Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Dr. Innumerate will see you now

I don't know if you riffraff are allowed to read this, but anyhow Christopher Martyn in the new BMJ points to some jaw dropping findings. If you've been a long-time reader you will recall that I have discussed Bayes Theorem many times. It's really important to critical thinking to understand it. He refers to: Manrai AK, Bhatia G, Strymish J, Kohane IS, Jain SH. Medicine’s uncomfortable relationship with math: calculating positive predictive value.JAMA Intern Med2014 174.

I won't bother with a link because I know you can't read it. But I'll tell you what it says. They presented physicians with the following proposition:

There is a disease which has a prevalence in the population of 1 in 1,000. There is a test for this disease which has a false positive rate of 5%. If your patient has no symptoms of the disease, but the test for your patient comes back positive, what is the chance your patient has the disease?

Think about it. (Jeopardy! music plays.)

Okay, if your answer was 95%, you're thinking like  doctor. Which means you're wrong. That's how most physicians answered the question, but the right answer is about 2%.

This is easy if you just take a minute. One person in 1,000 actually has the disease. Of the other 999, 5% (in the average trial) will have a false positive test. That's actually, on average, 49.95 people but close enough to 50. So to be exact, there is a 2.002% chance that your patient has the disease.

This test is said to be 95% specific. Sounds really great, doesn't it? But if the condition is uncommon, it's pretty much useless. It's because doctors, patients, and advocacy societies can't seem to understand this that we have too many screening tests and too many people walking around with disease labels and getting unnecessary additional tests and treatments. And it is so blatantly, obviously, fucking simple. Aarrrggh.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

A bit more about domestic violence

If  you inhabit the same precincts of the blogosphere as I do, you have probably read plenty of late about the Men's Rights Movement and Men's Rights Activists. Their basic claim seems to be that they have a right to be jerks and they are oppressed by people who claim otherwise; and they seem to favor tactics such as death and rape threats against women who disagree with them. I'm sure there are people who consider themselves MRA's who behave better and make more credible claims, e.g. that men are discriminated against in child custody disputes, but it's the former category that's been getting the attention.

Anyhow, I'd like to discuss a specific area of controversy. Linking to Wikipedia is maybe an easy out, but in this case it's a good place for an overview. The fact is, as I mentioned in my last post, surveys generally find that violent acts by domestic partners occur at about the same rate by women against men as by men against women. An academic who is well known for loudly proclaiming this fact is Murray Strauss who complains, rightly perhaps, that it is widely ignored. However, although he tends to bury the lede, he also notes in the journal Partner Abuse (2010, sorry no link available):

The exception to gender symmetry is that the adverse effects of being a victim of PV are much greater for women than for men. This can be considered a difference in context, but the fact that adverse effects are consequences rather than causes of PV needs to be kept in mind.

Attacks by men cause more injury (both physical and psychological), more deaths, and more fear. In addition, women are more often economically trapped in a violent relationship than men, because women continue to earn less than men and because, when a marriage ends, women have custodial responsibility for children at least 80% of the time. On the other hand, the adverse effects of emotional abuse, while not a focus of this article, are often greater than those of physical PV, with a comparable impact on both men and women victims (Hamel, 2009; Lawrence, Yoon, Langer, & Ro,
2009; Taft et aI., 2006)

Still, the greater adverse effect of physical PV on women is an extremely important difference, and it indicates the need to continue to provide more services for omen victims of PV than for men victims. In addition, as will be explained later, the greater adverse effect on women is one of the things that underlie denial of theevidence on gender symmetry.

In other words, you can lie with statistics. Strauss comes in for a lot of heat from feminists, but he really doesn't deserve it. He's trying to get us to work with the true facts, which actually forces us to think more deeply.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

About those foobaw players

I haven't done primary research on intimate partner violence, but as a sociologist I have studied a bit about it and taught the subject. It is possible for couples to get into the occasional fight, push or hit each other, throw things -- surveys find that the percentage of relationships in which that happens are pretty high, and the gender direction is actually pretty symmetrical. That said, since men tend to be bigger and stronger than women in most cases they have an extra responsibility to forebear.

