Thursday, 17 November 2011

Women do not synchronise periods

Super-quick one today, as I am not particularly qualified to speak on this topic, but Kate Clancy is - contrary to popular superstition, women in close proximity for extended periods do not synchronise menstrual cycles.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

PETA are prolific animal murderers

So one story has been making the rounds a lot recently - that PETA have used Mario (of Super Mario Brothers fame) as a publicity pawn, accusing him of being an evil animal killer on the basis of his use of the tanooki suit. To be honest, I don't really have a problem with this particular publicity campaign - it's a tongue-in-cheek way of raising the profile of the Chinese fur industry, which is clearly an awful thing and I entirely agree that it should be excised from the planet, even if their campaign is rather shrill and attention-seeking.

The point of this post is to point out a different fact - PETA is one of the leading animal euthanasia organisations. In 2009, they murdered 2,301 animals, and managed to get a whole 8 adopted. This was not a statistical fluke - over recent years, the trend to animal killings within PETA has been on the increase. If PETA were an animal palliative care organisation, there would be nothing wrong with this. But it is not. In fact, it funds violent direct action groups, and even attacks those who make it a policy not to put animals down. The reason for the latter? Some animals at "no-kill" shelters will have to be euthanised anyway due to overpopulation. Staggering. Consequently, this is the purest of all crimes - straightout hypocrisy.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Piracy and Entertainment: An Overture

For some time I have been gathering material for a series of articles on the economic status of the entertainment industry and the effects of piracy, which it uses to justify ludicrously extra-judicial powers in Western nations. As an overture, a couple of juicy bits of evidence that the entertainment industry is still ludicrously rich:

1. Those industries related to copyright materials (i.e. the entertainmen sector in total) beat the average performance during the recession, despite supposedly being both luxuries and under fire from copyright infringement.

2. The biggest winner of this year's executive pay competition was not an oil magnate. They were not a tech guru, or a shipping tycoon. They were the CEO of Viacom, one of the copyright corporations at the forefront of trying to break YouTube.

In later posts, I will be dealing with the music and film sectors individually (and possibly other sectors if I get up the necessary motivation).

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

More on the science of being wrong

Following on from a couple of posts ago, here's further articles on the gentle art of being wrong about everything.

First up a lovely column from Christie Aschwanden on the personal side of being wrong. Short version: we as individuals think of ourselves as independent, intelligent people, and when confronted with somebody saying we are wrong, rather than weigh up the arguments we intuitively take it as an attack as it contradicts our view of ourselves.

In not-dissimilar footsteps, Cracked on 5 logical fallacies that make people wrong (often when they think they're right). Click through for details, but as a list:

5. We're Not Programmed to Seek "Truth," We're Programmed to "Win"

4. Our Brains Don't Understand Probability

3. We Think Everyone's Out to Get Us

2. We're Hard-Wired to Have a Double Standard (i.e. when it happens to us it's because of external circumstances, when somebody else does it it's because they are bad)

1. Facts Don't Change Our Minds

Nothing massively new here, but a good roundup, and I particularly liked item 3 - the idea that we think people will screw us over much more than they actually will, but we rarely find out our mistake. The corollary of this is that we have experiences where we are surprised our trust is broken when we expected it to be kept, but rarely have experiences where we are surprised our trust is kept when we expected it to be broken (because we usually walk away from those situations before they happen). Perhaps the cumulative effect is part of the reason older people are generally more conservative - that's pure speculation on my part, though.

All in all, good stuff about being wrong. I'm sure I fall foul of this stuff all the time, but I'm lucky enough to be a scientist, and hence being proved wrong is part of the job - in fact, I usually prove myself wrong on a regular basis. Just within this blog, I was completely wrong in what I though about streetlights.

Weight loss roundup

Another quick one, an Australian colleague has forwarded a series of articles from his homeland on the myths and truths of weight loss. Mostly fairly general stuff, not attacking too many of the specifics, but good general information with a few handy citations. I was particularly pleased to see it tackling high street weight loss scam products, and that all diets work initially but plateau off and become useless by 6 months to a year, even if they are strictly followed (which rarely happens because, after all, they aren't actually achieving anything anymore):

For decades, a high proportion of doctors and dietitians worked on the incorrect assumption that cutting 2100 kJ (about 500 calories) of energy intake every day would result in steady weight loss of about half a kilogram a week.

But this assumption ignores adjustments in the body that take place in response to any change in weight.

What actually happens is that the body’s composition and metabolic rate change after the initial loss of weight, and this leads to a plateau in weight loss.

Read the entire series

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Meta-post: somebody else's book on why you are wrong

Very quick shout-out to a book I haven't yet read, but tackles a subject close to my heart - why everybody is wrong, but why everybody believes they are right and that everybody else is wrong. Yes, I grasp the irony, I would like to make it clear that I know that I'm wrong all the time as well.

Reblogging the boingboing post on this, your attention is drawn to the following excerpt:

I can see right through that politician’s lies. People are such sheep. People are so stupid. People will believe anything. I prefer to lead, not follow.

