Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Pollution may kill you, but it won't make you fat

There's a strange phenomenon often seen in certain branches of science, especially in medicine and public health. Despite a mountain of evidence lending its support to a particular theory, government agencies, universities and individual researchers devote their resources to investigating alternative and obviously ridiculous explanations of the same data.

The archives here are filled with examples, but I saw an example just earlier today that deserves special mention.  From the BBC:

The idea that “thin air” can make you fat sounds ludicrous, yet some extremely puzzling studies appear to be showing that it’s possible...Traffic fumes and cigarette smoke are the chief concerns, with their tiny, irritating particles that trigger widespread inflammation and disrupt the body’s ability to burn energy.
This story has all the hallmarks of a classic junk science write up: dramatic claims about some threat to human health bolstered by animal studies and questionable epidemiology, quotes from medical authorities who should know better, and claims that immediate action is needed to protect vulnerable populations--typical misuse of the precautionary principle.

On its face, a causal link between air pollution and obesity isn't impossible. The BBC piece provides a plausible mechanism by which the former could cause the latter, so why is this story so ridiculous? I can think of a few reasons.

Recent data from the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) on NASA's Aura satellite shows conclusively that the air quality over the United States continues to improve, as it has since 1980, according to estimates published by the EPA. Recent public health research, meanwhile, shows that obesity in America has exploded since the 1980s. The point should be clear. The air is getting cleaner and people are getting fatter; there really is no link between pollution and obesity. We can even reverse the numbers to make the same argument stronger. Obesity rates in China linger below 5% yet the country remains one of the world's biggest polluters.

Looking at these global numbers gives us context for the smaller studies cited by the BBC. For example, researchers at Harvard Medical School found that babies of mothers living in polluted areas put on weight faster than babies living in healthier environments. That would seem to support the obesity-pollution hypothesis without the above numbers in mind, but something in the local environment probably offers a better explanation for the rapid weight gain. Poverty is a good candidate, since poor people have fewer nutritional options. They also tend to live in polluted environments compared to wealthier populations. Indeed the data supports this view of the matter: The poorest Americans are also the fattest.

Likewise, the risk of diabetes may go up 11% for every 10 micrograms of fine particles in a cubic meter of air, as one study claims; the same may be true of insulin resistance, as reported by another paper cited by the BBC. But the researchers are chasing down the wrong association in all three cases, and they're relying on relatively small sample sizes in the process.

The BBC piece also claims that secondhand smoke enhances the obesity-promoting effects of air pollution, citing an observational study conducted in southern California as evidence, weak as it may be. But leaving aside the inherent difficulties in trying to model the effects of secondhand smoke on the BMI of 4,000 toddlers, the association runs into the same problem as before. Smoking has declined tremendously since the 1960s  in the U.S. while obesity rates have done the exact opposite. Meanwhile, smoking in developing nations like China is slightly increasing every year while obesity remains low.

Full of errors and inconsistencies as it is, the strangest thing about the BBC article was this qualifier towards the end: "The scientists stress that ...[pollution] shouldn’t be used as an excuse for obesity by itself, without considering other aspects of your lifestyle." That's true, of course. If you're obese, your morning pumpkin spice latte and doughnut are more to blame than whatever amount of smog you're exposed to.

But since we know conclusively that bad genetics, poor diet and limited exercise can make one person fat, we know that those factors can also make an entire population of people fat. So why, then, are we supposed to hyperventilate about the speculative threat posed by air pollution?

The article ends reasonably enough with a call to reduce air pollution. That's undoubtedly a good idea since it means saving thousands of lives every year and mitigating substantial damage to the environment, especially in the developing world. But blaming obesity, even partially, on air pollution gets us no closer to that goal. Besides, it's just bad science.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

How the anti-smoking lobby keeps people smoking

Stigmatizing people won't win you their acceptance. Children looking to make friends understand this basic aspect of social dynamics, so do men on first dates, and so does almost everyone else. But there's one group that usually fails to understand that people are more likely to listen to you if they like you: the public health establishment.

According to a study released earlier this week, smokers are less likely to give up their habit when they're vilified for it:

Public health policies targeted at smokers may actually have the opposite effect for some people trying to quit ... stigmatizing smoking can, in some cases, make it harder for people to quit because they become angry and defensive and the negative messages lead to a drop in self-esteem.
This isn't new information, of course. The authors reviewed 30 studies related to the stigmatization of smokers, so the data is out there for anyone who wants to read it, including the people making public health policy. Why they would continue ostracizing smokers with public smoking bans, irritating billboards and graphic warning labels is anyone's guess, though health nannies aren't the most civil people around, and they have no problem ignoring evidence when necessary. Perhaps that explains their persistent yet ineffective harassing of smokers.