But abusive relationships are something different. These are characterized by a pattern of coercive control. The abuser is obsessively jealous and possessive. He -- and in these situations it is indeed usually he -- uses all sorts of tactics to maintain control, not just physical violence but humiliation, economic coercion, spying, selective withholding of affection, lying, threatening, you name it. Women often end up staying in these relationships out of fear -- if they leave, he might kill her. He may well have made credible threats to do so. She may have no economic resources and fear for her children's welfare. You get the idea. (This can happen in homosexual relationships as well, by the way.)

So what about Ray Rice? We don't have any evidence, that I know of, that the incident in the elevator was anything but isolated. However, the video is deeply disturbing because he is so callous. He shows no concern for her welfare, drags her out of the elevator like a sack of potatoes, and seems not in the least upset that he has just struck his fiancee in the face and knocked her unconscious. That is very odd, to say the least. And given that he spends hours in the weight room and his muscles are nearly bursting out of his suit, see the last sentence of paragraph one.

Now, if the average accountant or material handler is accused of domestic violence, he ordinarily won't lose his job unless he winds up in jail. In fact, his boss probably will never even learn about it. With public officials it's different obviously. A Massachusetts state legislator was recently convicted of domestic violence, refused to resign, and the House expelled him. So what about athletes?

It seems to go without saying for most commenters that professional athletes, and for that matter prominent college athletes, must be held to a high standard of conduct away from their jobs.  The reality is that athletes throughout their youth, including college, are entitled and can get away with a lot of bad behavior. The fans seem to love their bad boys regardless. At least this has historically been true, but now the zeitgeist is changing, and more and more people are reacting against the tradition. There is a strong feminist strain in this reaction but there are plenty of men who feel the same way not only because they are feminists, but also because they don't like the old definition of proper manhood.

I'm not exactly sure how I feel about this. Obviously athletes should be held to the same standards as everybody else, and be as accountable. But should they be more accountable? Public officials have to make and enforce the law. Eliot Spitzer properly resigned because as Attorney General he had prosecuted prostitution rings and as Governor he was responsible for enforcing laws that he violated. We can't have that, as far as I'm concerned. But are athletes really role models? Have they ever been? Some are, in some ways. Jackie Robinson, for example. But generally speaking, they're just entertainers, and we certainly don't disqualify actors or musicians for bad behavior. Rice probably should have been prosecuted, given the egregiousness of the assault, but should he never play football again? I think that may be a category error. He's just a guy who plays a violent game.

Monday, September 15, 2014

In case you haven't been following the existential threat . . .

It's not actually from religious fanatics (unless you count the Christian right).

August, 2014 was the hottest August globally since records have been kept starting in 1880. Our relatively cool summer here in the northeast U.S.? Actually no, it was normal. It's just that we've gotten used to it being hotter. Also, too, no El NiƱo so far, which is normally associated with high temperature anomalies. And the biggest temperature anomaly? West Antarctica, where the ice sheet is already collapsing.

I actually won't feel terrible when Miami Beach is under water. It's kind of an abomination. But it's too bad about Back Bay and East Boston. I have a certain affection for those places.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

War! What is it good for?

What David Frum says.

Speaking for myself -- and I've sort kinda said this before -- yes, these Islamic State characters are evil doers. But so are our Saudi and Qatari "allies" (when they aren't actually financing al Qaeda and similar) and so, for that matter, are we. I suppose you could say it's a matter of degree and that counts for something, but still it must be acknowledged.

That acknowledged, the following perhaps less controversial points.

1) The only substantively interesting statement in Obama's speech last night was that we are going to arm Iraqi and Kurdish forces. In diplomatic terms, that is extremely significant because it explicitly admits that the peshmerga are not part of the Iraqi armed forces and Kurdistan is not part of Iraq. That said . . .

