Daily Maverick Morality Science

Can frankensalmon triumph over uninformed ad-hoc opinions?

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

tumblr_lys10lmgnS1qdm7sdo1_500Consumers have a history of caution in adopting technological innovations in food. Pasteurised milk took years to gain acceptance, and words like “Frankenfood” are used to describe food that is produced in a lab. But what starts out frightening can rapidly become commonplace. Nearly two decades ago, genetically modified soy beans were Frankenfood, and today they account for 85% of soy bean production in the US.

Labels like “Frankenfood” are emotive, and imply that a wrong has been committed. Unfortunately, the debate often ends here, as moral claims – no matter how un-articulated – are frequently treated as privileged or even as trump-cards, in that if you find something morally objectionable, your objection is typically afforded respect regardless of its merit.

So it is with Frankensalmon, or to give this delectable fish its proper name, AquAdvantage salmon, fresh from the labs of AquaBounty Technologies, Inc. A combination of Atlantic Salmon, Chinook, and Ocean Eel Pout. The Chinook salmon provides a growth hormone gene, while the Ocean Eel Pout contributes an antifreeze protein gene. What we end up with is a salmon that reaches market age twice as fast as the one you’d normally find on your plate.

What we also end up with, at least according to some commenters on the FDA’s website, is either something that will make you fat directly (“Pls don’t allow ge salmon. Please. Usa is obese enough”, says Vera) or play a part in destroying regular salmon, a food which apparently keeps you thin. According to Sandra, that is, who says “I am finally finding out why i have had a problem with my weight and health for the last few decades. Now you are prepared to take one of the healthiest foods away”.

Comments also include the predictable lamentations regarding Monsanto (who have nothing to do with AquAdvantage), big pharma, government and assorted other (also big, I imagine) villains. Mostly, though, it’s sheer hysteria and the occasional attempt at something that looks like a threat (“my family will never buy this!”) – albeit not a threat you’d imagine at all efficacious.

“It’s not nice to fool mother nature”, and “we need to stick with the basics and consume food in the form in which it has been consumed by human beings for millions of years” is the common sentiment, repeated over 24 pages with various degrees of anger. But as I noted in a previous column on doping in sport, the appeal to nature is often nothing but simple prejudice dressed up as argument.

There are arguments that could be had here, and evidence that would be relevant to whether this GM salmon should be approved or not. One concern would be whether these fish would be reproductively superior to traditional salmon, threatening their existence in the long run.

Even though AquaBounty claim that they are bred to be sterile, a petition reports that 5% of them are in fact fertile. Other issues are raised in the petition, such as the fish causing increased allergic reactions, and apparently also (at one production site) having been “infected with a new strain of infectious Salmon Anaemia, a deadly fish flu which has been devastating fish stocks around the world”.

It’s that sort of language – on the petition and on the FDA site – that should give cause for decreased concern, rather than the escalated hysteria that hysteria tends to breed. Salmon anaemia has been observed since 1984 – before this fish existed – and also seems to be something that salmon are prone to, whether or not they are GM. And seeing as viruses mutate, speaking of salmon being “infected with a new strain” can only result in readers imagining Dr. Strangelove cackling as he plots to hand Karl Rove the keys to the world.

It’s difficult to find examples of scientists, rather than frightened laypeople or environmental activists, urging caution about this fish. It might certainly be unsafe, but if it’s evidence and argument that should inform choices like these, we’ve got very little, if any, reason to be concerned.

What I’m more concerned about is the increasing trend of mistaking the popular voice for an opinion worth taking seriously. Christopher Hitchens coined a wonderful phrase in referring to conspiracy theories, dubbing them “exhaust fumes of democracy”, and one could say something similar about calls for public participation, like this one from the FDA (closing on February 25, if you want to get a rant in).

A checkbox which asks something like “is there any particular reason to take your viewpoint seriously” should perhaps be added to any such website, poll or evaluation, with an upload facility for your credentials. As Mitchell and Webb put it, a frequent response to the feedback we get could be something like “thank you for sharing with us the full majesty of your uninformed ad-hoc reckon”.

In summary, the problem seems to be that the democratising of, well, just about everything has resulted in too many of us thinking we have something worthwhile to say on anything, where sometimes, the most valuable contribution we could make might be our silence.

Daily Maverick Morality Science

Let them have EPO!

Originally published in the Daily Maverick. Sports scientist Ross Tucker and I had a brief debate/exchange of views on this topic on CapeTalk567 on the day of publication, and you can listen to that here.


Lance Armstrong certainly lied, and by most people’s standards, acted unethically in doing so. We’ll also find broad agreement that it was an moral failing for him to retaliate against whistle-blowers, attempting to destroy credibility and careers in an effort to keep his multiple deceptions a secret.

It is likewise true that he broke the rules in taking performance-enhancing substances, and in that sense deserves whatever punishment is laid down for those rule-violations. But the rules in question are inconsistent or even incoherent, and Armstrong’s fall from grace will hopefully lead to their revision.

The problem is this: for those of us who can only admire sporting prowess from afar rather than exhibit it ourselves, the narrative of purity is a compelling one. There we see a beautifully sculpted physique, capable of feats we can only imagine, that has been nurtured and honed in order to perform those feats. Or sometimes, someone more ordinary has perfected a skill through years of dedicated effort.