There's no need to dwell on these results much more, since they've been replicated dozens of times.Whether we're talking about fat people, heroin addicts or fundamentalist Christians, scorn won't motivate them to change their behaviors, or their beliefs in the last case. It's a lesson all busy bodies should meditate on before they go out crusading again.    

One interesting observation arises from this study, though. Perhaps the anti-tobacco lobby hasn't been all that effective over the decades. They would no doubt protest my speculation, proudly patting themselves on the back for reducing smoking in the process. But it's worth noting that most of their initiatives fail. Public smoking bans never yield the health benefits ascribed to them, and smoking cessation programs are generally ineffective, excluding e-cigarettes, which the public health establishment is eagerly trying to ban. Moreover, the massive amounts of taxpayer money dumped into tobacco control programs around the country seem to exert little influence on smoking habits.

These factoids are interesting on their own, but they're especially intriguing with this latest study in mind. Despite the billions of dollars spent on tobacco control, smokers persist in their habit because these stop-smoking campaigns are designed to shame and ostracize them out of smoking, which is simply ineffective.

The next push-back would be that smoking has declined drastically in the last 50 years, and surely we have the anti-smoking lobby to thank for this public health victory! Well, no, not really. Smoking has certainly declined, but the downward trend began just after the Surgeon General's report on smoking and health was released in 1964. That document launched the first wave of advertising bans, warning labels and government reports on the health effects of smoking, and sin taxes on tobacco have only increased since the 1960s. I humbly suggest that good evidence combined with stiff penalties have incentivized people to quit smoking, or to never start.

Stanton Glantz and his fellow public health warriors would surely also claim credit for these ever-increasing tobacco taxes, and on this point they actually deserve some recognition. But a caveat is in order: Congress didn't get the idea to tax cigarettes from The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. The federal government has taxed tobacco for much of American history anyway, usually to finance wars. Moreover, convincing politicians to collect higher taxes isn't much of a challenge, especially when the industry you're attacking shoots itself in the foot and then gets in bed with you, in hopes of avoiding more lawsuits and even tighter regulations.

This could all change in hurry, however. The anti-smoking lobby could embrace harm reduction as a means of encouraging smokers to quit, stop publishing shoddy research and, of course, quit demonizing smoking. It's amazing what can be accomplished when you base policy on good science and stop telling people how terrible they are. We have an example of how this works as we slowly move toward sensible drug laws in the United States.

That last paragraph, sadly, is mostly fantasy. There are simply too many entrenched interests who would lose out if Big Public Health shifted its stance on smoking. Indeed there's a good case to be made that this puritanical approach to tobacco control is maintained by design, not despite its poor track record but because of it. Such an argument requires a level of cynicism that I don't possess. So I'll just end here with a  simple observation: whatever their motivations, public health advocates really suck at protecting the public from smoking, and they could fix that overnight if they actually wanted to.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Politics, science and the (overblown) benefits of exercise

The federal government, soda companies and libertarians all argue that exercise is key to losing weight. Something is very wrong if these three parties agree on this question, because they are usually at odds on health-related issues.

In this case, the consensus is strange because the government simultaneously criticizes soda companies for encouraging obesity and subsidizes the main ingredient in their product. Coke and Pepsi don't take this criticism lying down, of course, but they do everything they can to defend the agricultural subsidies that they benefit from. Meanwhile, libertarians dislike both the government and anyone who takes public money for anything.

So why do they all agree about the blessings of exercise? They're all ignoring the data to prop up their political agendas. If exercise can make you slim and keep you that way, the government doesn't have to take responsibility for promoting a diet that made everyone fat and sick. The same goes for the sugary drink people: "You drink six cans of coke a day and you're fat? Not our fault, you should exercise!" Libertarians likewise cling to the exercise makes you sexy argument, because regulation of any human activity is a sin. 

Anyway, the video that inspired this brief Saturday morning rant, via RealClearScience:

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Movie Review: Merchants of Doubt: propaganda posing as documentary

Republicans hate science. It's been said thousands of times in books, op-eds, blog posts and stupid info graphics. It's also a myth, one that's been debunked time and time again, but it's so commonly accepted that it won't die easily.

So I couldn't help but sigh yesterday as I watched a 2014 documentary cleverly titled Merchants of Doubt (MOD). The film is a biography, based on the 2010 book of the same title, of the lobbyists and think tanks that are paid to cast doubt on science in order promote a political agenda, usually to fend off government regulation and protect corporate profits.

Dishonest lobbyists who deny science have been around for decades, and they exert tremendous influence over national public policy, unfortunately. So it's good to have whistle blowers documenting this problem when they see it. The problem with MOD, however, is that the filmmakers don't blow the whistle consistently. They have wrongly identified conservative think tanks and politicians as the only anti-science camp in society and are doing their cause a great disservice as a result.

