Salt Assault and Failing to Match Policy to Data

So, stuck in traffic this morning, heard this offering on NPR about salt being evil evil bad bad, except in tiny, tasteless doses. But, wait, I thought: isn’t this whole salt thing a classic canard? SciAm seems to think so

Got work to do, so I’ll (cop out alert!) leave it as an exercise for the reader to track down some links, but I recall having looked into this about 15 years ago, when my blood pressure first got elevated enough for my doctor to notice. What I recall is that research showed *some* linkage between salt intake and blood pressure, but only for a minority of the population – something like 30%. For 70% of people, there doesn’t seem to be a link between salt intake and blood pressure at any realistic level of salt consumption.

But check out what happens: across populations, if any measurable minority is adversely affected by consumption of X, then the outcome for the entire group will be better if X is reduced for everyone  – *even if* reducing X has no effect on the vast majority of people. If people enjoy X, a policy to restrict X across the population is annoying and pointless for most people, but does achieve a better result *for the population* because it helps a few people, whose results roll up to the population as a whole.

The sane policy would be to seek a reliable way to tell if a given person falls into the group affected by X, and then having them reduce their consumption of X *only if* they belong to that group. Then unaffected people get to enjoy their X in peace, outcomes are better for those affected by X, and – outcomes for the whole population are better as well as each person’s individual outcomes are rolled up into a general measure.

Right?

But with salt, the policy has never been let’s find out *if* someone is sensitive to salt intake – instead, the medical field (as personified in my doctor) tell us all it would be a good idea to reduce our salt intake prior to knowing if, in fact, it will make any difference for that particular patient.

Now, this would be utterly trivial except for a couple things:

1. For most people,  changing their diets is hard, as in really, really hard. What we eat is among our oldest, most ingrained habits. So, what is being asked for here is not, subjectively, some trivial thing.

2. There’s this idea of personal capital – a doctor, and the medical establishment in general, have a somewhat limited amount of capital with each of us patients, and asking us to do stuff uses some of it. In such an environment, doctors should spend their capital carefully – if they make a big deal out of salt consumption, they may get less compliance on things of more  importance. As someone who ultimately has to sell stuff for a living, I keep this rule always before my eyes: you can only ask for so much of somebody’s time and energy, don’t waste it.

There are political implications from this line of thought as well, but gotta get back to work.

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Here We Go Again: Science! Headlines of Insanity

Inconceivable!

 

Four planets in ‘habitable zones’ spotted within spitting distance of Earth.

 

‘Spitting distance’ sounds really close. How close? One system is 12 light years away, the other 22. So, um, if you can spit at the speed of light – unlikely – and were a very, very good aim, you could conceivably besmirch  a planet orbiting one of these stars in a mere couple of decades or so.

Piece of cake.

However, since we don’t have warp drive, even on the drawing table, it seems that ‘spitting distance’ must mean something along the lines of: theoretically close enough for the great grandchildren of the initial astronauts to reach, assuming people can even live that long and reproduce healthy, fertile offspring in space.

These words – I do not think they mean what you think they mean.

Nonetheless, if you can get past the breathless, nonsensical headlines, this is actually real news about an important technique: astronomers have created a method to check for planets on nearby stars by statistically analyzing the star’s spectrum over time. I assume that, as the star and its planet(s) orbit around their common center(s) of gravity, the star appears to wobble slightly, with its spectrum shifting around – it’s a red-then-blue shift as the star alternately moves away from and then towards us as it swings back and forth around the center of gravity. But the article doesn’t spell that out. Could be something else entirely, but I can’t imagine what at the moment.

So, while the light – and the spectrums – from stars fluctuates all the time, the particular rhythmic fluctuations caused by planets should be detectable. To do so, you’d need to filter out somehow all the random noise – sunspots, who knows what – and that’s what the statistical analysis does. Somebody far better than I am statistics would need to explain how that works – I have an idea, but should keep my mouth shut on such matters.

So, despite the goofy headlines, sometimes Science! does march on! Woo Hoo!

Dueling Science! Headlines

Two headlines that appear today in Google News’ Science! Section:

IPCC Gets It Right on Climate Change, But Too Conservative

and:

The UN’s Global Warming Forecasts Are Performing Very, Very Badly

The first is from SustainableBusiness.com, a site that defines sustainable business as: “Business that contributes to an equitable and ecologically sustainable economy”.

“Equitable”?

The next is from Forbes, a bastion of business and all that.

To sum up: can we assume these people are looking at the same data? I mean, both are making claims about the predictive accuracy of the IPCC. What are they looking at if they are not looking at the same data?