In both cases, though, we can imagine the sacrifices and dedication – the purity of purpose, and the fact that they achieved these goals through natural ability, exploiting the gifts bestowed on them by nature.

The immediate problem with this, though, is that it’s a complete fabrication. Some of us will always be advantaged in some respect and others disadvantaged, and anyone’s “natural” state will already include those asymmetries. You could fill a library with books on the philosophical concept of “moral luck”, Bernard Williams’ phrase for the inconsistent ways in which we attribute praise and blame for things that might or might not be in the agent’s control.

It’s not only that you might be born into a family that has the material means to buy you a bicycle or some running shoes, or send you to training camps. Your natural advantages might rest in the fact that you grew up at high altitude, or near a beach so that you built strength by running in the sand. For every Mfuneko Ngam, whose international cricket career was (arguably) curtailed by the dietary deficiencies he experienced growing up, and which later led to frequent injuries, you could point to someone whose body developed to be stronger or faster thanks to environmental factors.

And what are performance-enhancing drugs but simply one more factor like these, available to some and not to others by virtue of nothing more than simple luck? Once we discard the illusion of the Athenian athlete, running naked save for a loincloth (perhaps alongside Bambi), it should become clear that drawing the line at drugs is as arbitrary as drawing it at any other point, and that the issue of whether or not someone broke the rules is an entirely separate one to whether the rules are sensible.

In the case of professional sport and drugs, the line-drawing currently seems to rest on a version of the naturalistic fallacy, namely the mistake of thinking that natural is good and unnatural bad. In morality, people (mistakenly) use this fallacy against homosexuality, and in medicine perhaps in support of homeopathy instead of chemotherapy (if you’ll forgive that very loose usage of the word “medicine”).

But these examples are cherry-picked, and easily refuted by pointing to cancer (natural) or the wearing of spectacles (unnatural, in that the nose and ears were not evolved for the purpose of supporting spectacles). So our moral judgements – including our attributions of praise and blame – should not rest on a conception of the natural.

What about fairness? If we are to allow drugs in professional sport, some argue, then it will be doctors who win races, rather than athletes. As I point out above, though, this is already the case – not only for doctors, who might prescribe better drugs to some of us than others while growing up, leading to healthier starts to life, but also to parents who have unequal means to support us. It’s already parents who win races, not athletes, so why not let doctors also win a few medals?

Yes, there will be some who can exploit the chemical resources better than others can, but we need a good reason to treat this sort of resource differently to any other. Currently, our reason seems to be an interpretation of the “spirit” of sport that allows for the manipulation of all sorts of parameters (diet, lifestyle, training regimen) excepting one, namely your drug intake.

Even this exception is applied inconsistently, in that it seems entirely arbitrary to say that paracetamol is permitted (as it is for Olympic athletes) and another drug not, seeing as a splitting headache would surely impact on performance in something like a game of tennis. These are matters of degree, not of kind, and operate on a spectrum ranging from whether you were breast-fed to whether you take EPO.

I would offer a similar response to those who are concerned about pressures on young athletes, who might do themselves long-term health damage through taking drugs from an early age. Again, this sort of objection doesn’t seem to operate in the real world, where professional athletes already do themselves significant damage through obsessive training at a young age. We need to account for the possibility that taking drugs would allow for fewer, not more, cases of retired 35 year-olds’ with various permanent aches and pains thanks to aptitude for some professional sport.

The drugs will only get better the more we are allowed to take them. They will also get cheaper, and safer, if the user-base is expanded. And just as technologies at the high end of motorsport make our road cards safer, perhaps the non-athlete will also benefit from improved medication at the end of the day.

But first, we need to recognise that professional sport is not pure, and never has been. More importantly, we need to recognise that one sort of corrupting influence might not be as easily distinguishable from another as we might think, or hope. Within the lifetimes of most of us, biological enhancements will most likely be the norm, and it will be even clearer that our obsession with some sort of pastoral narrative in sport is increasingly naïve.

Tiger Woods is allowed to compete after having laser surgery that by some accounts left his eyesight at 20/15, compared to the normal 20/20, which would mean that he could see at 20 feet what a normal person could see at 15 feet. Golf returns to the Olympics in 2016, and I’ve heard nothing suggesting that he (and many others) will be disqualified, even though this would surely advantage him on the golf course.

Thinking ahead: if corrective eye surgery of this sort is permitted, as is the wearing of contact lenses to make your vision 20/15 or even 20/10, as for baseball’s Mark McGwire, what will we do when our poor vision can be corrected through the replacement of the eye with something off a robotics assembly line? Or would we just claim that that’s somehow “different”, and ignore all the ways in which sport is already not the pure contest we imagine it to be?

Read more:

Daily Maverick Morality Science

Blood deferrals – too important to take personally

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

14983260-blood-donation-medical-buttonOne of the things that allowed this species to survive into the 21st century is our ability to detect patterns, and to make predictions based on those patterns. If you were a hunter, you’d have needed to be able to predict the movement of the beasts you hunt with some degree of accuracy. If you were a farmer, some rough understanding of seasons would have been rather useful, lest you waste all your seed, your water, and all your effort.