The first problem caught my attention within five minutes. The film begins with a brief history of the political battle between big tobacco and the public health establishment, which sets the stage for the argument made throughout the film. And who better to narrate this history lesson than Stanton Glantz: tobacco researcher at UCSF, anti-smoking advocate--complete hack.

Glantz is actually a scientist, which is more than can be said for many of the anti-smoking movement's mouthpieces, but he is a very dishonest one. His research is often simplistic, incomplete or just downright bullshit. His results have been called into question over and over again by other scientists, his former students among his critics. His claims about the risks posed by e-cigarettes are particularly atrocious and could actually deter people from giving up traditional cigarettes, which means more smoking-related morbidity and mortality, by the way.

There is no mention of this tattered research in MOD; Glantz is treated as a fair-minded observer and defender of public health. This is farcical, to say the very least.

The next problem is just as ridiculous but far more serious. Politically-motivated skepticism of scientific consensus is treated as a sickness only Republicans are susceptible to. You see, there are big corporations and powerful conservative politicians. They all belong to the same global cabal dedicated to advancing capitalism at the expense of everything else--the environment, social justice, babies. You name it and these worshipers of the invisible hand will destroy it for the sake of their bottom lines.

There are many problems with this hypothesis, but let's start with the most blatant. The environmental lobby, usually consisting of left-leaning political interests, and portrayed mostly favorably in the film, are happy to deny science when it suits their agenda. The Union of Concerned Scientists, for example, rejects the scientific consensus on GM technology, technology which is allowing us to feed a growing global population.

Moreover, vaccine skepticism, alternative medicine advocacy, and phobia of nuclear energy are all very unscientific positions, and they belong almost exclusively to the left. Some of these pose a very serious and immediate risk to the world. Climate change could flood major coastal cities around the globe, depending on whom you ask, within the next 50 years. Cigarettes will kill you, but it'll take you decades to die from smoking-related illness. Meanwhile, infectious disease and starvation kill people around the world every day, right now.Yet there is no outrage, no fist shaking towards the sky about these issues in MOD. Why not?

Anyway, let's get back to the corporate-y, money-grubbing idealists. This group consists exclusively of Exxon-Mobil executives and tobacco lobbyists, right? Ha. Greenpeace takes corporate money (though indirectly), so do dozens of other environmentalist groups. They all do it because they've become very politically influential, and the companies who supply us with everything from cleaning supplies to soda know how the game is played. So they give money, alter their products and launch major marketing campaigns to prove just how earth friendly and health conscious they are, all in hopes of avoiding arduous regulations and public shaming.

But all this talk about corruption and corporate money leads us to a very important question. What exactly do your funding sources say about the strength of your argument? Well, not much. Pat Michaels is a climatologist at the Cato Institute, indeed one of the think tanks attacked in MOD, and he has garnered a lot of criticism for his claim that the IPCC has greatly overestimated climate sensitivity. Yet Michaels' research continues to pass peer review in major journals and at scientific meetings year after year. So despite the fact that he has taken money from the fossil fuel industry, Michaels may actually be right.

The point here is not that climate change is a hoax or entirely natural; it is neither. But we need to focus on the arguments people make and less on who they're affiliated with. The tobacco industry didn't lose their PR war because they were outspent by the Surgeon General or the FDA, but because they could no longer deny the health effects of smoking as their customers continued to drop dead. The data was undeniable.

MOD makes very little effort to analyze the arguments related to any of the issues it covers, however. "We're right, the yucky corporations are wrong" was the take home message, and that's my biggest problem with the film. If this is really a debate about science literacy, then let's talk about the data, all of the data. Quit taking shots just at your political opponents and chastise everybody who throws science under the bus to protect their pet causes, because that's the only way to bring science denial under control.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Amusing science news from around the web

I really enjoy writing, just not tonight. So instead of producing anything original, I'm going to link to a few science news stories that piqued my interest this week.

According to a recent study, women like sexy, charismatic jerks; men like beautiful young women. See this blog post for some interesting commentary on the paper. Everybody knows what I mean when I say "jerk" and "beautiful." It is what it is. Evolution doesn't care about your feelings.

You don't like biotechnology if you're a Democrat, or at least your representatives in Congress don't. I find that amusing since biotechnology is enabling impoverished people around the world to feed themselves. And Democrats are supposed to be looking out for the little guy.

As I laugh and then take a big gulp of diet soda, I happily link to this informative (and hilarious) piece about the safety of artificial sweeteners from last week.

Robots are taking over. Sort of. Alright, not really. But they may replace your bartender one day soon.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Fasting + low carb = dead sexy, part 2

Last month I started a fasting experiment in which I skip breakfast, limit my carbohydrate intake to 50 grams or fewer and space my two meals roughly six hours apart every day. You can check out my previous post to explore my personal and scientific reasons for my tightening up my diet in this way, but let's recap the results from June, then take a look at July's.

