Quotulatiousness

September 16, 2014

When the “best nutrition advice” is a big, fat lie

Filed under: Government, Health, Media, Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:17

Rob Lyons charts the way our governments and healthcare experts got onboard the anti-fat dietary express, to our long-lasting dietary harm:

… in recent years, the advice to eat a low-fat diet has increasingly been called into question. Despite cutting down on fatty foods, the populations of many Western countries have become fatter. If heart-disease mortality has maintained a steady decline, cases of type-2 diabetes have shot up in recent years. Maybe these changes were in spite of the advice to avoid fat. Maybe they were caused by that advice.

The most notable figure in providing the intellectual ammunition to challenge existing health advice has been the US science writer, Gary Taubes. His 2007 book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, became a bestseller, despite containing long discussions on some fairly complex issues to do with biochemistry, nutrition and medicine. The book’s success triggered a heated debate about what really makes us fat and causes chronic disease.

The move to first discussing and then actively encouraging a low-fat diet was largely due to the work of Dr. Ancel Keys, who is to the low-fat diet movement what Karl Marx is to Communism. His energy, drive, and political savvy helped get the US government and the majority of health experts onboard and pushing his advice. A significant problem with this is that Keys’ advocacy was not statistically backed by even his own data. He drew strong conclusions from tiny, unrepresentative samples, yet managed to persuade most doubters that he was right. A more statistically rigorous analysis might well show that the obesity crisis has actually been driven by the crusading health advisors who have been pushing the low-fat diet all this time … or, as I termed it, “our Woody Allen moment“.

Rob Lyons discussed this with Nina Teicholz, author of the book The Big Fat Surprise:

Once the politically astute Keys had packed the nutrition committee of the AHA and got its backing for the advice to avoid saturated fat, the war on meat and dairy could begin. But a major turning point came in 1977 when the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition, led by Democratic senator George McGovern, held hearings on the issue. The result was a set of guidelines, Dietary Goals for the United States [PDF], which promoted the consumption of ‘complex’ carbohydrates, and reductions in the consumption of fat in general and saturated fat in particular.

By 1980, this report had been worked up into government-backed guidelines — around the same time that obesity appears to have taken off in the US. The McGovern Report inspired all the familiar diet advice around the world that we’ve had ever since, and led to major changes in what food manufacturers offered. Out went fat, though unsaturated fat and hydrogenated oils were deemed less bad than saturated fat, so vegetable oils and margarines became more popular. In came more carbohydrate and more sugar, to give those cardboard-like low-fat ‘treats’ some modicum of flavour.

Yet two recent reviews of the evidence around saturated fat — one led by Ronald Krauss, the other by Rajiv Chowdhury — suggest that saturated fat is not the villain it has been painted as. (The latter paper, in particular, sparked outrage.) As for fat in general, Teicholz tells me: ‘There was no effort until very late in the game to provide evidence for the low-fat diet. It was just assumed that that was reasonable because of the caloric benefit you would see from restricting fat.’

Teicholz also debunks the wonderful reputation of the Mediterranean Diet (“a rose-tinted version of reality tailored to the anti-meat prejudices of American researchers”), points out the role of the olive oil industry in pushing the diet (“Swooning researchers were literally wined and dined into going along with promoting the benefits of olive oil”), and points out that we can’t even blame most of the obesity problem on “Big Food”:

Which leads us to an important third point made by Teicholz: that the blame for our current dietary problems cannot solely, or even mainly, be placed at the door of big food corporations. Teicholz writes about how she discovered that ‘the mistakes of nutrition science could not be primarily pinned on the nefarious interests of Big Food. The source of our misguided dietary advice was in some ways more disturbing, since it seems to have been driven by experts at some of our most trusted institutions working towards what they believed to be the public good.’ Once public-health bureaucracies enshrined the dogma that fat is bad for us, ‘the normally self-correcting mechanism of science, which involves constantly challenging one’s own beliefs, was disabled’.

The war on dietary fat is a terrifying example of what happens when politics and bureaucracy mixes with science: provisional conclusions become laws of nature; resources are piled into the official position, creating material as well as intellectual reasons to continue to support it; and any criticism is suppressed or dismissed. As the war on sugar gets into full swing, a reading of The Big Fat Surprise might provide some much-needed humility.

