Pages

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Will Trump Be a Disaster For Science Policy? Part II

Read part I here.

On certain science policy issues, Trump's critics have overstepped. We covered the most popular examples in part I. Now let's look at a few subjects where Trump may have some explaining to do. A bit later we'll get into the good things Trump is likely to do for science.

Vaccines

On vaccines Trump appears to be truly awful, if his 2012 comments are any indication. Moreover, during the campaign this year, the President-Elect met with prominent anti-vaccine advocates. According to Science, he spoke favorably of the vaccine-autism link and promised to watch some woo-filled documentary about the subject.

There are a few intervening factors that may sway Trump away from pursing policies that are in line with his previous statements about vaccines, however. The first, of course, is that Trump is a good salesman if he's anything at all. And every salesman knows you don't disrespect people whose money and support you're after. Telling the folks from Age of Autism that they're utterly insane would've been an unlikely way to earn their votes.

 Politicians, after all, are known for their duplicity, and I wouldn't put it past Trump to smile, shake someone's hand and promise them what they want, only to ignore them later on down the line. This is usually a downside to the political process. In this case, though, it could mean President Trump stays away from vaccine quackery.

On a related note, politicians sometimes bow to pressure from advisers, bureaucrats, and other powerful interests inside and outside of Washington, even when they truly do support a cause. Trump could do the same, secretly harboring oddball views on vaccines while publicly shelving any policy that could do harm to public health. Just compare Obama's campaign promises to what he did once he took office to see the most recent example of this phenomenon at work.

We'll have a chance to test this possibility, too. As Science points out, Trump will soon have the opportunity to appoint some important public health officials. This is assumed to be a bad thing, since Trump could very well appoint a vaccine denier. But because there are so few qualified physicians and researchers who espouse any degree of skepticism around vaccine efficacy, Trump will be choosing from a pool of mostly pro-science candidates. He would have to go out of his way to appoint a crank of Andrew Wakefield's caliber. None of this is to excuse Trump should he embrace anti-vaccine hysteria in office. That would be shameful on his part, and we should all say so if he does.

GMOs

Crop biotechnology is another subject on which Trump has been ambiguous, but his comments here have been a little clearer and give me some hope that he'll come down on the side of science. The Genetic Literacy Project reported last month that Trump said agricultural policy should be determined largely by the market, and mandatory labels for genetically-modified food have nothing to do with free-market economics. GLP also pointed out that Trump took down a tweet which suggested that GMO corn may cause "issues in the brain." He also told the Iowa Farm Bureau that biotechnology should be used in food production and food labeling rejected.

The potential upsides of Trump's science policy

We've covered the worst examples where Trump has strayed from accepted scientific wisdom. So let's look at a couple of issues where Trump is likely to advance science.

Energy

Trump has made some very encouraging comments about nuclear power, arguing after the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan that "[i]f a plane goes down people keep flying. If you get into an auto crash people keep driving.” He has also said that we need to continue developing our ability to produce natural gas. This is the flip side of Trump's climate policy; climate change skepticism typically goes hand-in-hand with a desire to produce more energy, so Trump will very likely pursue policies that make energy production far easier.

Science Funding

There's been much hand wringing over the possibility that Trump will slash science funding because of his comments about climate change. The critics, ironically enough, don't see that they're shooting themselves in the foot. On one hand, they say the science of climate change is settled, and don't you dare question your betters who have studied the subject in great depth, Mr. business mogul man! But they then turn around around and lambaste The Donald for his supposed unwillingness to pursue climate research. These people clearly can't think forward.

But being both a real estate developer and a populist candidate interested in rebuilding the country, it's likely that Trump won't shy away from funding science research, which Republicans are pretty good at historically. And much like Reagan, Trump's skepticism of big government will probably wane when it comes to building infrastructure and investing in basic science projects. Specifically on the question of climate science, there are questions left unresolved and worth researching. The problem, as climatologist Roy Spencer has explained, is that they center around natural climate variability. Those kinds of questions can't be used to justify an expanding EPA and the kinds of wealth-transfer climate change mitigation programs the IPCC is so eager to push.

Summary

What we have in Trump when it comes to science policy seems typical of recent presidents: some good, some bad and a lot of unknowns. Science, sadly, really hasn't been a key issue in any presidential election in recent decades, so we have little more to go on than a handful of public statements and the resulting speculation. We'll just have to see what happens.




Saturday, November 19, 2016

Will Trump Be A Disaster For Science Policy? Part I

It's happened. Americans elected Donald Trump President of the United States. The tears of anguish cried by social justice warriors everywhere is enough to make Trump's victory a positive development, but the scientific community, too, is distraught over the election results. They see Trump's victory as a huge loss for the progress of science in America. Michael Lubell, director of public affairs for the American Physical Society in Washington, for example, warned that Trump will be “the first anti-science president we have ever had.”

New Scientist doesn't like The Donald either


That's an absurd claim considering the track records of just our last two Presidents, but Lubell's comments seem to summarize the perspective of mainstream science at the moment, so let's use that as our starting point and propose a slightly more realistic scenario: Trump is hardly a champion of science. His comments on science policy thus far have been mixed and we don't know yet how he will address certain important issues. That being said, the sky certainly isn't falling and there is hope that Trump could do some good for science in the coming years.

Before we can deal with the potentially positive science developments under the Trump Administration, we have to dispel the hysteria that surrounds this discussion. So let's look at the typical exaggerated claims the anti-Trump crowd has rallied around thus far.

Climate Change

Every year world leaders gather for a climate change meeting known as the United Nations Climate Change Conference. The participants discuss the threat posed by climate change, pledge to combat it with whatever means they can--and ultimately do nothing. The most recent conference in Paris, COP 21, was a terrific waste of time and resources which produced the largely non-binding Paris Agreement. If enforced the Paris Agreement would have a minimal, almost undetectable impact on global temperatures while squandering trillions of dollars the world simply does not have.

Trump has promised to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement, to the consternation of every bureaucrat and lobbyist who stands to benefit from its enforcement. Despite his simplistic comments that man-made climate change isn't real, Trump has some scientific justification in pulling US support for the agreement. Dozens of studies published in the last five years have found that the IPCC's climate models are far too sensitive to moderate increases in greenhouse gas emissions, and thus the disaster scenarios projected by these same models are probably unrealistic.

The science world stares at Trump quizzically when he says that we still don't know a lot about the earth's climate; but it's a sentiment echoed by many climatologists and backed up by good data.

Fracking

Affordable energy is an essential part of economic growth. It makes recovery from depressions possible and fuels the third world's progress out of grinding poverty. Fracking has been a key player in this story, and Trump has rightly thrown his support behind the technology. His critics, though, have latched onto his comment that Fracking poses "zero health risks."

Technically, the critics are correct. Fracking does produce some externalities and isn't 100 percent safe. But that didn't stop the EPA from releasing a study last year concluding that fracking, as currently practiced and regulated, doesn't pose a risk to drinking water. Other studies, likewise, have reached the same conclusion. And I'd hardly count the Obama EPA and Yale university as shills for Donald Trump.

So let's add fracking to the long list of imperfect technologies that nonetheless make all of our lives better, things like nuclear power, vaccines and electronic cigarettes--all issues on which the Obama administration has a depressing track record, mind you.

Evolution

Of course, no discussion about a supposedly scientifically illiterate administration would be complete without a few words dedicated to evolution denial. And Mike Pence has indeed burped out a few bromides about the lack of supporting evidence for evolution throughout his career.

So I suppose this could serve as our first example of the Trump Administration's science denial in action. But we've known for years that evolution denial is a bipartisan phenomenon, with as many as 50 percent of Democrat voters claiming that they reject Darwin's theory, as well. This doesn't excuse Pence's ignorance, of course, though it does illustrate that our rejection of established science has deeper sociological roots than "Republicans are dumb and hate science."

The silver lining here is that evolution denial doesn't carry the same policy implication that, say, nuclear energy denial does. Nobody is denied affordable electricity because Darwin offends the religious sentiments of some Americans, for instance.

I'm all too familiar with the argument that rejecting evolution catalyzes science denial of all sorts. But it's not a compelling thesis because science denial tends to follow people's preconceived political views. People deny science inconsistently and only when their pet issues are affected. Greenpeace just love, love, loves! climate science, though they're not so fond of biotechnology. Still, even if Trump and Pence end up backing creationists attempts to get Genesis into the biology classroom, a scenario that seems unlikely, it's not clear how successful they'll be. Creationists lose badly in court and our science educators are really good at disabusing their students of doubts about Darwin.

In part II we'll discuss a few other issues where Trump's views are questionable, then look at some beneficial changes that could arise in the next four years.



Saturday, October 8, 2016

Corporate funding = bad science? Not really

I've long been an advocate of low-carb eating, and there are a few websites I frequent for information on the subject. But every once in a while, even the people you trust make mistakes. The researchers and physicians who promote low-carb and paleo diets usually ground their arguments in good science, though many of them, sadly, also love a good conspiracy.

News recently came to light that the sugar industry paid several researchers, Dr. Fred Stare probably being the most prominent, in the 1960s to minimize the health effects of consuming sugar, and it appears that food companies have had science talent on their payrolls ever since.

Predictable outrage from the low-carb world followed this revelation: a torrent of angry tweets, facebook comments, and blog posts from thinkers I usually respect who were just beside themselves with rage. My two favorites, from Tom Naughton and Dr. Andreas Eenfeldt: "The Harvard scientists were not only whores, they were cheap whores," and "Big Sugar was ... enticing Harvard scientists ... to sell out their independence and conduct its paid research."

This all makes for entertaining reading, but the facts are far less sexy, I'm afraid. Scientists, just like the rest of us, don't work for free, and they have bills to pay, too. So when industry offers to fund their research, they happily accept. This economic reality may be the basis for awful Russell Crowe movies, but it doesn't automatically produce corrupt science, and it often, in fact, produces good science.

"Follow the money" doesn't disqualify scientific research for a variety of reasons, but the most important one is this: science rises and falls on its merits, regardless of who paid for it and how evil they may be. The Nazis, for example. produced some of the earliest studies linking smoking to lung cancer. Yet by the same silly logic used to disqualify sugar industry-funded research, we could ignore German tobacco research from the 1940s, because it was financed by a source we dislike.

Now one could respond to this by arguing that Stare and his Harvard colleagues were ultimately wrong that sugar isn't harmful, while the Nazis were correct about smoking. But that rebuttal misses the point entirely. The quality of your research isn't necessarily an indicator of your integrity. For every widely-accepted scientific theory, there are dozens more that have been discarded. Getting things wrong is just part of science. Stare et al. were wrong, but their work didn't spring into existence when big sugar cut them a check, and we only know they were wrong because better science told us so.

Microbiologist Dr. Alex Berezow adds some weight to this argument with a very important detail. People give money to causes they already support; they don't attempt to buy compliance from people who disagree with them. This is precisely why radical environmentalists donate to left-leaning politicians and trade unions give to senators who represent their members.

 In our current context, this means that big sugar simply went and found scientists who already agreed with them. Fred Stare, for instance, had a reputation as an iconoclast before he co-authored the sugar industry-funded review article. He had it out for advocacy groups who shilled bullshit dietary advice to the public, which probably stemmed from his time working in war-torn Holland following World War II, where starvation was rampant. For my low-carb friends reading, Stare also came to the defense of eggs when mainstream nutritionists began to shriek about the dangers of cholesterol.

But there's another side to this debate that is often overlooked. Disqualifying research based on who funded it could cause you to ignore good science. I'd like to use Dr. Eenfeldt as an example, who sells dieting advice on his website, by the way. Last December he lambasted a meta-analysis which found that diet soda could help obese people lose weight because the soda industry had given grants to the authors.

The article was published in a prestigious medical journal and authored by scientists from impressive schools around the world. The researchers cataloged hundreds of studies, grouped them by study  design (animal study vs human intervention etc.) and reviewed their methods and results in excruciating detail. This would be an excellent starting place for anyone curious about the health effects of artificial sweeteners. Moreover, the article's conclusion mirrors the opinion of scientists I know don't take corporate money. But Eenfeldt's conclusion is that we should dismiss this paper out of hand, because "It’s like reading marketing material for the beverage industry."

Open and honest debate is how we make scientific progress. Heated disagreement, therefore, is a good thing and people are welcome to say that Ancel Keys and Fred Stare were bullshitters, bad scientists or egomaniacs who wouldn't admit they were wrong about heart disease. But, those kinds of comments ought to go hand-in-hand with a thorough debunking of Keys and Stares research. That's not what's happening here.

Moreover, we need to acknowledge that confirmation bias affects everyone, even the scientists who agree with us.So we shouldn't pretend that "it's only the other guy who's greedy" as economist Milton Friedman put it. We can all be greedy, dishonest and otherwise imperfect in pursuit of our goals to make the world healthier and safer. Complaining that people were paid shills after they're long dead and gone and dismissing their work doesn't advance those causes whatsoever.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Tobacco control vs AIDS prevention

I just finished Chris Snowdon's excellent book Velvet Glove, Iron Fist. One of the points Snowdon emphasizes repeatedly throughout the book is that the anti-smoking lobby is actually more of an anti-tobacco industry lobby. The primary concern is not the health of smokers, it's bringing down the cigarette companies.

Over the years, this mindset has led public health crusaders to demonize anything that may shed a positive light on smoking or the tobacco industry, whether it deserves such treatment or not. Big public health's reaction to the advent of e-cigarettes is a great example of this. But this unwavering disdain for anything perceived as pro-smoking extends even to genuinely good deeds the tobacco industry may do. And as if on cue a "study"* released just this week gives me a perfect example to dissect.

On Monday researchers writing in the Journal of Social Aspects of HIV/AIDS pointed out that the tobacco industry's extensive funding of AIDS groups, often called AIDS service organizations (ASOs), is part of a conspiracy to stave off further regulation of tobacco:
A new paper claims the historical involvement of tobacco companies during the early days of the response to the AIDS epidemic was just a cynical marketing ploy to distract the public from the dangers of smoking.
On this point there is little to debate. The tobacco industry has tried everything to shift the state's attention away from cigarettes; funding the fight against AIDS and other infectious diseases fits perfectly within that strategy. Indeed it was a brilliant move, and big public health rightly saw it as an attempt to co-opt their fundraising efforts. This "study," therefore, is just an example of one public health cause attempting to muscle another one out of funding, and using the tobacco industry's dishonesty as a justification.

Health writer and filmmaker Tom Naughton notes in his documentary Fathead that disparate public health groups, anti-smoking and anti-obesity groups in this case, have to lobby for government funding. They campaign incessantly for sin taxes and research grants, both of which sustain their efforts to fight smoking or obesity. But another way they secure funding is by attacking each others causes, claiming that their own cause is far more serious a threat to the public.

This makes sense, too. If tobacco isn't public enemy number 1, the government will be less enthusiastic about taxing cigarettes and funding anti-tobacco initiatives and research. Every dollar spent on obesity or infectious diseases is a dollar not spent on tobacco control, after all. The authors of the "study" expend a lot words dancing around this point in hopes of dismissing it. They write that following the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic
there were arguably more pressing health matters [than infectious diseases in the third world] as the majority of child and adult deaths continued to be caused by non-communicable diseases, many of which were related to the growing use of tobacco products.

Arguable indeed. According to Baylor College of Medicine,

"three infectious diseases were ranked in the top ten causes of death globally in the most recent survey by the World Health Organization ... lower respiratory infections (3.1 million deaths), HIV/AIDS (1.5 million deaths), and diarrheal diseases (1.5 million deaths)." 

These numbers slightly outpace the deaths WHO attributes to smoking-related illnesses, so the claim that smoking is the greatest threat to health worldwide is incorrect. And when we add in the fact that infectious diseases aren't lifestyle choices (nobody chooses to get AIDS, people choose to smoke), we have a pretty solid case that the tobacco industry was serving the greater good by channeling resources towards AIDS prevention and awareness, whatever their motivations.

But I urge you to make note of that sneaky dependent clause at the end of that quote: "...the majority of ... deaths continued to be caused by non-communicable diseases, many of which were related to the growing use of tobacco products." Smoking certainly contributes to this category of disease, but the WHO also admits that lack of exercise, excessive drinking and poor diet kill more people than smoking.

The problem is further compounded because all of these behaviors are risk factors for many of the same diseases. For example, high blood pressure can kill you, but globally how do we know which risk factor led to the most cases of high blood pressure? The WHO fact sheet doesn't say, probably because it's impossible to separate them out accurately.

But assume the "study" is right that money shouldn't be diverted from tobacco control. Who funds ASOs? Anybody but tobacco companies. The "study" vaguely refers to "alternative resources" and "other donors." My guess is that those donors will ultimately be taxpayers in first world countries, since few other private enterprises have an incentive to fund AIDS prevention. Whoever ends up footing the bill, though, the point of the "study" is that there should be more funding for public health all around: "... there is a need for more collaborative, rather than competitive, approaches to increase societal resources for health needs overall."

Such a conclusion ignores the economic reality that governments have only so much money to throw into the black hole of public health, and what they do spend is influenced by a host of political concerns. Ultimately this is why ASOs are willing to take tobacco money, and it also explains why big public health feels the need to stop them.


*I put "study" in quotes because anti-smoking crusaders have made a habit of copying and pasting content from internal tobacco industry documents into medical journals, adding a bit of commentary and calling it original research. That sounds more like an 8th grade book report to me than a scientific study, but I figured it was worth pointing out.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Red meat causes cancer, not as dangerous as previously thought

For the nth time the media is warning us that eating red meat is dangerous. It could be any major publication and any science writer sounding the alarm, but this time it's the Huffington Post and their food and health editor Kate Bratskeir.

Bratskeir's piece isn't just an example of sloppy science writing, though. It's a great example of the newspeak that many health journalists deal in; they comfortably embrace contradictory ideas as they construct a narrative that fits their agenda. In this case, research that should deflate Bratskeir's argument just becomes background noise while she encourages her readers to eat less red meat, because veganism:

Major studies have shown a diet rich in red meat can contribute to a host of maladies, yet emerging research muddies this picture, suggesting that not all saturated fat is created equal...eating red meat in excess can be costly for your health. Plus, there are some really delicious meat-free alternatives in the world...

So with that blatant contradiction in mind, let's deal with the rest of her arguments. The piece begins with an observation that the price of ground beef has dropped, which has encouraged us to eat more of it. And "this is happening despite everything we know to be true about red meat consumption." I know this was meant as a "Come on, guys, red meat gives you cancer!" style warning, but her exasperation at people eating more sliders at Chili's is unnecessary.

Bratskeir cites a Harvard Medical School article summarizing some of the research supporting her claim, which includes several epidemiological studies (worthless surveys) and a small clinical study from England that lasted just 21 days. The limited amount of data provided here is enough to dismiss the conclusion, but there's actually some important methodological reasons to reject these studies.

 But if the science is out there for anyone who wants to see it, why are we still being told to fear red meat? Well, you see, "the World Health Organization went so far as to classify red meat as a ‘probable carcinogen,’ meaning there is some evidence that eating a lot of red meat could contribute to cancer."

Starting with their ignorant stance on secondhand smoke, which required them to ignore their own data, the WHO made it clear long ago that they're a political organization, not a scientific one. And they're misrepresenting the evidence in this case, too. The WHO reported a 17% increased risk of colorectal cancer per 100 grams of red meat consumed. That seems like a significant increase, but the absolute risk for developing colorectal cancer is less than 2% for someone at 50 years old, when the disease is most likely to strike.

Given those numbers, I'm not concerned in the least about eating red meat. If you are, though, be sure to add spices to your burgers, which reduces the risk of consuming compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) that can cause cancer. Before you start to sweat at my admission that red meat may actually contain some cancer-causing compounds, I came across a study courtesy of Mark's Daily Apple which, comically enough, tells us that "associations with cancer risk or benefits have been claimed for most food ingredients."

I don't think there's a better way to some up my point about cognitive dissonance.






Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Fat acceptance: still stupid, still dangerous

I've been very critical in the last few years of fat shaming, the practice of berating overweight people into a healthier lifestyle and a slimmer waistline. What I find equally troubling, however, is the recent effort to ignore or downplay the risks posed by obesity for the sake of people's feelings, often referred to as fat acceptance.

There are dozens of excellent reasons why the fat acceptance movement ought to disappear forever, but I want to focus here on the negative influence it exerts on science. As a society, we're letting our preconceived ideas about discrimination against fat people influence our interpretation of public health research. The dishonesty alone should discourage us from this practice, but there are more important consequences. Most importantly, we're encouraging people to make poor choices in order to spare their feelings, and making their lives worse in the process.

Let's start with the example that prompted this blog post to illustrate the point. A study published last week in the International Journal of Obesity suggests that the BMI is incorrectly labeling fat people as unhealthy based solely on how much they weigh. Most of the news reports on the paper, NPR's for example, highlighted the paradox presented by the study: a lot of fat people are healthy, while many slim people are not.

The news outlet pointed out that "47 percent of people with an overweight BMI, 30 percent of those considered obese, and 16 percent of those labeled extremely obese" were just as healthy as 70 percent of people in the normal weight range, based on metabolic health markers like blood pressure and insulin resistance.

 Data like that makes for a provocative headline. If it's accurate, though, it means that 70 percent of obese people are metabolically unhealthy based on the same markers, and that 84 percent of extremely obese people are also in the same category.

The trend, should you have missed it, tells us very clearly that excess body weight is correlated nicely with poor metabolic health. The dividing line between an unhealthy and a healthy weight has been poorly defined over the years, no doubt. But the fact that we have trouble pinpointing exactly when someone's weight becomes a risk to their health doesn't mean that weighing 300 pounds is perfectly healthy.

It may sound like I'm creating a straw man, but this is precisely what fat acceptance advocates preach, and their message has gained a wide audience thanks to feminists who have wrongly taken up the argument that anti-fat bias is part of a patriarchal assault on women.

Their arguments may not seem entirely baseless; there is some research that can be used to support the notion that you can be fat but fit. This assertion ultimately misses the mark, unfortunately, because it ignores a fundamental fact about human metabolism: weight gain is one of the body's responses to a poor diet. Or as science writer Gary Taubes is fond of pointing out, eating junk food spikes your blood sugar to dangerously high levels, which would kill you absent the intervening factor of excess fat accumulation. Taubes hypothesis is based on basic biochemistry, and it's only grown more convincing thanks to a whole bunch of research published in the last decade.

But beyond politically-motivated denial of science, what's so dangerous about fat acceptance? As outlets like NPR are wont to point out, obesity disproportionately affects racial minorities in the United States. This means that a significant and ever-growing portion of the population is at risk for serious diseases like type 2 diabetes, and they're being told that their weight isn't a factor in the equation, when it's actually the most important factor.

We should look at this issue on an individual level as well, though. Being fat is a miserable experience. The social isolation and resulting anxiety it causes are enough to drive people into depression. Popular TV shows like The Biggest loser and the endless bestseller list of fad diet books are ample evidence that people despise being fat, or even looking at fat people.

Had I been told as an overweight teenager that I shouldn't lose weight, I would have been worse off in every measurable way today, because we live in a world where people evolved to judge each other based on physical appearance. Bitch all you want, mother nature doesn't care. What matters is that there are millions of people, young and old, in the same position I was a few years ago. And they're being told by their teachers, journalists and celebrities that weight loss is not only unnecessary but undesirable, that they can't improve their lives by losing weight. And that is far worse than any amount of fat shaming.