Journalists and Scientists

A few days ago I quoted an editor who works for Rupert Murdoch as saying that journalists care too much about impressing their colleagues and winning prizes and not enough about helping readers. Here is Walter Pincus, a Washington Post reporter, saying the same thing:

Editors have paid more attention to what gains them prestige among their journalistic peers than on subjects more related to the everyday lives of readers. For example, education affects everyone, yet I cannot name an outstanding American journalist on this subject.

I quote this to support the Veblenian view I’ve expressed many times on this blog — that scientists would rather do what gains them prestige among their peers than what helps the rest of us, who support most science. I think it’s hard to understand the success of my self-experimentation (e.g., new ways of losing weight) until you understand this aspect of science. I was successful partly because my motivation was different.

One Man Vs. All Education Professors

According to a recent New York article about Rupert Murdoch, Robert Thomson, one of Murdoch’s top editors,

thinks most [journalists] are liberals overly concerned with writing stories that will impress other liberal journalists and win prizes in journalism competitions.

Well, yes. Not everyone is a liberal, of course, but basically everyone wants to impress their colleagues. Scientists have an amusing spin on this: They call it “peer review.” The amusing part is that somehow no one else’s opinion should matter. (E.g., all journals must be peer-reviewed.) Scientists get away with this bizarre view of economics (thinking someone should pay you and get nothing in return) perhaps because it is indeed difficult to assess the quality of this or that bit of science if you’re not in the field and because science has produced huge benefits for the rest of us in the past.

As I said, this is just human nature. As far as I can tell, professors act this way — try to impress colleagues — in every academic department. In schools of education, the result is this:

Amy Treadwell . . . received her master’s degree in education from DePaul University, a small private university in Chicago. . . . But when she walked into her first job, teaching first graders on the city’s South Side, she discovered a major shortcoming: She had no idea how to teach children to read. “I was certified and stamped with a mark of approval, and I couldn’t teach them the one thing they most needed to know how to do,” she told me.

It’s no secret that many schools of education do a poor job of training their students to teach — which is nominally one of their main goals. I am just repeating what Veblen said long ago.

What’s new is this: One man, Doug Lemov, working mostly alone, has figured out how to make people better teachers. One man. Not a professor. Did he build on the work of others? No, he started from scratch. He’s made a list of about 50 techniques. They are teachable. He gives workshops about them. As far as I can tell from this magazine article, Lemov has done a better job of figuring out how to train teachers than all the education professors in the world put together. If you arrived on earth from outer space, and didn’t understand human nature, you’d think this couldn’t possibly be true, but apparently it is. It’s like something out of a comic book.

Exploratory Versus Confirmatory Data Analysis?

In 1977, John Tukey published a book called Exploratory Data Analysis. It introduced many new ways of analyzing data, all relatively simple. Most of the new ways involved plotting your data. A few involved transforming your data. Tukey’s broad point was that statisticians (taught by statistics professors) were missing a lot: Conventional statistics focussed too much on confirmatory data analysis (testing hypotheses) to the omission of exploratory data analysis — data analysis that might show you something new. Here are some tools to help you explore your data, Tukey was saying.

No question the new tools are useful. I have found great benefits from plotting and transforming my data. No question that conventional statistics textbooks place far too little emphasis on graphs and transformations. But I no longer agree with Tukey’s exploratory versus confirmatory distinction. The distinction that matters — at least to historians, if not to data analysts — is between low-status and high-status. A more accurate title of Tukey’s book would have been Low-Status Data Analysis. Exploratory data analysis already had a derogatory name: Descriptive data analysis. As in mere description. Graphs and transformations are low-status. They are low-status because graphs are common and transformations are easy. Anyone can make a graph or transform their data. I believe they were neglected for that reason. To show their high status, statistics professors focused their research and teaching on more difficult and esoteric stuff — like complicated regression. That the new stuff wasn’t terribly useful (compared to graphs and transformations) mattered little. Like all academics — like everyone — they cared enormously about showing high status. It was far more important to be impressive than to be useful. As Veblen showed, it might have helped that the new stuff wasn’t very useful. “Applied” science is lower status than “pure” science.

That most of what statistics professors have developed (and taught) is less useful than graphs and transformations strikes me as utterly clear. My explanation is that in statistics, just as in every other academic area I know about, desire to display status led to a lot of useless highly-visible work. (What Veblen called conspicuous waste.) Less visibly, it led to the best tools being neglected. Tukey saw the neglect –  underdevelopment and underteaching of graphs, for example — but perhaps misdiagnosed the cause. Here’s why Tukey’s exploratory versus confirmatory distinction was misleading: Because the tools that Tukey promoted for exploration also improve confirmation. They are neglected everywhere. For example:

1. Graphs improve confirmatory data analysis. If you do a t test (or compute a p value in any way) but don’t make an associated graph, there is room for improvement. A graph will show whether the assumptions of the computation are reasonable. Often they aren’t.

2. Transformations improve confirmatory data analysis. That a good transformation will make the assumptions of the test more reasonable many people know. What few people seem to know is that a good transformation will make the statistical test more sensitive. If a difference exists, the test will be more likely to detect it. This is like increasing your sample size at no extra cost.

3. Exploratory data analysis is sometimes thought of as going beyond the question you started with to find other structure in the data — to explore your data. (Tukey saw it this way.) But to answer the question you started with as well as possible you should find all the structure in the data. Suppose my question is whether X has an effect.  I should care whether Y and Z have an effect in order to (a) make my test of X more sensitive (by removing the effects of Y and Z) and (b) assess the generality of the effect of X (does it interact with Y or Z?).

