August 20, 2015

One of the slickest marketing campaigns of our time

Filed under: Environment, Europe, Health, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

In Forbes, Henry I. Miller and Drew L. Kershen explain why they think organic farming is, as they term it, a “colossal hoax” that promises far more than it can possibly deliver:

Consumers of organic foods are getting both more and less than they bargained for. On both counts, it’s not good.

Many people who pay the huge premium — often more than 100% — for organic foods do so because they’re afraid of pesticides. If that’s their rationale, they misunderstand the nuances of organic agriculture. Although it’s true that synthetic chemical pesticides are generally prohibited, there is a lengthy list of exceptions listed in the Organic Foods Production Act, while most “natural” ones are permitted. However, “organic” pesticides can be toxic. As evolutionary biologist Christie Wilcox explained in a 2012 Scientific American article (“Are lower pesticide residues a good reason to buy organic? Probably not.”): “Organic pesticides pose the same health risks as non-organic ones.”

Another poorly recognized aspect of this issue is that the vast majority of pesticidal substances that we consume are in our diets “naturally” and are present in organic foods as well as non-organic ones. In a classic study, UC Berkeley biochemist Bruce Ames and his colleagues found that “99.99 percent (by weight) of the pesticides in the American diet are chemicals that plants produce to defend themselves.” Moreover, “natural and synthetic chemicals are equally likely to be positive in animal cancer tests.” Thus, consumers who buy organic to avoid pesticide exposure are focusing their attention on just one-hundredth of 1% of the pesticides they consume.

Some consumers think that the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) requires certified organic products to be free of ingredients from “GMOs,” organisms crafted with molecular techniques of genetic engineering. Wrong again. USDA does not require organic products to be GMO-free. (In any case, the methods used to create so-called GMOs are an extension, or refinement, of older techniques for genetic modification that have been used for a century or more.)

August 17, 2015

Food fears and GMOs

Filed under: Environment, Health, Media, Politics, Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Henry I. Miller and Drew L. Kershen on the widespread FUD still being pushed in much of the mainstream media about genetically modified organisms in the food supply:

New York Times nutrition and health columnist Jane Brody recently penned a generally good piece about genetic engineering, “Fears, Not Facts, Support GMO-Free Food.” She recapitulated the overwhelming evidence for the importance and safety of products from GMOs, or “genetically modified organisms” (which for the sake of accuracy, we prefer to call organisms modified with molecular genetic engineering techniques, or GE). Their uses encompass food, animal feed, drugs, vaccines and animals. Sales of drugs made with genetic engineering techniques are in the scores of billions of dollars annually, and ingredients from genetically engineered crop plants are found in 70-80 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves.

Brody’s article had two errors, however. The first was this statement, in a correction that was appended (probably by the editors) after the article was published:

    The article also referred imprecisely to regulation of GMOs by the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. While the organizations regulate food from genetically engineered crops to ensure they are safe to eat, the program is voluntary. It is not the case that every GMO must be tested before it can be marketed.

In fact, every so-called GMO used for food, fiber or ornamental use is subject to compulsory case-by-case regulation by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of USDA and many are also regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during extensive field testing. When these organisms — plants, animals or microorganisms — become food, they are then overseen by the FDA, which has strict rules about misbranding (inaccurate or misleading labeling) and adulteration (the presence of harmful substances). Foods from “new plant varieties” made with any technique are subject to case-by-case premarket FDA review if they possess certain characteristics that pose questions of safety. In addition, food from genetically engineered organisms can undergo a voluntary FDA review. (Every GE food to this point has undergone the voluntary FDA review, so FDA has evaluated every GE food on the market).

The second error by Brody occurred in the very last words of the piece, “the best way for concerned consumers to avoid G.M.O. products is to choose those certified as organic, which the U.S.D.A. requires to be G.M.O.-free.” Brody has fallen victim to a common misconception; in fact, the USDA does not require organic products to be GMO-free.

