Consensus Changes on Salt

CDC says Americans still consume too much, but studies show no benefit in reducing salt

Richard Feynman said that one of the advantages of the scientific method has over religion is that science has the freedom to be wrong. Religious institutions are reluctant to ever admit error. The scientific method lets experiments and new data supercede previous ideas.

That works well when science is an ivory tower institution. The problem comes when bad science is applied to real world problems or used to set public policy. By the time science corrects itself the damage has been done, or how long it will take the new science to replace the old.

Go Visit, and a Different Theory About Easter Island

Too busy to blog much right now, so go visit Lots of good seminars there on a variety of topics. The videos are subscriber-only, but the summaries are good and you can listen to the MP3 version under the Downloads tab.

I found it by way of an article about Richard Feynman’s involvement in Thinking Machines Corporation. (If you don’t know who Richard Feynman is, eat 10 packs of Ramen without the flavor clod, then find a copy or Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman or What Do You Care What Other People Think? He’s turning out to be one of the more relevant figures in 20th century science culture.

I liked the seminar on Easter Island. The traditional Easter Island narrative is an ecological morality play:

  • The stupid Maori people spent all their time building statues in a fit of vanity.
  • The stupid Maori cut down their forests for the logs needed to move the statues.
  • The stupid Maori spent the rest of their time and resources in intra-island warfare.
  • Stupid Maori were stupid.

Anthropologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo’s talk presents a different view:

  • There’s no archaeological evidence of inter-Maori warfare prior to European exploration. No fortifications. No battle-related injuries on skeletal remains. Their primitive stone implements had the blunt tips of tools instead of the pointed tips you would expect of weapons.
  • The Maori moved the statues with ropes, not logs, so deforestation had nothing to do with the statues. Their experiments seem to support this. Besides, how many freakin’ logs do you need to move some statues? Not enough to deforest an island. (Wikipedia notes that some suggest the Little Ice Age of 1650 to 1850 contributed to the decline of native trees.)
  • Based on carbon dating, Hunt and Lipo propose that Easter Island was colonized around 1200 AD, rather than other estimates which put the date as early as 300 AD.
  • They posit that the deforestation was caused by the introduction of rats from European ships – the rats ate the trees’ nuts. From a study quoted on Wikipedia: “Rat teeth marks can be observed in 99% of the nuts found preserved in caves or excavated in different sites, indicating that the Polynesian rat impeded the palm’s reproduction.”
  • The depopulation was largely a result of the resulting deforestation combined with diseases introduced by European explorers such as tuberculosis and smallpox, combined with later slaving raids from Peru on the island’s reduced population.
  • The apocryphal overpopulation to 30,000 inhabitants never happened. That makes sense – indigenous populations are unlikely to exceed their historical resources. It isn’t like they can ask their central bank to print money to buy food from another country.

True or fales, since Easter Island makes such a pat simple ecological ghost story I expect the old narrative to be defended to the last man standing.

Word of the Day – Bionics/Biomimicry/Biomimetics

From Wikipedia:

Bionics (also known as biomimicry, biomimetics, bio-inspiration, biognosis, and close to bionical creativity engineering) is the application of biological methods and systems found in nature to the study and design of engineering systems and modern technology.[citation needed]

The word bionic was coined by Jack E. Steele in 1958, possibly originating from the technical term bion (pronounced bee-on) (from Ancient Greek: βίος), meaning ‘unit of life‘ and the suffix -ic, meaning ‘like’ or ‘in the manner of’, hence ‘like life’. Some dictionaries, however, explain the word as being formed as a portmanteau from biology + electronics. It was popularized by the 1970s television series The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, which were based upon the novel Cyborg by Martin Caidin, which was influenced by Steele’s work, and feature humans given superhuman powers by electromechanical implants.

The transfer of technology between lifeforms and manufactures is, according to proponents of bionic technology, desirable because evolutionary pressure typically forces living organisms, including fauna and flora, to become highly optimized and efficient. A classical example is the development of dirt- and water-repellent paint (coating) from the observation that the surface of the lotus flower plant is practically unsticky for anything (the lotus effect).[citation needed]

The term “biomimetic” is preferred when reference is made to chemical reactions.[citation needed] In that domain, biomimetic chemistry refers to reactions that, in nature, involve biological macromolecules (for example, enzymes or nucleic acids) whose chemistry can be replicated using much smaller molecules in vitro.

Found while reading about Velcro, which is a biomimetic invention that imitages burrs that stick to fur and clothing.

Previous WOTDSelfie

Help! My ph Meter is Broken

My pH meter is broken. I can’t afford to get it fixed until payday and I need to know the pH of lemon juice.

Which leads to this week’s poll question

What’s the pH of Lemon Juice?
  free polls 

I’ll average all the answers. That should provide a solid consensus for the pH of lemon juice.

“How ‘Breakthrough’ Medical Findings Disappear”

How “Breakthrough: Medical Findings Disappear:

A Relative Risk (RR) of 1.0 would mean there was no benefit, and a number less than 1.0 indicates a health benefit, and a number greater than 1.0 indicates that the intervention is actually harmful. When there were only a little data available, fish oil looked like manna from heaven. But with new studies and more data, the beneficial effect has shrunk to almost nothing. The current best estimate of relative risk (bottom row of table) is 0.96, barely below 1.0. And the “confidence interval” (the range of numbers in parentheses), which is an indicator of how reliable the current estimate is, actually runs to a value slightly greater than 1.0.

Why does this happen? Small studies do a poor job of reliably estimating the effects of medical interventions. For a small study (such as Sacks’ and Leng’s early work in the top two rows of the table) to get published, it needs to show a big effect — no one is interested in a small study that found nothing. It is likely that many other small studies of fish oil pills were conducted at the same time of Sacks’ and Leng’s, found no benefit and were therefore not published. But by the play of chance, it was only a matter of time before a small study found what looked like a big enough effect to warrant publication in a journal editor’s eyes.

This is why I’m always dubious of dietary studies

The BBC reports on a study of the health consequences of eating processed meat:

One in every 17 people followed in the study died. However, those eating more than 160g of processed meat a day – roughly two sausages and a slice of bacon – were 44% more likely to die over a typical follow-up time of 12.7 years than those eating about 20g.

The experiment involved 1000 people who were put in cages and fed a controlled diet, with 500 eating bacon and sausage every day and a control group of 500 who ate no bacon or sausage. Researchers kept the humans in cages for 40 years and tracked the incidence of heart disease, cancer, and other conditions.

Except, you know, that isn’t what happened, because even in mad scientist circles  experimenting on humans in cages is a no-no. So instead the researchers did the next best thing. And I use “next best thing” in the sense that a kick in the teeth is the next best thing to eating ice cream. The researchers gave surveys to experimental subjects, who self-reported their diet and other habits. Researchers then tracked their health over the years.

The study “showed people who ate a lot of processed meat were also more likely to smoke, be obese and have other behaviours known to damage health. However, the researchers said even after those risk factors were accounted for, processed meat still damaged health.”

For the sake of argument I’ll assume the researchers were 100% successful in controlling for smoking, obesity and other listed factors. I’ll even grant that they were so darned good they could control for the difference between a pack a day smoker and a two pack a day smoker.

Here’s the thing. People lie. They don’t want to judged. When it comes to their behavior they know to give the right answer and not the true answer.

The two pack a day smoker self-reports as a pack a day smoker and tells himself he’s at least being honest enought to own up to his tobacco monkey.  A woman drinks a bottle of wine every night, has margaritas on Tuesday night with her fajitas, downs a few martinis with the girls on Friday night, and has beers and Jaegermeister at the football party. When asked how much she drinks she checks the box for “one glass of wine per day.”

So the researchers might think they’re controlling for those factors, but their coefficients for them is too low. The man’s health problems are from under-reported smoking, not bacon. Likewise for the woman’s drinking.

Too, even if they’re controlling for those factors, who says they’ve controlled for all possible factors? They accounted for smoking, drinking, and obesity. How about other health behaviors? If they asked about illegal drug use people are even less likely to self-report honestly. Likewise, some jobs bring risk factors. Coal miners shouldn’t have the same statistical treatment as accountants.

So sure, intuitively I think most people would be better off eating less bacon because of the fat, salt, and preservatives and I’m pretty sure it does have an effect on health and lifespan. Just as intuitively, I just don’t find myself entirely convinced by the study’s claim that eating six ounces of processed meat per day will double your risk of death over 13 years, and the statistical nature of the study makes it easier for me to doubt the results.

Is Jack Andraka One of Those B.S. News Stories on the Internet?

Remember the thing about 5 Easy Ways to Spot a B.S. News Story on the Internet? A couple of hours later someone posted this on Facebook: Jack Andraka, the Teen Prodigy of Pancreatic Cancer. From his Wikipedia entry:

Jack Thomas Andraka (born in 1997) is an inventor, scientist and cancer researcher. He is the 2012 Intel Science Fair grand prize winner. Andraka was awarded the Gordon E. Moore Award for his work in developing a new method to detect pancreatic cancer. [1] The Gordon E. Moore Award, named in honor of the co-founder of Intel, is for $75,000. He also won other prizes in smaller individual categories for a total award of $100,500.[2]

The result of his project was a new dipstick type diagnostic test for pancreatic cancer using a novel paper sensor, similar to that of the diabetic test strip. This strip tests for the level of mesothelin, a pancreatic cancer biomarker, in blood or urine, to determine whether or not a patient has early-stage pancreatic cancer. The test is over 90 percent accurate in detecting the presence of mesothelin.[1] According to Andraka, it is also 168 times faster, 26,000 times less expensive (costing around three cents), over 400 times more sensitive than the current diagnostic tests and only takes five minutes to run. He says the test is also effective for detecting ovarian and lung cancer, due to the same mesothelin biomarker they have in common.[5]

Officials at Intel have said that Andraka’s method is more than 90 percent accurate in detecting the presence of mesothelin.[1]

Which sounds exactly like #1 in the Cracked article – #1. It’s About a Miracle Cure for Obesity, Cancer, or Clean Energy:

I’m not a pessimist, and I think the future will be awesome. But the vast majority of the positive science news that turns up on Reddit or science blogs or tech sites is pure bullshit.

Sometimes the stories are outright false, like the one about that genius 13-year-old who invented a far more efficient way to collect solar energy, or the group of African teenagers who invented a machine to get electricity from urine (in the first case, it turned out the kid did his calculations wrong, and in the second, the reporters misunderstood what the machine did — the former was retracted a few days later, the latter was debunked by people who have a better idea of what they’re talking about)

Andraka received a prize for his invention from Intel, which is a smart bunch who you wouldn’t expect to make a mistake. Yet the 13 year old with his solar energy invention received his prize from the American Museum of Natural History (also a smart bunch), who it turns out didn’t understand that they should have been measuring total power output and not just voltage. It makes you wonder how much Intel doesn’t know about medicine.

So yeah, I won’t be surprised if Jack Andraka’s miracle pancreatic cancer test never makes it to market.

Professor Selman A. Waksman, Bullshit Artist

Or, how to cheat your pupil for fame and fortune.

NY TimesNotebooks Shed Light on an Antibiotic’s Contested Discovery:

As word of the discovery spread, reporters flocked to Rutgers to record the amazing event. But in telling and retelling the story, Dr. Waksman slowly began to drop Dr. Schatz’s name and claim sole credit. He also arranged with Rutgers to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties from the patent that he and Dr. Schatz were awarded; Dr. Schatz received nothing.

Dr. Schatz became aware of the deal when Dr. Waksman started sending him $500 checks — $1,500 altogether — that he said came from funds he had been receiving for the sales of streptomycin. Dr. Schatz wanted to know more, but the professor wouldn’t tell him.

So he turned to an uncle, who found a sharp Newark lawyer willing to take on his nephew’s case. In 1950, Dr. Schatz, who had by then earned his Ph.D., sued Dr. Waksman and Rutgers, and after a year of legal back-and-forth, the professor and the university agreed to a settlement that recognized Dr. Schatz as “co-discoverer” of streptomycin and gave him a share of the royalties.

But the scientific establishment sided with Dr. Waksman, scolding Dr. Schatz for having the effrontery to challenge his professor. And two years later Dr. Waksman alone was awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery. Dr. Schatz protested, but the Nobel committee ruled that he was a mere lab assistant working under an eminent scientist. Dr. Schatz disappeared into academic obscurity and died with the full story still untold.

Some people want to pretend that scientists are dispassionately objective and don’t care about money, position, or seeing their name in print, but scientists are human just like everybody else.

More Dangerous Than Cigarettes

Sleeping Pills are Very Dangerous:

Do you know how dangerous prescription sleeping pills are? I didn’t, and I do sleep research.

Sleeping pills are astonishingly dangerous for something that is treated as more or less safe. In some cases, they are associated with a five-fold increase in death rate after only a few years of use. Cigarette smoking is associated with only a two- or three-fold increase in death rate after long use. And doctors don’t prescribe cigarettes. Is there anything else treated as safe that is associated with such a large increase in death rate? I can’t think of anything.

Re-thinking Breast Cancer Screening

New York Times op-edCancer Survivor or Victim of Overdiagnosis?

So here is what we now know: the mortality benefit of mammography is much smaller, and the harm of overdiagnosis much larger, than has been previously recognized.

But to be honest, that general message has been around for more than a decade. Why isn’t it getting more traction?

The reason is that no other medical test has been as aggressively promoted as mammograms efforts that have gone beyond persuasion to guilt and even coercion (“can’t be your doctor if you don’t get one”). And proponents have used the most misleading screening statistic there is: survival rates. A recent Komen foundation campaign typifies the approach: “Early detection saves lives. The five-year survival rate for breast cancer when caught early is 98 percent. When it’s not? It decreases to 23 percent.”

Survival rates always go up with early diagnosis: people who get a diagnosis earlier in life will live longer with their diagnosis, even if it doesn’t change their time of death by one iota. And diagnosing cancer in people whose “cancer” was never destined to kill them will inflate survival rates – even if the number of deaths stays exactly the same. In short, tell everyone they have cancer, and survival will skyrocket.

Study: H. Pylori Infection May Boost Risk of Type 2 Diabetes, Some Cancers

FuturePundit: Bacterial Infection Boosts Insulin-Resistant Diabetes Risk?

H. Pylori is the bacterium that’s linked to the development of gastritis and certain ulcers of the stomach. Barry Marshall and Robin Warren won the 2005 Nobel Prize for discovering that link. Prior to the to their work in the 1980s it was widely believed that bacteria couldn’t survive in the hostile environment of the human stomach.

Hell Damn Fart! Infection May Cause Tourette’s-like Condition

Mail OnlineCould an infection be behind mysterious Tourette’s-like syndrome affecting teenagers?.

Nirvana – Tourette’s (Live at Reading 1992):

Two Hurricane Experts End 20 Years of December Hurricane Predictions

Hurricane experts admit they can’t predict hurricanes early; December forecasts too unreliable:

OTTAWA — Two top U.S. hurricane forecasters, famous across Deep South hurricane country, are quitting the practice of making a seasonal forecast in December because it doesn’t work.

William Gray and Phil Klotzbach say a look back shows their past 20 years of forecasts had no predictive value.

Climategate II – Longer, Harder, Uncut Emails

More emails, more bitchy scientific gossip, and more white labcoat backstabbing:

You know what you get when you mix science and politics? You get politics, period. Hockey Stick Charlatan Michael Mann gets the worst of it from this batch of emails (but a lot more are coming).

<3373> Bradley: I’m sure you agree–the Mann/Jones GRL paper was truly pathetic and should never have been published. I don’t want to be associated with that 2000 year “reconstruction”.

<3115> Mann: By the way, when is Tom C going to formally publish his roughly 1500 year reconstruction??? It would help the cause to be able to refer to that reconstruction as confirming Mann and Jones, etc.

I love it when highly-credentialed scientists use scare quotes. And triple question marks. The only thing separating these emails from notes passed in junior high is little hearts over the i’s and talking about how much they hate that new cheerleader who transferred in from Central.

But don’t worry, Bobby. Teacher can’t collect our IPCC class notes!

Jones: I’ve been told that IPCC is above national FOI Acts. One way to cover yourself and all those working in AR5 would be to delete all emails at the end of the process

Briffa: UEA does not hold the very vast majority of mine [potentially FOIable emails] anyway which I copied onto private storage after the completion of the IPCC task.

P.S. And NASA’s James Hansen has a financial scandal. He’s taken over $1 million in outside money to promote global warming theory and failed to disclose it as required by his government contracts. Because all scientists are exactly like Mr. Spock on Star Trek in that they’re above petty jealousies and the quest for material gain and personal glory.

Math Joke


Math joke from Anna, the civil engineering student and bartender at Brackins Blues Club: an infinite number of mathematicians walk into a bar. The first one tells the bartender he wants a beer. The second one says he wants half a beer. The third one says he wants a fourth of a beer. The bartender puts two beers on the bar and says “You guys need to learn your limits.”