Forbes gives us a nice, if somewhat incomprehensible, graph direct from the IPCC:

After a little background to help us read the graph, including noting that the grey areas are essentially meaningless, the author concludes:

Quite obviously, for more than a decade, the observations have fallen near or below the lower end of the IPCC projected range. Houston, we have a problem.

Using just my eyeballs, I can go with that. Not exactly rigorous science, but OK.(1)

The first article has no graphs and only occasional numbers meant to be scary – what I mean is that few of us can really say that 3.3 centimeters per year in sea level rise signals immanent disaster in a way 2.0 centimeters doesn’t. For example. None of the links, as far as I can tell, lead to anything other than other news sources and advocacy groups. Most point to other articles on the same site. While not necessarily damning, it does mean that you’re at least a couple clicks away from any real sources, assuming the linked articles are sourced. I, like most people, are not about to spend the time to click through in order to then click through some more in order to see if there’s anything there – but, from a marketing POV, all those links sure look scientifilicious.

Some of the stuff they say in the body of the article is borderline hilarious:

Governments and the public could be blindsided by the rapid onset of the flooding, extreme storms, drought, and other impacts associated with catastrophic global warming

Sure, and we might not, or we might be blindsided by sudden ice age, or an asteroid, or a particularly pleasant spring. This is pure marketing-speak.

The item from Forbes gets points for using data from a source the opposite side would agree is a good source – THE good source. But it’s only an eyeball-level test – looks to me like a level, or nearly level, trend line would fit the data pretty good. But so might a more sloped one – that’s the problem with eyeballs.

Forbes wins this round, but largely by default – it’s not exactly hammering its point home with pure scientific goodness. SustainableBusiness.com is just phoning it in, scientifically speaking.

And that’s the problem, here.  Since I do marketing for a living (I didn’t mean to, it just kind of happened), I’m sensitive to spin perhaps more than most people – and virtually every time I’ve read anything supporting  immediate drastic action on AGCC, it’s getting spun like a gyroscope.  i don’t know what’s true, here – but I do know when I’m being herded along.

This little doggie ain’t a going to Wyoming.

1. His main point is that he expects the IPCC to suppress this graph in its final report, as it has suppressed such inconvenient data in the past – but that’s politics, this here is Science!

Gurkha Bravery and Catholic Celibacy

When this story came out a couple years ago, I told it to my sons. Brief recap: a retired Gurkha soldier took on 40 armed train robbers when they tried to rape a young woman seated near him. Using only his Khukuri – a machete-sized knife – he killed 3, wounded 8 and drove off the rest.

If you don’t know about Gurkhas, check ’em out. These are manly men.

My embellishment on the story as told to my sons: given the well-deserved reputation for cheerful valor and daring-do of generations of Gurkas, I’ll bet when he got home and had a beer with the other Gurkha soldiers, they were all ‘Hmmm. Nice job. Can I buy you a drink?”, not “WHOA! DUDE! I DON’T BELIEVE THIS!”

When honor, bravery and martial skill are mandatory and traditional, feats of great valor are *expected*. Of course, they’d be recognized and honored, but more like a 50th wedding anniversary- not as an outrageous rarity, but what you’d expect under the circumstances. Thus, when our boys came back after WWII, they got parades and all that, but the general attitude among the men seemed to be: I was just doing my job. Their job just happened to be to risk death to save their county and their loved ones.

That you expect honorable behavior doesn’t make it any less honorable. In fact, honor is heroic, at least latently, at all times. Whether it’s spouses honoring their vows, a young man respecting a young woman, or a knife-wielding defender of the innocent clearing a train of thieves, honor requires heroism. The idea is that you’d choose death over dishonor, because there are many things more important than staying alive.

This got me to thinking about the current attitude among our culture-makers about celibate adults. We Catholics understand that the priests and nuns among us are making a great sacrifice by remaining celibate. In fact, given the attitudes and temptations of the world, remaining celibate is often heroic. We tell our kids that remaining chaste before marriage is a good thing, even when its difficult (and don’t go making it any more difficult than it already is! Oops, my dad persona broke through, there).

But to non-Catholics (of all kinds), celibacy is most often seen as simply insane – kind of like taking on 40 armed men armed only with a knife. I recall the author of the otherwise excellent book the Sparrow just could not bring herself to believe that priests could really remain celibate, and so almost destroyed the story by digressions into how all priest just masturbate a lot when they aren’t having affairs.  Does that happen? I imagine so, sometimes, but I also imagine there are priests that do, in fact, manage to master their sexual desires. It only becomes necessary to believe otherwise when your dogma demands it.