Have you ever thought like this? Would it blow your mind to know everyone thinks this?

If everyone thinks they aren’t gullible and can’t be swayed by advertising, political rhetoric, or charismatic con artists, then someone must be deluding themselves. Sometimes it’s you.

Read all about it

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Vitamins aren't helping you (unless you are genuinely ill)... in fact, they may be killing you

Taking vitamin pills are a great idea if you suffer a genuine vitamin deficiency. Whether that's due to some chronic illness or special diet (vegans, I'm looking at you), there are those who need them and absolutely should be taking them.

The overwhelming majority have no need of them, however. If you are already reasonably healthy (and that's a surprisingly low barrier), vitamins are going to do nothing for you. Mankind evolved to deal with scarce food resources, and the body is awfully good at scavenging necessary vitamins and minerals from our everyday diets. "More is better" is never the way biology works - too little is bad, but enough is fine, and more won't help. Antioxidant vitamins do nothing.

At some point, too much will be bad for you, no matter how benign the substance appears. Everything becomes toxic at a high enough dose. Even vitamin overdoses occur, though they are very rarely fatal.

More dangerous and insidious (and the real point of this post) is the possibility that by assuming you are doing something healthy, you will then justify other unhealthy activity- smoking, exercising less, eating less well, etc. This is "risk compensation". Overall, you take vitamins (which don't help) and then go on to do something bad for you - a net loss for your health. This is bad in itself - and serves as an example of how things that defenders pass off as "harmless even if they don't work" can be of real harm.

Street Lights Are Not Making You Safer

Long time since last post, got some other things brewing, but while we're waiting, here's a quickie...

Most people would assume that street lighting is a good thing for many reasons, but principal among them would be safety. I would intuitively have thought the same, and given the choice between a dark alley and brightly-lit street, there's no doubt in my mind which I would take. But maybe I'm wrong about that, and many others along with me.

This post is precipitated by a story that solar streetlighting in Haitian camps has coincided with a large drop in reports of crime. So far, so great, good news everybody. But I use "coincided" for a reason. Security patrols improved over the same period, and the population of the camp dropped. While I'm sure the lights had many other advantages, there is too much happening here to assume that correlation is causation.

And wider research seems to show that, in fact, street lighting does not (in general) decrease crime. Of course, there are many other advantages - replacing wood-burning for light, increasing hours of labour, making pedestrian areas more pleasant for the cafe culture - but crime reduction may not be among them. Security legend Bruce Schneier drew attention to this counterintuitive finding back in 2007. Lighting may increase safety where it increases likelihood that crimes will be noticed and reported, but do not necessarily prevent crime in the first place. And a bit of thought produces hypotheses why this would be; for example, a burglar using a flashlight is more obvious than an brightly-lit figure fiddling with a lock. Bright lighting can give potential victims night-blindness while their potential muggers wait in the shadows. Overall, those lights are not making you safer - check out the evidence.

As I said before, I can still see lots of reasons to use public lighting in specific situations, where the light itself is the point of the exercise. But it comes with downsides - cost, pavement space, prevention of astronomy, and (as a country boy in the city) blocking the simple beauty of the night sky. If it isn't making people more secure (particularly when it is used in secluded areas, where the other benefits are minimal), a reappraisal is in order.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Food and Diet

For my first post here, it seems obvious to tackle one of the world's biggest realms of disinformation - dieting. This is an absolute goldmine for the bullshit artists of the globe. Almost everybody in the western world suffers body dysmorphia to some degree, so if you can make up any old nonsense to sell a book or a pill, some sucker will be around to make you rich.

Much of this seems to be based around one essential fallacy - that you are what you eat. Reality is not quite that straightforward - what we put in our mouths are the raw materials of what our body uses, but it does a lot to change them. Your stomach is basically a sack of hydrochloric acid and enzymes - it is extremely good at breaking down what you put into it. Once (and if) it is absorbed into the body, the organs of the body (particularly the wonderful liver) do an excellent job of turning it into whatever the body is in need of at that particular moment.

There is another thing to consider - the dose curve. Biochemistry is counter-intuitive in that it does not follow the simple logic of "more of a good thing is better". Everything has an ideal level. Too much of anything, be it a vitamin, or even just plain water, is bad for you. Also too little of something is also bad for you, even if it is usually thought of as bad for you: the body has a certain minimum expectation of even things we would normally consider poisons, right up to things like gamma radiation (which we naturally encounter every day in our air, water and food). Bottom line - moderation is key, too much is always bad, too little is always bad. This is because the body is good at converting things and dealing with the unwanted, but too much will overrun its natural buffers, and too little gives it nothing to work with. Those are all massive simplifications, but its a start. With all that in mind, let's break down some nonsense.

1. Myth: Fat makes you fat

Nope, not really. Your body will store fat in the body when it has too many calories to use at the present moment. It doesn't really care where those calories come from - it will do an excellent job of turning things into fats, and an equally great job of turning fats into other things as and when they are necessary. Fat does have a larger energy density than most things (i.e. calories per gram) - but most people would eat less by weight in the normal run of things anyway. The recent obesity epidemic in the west has largely been due to switching from the demon fat to eating much more in the way of carbohydrate (not that carbs are evil either, of course). And the feelings of satiety from eating fatty foods (particularly as they are often high in protein) can often make you eat less overall. Ultimately, balance is the key.