Most statistics professors and their textbooks have neglected all uses of graphs and transformations, not just their exploratory uses. I used to think exploratory data analysis (and exploratory science more generally) needed different tools than confirmatory data analysis and confirmatory science. Now I don’t. A big simplification.

Exploration (generating new ideas) and confirmation (testing old ideas) are outputs of data analysis, not inputs. To explore your data and to test ideas you already have you should do exactly the same analysis. What’s good for one is good for the other.

Likewise, Freakonomics could have been titled Low-status Economics. That’s essentially what it was, the common theme. Levitt studied all sorts of things other economists thought were beneath them to study. That was Levitt’s real innovation — showing that these questions were neglected. Unsurprisingly, the general public, uninterested in the status of economists, found the work more interesting than high-status economics. I’m sensitive to this because my self-experimentation was extremely low-status. It was useful (low-status), cheap (low-status), small (low-status), and anyone could do it (extremely low status).

More Andrew Gelman comments. Robin Hanson comments.

Written With A Straight Face? Dept.

Jonathan Cole used to be provost of Colombia University. He has written a book called The Great American University, in which, according to this review,

He lists their dazzling achievements, which in biology and medicine include findings on gene-splicing, recombinant DNA, retroviruses, cancer therapies, coch­lear implants, the fetal ultrasound scanner, the hepatitis B vaccine, prions, stem cells, organ transplantation and even a treatment for head lice. . . . In a chapter on the social sciences, he cites, among many others, such useful innovations as theories of human capital and social mobility, research in linguistics and even the use of prices to reduce traffic jams.

“Research in linguistics”? Yes, that sounds dazzling. I’m sure those “theories of human capital” have been v v “useful”. And who would have thought that if you raise the price of something (“use of prices to reduce traffic jams”) . . . people use less of it? Which was traffic engineering, not social science. Did the reviewer, an economics professor at Harvard named Claudia Goldin, write this with a straight face?

The “dazzling achievements” in biology and medicine are only slightly less unconvincing.”Gene splicing” and “recombinant DNA” research are different names for the same thing. Fetal ultrasound scanners may cause autism. Vaccines were not invented by an American university professor. The discovery of prions has had no obvious non-laboratory use — besides being questionable. Stem-cell research has yet to produce anything of use outside of labs. To be fair, gene splicing has been used to produce human insulin, which is better than the insulin previously available, but conspicuously absent from the list of accomplishments is prevention of diabetes — not to mention allergies, obesity, depression, arthritis, stroke, or any of the other lifestyle problems that a large fraction of Americans suffer from. Such achievements would be truly useful. Great American universities haven’t given us any of those . . but they have given us a treatment for head lice.

There’s a reason for the term ivory tower. Apparently Cole, conscious of the term, is trying to argue against it — but merely shows why it exists. (I’m assuming the review is accurate.) It reminds me of the time that top Chinese students, visiting top American colleges such as Harvard and Yale, found the American students ignorant and arrogant. The theme of Cole’s book is that American universities are in trouble and need more support. What useful stuff they’ve accomplished is central to his argument. When I was an undergrad, I read Thorstein Veblen’s bitter The Higher Learning in America, which said American universities were dysfunctional. He mentioned “committees for the sifting of sawdust.”

More “Graduate school in the humanities is a trap” (via Marginal Revolution).

Assorted Links

Thanks to Oskar Pearson and Dave Lull.

Insurance Group VP Questions Climate Science

Science journalists, like other journalists, have a built-in problem: What they write affects the careers of the scientists they talk to. So those scientists are unlikely to be honest. No doubt most science journalists realize this but cannot say it, for fear of damaging their own careers. Dirty little secret is the phrase.

This is why, when Climategate happened, the many claims of climate scientists that the emails meant nothing themselves meant nothing. “The reason for the denial was the need for it,” Thorstein Veblen was fond of saying. What the climate scientists really thought they were unlikely to make public. The faux-horrified reactions of the few who made a living on the other side of the debate also meant nothing.

And this is why this reaction to Climategate, from Robert Detlefsen, an insurance industry group vice president, is meaningful: what he says will have no effect on his career. He is disinterested.  And he makes some good points:

  • “The CRU e-mails show that a close-knit group of the world’s most influential climate scientists actively colluded to subvert the peer-review process [to prevent publication of disagreement]; manufactured pre-determined conclusions through the use of contrived analytic techniques; and discussed destroying data to avoid [FOIA] requests.”
  • He quotes from the Wegman report, which I hadn’t heard of. The Wegman report is by a group of statisticians.  It says: “‘ independent studies’ may not be as independent as they might appear on the surface”. It also says that when climate scientists were asked to explain their work, “the sharing of research material, data and results was haphazardly and grudgingly done.”

He concludes that the science is less certain than has been claimed.

Chimamanda Adichie on Academia

After a few years of being a writer, Chimamanda Adichie — author of my Short Story of the Year — wondered if she should be a professor. (Her father is a statistics professor.) And she wanted to learn more about Africa. So she enrolled in an African Studies program at Yale. In an interview, she said:

I met very lovely people at Yale, so it wasn’t an entire waste of time. . . . After two years of the program . . . academia I discovered — particularly political science as it is done in the US — is not about the real world. It’s about academia. I would joke and say that what they do is they create straw men, and they beat them down. While all this is going on, the real world is going on in a parallel universe. It is completely disconnected from what happens in academia. I didn’t understand most of what I read. It wasn’t written in English, it was written in political-science jargonese.

