Saletan Dismantles The Nature Neuroscience Conclusions

Progressive bloggers delighted in the news that a study in Nature Neuroscience “proved” that liberals had better cognitive and analytical skills than conservatives. The lead author wrote that liberals “tend to be more sensitive and responsive to information,” which allowed them more flexibility in their thinking. They also supposedly tend to deal better with informational complexity and more open to change when provided with the necessary cues for it.
William Saletan had a look at the study, and at Slate, he rips the wide-ranging conclusions taken from very narrow experiments:

Let’s take the claims one by one.
1. Habitual ways of thinking. Here’s what the experiment actually entailed, according to the authors’ supplementary document:
[E]ither the letter “M” or “W” was presented in the center of a computer monitor screen. … Half of the participants were instructed to make a “Go” response when they saw “M” but to make no response when they saw “W”; the remaining participants completed a version in which “W” was the Go stimulus and “M” was the No–Go stimulus. … Responses were registered on a computer keyboard placed in the participants’ laps. … Participants received a two-minute break halfway through the task, which took approximately 15 minutes to complete.
Fifteen minutes is a habit? Tapping a keyboard is a way of thinking? Come on. You can make a case for conservative inflexibility, but not with this study. …
3. Complexity and ambiguity. Go back and look at the first word of the excerpt from the supplementary document. The word is either. Participants were shown an M or a W. No complexity, no ambiguity. You could argue that showing them a series of M’s and then surprising them with a W injects some complexity and ambiguity. But that complexity is crushed by the simplicity of the letter choice and the split-second deadline. As Amodio explained to the Sacramento Bee, “It’s too quick for you to think consciously about what you’re doing.” So, why did he impose such a brutal deadline? “It needs to be hard enough that people make a lot of errors,” he argued, since—in the Bee’s paraphrase of his remarks—”the errors are the most interesting thing to study.”
In other words, complexity and ambiguity weren’t tested; they were excluded. The study was designed to prevent them—and conscious thought in general—because, for the authors’ purposes, such lifelike complications would have made the results less interesting.

Once again, a study appears to have been used for purposes outside of its design, and meaning extrapolated from unconnected and pointless exercises. While choosing between M and W may make for an interesting cognitive exercise, it doesn’t follow that it has much application to conservatives, liberals, or independents. From Saletan’s description, it creates an antiseptic world where all change is good and indicative — and gives no indication whatsoever of its application to the real world.
Saletan concludes:

The conservative case against this study is easy to make. Sure, we’re fonder of old ways than you are. That’s in our definition. Some of our people are obtuse; so are some of yours. If you studied the rest of us in real life, you’d find that while we second-guess the status quo less than you do, we second-guess putative reforms more than you do, so in terms of complexity, ambiguity, and critical thinking, it’s probably a wash. Also, our standard of “information” is a bit tougher than the blips and fads you fall for. Sometimes, these inclinations lead us astray. But over the long run, they’ve served us and society pretty well. It’s just that you notice all the times we were wrong and ignore all the times we were right.
In fact, that’s exactly what you’ve done in this study: You’ve manufactured a tiny world of letters, half-seconds, and button-pushing, so you can catch us in clear errors and keep out the part of life where our tendencies correct yours. And now you feel great about yourselves. Congratulations. You haven’t told us much about our way of thinking. But you’ve told us a lot about yours.

Exactly. And the fact that people used the specious applications of this study to political thought tells us even more about the value of these studies, and the mindset of the media that amplifies them.

But They’re Low In Tar!

Smokers have spent the last few years exiled to the outdoors in order to service their addiction during working hours. A new study in Australia might give them some company — laser printers and copiers:

The office printer causes frustration when it isn’t working but it may be posing as much danger to staff as smoking a cigarette when it is, scientists in Australia said.
An investigation into 62 laser printers revealed that 17 of them — almost 30 per cent — released high amounts of minute toner particles into the air.
Professor Lidia Morawska from the Queensland University of Technology, who led the research, said: “Ultra-fine particles are of most concern because they can penetrate deep into the lungs where they can pose a significant health threat. …
The study, conducted in a large open-plan office in central Brisbane, showed that particles increased five-fold during working hours.
Emissions were worst when new cartridges were used, and when graphics and images which required larger quantities of toner were being printed.