We’re here and it’s 2013, which means that our forebears got these sorts of things right with reasonable regularity. Sufficient numbers of them managed to feed themselves, and avoided walking off the edges of cliffs or getting eaten by carnivores. But all of that pattern-recognition and the accompanying storytelling can be a liability, in that it gets in the way of our realising that we are simply one data point, usually interesting only to ourselves and our immediate circle.

And, it gets in the way of seeing other potential stories. Not just the stories of others (helping us to escape our subjectivities), but also the story the data tells by itself, without our fears, hopes, and histories being allowed to corrupt it.

You know your own examples, but the sorts of corruption I mean would include our thinking that problem gambling is significantly prevalent in South Africa just because Aunt Sally has a problem. It’s not, at least not by international standards. Or, when your cold goes away a couple of days after taking some homeopathic remedy, when your confirmation bias allows you to ignore the fact that a cold typically only lasts for a couple of days in any case.

The storytelling I speak of is not just in ascribing patterns to potentially unconnected events, but also in finding intentionality or causality where none might exist. Intentionality, such as that we imagine when describing a tragedy as part of “God’s plan”, because doing so helps to shield us from the fact that we are meaningless. Causality, of the sort we might think we’ve found when some sort of “lucky” token or behaviour correlates with a random moment of good fortune.

The cognitive rules of thumb (or heuristics) that we use in developing these responses served a purpose in allowing us to get this far, and still serve a purpose today. But we no longer need to be as reliant on them, and are increasingly irrational when we do so, because the volume of data available to us is mostly far better suited to analysis by machines than by humans.

The South African National Blood Service illustrates the problem well, introducing all sorts of moral complications at the same time. As reported in the Cape Argus, a gay couple recently had their blood donation deferred (or rejected), thanks to the SANBS policy of deferring donations from men who have had sex with other men in the last six months.

One narrative that fits this policy is that the SANBS is homophobic, and this narrative has enjoyed strong support on social media for the last few days. But as I wrote in a 2011 column, deferring blood from this category of donor isn’t atypical, and South Africa’s blood service is in fact fairly liberal in this regard. In the UK, the deferral period is one year, while in the US a lifetime restriction applies for men who have had any sexual encounter with another man at any time since 1977.

Now, there’s no principled reason why we should think the US or UK a good guide to policy in this or any other instance. But there’s also no reason to be guided by the perception of discrimination based on moral judgement, where the discrimination might instead be based on cold, impersonal data.

As I note above, this is exactly the problem: we struggle to think of ourselves as mere data points, and instead wish for the world to bend to shape our anecdotal experiences (or anecdata). I have little reason to doubt the statistics reported – across various international jurisdictions – on the Centers for Disease Control website, or the FDA’s reasoning for why they defer blood donations from men who have sex with other men.

The statistics show that this group are “at increased risk for HIV, hepatitis B and certain other infections that can be transmitted by transfusion”. This claim is either true or false, and whether it is true or false is not a matter of morality or preference – just like it’s either true or false that tattoos and body piercings lead to increased risk of hepatitis C (the current motivation for a 6-month deferral period in Canada).

So, we can either contest the claim on empirical grounds, and refute the claim of increased risk from blood donations from men who have sex with other men, or we can claim inconsistency, saying that if this is true, that there is also increased risk from heterosexual couples who have anal sex.

In a recent interview on CapeTalk567, a representative of the SANBS seemed to concede the possibility of this sort of inconsistency, saying that they would be considering this in the upcoming revisions to their donation forms.

But even if this inconsistency is borne out by the data – in other words, if other categories of donor exist whose blood donations are, in general, at least as (or more) dangerous than this category is – this wouldn’t mean that more gay men should donate blood. It would mean that they still shouldn’t, and that neither should some other people. So the complaints to the SANBS regarding discrimination are never likely to bear the fruit that some potential gay donors are hoping it does, unless it’s empirically false that this category of donated blood is more risky.

My use of the word “shouldn’t” (as opposed to couldn’t) in the previous paragraph alludes to an important point. As much as we’d all like to give blood, another aspect of treating ourselves as a data point – at least when thinking about public policy – is that we’ve got very strong reasons for wanting to be able to trust that we could receive donated blood safely. So the issue of which deferrals are legitimate, and which are not, is important enough to merit resolution by careful reflection and analysis, rather than to simply be the subject of this week’s bout of righteous indignation.


Doing Reiki in your sleep

newvoiceOne of the many benefits of believing utter bulls**t is that your claims need to be limited by nothing other than your imagination. I was alerted to a goldmine of quackery today via an Andy Lewis tweet about Siri for homeopaths. Not simply the sort of Siri that can answer questions like “where can I buy 10 000 sugar pills” – a Siri that can actually make “medicine” for you.

It’s true (at least, the fact that someone makes this claim is true). The picture at top-left is is a “voice-programmed remedy maker“, which is a marvel of efficiency and simplicity.

In use, the device is held close to the mouth, a button on the side of the Remedy Maker is pressed in, and you speak the name of a Remedy you want immediately followed by the Potency (if any). The button is then released and a “beep” sound is heard confirming that a remedy has been recorded and stored. Then the device is placed on a table or flat surface and a small bottle of tablets, or even just one or two tablets can be placed in the small 30.3mm ( 1. 3/16″ ) diameter Stainless Steel Well that is fitted in the device. A switch next to the Well is operated and held down for about 3 seconds, and then released, and the device again beeps to confirm that your remedy has been made.