August 12, 2015

Better hops through science

Filed under: Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

At Wired, Katie M. Palmer discusses an interesting (if only to brewers and beer fans) development in the quest for better beer:

For craft breweries, originality is everything. Your favorite microbrew prides itself on the particular combination of grains, yeast, and hops that go into its fermented nectar. Regardless of the magic that goes into the recipe, though, a lot of those ingredients come from the same big suppliers — bulk barley, high-yield yeast. So when agricultural geneticist Sean Myles was visiting his brewing buddies over at Tatamagouche Brewing Company in Nova Scotia, the conversation turned quickly to the one place where microbreweries can really distinguish themselves: hop varieties.

“I’m a craft beer fanatic…a little bit,” says Myles, who researches at Dalhousie University. “I ended up hanging around the hop yard, and we were taking a look at the vines.” In Nova Scotia, brewers grow the same varieties of hops you’d see elsewhere — Cascade, Willamette, Fuggle — which add aroma, flavor, and bitterness to a beer while helping to preserve it. But the vines don’t thrive like they do on the dryer, warmer west coast. The region’s high humidity makes the plants vulnerable to mildew. Myles looked at the hops growing in the brewers’ backyard, stunted and suffering from fungus, and had an idea: “I said, well, let’s go get some pollen.”

So Myles and Hans Christian Jost from Tatamagouche traveled from Nova Scotia to Corvallis, Oregon, where the USDA has one of the biggest hop collections in the world. “In order to get new varieties you need to let these plants have sex and generate some offspring,” says Myles. The National Clonal Germplasm Repository — which includes a gene bank in addition to physical collections of berries, mint, and nuts — is one of the only places where hopheads have access to pollen from male plants. (The pine cone-shaped hops that go into your beer are the flower of female plants, so most growers don’t bother keeping any males around.)

At the USDA hop library, which has dozens of varieties bred for different taste profiles, disease resistance, and viability in different climates, Myles worked with hop expert John Henning to find four different male mildew-resistant hops. But he couldn’t take the plant material across the border to Canada — so he stuck baggies over the top of the plants, collected their pollen, and brought it back to sprinkle on top of the female flowers grown by the brewery.

That’s the beginning of what will be a multiple-year process of growing, seed collection, and growing again to select the most mildew-resistant plants that still keep their floral hop character. When the brewers are done, they’ll have a unique variety of hops that they can call their own — and hopefully grow more of, thanks to its improved mildew protection.

July 28, 2015

Viking genes

Filed under: Europe, History, Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In Nautilis, Adam Piore talks about the project to thoroughly map Icelanders’ DNA:

In the ninth century there was a Norwegian Viking named Kveldulf, so big and strong that no man could defeat him. He sailed the seas in a long-ship and raided and plundered towns and homesteads of distant lands for many years. He settled down to farm, a very wealthy man.

Kveldulf had two sons who grew up to become mighty warriors. One joined the service of King Harald Tangle Hair. But in time the King grew fearful of the son’s growing power and had him murdered. Kveldulf vowed revenge. With his surviving son and allies, Kveldulf caught up with the killers, and wielding a double-bladed ax, slew 50 men. He sent the paltriest survivors back to the king to recount his deed and fled toward the newly settled realm of Iceland. Kveldulf died on the journey. But his remaining son Skallagrim landed on Iceland’s west coast, prospered, and had children.

Skallagrim’s children had children. Those children had children. And the blood and genes of Kveldulf the Viking and Skallagrim his son were passed down the ages. Then, in 1949, in the capital of Reykjavik, a descendent named Kari Stefansson was born.

Like Kveldulf, Stefansson would grow to be a giant, 6’5”, with piercing eyes and a beard. As a young man, he set out for the distant lands of the universities of Chicago and Harvard in search of intellectual bounty. But at the dawn of modern genetics in the 1990s, Stefansson, a neurologist, was lured back to his homeland by an unlikely enticement — the very genes that he and his 300,000-plus countrymen had inherited from Kveldulf and the tiny band of settlers who gave birth to Iceland.

Stefansson had a bold vision. He would create a library of DNA from every single living descendent of his nation’s early inhabitants. This library, coupled with Iceland’s rich trove of genealogical data and meticulous medical records, would constitute an unparalleled resource that could reveal the causes — and point to cures — for human diseases.