September 2, 2014

The suddenly unsettled science of nutrition

Filed under: Government, Health, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 14:58

After all the salt uproar over the last year or so, perhaps it was inevitable that other public health consensus items would also come under scrutiny. Here’s Ace having a bit of fun with the latest New York Times report on fat and carbohydrates in the modern diet:

One day there will be a book written about this all — how a “Consensus of Experts” decided, against all previous wisdom and with virtually no evidence whatsoever, that Fat Makes You Fat and you can Eat All the Carbohydrates You Like Because Carbohydrates Are Healthy.

This never made a lick of sense to me, even before I heard of the Atkins diet.

Sugar is a carbohydrate. Indeed, it’s the carbohydrate, the one that makes up the others (such as starches, which are just long lines of sugar molecules arranged into sheets and folded over each other).

How the hell could it possibly be that Fat was Forbidden but SUGAR was Sacred?

It made no sense. A long time ago I tried to get a nutritionist to explain this to me. “Eat more fruit,” the nutritionist said.

“Fruit,” I answered, “is sugar in a ball.”

But the nutritionist had an answer. “That is fruit sugar,” the she told me.

“Fruit sugar,” I responded, “is yet sugar.”

“But it’s not cane sugar.”

“I don’t think the body really cares much about which particular plant the sugar comes from.”

“Sugar from a fruit,” the nutritionist now gambited, “is more natural than processed sugar.”

“They’re both natural, you know. We don’t synthesize sucrose in a lab. There are no beakers involved.”

“Well, you burn fruit sugar up quicker, so it actually gives you energy, instead of turning into fat!”

“Both sugars are converted into glycogen in the body. There can be no difference in how they produce ‘energy’ in the body because both wind up as glycogen. I have no idea where you’re getting any of this. It sounds like you’re making it all up as you go.”

This is Science,” the nutritionist closed the argument.

Eh. It’s all nonsense. Even cane sugar contains, yes, fructose, or fruit sugar, and fruits contain sucrose, or cane sugar.

August 13, 2014

Pessimism from the Rational Optimist

Filed under: Africa, Health — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:02

Matt Ridley is somewhat uncharacteristically concerned about the major Ebola outbreak in west Africa:

As you may know by now, I am a serial debunker of alarm and it usually serves me in good stead. On the threat posed by diseases, I’ve been resolutely sceptical of exaggerated scares about bird flu and I once won a bet that mad cow disease would never claim more than 100 human lives a year when some “experts” were forecasting tens of thousands (it peaked at 28 in 2000). I’ve drawn attention to the steadily falling mortality from malaria and Aids.

Well, this time, about ebola, I am worried. Not for Britain, Europe or America or any other developed country and not for the human race as a whole. This is not about us in rich countries, and there remains little doubt that this country can achieve the necessary isolation and hygiene to control any cases that get here by air before they infect more than a handful of other people — at the very worst. No, it is the situation in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea that is scary. There it could get much worse before it gets better.

This is the first time ebola has got going in cities. It is the first time it is happening in areas with “fluid population movements over porous borders” in the words of Margaret Chan, the World Health Organisation’s director-general, speaking last Friday. It is the first time it has spread by air travel. It is the first time it has reached the sort of critical mass that makes tracing its victims’ contacts difficult.

One of ebola’s most dangerous features is that kills so many health workers. Because it requires direct contact with the bodily fluids of patients, and because patients are violently ill, nurses and doctors are especially at risk. The current epidemic has already claimed the lives of 60 healthcare workers, including those of two prominent doctors, Samuel Brisbane in Liberia and Sheik Umar Khan in Sierra Leone. The courage of medics in these circumstances, working in stifling protective gear, is humbling.

Ebola outbreak in west Africa

July 23, 2014

In statistical studies, the size of the data sample matters

Filed under: Health, Science, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:49

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.

June 12, 2014

QotD: Regulating cheese

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Health, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:00

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 1, 2014

Healthy eating … the Woody Allen moment approaches

Filed under: Government, Health, Media, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:22

The “prophecy”:

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 5, 2014

Fukushima, radiation, and FUD

Filed under: Environment, Japan, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 06:54

James Conca on a recent UN report that isn’t getting attention:

It’s always amazing when a United Nations report that has global ramifications comes out with little fanfare. The latest one states that no one will get cancer or die from radiation released from Fukushima, but the fear and overreaction is harming people (UNIS; UNSCEAR Fukushima; UNSCEAR A-68-46 [PDF]). This is what we’ve been saying for almost three years but it’s nice to see it officially acknowledged.