2. Myth: Meat, dairy etc. are bad for you

Wow, couldn't be more wrong. If you stand against these things for some moral reason, then fair enough, no metabolic argument is going to sway you. But removing things from your diet is generally a bad idea. Your body needs a wide range of vitamins and minerals (and trying to get them from pills isn't a good idea either - the body often has trouble absorbing vitamins and minerals delivered this way). You should eat as wide a range of foods as possible. Meat and dairy are wonderful suppliers of protein, calcium, vitamin A, etc, etc. A lot of nonsense is talked about lactose intolerance, etc. - in fact, this condition is very rare, you most likely don't have it. Plus, partly due to protein content, they make you feel full, meaning you eat less overall. I'm not suggesting the Atkins diet - that is ruinous due to its own problems in delivering balance. Some people do just fine on a vegan diet, if they are very careful. But others, no matter how well-informed they are and no matter how well they balance their vegan diet, simply cannot survive without animal products. The combination of protein and vitamins makes meat and dairy hugely beneficial to wellbeing, and you'd better have a really good reason to give them up.

(While I'm on the subject of fats, it's also worth mentioning that the magical properties of omega-3 and fish oils are also a lot of nonsense - not that they're bad for you, but some claims about them are, to say the least, overhyped.)

3. Myth: Antioxidants are good for you

This is an easy one to dispel. While it's true that antioxidants are used at a subcellular level to combat oxidative damage, those are the body's own productions. For the reasons given above, there is no reason to imagine even for a second that antioxidants you put in your mouth will either enter or have any effect in the cells. And indeed, no effect is precisely what was found - see the Cochrane review, the gold standard of evidence, which combined the results of 67 studies covering nearly a quarter of a million people (here, summary here). For those unfamiliar with that institution, it is non-profit, and has no particular axe to grind - unlike all those people telling you to buy their books/supplements/training courses.

Of course, eating all those foods isn't a bad idea - most things recommended are fruit and veg, which everbody can benefit from eating. That benefit has nothing to do with antioxidants, though.

4. Myth: detox will clear out all those poisons

Your body is incredibly good at dealing with toxins. Unless you have a serious disorder of, say, the liver or kidneys, your body is doing an amazing job. Nothing you can eat or drink is going to make much difference. When you wake up with a hangover, chances are your body has already cleared a lot of the toxins, and what you are feeling is good old-fashioned self-inflicted damage, not poison. Add to which, no company shilling their "detox" snake oil can even agree on what these toxins are supposed to be, or what detox is. For an excellent takedown of the gibberish spouted by people trying to steal your money, see senseaboutscience's excellent (and free) leaflet.

5. Myth: you can make long-term changes to your blood pH with diet

I don't even know where to begin with what a load of crap this new fad is. Your blood pH stays at an extremely stable level (just to the alkaline side of neutral). Your body is incredibly good at maintaining this level. That is because enzymes are extremely sensitive to pH, and will stop working if it varies very much - at which point you will die quite fast. Varying pH by more than about 0.3 will put you in hospital. The body is not going to let you do that if it can stop you. Consequently all living organisms are almost miraculously good at maintaining their pH levels, thank you very much. Again, unless you have something very wrong with you (such as kidney failure), any pH-related shenanigans are going to be either non-existent or short-lived.

6. Further myths - blood group diets, etc.

And the list goes on. So many fad diets are based around something real but utterly irrelevant to metabolism - blood group is popular right now. Why you would imagine that a mechanism used by the immune system to recognise invaders is relevant to your metabolism, and thence to your diet, is quite beyond me. It doesn't. I could go on forever, but must stop at some point. Other, better people have written exhaustively on just about any fad you could think of - check Bad Science, holfordwatch, senseaboutscience, etc. Just please do at least a little homework before signing up for anything.

The bottom line

There is one diet that works, and is good for you. It is the diet where you vary your food. Eat fruit and vegetables. Eat meat and dairy, unless ethically prevented (that's another argument I may return to later). You could maybe cut down on carbs, but there's no reason to go crazy about it - low blood sugar is bad for you too (it will switch the body to starvation mode, where you will burn fewer calories as well as feeling like crap).

Variation will give you the mix of energy, protein, vitamins and minerals you need. If you really want to lose weight, reduce portion size, but don't just go round cutting certain foods out of your diet - that road leads to imbalance, which is probably the thing making you feel bad. It can certainly work in the short-term for weight loss, just by sheer dint of reducing your choices for eating, but it won't do your metabolism any favours, and chances are your body will crave the things it knows it wants, causing you to cheat sooner or later.

Oh, and who am I to be arguing with all these published authors? Well, I do have a degree in biochemistry from a leading university. That was a few years ago now, and I'm nobody special. But I am still vastly more qualified than every single person in the UK describing themselves as a "nutritionist".