This is the usual critique, but it is well-put. If you spend enough time in academia, as I have, you can see it becoming that way, disciplines turning inward, becoming less and less interested in reality. Becoming more and more ivory-towerish. Statistics, for example, became less and less concerned with real-world problems; but I could say the same about every other area (engineering, English, etc.).

This is glaringly obvious, roughly as clear as the sun rising in the morning, but some Berkeley professors denied it. “English departments have really lost their way,” I would say. No they haven’t would be the reply.

eConspicuous Waste

The term conspicuous consumption got more attention but Thorstein Veblen, in the same book, also coined the term conspicuous waste. The purpose of conspicuous consumption was conspicuous waste. Show how rich you are. Fine. So what do we do now, when driving a car with hood ornaments would make you look like an idiot rather than a rich person?

The creators of Paperless Post have not taken Veblen into account:

Paperless Post takes the e-invite into a civilized age, letting you design and send custom invitations and announcements expediently online. Created by siblings Alexa and James Hirschfeld, the site cleverly allows subscribers to choose among a dizzying array of card styles, fonts and design flourishes that perfectly mimic the heft and look of elegant stationary, complete with envelopes that open with a click. In addition to feeling good about your carbon footprint, you’re also easily able to monitor as recipients receive their invitations, and manage their replies.

Fancy invitations were an example of conspicuous waste. They were expensive. Everyone could see that. Here’s my suggestion: Sell these e-invites by the card and to each card add a donation to charity per card. Stated on the card. Let’s say the donation is $2. So 100 cards sent = $200 to some charity. That way the sender shows that he or she is rich.
Via Very Short List.

In Academia, High Status = Useless

In a good article about what caused the financial crisis, John Cassidy quotes an economist:

During the past few decades, much economic research has “tended to be motivated by the internal logic, intellectual sunk capital and esthetic puzzles of established research programmes rather than by a powerful desire to understand how the economy works—let alone how the economy works during times of stress and financial instability,” notes Willem Buiter, a professor at the London School of Economics who has also served on the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee.

It isn’t just “the past few decades” and it isn’t just “much economic research,” it’s all academia. Thorstein Veblen made this point a hundred years ago in The Theory of the Leisure Class. Academics show their high status by doing useless research. Useful research is low status. When, as a professor, you see this in your own department — the uselessness of what people do — you think surely other departments are different. They aren’t. As a Berkeley grad student in engineering said to me, “95% of what goes on in Cory [Hall — where her department is] will never be used.”

Easy versus Hard: Hunting, Agriculture, Etc.

Coming across this sentence

The more intensive the agricultural system, the more work required for a unit of food.

in Charles Maisel’s The Emergence of Civilization (1990, p. 35) made me think for a while and make a list:

  1. Hunting: Easy.
  2. Agriculture: Hard. In agriculture you have to start from scratch in a way you don’t when hunting.
  3. Self-Experimentation: Easy.
  4. Ordinary Science: Hard. It is much harder to discover something useful via ordinary science than via self-experimentation.
  5. Fermentation: Easy. It is easy to make yogurt or kombucha, for example.
  6. Medical Drugs: Hard. Hard to invent, hard to make, hard to sell, hard to get, hard to afford, not to mention dangerous. It is much easier to cure/prevent problems by eating fermented foods, such as yogurt.

What’s interesting is the starkness of the differences. Hunting and agriculture are two answers to the same question. I suppose we backed into agriculture because we over-hunted. In the other two pairs, I think the basic Veblenian dynamic was/is at work: The more useless, the more high status. Scientists must be elaborately theoretical and high-techy and wasteful to be high-status. Likewise with home remedies (such as fermented food) versus medical drugs: To be high-status, doctors had to promote elaborate, obscure, hard-to-get remedies.

Modern Veblen: Kathy Griffin Tells the Truth

From Season 3, Episode 6 of My Life on the D-List:

TV SHOW PRODUCER [preparing Kathy for the questions she’ll be asked] What do you love about handbags?

KATHY GRIFFIN That they are a statement that I’m rich.

This reminds me of Albert Einstein saying his two favorite thinkers were Thorstein Veblen and Sigmund Freud. We really are smarter now, just as James Flynn says. Einstein, surely the best physicist of his generation, was unable to see that Freud was bogus, and, although he was right about Veblen, talented comedians now say exactly what Veblen said.

More Kathy Griffin in this week’s EW: “I have not read a book since last week’s Us Weekly.” That makes two of us, Kathy.

Not the Same Study Section: How the Truth Comes Out

In the latest Vanity Fair is a brilliant piece of journalism, Goodbye to All That: An Oral History of the Bush White House by Cullen Murphy and Todd Purdum. In a fun, easy-to-read format, it tells some basic truths I had never read before. Here are two examples:

Matthew Dowd, Bush’s pollster and chief strategist for the 2004 presidential campaign: When Abu Ghraib happened, I was like, We’ve got to fire Rumsfeld. Like if we’re the “accountability president,” we haven’t really done this. We don’t veto any bills. We don’t fire anybody. I was like, Well, this is a disaster, and we’re going to hold some National Guard colonel responsible? This guy’s got to get fired.

For an M.B.A. president, he got the M.B.A. 101 stuff down, which is, you know, you don’t have to do everything. Let other people do it. But M.B.A. 201 is: Hold people accountable.