2) It is ridiculous to pretend that this has anything to do with protecting the territorial integrity of Iraq or the preservation of national borders more generally. That ship done sailed. Which is inevitable because these are borders drawn arbitrarily by European colonial powers 100 years ago. Nature is taking its course . . . 

3) And, since the Iraqi army is in fact a sectarian Shiite army, we are also going to arm and train Sunni Arab militias, which means we're just going to further encourage the breakup of Iraq because we know the Sunni Arabs aren't about to join the Iraqi army, since it's not their army and that's the whole reason IS has been successful in Iraq in the first place .. .

4) That said, this bullshit about an "inclusive" Iraqi government is obviously just that.

5) The Islamic state is a threat to the region, to be sure -- and mostly immediately to regimes we claim not to like, i.e. Iran, Bashar al-Assad, and the totally non-inclusive Baghdad regime. Obviously they also make the Kurds and Turks nervous, but Turkey has already said it's not going to join the coalition of the willing. They make the Saudis nervous but that's their own blowback, now isn't it? So . . .

6) We now find ourselves in a weird alliance with Iran, the Shiite Baghdad government, the Saudi and other gulf monarcho/theocracies, and a motley crew of ideologically diverse warlords in Syria, plus the Kurds, for the purpose of protecting the interests of all of them at our expense.

This is completely nuts. IS is 7,000 miles away from the closest point of the U.S., which I believe is Provincetown, Massachusetts. This is a problem, and it's partly our fault, so we owe people something. But it's not a problem we can fix, and it's certainly not a cause that the U.S. can lead.

We owe humanitarian aid to the refugees. I'm not knee-jerk averse to a bit of bombing here and there at the request of the Kurdish or Baghdad governments to avert further catastrophe and maybe help them roll back IS where they can. We do owe them any help that will actually be useful. But a war between the United States and Muslims of any kind is just playing into the hands of IS. That's the world they want to portray, and the last thing we ought to do is make it real. The Saudis and Iranians actually have powerful militaries with plenty of air power. Yeah, they hate each other. That's not our problem either. Let them do what they think is best.

Also too. According to the sacred Constitution of the United States, the Congress has the sole power to declare war. Anybody still remember that little detail?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


One of the difficulties with pharmaceutical regulation is the length of follow-up in clinical trials. Typically, drugs are approved based on trials of no more than six months duration. This is true even for drugs that people may take for a long time, even for many years. Sometimes the FDA requires post-marketing surveillance or longer term follow-up studies after a drug has been approved, but they often don't, and these requirements aren't even enforced in many cases.

Benzodiazepines are very commonly prescribed tranquilizers. Very common brand names are Xanax, Librium, and Ativan. (Rohypnol, also in the class, is a popular date rape drug. Sorry to bring that up.) They are addictive, and are often drugs of abuse. Many people doctor shop for them just as they do for opioids, they are often sold on the street, and they are often found in conjunction with opioids in overdose victims. They are prescribed for anxiety, but as I often say, anybody who isn't paranoid nowadays is nuts.

Well now, it turns out that a carefully done case-control study links even moderate-term consumption of benzos to Alzheimer's disease. By moderate term I mean more than three months worth. By links I mean an elevated odds ratio of 1.84 for more than six months of consumption.

The odds ratio is not the same as the risk ratio -- since math is hard I don't want to digress to explain this here. A case control study does not allow for computation of the actual relative risk in the population, but in this case, we can figure out that it translates to an approximately 50% increased risk. There are other studies that point to the same conclusion; the strength of this study is that it attempts to account for the possibility that people who have symptoms that might be associated with a higher risk of Alzheimer's are more likely to be prescribed benzos. (That's called confounding by indication.)

