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.