David Kuo, deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives: There’s this idea that the Bush White House was dominated by religious conservatives and catered to the needs of religious conservatives. But what people miss is that religious conservatives and the Republican Party have always had a very uneasy relationship. The reality in the White House is if you look at the most senior staff you’re seeing people who aren’t personally religious and have no particular affection for people who are religious-right leaders. Now, at the end of the day, that’s easy to understand, because most of the people who are religious-right leaders are not easy to like. It’s that old Gandhi thing, right? I might actually be a Christian myself, except for the action of Christians.

And so in the political-affairs shop in particular, you saw a lot of people who just rolled their eyes at everyone from Rich Cizik, who is one of the heads of the National Association of Evangelicals, to James Dobson, to basically every religious-right leader that was out there, because they just found them annoying and insufferable. These guys were pains in the butt who had to be accommodated.

This is related to the Shangri-La Diet. In these two excerpts, the speakers were (a) close to the events they describe but (b) not so close they are in any danger from the people they tell the truth about.

In science the same thing happens. Saul Sternberg and I could tell the truth about Ranjit Chandra’s research not only because (a) we were fairly close to that research (which involved psychology, even though Chandra was a nutritionist) but also because (b) not being nutrition professors, Chandra couldn’t harm us. Those closer to Chandra, professional nutritionists, had plenty of doubts as far as I could tell but were afraid to say them. Hal Pashler and I could criticize a widely-accepted practice among cognitive modelers because (a) we were in the same general field, cognitive psychology, but (b) far enough away so that the people we criticized would never review our grants or our papers. (Except the critique itself, which they hated. After the first round of reviews, Hal and I requested new reviewers, saying it was inevitable that the people we criticized wouldn’t like what we said.) Likewise, in the case of voodoo correlations, Hal is (a) close enough to social neuroscience to understand the details of the research but (b) far enough away to criticize it without fear.

In the case of the Shangri-La Diet, I was (a) close enough to the field of nutrition that I could understand the research but (b) far enough away so that I could say what I thought without fear of reprisal. Nassim Taleb is in the same relation to the field he criticizes. Just as Saul Sternberg and I knew a lot about the outcome measure (psychological tests) but were not nutritionists, Weston Price, a dentist, knew a lot about his outcome measure (dental health) but was not a nutritionist.

It’s curious how rarely this need for insider/outsiders (inside in terms of knowledge, outside in terms of career) is pointed out. It’s a big part of how science progresses, in small ways and large. Mendel and Darwin were well-educated amateurs, for example. Thorstein Veblen wrote about it but I haven’t read it anywhere else.

Life Imitates Art School (part 2)

Tsinghua University includes an art school added six or seven years ago. An art school elsewhere in Beijing moved to the Tsinghua campus; a big building was built for them. Two of my Chinese teachers are art students. I told them about the San Francisco art school where every department looks down on another department. This got a big laugh. The same thing happens in their school, they said. It is divided into fine arts and design. The fine arts students look down on the design students because the design students are working for money; the design students look down on the fine arts students because they aren’t practical.

The more curious interaction is between the art students and the rest of the school. Students in the rest of Tsinghua, which resembles MIT, often ask the art students their score on the national exam that high school students take to get into college. It is incredibly difficult to get into Tsinghua by that route; maybe 1 in 10,000 is successful. Art students have lower scores on this test but must also pass a test of artistic ability. One of my teachers, who is now a graduate student, said she’d been asked her exam scores at least 10 times.  Here is one context. My teacher has just helped another student with his bike.

Student who has just been helped: What’s your major?

My teacher: Art.

Student: What was your score on the national test?

And she is big and strong, she said, so potential questioners may have been afraid of being hit. Other art students are asked more often.

Life Imitates Art School

I had lunch with Lisa Goldberg, an adjunct professor in the Statistics Department at Berkeley. Her application area is finance. She said that people in finance have at least as much contempt for academics as academics do for people in finance. Thorstein Veblen, of course, wrote about the latter — people looking down on useful work — but not the former. Perhaps his views were skewed by being an academic himself. I blogged earlier about how students in each major at a San Francisco art school look down on the students in some other major.

Lisa also said she sleeps well. I was surprised — hardly anyone says that. It turns out she exercises heavily. She swims or runs seven days a week and when she swims, she swims 2000 meters. As a former swimmer, I know that’s a lot. When I exercised, there was no clear effect on my sleep, apart from falling asleep faster. I still woke up too early in the morning. Maybe I wasn’t exercising enough. Anyway, it’s one little data point supporting my conclusions from standing on one leg.

Errors in The Queen of Fats

Susan Allport’s The Queen of Fats is the best introduction to omega-3 fatty acids and their importance that I know of. I learned a lot from it (and interviewed the author). This is why its errors are interesting; they shed light on the big nutritional misconceptions of our time (as Weston Price, the subject of yesterday’s post, did in a different way). Joel Kauffman, a chemist, made a list:

1. On p1 low-carb bread and beer are ridiculed despite evidence (see Nielsen JV, Joensson EA, Low-carbohydrate diet in type 2 diabetes. Stable improvement of body weight and glycaemic control during 22 months follow-up, Nutrition & Metabolism 2006;3(22) doi:10.1186/1743-7075-3-22) to the contrary. There are at least 10 studies supporting Nielsen. Low-carb means low insulin demand. Insulin converts carb to fat. Allport’s claim that the world’s leanest peoples mostly eat carbs neglects to mention that they are malnourished.

