Sunday, August 30, 2009

District 9 and liberalism

There's lots of debate online as to whether the movie District 9 is racist.

The movie presents something like apartheid, but the despised minority (sic) consists of literal aliens, whose intellectual and leadership elite have been killed by some kind of epidemic. The South Africans in the movie (white and black) regard the aliens as vaguely threatening lowlifes, and there seems to be considerable justification for this view. The aliens actually look a bit like crayfish or something, which of course helps to justify their cruel treatment.

Then the human protagonist gets to know an alien who is a leader. We get to know that the aliens, at least at their best, had extremely powerful technology, including weapons, but used their weapons only for defensive purposes. Cruelty seems to have been literally unknown to them until the epidemic and crash landing. The leading alien freezes in horror when he realizes a human lab is torturing aliens, just out of curiosity. Modern science. There is almost a suggestion at the end that we deserve to be conquered by (presumably morally superior) aliens.

Some liberals are saying: there is still too much racism here. The aliens are presented as sufficiently grotesque that something like apartheid is more or less justified. Slate goes further: The protagonist gradually turns into an alien, and he is consistently horrified by this--he doesn't accept becoming an alien, therefore he doesn't truly accept aliens as no different, or at least no worse, than himself.

This is a nice statement of one kind of new liberalism. The real test of acceptance of "others" is a willingness to become just like them. Unless you pass this test, you probably don't want grandchildren who look like them either; therefore in your heart you oppose intermarriage; therefore if you find yourself with something like apartheid or Jim Crow laws, you might breathe a sigh of relief. Decent and intelligent people, if they simply don't want to see people like themselves disappear, might be defenders of racist regimes that are, with Hitler, the epitome of evil for many liberals.

India's Troubling Miracle

Interesting article in the Globe and Mail about HIV in India: it seems to arrived there later than elsewhere, and it now seems to have been contained within a small proportion of the population, with the help of aggressive government education programs and private funding.

The author, Stephanie Nolan, keeps saying "But ...."

What has happened here is starting to draw global attention. Yet so much of this story is unique to India, with its strengths (such as pro-active governments) and its weaknesses (particularly the rigid control kept over its female citizens) that it's questionable how much its example can be applied anywhere else.

Toward the end of the article, a section called "The Darker Side":

But there are also less-pleasant truths about India's victory over HIV. Beyond literacy, condoms, blunt ads and brilliant bureaucrats, one thing more than any other has checked the spread of the virus here: the oppression of Indian women.

The extreme control exerted over women's personal lives – first by their parents, then by their husbands and in-laws – means that very few ever have the opportunity to have a sexual partner other than their husbands.

Where 25 per cent of men report more than one sexual partner, less than 2 per cent of women do. Married women get infected by their husbands, and sometimes pass HIV to their children, but the virus stops there: They do not have other partners to pass HIV on to.

This is a marked contrast to Africa, where it is now clear that the “concurrent sexual network” – the tendency for both men and women to have overlapping partners rather than serial ones – has been the key driver of the epidemic.

(Meanwhile, discrimination has played a sharply different role in the spread of HIV among men who have sex with men – it has extremely limited AIDS organizations' ability effectively to provide these men condoms and information. As a consequence, they have HIV infection rates 10 times those of the general population.)

There is, in fact, a broader issue of culture at play in India's AIDS success story, the sort of squishy subject that makes AIDS researchers flinch because it lies so far outside tidy quantifiable data.

But many in the field agree that Indian society remains rigidly hierarchical, still infused with the powerful role of the caste system, and people are accustomed to the strong role of government in their lives.

That's a contrast to many African countries with weaker states and more egalitarian societies. And it meant that when the Indian government sternly told people to use condoms and cut back on partners, they listened.

There are several interesting points here.

1. Very few women have AIDS in India because women are oppressed there--there is simply little opportunity for sex outside of marriage. The implication is that sexual freedom might be better on the whole--more just--even it brought about more AIDS, as in Africa. A further implication, not really hinted at in the article, is that North America has the perfect bourgeois combination of sexual freedom and (relative) freedom from disease. Perhaps because there is so much serial monogamy, as opposed to the "concurrent sexual networks) in Africa.

2. The caste system makes many people in India somewhat submissive to government decrees. Surely this is only the half of it, if that. There is rigid social stratification, which would also tend to work against true or open sexual promiscuity. There is a limited range of people you are both able and willing to eat with, much less have sex with. It is not stated, but presumably the prostitutes in the article are among the so-called untouchables. We are all conscious of how a caste system keeps those who are down, down. But does it also lend a kind of self-respect to those who are not at the bottom, and help them (among other things) avoid contagious disease? Maybe a belief in cleanliness as opposed to uncleanliness actually contributes to cleanliness?

Africa is presented here, for purposes of contrast, as free and easy, and anti-authoritarian. But surely the story of AIDS in Africa can be told in a way that stresses there is oppression of women there, too. Could it be that wide or wild promiscuity, and a resulting instability of domestic relationships, is more the idea of men than women? That it might seem smart for men insofar as they are avoiding the consequences of pregnancy, but suddenly it doesn't seem so smart when there is a dangerous STD around?