This is a very disturbing finding. If someone is anxious for a reason, such as the fact that we live in a dangerous world, taking a pill is not going to fix the real problem. If there is in fact a disease that causes people to feel anxious all the time and we don't understand why and can't do anything else about it, having them take a pill for the rest of their lives that causes drowsiness, dizziness, lack of coordination, decreased libido and amnesia -- even without the Alzheimer's disease --- is probably not a good idea. In fact, they are recommended only for short term use -- alcohol withdrawal, termination of seizures, brief (2 - 4 weeks) treatment of anxiety. There is no condition for which long-term use is helpful or indicated. Yet these investigators had no trouble finding 22% of people in a sample from Quebec who had been prescribed benzos for more than six months. (That was the rate of long-term prescribing in the controls, in other words. The rate in the cases was 33%.)

To reassure you, there was no finding of increased risk of Alzheimer's associated with short-term use. That indication is not affected by this study. The point is, doctors should not be doing this.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Looking forward, not back

It turns out that tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon. For any not-olds who may read this the act was greeted with widespread outrage at the time, but now we're all supposed to believe that it helped bind up the nation's wounds and let us move forward yadda yadda yadda.

Well, while we're on the subject of looking ahead and not back, there has been almost no attention paid so I may need to remind you that the Senate Intelligence Committee has prepared a report on the CIA torture program which has yet to be released to the public because the administration is trying to censor the nasty bits. For some reason, a British newspaper, the Telegraph, has to do the journalistic enterprise to tell us what they are. This came out last night but I have not found a single U.S. media outlet that has covered it. Take it away, Peter Foster:

The CIA brought top al-Qaeda suspects close “to the point of death” by drowning them in water-filled baths during interrogation sessions in the years that followed the September 11 attacks, a security source has told The Telegraph. The description of the torture meted out to at least two leading al-Qaeda suspects, including the alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, far exceeds the conventional understanding of waterboarding, or “simulated drowning” so far admitted by the CIA.
“They weren’t just pouring water over their heads or over a cloth,” said the source who has first-hand knowledge of the period. “They were holding them under water until the point of death. . ."

Despite the destruction of video evidence, however, a third source familiar with the still-classified accounts of the most severe of the CIA interrogations, said that the practices were much more brutal than is widely understood. “They got medieval on his ass, and far more so than people realise,” the source told The Telegraph referring to the treatment of Mohammed and Nashiri, but declined to provide further details because of the still-classified nature of the material.
The destruction of video evidence refers to destruction of video tapes of the torture sessions by CIA Officer Jose Rodriguez, who was severely punished by a sternly worded letter. B. Hussein Obama has already promised not to prosecute anybody for torturing prisoners. Congress did impeach Bill Clinton for receiving fellatio, however, so there is still a spirit of accountability in the land.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Could this be the most outrageous thing I've ever heard of?

Just about. I mean, it's not the holocaust but it's pretty damn evil. Graham Cole and Darrel Francis in BMJ tell the horrific tale.

It starts with one of my least favorite things, scientific fraud. A schtickdreck named Don Poldermans published a series of clinical trials testing whether giving beta blockers before surgery reduces the risk of mortality. The trial reports said it did, by a lot. Even though other studies didn't find this, the European Society of Cardiology relied on Poldermans's studies to recommend the treatment, which is not surprising since Polderman chaired the task force the developed the guidelines.

Only problem: Polderman made it all up. There were 5 trials in the series. He made up patients, made up data, even made up collaborators. Without his trials, meta-analysis shows that giving beta blockers increases the mortality rate. Cole and Francis calculate that something like 800,000 people have died because of the fraud. Polderman of course has been fired, but I haven't heard anything about a murder prosecution.

Anyhow, the first trial in the series, DECREASE 1, was more than ten years old at the time of the investigation so it was not reviewed. But as Cole and Francis show, it is obviously bogus as well. It contains impossible data and internal contradictions. However, the ESC continues to rely on it and has not reversed its recommendation! The guideline setting process is secret. The Society's journal, the European Heart Journal, has resisted accepting the new meta-analysis. There is more detail about the whole contretemps that I won't go into.