3. On p2 and later Allport calls saturated fatty acid chains “straight”, then still later by the correct term “zigzag”, but never by the chemist’s term “unbranched”. She is not aware that a saturated fatty acid chain of 22 carbons has many more conformations than the 22-carbon DHA with 6 carbon-carbon double bonds, or that double bonds keep 4-carbon groups rigid. If DHA “is constantly on the move” there must be some other reason.

5. On p10 canola oil, which is not rapeseed oil, is not usually promoted for its linolenic acid content, but for its low saturated content, lower than olive oil. This is not a real advantage, according to all the books (except Sears’) I have listed above.

6. The conundrum of eating fish for its omega-3s despite the mercury content was not resolved on p11 or elsewhere. There are two long-term studies showing that there is not a big problem: The Chicago Western Electric Study followed the effects of fish consumption in 2,107 men aged 40-55, and followed for 30 years. Those who ate an average of *35 g daily (about 1 big fish dinner every 5 days) had only 9/10 of the all-cause mortality rate of men who ate no fish. The Nurses’ Health Study on 84,688 women aged 34-59 years and followed for 16 years for outcomes vs. fish and omega-3 fatty acid intake, had the following findings: women consuming fish five times weekly had only 7/10 the all-cause mortality rate of those eating fish once a month. Pregnant women have been cautioned to restrict their intake of fish ( despite evidence that children receive most of their mercury from vaccines. Hepatitis b vaccine carries 12.5 micrograms per dose; influenza and other common vaccines carry 25 micrograms per shot, over 830 times the amount in a can of tuna. It has been reported that vaccines said not to contain the mercury compound, thimerosal, still might have it. The long duration of the diet studies makes it very clear that the mercury content of fish, in general, is not shortening life.

7. On p14 eating fat in general was used as a straw man and implied to be the major cause of heart disease. Not so; see below (section titled More at bottom of post).

8. On p15 the Framingham Study was claimed to have shown a positive link between serum cholesterol and risk of heart disease. This was disproven by 1937 by experiments on cadavers. See The Cholesterol Myths and either Great Cholesterol Con [there are two books with this title]. See above for evidence that the Seven Countries Study was a fraud. A more recent study on free-living elderly in Manhattan showed the opposite — those with the highest cholesterol and LDL0C levels lived the longest. See Schupf N, Costa R, Luchsinger J, et al. (2005). Relationship Between Plasma Lipids and All-Cause Mortality in Nondemented Elderly. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society 53:219-226.

10. On p20 the excessive bleeding in Eskimos is said to be unimportant vs. lower heart attack rates than those of Danes, but external bleeding, as with aspirin, probably indicates internal bleeding.

11. On p21 it was written that polyunsaturated fats held down cholesterol levels. Actually HDL levels were held down and there was no drop in mortality: Rose GA, Thomson WB, Williams RT (1965). Corn Oil in Treatment of Ischaemic Heart Disease. British Medical Journal  12 Jun:1531-1533.

12. On p22 gas-liquid chromatography was said to have been developed in the 1950s by oil companies. A Google search showed its invention in the 1940s to separate fatty acids: see James A T & Martin A J P. Gas-liquid partition chromatography: the separation and microestimation of volatile fatty acids from formic acid to dodecanoic acid. Biochem. J. 50:679-90, 1952. [National Institute for Medical Research, Mill Hill, London, England]

13. On p22-3, 25 it is implied that the increase in heart disease in Eskimos who adopted aspects of a Western diet is solely due to differences in omega-x fat intake. No attention was paid to the effect of carbs on a very carb-sensitive population.

14. On p25 Allport insults Spam for being “highly saturated”. This is nonsense, since lard is only 40% saturated. See Know Your Fats by Mary G. Enig, 2000.

17. On p49 the “pure cholesterol” fed to rabbits has been shown to be oxycholesterol, which is not healthful.

18. On p51 Ancel Keys, MD, was said to link serum cholesterol to heart disease, but this link had already been shown to be false in 1937 by work on cadavers.

19. On p54 Allport wrote that EPA was responsible for low cholesterol in Eskimo blood on traditional diets, but linoleic acid based fats do this also, and human fat is 10% linoleic (lard 6%).
20. On p57 was written that pork and dairy fats are very saturated. Actually, the former is about 40% saturated and the latter 62%. See Know Your Fats.

31. On p66 a crack was made about an unbalanced diet. Since some populations have survived for centuries on all animal diets, a balanced diet turns out to be a fantasy designed to raise carb consumption despite a lack of evidence that there is any requirement for carb at all in the human diet. See the Ottoboni’s book. Also, there is vitamin C in fresh meat, so worrying about scurvy was not justified.

32. On p68 the claim that fats and carbs make up over 80% of the calories in every diet consumed by humankind is absurd, based on traditional Eskimo and Masai diets, among others.

33. On p 69: “so fat gives foods their distinctive aromas and tastes.” What about the odor of fresh bread, hot marshmallow, citral and neral in fruit, licorice, mint, wine, beer, etc.? These are not fats.
34. On p71 the statement that the increased energy in fats compared with carbs or proteins comes from their dense packing. The no-nonsense explanation is that carbs and proteins are partially oxidized because they contain oxygen and nitrogen, so oxidizing them the rest of the way to CO2 and water gives less energy than the all-hydrcarbon parts of fats.

35. Also on p71 is the fantasy that unsaturated fats contain less energy than than saturated because a double bond contains 10% less energy than a single bond. My old physical organic chemistry text has 80 kcal/mole for the C—C single bond, and 142 kcal for the C=C double bond, a far cry from Allport’s fantasy. And the energy available on digestion is given above — much less from mostly saturated fatty acids.