Nolen seems to be referring to sub-Saharan and non-Muslim Africa. What about Muslim Africa? Again, an emphasis on purity, sexual segregation, and some degree of social stratification?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

One Antarctic site: no correlation between Temperature and CO2

Vostok Station is an Antarctic research station dedicated to climate among many other issues. Ice cores have been taken to study the climate going back over 400,000 years. Anthony Watts provides space for a summary of an article showing that there is no correlation in these results between changes in CO2 and changes in temperature; where there is an apparent correlation, the temperature change came first--CO2 changes because there tends to be "equilibrium" between the two. In the recent period of a dramatic increase in man-made CO2, there is no corresponding increase in temperature.

No correlation, no basis to speculate on cause and effect.

What Motivates Republicans?

Atrios and other leftie bloggers are wondering why exactly there is so much rage at Obama and his major proposals, including health care. Surely, they keep suggesting, race and old-fashioned white racism are involved.

Conservatives such as those on the Corner will point out that the Clintons' health-care package suffered the same fate that now seems likely for Obama's--and of course, the Clintons are a white couple, Bubba himself hailing from the South. Beyond this, Bill and Monica elicited a kind of rage, a determined campaign to impeach the President, that I believe had never happened before, and I for one certainly didn't expect. Andrew Johnson was impeached after he came in for a kind of angry contempt because of his handling of Reconstruction; race was involved, and indeed old-fashioned racism as well. When Nixon was finally brought down, this was more the work of people who were sad at the outcome, rather than those who had despised him for years. With Clinton there was a kind of pure personal hatred. "Look at the kind of man the Democrats have produced, and given the country."

Surely no one was really shocked at adultery as such, or even oral sex as such. (There is an old joke that nice girls might perform fellatio in order to get married, but they are less likely to do so after marriage). But Republicans either believed, or knew that many voters would believe, that Bill Clinton's combination of selfishness and true casualness about sex was shocking. It is usually a kind of propagandistic over-statement to say "those people" believe in casual sex. Surely it is not truly casual for very many people, young or old. (Although a recent court case in Canada has confirmed my old suspicion that hockey players in this country, even in their teens, get an amazing amount of sex, almost in the way they get to consume video games and junk food). Billy seems to have been a true "lady's man" or sexual predator. From what we know, he didn't care much what they looked like-they weren't as a rule the most beautiful women available. He wasn't necessarily great on learning their names--although he has a phenomenal memory. He just did it, a lot, because he liked it.

If Republicans were honest they might say: sure, we have affairs, we've had a lot of divorce just like other Americans. But we agonize about it, we get divorced because we've discovered "the love of our life," to paraphrase Governor Sanford. There is nothing casual about it. Of course one can question all this: Newt Gingrich? Rudy Giuliani?

Matthew Yglesias has suggested that Republicans like talking about gay sex because they know most of their voters will feel they are totally in the clear on this one--unlike a lot of other sexual peccadilloes one might think of. I think it was somewhat the same with Clinton: OK, I have my problems, but I would never do that--therefore that is where the line is drawn, it is totally unacceptable to do that.

A Glimpse at the Age of Aquarius

From the July/August issue of Archeology--unfortunately, only a portion of the article is online.

The idea is that one 60s-era commune in California is being restored, and the artifacts catalogued, by archeologists. Already this is somewhat of a lost civilization, and it may be of great interest in the future to study the daily lives of people in the counter-culture. One controversy is that public money is involved at a time when California is broke, etc.

But there are some items of interest already--including convenient memories. The article focusses on former resident Noelle Olompali-Burton, who has named herself partly after the commune. She moved there, I guess on her own, when she was 16, and she recalls "living the teenager's dream of having no rules laid on you." One detail is that this commune was actually able to last for a while (December 1967 to February 1969, when an electrical fire destroyed the house) because it was subsidized by a real estate developer who also had an inheritance.

Here's the part I found funny:

... Buz Rowell [is] a gray-bearded 65-year-oldwho has filled out a bit since moving to the commune as a skinny young man just returned from Vietnam. Not quite trusting his memory 40 years later, Rowell says the group was almost entirely vegetarian, "at least at the beginning." But Olompali-Burton quickly corrects him. "I recall cooking liver and onions in a huge skillet. And making sausages for breakfast, and meatloaf." In fact, Parkman's team has found about 30 pieces of butchered cow and pig bones.

Aging hippies want to convince today's progressives they were really with it, attuned to the times. "We were vegetarian." Er, no you weren't; you actually loved that mouth-watering meat. "We were feminists, celebrating equality and freedom from traditional roles." Actually, Noelle, who was a happy little teenaged girl, seems to remember doing a hell of a lot of the cooking. And how many communes, in their escape from law and order, were free from rape, sexual abuse and child abuse? Even Salon has shown concern about this.

Ted Kennedy: Collateral Damage from Adult Behaviour

Instapundit has brought up a Michael Kelly piece, focusing on two egregious Ted Kennedy episodes.

Kelly makes the point that Ted probably learned how to treat women from his grandfather Joe and from JFK. Maybe Ted had more of a need to get drunk, and get his dates drunk, to be a predatory drunk before taking action.

