October 28, 2015

The WHO’s lack of clarity leads to sensationalist newspaper headlines (again)

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

The World Health Organization appears to exist primarily to give newspaper editors the excuse to run senational headlines about the risk of cancer. This is not a repeat story from earlier years. Oh, wait. Yes it is. Here’s The Atlantic‘s Ed Yong to de-sensationalize the recent scary headlines:

The International Agency of Research into Cancer (IARC), an arm of the World Health Organization, is notable for two things. First, they’re meant to carefully assess whether things cause cancer, from pesticides to sunlight, and to provide the definitive word on those possible risks.

Second, they are terrible at communicating their findings.


Group 1 is billed as “carcinogenic to humans,” which means that we can be fairly sure that the things here have the potential to cause cancer. But the stark language, with no mention of risks or odds or any remotely conditional, invites people to assume that if they specifically partake of, say, smoking or processed meat, they will definitely get cancer.

Similarly, when Group 2A is described as “probably carcinogenic to humans,” it roughly translates to “there’s some evidence that these things could cause cancer, but we can’t be sure.” Again, the word “probably” conjures up the specter of individual risk, but the classification isn’t about individuals at all.

Group 2B, “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” may be the most confusing one of all. What does “possibly” even mean? Proving a negative is incredibly difficult, which is why Group 4 — “probably not carcinogenic to humans” — contains just one substance of the hundreds that IARC has assessed.

So, in practice, 2B becomes a giant dumping ground for all the risk factors that IARC has considered, and could neither confirm nor fully discount as carcinogens. Which is to say: most things. It’s a bloated category, essentially one big epidemiological shruggie. But try telling someone unfamiliar with this that, say, power lines are “possibly carcinogenic” and see what they take away from that.

Worse still, the practice of lumping risk factors into categories without accompanying description — or, preferably, visualization — of their respective risks practically invites people to view them as like-for-like. And that inevitably led to misleading headlines like this one in the Guardian: “Processed meats rank alongside smoking as cancer causes – WHO.”

Reducing the costs of regulation

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

Henry I. Miller discusses a worthwhile regulatory change that would increase the availability of medicines in the US marketplace without reducing public safety:

The FDA would be a good place to start. Bringing a new drug to market now requires 10-15 years, and costs have skyrocketed to an average of more than $2.5 billion (including both out-of-pocket and opportunity costs) – largely because FDA requirements have increased the length and number of clinical trials per marketing application, and their complexity.

The detrimental effects of FDA delays in approving certain new drugs already available in other industrialized countries are well-documented and deserve as much attention as drugs’ high costs. An example is the three-year delay in the approval of misoprostol, a drug for the treatment of gastric bleeding, which is estimated to have cost between 8,000 and 15,000 lives per year.


A practical workaround to overcome regulators’ risk-aversion and capriciousness would be “reciprocity” of approvals with certain foreign “A-list” governments, so that an approval in one country would be reciprocated automatically by the others. That would make more drugs available sooner in all of the participating countries, increasing competition and putting downward pressure on prices.

Such an innovation would also help to alleviate another critical problem: The United States is experiencing shortages of certain critical pharmaceuticals, many of which have been essential in medical practice for decades. The majority are generic injectable medications commonly used in hospitals, including analgesics, cancer drugs, anesthetics, antipsychotics for psychiatric emergencies, and electrolytes needed for patients on IV supplementation. Hospitals are scrambling to assure adequate supplies of drugs that are in short supply, or to find substitutes for them. Reciprocal approvals would make numerous alternatives available.

As referenced yesterday, the FDA regulations also create temporary monopoly situations where only one company has the permit from the regulator to produce this or that medicine, so there’s nothing standing in the way of massive price increases if there are no close substitutes to provide price competition.

October 22, 2015

QotD: The historical triumph of public health

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

… the great public health achievements between roughly 1850 and 1960. Doctors and public health experts were given extraordinarily broad powers by the government, and they used them to eliminate the scourges that had made cities into pestholes from time immemorial. They built gleaming sewers and water treatment plants to wipe out virulent water-borne pathogens that used to regularly claim thousands of lives. Contact-tracing and quarantine of airborne and sexually transmitted diseases turned former plagues like smallpox and syphilis into tragic but sporadic outbreaks. Changes in building codes helped beat back mass killers like tuberculosis. Poison control cut down on both accidental and deliberate deaths. The Pure Food and Drug Act, and similar ordinances in other countries, reduced foodborne illness, and also, the casual acquisition of opiate or cocaine addictions through patent medicines. Malarial swamps were drained. Environmental toxins were identified and banned. Then they went and invented antibiotics and vaccines and vaccination laws, and suddenly surgery was as safe as a long-haul flight, TB was curable, and childhood illnesses that used to kill hundreds of people every year were a quaint footnote in your 10th-grade history textbook.