What’s that? You’ve run out of tablets? That’s no problem at all – simply place your finger in that metal well, operate the switch, and marvel as the device transfers “the vibrations directly into the body. This makes the device ideal to use as an emergancy first aid device, for example it could be used to make Apis Mellifica, which is a powerful Bee Sting Treatment, or one could give a dose of Malaria Officinalis, which is considered by many to be useful in Malaria prevention.”

At a bargain price of 395USD, this is Profitus Maximus (seeing as we’re talking sciencey).

The makers have thought of everything. It matters not if you have a thick accent or speak in a strange dialect, because “Words are used to represent a thing or situation. Many different words (even different in language) can be used to represent the same thing.” The device understands abbreviations. If you’re speaking in a loud, crowded environment, no matter – it only listens to your voice.

And you don’t even need to know which “medicine” you need! “The special beauty of this device is that within seconds you can be making vibrational remedies from literally anything you can think of, … even the illness itself. “My Throat problem”, for example, or “The pain in my leg” etc.”

If you feel like some light entertainment, spend a few minutes browsing the site. If you ever wished you could do Reiki while sleeping, or talking on the phone, go find out about the White Mountain Energy Copier, which makes this possible. Worried about the end of the world? There’s info on that, as well as a handy (for Muslims) description of why and how the Kabbah needs fixing.

For skeptics, Randi “and other closed-minded behaviour”, there’s a message for you too, which concludes with:

We don’t feel we need to prove or justify anything, our products work and we have thousands of satisfied customers, many of which are busy using our devices to save lives right now, or using these devices to improve their own wellbeing.

If you are one of the skeptics, all I can say is I am very sorry for you, and I hope one day that you will choose to open your eyes. In the meantime don’t bother to email me with your abusive and childish comments as your emails will not be opened and read.

Then there’s a link to a website called Coping with Disbelief – but the URL currently redirects to a website advertising a “Fiber One” breakfast bars and cereals. Handy, for those who are full of s**t. (This might be intended as a joke on the part of White Mountain, which would certainly offer reassurance that they’re not completely crazy).

By the way, if you don’t know Andy’s site The Quackometer – dedicated to debunking quack medicine, be sure to check it out, especially his detailed work on Steiner-Waldorf racism, mysticism and other reasons for parents to run a mile.

Morality Science

Body Worlds – a collision of materialism with dignity?

Originally published in Daily Maverick

Respect should not be granted unreservedly. Not to people, because they need to be reminded that they aren’t gods. Nor to ideas, because we stand little chance of discovering that we are wrong if we don’t ask questions. It can be impolite and for some, perhaps even offensive to talk ill of the dead. But even so, we’re less likely to cause offence when remembering the misdeeds of a Stalin and more so with a Mandela, because of the difference degrees to which they merit our respect.

Daily Maverick Religion Science

South African religiosity in decline? Not likely.

Previously published in the Daily Maverick

Wanting to believe something to be true has no effect on whether it is, or becomes true. We all know this, at least in the abstract (except for Rhonda Byrne and her readers). Nevertheless, in the race to be the first to compress some insight or factoid into a 140 character tweet or a provocative headline, confirmation bias can take over. Instead of suspending judgement until we know all the facts, we sometimes ignore our doubts and regard incomplete, misleading or even false information as persuasive.

Scientific literacy is the biggest loser here, because in the struggle to make sense of things, we forget that our beliefs become better justified through surviving our attempts at falsifying them – not when we confirm them, or think that we’ve done so thanks to unreliable information. A trivial example of this can be found in many of the 330 (at the time of writing) comments to the News24 article describing the results of a recent survey on religious belief.

According to the article, the Win-Gallup International Religiosity and Atheism Index found that the percentage of South African people who consider themselves religious has dropped from 83% in 2005 to 64% in 2012. Now, all the local media houses that covered this simply reproduced the South African Press Association (Sapa) newsfeed, so there isn’t a science journalist or editor that I can call to ask why nobody did any rudimentary fact-checking before reproducing this and other claims.

Because spending merely a couple of minutes on the survey data (pdf) reveals that – by contrast to the claim offered on page six that “in each country a national probability sample of around 1000 men and women” were surveyed, the country-by-country breakdown on page 15 tells us that only 200 South Africans were surveyed.

Assuming that this sample was a representative one, the margin of error now becomes something closer to 7% rather than the 3-5% claimed by Win-Gallup. And if a similarly low number of South Africans were surveyed in 2005 (that data is not publicly available), a pessimistic reading of the data results in a shift from 76% to 73% in the number of people who consider themselves religious.

Alternatively, if the sample was drawn entirely from a certain Province or biased in some other fashion, the results from 200 interviews become virtually meaningless. Unfortunately, although the MD of the Gauteng-based Topline Research Solutions (who are listed as having conducted the survey work in South Africa) responded to my email enquiry, he referred questions regarding the sampling methodology to Gallup’s “Group Head for Opinion Research” – based in Pakistan.

Emails to the other two Topline staffers listed on the Gallup poll bounced with a “user unknown” error – even though one of the two is still listed as being the Sales and Marketing Manager on their website. Make of this what you will, but I can’t say that I’m left feeling confident that the South African sample exists at all, never mind being representative.