This all brought to my mind the fact that Ted was very much present on the night of the famous William Kennedy Smith alleged rape. Again, younger men learning from an older man. One detail I seem to recall, but I can't find now, is that on the night in question W.K. was actually asleep; Uncle Ted woke him up and said something along the lines of "let's go out for a drink," --or, whatever.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Odds and Ends

I'm on the second week of my vacation. Basically just staying at home. This can be restful, but it can also get tedious. I've done a little work around the house, but my wife has done more, including taking on some painting.

I'm training for a half marathon in October. This is going well, except for a sore left heel. I don't think it's exactly plantar fasciitis--the symptoms don't quite fit. I may check in with a sports therapist, but then again it felt pretty good when I woke up this morning.

I've done a little reading and writing, but not much.

Our son is back home with us for a co-op work term. Amazingly, he got a job right across the street from us, so he has no commute. He has finished two semesters, or his first year, of classes.

I've pretty much given up on the Blue Jays again. Fickle of me, I know.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

One of the Main Health Questions of our Time

Megan McCardle: ``Why are life expectancy and obesity going up in tandem?``

via Instapundit.

Of course we`d all like to think that exercise makes a real difference, but perhaps nowhere near as much difference as not smoking, medical training and drugs.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Great Day to Laugh at Alarmists

A great day for Anthony Watts yesterday. He was able to link to two hilarious stories. The first is from the BBC, showing that the outgoing head of Greenpeace was forced to admit that there is no real possibility that the Arctic will be ice-free in 2030, so it was wrong for Greenpeace to say that this was likely in a July 15 news release.

As permanent ice decreases, we are looking at ice-free summers in the Arctic as early as 2030.

"Gerd Leipold, the retiring leader of Greenpeace, said the claim was wrong." He has two defences. First, it has been so difficult to get the world's attention for the climate issue, it is acceptable to "emotionalize" the issue. Secondly, he says he didn't personally approve the news release, or even see it, before it was released. Now we are clearly in the realm of politics rather than science. "That bullshit news release, which I now find embarrassing, was the work of a junior member of the organization, acting on his or her own, contrary to standing instructions, which have since been modified to make even more sure that nothing similar happens again."

The BBC interviewer, Stephen Sackur, is pretty amazing, pointing out that "the Arctic ice is a mass of 1.6 million square kilometers with a thickness of 3 km in the middle, and that it had survived much warmer periods in history than the present." One can imagine the interview continuing Monty Python style: So in 2030, will the ice in the Arctic be reduced by one-tenth? No, not one-tenth, that would be going too far. One one-hundredth, then? No, I'm afraid not. One one-thousandth? Well, if I could make a litle joke, you're getting warm.

I certainly have no idea what the trend actually is up there, but it seems possible there is tremendous change in the ice from season to season, and year to year, so some spots will become dramatically ice-free for a few summers, while other spots will alarmingly ice over. The ice is moved by both ocean currents and wind, etc.

The second story is less significant in the scheme of things, but possibly even funnier. "Captain" Eric Forsyth has made a reputation for long voyages in small sailing ships--he made it part way into the Arctic in 2008, and he is now sailing the yacht Fiona more extensively in the Arctic. He is proposing a Green Ocean Race which will entail the use of no fossil fuels. He completely buys the alarmist line on global climate change, but thinks there are non-catastrophic ways to adapt.

Here is Forsyth's August 17 post on the Fiona News:

Last night, 16 Aug, we got hopelessly trapped by the ice. Despite a favorable ice report we encountered 8/10ths ice, with many old, i.e. large, bergs. We spent the night tied to one of them but had to leave this morning when another 'berg collided with us and tipped Fiona over. We got away but the space around us is shrinking. I called the Canadian Coast Guard at noon and they are sending an icebreaker, due here tomorrow. We are NOT in immediate danger. Watch this space for developments.

Since they are likely to make it out alive and unharmed, there is plenty of opportunity for fun here. "Despite a favorable ice report": those bastards at Greenpeace said it would be ice-free up here! So tell me Captain Forsyth, what did you encounter in the Arctic? "Mostly ice--ice as far as the eye can see! Endless ice! And not just puny thin ice--thick stuff, dangerous, life-threatening ice!" As Watts points out, the ship that the Canadian Coast Guard uses in these situations burns fossil fuel. I would add that it is called an icebreaker--that would be because, only 20 years before the fateful year of 2030, there is still plenty of ice in the Arctic.

See again the Caitlin expedition, needing to be rescued from the ice in the Arctic.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Seeing the Light on Obesity

Alex Hutchinson of the Globe and Mail clues in to the fact that obese people live longer than non-obese people. He still says there is bad news for the severely obese, "those with a BMI above 35 were 36 per cent more likely to die than normal-weight people," and for all I know he has that wrong somehow. (Sandy Szwarc says "the risks associated with the most ‘morbidly obese’ (BMIs 35+) — the uppermost 3% of this Canadian cohort— were statistically the same as those with ‘normal’ BMIs. [RR=1.09 (0.86-1.39, 95% CI) versus RR=1.0.]"