In 1996, Stefansson founded a company called Decode, and thrust his tiny island nation into the center of the burgeoning field of gene hunting. “Our genetic heritage is a natural resource,” Stefansson declared after returning to Iceland. “Like fish and hot pools.”

July 27, 2015

GMO food is safe, says … Slate

Filed under: Business, Environment, Health, Media, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In Slate, William Saletan on the FUD campaign that has been waged against genetically modified foods:

Is genetically engineered food dangerous? Many people seem to think it is. In the past five years, companies have submitted more than 27,000 products to the Non-GMO Project, which certifies goods that are free of genetically modified organisms. Last year, sales of such products nearly tripled. Whole Foods will soon require labels on all GMOs in its stores. Abbott, the company that makes Similac baby formula, has created a non-GMO version to give parents “peace of mind.” Trader Joe’s has sworn off GMOs. So has Chipotle.

Some environmentalists and public interest groups want to go further. Hundreds of organizations, including Consumers Union, Friends of the Earth, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Center for Food Safety, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, are demanding “mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods.” Since 2013, Vermont, Maine, and Connecticut have passed laws to require GMO labels. Massachusetts could be next.

The central premise of these laws — and the main source of consumer anxiety, which has sparked corporate interest in GMO-free food — is concern about health. Last year, in a survey by the Pew Research Center, 57 percent of Americans said it’s generally “unsafe to eat genetically modified foods.” Vermont says the primary purpose of its labeling law is to help people “avoid potential health risks of food produced from genetic engineering.” Chipotle notes that 300 scientists have “signed a statement rejecting the claim that there is a scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs for human consumption.” Until more studies are conducted, Chipotle says, “We believe it is prudent to take a cautious approach toward GMOs.”

The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have all declared that there’s no good evidence GMOs are unsafe. Hundreds of studies back up that conclusion. But many of us don’t trust these assurances. We’re drawn to skeptics who say that there’s more to the story, that some studies have found risks associated with GMOs, and that Monsanto is covering it up.

I’ve spent much of the past year digging into the evidence. Here’s what I’ve learned. First, it’s true that the issue is complicated. But the deeper you dig, the more fraud you find in the case against GMOs. It’s full of errors, fallacies, misconceptions, misrepresentations, and lies. The people who tell you that Monsanto is hiding the truth are themselves hiding evidence that their own allegations about GMOs are false. They’re counting on you to feel overwhelmed by the science and to accept, as a gut presumption, their message of distrust.

H/T to Coyote Blog for the link.

May 15, 2015

QotD: Portuguese genetics

Filed under: Europe, History, Quotations, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

On the face of it it sounds like the nice narrative we are fed every time something like this happens. I haven’t been following the international scene, and frankly it wouldn’t even surprise me if Europe headed for nativism and blood-related nationality. It is what is at the basis of their nation states (even if it’s often a lie. For instance I’d hazard that a lot of people in Portugal — yes, d*mn it, I’ll do the DNA testing. Let the house sell and let me have some money first — are as mixed as Americans. My kids call Portugal the reservoir tip at the end of Europe, which is unkind but somewhat accurate since that portion of land was part of the Celtic commonwealth, before being invaded by Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Germanic tribes, Moors (though their contribution in the North is minimal as the North was usually administered by overseers with little or no actual colonization) French crusaders, Viking raiders. Then there were British and Irish merchants due to ties going back before the Carthaginians who would set up trading posts, send their younger sons over, sometimes engage in a bit of raiding, etc. There are unkind proverbs about blue eyed Portuguese, but there are also a lot of them. (Two of my grandparents. A third was green eyed.) And in the end sometimes I think all of us are the result of some girl who tripped (on purpose or not) while evading a foreigner. All this to say that when my dad talks of the “The Portuguese Race” (and boy, does he) he’s mostly talking of a mythical entity. But it’s one they all believe in as hard as they can.)

Sarah A. Hoyt, “Multiculturalism IS Racism”, According to Hoyt, 2015-04-04.