There are other reasons to immediately be suspicious of this data. The 2001 census counted 79.77% of South Africans as being Christian, never mind the more general “religious”. The 2011 census data won’t provide any update on this percentage, seeing as the question on religion was dropped, but a drop from 84% (all except the non-religious and “undetermined” in the 2001 census) to 64% seems highly implausible, judging by the frequency with which religious sentiments are uttered and endorsed in popular discussion.

Implausible doesn’t mean untrue, of course – it might well be that the numbers have shifted as described in the survey. But if they have, South Africa would be less religious than the United Kingdom is, at least according to their 2011 census which had the non-religious accounting for 33% of their population. And if you believe that we’re more godless than the UK, your name is probably Errol Naidoo.

Then, the language of the (single) question in the Win-Gallup poll doesn’t allow for quality data. Respondents were asked the following question: “Irrespective of whether you attend a place of worship or not, would you say you are a religious person, not a religious person or a convinced atheist?”

“Religious person” is somewhat ambiguous, as it could imply something formal, whether or not the responded attends a place of worship. If I were one of those New Ager-types who thought I had a personal relationship with something ineffable, whether god or angel, I might say that I’m not religious, while any sane onlooker would assert that I most certainly am. Being “religious” is a label of identity, and is chosen or rejected for a range of idiosyncratic reasons, making this question very difficult to answer or interpret.

Likewise, I’m not even sure that I’d call myself a “convinced atheist”, because while the existence of god(s) might well be the thing that I doubt most, if being “convinced” requires being certain, I’d have to tick the “not a religious person” box. And again, all who know me would most likely have predicted a different selection.

A finer-grained account of what being “religious” means to those who describe themselves as such is a different matter, because it can inform strategy whether you’re on the religious or the non-religious side of the debate. The data from the Win-Gallup poll, on the other hand, simply feeds into our confirmation bias. It allows for the religious to lament and the irreligious to gloat, neither for any good or principled reason.

And speaking of principle and good reason, a concluding note on those non-existent science journalists: we might never again see such a job description, except for the few who still survive at a handful of newspapers. But this isn’t an excuse to simply recycle wire copy, whether you’re a newspaper or a member of the public. The fact that experts are no longer doing the filtering for us means we need to pay more attention – not simply become more gullible.

Morality Science

What’s the harm? Well, homeopathy could (indirectly) kill you.

The letters Penelope Dingle sent to Francine Scrayen make for very sad reading. Scrayen was “treating” Dingle’s cancer, diagnosed in February 2003. Dingle’s sister is now suing Scrayen, and it’s easy to understand her motivations for this on reading not only the letters, but also the coroners report following Dingle’s death :

In my view the deceased’s rectal cancer was present and causing bleeding and other symptoms from at least 31 October 2001. During the period 31 October 2001 until at least the end of November 2002, the deceased regularly described the symptoms of her rectal cancer to a homeopath, Francine Scrayen. It was not until November 2002 that Mrs Scrayen and the deceased discussed the possibility of reporting her rectal bleeding to a medical practitioner and it was not until 5 December 2002 that she first reported those problems to a doctor.

I accept that Mrs Scrayen believed that the deceased had suffered from haemorrhoids years earlier and the bleeding and pain was “an old symptom coming back”, but a competent health professional would have been alarmed by the developing symptoms and would have strongly advised that appropriate medical investigations be conducted without delay.

As I’ve said before, pseudoscience doesn’t only cause the (relatively trivial) harm of lightening the wallets of the gullible. When it’s taken seriously, it can not only result in these sorts of tragic stories, but also helps to contribute to a general climate of unreason, where people become less discerning about what to believe and why to believe it. In fact, an increasing concern is the ways in which this climate of unreason can be leveraged in favour of political and economic interests. Conspiracies are attractive to many folk, because we sometimes prefer grand narratives to the conclusions reached via the application of Occam’s Razor (on this topic, Rosenberg’s new book The Atheists Guide to Reality makes for good reading).

Alternative medicine that works is simply called “medicine”, as Dara o’Briain reminds us here:

The Dingle story is now a few years old, but it’s back in the public eye thanks to the recent publication of the coroners report and Dan Buzzard’s highlighting of that report’s contents. And now, Scrayen has sent Buzzard a cease and desist letter, demanding that he retract his allegations regarding her complicity in Dingle’s suffering and her potentially avoidable death. You can read Buzzard’s two posts on Scrayen via that last link, and it’s difficult to see how Scrayen thinks he’s done anything wrong – except, of course, for exposing her as a dangerous quack.

It is ultimately the consumer’s fault if she makes choices which endanger her own life. The issue here, though, is that while Dingle (and most of us) live(d) in a society which protects us from all sorts of misrepresentation and fraud, that protection is absent in the case of things like homeopathy. The politically-correct, relativistic way in which opinions and evidence are treated make us afraid to tell people that what they believe is sometimes nonsense, and sometimes dangerous nonsense.

Medical aid schemes should of course not reimburse for homeopathic treatments. Pharmacies, who are associated with treatment and good health, should ideally not sell them, no matter how profitable exploiting the gullible can be. Pharmacies are of course free to sell anything legal, though – my point is more that it’s unfortunate that they often don’t take any proactive role in reminding consumers that what they’re buying is pure placebo, and shouldn’t take the place of medicine.