According to the report, drafted last year but only recently finalized by the U.N., “The doses to the general public, both those incurred during the first year and estimated for their lifetimes, are generally low or very low. No discernible increased incidence of radiation-related health effects are expected among exposed members of the public or their descendants. The most important health effect is on mental and social well-being, related to the enormous impact of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident, and the fear and stigma related to the perceived risk of exposure to ionizing radiation. Effects such as depression and post-traumatic stress symptoms have already been reported.”

In addition, the report states, “Increased rates of detection of [thyroid] nodules, cysts and cancers have been observed during the first round of screening; however, these are to be expected in view of the high detection efficiency [using modern high-efficiency ultrasonography]. Data from similar screening protocols in areas not affected by the accident imply that the apparent increased rates of detection among children in Fukushima Prefecture are unrelated to radiation exposure.”

So the Japanese people can start eating their own food again, and moving back into areas contaminated with radiation levels similar to many areas of the world like Colorado and Brazil, which includes most of the exclusion zone. Only a few places shouldn’t be repopulated.

But if you want to continue feeling afraid, and want to make sure others keep being afraid, by all means ignore this report on Fukushima. But then you really can’t keep quoting previous UNSCEAR policy and application of LNT (the Linear No-Threshold dose hypothesis) to support more fear.

Note – LNT is a leftover Cold War ideology that states all radiation is bad, even the background radiation we are bathed in every day, even the 3,200 pCi of radiation in a bag of potato chips (yes, potato chips have the most radioactivity of any food, but they taste sooo good!).

Of course, if you’ve been actually following the events from three years back, this report will contain few surprises.

May 3, 2014

Fat’s negative health impact reconsidered

Filed under: Health, Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:19

Hmm. Today seems to be health news day. In the Wall Street Journal, Nina Teicholz looks at the dubious science behind the saturated fat demonization we’ve all seen in so many health stories:

“Saturated fat does not cause heart disease” — or so concluded a big study published in March in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine. How could this be? The very cornerstone of dietary advice for generations has been that the saturated fats in butter, cheese and red meat should be avoided because they clog our arteries. For many diet-conscious Americans, it is simply second nature to opt for chicken over sirloin, canola oil over butter.

The new study’s conclusion shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with modern nutritional science, however. The fact is, there has never been solid evidence for the idea that these fats cause disease. We only believe this to be the case because nutrition policy has been derailed over the past half-century by a mixture of personal ambition, bad science, politics and bias.

Our distrust of saturated fat can be traced back to the 1950s, to a man named Ancel Benjamin Keys, a scientist at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Keys was formidably persuasive and, through sheer force of will, rose to the top of the nutrition world — even gracing the cover of Time magazine — for relentlessly championing the idea that saturated fats raise cholesterol and, as a result, cause heart attacks.

[...]

Critics have pointed out that Dr. Keys violated several basic scientific norms in his study. For one, he didn’t choose countries randomly but instead selected only those likely to prove his beliefs, including Yugoslavia, Finland and Italy. Excluded were France, land of the famously healthy omelet eater, as well as other countries where people consumed a lot of fat yet didn’t suffer from high rates of heart disease, such as Switzerland, Sweden and West Germany. The study’s star subjects — upon whom much of our current understanding of the Mediterranean diet is based — were peasants from Crete, islanders who tilled their fields well into old age and who appeared to eat very little meat or cheese.

As it turns out, Dr. Keys visited Crete during an unrepresentative period of extreme hardship after World War II. Furthermore, he made the mistake of measuring the islanders’ diet partly during Lent, when they were forgoing meat and cheese. Dr. Keys therefore undercounted their consumption of saturated fat. Also, due to problems with the surveys, he ended up relying on data from just a few dozen men — far from the representative sample of 655 that he had initially selected. These flaws weren’t revealed until much later, in a 2002 paper by scientists investigating the work on Crete — but by then, the misimpression left by his erroneous data had become international dogma.

March 16, 2014

QotD: American “cheese”

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Europe, Health, Humour, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:05

Everyone thinks America Alone is about Islam and demography, but in fact it has a whole section in it on cheese, called “The Pasteurization is Prologue”. Page 181:

    I’ve never subscribed to that whole “cheese-eating surrender-monkey” sneer promoted by my National Review colleague Jonah Goldberg. As a neocon warmonger, I yield to no one in my contempt for the French, but, that said, cheese-wise I feel they have the edge.

