Quotulatiousness

June 18, 2015

Nutrition … what we thought we knew is wrong, again

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

At Real Clear Science, Ross Pomeroy explains how historical “expert knowledge” and government cheerleading pointed in exactly the opposite direction of today’s experts and government regulators:

For decades, the federal government has been advising Americans on what to eat. Those recommendations have been subject to the shifting sands of dietary science. And have those sands ever been shifting. At first, fat and cholesterol were vilified, while sugar was mostly let off the hook. Now, fat is fine (saturated fat is still evil, though), cholesterol is back, and sugar is the new bogeyman.

Why the sizable shift? The answer may be “bad science.”

Every five years, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, composed of nutrition and health experts from around the country, convenes to review the latest scientific and medical literature. From their learned dissection, they form the dietary guidelines.

But according to a new editorial published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, much of the science they review is fundamentally flawed. Unlike experiments in the hard sciences of chemistry, physics, and biology, which rely on direct observational evidence, most diet studies are based on self-reported data. Study subjects are examined for height, weight, and health, then are questioned about what they eat. Their dietary choices are subsequently linked to health outcomes — cancer, mortality, heart disease, etc.

That’s a poor way of doing science, says Edward Archer, a research fellow with the Nutrition Obesity Research Center at the University of Alabama, and lead author of the report.

“The assumption that human memory can provide accurate or precise reproductions of past ingestive behavior is indisputably false,” he and his co-authors write.

Two of the largest studies on nutritional intake in the United States, the CDC’s NHANES and “What We Eat,” are based on asking subjects to recall precisely what and how much they usually eat.

But despite all of the steps that NHANES examiners take to aid recall, such as limiting the recall period to the previous 24 hours and even offering subjects measuring guides to help them report accurate data, the information received is wildly inaccurate. An analysis conducted by Archer in 2013 found that most of the 60,000+ NHANES subjects report eating a lower amount of calories than they would physiologically need to survive, let alone to put on all the weight that Americans have in the past few decades.

June 4, 2015

When did “scientific literature” transmogrify into bad science fiction?

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

In The Lancet, Richard Horton discusses the problems of scientific journalism:

The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue.
Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness. As one participant put it, “poor methods get results”. The Academy of Medical Sciences, Medical Research Council, and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council have now put their reputational weight behind an investigation into these questionable research practices. The apparent endemicity of bad research behaviour is alarming. In their quest for telling a compelling story, scientists too often sculpt data to fit their preferred theory of the world. Or they retrofit hypotheses to fit their data. Journal editors deserve their fair share of criticism too. We aid and abet the worst behaviours. Our acquiescence to the impact factor fuels an unhealthy competition to win a place in a select few journals. Our love of “significance” pollutes the literature with many a statistical fairy-tale. We reject important confirmations. Journals are not the only miscreants. Universities are in a perpetual struggle for money and talent, endpoints that foster reductive metrics, such as high-impact publication. National assessment procedures, such as the Research Excellence Framework, incentivise bad practices. And individual scientists, including their most senior leaders, do little to alter a research culture that occasionally veers close to misconduct.

June 1, 2015

It’s time to end the US federal porn subsidy!

Filed under: Economics,Humour,Media,USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

At Real Clear Science, Alex B. Berezow issues a clarion call to stop the US government’s (hidden) subsidy to pornography producers:

You might be asking, What federal porn subsidy? Fair question. Technically, there isn’t a federal porn subsidy. However, if we borrow some of the logic commonly used by politically driven economists, we can redefine the word subsidy to mean whatever we want.

Pornography is enjoyed by many people, but it comes with a very real social cost: it can break up families and perhaps even become an addiction, which are profound losses of productivity. Economists refer to these as negative externalities — i.e., bad side effects that affect people other than the person making the decision. One way to deal with such decisions is to tax them. This should, in theory, reduce the negative side effects, while simultaneously forcing the decisionmaker to bear the “true cost” of his actions. Clearly, if anyone should have to pay for this societal cost, it should be porn watchers, in the form of a porn tax. If they don’t pay such a tax, they are getting an indirect subsidy.

As it turns out, we don’t have a federal porn tax. Thus, we could say that the American government has issued a federal porn subsidy.