36. On p74 the slow melting of butter is not due to the melting points of the fatty acids in its triglycerides (fats), but the different melting points of the fats themselves.

37. On p78 and elsewhere Allport wrote of the high concentration of arachidonic acid and DHA in brain and nerve tissue. Her conflicted position on cholesterol is shown by her refusal to mention that the highest concentration of choleserol in the body is in the brain. But on p148 she writes that cholesterol is a necessary component of brain function

39. On p88 the fantasy begun by Ancel Keys that overconsumption of fats was the major health problem in the West was reiterated without any of the evidence from the books cited above that this was false.

40. On p89 domestic cow fat is said to be only 2% unsaturated. Know Your Fats says it is 42% unsaturated, and the CRC Handbook of 1983-4 says 52% unsaturated.
43. On p100: “In men, it [aspirin] cuts mortality from heart disease by more than half.” This is one of the most flagrant misquotations of the aspirin findings I have yet seen. Actually Bufferin cuts the number of non-fatal heart attacks by half with no change in mortality, and plain aspirin maybe by 1/3, also with no change in mortality.

44. On p104 a common omission characteristic of drug ads is found: “…mortality from heart disease goes up linearly with the increase in omega-6s…” does not include the crucial all-cause mortality, without which no amount of lowered mortality from some single cause has any meaning for action.

46. On p107 Allport implies that the incidence of heart disease in the US has not changed from 1909-1985. In Heart Frauds by Charles T. McGee (2001), p59, heart disease death rate was shown to have changed from 15/100,000 in 1910 to a peak of 331/100,000 in 1968, then falling to 194/100,000 by 1990. McGee shows that this drop corresponded well with an increase in vitamin C intake.

47. On p109 there is a disconnect between Allport’s generalization that seeds contain mostly omega-6s and leaves mostly omega-3s. Both canola and linseed oils are high in omega-3s which are in their seeds.

49. On p114 it was written that certain Nigerians with high omega-3 levels, presumably in blood, ate “a lot of greens” and most fat was palm oil, high in saturated fats, meaning that sat fats (and the other half of palm oil, the monounsaturated oleic acid 18:1*9) do not interfere with the transformation of linolenic acid from those greens into DHA and EPA. OK, then, why did she not relent on her anti-sat fat position?

50. On p118, Allport actually said that “…small amounts of saturated fats are better than large amounts of omega-6s.” This shows her conflict: such small amounts would require much less total fat consumption, and the value of this move has no positive evidence.

51. Also on p118 and 142, Allport minimized the dangers of trans fats, being totally unaware that controlled tests in human subjects showed serious adverse effects. Risérus U, Abner P, Brismar K, Vessby B (2002a).  Treatment with Dietary trans10cis12 Conjugated Linoleic Acid Causes Isomer-Specific Insulin Resistance in Obese Men with the Metabolic Syndrome.  Diabetes Care  25(9):1516-1521; Risérus U, Basu S, Jovinge S, Fredrikson GN, Årnlov J, Vessby B (2002b). Supplementation with Conjugated Linoleic Acid Causes Isomer-Dependent Oxidative Stress and Elevated C-Reactive Protein. A Potential Link to Fatty Acid-Induced Insulin Resistance.  Circulation  106:1825-1929.

52. On p126 in an otherwise good discussion of bad aspects of leaky membranes, a bad simile was used: “…we all know what happens to engines when they run constantly…” Do we? It was found by the 1960s that most car engine wear occurred immediately after startup from cold, while there was no measurable wear during constant running at moderate rpms.

54. On p129 Allport notes that there was not a single known case of diabetes (no type given) in Eskimos of the Umanak district in 1971 on their traditional diet. The implication is that omega-3s did the job, but no airtime was ever given to the zero-carb diets.

55. On p134, again, diabetes (type not given) and obesity were equated to caloric intake, not, as so often demonstrated, carb intake.

56. On p135 one of the classic objections to the Atkins low-carb diet is given — that it causes kidney and liver failure due to higher protein consumption. This was twice false, since no such damage was seen by Atkins in his patients who did raise protein intake; but more important, the missing carbs are ideally to be replaced by fat, which has no glycemic index, unlike protein with a GI of 20 or so.

58. On p139 the blanket recommendations to eat “… lots (and lots) of fruits…” is very destructive to diabetics (both types) and pre-diabetics. Many kinds of fruit are high in sugars. Barry Groves, PhD, Nutrition, Richard K. Bernstein, MD, and William Cambell Douglass, Jr., MD, have avoided fruit for decades and are all in their seventies in good health.

59. Also on p139 the advice to avoid any high omega-6 oil is OK, but the advice to minimize butter is not. Not only is there no danger in butter, but its medium-chain fatty acids have antimicrobial properties. See Know Your Fats, above.

60. On p140 and 142 the advice to eat a wide variety of fish does not account for differences in EPA and DHA content, or differences in mercury content. Benefits of supplements of EPA and DHA have been shown in controlled trials.

61. On p143 saturated fats come in for another absurd hit, this time with the epithet “solid”. Phew! Of course lard and tallow are not solid at body temperature! And they do not cause heart disease: Ravnskov U (1998). The Questionable Role of Saturated and Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids in Cardiovascular Disease. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology  51:443-60.

62. On p144 Allport reverses herself from her position on p138 and gives amounts of EPA and DHA supplements to take daily. She wisely cautions against supplements containing omega-6s since we get too much of them anyway. But she says that strict vegetarians need more linolenic acid as though they are not getting it from eating massive amounts of leafy vegetables.