Arrogance, secrecy, vested interests, lies -- and people die. I don't know what the guidelines are for this practice in the U.S. or how the situation has played out here, but guidelines committees are certainly plagued by conflicts of interest and lack of transparency. This must change. It's your life that's at stake.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

The Other Side of Rising Health Care Costs

In the public sphere, we tend to hear that the increase in health care spending as a share of GDP is a bad thing which is unsustainable and represents the evil machinations of the Medical-Industrial complex. I may sound like that sometimes myself, but it isn't exactly accurate. There is a lot of waste and misallocation of resources in the medical industry, and yes, we need to do what we can to fix that.

But us health policy wonks know there's more to it. To some extent -- maybe not the actually existing extent, but some extent -- we would expect the share of GDP spent on health care to increase secularly, and that's actually a good thing. This by Hall and Jones is one analysis along those lines, but lots of people make similar arguments.

There are really two mechanisms at work here. The first is that over time, medical technology has gotten better. We can cure many cancers that we couldn't before, or at least give people years of decent quality life. The age-adjusted death rate from heart disease has plummeted. Orthopedic surgery can very effectively fix osteoarthritis, which is one of the worst things about growing older. (It did for me!) But all this costs more. Unlike electronic gadgets, the price doesn't keep going down. We need highly trained experts, million-dollar machines, and  drug and device prices that repay expensive research (since that's the model we've chosen). Yes, new technologies can occasionally be cost-saving (though much less often than you might think) and the price can come down over time (as when drugs go off-patent), but in the real world, technological advance produces a net increase in costs.

So yes, it costs more, but it's often worth it.

The second mechanism is that as people grow more affluent, once they've met their basic needs for food, clothing and shelter and whatever else they really, really want, health care is high on the list for disposing of income. We get the elective surgery; we go to the doctor and get checked out, and yes, they'll always find something. And yes, most of us pay only a small share of  our health care expenses out of pocket, but consumer and public demand that insurers cover expensive treatments is irresistible. When they try not doing it, there is an outcry. (Although weirdly, many of the same people who do the outcrying have no problem with some people having no health insurance at all.) So Medicare and private insurance will pay the $200,000 to keep someone with terminal cancer alive for three months.

But even that is not necessarily wrong, up to a point. When we have little time left, each day is more precious. And median survival conceals the exceptions who live a long time. And that also means hope --if you can hang on a bit longer, they might come up with a new treatment. This actually happens. For example, not-so-great HIV drugs kept some people alive  long enough to get better ones.

So, in principle, we could be happy to see medical expenditures increase as a percentage of the economy. That's a choice we can make and feel wise about. That's happening everywhere, including Canada and the UK with their single payer and socialized systems, respectively. But those parallel lines are much lower. They are spending more over time, and reaping benefits, but they are also spending a lot less than we are. Both can be true.  

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

The real problem with Medicaid expansion

As you may have heard, the Republican Governors' united front against Medicaid expansion is fracturing. They never had a really good explanation of why they would not accept free money from the federal government to cover their uninsured working poor, except that ideologically it's just wrong to spend tax money to make people's lives better and  they'd have to kick in a few percent down the road. But now Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Arizona, Wyoming and others are implementing Medicaid expansion in one form or another.

Many observers considered this inevitable in the long run because a) people can see that neighboring states are better off, not worse off, when they accept Medicaid expansion, b) hospitals and other health care providers are a powerful constituency in favor of Medicaid expansion and c) so are employers with low-wage work forces. There doesn't seem to be any way, politically, for Republican politicians to get away forever with screwing their citizens and major employers.

But now Dylan Scott, in TPM, drawing on an observation by Nelson Lichtenstein of UCSB, explains why many states still resist: they are the former Confederate States of America and the large majority of beneficiaries of Medicaid expansion would be African Americans (and Latinos in many cases, I might add). Arkansas and Kentucky are expanding Medicaid, but they have Democratic governors.