Obviously, that reasoning is absurd. Not only does it dubiously redefine the word subsidy, but it unconvincingly claims to be able to accurately place a price tag on every conceivable externality created by watching porn. Accepting that argument would require a nearly complete suspension of disbelief.

Yet, that is essentially the argument that a group of economists at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) just made about fossil fuel subsidies. (See PDF.)

[…]

The Guardian, which penned the most influential coverage, began its article with an eye-popping statistic:

    “Fossil fuel companies are benefitting from global subsidies of $5.3tn (£3.4tn) a year, equivalent to $10m a minute every day…”

Wow. $5.3 trillion in fossil fuel subsidies? That sounds insane. But, how do they arrive at that number? The Guardian goes on to explain:

    “The vast sum is largely due to polluters not paying the costs imposed on governments by the burning of coal, oil and gas. These include the harm caused to local populations by air pollution as well as to people across the globe affected by the floods, droughts and storms being driven by climate change.”

Ah, okay. The subsidy isn’t a direct financial calculation, but is instead based on a bunch of externalities whose costs are nearly impossible to derive with any sense of believability. To give you an idea of just how much fudging exists in these kinds of calculations, a similar report issued in 2013 (PDF) concluded that the fossil fuel subsidy was $1.9 trillion. A discrepancy of $3.4 trillion should raise red flags in regard to methodology.

May 28, 2015

The ways that scientific journalism fails

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

At Vox.com, Julia Belluz and Steven Hoffman show how perverse incentives and human frailty contribute to the wasted efforts — and sometimes outright fraudulent methods — that get “scientific” results published. It’s getting so bad that “the editor of The Lancet … recently lamented, ‘Much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue.'”:

From study design to dissemination of research, there are dozens of ways science can go off the rails. Many of the scientific studies that are published each year are poorly designed, redundant, or simply useless. Researchers looking into the problem have found that more than half of studies fail to take steps to reduce biases, such as blinding whether people receive treatment or placebo.

In an analysis of 300 clinical research papers about epilepsy — published in 1981, 1991, and 2001 — 71 percent were categorized as having no enduring value. Of those, 55.6 percent were classified as inherently unimportant and 38.8 percent as not new. All told, according to one estimate, about $200 billion — or the equivalent of 85 percent of global spending on research — is routinely wasted on flawed and redundant studies.

After publication, there’s the well-documented irreproducibility problem — the fact that researchers often can’t validate findings when they go back and run experiments again. Just last month, a team of researchers published the findings of a project to replicate 100 of psychology’s biggest experiments. They were only able to replicate 39 of the experiments, and one observer — Daniele Fanelli, who studies bias and scientific misconduct at Stanford University in California — told Nature that the reproducibility problem in cancer biology and drug discovery may actually be even more acute.

Indeed, another review found that researchers at Amgen were unable to reproduce 89 percent of landmark cancer research findings for potential drug targets. (The problem even inspired a satirical publication called the Journal of Irreproducible Results.)

So why aren’t these problems caught prior to publication of a study? Consider peer review, in which scientists send their papers to other experts for vetting prior to publication. The idea is that those peers will detect flaws and help improve papers before they are published as journal articles. Peer review won’t guarantee that an article is perfect or even accurate, but it’s supposed to act as an initial quality-control step.

Yet there are flaws in this traditional “pre-publication” review model: it relies on the goodwill of scientists who are increasingly pressed and may not spend the time required to properly critique a work, it’s subject to the biases of a select few, and it’s slow – so it’s no surprise that peer review sometimes fails. These factors raise the odds that even in the highest-quality journals, mistakes, flaws, and even fraudulent work will make it through. (“Fake peer review” reports are also now a thing.)

April 30, 2015

Organic wines as mere marketing buzz and gimickry

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

At VinePair, Kathleen Willcox explains why the “organic” label on your wine may be little more than a marketing ploy:

A lot of the buzz and imagery about organics appears to be just that – empty sound bites and gimmicks created by folks eager to cash in on the increasingly lucrative organic market. Where does that leave us? Not in an easy place.

Falling for marketers’ ploys is practically a full-time occupation in America (I’m not the only one who’s bought multiple cartons of fat-free ice cream hoping, this time, to finally find “creamy fat-free vanilla bliss” right?). Consumers’ perception of what organic agriculture is vs. the reality, and the halo of virtue with which it is bequeathed (and conventional agriculture’s implicit pair of devil’s horns) is, arguably, one of the biggest boondoggles in our culture today. More than half of Americans (55%) go organic because they believe it’s healthier. Meanwhile, there is really no evidence to back that assumption up. And even organic farmers use pesticides (sorry random lady at the bar). They just happen to be “natural.”