By July 1, I was down to 196.4 lbs, a total loss of 12.3 lbs and a BMI of 26.7. On top of the pants and shirts that fit better, these were very satisfying results. So after another month, my results were as follows:

Weight (lbs)
% change
Loss to date
BMI (lb/in2)

You'll notice that my weight went up slightly over the course of the month. I got down to as low as 195 lbs on July 18, but a couple of cheat days during the weekends may have temporarily stalled my progress. I also went back to a regular weight lifting schedule to avoid losing strength, and may have added a little muscle mass which is influencing the numbers on the scale, though for the better.

Another possibility is this: years of eating a certain way have effectively conditioned my body to maintain my weight within a relatively narrow range, which is much higher than my goal weight of 185 lbs, probably between 210 - 220 lbs based on what I've weighed for the last three years. It's possible to lower this set point, but my body may be fighting the downward change because, as far as it's concerned, my weight is too low.

Honestly, though, who the hell really knows what's happening? Nutrition is hardly a science. There's so much that we don't know about diet and weight loss (and probably never will) that it's difficult to assess your progress from week to week. The only reasonable thing you can do is track your long-term progress and adjust your habits as necessary.

With that in mind, I'm down roughly 60 lbs since 2012; I'm wearing clothes that haven't fit since I was 13 years old. Moreover, losing weight has opened the door to a lot of (ahem) experiences that I use to think were off limits to me. Dropping another eight or 10 lbs is really just an academic exercise at this point.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Sugary drinks kill 184,000 people annually, according to scary news stories and statistics

The big news in the public health world this week is a study linking sugary drink consumption to over 184,000 deaths annually. I've mentioned this rule of mine previously, but I'll repeat it for your edification: the scarier the news story, the shoddier the research behind the story. Count on it.

I hate to side with the American Beverage Association in any argument, infamous as they are for their dubious claims about the health effects of soda, but in this case they're right: this study is nothing more than number crunching topped with a frightening headline to generate attention. The authors "... are at best estimating effects of sugar-sweetened beverage consumption."

But we don't have to take the sugary drink lobby's word for it; let's look at the Circulation study itself:
We modeled global, regional, and national burdens of disease associated with [sugar sweetened beverage] consumption by age/sex in 2010... We computed cause-specific population-attributable fractions for SSB consumption, which were multiplied by cause-specific mortality/morbidity to compute estimates of SSB-attributable death/disability. Analyses were done by country/age/sex; uncertainties of all input data were propagated into final estimates.
Where did the data for these estimates come from? "Data on SSB consumption levels were pooled from national dietary surveys worldwide." Ah. Food surveys, those most unreliable sources of information about what people eat and drink. If the numbers going into the models are junk, then the results coming out of them will be useless. It doesn't matter how many times you check your work.

The authors of the study also repeat the questionable claim that sugary drinks "are a single, modifiable component of diet, that can impact preventable death/disability ..." But all high-calorie foods can be linked to morbidity and mortality the way this paper linked them with soda. If you eat poorly, simply eliminating soda will not do much for your health. It's a start, but losing weight and preventing diabetes is not that easy, I'm sorry.

Everybody knows that sugar in great enough quantities is harmful. We have good science to back up that claim. Statistical studies like this one tell us absolutely nothing useful, they only give the soda lobby an easy argument to knock down.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Fasting + low carb = dead sexy, part 1

Nutrition is one of my favorite science topics. I've written a lot about it here as well as at other outlets around the internet. My interest in the subject first sprouted after watching a documentary called Fat Head and eventually losing about 50 pounds by following a relatively strict low-carb diet.

Since late 2012, my weight has hovered between 200 and 210 pounds and my metabolic markers are all very good. With the addition of a simple weight lifting routine, I've added some muscle and improved my body composition a little bit more.

But I've gotten a bit lazy over the last year; it's just too easy to make bad decisions, and my weight has been gradually creeping up. I noticed that late last month when the nurse weighed me at the blood bank where I donate--219 pounds. "Dear, God, I'm going to gain all my weight back," I thought. Irrational, but it spurred me out of complacency, and I decided to tighten up my diet once again. My weight evened out to a more acceptable 208.6 pounds after a 12-hour fast following that weigh in at the blood bank, but my mind was made up. I wanted to see if I could slim down a little more.

As of June 1, I cut out all sugar and grains and began an intermittent fasting regimen, as well. I eat two meals a day, lunch usually at 11 am and dinner around 6 pm. After doing a little research, I decided to start skipping breakfast, because eating in the morning, thanks to elevated levels of cortisol, can actually make you hungrier later in the day.

