Sunday, September 26, 2010

Oh my this comment on Kevin Drum got out of hand.

update: Wow Kevin Drum came here to comment. I pull his comment into the post and reply.

He wrote

Adam Ozimek is perplexed that so many of his friends think that diet soda is dangerous or causes cancer. After reviewing the considerable evidence that they're all perfectly safe, he says:

You can’t really be suspicious of artificial sweeteners without taking a paranoid stance towards leading health and scientific organizations in this country, and towards science itself. Most educated people who hold suspicions about artificial flavorings nevertheless trust the conclusions of science and scientific institutions on other issues, like global warming and evolution. So how do these people decide when to trust scientific consensus and when not to? If you’re going to be a scientific nihilist, then you should do so consistently.


Generally speaking, I agree that laymen ought to have some kind of consistent attitude toward consensus in the scientific community. However, I think there's one reasonable way that people might hold what seem like inconsistent views on scientific matters like this: they don't trust results in which powerful private interests clearly have a lot of lobbying power. So you might believe that global warming is real because there's a scientific consensus in favor of it even though lots of money from the business community is fighting it. Conversely, you might be suspicious of aspartame for fear that the scientific results are skewed by tidal waves of money from the food industry sponsoring studies designed to find it safe. After all, it's happened before with cigarettes and asbestos and PCBs and lead and benzene and chromium 6 and beryllium and Vioxx and a million other things.

[skip]

(For the record: I believe that cigarettes are dangerous, global warming is real, aspartame is safe, and GM foods should be subjected to extreme scrutiny.)


What follows is a revised comment which I wrote after deleting my first draft which was rude and verbose. Honest.

take a deep breath and count to 10. Take a deeper breath and count to 20. Oh hell I don't have all night.

I think that you and Ozimek can't have a useful debate unless and until you agree on the meaning of "leading health and scientific organizations in this country." I propose you discuss "the National Academy of Sciences" and "the Institute of Medicine."* Then you can examine the claim that those organizations are unreliable when large amounts of money are at stake.

I'm not sure you meant to assert that they are unreliable in those cases, but you did assert (in you own name not speaking for anonymous Aspartamephobes) "it's happened before with cigarettes and asbestos and PCBs and lead and benzene and chromium 6 and beryllium and Vioxx and a million other things." Has it ? I don't recall any scientific debate about cigarettes. Yes cigarette companies published pseudoscience at their own expence, but, as far as I know, they had no influence on the NAS and the IOM or, for that matter, the peer reviewed literature.

I'd quite definitely make the same claim about "asbestos and PCBs and lead." I think there is now massive overwhelming evidence that the Scientific establishment in the USA can and does stand up to big business.

If I modify your statement to be a description not a defense of those criticized by Ozimek so that it becomes "after all, they think it's happened before with cigarettes ..." then I think you are partly right. There certainly are people who subject any statement which is helpful to a profit making instustry to "extreme scrutiny" (which, with one *possible* exception**, means they reject it a priori and aren't interested in evidence).

However, I think there is much more going on .

First I suspect Ozimek's claim that "most educated people who ... trust the conclusions of ... scientific institutions on ... evolution. " A substantial majority of people in the USA do not trust scientific institutions on evolution. "Most" and "educated" are vague words, but I think that Ozirek's claim is simply false. He is thinking of people he knows and dismissing the masses (including, I suspect without solid evidence, the masses of people with BA's say). I think he has a well defined group of people in mind, but I don't think they are "most educated people who ..."

Second, I strongly suspect that Aspartame suffers by analogy with Saccharine. My guess is that many are convinced by the argument that if one artificial sweetener is carcinogenic then another probably is too. This thinking is totally alien to people who study carcinogenisis (and the many fewer who study the sense of taste). I suspect that there is a view that there are no easy answers, that we should just buck up and drink water, and that trying to get the taste without the calories will be punished.

I think there is a general sense that synthetic organic chemicals which are not found in nature are dangerous and very little awareness that Aspartame is an extremely small protein which is found in nature. I think this general hypothesis about synthetic organic chemicals was once shared by the scientific establishment (I know the guy who taught me organic chemistry believed it). It made sense given evidence available in 1980. It can't explain the dog that didn't bark in the past 30 years. People who thought lots of synthetic orgnanic chemicals were dangerous necessarily predicted huge new health problems starting in the 80s. In particular, they predicted an increase in cancer not explained by age and smoking. It didn't happen. In any case that has nothing to do with Aspartame, but I think the general fear of un-natural synthetic organic chemicals is based on a reasonable reading of evidence up till 30 years ago and complete neglect of evidence collected since then.

* Conflict of interest announcement. My father is a member of both organizations so I might be biased.

**Finally, I got really really upset *before* I read "GM foods." That's one of the things most likely to make me lose it. This is quite a separate issue but I object in many ways to "GM foods should be subjected to extreme scrutiny."

First I want to ask you "why do you think that ?" and "Is it just because Monsanto is profiting from GM foods" and "does it have anything to do with the fact that Monsanto made napalm ?".

Second I think that "extreme scrutiny" amounts, in practice to "be banned." If the scrutiny is extreme enough, the no profit seeking firm will develope GM foods as the decades of delay for approval make it unprofitable. No non profit could afford to face the costs. I think advocating extreme scrutiny is a way of advocating a de facto ban without admitting that one is deciding to decide something supported by no evidence.