65. On p149 a study within the Physicians’ Health Study (the one with the misquoted and misinterpreted info on aspirin) there was a finding that 94 of 15,000 of them who experienced sudden cardiac death were 90% less likely to do so if they had the highest omega-3 levels in their blood. First, in the absence of all-cause mortality, you cannot tell whether high omega-3 levels did any overall good. Next only 0.6% of the total or 1 in 170 had this cause of death, so the benefit is pretty small. Dietary intake of omega-3s was not even given.

66. On p151 it is not clear whether all omega-3s in blood are measured by the commercially available tests, or whether the individual ones are assayed and reported. If EPA and DHA levels are not reported, there will be little if any value in the tests.

67.On p192 Allport wrote that rapeseed oil “…has a high alpha linolenic acid content.” My CRC Handbook of 1983-4 lists 1%!!  Such is the result of confusing rapeseed and canola.

You can see from the numbering I’ve omitted some of them; for the full list, contact Dr. Kauffman at kauffman at bee dot net. For more on health misconceptions, read his book Malignant Medical Myths, Infinity Publ., West Conshohocken, PA, 2006. ISBN 0-7414-2909-8 326 pp. $24.95.

Science, especially health science, is so important yet it is remarkably hard to learn about. Part of the problem seems to be that those who can write well (such as journalists) don’t understand the science and those who understand the science (such as scientists) can’t write well. (Another part of the problem, as Veblen pointed out, is that among academics to write clearly is low status, to write  mumbo-jumbo is high status.) This is why I like Leonard Mlodinow‘s work so much; he writes well and understands the science.

But don’t misunderstand this post. The Queen of Fats is an excellent book. The most impressive and hopeful thing about it is that it was written by a non-scientist — in other words, that a non-scientist was able to figure out that the common neglect of omega-3 fats was seriously wrong. (Omega-3 fats receive almost no attention in Eat Drink and Be Healthy by Walter Willett et al. for example. There is no RDA for them.) I like to think it’s some sort of turning point that non-scientists have become able to grasp how wrong the health establishment can be; another example is Taubes’s Good Calories, Bad Calories.

More. The list of errors unfortunately omitted some general comments:

The Seven-Country Study by Ancel Keys that was so influential (cholesterol and saturated fat being “bad”) was not presented as the fraud it was. For a great description, see The Great Cholesterol Con (GCC), by Anthony Colpo (2007). For an honest Fourteen Country Study see another GCC of 2007, this one by Malcolm Kendrick, in which Kendrick showed that the 7 countries with the lowest saturated fat consumption had the highest mortality from heart disease (450/100,000 per year), while the 7 countries with the highest saturated fat intake had the lowest mortality from heart disease (170/100,000). See also The Cholesterol Myths by Uffe Ravnskov, 2000. Low-carb high-fat diets were ridiculed from start to finish as destructive and a fad, despite overwhelming evidence that they are not. See Nielsen JV, Joensson EA, Low-carbohydrate diet in type 2 diabetes. Stable improvement of bodyweight and glycaemic control during 22 months follow-up, Nutrition & Metabolism 2006;3(22) doi:10.1186/1743-7075-3-22. While Allport may be correct in claiming that omega-3s will prevent or reverse diabetes (and she is not always clear on which type), the evidence is clear that type-1 is much more easily controlled with a low-carb high-fat diet, and type-2 may be controlled so well on a low-carb diet that no medication is needed. See Dr. Bernstein’s Diabetes Solution, rev. ed. by Richard K. Bernstein, MD, Boston, MA:Little, Brown, 2003. So Allport’s recommendation to eat large amounts of fruit (p139) could be a disaster for diabetics. Eskimos are often obese albeit healthy, so omega-3s for weight loss seems too much to claim. And she seems unaware of the prevalence of grain allergies. See Natural Health & Weight Loss, Barry Groves, 2007; Know Your Fats by Mary G. Enig, 2000. Also Allport seems to equate eating linolenic acid as the equivalent of eating EPA and DHA in fish, and does not recommend supplements of the latter two. Neither idea had any supporting evidence presented. Nor was the ideal range of omega-3 intake given. A study of the conversion of radioisotopically-labeled linolenic acid to EPA in humans showed poor conversion, and even poorer conversion to DHA. Adequate intakes of pre-formed DHA are needed for good health. See Burdge G, alpha-Linolenic acid metabolism in men and women: nutritional and biological implications, Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care 2004;7:137-144.

Cheap vs. Expensive Wine

The Harvard Society of Fellows, I learned from this great post by Steve Levitt, drink expensive wine — like $60/bottle. Steve, who was a Fellow for 3 years, did a simple experiment that showed the other members couldn’t tell expensive wine from cheap wine. Although the other members had liked the idea of doing the experiment, they didn’t like the results:

There was a lot of anger when I revealed the results, especially the fact that I had included the same wine twice. One eminent scholar stormed out of the room stating that he had a cold — otherwise he would have detected my sleight of hand with certainty.

Stormed out of the room! Why were they so angry? I think they were embarrassed. And not just that. Steve doesn’t say it, but I think there had been lots of dinner table conversation about how great the wine was. Now all that conversation was revealed to be delusional. Noting the greatness of the wine was — to be crude about it — a way of noting the greatness of those assembled at the table. “We appreciate the finer things in life,” they were saying. “We deserve to be here.” Snobbery is reassuring. In a tiny voice, the results said, yes, you are here, congratulations, but the reason you are here is more complicated than “you deserved it”.