Here's what really struck me as funny. As a kind of last-ditch effort to say that we must exercise not just for fun, but for our health, Hutchinson tries to argue that there is bad fat as opposed to good fat, and exercise can focus on getting rid of the bad abdominal fat.

Szwarc has already dealt with this nonsense.

The health risk factors said to be associated with obesity — high blood sugars and insulin resistance, high blood lipids (cholesterol and triglycerides) — and said to lead to diabetes, heart disease and premature death — are all blamed on visceral fat. These health indices have been lumped together and called the metabolic syndrome. The entire metabolic syndrome theory — which is being used to support endless preventive health screening tests and surveillance, "healthy eating" plans, exercise programs and prescription drugs (that are costly for us, but make gobs of money for those who want to manage our health) — is held up by beliefs about visceral fat.

This theory is evidence of the failure to understand risk factors and of how a belief can be built and take on a life of its own by ignoring null studies — in this case, layers of null studies.

Null link: BMI; waist, hip, and arm circumference; waist-hip ratio; waist-height ratio; skinfold thickness; and body fat — and all causes of death

Among the many studies showing no link, the most recent null studies were two independent analyses of the most precise measurements of body size, measurements and body composition available on a large representative sample of the U.S. population conducted by the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III, 1988–1994) of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As senior scientists at the National Center for Health Statistics at the CDC and the National Cancer Institute reported, the data shows that no higher measurement of body shape or size — BMI; waist, hip or arm circumference; waist-hip ratio; waist-height ratio; skinfold thickness or body fat composition measured by bioelectrical impedance — is predictive of higher risks of dying from all causes.

Nor was there a net benefit of using BMI versus another measurement. The data also found that NONE of the 21 diseases popularly attributed to obesity — those “obesity-related” diseases, including: cardiovascular disease, cancers (colon cancer, breast cancer, esophageal cancer, uterine cancer, ovarian cancer, kidney cancer, or pancreatic cancer) and diabetes or kidney disease — are actually associated with excess deaths at any BMI category, including obese.

UPDATE August 18: Alex was kind enough to respond in detail when I e-mailed him this post, so I will give him more or less equal time:

I certainly didn’t suggest that exercise can focus on getting rid of the bad abdominal fat, anywhere in the article. I did, however, report that researchers believe visceral fat is a better indicator of the potential for health problems than subcutaneous fat. You link to Szwarc’s blog saying, basically, “That’s not true, because I say so.” That an easy game to play. Here’s a link to a study from the journal Obesity called “Visceral fat is an independent predictor of all-cause mortality in men”:

Are there conflicting studies dealing with this question? Of course. It’s a very complex question, and nobody really knows the answers at this point. That’s why you should be wary of anyone – on either side of the debate – who seems to be cocksure that they know that answers. That generally means that they’ve already decided what they believe, and see every study that agrees with their point of view as “confirmation,” and every study that disagrees as “flawed.” That’s what Szwarc accuses her foes of doing, but she certainly does the same thing herself.

You also note in your blog: “…for all I know he has that wrong somehow. (Sandy Szwarc says "the risks associated with the most ‘morbidly obese’ (BMIs 35+) — the uppermost 3% of this Canadian cohort— were statistically the same as those with ‘normal’ BMIs. [RR=1.09 (0.86-1.39, 95% CI) versus RR=1.0.]"”

That’s another great example of data-mining to support a point of view. The main conclusion of the paper, presented in Table 1, was that BMI of 35+ was associated with a 36% greater risk of dying. In Table 2, the authors present seven sub-analyses on factors like smoking, age, gender, and a correction factor related to problems with self-reported weights. Szwarc ignores the primary dataset in the paper (which she doesn’t agree with) and reports only the single sub-analysis that she agrees with, using the correction factor.

I’m certainly not trying to claim that I have all the answers here. I’m just pointing out that reflexively dismissing mainstream scientific opinion as “nonsense” without a thorough understanding of the complexities of the research is just as reductive as accepting that mainstream opinion without healthy skepticism.

Updates on Climate Change

Things I've been bugging a few people with by e-mail:

For math majors: "Is Global Temperature a Random Walk?"

Of course nothing can really be settled by talking about local weather, but: eastern North America had a cool July, certain spots in North America had a hot July, North America as a whole was on the cool side.

A funny piece in The Star points out that Environment Canada has been wrong all summer about the Greater Toronto Area: it's going to be hot; there's not going to be much rain.

Repeating an earlier link here, because I like it so much: Experts on Canada's Arctic have found no actual evidence of global warming up there so far. Cold War data that was supposed to show the Arctic ice was thinning came from U.S. military vessels, which always took samples from basically the same kind of area:

"Nobody really quite noticed the submarines were running across the outside edges of the Canadian archipelago," the islands scattered across Canada's Far North, "where for all we know, the ice was getting thicker," Eert says.

The ice thinned in 2007--probably because it was pushed to a warmer spot--but the modellers jumped to conclusions, and "fudged" data. Of course the reporter who writes this up (Paul Watson, founder and president of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society), says the experts are sure to find evidence of global warming--some day.