Most important, perhaps, is that in an age of manic labelling of everything consumable, down to the most minuscule ingredient, it’s an almost criminal neglect that legislation doesn’t exist to force producers of homeopathic remedies to spell out the simple fact that a glass of water will “treat” your ailment just as effectively as a homeopathic “remedy” will.

Also see Angela Meadon’s post on this, reminding Scrayen that she can’t bully Buzzard into silence, and that the Streisand effect might well result in her attempts to do so having the opposite effect to what she hopes.

Daily Maverick Science

Tim Noakes on carbohydrates

This entry is part 1 of 30 in the series Noakes

Originally published in the Daily Maverick.

In one of my first columns on Daily Maverick, Michael Pollan and his food rules (“the whiter the bread, the sooner you will be dead”) were used to illustrate the modern obsession with eating “healthy” food, or orthorexia. Pollan is an example of a celebrity nutritionist, who – while not necessarily offering harmful advice – could be accused of simplifying things to such an extent that what starts as sound advice mostly ends up being accepted on faith or as dogma.

Recently, South Africa’s sports-science guru Tim Noakes has been receiving plenty of media coverage following his about-turn on matters dietary. Many of you will recall Noakes as an advocate of carbo-loading, especially for athletes. But even those of us who aspired to complete a 10km shuffle had little to fear from the carbohydrate. Until now, where for many of us our fondness for carbohydrates “is an addiction that is at least as powerful as those associated with cigarette consumption and some recreational drugs like heroin”.

In general it’s a good thing to see scientists change their minds, because it’s evidence of the scientific method at work. When the evidence changes, so should our views. But such is the current fear of food, manifested in daily articles about epidemics of obesity and the various ways we’re killing ourselves through what we eat, that it’s sometimes a little easy to join the next dietary fashion without thinking enough about whether we’re convinced by the evidence rather than by the hysteria.

A form of cultural amnesia is apparent in most dietary programmes – they spawn books and instructional DVD’s, but are quite often simple revisions of advice we’ve heard before, packaged under a different name with a different guru’s face on the cover. But if the advice is good and presented in a way that doesn’t encourage mindless obedience, us non-specialists could certainly benefit from knowing about what – in this instance at least – appears to be somewhat of a breakthrough moment for dietary knowledge.

The breakthrough is not Noakes’s and he’s the first to admit that, citing William Harvey and William Banting, and more recently Robert Atkins and Gary Taubes as those who introduced him to the concept that most of us would apparently lose weight and live healthier lives on low-carbohydrate diets. I say “apparently” not only because I haven’t tried it myself, but also because the evidence for Noakes’s claim doesn’t seem nearly as convincing as he’d like us to believe.

While some philosophers of science (like Nancy Cartwright [pdf], for one) disagree, the gold-standard in science is generally held to be the RCT, or randomised controlled trial. In an RCT, subjects are randomly allocated to receive one or another of the different drugs or interventions being tested, and those subjects are then treated differently only in respect of differences that are intrinsic to the different treatments under comparison.

In the case of an RCT evaluating different diets, you’d therefore want to ensure that you control for factors like how much exercise subjects in each cohort do, and your randomised selection of subjects into those cohorts should have ensured a balance between other factors that could influence the outcome of the treatments being compared (whether you know about those factors or not).

For diet – and specifically, comparing diets with varying proportions of carbohydrates – two recent RCT’s are relevant here. In 2009, The New England Journal of Medicine (360,9) published a study by Frank Sacks (pdf) and others, in which four diets were tested on 811 overweight adults. The subjects were randomly assigned to one of four diets, where “the targeted percentages of energy derived from fat, protein, and carbohydrates in the four diets were 20, 15, and 65%; 20, 25, and 55%; 40, 15, and 45%; and 40, 25, and 35%”. The subjects were then monitored for two years to determine the short- and longer-term effect of these four diets.

Their results? “Any type of diet, when taught for the purpose of weight loss with enthusiasm and persistence, can be effective.” To put it more simply, “reduced-calorie diets result in clinically meaningful weight loss regardless of which macronutrients they emphasize”. So, if Sacks and his research collaborators are to be believed, eating less is the important thing rather than what you eat – at least when it comes to weight-loss.

Russell de Souza’s research (published this year in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition) involved 424 subjects randomly allocated to diets involving 25% or 15% protein; 40% or 20% fat; and 65% or 35% carbohydrates. Again, the authors note that the subjects “lost more fat than lean mass after consumption of all diets, with no differences in changes in body composition, abdominal fat, or hepatic fat between assigned macronutrient amounts”.

Of course, Noakes might be different, and he’d know as well as anyone that a diet that works for one person might not work for all. He in fact claims that he is different (and suggests that many of us might be) in being “carbohydrate resistant”, which brings with it a predisposition to developing adult-onset diabetes. And again, this might be true – but we haven’t yet seen an RCT which compares the effects of various diets on only people who are carbohydrate resistant.

It therefore seems premature – even unjustified – to speak of this diet in such unequivocally positive terms, not to mention introducing the language of moral panics in the form of our hypothetical “addiction” to carbohydrates. As Ben Goldacre (and others, I’m sure) have pointed out, anecdotes are not data, and the bulk of the data available right now suggest that the main problem is simply that we eat too darn much.