My Theory of Human Evolution (gift card edition)

The Sharper Image has gone bankrupt and will no longer honor gift cards. In the comments section of the Consumerist post about this, several people apparently fail to understand why gift cards exist:

Another reason why cash is a better gift than gift cards.

This is just a good example why you should never buy a gift card.

Did anyone ever NOT know that gift cards are stupid?

The real lesson here, as Consumerists know, is don’t buy gift cards. They are a bad deal even if the issuer doesn’t go bankrupt.

This is the low-rent version of the deadweight cost of Christmas idea, which I discussed earlier. At the risk of stating the obvious, the perfect gift shows you know a lot about the recipient; cash shows you know nothing. A gift card shows you know a little — where the person likes to shop. They are less wasteful but less gift-like than ordinary gifts, more wasteful and more gift-like than cash. Gifts are supposed to be wasteful. This is why they are nicely wrapped. (Curiously no commenter called gifts stupid, a scam, etc.) In evolutionary terms, gift-giving traditions evolved because they increased demand for seemingly “useless” stuff. Gifts that went unused and expensive wrappings weren’t actually useless; they helped artists and artisans make a living. They were research grants for material science.

A Different Sort of Scientific Progress: Toward Utility

From a excellent column by Tim Hartford:

Esther Duflo, a French economics professor at MIT, wondered whether there was anything that could be done about absentee teachers in rural India, which is a large problem for remote schoolhouses with a single teacher. Duflo and her colleague Rema Hanna took a sample of 120 schools in Rajasthan, chose 60 at random, and sent cameras to teachers in the chosen schools. The cameras had tamper-proof date and time stamps, and the teachers were asked to get a pupil to photograph the teacher with the class at the beginning and the end of each school day.

It was a simple idea, and it worked. Teacher absenteeism plummeted, as measured by random audits, and the class test scores improved markedly.

Another young economist, Ben Olken of Harvard, used a similar randomisation technique to work out whether corruption in Indonesian road-building projects was best fought top-down, using audits, or bottom-up, soliciting comments from local villagers about whether money was being embezzled. One challenge was to work out how much embezzlement was taking place. Olken enlisted engineers to take samples of the road’s structure and to estimate how much it should have cost to build; he compared that estimate with how much spending was claimed in the project’s accounts. The missing funds were a rough guide to the amount embezzled.

In contrast to Duflo’s results, Olken found that the bottom-up monitoring was not effective – it shifted the embezzlement from something the villagers cared about (wages) to something they did not (building materials). The threat of a guaranteed audit – a threat that was later carried out – was much more effective, reducing the estimates of missing funds by a third.

A chapter in The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen is about academia and the tendency toward uselessness, which Veblen explained as a way of signalling that one doesn’t need to work. As a general rule at research universities, useful = low status. A few years ago, I had lunch with an engineering professor. By far the most useful thing to come out of the UC Berkeley Electrical Engineering Department in the last 20 years, he told me, was a circuit analysis program (SPICE). Used everywhere. A big contribution to the field. Who did it? I asked. He didn’t know. That’s how low-status it was — no professor wanted to be closely associated with it.

The curious thing about the two examples that Hartford describes is that they are happening at the same time. Is this a coincidence? Or is there an explanation?

Peter Pronovost’s research on ICU checklists is far more useful than one would expect from a medical school professor; likewise my self-experimentation about everyday problems (e.g., poor sleep) was far more useful than one would expect from a psychology professor. So perhaps there is some sort of larger discipline-spanning force at work.

The Twilight of Expertise (part 13: ICU doctors)

The other shoe drops. A year ago Atul Gawande wrote in The New Yorker about the Apgar score, a low-tech measurement of newborn viability that led to vast improvements in obstetrics. That’s the “how to improve?” side of things. Now Gawande has written about something equally simple and powerful on the “here’s how to improve” side of medicine: the use of checklists to improve ICU treatment. The first article was called “The Score”; this one is called “The Checklist”.

Checklists are the idea of Peter Pronovost, an ICU doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital. His first checklist, in 2001, was designed to prevent infections on tubes inserted into patients. Nurses made sure that doctors followed the checklist. It’s like the Ten Commandments: the top and bottom getting together to improve the behavior of people in the middle. Checklists involved the empowerment of nurses (bottom) by hospital administrators (top) to improve the performance of doctors (middle). No coincidence, I’m sure, that the Apgar score also involved female empowerment: Virginia Apgar was one of the first powerful women in medicine.

Pronovost told Gawande:

The tasks of medical science fall into three buckets. One is understanding disease biology. One is finding effective therapies. And one is insuring those therapies are delivered effectively. That third bucket has been almost totally ignored by research funders, government, and academia. It’s viewed as the art of medicine. That’s a mistake, a huge mistake. And from a taxpayer’s perspective it’s outrageous.

Not to mention a sick person’s perspective. I completely agree. Several years ago I heard an industrial designer give a talk to an interface design group. He said that new high-tech products go through three stages: (a) used only by gadgeteers and professional engineers (e.g., the first home computers); (b) used by experts (e.g., billing software for lawyers); and (c) mass market (e.g., cell phones). The discipline of engineering, he said, was good at designing for the first two stages but not the third.

The similarities suggest a common explanation. I think one reason goes back to Veblen: It is low status to do useful work. It may also have to do with male dominance of medical research and engineering. When balancing status versus usefulness, men may weigh status more highly.

More innovation in the delivery of medicine: house calls. No kidding. More about Peter Pronovost.