After years of reports that vast areas of Arctic ice are melting as the seawater below, and air above, warm up, scientists have discovered that dramatic changes in the past three years are the result of shifting winds, perhaps caused by climate change.

Enormous amounts of ice have "been exported from the Arctic," driven by winds that are shifting as the climate changes, which pushed the ice into ocean currents that delivered it to the North Atlantic, Eert says.

"The multi-year ice in the polar pack didn't melt in the Arctic Ocean,'' she says. "It moved out and what's left in the Arctic is thinner than it was."

That doesn't mean some Arctic ice isn't disappearing altogether, just that the process is not as simple as some reports suggest, Eert says.

Old ice that has shifted south from Greenland may have a counter-effect on the climate, which is just one of the many pieces of a very complex jigsaw puzzle that scientists are trying to piece together as they attempt to predict the effects of global warming.

"The guys who are running the long-term climate models have a tough problem," Eert says. "They're looking at really long time scales, and as result they can't look at a lot of details for each year.

"In order to get the results before you die, you have to fudge some things. And what they fudge is the small-scale stuff. But it turns out that probably the small-scale stuff is important and fudging it gives you wrong answers."

Of course this doesn't prevent the Star, in other articles, from stating matter of factly that if one specific part of the Arctic loses ice, the whole world is clearly warming up.

A relief for those of us brought up on Walt Disney movies: polar bears as a whole are apparently in little or no danger.

Even according to the doomsayers, the total polar bear population before recent changes was somewhere in the range 20,000-25,000. The total population now? The same.

My guru is Anthony Watts, who links to various sources. A new study indicates that heat in the oceans (covering much of the surface of the earth) has been fluctuating every few years. "These facts are not found among the theoretical predictions," which I think means facts on the ground are not successfully predicted by computer models, including the IPCC model. If so, heat in the oceans presumably bears no relationship (so far) to man-made CO2.

The total number of tornadoes in the U.S. went up from 1950 to 2006, but the most severe tornados, F2 to F5, did not. There is good evidence that the former finding resulted from improved reporting of smaller storms, rather than an actual increase in storms. On the somewhat different front of tropical storms: again, improved reporting resulted in an increase in the number of reported tropical storms over several decades. A closer look suggests it is unlikely that there was any actual increase in storms.

Data, data, data. The oft-repeated claim that there was a warming trend in the twentieth century depends heavily on surface weather stations in the U.S. To say the data from these stations is questionable is an understatement.

2009? There has not been a single tropical storm in the Atlantic.

Obama, Health Care, etc.

From an e-mail I sent to David Olive at the Toronto Star:

Obama is very bright, but he and his people are authors of their own misfortunes on health care.

1. Americans will normally resist a suggestion that wealth be directly transferred from haves to have-nots. If anything, they are even more resistant to cutting government benefits to people who now get them (especially Social Security and Medicare recipients, who are seniors) in order to do more for others. The boomers are getting old, and they will probably be even more defensive of their own government benefits than their parents were. One difference in the U.S. is that they will sometimes pretend, bizarrely, that Medicare is not an expensive and wasteful government program. The Obamaites proceeded as if they had no clue about these facts.

2. Americans who have health insurance are generally happy with it, despite the anxieties about cost or suddenly being told that you are not covered. Mickey Kaus has said all along that the Obamaites should have addressed these people directly and said: we will let you keep your benefits, and improve them, with more assurance that they will be there when you need them.

3. The Obamaites got caught up in the question whether a new program would be fiscally responsible, short term and long term. They committed themselves to "bending the curve" by bringing down long-term costs. This naturally raised anxiety about how exactly this would be done. Government bureaucrats second-guessing doctors and patients?

4. The other Emmanuel, and Obama himself, have both mused about a government agency making quality of life and quality of care decisions. Palin was not "making things up."

Why on earth did the Obamaites get themselves bogged down in #3 and #4? Noone was forcing them to do that. They seem to be determined to be McGovern and Mondale Democrats, as if they have learned nothing from the intervening years.

I would simply add: it is increasingly clear to me that Obama does not really believe there might be decent and intelligent people who disagree with him. He is reluctant to admit anybody at all disagrees with him--he tries to say they are focussed on whether a good idea will actually work, or something--but to the extent that he acknowledges their existence, he is quick to suggest they are deluded, mentally ill or worse. That remark of his during the campaign: "they cling to their guns, God, etc." really did express some of his thoughts. At best "they" suffer from false consciousness, no doubt deliberately cultivated by corrupt lobbyists and such. He has sown the wind by letting his contempt for a lot of people show, and how he is reaping the whirlwind with the nasty townhall meetings.

But the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there’s not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

I think it is the hallmark of an educated person to understand that decent and intelligent people can have deep disagreements. Maybe Obama is a true consensus-builder in that he thinks all the "extremists," who have difficulty compromising, are the same--all a bit crazy, mistaking a partial truth for absolute truth. His friends on the left are already a bit shocked at his willingness to abandon their favourite causes. Still, he's probably hoping to carry out substantial parts of a left-wing agenda, if only the capitalists and bigots will let him.

