
But, if the case remains unsettled, the NFL equivalent to the Zapruder film may well already be in possession of the NFL.
Many of the former players who are seeking reparations for the injuries they sustained during their playing days played the sport at a much different time. They weren’t just Old School. They played in the school that was replaced by the school now referred to as Old School.
Over the weekend, thanks to the good people at Netflix, I watched a three-disc NFL Films series called “Inside the Vault.” The series highlighted the NFL of the 1960s and early 1970s and, while used as a promotional tool, gave unprecedented access to what actually happened on the sidelines of games when injured players were being treated and, at times, sent back into action.
The footage contained on the DVDs was both fascinating and troubling. At the time the “vault” was opened in 2003, NFL Films was getting involved in the new medium of marketing and selling itself. The DVD market of the time created “The Vault.”
What the NFL Films set portrayed was a testament to the bravado of the NFL and the players, coaches and sideline personnel involved. Ed Sabol founded NFL Films and, in the “Vault” collection, he was interviewed and quoted as saying that he instructed his camera crews not to unnecessarily throw away any film that wasn’t spoiled in developing.
June 28, 2014
H/T to Nils Werner for the link.
— Nils Werner (@iNils) June 28, 2014
June 25, 2014
June 23, 2014
There are, I believe, a few reasons to suppose that autism is a particularly fascinating area to be studying at the moment. What are those reasons? Firstly, prevalence rates of autism have soared in recent decades, from 1:2,500 in 1978 to around 1:100 today: a staggering 25-fold increase. Secondly, and simultaneously, the nature of those receiving a diagnosis of autism has changed considerably. To give just one example, in the 1980s no more than twenty percent of individuals diagnosed with autism had an I.Q. above 80. Today, by contrast, it is widely argued that “intellectual disability is not part of the broader autism phenotype… [and] the association between extreme autistic traits and intellectual disability is only modest” (Hoekstra et al. 2009: 534). Whatever you make of I.Q. scores, this changing profile means that it is reasonable to assume that when you meet somebody with autism today they are quite unlikely to be similar to someone you would’ve met with the same diagnosis just thirty years ago. Thirdly, as the number of people diagnosed with autism has increased, and as the capabilities of those individuals has increased, a (self-)advocacy network of enormous importance and influence has arisen, perhaps on a scale hitherto unseen. When woven together, these dynamic elements have led Ian Hacking to claim that, in autism, “we are participating in a living experiment in concept formation of a sort that does not come more than once in a dozen lifetimes” (Hacking 2009: 506). This, I think, is quite exciting.
Gregory Hollin, “Autism, sociality, and human nature”, Somatosphere, 2014-06-18.
June 18, 2014
One of the problems with scrupulously “sanitized” food is that it doesn’t taste of anything very much, which may be why people consume it in large quantities: With food, if the taste doesn’t satisfy you, you chow until the sheer quantity does. I’ve no research on the subject and my theory may be as full of holes as a Swiss cheese, but the fact is that the federalization of food has coincided with the massive expansion of obesity in America, and I’m inclined to think these two things are not unrelated.
Mark Steyn, “Cheeseboarder Patrol”, SteynOnline.com, 2014-06-12.
June 12, 2014
France, for all its faults, has genuinely federalized food: a distinctive cheese every 20 miles down the road. In America, meanwhile, the food nannies are lobbying to pass something called the National Uniformity for Food Act. There’s way too much of that already.
The federalization of food may seem peripheral to national security issues, and the taste of American milk — compared with its French or English or even Québécois equivalents — may seem a small loss. But take almost any area of American life: what’s the more common approach nowadays? The excessive government regulation exemplified by American cheese or the spirit of self-reliance embodied in the Second Amendment? On a whole raft of issues from health care to education the United States is trending in an alarmingly fromage-like direction.
Mark Steyn, “Live Brie or Die!” SteynOnline.com, 2014-03-13
June 8, 2014
Jeffrey Tucker discusses the coming crash in the world of make-up:
The organization Campaign for Safe Cosmetics doesn’t just want you to be able to have new choices about the makeup or other products you buy. It wants the FDA to be able to ban and recall products. It will decide for you what is and isn’t safe.
And it is prevailing against the industry itself, which has no interest whatsoever in selling unsafe products, but precisely the opposite. The industry is already ridiculously overregulated.
What’s the excuse? The usual nonsense about safety and security and health, along with predictable headlines about how your shampoo is giving you cancer. There is a crowd of lobbyists backed by regulators who seem to believe that all of modernity is corrupting and horrible and must be reversed until we are living in the most-primitive state of being, sans makeup, of course.
In other words, cosmetics are going the way of everything else. The quality of the product will be depleted by regulations, just as with indoor plumbing, electricity, cars, light bulbs, soaps and gas-powered tools. Entrepreneurship will be hindered and truncated. Innovation will stop. In a few years, you will wonder: Whatever happened to makeup and deodorant and hair spray that actually works? Prepare: The end is near!
Already, I’ve heard many women complain that cosmetics today are far worse than they were 10 years ago. The colors don’t behave they way they should, and color is mainly what the FDA currently controls. I don’t doubt that whatever problems exist are due to government regulations. Whenever you see consumer products that decline in quality to the point that you have to pay vastly more for something of good quality, or that high quality suddenly becomes completely unavailable, you will find the hand of government if you look hard enough.