Let's face facts here folks: the reason that many low and moderate income white folks are opposed to government programs that would benefit them is that they think more of the benefit goes to people who are unworthy, and said people's unworthiness is predicated on their pigmentation. It is because racism divides our working class that we have the stingiest social welfare state among the wealthy countries, and that is why we have so many people who vote against their own self-interest and are seduced by the unalloyed bullshit of libertarianism.

Oh yeah. That's also why we have a War on Drugs. And  a whole lot else that's wrong.

Friday, August 29, 2014

What am I missing?

This seems to me very simple and obvious. It is not among the goals of police work to shoot and kill unarmed citizens. If that happens, we can conclude that the police officer did not follow a proper protocol, and the officer's conduct was not what we expect of police officers. The proof of this is the dead person.

It is preposterous to say that the officer may be justified in his actions and that this may be a "good shoot," as they say. Res ipsa loquitur. You had a live, healthy, unarmed person presenting no danger to anyone. Now you have a dead person. That is bad. The police officer did it. The police officer did a bad thing. We can go ahead and learn more about the events but we already know enough to say the above. QED.

And, if I may go on, what Americans do not seem to understand is that the purpose of guns is to kill. Guns are machines designed and manufactured for the sole purpose of killing large metazoans, including humans. That is all they are good for. That is why they exist. That anybody would think that a child should be taught that it is fun to shoot guns is just sick. If you happen to be among the few people on earth who feed themselves by hunting wild animals, then it's your job, and maybe you need to teach your children how to do it assuming they will survive by the same means. Otherwise, the purpose of guns is to kill humans. That is not fun.

Automatic rifles are for the latter purpose -- killing humans -- only. If you think that you should provide your nine year old child with the fun experience of using a machine that exists for the sole purpose of slaughtering humans, you are depraved. And depravity is, of course, a God-given right embodied in the sacred Second Amendment to the Constitution, the only one that counts.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

GMO Deception: the final word

It pains me to write this, because Sheldon Krimsky is a friend and mentor, and someone I really admire. But I have to tell it like it is.

As I said last time, all new technologies are likely to have unintended consequences. Furthermore, corporate patent owners aren't in business to save humanity, they are in business to make profit. It is indubitably wise to approach new technologies, and the promises of their purveyors, with skepticism. I believe that the following are entirely respectable arguments:

1) The Roundup/Roundup Ready system is a bad deal for farmers, for consumers, for the rural economy, and for all of us as inhabitants of the biosphere. It does not increase the food supply, it just substitutes capital for labor in agriculture. And that won't last long, as glyphosate resistant weeds proliferate. By the way, one more thing, glyphosate has been killing the milkweed that normally like to grow on the edges of farm fields, devastating the monarch butterflies that depend on it. Roundup is not harmless to animal life either, as Monsanto claims, especially because of its so-called "inert" ingredients which are actually toxic surfactants. There is a good case to be made for banning this system.

That said, this is not an indictment of GMO technology, but of a single implementation. Glyphosate resistance could have been achieved by conventional breeding, in principle. That wouldn't make any difference.

2) Crops that produce Bt are less problematic because farmers would use insecticides anyway. If anything, Bt crops mean less pesticide exposure for farmers and farmhands, and as insecticides go, Bt is among the least obnoxious. Although it is possible for relatively small scale farmers to use pest control practices that seldom require use of insecticides, it is not practical to feed the world without them as of now. But there's a good chance that your local insects will become resistant to Bt and you'll have to start spraying other stuff again in due course. So it's not a long term solution to anything.

3) It is true that GMO crops with useful properties other than chemical pest control have not been taken up on a large scale. They don't seem to work very well and aren't particularly appealing to farmers. Conventional breeding can apparently do about as good a job of improving drought resistance and salt tolerance, and achieving reduced nutrient requirements, and so far there haven't been any major breakthroughs in these areas from GM.