Speaking of which, another concern with diets such as this presents itself. Much as you’ll usually find anti-vaccination idiocy represented in the middle-class but rarely by the poor, a diet like this seems quite out of reach to anyone struggling to find money to feed themselves and their families. We’re told to avoid bread, rice, pasta and potatoes in favour of eggs, fish, meat, dairy products and nuts (only some nuts – peanuts and cashews, among others, are evil nuts).

So, above and beyond wondering whether the Noakes diet is evidentially justified, rather than being yet another example of a celebrity-led fad, it’s also somewhat discomfiting on a political level. The increasingly obese poor might after all end up inheriting the earth, simply because there’s no space left on it for anyone else.

See the Daily Maverick link at the top for a range of comments on this column. One particularly worth highlighting, and pasted below, is a response from Prof. Noakes.


By focusing on the evidence or lack thereof that a low carbohydrate diet is an effective means of losing weight you miss a couple of important points. These points are more fully described in the most recent edition of my book, Challenging Beliefs. First, my personal interest in the low carbohydrate diet relates to my predisposition to develop diabetes; my substantial weight loss on this eating plan is an unexpected bonus but it is not the reason why I have committed to this eating plan. The scientific evidence is absolutely clear – it is the persistent consumption of a high carbohydrate diet by person like myself with a genetic predisposition to develop diabetes because we are carbohydrate-resistant that ultimately causes us to develop that disease. The prevention and correct treatment of the condition is also blindingly obvious and proven in the literature – it is a diet that restricts the total carbohydrate intake to as few grams a day as possible, preferably less than about 50 grams per day. Yet sadly this is not the advice that predisposed people like myself or indeed those who already have the disease are likely to receive. I wish someone had told me this 20 years ago. I do not want others not to know this information if it can save them from the disastrous consequences of this awful disease.

Thus my interest in publicizing this eating plan is not to be just another “celebrity fad diet”.

Second, for 33 years I ate the so-called heart healthy, low fat, high carbohydrate “prudent” diet – the same diet that did not prevent the development of all the complications of diabetes in my father. Yet in retrospect, all that diet did for me was to make me fat, lazy, increasingly closer to developing full blown diabetes whilst all the time destroying my running ability. When I finally discovered that these unpleasant symptoms were not caused by aging but by my high carbohydrate “healthy” diet, I was naturally somewhat surprised. Thus in advocating this alternate eating plan, I have been careful to stress that the key benefit is a dramatic increase in the quality of life – something that the scientists have not measured. So I am now able again to run as I did 20 years ago and for me this is very important. I also have a level of energy that I remember having 40 years ago. In addition I have delayed the progress of my pre-diabetes. Those are the benefits that I have enjoyed by restricting my carbohydrate intake. Whatismore, daily I receive a wad of emails from grateful South Africans indicating how much better they feel and how their quality of life and often their sporting performances have improved simply by reducing their carbohydrate intakes as have I. So you see, it is not just about weight loss.

Third you glibly say that “we simply eat too much”. I agree – but why? Lions don’t eat too much; nor do any other free-living mammal that I know (other than our cats and dogs whose health is unfortunately also being undermined by the provision of a so-called “science diets” that forces these carnivores to eat high carbohydrate diets – diets for which their evolution has not prepared them). Why is it then that lions know exactly how much too eat so that they do not become fat and lethargic and unable to hunt? Could it be because they have a perfect appetite control – something that humans have always had but have suddenly lost in the past 30-40 years as the global diabetes and obesity epidemic has increased exponentially?

You see what I have learned, as confirmed by all those who successfully adapt to this low carbohydrate eating plan, is that we rapidly lose our hunger and feel satiated all the time (since fat and protein satiate whereas carbohydrates drive hunger in many people). No longer do we spend our days hunting for addictive high carbohydrate meals that fail to satisfy hunger for more than a few hours. As a result we reduce our energy intakes by at least a third without ever feeling hungry. So we lose weight and return our body masses into the safe and healthy range without any effort. Nor do we need to exercise to maintain that weight loss (although because we now again have the energy we enjoyed at a younger age, we also become more active). The reality is that for many of us the only way to bring our appetites under control is completely to avoid carbohydrates and to return to our former evolutionary state as predatory carnivores.

Also not considered in your analysis are the health benefits of simply eating less – there is a large body of evidence showing that eating less increases life expectancy in a range of mammals. Thus eating too much of anything carries health consequences with it.

So as you personally assess whether or not you should be eating fewer or more carbohydrates, you can see that it is not simply a question of whether or not you want to lose weight. It is about quality of life and for how long you want to live. If those issues are important to you then you need to question whether or not you can improve what you eat, perhaps by eating a diet that is not as full of carbohydrates.

But if these issues are of no consequence to you – if you personally are happy to spend your life “shuffling through a 10km” – then be my guest. But don’t condemn your readers to what nearly happened to me simply because you failed to research the topic as exhaustively as this complex topic requires.

Timothy Noakes


Daily Maverick Morality Science

Giubilini and Minerva on abortion and infanticide

As submitted to the Daily Maverick

To regard something as permissible does not necessarily entail that you’d like to see it encouraged, or to become a widespread practice. It’s also not necessarily the case that simply entertaining a possibility in thought or speech means that you are favourably inclined towards that possibility. But we seem to sometimes forget this, becoming nearly as offended by someone merely thinking or speaking about that which we find abhorrent as we would had they actually committed the act in question.