It’s never been a better time for organic marketers and companies. The market for organic food and beverages worldwide was estimated to be $80.4 billion in 2013 and is set to reach $161.5 billion in 2018, a compound annual growth rate of 15% per year. North America has the biggest market share, and will be responsible for roughly $66.2 billion by 2018.

But in the rush to get organic products out the door (and fulfill the public’s desire for healthier, more environmentally responsible products), some producers are often doing little more than following the letter of the USDA law to earn the “organic” label, consequences to the environment and our overall health be damned. In fact, from what producers and studies revealed, it may actually be worse for the environment and your body to buy organic wine from a large manufacturer instead of buying wine produced from grapes on a smaller vineyard sprayed judiciously with synthetic pesticides by a hands-on farmer.

April 24, 2015

Junk science watch – lie detectors

Filed under: Law,Liberty,Technology,USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Gavin McInnes on the polygraph machines and their questionable accuracy:

I met Doug Williams in August while developing a pilot for a TV show about myth busting. He’s the most vocal critic of polygraph machines in the world and authored the book From Cop to Crusader: My Fight Against the Dangerous Myth of “Lie Detection.” Williams’ history in law enforcement brought him from the Oklahoma City Police Department to the White House where he served under Johnson and Nixon as a communications advisor (Johnson was cool, Nixon was a dick). He has issued thousands of polygraph tests over the years and even helped make the test part of federal law.

Doug started to realize the whole thing was a scam in the late 1970s and since then has devoted his entire life to giving everyone else the same epiphany. Unfortunately, the government doesn’t see it the same way and on May 12th, his trial will begin for the crime of “train[ing]… customers how to conceal misconduct and other disqualifying information.” He was busted by two undercover federal agents who took his course and decided the class had gone from simply “debunking” to “aiding and abetting.” The Feds are trying to say that Williams is hampering investigations, but all he’s doing is proving these machines don’t work by presenting evidence. 60 Minutes did the same thing in a 1986 episode where three out of three experts failed their own test. People are losing their jobs and going to prison based on the findings of a machine that appears to be totally unreliable. The only thing he’s hampering here is the abuse of power. The irony is, if it’s possible to beat a polygraph, it clearly isn’t a reliable piece of equipment. If it’s not possible to beat, his courses are irrelevant. You can teach someone to trick a police radar all you want. It’s still going to clock you if you’re going over the speed limit. This seems like common sense yet the state has won cases like this before. In 2013, an electrician named Chad Dixon was sentenced to 8 months in jail for helping people beat the machine.

April 8, 2015

QotD: Top 10 reasons not to be a leftist

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Quotations,USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00
  1. Gun control. Liberals are completely wrong about this. A fair number of them know better, too, but they sponsor lies about it as a form of class warfare against conservative-leaning gun owners.
  2. Nuclear power. They’re wrong about this, too, and the cost in both dollars and human deaths by pollution and other fossil-fuel side-effects has been enormous.
  3. Affirmative action. These programs couldn’t be a more diabolical or effective plan for plan for entrenching racial prejudice if the Aryan Nations had designed them.
  4. Abortion: The liberals’ looney-toon feminist need to believe that a fetus one second before birth is a parasitic lump of tissue with no rights, but a fetus one second afterwards is a full human, has done half the job of making a reasoned debate on abortion nigh-impossible.
  5. Communism. I haven’t forgiven the Left for sucking up to the monstrous evil that was the Soviet Union. And I never will.
  6. Socialism. Liberals have never met a tax, a government intervention, or a forcible redistribution of wealth they didn’t like. Their economic program is Communism without the guts to admit it.
  7. Junk science. No medical study is too bogus and no environmental scare too fraudalent for liberals. If it rationalizes bashing capitalism or slathering on another layer of regulatory bureaucracy, they’ll take it.
  8. Defining deviancy down. Liberals are in such a desperate rush to embrace the `victimized by society’ and speak the language of compassion that they’ve forgotten how to condemn harmful, self-destructive and other-destructive behavior.
  9. William Jefferson Clinton. Sociopathic liar, perjurer, sexual predator. There was nothing but a sucking narcissistic vacuum where his principles should have been. Liberals worship him.
  10. Liberals, by and large, are fools.