    When I’m at the lunch counter in America and I order a cheeseburger and the waitress says, “American, Swiss or Cheddar?” I can’t tell the difference. They all taste of nothing. The only difference is that the slice of alleged Swiss is full of holes, so you’re getting less nothing for your buck. Then again, the holes also taste of nothing, and they’re less fattening. But, either way, cheese is not the battleground on which to demonstrate the superiority of the American way.

Most of the American cheeses bearing European names are bland rubbery eunuch versions of the real thing. I wouldn’t mind if this were merely the market at work, but it’s not. It’s the result of Big Government, of the Brieatollahs at the United States Department of Agriculture:

    In America, unpasteurized un-aged raw cheese that would be standard in any Continental fromagerie is banned. Americans, so zealous in defense of their liberties when it comes to guns, are happy to roll over for the nanny state when it comes to the cheese board… The French may be surrender monkeys on the battlefield, but they don’t throw their hands up and flee in terror just because the Brie’s a bit ripe. It’s the Americans who are the cheese-surrendering eating-monkeys — who insist, oh, no, the only way to deal with this sliver of Roquefort is to set up a rigorous ongoing Hans Blix-type inspections regime.

I’m not exaggerating about that. Nothing gets past their eyes, and everything gets pasteurized. That’s why American “cheesemakers” have to keep putting stuff into the “cheddar” — sun-dried tomatoes, red peppers, chocolate chips — to give it some taste, because the cheese itself has none. And, if you try to bring in anything that does taste of something, the US Government’s Brie Team Six seizes it:

    The US fate of the bright-orange, mild-tasting French cheese has been in jeopardy for months and the Food and Drug Administration has blocked all further imports.

    Why? Because US regulators determined the cantaloupe-like rind of the cheese was covered with too many cheese mites, even though the tiny bugs give mimolette its unique flavor.

    No formal ban has been put in place, but 1.5 tonnes (3,300 pounds) of cheese were blocked from being imported, and nothing is going through US customs.

“No formal ban has been put in place” — because that would involve legislators passing laws in a legislature and whatnot. So they just banned it anyway.

Mark Steyn, “Live Brie or Die!” SteynOnline.com, 2014-03-13

December 4, 2013

Prescription contraceptives

Filed under: Business, Law, Religion, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:31

Shikha Dalmia argues that the fight over forcing companies to cover contraceptive prescriptions is based on a mistaken view of women’s rights:

The administration argues that acquiescing to such arguments would mean allowing bosses or corporate CEOs to restrict women’s choices to promote their own religious beliefs. “Our policy is designed to ensure that health care decisions are made between a woman and her doctor,” noted White House spokesman Jay Carney. But it’s not bosses who pose the bigger barrier to birth control but doctors themselves.

The only reason American women need insurance coverage for contraception is because they can’t buy birth control pills without a prescription — which doctors won’t hand them without an annual exam. Few dispute anymore — not even the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists — that the pills are perfectly safe requiring neither a medical diagnosis nor supervision. They have side effects like every other medicine but none so serious that can’t be effectively communicated through the usual warning labels. Requiring a medical exam assumes that women can’t be completely trusted with their own health. But such paternalism is counterproductive: Most women who stop taking pills don’t do so because they can’t afford them without insurance. (A one-month generic supply from Costco costs $25.) They do so because they can’t always make the time for a doctor’s visit when their prescription runs out. This problem is especially acute for working women — professional or others.

The birth control issue shouldn’t be cast in terms women’s rights versus religious rights. That’ll turn it into a lose-lose proposition. Medical paternalism is a far bigger threat to women’s reproductive choices than religious zealotry. Focusing on the first will do more to give women control over their bodies — including the female employees of Hobby Lobby — than a pitched battle against the second.

October 28, 2013

Nanny gets bigger – mission creep in “public health”

Filed under: Government, Media, Politics — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:15

In sp!ked, Christopher Snowdon starts off by listing a few “public health” proposals that have been suggested recently:

An abridged list of policies that have been proposed in the name of ‘public health’ in recent months includes: minimum pricing for alcohol, plain packaging for tobacco, a 20 per cent tax on fizzy drinks, a fat tax, a sugar tax, a fine for not being a member of a gym, graphic warnings on bottles of alcohol, a tax on some foods, subsidies on other foods, a ban on the sale of hot food to children before 5pm, a ban on anyone born after the year 2000 ever buying tobacco, a ban on multi-bag packs of crisps, a ban on packed lunches, a complete ban on alcohol advertising, a ban on electronic cigarettes, a ban on menthol cigarettes, a ban on large servings of fizzy drinks, a ban on parents taking their kids to school by car, and a ban on advertising any product whatsoever to children.