Reagan and the two Bushes may have thought there was something wrong with their opponents--they were certainly suspected of hating their opponents--but they gave remarkably little sign of that. Cheney has come close to saying that anyone who disagrees with him is a traitor or a fellow-traveller. I don't think Bush Junior has ever suggested that.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

How to Tell Well-Grounded Fears from Groundless Ones

Thanks to one of my new gurus, Sandy Szwarc of Junkfood Science:

Just imagine how many popular fears and health agendas would disintegrate in an instant if the public realized that relative risks less than 10 — that’s 10-fold or 900% as high — with p-values >0.01 are often not real, tenable and are generally explained by confounding factors.

We’re so used to hearing inconsequential relative risks reported as NEWS that we’ve come to believe they are real and worth us acting upon. Instead, when we hear reports of these small relative risks, if we sat back and waited for the science to work itself out, we’d be a lot less likely to get caught up in the claim of the day and be taken advantage of.

This new guideline may sound like an extreme idea, but perhaps not when we look at the relative risks derived in epidemiology that have later proven out in clinical studies, versus all of those that haven’t.

A few examples may help put risks into perspective. “Studies of heavy smoking and lung cancer report a relative risk of about 20; those of aspirin and Reye's syndrome in children report a relative risk of 35,” said Steve Milloy of Junkscience and author of Science Without Sense. The FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition reports relative risks for listeriosis associated with raw seafood of 17 among most adults, rising to 20 in elderly; and 15 with unpasteurized milk. The relative risks for Kaposi sarcoma associated with HIV infection is 192 (95% confidence interval); and the relative risks for non-Hodgkin lymphoma with HIV have been reported as high as 76.4. Among carriers of the BRCA1 mutations, the relative risks of breast cancer have been estimated to be 21.6 in women under 40 years of age, 9.6 in women 40-49 years of age and 7.6 in older women.

As Dr. Lloyd wrote, in commenting how cohort studies are often wrong, yet acted upon in isolation:
Glasziou et al suggested that a combined rates ratio of at least 10 and a P value of <0.01 should be used to distinguish between a true effect and background population “noise." Few of our current favourite targets - mild [sic] obesity, salt intake or passive smoking — would pass this test. The findings of cohort studies should start rather than close the debate. Experts are too hasty to present a hypothesis as a proven fact, and the medical profession is too willing to accept such findings uncritically.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

New World Archeology and Anthropology

Not usually an interest of mine.

I'm just finishing a book called Columbus was Chinese, by Hans Breuer; originally published in German in 1970, then in English in 1972.

Much of the book deals with scientific and technological discoveries that were made in China before there is any record of them in Europe. Chapter 1, Novae and Pulsars--there was genuine astronomy in China, studied alongside astrology, albeit with a certain amount of secrecy, as early as 1500 B.C.; star charts can be dated back to 400 B.C. Charts from the fourth century A.D. are "amazingly modern," and quite different in orientation from Greek ones that can be traced to Hipparchus (c. 190-125 B.C.). Only by means of very recent technology is it possible to confirm that Chinese scholars identified a supernova in 1054 A.D. Arab astronomers at this time seem to have missed it, although their science was in some ways highly developed. Modern astronomers have been able to confirm the timing of Halley's comet from Chinese chronicles dated 240 B.C. In the West, for many centuries, adherence to Ptolemy's theories literally prevented anyone from confirming exact observations of the skies. "What ought not be simply cannot be."

Chapter 2, Abacus etc. Chapter 3, maps. Chapter 4, the Great Wall. Chapter 5, the oldest seismograph. Chapter 6, the compass. On this: there has been some awareness of magnetism since pre-historic times. The first written "qualitative" account of a magnet comes to us from Thales of Miletus in the sixth century B.C., but three hundred years later a Chinese source not only gives a similar description, but a "quantitative measure of the strength of magnets." Within a few hundred years lodestones were in use in China. "... the Chinese can undoubtedly claim the glory of discovering the compass [as well as] ... the declination of the needle, that it systematically declined from the astronomical meridian. That is highly interesting since this discovery was attributed to Columbus, which would date it 400 years later." The compass was used in navigation in China no later than the tenth century, but was not known in Europe until two hundred years later.

Chapter 7: Kites, Rotors, Balloons, and Parachutes. Chapter 8: Paper. Chapter 9: The Black Art (printing). On printing, the Chinese perfected block printing, but probably never developed movable type. Once Gutenberg got going, he greatly surpassed even the movable type of Korea. On some discoveries, once Europe had a start, it went much farther than China as part of modernity. But credit for the start still goes to China.

Chapter 10: Paper money. Chapter 11: Gunpowder and Cannons. Fascinating stuff, but I'll mention only a few points. The Chinese used a very crude gunpowder for fireworks on special days. They found some military applications, such as using gunpowder to ignite some kind of petroleum from the ground so as to make a flame-thrower. There were also a few cases of a massive bomb or mine being exploded. Once Europeans had the idea, "Chinese ordnance fell hopelessly behind compared to the development that took place among the Europeans and Arabs. ... Granulated black powder (1520) enclosed more air and thereby increased its eficiency. ... Time fuses were invented as early as 1585."

Chapter 12: Silk and the Silk Road. (Ancient and historical contacts between China and Europe).