Eric S. Raymond, “Top Ten Reasons I’m Neither a Liberal Nor a Conservative”, Armed and Dangerous, 2004-09-19.

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 30, 2015

About that giant island of plastic out in the ocean…

Filed under: Environment,Pacific — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

it’s a myth.

Have you heard of the giant plastic island in the Pacific Ocean? Several times in casual conversation, I’ve been told that mankind is ruining the oceans to such an extent that there are now entire islands of plastic waste. Daily Kos tells us that this “island” is twice the size of Texas!

This struck me as incredible, in the most literal sense of the word, so I decided to look into the claim.

First, we can do a quick feasibility calculation. The mass of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the plastic from which most water bottles are made, required to create a two-Texas-sized island just one foot thick is 9 trillion pounds. That’s 15 times more [PDF] than the world’s annual production of plastic. Even if a year’s worth of the world’s spent plastic bottles could be airlifted out over the ocean and directly dropped in one spot, this island could not be made.

[…]

So, here are the facts. Much of the ocean contains little to no plastic at all. In the smaller ocean gyres, there is roughly one bottle cap of plastic per 50 Olympic swimming pools’ worth of water. In the worst spot on earth, there is about two plastic caps’ worth of plastic per swimming pool of ocean. The majority of the plastic is ground into tiny grains or small thin films, interspersed with occasional fishing debris such as monofilament line or netting. Nothing remotely like a large island exists.

Clearly, the scale and magnitude of this problem is vastly exaggerated by environmental groups and media reports. Some researchers in the field agree, explicitly pointing out that these scare-stories “undermine the credibility of scientists.”

March 17, 2015

BAHFest East 2014 – Barbara Vreede: Alternative Medicine

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

Published on 9 Mar 2015

Dr. Barbara Vreede sheds light on the evolutionary mechanisms behind alternative medicine.

BAHFest is the Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses, a celebration of well-researched, logically explained, and clearly wrong evolutionary theory.

March 14, 2015

BAHFest West 2014 – Catherine Hofler: Why Cats Sprint Out of the Room for No Apparent Reason

Filed under: Humour,Randomness — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Published on 31 Dec 2014

Catherine Hofler, the Director of Research at Emerald Therapeutics, explains the regression toward cardiovascular mean in Felis catus via sporadic locomotion.

BAHFest is the Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses, a celebration of well-researched, logically explained, and clearly wrong evolutionary theory. Additional information is available at http://bahfest.com/

BAHFest West was a part of the 2014 Bay Area Science Festival http://www.bayareascience.org/

February 27, 2015

QotD: Decades of official dietary guidance … “Oops, our bad!”

Filed under: Bureaucracy,Government,Health,Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Americans, prepare to feel angry: After years of watching our cholesterol, sacrificing shellfish and egg yolks and gloriously fatty pork and beef, and enduring day-glow yellow and too-soft tubs of butter substitute, Americans are about to be told by our government diet experts, “Oops … we had it all wrong.”

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which is charged with reviewing the government-issued dietary guidelines every five years, is preparing to release its “new and improved” guidelines any day now, and leaks from the deliberations hint at a reversal in the committee’s decades-long guidance that Americans should eat a diet low in cholesterol.

What are Americans to think of this new guidance that says cholesterol doesn’t really matter after all, that it is no longer a “nutrient of concern,” that eating food high in cholesterol may not be connected to heart disease?

Devotees of protein-rich, low-carb diets may see this as validation and reason to celebrate. Others will no doubt feel deflated, confused, and just plain bitter that for years they’ve been fed a lie that cost them, quite literally, the joy of eating delicious food, and possibly better health. Still others will misunderstand this new guidance and think butter and other high-cholesterol foods are now in the healthy column. In reality, those foods still ought to be consumed in moderation — particularly by people with preexisting conditions such as diabetes.

Yet there’s a bigger story here. Government really ought not be in the business of providing nutrition advice in the first place. Nutrition is a personal issue, and what’s best for one person may not be best for another. Moreover, Americans have ample access to information in the private sector on health and nutrition. In other words, Uncle Sam, we don’t need you anymore.