This routine has been very manageable. I start to get hungry about an hour before each meal, but the fast is easy to maintain otherwise. The results are helping me stay strong, too. Along with the good results I've seen on the scale, I'm wearing shirts and pants that used to be too tight to wear comfortably, and I've had to tighten my belt another notch.

The graph tracks my weight in pounds and percent change  from week to week, total loss to date and body mass index (BMI). 
Weight (lbs)
Weekly % Change
Loss To Date (lbs)





BMI isn't always a reliable indicator of metabolic health, I'm aware. Having said that, body weight still correlates with metabolic health for most people; the 300-pound man who remains sedentary all day has a better chance of becoming diabetic than does the 140-pound marathon runner. So I decided to track my BMI along with the other numbers.

Anyway, my super secret approach to weight loss is as follows: eat nutritious food at the right times during the day, and stop eating once you're satisfied. For me, that means two meals a day, fewer than 50 carbohydrates and as much fat and protein as I want until my hunger is sated. 

I'll check in this time next month with my results from July. My goal by that time is to be down to 185 pounds, then maintain that weight indefinitely, but I want to make a few observations after following this plan for a month so far.

The advice to eat several small meals throughout the day is terrible, no-good bro science. You don't need to eat every few hours to maintain your blood sugar or keep your hunger in check. The published research confirms both points, should you doubt my anecdotal experience. 

Eating fewer calories is a necessary precursor to losing weight, but eating less is not the cause of the weight loss. I accepted the eat less and exercise more dogma before discovering low-carb diets. I lost some weight, because eating a little less and running three miles five days a week was better than nothing. But those lifestyle changes weren't effective enough to repair the metabolic damage I had done by eating cheetos and sitting on my ass for 23 years. There are entire populations that confirm this point.   

I used to come down hard on the idea that exercise could induce weight loss. I've softened my position a little bit, because the right kinds of exercise can stimulate hormonal changes that promote fat loss. With the proper diet, a weightlifting routine, for example, will probably help you lose weight. However, you don't need to exercise in order to lose weight. I cut my weight training back significantly at the start of the month, and stopped going to the gym altogether two weeks in because I was eating so little food. The weight still fell off. 

Finally, I'd like to take a swing at the Splenda haters of every stripe. Organic food aficionados, paleo diet purists and ordinary food scolds all claim that artificial sweeteners emulate sugar so well that they stimulate a comparable insulin response, which ultimately leads to weight gain. Diet soda, then, isn't so diet, perhaps. There is some research to support this conclusion, but we're talking about a handful of  (very small) studies, most of which involve rats. 

I'm not a rodent so I was eager to see how all my diet mountain dew consumption would affect my weight loss effort. So far, it hasn't. Maybe I have some nifty genetic protection against the ill effects of artificial sweeteners, or maybe the anti-diet soda crowd is just wrong. That's what most of the data we have suggests, and I now have my own n=1 experiment to further justify my consumption of the tasty sugar-free beverages. 

That's all for now. Let's revisit this in a month. 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Richard Dawkins is an asshole, harms science outreach, study finds

Sometimes science lags behind simple observation. People usually know something is true because of what they see as they live their lives, not because they've considered the issue scientifically. But it can be both interesting and helpful when researchers confirm what we already know, especially if they're studying something as important as science literacy.

So, for example, I could have told you long ago that Richard Dawkins does more harm than good for science outreach because he's an asshole. I mean, even the creators of South Park knew that almost a decade ago. But now we have a peer-reviewed study confirming as much.

There are a few useful pieces of information that have come to light as a result of this paper, but let's look briefly at the study before getting to its implications.

The team used a survey of over 10,000 Americans. Part of the survey asked individuals if they had previously heard of either [Richard] Dawkins or [Francis] Collins. The survey revealed that Dawkins was more widely known among the 10,000 survey participants than Collins (21.4 percent recognition versus 4.3 percent recognition).
Being a vitriolic apologist for atheism, Dawkins has unsurprisingly attracted more attention than the director of the NIH. The key bit of information here, however, is that Dawkins' self-righteousness doesn't win atheism any converts. The individuals surveyed, after reading a brief biography of Collins, were 15 percent more likely to accept the idea that religion and science can co-exist. Those who hadn't heard of Dawkins and read his biography showed no change in their views of the relationship between science and religion.

The takeaway here, and it's really just sales 101, is that your audience needs to like you before they'll believe you. Would you buy a car from a salesman who was a complete jerk? Probably not. Now imagine that same jerk changing your mind about a concept as important as God. Never going to happen. By the way, this is why televangelists are equally ineffective at converting atheists to Christianity. Like Dawkins, televangelists are judgy bitches; they don't know how to communicate with the faithless, nor do they care to learn.

Here's another useful point from the study:

... previous research shows that people are more likely to listen and accept what a public figure is saying if they see themselves as similar to that figure. 