4) You can certainly argue that new technologies could have unpredictable effects and that we need to do more research to establish safety than we have been doing. Probably the regulatory regime is inadequate and we're certainly nuts to trust the manufacturers to do the research, decide what gets published, and assure us that it's all safe. I'm not as alarmed about the safety and nutritional properties of GMO crops as the editors and contributors to The GMO Deception seem to be, but it's not crazy to take precautions.

So yes, we ought to be having more of a public discussion about not only GMO, but agricultural practices, pesticide regulation, and the farm economy in general. There are extremely important issues, including fossil fuel inputs, nutrient runoff, the exploitation of farm labor, water shortage, hunger (which is not because there isn't enough food in the world, at least not yet), we could go on and on. Genetic engineering vs. conventional breeding is not really a meaningful category here, in my view. Every question must be considered on its own merits.

So that bring us to the book. The publicist's e-mail to me was headlined "Easily digestible look at the GMO debate." Alas, it is not easily digestible. On the one hand, the dozens of essays repeat the same information and arguments innumerable times; on the other hand, they leave perplexing gaps. As I said before, their chronological order is completely random. You'll read a set of dire predictions written in the 1980s and never learn if any of them came true. You'll read an alarmed critique of the regulatory regime in 1990 and you're on your own trying to figure out if the information is updated somewhere else in the volume. Slogging through this is nearly impossible.

At the same time, the depth of analysis and quality of evidence presented is often very thin. There is much argument by assertion, and generally a failure to seriously engage the arguments of those with opposing views. The reader does not get any sense of the debate, only an unrelenting polemic, some of which has already been debunked.

The world is crying out for a coherent, readable, intelligible and intellectually responsible discussion of these issues. Kudos to the editors for trying to bring attention and rebalance the debate, but this book isn't it.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Another GMO deception

Alas, the publishers of The GMO Deception had bad timing in one respect. One of the essays in the book, by Indrani Barpujari and Birendra Brau, alleges that suicides of farmers in India are caused by the widespread adoption of cotton that expresses the insecticide Bt. The basic idea is that the seeds are much more expensive than traditional seeds, driving the farmers into debt. (The essay was first published in 2007, and no attempt is made in the volume to bring the information up to date, a highly annoying feature of this book I mentioned in my first post about it.)

Now Michael Specter in the New Yorker gives this a massive, compelling debunking. It turns out that yeah, the seeds cost more, but the farmers save more than that on pesticides. And they also avoid exposing themselves and their families to sprayed insecticides. Although agriculture in India is economically stressed, it has nothing to do with GMO crops.

As I posted to Pharyngula:

It’s unfortunate that the discussion of GMO crops has been polluted, as it were, by tendentious hogwash on the part of opponents as well as proponents. It makes it very difficult to have a reasoned discussion of the issues because if you take a critical stance on some particular, you get lumped in with the anti-GMO crazies, whereas if you have anything nice to say about any particular application of GM you get lumped in with the rapacious capitalists.
I hope we can avoid that here. Every technology — every technology — has unintended ill effects. Take for example the automobile. It is a scientific fact that internal combustion engines work, and get you from point A to point B faster than horses. They can be made more or less safe, and more or less polluting, and there may be ways to make the other social externalities (e.g. urban sprawl and obesity and highways that slice through communities and all that stuff) less bad. But the costs and benefits of automobile-related policy and regulation are properly subject to debate, the possible costs now including the devastation of the planetary ecology and human civilization. And the automobile manufacturers obviously cannot be taken at face value when they make claims. The same goes for GMO crops and Monsanto.

Unfortunately, The GMO Deception is often tendentious and fails to contribute to the prospects for such a reasoned discussion. People just get dug in and then there's no possibility of movement.

To Be Continued.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Roundup Ready

Okay, back to the GMO thing. Although GMO proponents claim that genetic engineering can produce crops that are drought resistant, salt resistant, higher yielding, need less fertilizer, and all sorts of other wonderfulness that can benefit small farmers and help feed the world, in fact all but a tiny fraction of actually existing GMO crops are engineered for one of two properties: herbicide resistance, and natural expression of the insecticide Bt toxin.