Chapter 13: the piece de resistance: "Columbus was Chinese." This is not about the possibility that a specific Chinese naval explorer might have reached the Americas a few decades before Columbus. Instead Breuer identifies signs that Chinese and other Asian people, products or ideas reached the Americas long before--probably centuries before. He focusses on three groups of "First Nations" and their customs "that simply will not fit into [the] uniform image [of First Nations]: the peoples of the Northwest Coast, now in Canada; the Olmecs of the narrow strip at the south of Mexico; and the Chavins of the north Peruvian Andes.

For the Northwest "Indians," Breuer says the Tlingit, Haida and Chimmesyan are "foremost". They have a strict caste system, with the nobles chiefly preoccupied with acquiring and maintaining prestige; double canoes that can go out to sea; totem poles; and figurative art that displays bilateral representation. "... their culture is unique on the American continent; we find nothing resembling it either in North, Central, or South America."

Of the Olmecs (earliest finds about the time of the birth of Christ) Breuer says rather rudely: "Since the turn of the century signs have multiplied indicating that once men must have lived on the plains of Tehuantepec who would have had little in common with the Indians now vegetating there." Unusual features include "artistic jade sculptures," "temples," "steles," and "tombs." "The form of the pyramids and steles greatly resembles that of the Mayas and the Aztecs, yet nowhere in America does this sculpture have a counterpart." According to archeological finds, "the Olmec culture appeared quite suddenly and at a level of perfection,without any preliminary stages." Some of the artifacts actually decline in quality after their initial appearance. Olmec influence can be found in all later Central American cultures, especially the Mayas and the Zapotecs.

Of the Chavins (sudden appearance of artifacts about tenth or ninth century B.C.), Breuer says "they were master goldsmiths," they "perfectly mastered the art of weaving," and in other ways they stood out from nearby groups.

Starting on p. 228 Breuer addresses the debate betwen "isolationists," who say all the First Nations of the Americas are derived from one immigration, and "diffusionists," who say there has been some penetration from time to time by other groups and cultures, who were diffused or dispersed in such a way as to reach the Americas, and became somewhat isolated elements there. The "lost-wax" process of casting metal appeared in Peru, quite suddenly, in 4 B.C.; the development of this process took 1500 years in Mesopotamia (today's Iraq) and the Indus valley. Even pottery-making takes more time to develop than would apparently have been available. Jade figurines, the calendar system of the Olmecs, and other things are hard for the isolationists to explain. "The Olmecs exhibit a mastery of figural representation that is still unmatched in all of America."

After considering several possibilities, Breuer suggests it is at least possible that a few strangers might have made it all the way to the Americas from China, sailing across the Pacific. Partly this argument overlaps with the work of Thor Heyerdahl, showing that fairly "primitive" people could travel vast distances by water. Another small piece of evidence: "between 1800 and 1950 alone more than fifty ships, partly Japanese, partly Chinese junks, were driven onto the coast of California." Breuer admits that even if there is a match between a particular time in China and some of the artifacts in the Americas, there is no perfect match.

Breuer discusses specific plant foods. The coconut clearly was in Asia before it was in the Americas, and seems to have grown in the Americas before Columbus. A single coconut probably could not have made the trip unless it was carried in some kind of boat. The sweet potato, conversely, started in Central America, but it reached Polynesia and from there, Asia, before there were Europeans in the Americas. "The only remaining possibility is that the inhabitants of Polynesia reached the coasts of Central America and took sweet potatoes on board for the return voyage." Generally speaking, there are more botanical species on the Pacific Islands the farther west we go; this provides evidence that many of them began in Asia.

This is already a long post: is it possible that at least a few ethnically and culturally distinct people managed to plant themselves in America, which was otherwise settled by a relatively uniform group of First Nations? A 2008 paper, based on genetic studies, suggests that almost all of the genetic material of surviving First Nations suggests a common ancestry in one migration across what is now the Bering Strait. After offering their explanation, the authors say: "A similar explanation may be used to account for the existence of other similarly rare haplogroups in the Americas, such as the “cayapa” subhaplogroup D,69 as well as the distribution of some rare Y chromosome haplogroups,70 without the need to postulate independent colonization events."

But there remains a possibility of other colonization events, and this genetic study is based on surviving genes; what if some of the imported groups were wiped out by conquest or disease, to the last man, woman and child?

Wikipedia at least briefly entertains the possibility of "foreign" migration in the case of the Olmecs:

The flat-faced, thick-lipped characteristics of the [sculptured] heads have caused some debate due to their apparent resemblance to African facial characteristics. Based on this comparison, some have insisted that the Olmecs were Africans who had emigrated to the New World.[35] However, claims of pre-Columbian contacts with Africa are rejected by the vast majority of archeologists and other Mesoamerican scholars.[36] Explanations for the facial features of the colossal heads include the possibility that the heads were carved in this manner due to the shallow space allowed on the basalt boulders. Others note that in addition to the broad noses and thick lips, the heads have the Asian eye-fold, and that all these characteristics can still be found in modern Mesoamerican Indians. To support this, in the 1940s artist/art historian Miguel Covarrubias published a series of photos of Olmec artworks and of the faces of modern Mexican Indians with very similar facial characteristics.[37] In addition, the African origin hypothesis assumes that Olmec carving was intended to be realistic, an assumption that is hard to justify given the full corpus of representation in Olmec carving.[38]

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Have public health authorities gone mad?