The current dogma is that, far from  sexual desires being something to master, they are, rather *who we are*. Choosing to learn and exercise self control is to destroy who we truly are. Thus, whatever you may happen to desire sexually becomes, not a factor to consider in light of other factors, but the true definition of ourselves. Being told in any way that your sexual desires are in any way wrong is the most vicious personal attack possible.

This paints a rather grim and limited picture of what it means to be human.

When big extended families were more common in this country, everybody had or knew of spinster aunts and unmarried uncles. Catholic extended families often included priests and men and women religious. These celibate people, who were about as cheery or miserable as anybody else,  put the lie to the claim that their lives were doomed to misery and worthlessness simply because of celibacy. Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, the brother and sister farmers who adopted Anne in Anne of Green Gables, are doomed by modern thinking to be miserable, closeted perverts, or both. Rather, the story paints their personalities as completely believable, reasonably happy  – and completely familiar to anyone living up to a couple generations ago.

I’ve been blessed to know many good and holy priests and religious. I don’t know their personal struggles and failures, and I don’t need to know. But I do know their successes, how, fallible human beings that they are, they stuck with it. Nice job. Can I buy you a drink?

Babies and Money, Cause and Effect

Following up on this appalling yet predictable essay, which asserts that children are just status symbols meant to show off one’s wealth. This theory is supported with carefully selected data and anecdotes that would make sense only to people who have no normal people among their friends and acquaintances. Evidently, these people are over represented in places like NYC and DC, if you can imagine.* Smaug

As in all good lies, there’s a shred of truth. In this case, the truth – anecdotal, to be sure, but not contradicted in my experience – is that babies create wealth in the families blessed with them. It works like this: You, a normal guy, gets married, and, in the normal course of things, father children. Protect and provide instincts kick in, and you, with, say, to pick a COMPLETELY RANDOM example, a degree in Great Books and lots of classes in art and music, find yourself saying: OH MY GOD! These people, whom I love and are responsible for, are COUNTING ON ME!

Then, while you may have taken – again just picking examples out of thin air – a dumb job at an insurance company because directing church choirs wasn’t going to pay the rent, start a scramble that will continue unabated for the next 50 years: you start looking for every opportunity to get a better, more secure, better paying job.

Note that you do this even though you were pretty much cool with living hand to mouth and being very involved in art and music – that Bohemian vibe worked for you . So, maybe you get a MBA, take any promotion that comes up, burn the midnight oil to make sure your employer understands they can’t live without you – basically, you climb the economic ladder.

And, as a result of all this – not greed, but a sense of responsibility – you end up doing pretty well. I’m – we’re – doing pretty well. It took time. We already had a couple three kids before my income was above the household average for our area, and it wasn’t much above until the last 5 or 6 years. And none of this would have happened if we hadn’t had children.

Note that this phenomenon – fathers acting more responsibly – isn’t just or primarily about climbing to the top rungs of the economic ladder. If a man who would have otherwise been unemployed takes odd jobs just so he can give something to his wife and kids, that’s a huge step both socially and economically. Any father that focuses on long range thinking at all, that embraces his duty to his kids, is adding to society, raising the level of culture and, in a word, making the world a  better place.

At least for us normal guys, children are most often the cause, not the effect of wealth.

*Are there places like DC and NYC? In the sense used here, maybe SF? That’s about it. There are normal people in Chicago, Dallas and Atlanta, maybe even in Baltimore. Boston?

1. Of course, once we’ve taken care of our duty to or families, once we *do* have money, guys, being human, like to be recognized for our success. This is a difficult path to trod without looking like a fool or a greedy SOB – but even this is more likely to be an effect rather than a cause of children.

Anyone Who Hates Dogs and Babies Can’t Be All Bad

This old joke, paraphrasing a quip by a Leo Rosten about W.C. Fields,* seems to need to be explained to some people these  days, and I, as an experienced if amateur joke writer, am just the man to do it.

A joke is a sudden and startling contradiction or reversal of our expectations. The above quip about W. C. Fields has entered the pantheon of jokes by virtue of its exemplary execution of this reversal. But the point to be noted is that it *is* a reversal of expectations. So – pay attention, ye possessor of a modern mind – the joke only works because normal people are known to *love*  dogs and babies (especially babies – listing dogs *and* babies together is humorous in itself, and kicks the joke up a notch).

In the 1930s and 40s, an iconic American comedian could build an entire career on playing off the startling humor in his hatred of dogs and babies  – and love of liqueur. But it was not lost on his audience that a man who hated dogs and babies would be just the sort of miserable wretch to require constant drowning of his sorrows. Great, lasting humor requires tragedy (just ask a Jew or an Irishman) – W. C. Fields, who found no love for dogs and babies, was ultimately tragic.