June 2, 2014
Dr. Amy Tuteur shares six things to watch for in health or medical reporting, as they usually indicate quackery:
Americans tend to be pretty savvy about advertising. Put a box around claims, annotate them with the words “paid advertisement” or “sponsored content” and most people approach those claims warily. Unfortunately, the same people who are dubious about advertising claims are remarkably gullible when it comes to quackery.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that it is surprisingly easy to tell quackery apart from real medical information. Quack claims are typically decorated with red flags … if you know what to look for. What follows is a list of some of those red flags.
1. The secret knowledge flag: When someone implies they are sharing secret medical knowledge with you, run in the opposite direction. There is no such thing as secret medical knowledge. In an age where there are literally thousands of competing medical journals, tremendous pressure on researchers to publish papers, and instantaneous dissemination of results on the Internet, nothing about medicine could possibly be secret.
2. The giant conspiracy flag: In the entire history of modern medicine, there has NEVER been a conspiracy to hide lifesaving information among professionals. Sure, an individual company may hide information in order to get a jump on competitors, or to deny harmful effects of their products, but there can never be a large conspiracy because every aspect of the healthcare industry is filled with competitors. Vast conspiracies, encompassing doctors, scientists and public health officials exist only in the minds of quacks.
4. The toxin flag: I’ve written before that toxins are the new evil humors. Toxins serve the same explanatory purpose as evil humours did in the Middle Ages. They are invisible, but all around us. They constantly threaten people, often people who unaware of their very existence. They are no longer viewed as evil in themselves, but it is axiomatic that they have be released into our environment by “evil” corporations. There’s just one problem. “Toxins” are a figment of the imagination, in the exact same way that evil humours and miasmas were figments of the imagination.
June 1, 2014
And in The Economist this week:
Ms Teicholz describes the early academics who demonised fat and those who have kept up the crusade. Top among them was Ancel Keys, a professor at the University of Minnesota, whose work landed him on the cover of Time magazine in 1961. He provided an answer to why middle-aged men were dropping dead from heart attacks, as well as a solution: eat less fat. Work by Keys and others propelled the American government’s first set of dietary guidelines, in 1980. Cut back on red meat, whole milk and other sources of saturated fat. The few sceptics of this theory were, for decades, marginalised.
But the vilification of fat, argues Ms Teicholz, does not stand up to closer examination. She pokes holes in famous pieces of research — the Framingham heart study, the Seven Countries study, the Los Angeles Veterans Trial, to name a few — describing methodological problems or overlooked results, until the foundations of this nutritional advice look increasingly shaky.
The opinions of academics and governments, as presented, led to real change. Food companies were happy to replace animal fats with less expensive vegetable oils. They have now begun abolishing trans fats from their food products and replacing them with polyunsaturated vegetable oils that, when heated, may be as harmful. Advice for keeping to a low-fat diet also played directly into food companies’ sweet spot of biscuits, cereals and confectionery; when people eat less fat, they are hungry for something else. Indeed, as recently as 1995 the AHA itself recommended snacks of “low-fat cookies, low-fat crackers…hard candy, gum drops, sugar, syrup, honey” and other carbohydrate-laden foods. Americans consumed nearly 25% more carbohydrates in 2000 than they had in 1971.
It would be ironic indeed if the modern obesity crisis was actually caused by government dietary recommendations intended to improve public health (and fatten the bottom lines of big agribusiness campaign donors).
May 31, 2014
“The smoke from this plant causes a brief state of euphoria, immediately followed by permanent insanity”
Paula Bolyard says that this collection of TV public service announcements from the 1970s may go a long way to explain why as parents they obsessively over-protect their kids (the Millenial generation). I loved this one:
In an effort to communicate a hip-sounding anti-drug message that teens could relate to, this PSA probably achieved the opposite of its intended effect. It made drugs seem fun and cool and glamorized drug use more than demonizing it.
Here are some gems from this hilarious PSA:
I know what you’re thinking. What is marijuana? What makes it so dangerous? Where can I get some marijuana? Well, brother, I’m not going to nickle and dime you. I’m not like ‘the man’ all you kids are rebelling against. I’m hip. I know what young people are dealing with these days.
Yes, he actually said “nickle and dime you.”
Rolled in Zig Zags or puffed from 7th period wood shop projects, the smoke from this plant causes a brief state of euphoria, immediately followed by permanent insanity. Users are prone to unpredictable behavior including junk food binges, joy rides, and a sudden urge to wear sunglasses at night.
At long last I now know why my brother was so interested in wood shop in junior high.
Long term use of marijuana can lead to a psychological dependency. Soon you’ll be taking all sorts of measures to get your fix. People will start calling you names like ‘pothead’ or ‘Smokie McBongwater.’ Losing all motivation, it’s likely that you will drop out of school take a sudden liking to sitar music and maybe even get felt up by a cop or two.
This explains basically everything about the 70s.
Is marijuana really where it’s at? Is it really as righteous as you think? There is more to life than grass. There are fulfilling careers and grrrr000vy beach parties. The closer you look the more seeds you find in your stash. Follow your hopes and dreams. Be someone. Do yourself and your country a favor. Don’t let this happen to you.
Raise your hand if you’re convinced.