One distressing thing about the possibility that the global warming scare was taken much too far, based on very little data, from the beginning, is that if true, this means reputable people at NASA and elsewhere have associated themselves with what amounts to nonsense. (Not simply a hoax or a scam; some combination of over-hyping of dubious or hypothetical claims by real scientists, lying, and cluelessness). Could this actually happen? Are there other similar examples?

This is where Sandy Szwarc's blog Junkfood Science is so interesting. She documents how public health authorities, regularly quoted as scientific experts, have associated themselves with dubious pseudo-science, in the face of solid evidence that what they are saying is exaggerated at best. On the obesity scare, there came a time when real scientists at the Centres for Disease Control reported, as several other groups of researchers have done, that obesity is not bad for you by any known long-term measure.

As regular readers remember, in 2005, after CDC scientists published the CDC’s own national data and nearly brought down the government’s entire war on obesity, a press conference was hastily called to, as then director Dr. Julie Gerberding said, “translate our science more effectively so that we avoid this kind of communication in the future.” [The CDC’s evidence had shown that, instead of being deadly, obesity (BMI 30 to <35) was associated with a 24% lower risk for premature death than those of ‘normal’ weight, and that even most fat people outlive those of normal weight.]

It was at this conference, the public first learned that the CDC had been massively restructured to create what its director called, “the new CDC.” It created the National Center for Health Marketing and a second center on public health informatics, as well as four new coordinating centers. “At the new CDC, we are engaging the entire agency in the development of our strategies around obesity,” said Dr.Gerberding.

I have suggested that this is health care as delivered by social workers, rather than by health care experts, and there is certainly an element of wanting to interfere in people's lives, make them feel guilty, and push them around, especially if they are poor. What I had not thought much about before is that this is also empire-building on the part of IT people with computer models, as opposed to other experts who actually work in the field, with patients or (in the case of global warming) plants, animals, ice, etc.

More than two years ago, a Dr. Miguel A. Faria, Jr., M.D., made troubling observations in the journal Surgical Neurology about the misuse of statistics and epidemiology surrounding most of the studies associated with the Healthy People 2010 agenda. There is a worrying trend in academic medicine, he said, that “equates statistics with science, and sophistication in quantitative procedures with research excellence.”

The corollary of this trend is a tendency to look for answers to medical problems from people with expertise in mathematical manipulation and information technology, rather than from people with an understanding of disease and its causes…
Much of CDC-funded research and Healthy People 2010 initiatives, he explained, “are generally geared toward promoting social engineering and enlarging the scope and collective role of government in the lives of citizens… than with making genuine scientific advances and improving the health of humanity.”

In some cases, these [CDC] grant proposals (many of which are actually funded) use or misuse statistics, collect data of dubious validity, and even use “legal strategies” to reach social goals and formulate health care policies that the public health researchers believe may achieve “social justice.”… The reader will be surprised to learn that I found probably as many lawyers and social workers as practicing physicians and nurses applying for public health “scientific” research grants!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Counterintuitive Questions about Running

Runner's World has a great article (September issue not yet online) about how experts are challenging conventional thinking.

1. Is it necessary to run up to 60 miles (80 km) a week, to prepare for a marathon of 26 miles (42 km)? One successful program takes runners up to no more than 40 miles, with a very long run/walk peaking at 26 to 29 miles. The key is to add runs that are short but intense, as well as at least two days of cross training. There is "little correlation between weekly mileage and marathon performance, especially for novices--but a high correlation between high mileage and injury frequency."

2. A similar point: speed workouts can be fewer and less intense than many runners think.

3. Some say train the same year-round, rather than do far more miles close to a race than during a recovery time.

4. Cross-training is more beneficial than some think (this can mean a good workout with little risk of classic runner's injuries).

5. Strength training may not be particularly beneficial.

6. My favourite: stretching may not help with running, and there are lots of cases of runners injuring themselves while stretching. Since the magazine includes instructions on working the hips, I take this to mean: stretching the running muscles, which are already getting a workout, may be a waste of time, but strenghtening the core muscles and hips, which help with running and avoiding injuries, is always a good use of time.

7. Massage may do more harm than good.

8. Consuming carbs before a long run may be counter-productive: for a marathon, you need to prepare for running in carb deficit, since that will happen no matter what you do.

UPDATE August 2:

9. Fluid intake: it may be better to be guided by thirst, even when exercising, than to go beyond this and risk over-hydration.

10. Correct shoes. This interests me because I developed a bit of foot trouble before the Acura 10-mile on July 19: is it better to go "up" to the amount of both support and cushioning in a running shoe that feels comfortable, or to deliberately scale back on the structure in a shoe and "feel the road"? "[Shoes] prevent the nerve endings on your feet from sensing the gravitational stresses of each footstrike and making small adjustments with each stride to disperse the stres. Research has shown that so-called protective features actually increase injury frequentcy."