April 22, 2015

Dog breeds in danger of extinction

Filed under: History, Science — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Rosie Cima looks at the complex relationship between humans and dogs … dog breeds, that is:

Skye Terrier (via Wikipedia)

Skye Terrier (via Wikipedia)

Meet the Skye terrier. Named after the Scottish Isle of Skye, he’s one of the oldest terriers in the world — with a lineage tracing back to the Middle Ages. He’s also been a very popular dog in his day. Queen Victoria kept several as pets starting a fashion trend. Mary, Queen of Scots kept one, which hid under her skirt at her execution. Famously loyal, “plucky but dignified”, and an important cultural icon, this is the kind of dog people erect statues of. In fact, they have.

Want one? Better act fast: the breed could go extinct in your lifetime.

Skye terrier breeders are doing their best to change the tide, but things don’t look good. The global population is between 3,500 and 4,000, making the once-common breed one of the rarest in the world. Skye terriers are rarer than red pandas. In the UK, there were only 17 puppies of the Skye terrier breed registered in 2013. Breeders say they need 300 births a year to maintain a healthy population and avoid complications from inbreeding.

How did this happen?

For most of human/canine history, dog breeds evolved gradually, alongside human society, to fill different functional roles as they were needed. If a society or economy shifted, and the role was no longer needed, the breed ceased to exist. Those dogs were either bred for a different purpose or were subsumed into the general dog population.

April 3, 2015

Perhaps the New York Times needs to back away from science coverage

Filed under: Media, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Alex B. Berezow makes a case for the venerable New York Times to not cover science stories:

What has gone so wrong for the NYT? Many things are to blame. The paper’s leftish editorial page is out of step with a large portion of the American public. A high-profile scandal, in which journalist Jayson Blair was caught fabricating articles, damaged its credibility. The biggest factor, however, is the rise of credible challengers — both print and digital — that simply do better journalism. There is little incentive to spend money to read the NYT when superior news coverage (and more sensible editorializing) can be found elsewhere.

The NYT‘s science coverage is particularly galling. While the paper does employ a staff of decent journalists (including several excellent writers, such as Carl Zimmer and John Tierney), its overall science coverage is trite. Other outlets cover the same stories (and many more), in ways that are both more in-depth and more interesting. (They are also usually free to read.) Worst of all, too much of NYT‘s science journalism is egregiously wrong.


Reliance on fringe, pseudoscientific sources has become something of a trend at the NYT. Its most deplorable reportage involves the science of food, particularly GMOs. Henry Miller, the former founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology, reprimands anti-GMO foodie Mark Bittman for “journalistic sloppiness” and “negligence” in his “[inability] to find reliable sources.”

Furthermore, in a damning exposé, Jon Entine reveals that Michael Pollan, a food activist and frequent NYT contributor, “has a history of promoting discredited studies and alarmist claims about GMOs.” Even worse, Mr. Entine writes that Mr. Pollan “candidly says he manipulated the credulous editors at the New York Times… by presenting only one side of food and agriculture stories.” Mr. Pollan was also chided by plant scientist Steve Savage for disseminating inaccurate information on potato agriculture and fearmongering about McDonald’s French fries.

On many matters concerning nutrition or health, the NYT endorses the unscientific side of the debate. For instance, The Atlantic criticized a New York Times Magazine essay on the supposed toxicity of sugar. At Science 2.0, Hank Campbell mocked an NYT writer’s endorsement of gluten-free diets, and chemist Josh Bloom dismantled a painfully inaccurate editorial on painkillers.

March 20, 2015

Epigenetic researchers – “We can double the size of these bugs!” Everyone else – “No, thanks. We’re good.”

Filed under: Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Science can be a great source of fascinating experiments. Doubling the size of insects is perhaps not the best way to advertise your particular speciality, however:

Florida carpenter ants

Researchers have changed the size of a handful of Florida ants by chemically modifying their DNA, rather than by changing its encoded information. The work is the latest advance from a field known as epigenetics and may help explain how the insects — despite their high degree of genetic similarity — grow into the different varieties of workers needed in a colony.