In the Journal of Medical Ethics, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva recently suggested that if abortion is permissible, infanticide (in certain cases) might also be. The public reaction – and also the reactions from other bio-ethicists – seemed to suggest that Giubilini and Minerva had been spotted introducing toxic feeding formula into the supply chain of their local maternity ward.

Their view, in short, is this: many of the existing instances in which we consider abortion justifiable hold equally for an infant, at least during a short period after birth. The authors don’t define the period in question, but this is irrelevant to the questions of principle and consistency that they raise. If, for example, an abnormality such as perinatal asphyxia is discovered only after birth, how is it that ending that life is now considered intolerable where the same severity of abnormality would have justified abortion six months earlier? I can’t do the article justice here, so please read it before assuming their position to be obviously wrong.

Of course many would find it shocking to imagine that compelling arguments for infanticide might exist. Some might even be shocked or horrified that people spend their time coming up with these arguments. For the most part, though, the arguments aren’t new – Michael Tooley and Peter Singer, among others, have said similar things in the past.

Tooley wrote “Abortion and infanticide” in 1972, though, so it’s mostly only those of us who studied philosophy who got to hear these arguments, because it was difficult for these sorts of texts to get widespread attention without the assistance of platforms like Twitter, Facebook and blogs. Consequently, it was also more difficult to foment the kind of moral outrage now being directed at the authors, including death threats and questions regarding when, if ever, it’s too late to consider (belated) infanticide for ethicists.

An increasingly common response to ideas we don’t like seems to be attempts at censorship, or the application of threats in pursuit of silencing, rather than debate. Debate and discussion should always be our preferred option though, because it can result in either the weakening of the viewpoint you’re contesting, or in giving us the opportunity to realise that we are wrong and should change our minds. If Giubilini and Minerva’s views are mistaken, in other words, we should be able to say why this is so.

Those who are opposed to abortion in general are obviously not challenged by their views, in that if abortion is impermissible, infanticide would clearly also be. (The authors use the term “post-birth abortion”, for reasons that are made clear in the paper, but this seems mostly to be in an attempt to avoid completely thoughtless outrage.) However, for those of us who think abortion in general permissible, the paper is usefully provocative in asking you to consider which features of the two cases make one permissible and the other not.

One feature which makes the cases very different is quite possibly simple human emotion, and the ability to make more dispassionate decisions with regard to a foetus than an infant. And while it’s common for philosophers to note this, and simply move on as if this human frailty is something to regret – certainly not a factor that should unduly influence our conceptions of right and wrong – I do think this is an important feature, and that Giubilini, Minerva and those that want to defend their views need to take it into account.

While I do think it’s true that we should aspire to being as rational as possible, this doesn’t mean that all non-rational or even irrational motivations are always flaws to be regretted and eliminated from our repertoire of responses. In this case, the disposition to value life (and especially life that is now exemplified in a fully-formed human rather than something more developmental) is in the majority of cases good for us and therefore perhaps a candidate for respect and encouragement rather than scorn.

Extending the range of beings that it’s permissible to kill, or the phases of development where they no longer count, serves as a signal to those of us who are living and aware of being so. The signal is one that lacks empathy for the majority of the population, who have the same fears as everyone else but often lack the resources to articulate those fears in the language of intellectuals. One could perhaps say that it would be ideal for us to be less sensitive and precious about killing and letting die, but this would only be on one model of the ideal human – the one that resembles a purely logical Spock more than it does any of the humans we actually know, and ourselves are.

The point is that both sides of debates like this are (at the margins at least) premised on caricatures of humanity. I do think it’s true that many cases of potential infanticide are no different from cases where we consider abortion justified. So to my mind, it’s true that we’re being inconsistent in being repelled by the former and not the latter. But to make this case in a way which presents both the foetus and the newborn as fleshy objects of logical analysis also misses something, namely the sorts of adult humans we’d like to be, and the sort of world that conduces to becoming that sort of adult.

We’re understandably reluctant to end lives, even though these are not the lives of persons. That reluctance is plausibly a virtue worth reinforcing, rather than trivialising. Yet we should be able to talk about these things without fear of death-threats, and without those discussions being hijacked by the likes of Glenn Beck as evidence of a “progressive” agenda to introduce eugenics.

Moral outrage is not a sufficient justification to shut people up, especially when those people could be pointing to an inconsistency in our reasoning we’d benefit from knowing about. We also don’t want the boundaries of debate to be set by those who are most strident, where death threats or accusations of eugenics become effective techniques in argument.

A level of despair at how quickly emotive topics such as this descend into that sort of name-calling is understandable and justified. But having these conversations is nevertheless important, and the reactionaries can’t be allowed to win through the rest of us simply not showing up to argue with them. So, Giubilini, Minerva, and others like them should keep asking these difficult questions. But even when the responses seem hysterical, let’s not forget that there might well be something to be said for remembering that we don’t only live in our heads, but in bodies, families and communities too.

Also see Keenan Malik and Peter Singer’s responses.

Daily Maverick Science

Woo-woo fest comes to Wits

As published in Daily Maverick

Did you know that “millions of people in SA have had their own personal experience with ETs and UFOs”? If you didn’t, Michael Tellinger has arranged a conference just for you, this November in the Linder Auditorium at the University of the Witwatersrand. It must be true, seeing as one of South Africa’s most prestigious universities is hosting the conference.