Having seen public experts work these miracles through the heavy hand of the state, people understandably concluded we could use miracles in other areas. They had a metaphor, so to speak. The metaphor wasn’t very good, as is often the case, but it took a while to find out that you couldn’t solve a problem in your steel supply chain with the same system that was so good at tracing cholera outbreaks to tainted pumps.


This is an overreaction to a terrible failure, for two reasons. First, big bureaucracies fail all the time, especially in the face of novel threats. A large institution is like a battleship: hard to sink, but also hard to turn. Public health experts of earlier eras made grave mistakes, like dumping London’s untreated sewage into the Thames; public health experts of the future will too. The more important question is whether they correct themselves, as it seems to me the CDC is now doing.

The second is that this is not your grandfather’s public health system. Public health experts were, in a way, too successful; they beat back our infectious disease load to the point where most of us have never had anything more serious than Human papillomavirus or a bad case of the flu. This left them without that much to do. So they reinvented themselves as the overseers of everything that might make us unhealthy, from French Fries to work stress.

As with the steel mills, these problems are not necessarily amenable to the organizational tools used to tackle tuberculosis. The more the public and private health system are focused on these problems, the less optimized they will be for fighting the war against infectious disease. It is less surprising to find that they didn’t know how to respond to a novel infectious disease than it would have been to discover that they botched a new campaign against texting and driving.

Megan McArdle, “Will Ebola Be Good for the CDC?”, Bloomberg View, 2014-10-20.

October 13, 2015

Britain’s National Health Service runs up a “deficit of almost £1 billion in just three months”

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

In the Telegraph a report on the dire financial straits of Britain’s NHS:

NHS trusts in England have racked up a deficit approaching £1 billion in the first three months of the financial year – the worst financial position “in a generation,” regulators have said.

The figure is more than the £820 million overspend for the entire previous year.

Experts warned of a looming winter crisis.

They said the “staggering” figures would result in widespread cutbacks to services, with lengthening waiting times and increased rationing of care.

The statistics for April to June show an overall deficit of £930m across England’s 241 NHS hospital trusts, with three in four trusts in the red.

The statistics show NHS Foundation Trusts had a deficit of £445 million. Other NHS trusts ended the first quarter of the year £485 million in deficit.

The foundation trust sector is under “massive pressure” and can no longer afford to go on as it is, the financial regulator Monitor said.

Regulators said an “over-reliance” on agency nurses and doctors to plug shortages of staff was fuelling the growing debt, which is forecast to reach a record high.

September 30, 2015

The Coase Theorem

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

Published on 18 Mar 2015

In this video, we show how bees and pollination demonstrate the Coase Theorem in action: when transaction costs are low and property rights are clearly defined, private arrangements ensure that the market works even when there are externalities. Under these conditions, the market properly manages externalities.

September 21, 2015

Command and Control Solutions

Filed under: Economics, Government — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 18 Mar 2015

What happened to the cleanliness of your clothes after the U.S. Department of Energy issued new washing machine requirements? The requirements — which require washers to use 21% less energy — mean that washers actually clean clothes less than they used to. Is “command and control” an efficient way to achieve the desired outcome (which is less pollution)? Rather than a standard requirement, such as the Department of Energy issued, a tax on electricity would provide users with greater flexibility in their washing—and would prompt people to purchase machines that use energy more efficiently and keep their clothes clean.

Are there times when a command and control solution to a problem makes the most sense? We look at the eradication of smallpox as one example.

September 16, 2015

External Benefits

Filed under: Economics, Health — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 18 Mar 2015

What can the flu teach us about economics and externalities? In this video, we go over how vaccines produce positive externalities that help people stay healthy. When someone receive the vaccine, they pass along the positive benefits of the vaccine to others, generating positive externalities. However, when someone gets a vaccine, they bear all of the costs and only reap some of the benefits of the vaccine. The social value is larger than the private value, resulting in an an undersupply of flu shots. One solution to this problem is a Pigouvian subsidy — a subsidy on a good with external benefits.

March 10, 2015

Megan McArdle on the politics of aging

Filed under: Economics, Health, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

As with most western countries, the extension of what we consider “normal lifespans” creates financial and demographic changes that our social welfare systems are struggling to keep up with:

Who will take care of all the old people?