So, going back to Miss Friedman’s rather amazing essay, it seems she’s missing a basic point: normal people love babies. I love babies. My wife and family love babies. Our friends and acquaintances love babies.  It’s practically definitional: All normal people love babies. If you don’t love babies, there’s something wrong.

One of the gaping holes in modern life is the shortage of babies. At our school, for a number of years, a few babies – little brothers and sisters of the students – have spent a good deal of time.  What happens when you introduce a baby into a social group of 40 kids age 5 to 19? They pretty much drop everything and wait in line to hold, talk to, play with the baby. They kids coo and laugh and make fools of themselves to try to get a reaction out of the properly called ‘little bundle of joy’. This can go on for hours. Surly teenagers turn shy and quiet, and wait their turn. Manic 5 year olds pull out all the stops to get a smile. Everybody in the building is delighted by any firsts – ‘look! She grabbed the toy!’ – and baby achievements are trumpeted proudly, even when it’s somebody else’s baby.

Hold the baby, feed the baby – lines form. And kids even want to get involved in diaper changing. Babies trigger a startling increase in civilized behavior. Kids get quieter if the baby is getting agitated, show concern if the baby is upset, and apply peer pressure to those who do anything that makes it hard on the baby.  In olden days, we’d believe this is evidence the kids were growing up.

Babies are the key, I believe, to the civilizing benefits of age-mixing, which was a social fact for every culture prior to our own. Now days, babies are not often introduced into an world full of other children, teenagers, adults, parents, grandparents – and our kids development gets arrested, and we are all poorer for it. Instead of a dozen sets of hands ready to hold the baby, parents are left to their own devises (even when, as is increasingly rare, there are an involved mother and father present).

Did we have 5 children because we are rich? We are rich because we have 5 children.

*Exact quotation: “The only thing I can say about W. C. Fields is this: Any man who hates dogs and babies can’t be all bad.”

Science! Explained?

Seems Alan Alda is going to have Science! explained to us.  He collects suggestions from kids of what questions to ask, picks one, and then asks scientists to answer the question at a level a 6th grader could understand. This raises questions.

1. Alan Alda? Alan Freakin’ Alda?Although his very subtle and often amusing ‘Modern Manhood Explained’ series, wherein he played a 1970’s sensitive hippie male playing a doctor during the Vietnam War disguised as the Korean War, was very popular, I’m not sure it really explained much. How did those sensitive hippies end up getting MBAs and becoming corporate raiders during the ‘Greed is Good’ boom in the 1980s? Or how did those males very sensitively popularize the practice of seeking to have sex with every girl or woman (at least, to start) who still drew breath, and then sensitively dumping them for the next available honey? These remain mysteries. It was an ambitious shot at a tough subject, but I can’t be alone in suspecting it fell short, somehow, even after hundreds of episodes.

So, now he’s going to do Science!?

2. While much of the series was comprehensible by 6th graders, M.A.S.H. was in general targeted at a 10th grade level audience – can he dial it back all the way to 6th grade?

3. The first question, asked and answered last year, was ‘what is a flame?’ – a good question, to be sure, and suitable for some expansion. But this year’s question – what is time? – isn’t even really a science question. You don’t discover what time is via the tools of science – the tools of science assume time in order to do science at all. This should be obvious.

4. So, for questions like the above, which are philosophical, even metaphysical in nature, can we have a ‘Time Challenge” where real philosophers vet the questions that come in and route them appropriately, the science ones to the scientists, the metaphysical ones to the metaphysicians? How cool would that be? Then, the metaphysicians (let’s get real: Aristotelians and Thomists. Posers need not apply) have to produce short videos explaining the principles and logic involved in a manner suitable for children. Heck, I’d watch!

A worrisome quotation:

“There’s hardly an issue we deal with today that isn’t affected by science,” Alda said. “I’ve even heard from a number of people in Congress that they often don’t understand what scientists are talking about when they go to Washington to testify, and these are the people who make the decisions about funding and policy.”

Do we really have hardly any issues that aren’t affected by Science!? The need to be loving to one’s children and faithful to one’s spouse, or whether or not the government can provide a free lunch, or the concept of being endowed by our creator with unalienable rights – these are either ‘hardly any’ issues, or can be addressed by science?

Also can’t help suspect he’s tipped his hand a little in his last phrase: “…decisions about funding and policy.” Is the very human drive to understand the world really about funding and policy?

All kidding aside, I wish this project well. Unfortunately, the die has largely been cast in the likeness of Sagan, so I’m not overly hopeful.