I don't see why GM foods should be submitted to more scrutiny than other foods (or non food GMOs). I'd say there is excellent reason to believe that GM foods will not have subtle bad effects on health. The reason is that genes and (and proteins made from them) whether modified or not are digested. I'd guess that if you fed GM food to one rat and un GM food to another today it would be impossible to tell which was which in a month. Clearly this isn't true of synthetic organic chemicals. Now I am relatively supportive of synthetic organic chemicals, but I definitely don't see why they should be subject to less scrutiny than molecules which are quickly digested into perfectly standard we're made of them molecules.

NOw there are concerns about GM which aren't specific to GM foods. I wonder if the "foods" in the post was a slip and you also advocate extreme scrutiny for GM cotton or GM sheep even if they were not eaten but only sheered.

I think the asking for "extreme scrutiny" or "more research" is a way to delay judgement when one has no evidence to support one's case. I've been pretty polite so far, so I will mention that that "extreme scrutiny" reminds me of "more research before we decide on cap and trade." The case is not proven, there is controversy, lets decide when it is settled is exactly the approach which didn't influence the scientific establishment in the cases of cigarettes etc (yes I did just type something really really rude but it's in a footnote so it's OK).

Kevin Drum comments

This is quite an animated response to something I didn't say. I never mentioned either NAS or IOM. I *did* mention "government regulators," and you might reasonably object that that's not the same thing as the "leading health and scientific organizations" that Ozimek mentions. Most people don't make these fine distinctions, however. They just know what "the government" is doing, and "the government" has historically been strongly influenced by private sector manufacture of doubt. It's hardly moronic for an ordinary citizen to be aware of this and take it into account.

(Evolution, however, is an entirely different matter that I don't think follows the same pattern as other scientific issues.)

As for GM foods, you obviously saw my post within minutes after I made it. I changed "extreme scrutiny" to "considerable scrutiny" shortly after I wrote it, because I agree that "extreme" was, well, too extreme. As for why I feel that way, I made an additional comment about this in the original thread. I'm mainly concerned that we not get complacent about testing and regulation, not about any specific GM food.


I don't think we really disagree. The topic was rejection (dismissal really) of the conclusion of the "'leading health and scientific organizations' Ozimek mentions." As I note above, Drum made a claim in his own name about what has happened many times before. He is presenting this as an explanation for the phenomenon described by Ozimek, which does not follow logically from suspicion of "the government."

Yes most people don't make those "fine distinctions," but they should, and Kevin Drum should point out that they are making a mistake when they conclude that the NAS is untrustworthy because Republican politicians and appointees say whatever big business wants. I'd actually say the distinction between the USgov and the NAS isn't all that. Most people do make the similar distinction between, say, the Catholic Church and the US government.

This is all about a tiny little bit of wording. Drum clearly meant to explain why people aren't influenced by the conclusions of "leading health and scientific organizations" and not to say that it is reasonable for them to do so.

I'd guess another important point (which Drum pretty much makes in his comment on this post) is that most people have no clear idea what the National Academy of Sciences says. I for one, don't know their position on Aspartame. People just know what some self declared scientists say and can only tell that they aren't industry funded hacks when their conclusions displease industry.

On GM food, I guess that I agree with the revised post. I have no problem with the idea is that GM food should be submitted to considerable scrutiny as should well non-GM food (different scrutiny of course but not a whole different degree). As far as I can tell, the debate on GM food runs from considerable scrutiny to extreme scrutiny, so Kevin Drum went from one side completely over to the other. I don't think anyone has ever argued against "considerable scrutiny" and I don't think that GM food opponents say that no evidence could ever convince them (although I'm sure some will never ever be convinced).

update II: By the way, should I live a thousand years, I won't learn to have manners as good as Kevin Drum's. He wrote "quite an animated response " when I myself wrote "got out of hand." But really, incentives Kevin incentives. I am thrilled to find his name (and inimitable prose style in case anyone wants to claim it wasn't really him) in my comments section. The fear of being accused of another "quite" "animated response" is not going to keep me from rabidly berating him hoping for some more attention. I promise that both this time and the last time I was sincere, but I won't deny that I'm getting tempted.

1 comment:

Kevin Drum said...

This is quite an animated response to something I didn't say. I never mentioned either NAS or IOM. I *did* mention "government regulators," and you might reasonably object that that's not the same thing as the "leading health and scientific organizations" that Ozimek mentions. Most people don't make these fine distinctions, however. They just know what "the government" is doing, and "the government" has historically been strongly influenced by private sector manufacture of doubt. It's hardly moronic for an ordinary citizen to be aware of this and take it into account.

(Evolution, however, is an entirely different matter that I don't think follows the same pattern as other scientific issues.)

As for GM foods, you obviously saw my post within minutes after I made it. I changed "extreme scrutiny" to "considerable scrutiny" shortly after I wrote it, because I agree that "extreme" was, well, too extreme. As for why I feel that way, I made an additional comment about this in the original thread. I'm mainly concerned that we not get complacent about testing and regulation, not about any specific GM food.