Doubtless many of the proponents of these policies identify themselves as ‘liberals’. We must hope they never lurch towards authoritarianism. [...]

As the definition of ‘health’ has been changed, so too has the meaning of ‘public health’. It once meant vaccinations, sanitation and education. It was ‘public’ only in the sense that it protected people from contagious diseases carried by others. Today, it means protecting people from themselves. The word ‘epidemic’ has also been divorced from its meaning — an outbreak of infectious disease — and is instead used to describe endemic behaviour such as drinking, or non-contagious diseases such as cancer, or physical conditions such as obesity which are neither diseases nor activities. This switch from literal meanings to poetic metaphors helps to maintain the conceit that governments have the same rights and responsibility to police the habits of its citizens as they do to ensure that drinking water is uncontaminated. It masks the hard reality that ‘public health’ is increasingly concerned with regulating private behaviour on private property.

The anti-smoking campaign is where the severe new public-health crusade began, but it is not where it ends. Libertarians warned that the campaign against tobacco would morph into an anti-booze and anti-fat campaign of similar intensity. They were derided; ridiculed for making fallacious ‘slippery slope’ arguments. In retrospect, their greatest failing was not that they were too hysterical in their warnings but that they lacked the imagination to foresee policies as absurd as plain packaging or bans on large servings of lemonade, even as satire.

September 24, 2013

American governance – Kludgeocracy in action

Filed under: Government, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:28

Steven M. Teles on the defining characteristic of modern American government:

The complexity and incoherence of our government often make it difficult for us to understand just what that government is doing, and among the practices it most frequently hides from view is the growing tendency of public policy to redistribute resources upward to the wealthy and the organized at the expense of the poorer and less organized. As we increasingly notice the consequences of that regressive redistribution, we will inevitably also come to pay greater attention to the daunting and self-defeating complexity of public policy across multiple, seemingly unrelated areas of American life, and so will need to start thinking differently about government.

Understanding, describing, and addressing this problem of complexity and incoherence is the next great American political challenge. But you cannot come to terms with such a problem until you can properly name it. While we can name the major questions that divide our politics — liberalism or conservatism, big government or small — we have no name for the dispute between complexity and simplicity in government, which cuts across those more familiar ideological divisions. For lack of a better alternative, the problem of complexity might best be termed the challenge of “kludgeocracy.”

A “kludge” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “an ill-assorted collection of parts assembled to fulfill a particular purpose…a clumsy but temporarily effective solution to a particular fault or problem.” The term comes out of the world of computer programming, where a kludge is an inelegant patch put in place to solve an unexpected problem and designed to be backward-compatible with the rest of an existing system. When you add up enough kludges, you get a very complicated program that has no clear organizing principle, is exceedingly difficult to understand, and is subject to crashes. Any user of Microsoft Windows will immediately grasp the concept.

“Clumsy but temporarily effective” also describes much of American public policy today. To see policy kludges in action, one need look no further than the mind-numbing complexity of the health-care system (which even Obamacare’s champions must admit has only grown more complicated under the new law, even if in their view the system is now also more just), or our byzantine system of funding higher education, or our bewildering federal-state system of governing everything from welfare to education to environmental regulation. America has chosen to govern itself through more indirect and incoherent policy mechanisms than can be found in any comparable country.

June 24, 2013

Finally, a semi-rational explanation for the slow adoption of deodorant in Britain

Filed under: Britain, Health, History, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:57

Richard Smith talks about the British Medical Association’s “official” stance on heterosexual and homosexual “indulgences” from the 1950s on, and also explains why British use of deodorant always lagged the rest of the western world:

I was once responsible for Family Doctor Publications, which were a series of booklets owned by the BMA, had titles like You and Your Bowels, and sold in huge numbers in the 1950s because they were almost the only information on health available to the public. I was much amused that in the 50s the BMA agreed that the booklets could include advertising for cigarettes and alcohol, but under no circumstances could they advertise contraceptives. And at about the same time thousands of copies of one booklet had to be pulped because it seemed to accept the possibility of sex before marriage. Now I’ve learnt more about the prudishness and “severe, restrictive morality” of the BMA.

[. . .]