With this in mind, it would be wise for people like Dawkins, those who claim to want to spread science literacy, to stop calling religion a mind virus and treating religious believers like they're idiots. It's an interesting point, I think, because Dawkins has the knowledge and rhetorical skill to change minds. He could get evangelicals to drop their doubts about evolution, and probably de-convert a few of them along the way. But he's too belligerent to keep their attention for any length of time.

So if you want to change people's minds, no matter how ignorant they may be, treat them with a little respect. It's the scientific thing to do. And we all know how much Dawkins loves science.



Tuesday, June 9, 2015

How much does TV affect children? Not much

The idea that television can influence children's behavior for the worse is popular. Conservative Christians, feminists, public health crusaders and culture warriors of every other stripe are very fond of arguing that there is a link between TV and [insert your favorite bad behavior/ disease/disorder here].

Though very influential today, the "Hollywood causes our problems" trope has always struck me as intellectually lazy, especially since there is solid evidence that the association runs the other way. The media we consume is merely a reflection of the ideas and behaviors we already embrace, even the anti-social ones.

Put another way, society's problems have more complex, I would argue biological, causes that science hasn't completely explained yet. So blaming TV for, say, depression in children in light of this information is just pointless.

Nonetheless, the studies investigating this issue are not unanimous. The only way to get a conclusive answer, then, is to survey all the available research to determine if a consensus can be established. This is precisely what two researchers from the University of Sussex did last month. 

The pair conducted a meta-analysis to see what the science says about how scary TV shows impact children's emotions. Writing in Human Communication Research, they conclude:

Scary television has a relatively small impact on children's internalizing emotions ... The overall result contrasts with the dramatic effects found for individual children within studies, suggesting that research is needed to unpick the factors that moderate the effect that scary television has on children. 
There's a couple of points worth making based on this review. First, despite watching ample amounts of TV, the authors report that children in the UK watch a little more than 17 hours per week, and American children watch even more, whatever effect TV has on children's emotions is minimal. So nobody, the FCC for example, is justified in arguing that universally restricting kids exposure to scary programming will improve their emotional health.

That being said, the authors also explain that

Although at the group level the effect of scary TV on children's anxiety is small, it is nevertheless present. This finding has implications for policy-makers because TV guidelines focus on violence but, for some children, scariness will matter and TV can be scary without being violent.
This comment suggests, at least to me, that children differ from one another in a variety of ways, their tolerance for scary programming being just one example. The proper approach to this problem, like so many others we face as a society, is to quit pushing oversimplified, politically-motivated solutions, because they don't work.

If we dig a little deeper, we may figure out which kids are prone to anxiety and depression and actually be able help them lead healthier lives as a result.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Social Science: an (unintentional) outlet for progressive politics

On Friday, the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial decrying social science as a liberal conspiracy. Their accusation is based on the recent discovery that a graduate student at UCLA fabricated data for a study investigating conservative views about gay marriage.

The editorial irritated a lot of people in science media, but I thought Jesse Singal's take on the matter over at Science of Us was particularly interesting. Singal effectively rebutted the Journal's editorial, though his answer to the bigger question about the credibility of social science wasn't as convincing.

So is social science a liberal conspiracy? My reflexive answer to that question is yes. After putting a little more thought into the question, my answer is still yes, however it needs to be qualified. Social science doesn't exist to promote a certain political platform, but that's what happens regardless of intentions, and that's what has happened for the last 50 years.

Before anyone complains, let me point out that I'm not accusing anyone of dishonesty; I'm merely pointing out an unfortunate characteristic of human nature: people believe what they want to believe, and academics are no exception. This is why research funded by cereal companies consistently finds that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, to cite the dumbest example I can think of. The same goes for any study produced by an organization with a vested interest in the subject. Anti-smoking groups, soda companies, big tobacco and conservative think tanks all prove my point nicely.

It's a serious charge to accuse an entire field of promoting a political agenda, even if unintentionally. But I'm not alone in making such an accusation. To plagiarize myself from a post last year on the subject of rape culture, it's no secret that
the social sciences ... are regularly criticized for not being rigorous enough. The results of research in these fields are often highly subjective and difficult to quantify, to the point that researchers in other fields want the National Science Foundation to stop funding social science research. In addition, social scientists have been accused of being ideologically biased and engaging in group think--by other social scientists.
Singal and others would no doubt protest this assessment of the situation. Indeed, in response to the Journal's version of this argument, Singal cites NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who has made a name for himself in part by highlighting just how politically slanted social science is as a field. Because of Haidt's work, Singal argues, social scientists are now having an internal discussion about how politics is affecting their research, so they can't be "mindlessly promoting liberal causes."