Julie Gunlock, “Government Dieticians Tell Us, Never Mind Our Decades of Bad Advice”, National Review, 2015-02-13.

February 19, 2015

When you “believe” in science

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

In last week’s Goldberg File newsletter, Jonah Goldberg looked at the odd situation of people who “believe in” science:

When I hear people talk about science as if it’s something to “believe in,” particularly people who reject all sorts of science-y things (vaccines, nuclear power, etc. as discussed above), I immediately think of one of my favorite lines from Eric Voegelin: “When God is invisible behind the world, the contents of the world will become new gods; when the symbols of transcendent religiosity are banned, new symbols develop from the inner-worldly language of science to take their place.” This will be true, he added, even when “the new apocalyptics insist that the symbols they create are scientific.”

In other words, the “Don’t you believe in evolution!?!” people don’t really believe in science qua science, what they’re really after is dethroning God in favor of their own gods of the material world (though I suspect many don’t even realize why they’re so obsessed with this one facet of the disco ball called “science”). “Criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticisms,” quoth Karl Marx, who then proceeded to create his own secular religion.

This is nothing new of course. This tendency is one of the reasons why every time Moses turned his back on the Hebrews they started worshipping golden calves and whatnot.

At least Auguste Comte, the French philosopher who coined the phrase “sociology,” was open about what he was really up to when he created his “Religion of Humanity,” in which scientists, statesmen, and engineers were elevated to Saints. As I say in my column, the fight over evolution is really a fight over the moral status of man. And, if we are nothing but a few bucks worth of chemicals connected by water and electricity, than there’s really nothing holding us back from elevating “science” to divine status and in turn anointing those who claim to be its champions as our priests. It’s no coincidence that Herbert Croly was literally — not figuratively, the way Joe Biden means literally — baptized into Comte’s Religion of Humanity.

Personally, I think the effort to overthrow Darwin along with Marx and Freud is misguided. I have friends invested in that project and I agree that all sorts of terrible Malthusian and materialist crap is bound up in Darwinism. But that’s an argument for ranking out the manure, not burning down the stable.

February 17, 2015

QotD: Psychology as the modern civic religion

Filed under: Quotations,Religion,Science,USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

There’s a certain sense in which psychology has taken the place of religious faith for many in the western world. When people seek answers for the bad that we do, how we can deal with our faults, motivation for a better life, and deeper questions of meaning and purpose, psychologists and psychology are where modern westerners tend to turn.

Where previous cultures saw acts of evil as evidence of internal sin against an external code of righteousness, psychologists tend to explain this as the product of environment and upbringing, external pressures causing improper behavior.

Even many otherwise religious people have so embraced this system of understanding. Many mainstream churches every Sunday have content very similar to the latest psychological teachings and popular psychology with a few religious themes thrown in. Popular teachers and writers such as Rick Warren are less minister of the gospel than motivational speaker, with more in common with Dr Phil than Jesus Christ.

Christopher Taylor, “COMMON KNOWLEDGE: Psychological myths”, Word Around the Net, 2014-05-28

February 11, 2015

Everything the government has told about “healthy diets” is wrong

Filed under: Government,Health,Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 07:01

Well, maybe not everything, but a lot of government advice — which may well have been a major factor in the rise of obesity — was based on very little empirical evidence:

Whenever standard nutritional advice is overturned — as it has been this week by a study which effectively rubbished government guidelines limiting the intake of dietary fat — I am instantly reminded of a scene in the Woody Allen film Sleeper, first released when I was 10. I expect a lot of people my age are.

In the film Allen plays Miles, a cryogenically frozen health food store owner who is revived 200 years later. Two scientists are puzzling over his old-fashioned dietary requirements, unable to comprehend what passed for health food back in 1973. “You mean there was no deep fat?” says one. “No steak or cream pies, or hot fudge?”

“Those were thought to be unhealthy,” says the other scientist. “Precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.”

This was meant to be a joke rather than a prediction, but it’s beginning to look as if we may not have to wait until 2173 to see it validated.

[…]

Of course the new study isn’t comprehensively refuting the association between high saturated fat intake and heart disease; it’s just pointing out that dietary guidelines first adopted in the mid-1970s were not, on reflection, based on any real evidence. In terms of what one should and shouldn’t be eating, I sometimes feel as if I’ve spent the past 30 years in a freezer.

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