This discovery “takes the field leaps and bounds forward,” says entomologist Andrew Suarez of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who wasn’t connected to the study. “It’s providing a better understanding of how genes interact with the environment to generate diversity.”

Ant nests have division of labor down pat. The queen spends her time pumping out eggs, and the workers, which are genetically similar sisters, perform all the other jobs necessary to keep the colony thriving, such as tending the young, gathering food, and excavating tunnels. Workers in many ant species specialize even further, forming so-called subcastes that look different and have different roles. In Florida carpenter ants (Camponotus floridanus), for example, workers tend to fall into two groups. Minor workers, which can be less than 6 mm long, rear the young and forage for food. Major workers, which can be almost twice as long, use their large jaws to protect the colony from predators.

A team from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, suspected that the mechanism involves DNA methylation: the addition of a chemical to DNA. Genome sequencing and other methods suggest that these physical differences don’t usually stem from genetic differences between individual ants. Instead, environmental factors help push workers to become majors or minors — specifically, the amount of food and coddling that young ants receive. But just how do these factors change the size of ants?

February 20, 2015

The not-so-binary nature of sex

Filed under: Health, Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In Nature, Claire Ainsworth explains why it’s becoming more difficult to discuss sex as a binary:

Sex can be much more complicated than it at first seems. According to the simple scenario, the presence or absence of a Y chromosome is what counts: with it, you are male, and without it, you are female. But doctors have long known that some people straddle the boundary — their sex chromosomes say one thing, but their gonads (ovaries or testes) or sexual anatomy say another. Parents of children with these kinds of conditions — known as intersex conditions, or differences or disorders of sex development (DSDs) — often face difficult decisions about whether to bring up their child as a boy or a girl. Some researchers now say that as many as 1 person in 100 has some form of DSD.

When genetics is taken into consideration, the boundary between the sexes becomes even blurrier. Scientists have identified many of the genes involved in the main forms of DSD, and have uncovered variations in these genes that have subtle effects on a person’s anatomical or physiological sex. What’s more, new technologies in DNA sequencing and cell biology are revealing that almost everyone is, to varying degrees, a patchwork of genetically distinct cells, some with a sex that might not match that of the rest of their body. Some studies even suggest that the sex of each cell drives its behaviour, through a complicated network of molecular interactions. “I think there’s much greater diversity within male or female, and there is certainly an area of overlap where some people can’t easily define themselves within the binary structure,” says John Achermann, who studies sex development and endocrinology at University College London’s Institute of Child Health.

These discoveries do not sit well in a world in which sex is still defined in binary terms. Few legal systems allow for any ambiguity in biological sex, and a person’s legal rights and social status can be heavily influenced by whether their birth certificate says male or female.

“The main problem with a strong dichotomy is that there are intermediate cases that push the limits and ask us to figure out exactly where the dividing line is between males and females,” says Arthur Arnold at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies biological sex differences. “And that’s often a very difficult problem, because sex can be defined a number of ways.”

February 19, 2015

Epigenome: The symphony in your cells

Filed under: Health, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Published on 18 Feb 2015

Almost every cell in your body has the same DNA sequence. So how come a heart cell is different from a brain cell? Cells use their DNA code in different ways, depending on their jobs. Just like orchestras can perform one piece of music in many different ways. A cell’s combined set of changes in gene expression is called its epigenome. This week Nature publishes a slew of new data on the epigenomic landscape in lots of different cells. Learn how epigenomics works in this video.

February 12, 2015

EU governments and GM crops

Filed under: Africa, Bureaucracy, Economics, Europe — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Last month, Matt Ridley ran down the benefits to farmers, consumers, ecologists and the environment itself that the European Union has been resisting mightily all these years:

Scientifically, the argument over GM crops is as good as over. With nearly half a billion acres growing GM crops worldwide, the facts are in. Biotech crops are on average safer, cheaper and better for the environment than conventional crops. Their benefits accrue disproportionately to farmers in poor countries. The best evidence comes in the form of a “meta-analysis” — a study of studies — carried out by two scientists at Göttingen University, in Germany.