It's certainly true that Haidt has brought an important issue to everyone's attention, but the fact that one researcher had to come forward and blow the whistle on his colleagues is not a sign of academic rigor in the field, just very clear evidence that social science has a credibility issue. To cite the same paper Singal cites, Haidt's argument can be summarized like this:

[A] lack of political diversity can undermine the validity of social psychological science via ... the embedding of liberal values into research questions and methods, steering researchers away from important but politically unpalatable research topics, and producing conclusions that mischaracterize liberals and conservatives alike ...

This isn't to say that social scientists are incapable of conducting sound research, because we've learned a lot about a variety of important subjects from their work, human sexuality and personality psychology being two of my favorite examples. Nonetheless, with the good comes an awful lot of bad: useless studies based on unreliable surveys, conclusions that can't be quantified and results that have been outright fabricated, and the examples of this shoddy research go on for days and outmatch anything you might see in the physical sciences.

So if anything, I'd say the Journal reached the right conclusion for the wrong reasons. It isn't the one example from UCLA that illustrates how severe of a credibility issue we're talking about, but several decades worth of politically biased, methodologically dubious social science research.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The trend continues: more bad e-cigarette legislation in California

I've mentioned previously that California is a trend setter when it comes to stupid public policy. It's a title our elected leaders must be proud of, because the state senate just voted to regulate e-cigarettes exactly like tobacco, which means they will be banned "...from restaurants, theaters and other public places in California where smoking is prohibited to address health concerns," according to the LA Times.

What health concerns could the senate have in mind? The Times doesn't elaborate except to quote two badly misinformed senators, Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and Jeff Stone (R-Murrietta). I'll give you a few seconds to guess which limp-wristed arguments they used to defend the bill.

I was going to come up with some witty riposte for this sentence, but the actual answer is comical enough without my input. These two thoughtful legislators want to ban e-cigs in public because they contain nicotine and are popular among teenagers. "'Vaping'” is a gateway to cigarette smoking," says Stone, and those dastardly vape pen pushers are marketing their harmful product to kids by selling fruit-flavored e-liquid.

Never mind the fact that our senators are assuming what's at issue--that e-cigarettes are truly dangerous--and consider the following, please. E-cigarettes are not nearly as popular among teens as is commonly believed, and the kids who do use them were already smokers.

Had the authors of this bill actually looked at the CDC's statistics instead of just reading the agency's press release back in 2012, they would have learned about these two crucial pieces of information. You don't have to be a logician to understand the significance here: e-cigs can't be a gateway to smoking if the teens who use the vaping devices were already smokers.

By the way, I'm quickly approaching 30 and I love fruit-flavored vapor; it certainly beats the taste of burning tobacco. Judging by the popularity of these e-liquids in vape shops, which are already prohibited from selling to minors, I'm not the only former smoker with this preference.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Inside City Hall: radio interview about smoking bans

Last Wednesday, I was interviewed on a New Orleans-based radio show called "Inside City Hall" about the city's recently enacted smoking ban. You can download the audio of the program for free here. We had a good discussion and covered several important points about the science and politics behind public smoking bans. Do give it a listen.  

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Formaldehyde from e-cigarettes won't give you cancer

Every few days, a public health study of some kind is published, usually a bad one, and the media gush over it. The miracle vegetable cures and health scare stories will never stop. Count on it.  Let's take a look at this week's edition.

The Wall Street Journal: Study Links E-Cigarettes to Formaldehyde, Cancer Risk

CBS: E-cigarette vapor filled with cancer-causing chemicals, researchers say

Reuters: Ramping up e-cigarette voltage produces more formaldehyde: study

There are plenty more examples on Google News, but you get the idea from these headlines. Michael Siegel wrote up a full take down of the study already. Here's the key point:

The conditions used to study the e-cigarette aerosol at the high voltage setting were unrealistic and under such conditions, a vaper would never be able to use the product ... the wattage being used was so high that the vaporizer was overheated ... creating a horrible taste which a vaper could not tolerate. This is sometimes referred to as the "dry puff phenomenon."
Without even looking at the paper a few things jump out at me. First of all, there's no point in evaluating the safety of any device if you're going to study it under unrealistic conditions. Imagine if the Highway Traffic Safety Administration conducted a study showing that drivers are more likely to crash their Ford Mustangs if they drive 100 mph everywhere they go. We'd all read that headline and say, "Well, yeah, obviously!" Driving dangerously like that would clearly make an accident more likely (hence why no one does it), but that wouldn't be Ford's fault. The same logic applies here. Study e-cigarettes under realistic conditions or the data you generate will be useless.

Nonetheless, there's something useful to glean from this study. E-cigarettes used at realistic voltage settings don't produce increased amounts of formaldehyde. Indeed most of them produce only trace amounts that pose no threat to human health, as Siegel also pointed out.