That’s the theme of Nicholas Eberstadt’s latest piece on demographics, which I highly recommend to all of you. The core problem of the welfare state is that it relieves people of the need for family to take care of them, but it does not relieve society of the need for caretakers. In fact, because there’s evidence that more generous social-security systems cause people to reduce their fertility, you can argue that these systems are undercutting the very actuarial basis upon which they depend.

The effect is what social-security systems are struggling with around the world: As the ratio of workers to retirees declines, it gets harder and harder to raise the tax revenue to cover benefits. Though Americans talk anxiously about the fiscal health of our systems, international pension-reform wonks actually look enviously at our system, which contains fewer of the incentives for earlier retirement that plague many countries.

But our demographic transition is not just a problem of pension math. There’s also the problem of what it does to economic growth as society ages. As workforce growth slows, so does gross domestic product growth. In theory, this can be made up with greater productivity growth. But productivity growth is moving in the wrong direction — and because older people tend to be more risk-averse as workers and investors, that too may be a natural result of an aging society.

March 5, 2015

In search of healthy eating

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

At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum talks about all the things we’ve been told about healthy eating … that just ain’t so:

For several years now I’ve been following the controversy over whether the dietary guidelines that have developed over the the past 70 years might be all wrong. And I’ve become tentatively convinced that, in fact, they are wrong. For most people — not all! — salt isn’t a big killer; cholesterol isn’t harmful; and red meat and saturated fat are perfectly OK. Healthy, even. Sugar, on the other hand, really needs to be watched.

Before I go on, a great big caveat: I’m not even an educated amateur on this subject. I’ve read a fair amount about it, but I’ve never dived into it systematically. And the plain truth is that firm proof is hard to come by when it comes to diet. It’s really, really hard to conduct the kinds of experiments that would give us concrete proof that one diet is better than another, and the studies that have been done almost all have defects of some kind.

Emphasis mine.

Randomized trials are the gold standard of dietary studies, but as I said above, they’re really, really hard to conduct properly. You have to find a stable population of people. You have to pick half of them randomly and get them to change their diets. You have to trust them to actually do it. You have to follow them for years, not months. Virtually no trial can ever truly meet this standard.

Nonetheless, as Carroll says, the randomized trials we do have suggest that red meat and saturated fat have little effect on cardiovascular health — and might actually have a positive effect on cancer outcomes.

At the same time, increased consumption of sugars and carbohydrates might be actively bad for us. At the very least they contribute to obesity and diabetes, and there’s some evidence that they aren’t so great for your heart either.

So where does this leave us? As Carroll says, the literature as a whole suggests that we simply don’t know. We’ve been convinced of a lot of things for a long time, and it’s turned out that a lot of what we believed was never really backed by solid evidence in the first place. So now the dietary ship is turning. Slowly, but it’s turning.

His primary take-away from all this: moderation is probably your safest bet, unless you have a condition that requires you to avoid certain foods or types of foods. Oh, and avoid over-indulging in packaged food that uses lots of preservatives. This is certainly one area where the science sure didn’t turn out to be settled, after all.

March 1, 2015

What colour is your barn?

Filed under: History, Law, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In Mother Jones, Kevin Drum looks at an interesting bit of data from the 1800s:

Here’s the background. Homicides increased dramatically between 1900-11, but most of that appears to be the result of increased rural homicides, not urban homicides. If lead exposure is part of the reason, it would mean that rural areas were exposed to increasing levels of lead about 20 years earlier, around 1880 or so. But why? Nevin suggests that the answer to this question starts with another question: Why are barns red?

    The national roadProfessional painters in the 1800s prepared house paint by mixing linseed oil with white lead paste. About 90% of Americans lived in rural areas in the mid-1800s, and subsistence farmers could make linseed (flaxseed) oil, but few had access to white lead, so they mixed linseed oil with red rust to kill fungi that trapped moisture and increased wood decay. Red barns are still a tradition in most USA farming regions but white barns are the norm along the path of the old National Road. Why?

    ….The reason the red barn tradition never took root along that path is likely because the National Road made freight, including white lead, accessible to nearby farmers. USA lead output was a relatively stable 1000 to 2000 tons per year from 1801-1825, but lead output was 15,000 to 30,000 tons per year from the mid-1830s through the mid-1860s after the completion of the National Road.

    ….The first American patent for “ready-mixed” paint was filed in 1867; railroads built almost 120,000 track miles from 1850 to 1900; and Sears Roebuck and other mail-order catalogs combined volume buying, railroad transport, and rural free parcel post delivery to provide economical rural access to a wide variety of products in the 1890s.