The strength of such an analysis is that it avoids cherry-picking and anecdotal evidence. It found that GM crops have reduced the quantity of pesticide used by farmers by an average of 37 per cent and increased crop yields by 22 per cent. The greatest gains in yield and profit were in the developing world.

If Europe had adopted these crops 15 years ago: rape farmers would be spraying far less pyrethroid or neo-nicotinoid insecticides to control flea beetles, so there would be far less risk to bees; potato farmers would not need to be spraying fungicides up to 15 times a year to control blight; and wheat farmers would not be facing stagnant yields and increasing pesticide resistance among aphids, meaning farmland bird numbers would be up.

Oh, and all that nonsense about GM crops giving control of seeds to big American companies? The patent on the first GM crops has just expired, so you can grow them from your own seed if you prefer and, anyway, conventionally bred varieties are also controlled for a period by those who produce them.

African farmers have been mostly denied genetically modified crops by the machinations of the churches and the greens, aided by the European Union’s demand that imports not be transgenically improved. Otherwise, African farmers would now be better able to combat drought, pests, vitamin deficiency and toxic contamination, while not having to buy so many sprays and risk their lives applying them.

I made this point recently to a charity that works with farmers in Africa and does not oppose GM crops but has so far not dared say so. Put your head above the parapet, I urged. We cannot do that, they replied, because we have to work with other, bigger green charities and they would punish us mercilessly if we broke ranks. Is the bullying really that bad? Yes, they replied.

Yet the Green Blob realises that it has made a mistake here. Not a financial mistake — it made a fortune out of donations during the heyday of stoking alarm about GM crops in the late 1990s — but the realisation that all it has achieved is to prolong the use of sprays and delay the retreat of hunger.

December 5, 2014

For our next trick, we need to crack another genetic code

Filed under: Health, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:03

Michael White says we need to follow up our success in reading our own genetic code by decoding a different one:

There are thousands of mutations that occur in the breast cancer-linked genes BRCA1 and BRCA2. Some of these cause breast or ovarian cancer, while others are harmless. When we design a genetic test for predisposition to breast cancer, we have to know which ones to test for. The same is true of almost any gene that plays a role in disease — you’ll find many mutations in that gene in the general population, only some of which cause health problems. So how do we know which mutations to worry about?

We start by using the genetic code. The genetic code, cracked by scientists in the 1960s, makes it surprisingly easy to “read” our DNA and understand how a particular mutation affects a gene. As genetic testing takes on a bigger role in predicting, diagnosing, and treating disease, we rely on this code to help us make sense of the data. Unfortunately, the genetic code applies to less than two percent of our DNA. In an effort to read the rest, researchers are trying to crack a new genetic code — and this next one is turning out to be much more difficult to solve than the first. In fact, scientists may have to give up the idea that we can use a “code” to “read” the rest of our DNA.

When scientists were working out the original genetic code in the 1950s and ’60s, all sorts of complicated schemes were proposed to explain how information is stored in our genes. The problem they were trying to solve was how a gene, made of DNA, codes the information to make a particular protein — an enzyme, a pump, a piece of cellular scaffolding, or some other critical component of the cell’s working machinery. They were looking for a code that would translate the four-letter DNA alphabet of genes into the 20-letter amino acid alphabet of proteins.


Thanks to its simplicity, the genetic code is a powerful tool in our hunt for mutations that cause disease. Unfortunately, it has also led to the genetic equivalent of a drunk looking for his lost keys under the lamppost. Researchers have put much of their effort into looking for disease mutations in those parts of our genomes that we can read with the genetic code — that is, parts that consist of canonical genes that code for proteins. But these genes make up less than two percent of our DNA; much more of our genetic function is outside of genes in the relatively uncharted “non-coding” portions. We have no idea how many disease-causing mutations are in that non-coding portion — for some types of mutations, it could be as high as 90 percent.

October 17, 2014

QotD: Legislating absolute equality

Filed under: Law, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

…to oppose the notion of equality of opportunity these days is to be thought some kind of monstrous ultramontane reactionary, a Metternich or Nicholas I, who wants by means of repression to preserve the status quo in amber. Members of young audiences to which I have spoken have almost fainted with shock when I have said that I not only did not believe in equality of opportunity, but to the contrary found the very idea sinister in the extreme, and much worse than mere egalitarianism of outcome. To say to a young audience today that equality of opportunity is a thoroughly vicious idea is like shouting “God does not exist and Mohammed was not his prophet” at the top of one’s voice in Mecca.

Those who believe in equality of opportunity must want, if they take the idea seriously, to make the world not only just but fair. Genetic and family influences on the fate of people have to be eliminated, because they undoubtedly affect opportunities and make them unequal. Ugly people cannot be models; the deformed cannot be professional footballers; the retarded cannot be astrophysicists; the small of stature cannot be heavyweight boxers; I don’t think I have to prolong this list, as everyone can think of a thousand examples for himself.

Of course, it might be possible to level the field a little by legislating for equality of outcome: by, for example, insisting that ugly people are employed as models in proportion to their prevalence in the population. English novelist L.P. Hartley, author of The Go-Between, satirized such envious suppression of beauty (and, by implication, all egalitarianism other than that of equality under the law) in a novel called Facial Justice. It’s not a very good novel, as it happens, but the idea is very good; Hartley envisages a state in which everyone aspires to an “average” face, brought about by plastic surgery both for the abnormally ugly and the abnormally good-looking. Only in this way can the supposed injustice (actually it’s unfairness) of the genetic lottery be righted.

Hartley’s novel is a reductio ad absurdum of a pernicious idea. By contrast, Roosevelt’s “measurable quality of opportunity” is roughly achievable by human design: only roughly, of course, because some (though few) will still be excluded biologically, and there are (again few) upbringings so terrible that they preclude opportunity for the person to become anything much. But the aspiration to deny no one a “measurable quality of opportunity” is not intrinsically nasty, as is the insistence on equality of opportunity. On the contrary; our problem is, however, that the political arrangements needed to bring this about already exist in most Western countries, and still we are unhappy or discontented. Thus we — many of us, that is — attribute our unhappiness to inequality of opportunity for fear of looking elsewhere, including inward.

Theodore Dalrymple, “A More Sinister Equality”, Taki’s Magazine, 2014-04-06

May 7, 2014

“I’ve been an oncologist for 20 years, and I have never, ever seen anything like this.”

Filed under: Business, Health, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 15:30

In Forbes, Matthew Herper looks at how Novartis is transforming itself in an attempt to conquer cancer:

“I’ve been an oncologist for 20 years,” says Grupp, “and I have never, ever seen anything like this.” Emily has become the poster child for a radical new treatment that Novartis, the third-biggest drug company on the Forbes Global 2000, is making one of the top priorities in its $9.9 billion research and development budget.

“I’ve told the team that resources are not an issue. Speed is the issue,” says Novartis Chief Executive Joseph Jimenez, 54. “I want to hear what it takes to run this phase III trial and to get this to market. You’re talking about patients who are about to die. The pain of having to turn patients away is such that we are going as fast as we can and not letting resources get in the way.”

A successful trial would prove a milestone in the fight against the demon that has plagued living things since dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Coupled with the exploding capabilities of DNA-sequencing machines that can unlock the genetic code, recent drugs have delivered stunning results in lung cancer, melanoma and other deadly tumors, sometimes making them disappear entirely – albeit temporarily. Just last year the Food & Drug Administration approved nine targeted cancer drugs. It’s big business, too. According to data provider IMS Health, spending on oncology drugs was $91 billion last year, triple what it was in 2003.

But the developments at Penn point, tantalizingly, to something more, something that would rank among the great milestones in the history of mankind: a true cure. Of 25 children and 5 adults with Emily’s disease, ALL, 27 had a complete remission, in which cancer becomes undetectable. “It’s a stunning breakthrough,” says Sally Church, of drug development advisor Icarus Consultants. Says Crystal Mackall, who is developing similar treatments at the National Cancer Institute: “It really is a revolution. This is going to open the door for all sorts of cell-based and gene therapy for all kinds of disease because it’s going to demonstrate that it’s economically viable.”

H/T to Megan McArdle for the link.

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