The more clinical evidence we collect, all of which currently vindicates e-cigarettes, the less useful these kinds of safety studies will become. At some point the divide between real world experience and the data retrieved from these deceptive studies will grow so wide that the debate will have to end. The best way to get data on e-cigarettes is to simply let people use them and watch what happens, so let's just do that.

Speaking of deception, have a look at those news articles. Notice how they frame the story, starting with the headline. They discuss the results uncritically and quote the authors of the study favorably, though a few minutes looking at the paper would have illustrated its flaws. To be fair, each story gives a few words to an e-cigarette trade group who rightly attacked the study, but the group was clearly set up as the antagonist. No wonder the public doesn't trust science journalists.

Monday, January 12, 2015

More exaggerated e-cig science from PLOS ONE

RealClearScience reported last month that e-cigarette research is "generally terrible," and to a certain extent they're right. The debate surrounding vaping is politically charged. With zealous health nannies on one side and a growing industry on the other, there's bound to be some questionable science thrown back and forth.

The latest example comes from a study published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE. The researchers collected human respiratory tissue and exposed it to the nicotine liquid vaporized by electronic cigarettes (e-cigs). Following the experiment the researchers found that exposure to the liquid promoted the production of pro-inflammatory cytokine and made the tissue more susceptible to infection.

Unlike many "studies" of e-cigarettes, this isn't just a survey. The researchers did some actual science; the results are interesting and there is not much fault to find in the experiment itself. Nonetheless, the authors are exaggerating their findings and generally misrepresenting the available evidence.

The media, right on cue as always, reported the results in the worst possible light, leading with headlines like "E-Cigs Could Up Respiratory Infection..." Health reporting in this country sucks tremendously and this issue is no exception, so let's take a closer look at the study and put the data in proper context.

The study begins with a real zinger; I actually snorted when I read it.

"While e-cigarette manufacturers claim that their products are harmless, adverse respiratory effects (e.g., cough, wheezing and pneumonia) have been reported in social media from e-cigarette users [3]. However, the scientific evidence regarding the human health effects of e-cigarettes on the lung is extremely limited. 
I guarantee you even more positive results have been reported on social media, just visit any number of facebook groups or internet forums dedicated to vaping. The former smokers who populate those venues will happily share their success stories of giving up tobacco. Moreover, their experiences are indicative of a larger result: smokers are switching to e-cigs by the millions because they work. That wouldn't be happening if the devices caused pneumonia.

Moving on to the evidence, the reason we have so little is because e-cigs are relatively new devices. As any researcher knows, good science takes time, and a lot of money. But the data we do have are quite revealing. The first clinical trial to evaluate e-cigs, for example, found that the majority of smokers involved were able to give up traditional cigarettes with few or no side effects. Interestingly, they found that the participants experienced throat and mouth irritation, but that it subsided within a few weeks of the switch. In sum, the research involving real people, and not just their lung tissue, indicates that e-cig use has minimal side effects.

The study authors also repeated Stanton Glantz's gateway to real cigarettes myth, which was debunked literally the same week it first appeared on the internet.

...a notable proportion of adolescents and young adults who had never smoked tobacco cigarettes have used e-cigarettes. About 1.78 million U.S. youth had ever used e-cigarettes as of 2012
I would like to point out that "ever used" and "regularly use" are very different things. 38 percent of Americans have tried marijuana, according to Gallup, for instance. That doesn't mean that 38 percent of Americans are pot heads. Yes, many kids have tried e-cigs, but most of them were already smokers, and the majority of e-cig users are adults and former smokers. The gateway argument, then, is in direct contradiction of the data we have.

But let's get to the core of the study, which does seem to provide evidence that e-cigs may be dangerous

In summary, our current study has provided strong data suggesting the deleterious health effects of e-cigarettes on the lung, with a particular focus on airway epithelial inflammation and innate immunity in young people.
Well, maybe. We have more data to draw from than the authors suggest throughout the paper. In addition to the clinical evidence, a 2014 review of the chemistry of contaminants in e-cigs concluded "that there is no evidence that vaping produces inhalable exposures to contaminants of the aerosol that would warrant health concerns by the standards that are used to ensure safety of workplaces." We also know that the e-cig vapor contains far fewer organic compounds and particulate metals than cigarette smoke. Comparatively speaking, e-cigs are a dream come true for public health.

We're a decade into the widespread use of e-cigs. And as the data in favor of their safety continues to trickle in, the worst charge that critics can come up with is, "they are not harmless," as Boston University tobacco researcher Michael Siegel has pointed out. E-cigs may turn out to be very harmful, and we definitely should continue to study their use. In the meantime, however, it's going to take more than a handful of lab experiments and hyperbolic headlines to demonstrate that they are really a threat to public health.

EDIT: Two comments on the paper suggest that there may have been some flaws in the experiment.