    The murder arrest rate in large cities was more than seven times the national homicide rate from 1900-1904 because lead paint in the 1870s was available in large cities but unavailable in most rural areas. The early-1900s convergence in rural and urban murder rates was presaged by a late-1800s convergence in rural and urban lead paint exposure.

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 21, 2015

Ace unloads on the media over their “coverage” of the Ebola outbreak

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

At Ace of Spades H.Q., Ace is underwhelmed by the Washington Post‘s belated acknowledgement that they aided and abetted the CDC in downplaying the seriousness of the Ebola outbreak last year:

Scientists: “There Was Almost a Rush to Assure the Public That We Knew A Lot More Than We Did” About Ebola; Experts Now Concede Ebola May Be Transmitted by Purely Airborne Route

Incidentally, the Washington Post, which is itself an Expert at Writing to whom you should bow and scrape, reported his words as “there was a rush to ensure the public,” which is not what he said, because it’s stupid. And if he did say it, you throw a “(sic)” after it to indicate the error is in the quoted material, not in your own writing.


I assume he is speaking here of a proper airborne transmission, and not the layman’s “airborne” transmission; either way, the experts who so ensuredly ensured us that there was no way to get ebola from the air were wrong.

Not just wrong. Arrogantly and loudly wrong.

See, the media is not particularly bright but they are Bossy and they like pretending they Love Science. So when they see an opportunity to Pretend to Be Scientists and Yell At Their Dumb Readers, they seize upon it, even if they don’t have any idea about what the fuck they are talking. (Note preposition smartly undangled, all expert-like.)

The media were always wrong on this, and the CDC was always deliberately deceptive. This new information about an actual airborne route of transmission is new (ish), but even before, the CDC was falsely suggesting that “no airborne transmission” meant that you could not catch ebola except by direct contact with an infected person or his fluids, like his blood and stool.

They sort of forgot that his “spit” and vapor in his breath counted as “liquids,” so you could in fact catch ebola by what the layman would call an airborne route. (Scientists do not call this path of transmission “airborne” transmission, but rather “spray” transmission or “droplet transmission.”)

The CDC deliberately lied to people, and the demented little Apple Polishers of the media rushed to scream at the rest of the class that you could not possibly get ebola by anything other than direct contact.

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 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.

January 26, 2015

QotD: Against the Human Development Index (HDI)

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

[W]hat exactly is the HDI? The one-line explanation is that it gives “equal weights” to GDP per capita, life expectancy, and education. But it’s more complicated than that, because scores on each of the three measures are bounded between 0 and 1. This effectively means that a country of immortals with infinite per-capita GDP would get a score of .666 (lower than South Africa and Tajikistan) if its population were illiterate and never went to school.

So what are the main problems with the HDI?

1. I can see giving equal weights to GDP per capita and life expectancy. But education? As a professor and a snob, I understand the appeal (though a measure of opera consumption would be even better). But in terms of the actual if not professed values of normal human beings, televisions and cars are a lot more important than books.

2. When you take a closer look at the HDI’s education measure, it’s especially bogus. 2/3rds of the weight comes from the literacy rate. At least that’s not ridiculous. But the other 1/3 comes from the Gross Enrollment Index — the fraction of the population enrolled in primary, secondary, or tertiary education. OK, I feel a reductio ad absurdum coming on. To max out your education score, you have to turn 100% of your population into students!

3. The HDI purportedly gives equal weights to three different outcomes, but bounding the results between 0 and 1 builds in a massive bias against GDP. GDP per capita has grown fantastically during the last two centuries, and will continue to do so. In reality, there’s plenty of room left for further improvement even in rich countries. But the HDI doesn’t allow this. Since rich countries are already close to the upper bound, the HDI effectively defines their future progress on this dimension out of existence.

To a lesser extent, the same goes for life expectancy: While it’s roughly doubled over the last two centuries, dying at 85 is not, contrary to the HDI, approximately equal in value to immortality.

The clear winners from this weighting scheme, of course, are the literacy and enrollment measures, both of which have upper bounds that are imposed by logic rather than fiat.

4. The ultimate problem with the HDI, though, is lack of ambition. It effectively proclaims an “end of history” where Scandinavia is the pinnacle of human achievement. […] Scandinavia comes out on top according to the HDI because the HDI is basically a measure of how Scandinavian your country is.

Bryan Caplan, “Against the Human Development Index”, Econlog, 2009-05-22.

Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress