A Letter to Neil deGrasse Tyson:  Some Statistics on Political Ideology and Anti-Science Views.

 

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Recently, Neil deGrasse Tyson (NDT) was on Real Time with Bill Maher and argued that “there are certain aspects of science-denial that are squarely on the liberal left.”  Unfortunately for him, this statement is objectively false.

Specifically, while there are certain scientific domains the liberal left and conservatives right are equally culpable for espousing anti-science views, the issues discussed do not fall ‘squarely’ in the liberal left.

Let me be clear.  I am not disagreeing with NDT’s general point, which is that we shouldn’t just blame conservatives for anti-science views and policies.  Conservatives don’t have a monopoly on anti-science views and educating everyone is vital.  What I am arguing against is the commonplace view that certain issues are analogous to global warming denial and creationism, which have a strong conservative majority – just on the left.

Liberals do hold anti-science views and it’s would be equally mistaken to suggest that anti-science views are squarely on the right.  If that’s all that NDT was trying to articulate but simply misspoke, then I agree with him.

Ultimately, though the idea that certain anti-science beliefs are held squarely on the left is one that is held by many, but one that is false, and it’s that belief I try to rectify here.

Three issues were argued in the video to be predominantly a problem for liberals: vaccinations, alternative medicine, and GMOS.  Let’s look at the data on each of these.

Anti-vaccinations: The anti-vaccination movement might seem to be the product of those on the left, with the outspoken celebrities ostensibly identifying with that side.  However, the research suggests that there is little correlation between political ideology and this view.  In fact, if anything, the data would suggest that conservatives are more likely to agree with this sentiment.  For example, this report by public policy polling shows  that whereas 19% of Obama voters believe that vaccines cause autism, 22% of Romney supports did.  Similarly, this Pew Research Center Report shows that 60% of Democrats would get a swine flue vaccine compared to only 41% of Republicans.  Lastly, this paper makes the claim explicitly:

“A different popular claim attributes concern over vaccine risks to a left-leaning political orientation. “Vaccine hesitancy” is, on this account, held forth as the “liberal” “anti-science” analog to “conservative” skepticism about climate change (e.g., Green 2011). The survey results suggest that this position, too, lacks any factual basis. In contrast to risks that are known to generate partisan disagreement generally—ones relating to climate change, drug legalization, and handgun possession, for example—vaccine risks displayed only a small relationship with left- right political outlooks. The direction of the effect, moreover, was the opposite of the one associated with the popular view: respondents formed more negative assessments of the risk and benefits of childhood vaccines as they became more conservative and identified more strongly with the Republican Party” (Kahan, 2014,  p.28-29)

Ultimately, not only are anti-science views about vaccinations, clearly not squarely on the liberal left – they are actually more likely to be associated with conservatives.  With Donald Trump also espousing this rhetoric, I imagine the magnitude of the effect will only get larger.

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 Alternative Medicine:  Alternative medicine is a more difficult domain to define because it expands a large set of different views that have different levels of evidence.  For example, belief in homeopathy is completely anti-science, whereas acupuncture or marijuana may have some efficacy.  As the joke goes: what do you call alternative medicine that works? Medicine.  Indeed, many chemicals that were likely once seen as  ‘alternative medicine’ have been, over the past century, tested and developed into actual pharmaceuticals – a point that NDT made.

Ultimately, the question becomes – what does one have to believe to be anti-science with respect to alternative medicine? Do grey areas like medicinal marijuana count? If someone uses the modern medical system but also tries some alternative medicine too, is he/she anti-science?

This Pew Poll  has some statistics on alternative medicine but doesn’t break down by liberals or conservatives.  I’m open to be proven wrong here, but currently it doesn’t seem that there is any difference between liberals and conservatives with respect to their scientific beliefs on medicine.

GMOs: Despite overwhelming evidence that GMOs are safe, that technically everything we eat is genetically modified in some sense, and that GMOs are extremely important for feeding a growing population, many people hold anti-GMO views.  But is this a liberal problem.  Once again, the data says no.  Accordingly, 56% of conservatives and 55% of liberals think that GM foods are unsafe to eat, although 56% of democrats feel that way while only 51% of republicans.

Ultimately, the fact that most people are anti-science with respect to GMOs is definitely a problem and one that we can’t place primarily on the right.  But just because it’s not a conservative problem, does not mean that it falls “squarely on the liberal left”

Conclusion

At the beginning of the video, John Avlon makes the comment: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not everyone is entitled to their own facts.”  Ultimately, the fact remains that while there are certain aspects of science-denial that we cannot place squarely on the conservative right, these issues cannot be placed squarely on the liberal left.

As NDT is as a man of science I hope that he corrects his opinions to be in line with the facts.

 

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You Might Not Have A Gluten Sensitivity, But Sugar is Still Bad For You.

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5 Years ago, I spent a year teaching English in Japan.  At the time, I was a bit overweight, but without much effort there, I lost 15 pounds.  Interested in exactly how and why this was happening I came across some information about low carbohydrate diets and why they work.  Digging in more, I quickly learned that bread, a food that I rarely ate out there, had a glycemic index higher than coke.  The Glycemic index “indicates the food’s effect on a person’s blood glucose”; Meaning that to your body a few pieces of bread is worse in many ways that a can of soda.   I won’t go into all the problems of high blood glucose levels, but suffice it to say, there are many.

At that time, I decided to try and limit my carbs, but primarily I gave up bread. Making a hard rule about bread made it easy to control the sugar I was getting.  By the time I returned to Canada, I had lost 45 pounds, my general inflammation that had plagued me for 2-3 years had subsided, and I generally felt great.

The problem was, now I was back in the land of bread.   Almost everything contained some form of wheat.  I quickly learned that trying to explain the problems of sugar to people, made people’s eyes roll over and/or try and convince me that bread and carbs are fine.

Then I learned I had an out.  I could just tell people I was gluten intolerant.  Now, I could go out with friends or new colleagues and be completely ok.  I’d limit other carbs (e.g. rice and potatoes) and could easily decline or substitute bread products.  It also made avoiding bad food way easier.  I remember one day I was driving somewhere with my dad.  We didn’t have much time and so we were stuck with a few options – McDonald’s, Wendy’s, BurgerKing, etc.  Had I not had this bread-free free,  I probably would have ended up stopping at McDonald’s getting a Big Mac, Fries, and a coke.   But because I did, I ended up with a salad from Subway.

I often joke that I am a Gluten-Free Hipster; that I was gluten free before it was cool.   While this current gluten free fad a was a godsend for people who actually suffered from celiac disease or a gluten allergies, in that they could go out and eat the foods the rest of us enjoyed for years,  for me though, it was a curse.  Now, people would order me gluten free pizza or other foods, restaurants would have a gluten free option, and when friends baked goods, they’d make it gluten free.  I had the difficult task of either telling people I had been lying to them for the past few years, or suck it up and eat.  For the most part, I explained that I had been lying and why I did so.  But, when people learned I could eat wheat, I just didn’t want to – it became difficult to have this hard line about it.  I ended up upping my carbs, eating the occasional burger, drinking beer, and eventually putting on most of the wait I had lost and kept off. (Happy to say I’ve recently revived the low carb lifestyle and am back down to a healthy weight).

The impetus for this post come from a new(ish) study that I’ve seen make its rounds on Social Media.  The study, or more specifically the news media that has picked it up, points out that if you have a gluten sensitivity it’s probably all in your head.   The study recruited ‘gluten-sensitive people’ and found no difference between the groups that were given high gluten, low gluten, or a placebo.  But it’s not that no-one showed symptoms; Everyone showed symptoms. “After the subjects moved off the baseline diet and onto one of the treatment diets, they reported more intestinal pain, bloating, gas, and nausea, regardless of whether the treatment diet was high-gluten, low-gluten, or placebo.”

Now, while many are jumping on this as ‘proof’ that it’s all in your head, the authors don’t make such a strong claim.  They argue that while gluten sensitivity might be a nocebo effect, FODMAPS – which are a short-chain carbohydrates, might be to blame.  Indeed, FODMAPs have been shown to effect gastrointestinal problems in many people.

Now, many people who eat gluten-free don’t necessarily have those gastro-intestinal problems, rather they simply feel better avoiding it.  But just as avoiding gluten helps people avoid FODMAPS, avoiding gluten helps people avoid crappy, high glycemic index foods. Recall my drive with my dad in which I made the choice to skip McDonald’s for a salad: Is there any doubt that choices like that keep people healthier and feeling better?

How many gluten-free people have skipped that donut or bagel at the office meeting? How many have stopped drinking beer or forgone a few slices of pizza after going to the bar? How many get fruit, instead of toast and jam when they go out for breakfast? Ultimately, people who eat gluten-free, eat less carbs; and eating less carbs makes people feel better.

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Disclaimer: I’m not saying people don’t have gluten sensitivities.  I’d wager some do.  However, while the jury is still out and more evidence is needed on exactly how/why gluten effects people, the current evidence currently suggests that for some, the effect is not necessarily the product of gluten.

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Note:  In this post, I interchange carbohydrates and sugar.  I am referring to sugar as any nutritional carbohydrate, not including fiber (e.g. glucose, fructose, etc.)

Will Sugar be the Cigarette of the 21st Century?

When I was a child, I remember asking my mom, how people could ever think that inhaling smoke into one’s lungs was anything but a bad thing.  The answer she gave me, was that everyone did it, even doctors, and so we didn’t think much about it.  At the time, that sufficed.  However, while I understand that mentality, I’m still somewhat surprised that people would make decisions about something as important as their health, on the basis of a social norm.

What adds to this oddness, is that the scientific evidence had already linked smoking with lung cancer by the 1950s and arguably the case was closed by the 1960s.  Indeed, the 1964 Surgeon General’s report had recognized smoking as a cause of lung cancer, although such a claim was long overdue.  “Charles S Cameron, Medical and Scientific Director of the American Cancer Society, put the matter nicely in a 1956 overview for the Atlantic Monthly, noting that if the same level of evidence had been arrayed against, say, spinach, no one would have objected to the banning of that plant from the national diet.”  Anyone who cared enough to look, would have known long ago.

However, people seemingly did not care enough to look. “in a poll [in 1960] organised by the American Cancer Society, only a third of all US doctors agreed that cigarette smoking should be considered ‘a major cause of lung cancer’. This same poll revealed that 43% of all American doctors were still smoking cigarettes on a regular basis.”  I’ll let that sink in,  As of 1960, the majority of doctors still did not agree that smoking was linked with lung cancer.  Of course, much of this was driven by the tobacco industry to distract or deny this link, putting out propaganda films were shown to many high school students and advertisements using doctors.

Happily, evidence eventually won, and the incidence of smoking and subsequently lung cancer, have subsided. Indeed, cancer now, has dropped to the second leading cause of death in the United States, but in its wake, it has given rise to a new epidemic – heart disease.   The last 50 years has seen a huge increase of heart disease, and is only leveling off now, due to improved medical care and prescription drugs.

The question of what exactly causes heart disease is now the subject of debate.  Yet, among those who study this link professionally, the debate is all but settled.  That’s not to say that science is not evolving.  Indeed, 50 years ago, when incidence of heart disease began climbing, researchers noted that the culprit was the clogging of arteries by arterial plaque made up of plasma lipids.  Because these lipids contained LDLs and one could lower LDL my eating less saturated fats: Fats, especially saturated fats were considered bad, and were advocated to be limited.  While this hypothesis seems logical, as we know, despite such a move, the incidence of heart rate did not decrease; rather it increased. Indeed, a meta-analysis this year found no relationship between saturated fat and heart disease.

What then is driving such an effect?  Researchers have now pointed their finger at sugar – or more specifically carbohydrates.  When we eat sugar, it creates elevated insulin levels and this leads to higher levels of triglycerides, blood pressure, and lowering good cholesterol, resulting in increased risk of heart disease.  Further, chronic insulin elevation can lead to insulin resistance and subsequently diabetes.   What’s more is that insulin’s job is to store fat, helping to explain the strong link between obesity and heart disease.   Indeed, study after study after study have all been clear in identifying sugar as the main culprit in obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.  Liking it back to cigarettes, the science has even demonstrated sugar as addictive, and even has a powerful lobby that sets out to confuse you.

This whole problem is made even more confusing, when most of us have already noted that sugar is bad.  No-one thinks a can of pop is a healthy supplement to a breakfast, or a handful of jellybeans makes for a nutritious lunch.  Yet somehow, a piece of white bread, or a plate of rice is a good thing.  Yet, our bodies break down the sugar in white-bread or white-rice as fast as they would a can of coke.  In other words, except for some nutrients that can be found in bread, 2 pieces of whitebread is not much different than a coke; or a box of fruit juice.

Now, you as a reader, may think that while the evidence is strong, comparing carbohydrates to a cigarette is a huge exaggeration; after all, we need some carbs, but 1 cigarette is a bad thing.  But here, the comparisons overlap even more.  Research has demonstrated that there are benefits to  moderate tobacco use (here, here and here).  The problem, of course, is that people way overdo it; and that the products typically used to obtain tobacco, are laced with an assortment of other negative chemicals. One might make the argument that moderate tobacco use is better than none (full disclosure, I have not read this book,, nor am I aware of any research on moderate tobacco use to properly weigh in on this debate). Sugar, similarly, suffers the same problem.  Sugars through vegetables and the occasional fruit are  beneficial in moderation.  However, most of the sugar we do consume has been highly refined to spike our insulin, and typically we overdo it.

One of the goals of studying history is to learn from the past and not make the same mistakes again.  Cigarettes devastated the lives of millions of men, women and their children and cost the resources of doctors, hospitals, and researchers.  If we listened to the research when it was first established, millions of people would have been saved an expensive habit that cost them their lives.  But it took almost 30 years until even 80% of people thought that smoking is one of the causes of lung cancer.   Similarly, when people get confronted about the perils of sugar and its effect on obesity and heart disease, the same reactance and dissonance plays out.  But the research is out, and this time hopefully it won’t take 30 years to change our views.

Should Failure to Get a Vaccine be Considered Negligence Causing Death?

A few weeks ago, a Quebec women made a choice she thought was right.  She stopped her car to let some ducks pass by.  The problem was that she stopped on a busy highway that resulted in the death of two individuals and resulted in her receiving a jail sentence for criminal negligence causing death.  

In another case, the parents didn’t take their child to a doctor when he became sick.  Believing in faith-healing, the child eventually died.  Further, this was the second child to die.   A judge found the two parents guilty of involuntary manslaughter. 

Consider some other cases.  The CDC found that 90% of flu deaths were in children not vaccinated, or the fact that whooping cough deaths have increased as a function of lower vaccinations, or that over 400 cases of the Measles was directly tied to one individual.  Yet despite the widespread problems and occasional deaths that failure to get vaccines cause, noone is being held accountable.

Now, one may make the case that people can still get sick and die with the vaccines, and this is true.  The fact that 90% of children who died of the flu were not vaccinated, means that 10% were.

But consider The same argument that could be made for seat-belts. Some people die when they wear seat-belts.   In fact, The case against seat-belts is stronger.  Some people die, BECAUSE they were wearing seat-belts.  Yet, if a parent failed to buckle up their child, some places give them jail time, and arguably rightfully so! Being anti-seatbelt and worried about seatbelt related injuries does not provide an adequate defense. Lastly and perhaps most importantly,, a seat-belt only effects the parent and the child, whereas a vaccine (or lack thereof) effects everyone and makes it all the more important.

Regardless of whether you think jail time is a fair punishment for those who fail to get a vaccine or for those that stop on a highway or don’t put a seat-belt on their child, you must recognize there is a huge inconsistency with the law.  We punish some negligence and not others.  Doctors and Scientists have been doing a good job in advocating for vaccines, but like any scientific claim, there will always be dissenters.  Perhaps it’s time to use legal precedent and the piles of evidence and enforce vaccinations like we do any other negligent behavior.

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Image taken from Somethingawful.com  

On Obesity and Bullying

If an excessively overweight woman walked into a doctor’s office for her annual checkup and the doctor told her that she should lose some weight to promote a healthy lifestyle, I think we’d all be in agreement.  However, if a random person says the same thing, that person is an asshole.  While perhaps out of place for a random person to make a comment, as one person did to a local news anchor (see here), the outrage directed at this individual is worrisome.  Obesity is a problem.  An extremely serious problem. And in 99.9% of cases it is controllable.  Of course, certain individuals have a greater disposition to it or are in environments where it is harder to control. Subsequently, some will have to work hard to keep the pounds off, while others can stroll through life eating what they want.

However,  this does not mean it should be accepted.  Often people equate it to race or sexual orientation, but this is a ludicrous comparison, where one is completely dependent on genetics and the other is not.  A better comparison might be intelligence and grades in school and even criminal activity.  Like Obesity, there does seem to be genetic factors and obvious environmental ones, yet our entire education and criminal systems are based on the principle that we are responsible for our own choices.  And in those cases where there isn’t that choice, for example, autism or other mental handicaps, our system has systems in place.  While, perhaps, out of place as well, would it be an asshole comment for one random individual to try to convince another individual to work harder?  Would individuals erupt with rage at the idea of one person trying to motivate another to do better at school or at their job?  My feelings are no.   And yet, this is the case for obesity. Why?

One difference regarding obesity is that unlike education which only directly affects the individual and his or her family, obesity effects the entire system, through increased healthcare visits and costs.  However, this difference should increase the acceptance of encouraging those to minimize their obesity, not decrease it. We tarnish smoking and drug addicts without a care in the world.  It’s completely acceptable to encourage them to avoid their harmful ways and yet we draw a line at obesity, Why?

The rebuttal is often that criticizing obesity is bullying.  I am not trying to defend bullying but let’s define what we mean.  Somehow we’ve gotten to a point where it is impossible to criticize someone without it being bullying.  To understand, let’s go to an extreme. Picture Johnny, a 6 year old kid who is a terrible slob.  Everyday at lunch he spills on his clothes, gets food on his face.  He has his pants tucked into his socks, and his shirt half tucked in. When he goes to the bathroom, he misses the urinal, often pees on his pants, and often comes out with toilet paper on his feet.  Should this boy be free of criticism? He obviously didn’t have the greatest parents in his upbringing, so the only ones to tell him that this behaviour is unacceptable would be either the teachers or fellow students.  Of course, if kids threw rocks at him and called him names, that would be going too far.  But what if they told him that this was unacceptable?  Should we say that you can’t tell him to change his behaviour because that would be bullying?  No, this is an appropriate part of growing up and maturity.*

And that’s all that happened in this letter.  It was a personal, not public, email that encouraged the woman to lose some weight.  No name calling, no rocks were thrown, and yet somehow this was bullying.    By not taking any responsibility to a criticism and simply calling it bullying, we’ve somehow legitimized that a behaviour is ok.  No one can tell me I should lose weight, because it is bullying, is an absolutely ridiculous statement to make.

As the link above shows, if “Obesity trends continue, 86 percent of Americans could be overweight or obese by the year 2030.”  86 PERCENT. It’s time to take a stand and say that being overweight is not appropriate.  That does not include making fun or discriminating, it just means that people have to take responsibility for it and try to change.

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* Obviously, children do not have rational conversations about others behaviour and instead resort to name calling and other offensive acts.  The purpose of that example was to draw a comparison to the news story.

Being Cold (helps) Make You Sick

(and why people need to define their terms)

As kids we were often told “don’t go outside without a jacket or you’ll catch a cold.”  Being cold, makes you sick; it was something we knew.  And then, somewhere along the lines we were told – being cold doesn’t make you sick, germs make you sick.  I’ve heard this from doctors, nurses and immunologists.  Sometimes I get a little more of a rebuttal claiming that the reason colds and flu frequencies go up in the winter is because people are tend to gather and stay inside and in close quarters.  Definitely a contributing factor, but not the whole story.  To be fair, being cold isn’t necessary nor sufficient condition in making you sick, but then again, nothing is. 

There are currently a number of reasons of how cold makes you sick  and they aren’t mutually exclusive.  Here is a quick rundown.  1) Probably the ‘main’ cause is that stress raises our cortisol levels which lowers our immune system; being cold is a stressor.  2) Viruses thrive in dry cool winter air 3) Similarly, dry winter air dries out your nasal passages allowing viruses and bacteria to get in easier – and the constant changing from warm to cool air adds to this effect.  4) Cold restricts blood flow which consequently restricts white blood cell movement.  See here for a summary of an experiment and here for a summary of stress an the immune system (pg. 446 and 453 for information on cold-stress)

Now usually when I go through the above 3 reasons of how cold can make you sick, I get the response:  it doesn’t make you sick, it just increases your susceptibility.  True.  However, nothing makes you sick – in that nothing, by itself, is sufficient to make you sick, (except, perhaps injecting yourself with some virus to which you have no immune defense).  Even ‘germs’ are not sufficient.  We have over 100 types of ‘germs’ in us at any given point, and we have more bacterial cells in our body, then human cells, yet we don’t get sick. If germs made you sick, then we’d be sick all the time.  We need the germs to be able to ‘get past our immune system’ and proliferate before they can actually make us sick, and being cold helps with that.

Now, I’ll save the (and why people need to define their terms) part for another blog posting later on, but let me just say that the consequences of an imperfect language are that even informed statements can provide extreme misinformation.  Doctors, nurses, or any expert in immunology that says being cold doesn’t make you sick, while, ‘technically’ right, is a giant disservice to those who aren’t scientifically literate.   And because the idea of being cold not making you sick has become as dogmatic in the scientific health community* as your mother’s advice  that it will,  sometimes even extremely educated people don’t question it – and even they forget their mother’s advice – and go outside without a jacket.

*The purpose of this link is to show that the first result on yahoo answers demonstrate a Nurse and Microbiologist giving full credit to ‘germs’ and did not indicate that being cold would increase your susceptibility.