The BMA was also happy to ignore science and evidence when it launched into explanations of what at the time was perceived as “an epidemic of homosexuality.” “Many men see in homosexual practices as a way of satisfying their sexual desires without running the risks of sequelae of heterosexual intercourse. They believe, for example, that there is no danger of contracting venereal disease in homosexual activity. Other men adopt homosexual practices as a substitute for extramarital heterosexual intercourse because there is no fear of causing pregnancy or emotional complications as in the life of a woman.” The idea that “women” equals “emotional complications” was a very 50s idea.

It was unsurprising, thought the BMA, that the public would be hostile to homosexuals because of the propensity of its practitioners in “positions of authority to give preferential treatment to homosexuals or to require homosexual subjection as an expedient for promotion. The existence of practising homosexuals in the Church, Parliament, Civil Service, Armed Forces, Press, radio, stage and other institutions constitutes a special problem.” Medicine is conspicuously absent from that list. God (heterosexual, of course, even though capable of insemination without intercourse) forbid that the BMA would have homosexuals in its membership.

The BMA found sexual acts between men “repulsive” and that “homosexuals congregating blatantly in public houses, streets, and restaurants are an outrage to public decency. Effeminate men wearing make-up and using scent are objectionable to everybody.” Born in 1952 I was infused with this kind of thinking and didn’t use a deodorant until I was 45 for fear of what people might think. My father, born in 1922, didn’t like me to buy half a pint rather than a pint of beer in case I be thought homosexual.

Having made its position clear, the BMA concluded that “if degenerate sodomists” persist then “it would be in the public interest to deal with them in the same way as mentally deranged offenders.” In other words, commit them to state lunatic asylums.

June 23, 2013

Brazilian protests were triggered by bus fare hike, but sustained by many more grievances

Filed under: Americas, Government, Soccer — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:09

In the Independent, James Young reports from Rio de Janeiro:

The most recent wave of protests began at the beginning of the month in Sao Paulo over what may seem an insignificant 20 centavo (7p) bus-fare hike. But the level of the increase was less important than what it represented. Once again, Brazilians felt they were being asked to pay an onerous price for a shoddy service. Buses in big cities are overcrowded, infrequent and journeys can take hours.

Now the leaderless, non-politically affiliated protest movement has a variety of goals. Better public healthcare is one. “I recently spent eight hours in a hospital waiting room with dengue,” says Lee, a bank worker protesting on Friday. “People were sleeping on the floor.” Another is an improved education system. “We work hard and pay high taxes. And we get nothing in return,” he continues.

Frustration over the country’s institutionalised corruption has attracted many to the protests. Influence-peddling scandals such as 2005’s Mensalao (“big monthly allowance”) affair and, more recently, the saga of Carlinhos Cachoeira, accused of running a political bribery network, have left many desperate for change.

Some protesters have focused on the £8bn spent on stadium and infrastructure work for next year’s World Cup, seen as indefensible in a country with so many more pressing needs. The brutal tactics employed by the police have added to the indignation. Rubber bullets and tear gas have been used, often indiscriminately and at close range.

May 12, 2013

Influenza: the trade-off between virulence and contagion

Filed under: Health, Media, Science — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:34

Matt Ridley explains why the breathless claims that this or that flu outbreak could rival the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19 should not be taken too seriously:

Here we go again. A new bird-flu virus in China, the H7N9 strain, is spreading alarm. It has infected about 130 people and killed more than 30. Every time this happens, some journalists compete to foment fear, ably assisted by cautious but worried scientists, and then tell the world to keep calm. We need a new way to talk about the risk of a flu pandemic, because the overwhelming probability is that this virus will kill people, yes, but not in vast numbers.

In recent years flu has always proved vastly less perilous than feared. In 1976 more people may have died from bad reactions to swine-flu vaccine than from swine flu. Since 2005, H5N1 bird flu has killed 374 people, not the two million to 7.4 million deemed possible by the World Health Organization. In 2009, H1N1 Mexican swine flu proved to be a normal flu episode despite apocalyptic forecasts.

No doubt some readers will remind me that, in the story of the boy who cried “Wolf!”, there eventually was a wolf. And that in 1918 maybe 50 million people died of influenza world-wide. So we should always worry a bit. But perhaps it’s not just luck that has made every flu pandemic since then mild; it may be evolutionary logic.

Of course, just about every story about influenza you’ll encounter goes the Chicken Little route:

There’s no mystery as to why we talk up the risk every time: All the incentives point that way. Who among the headline-seeking journalists, reader-seeking editors, fund-seeking scientists, contract-seeking vaccine makers or rear-end-covering politicians has even a modest incentive to say: “It may not be as bad as all that”?

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