The biggest sellers are Monsanto's "Roundup Ready" soy, corn, cotton and canola seeds. These are resistant to Monsanto's big-selling herbicide Roundup, which is a formulation of the plant toxin glyphosate. I happened to do some research on glyphosate back when I was getting my M.A. in environmental policy. It's a very broad spectrum herbicide, i.e. it kills everything that's green, ordinarily. Roundup contains what Monsanto calls "inert" ingredients that aren't even regulated. In fact they are powerful detergents, added to help wet the leaves, which are highly toxic to aquatic organisms. But I digress.

Roundup Ready crops actually have lower yields than their competitors. The benefit to farmers is that they reduce labor crops. You don't have to till and otherwise manually control weeds. Just spray the whole field, kill everything, then plant. You can spray again if you want to. But, you aren't allowed to save your own seeds and plant them next year. You have to buy the seeds, and the Roundup, from Monsanto every year. As you can see, this gives an economic advantage to large, capital intensive farms over small, labor intensive farms. More about that later. For now . . .

If you keep spraying a single herbicide in the same place year after year, what do you think will happen? If GMO organisms can be glyphosate resistant, well, plants can evolve that same property on their own. And they do. A distaster is now in the making. Quoth the New York Times:

Botanists call the weed palmer amaranth. But perhaps the most fitting, if less known, name is carelessweed. In barely a decade, it has devastated Southern cotton farms and is poised to wreak havoc in the Midwest — all because farmers got careless. [er no, as the article goes on to say that's not why] . . .

Palmer, as farmers nicknamed it, is the most notorious of a growing number of weeds that are immune to the gold standard of herbicides, glyphosate.. . .  After Monsanto began selling crops genetically engineered to resist glyphosate in the 1990s, the herbicide’s use soared. Farmers who once juggled an array of herbicides — what killed weeds in a cotton field might kill cornstalks in a cornfield — suddenly had a single herbicide that could be applied to almost all major crops without harming them. But constantly dousing crops in glyphosate exacted a price. Weeds with glyphosate-resisting genetic mutations appeared faster and more often — 16 types of weed so far in the United States. A 2012 survey concluded that glyphosate-resistant weeds had infested enough acreage of American farmland to cover a plot nearly as big as Oregon, and that the total infestation had grown 51 percent in one year. Glyphosate-resistant palmers first surfaced in 2005, in a field in Macon County, Ga. Nine years later, they are in at least 24 states.
So now farmer are going back to manual extirpation and rotating herbicides. But for many, it's too late. Palmer is almost impossible to eradicate. It produces thousands of seeds that can germinate throughout the growing season, has a large dense root system, and grows back after you cut it down. Some farmers have had no choice but to mow their entire crops. The Roundup/Roundup Ready system is now useless for them and it may take decades for some farmers to regain control of their fields. So you can go ahead and eat the GMO food, but you still might have a guilty conscience.

To be continued.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

I wouldn't want you to miss . .

This New York Times correction.

An Op-Ed essay on Monday described bald eagles and ospreys incorrectly. They eat fish, and their poop is white; they do not eat berries and excrete purple feces. (Other birds, like American robins, Eurasian starlings and cedar waxwings, do.)

I'll get back on the GMO thing shortly. But I interrupt that series to note something deeply shameful about the United States. Kurdistan has accepted hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees, most of whom are neither Kurdish nor Moslem, despite that (de facto) country's limited resources. Nobody there is visibly complaining about it, and they're doing what they can. As the linked article says, the UN is finally making a major relief effort. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and Syrians, are also in Jordan and Turkey, as well as Kurdistan.

A few tens of thousands of desperate, hungry and frightened children show up on our border and the locals organize demonstrations to prevent them from being sheltered, carrying racist signs, and blocking buses. We are a sick society.