The American Chemical Society’s journal, Environmental Science and Technology, will publish the study later this week. It will reportedly include a list of popular printer brands with an index of emissions for each model. It will allow employers to select the lowest-emission choices for the work environment, as well as launch a million lawsuits around the world.
How did the researchers stumble on this gold mine for the legal profession? They actually wanted to test ventilation systems in offices to see how well they kept outdoor pollutants from nearby roads. When they began testing office environments, they didn’t find disturbing levels of outdoor pollutants, but were surprised to see the printer particle levels reach levels “far higher” than anything from outside.
The researchers said that workers who spent months and years exposed to these high particulate levels could be at high risk for pulmonary diseases. Determination of the potential for Laserjet Lung will have to be conducted in further studies. However, don’t be terribly surprised to see commercials soon that ask, “Have you worked near a laser printer for more than a few months? You may be owed compensation! Dial 800-SUE-HAPI for more information!”

A Long Term Investment?

After researchers found a beneficial side effect while testing the blood pressure medicine Sildenafil — better known as Viagra — the pharmaceuticals have discovered the vast market for sexual-enhacement medications. They tend to play on the insecurities men and women have had for millenia about performance. Now Johnson & Johnson want to tackle the Great White Whale of male insecurity, but the Food and Drug Administration questions the need to medicate men into having more staying power:

In the hunt for a new sex pill for men, Johnson & Johnson has staying power.
The health-products giant hasn’t given up on what it hopes will become the first drug approved for premature ejaculation, even though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration rejected it in 2005. Regulators questioned whether helping men last longer during sex was a clear medical benefit, and may have had concerns about side effects of the drug, dapoxetine.
Other companies — including New York-based Pfizer Inc., the maker of Viagra — have scrapped experimental drugs for the condition since the FDA’s thumbs down for Johnson & Johnson’s.
Now, Johnson & Johnson will test its luck with dapoxetine outside the U.S. The New Brunswick, N.J., company plans to file for regulatory approval of dapoxetine in some European countries later this year, and also plans to submit it for approval in Canada. Johnson & Johnson hasn’t ruled out a second try for FDA approval to sell the drug to American men.

The FDA rejected the drug earlier, not because of any significant issues or side effects, but because they rejected the notion that premature ejaculation qualifies as a disease. Some men may differ, but the FDA took the position that the issue does not require medication at all. They may have been reacting to the backlash against Viagra and Cialis, which created some controversy over the investment of pharmaceuticals into what was seen as less-than-serious issues when other more serious but less marketable conditions escape their attention. Erectile dysfunction at least qualifies as an obstacle to procreation, while this doesn’t qualify at all.
It’s a losing battle, at least on two fronts. First, J&J will take the drug to Europe. It’s been proven effective, although the trials use an amusing method: the women use stopwatches during coitus. European administrators will not likely block its production, simply based on the economics. Many people don’t realize that Viagra primarily got produced in Ireland, where Pfizer’s investment helped contribute to the Celtic Tiger. Europe won’t mind another boost in economic fortunes, especially if the US hands them the manufacturing market.
Second, if it does get manufactured in Europe, it will be sold in the US whether the FDA likes it or not. The global market in pharmaceuticals will ensure that American men can access the drug, and spammers will facilitate those transactions. It will take less time than the announced performance improvement between the European launch of the drug and the first American purchase. The only effect the FDA’s rejection will have on the drug will be to increase the price.
I’m not necessarily opposed to the FDA, as some conservatives and libertarians are. It does good work in forcing pharmaceuticals to do the proper testing before selling potentially dangerous chemicals to sick people. Some, like Vioxx, still make it through, but we would have hundreds of Vioxx stories if the FDA closed up shop. In this case, though, they are making essentially a consumer choice rather than a safety choice, and they should reconsider their decision.
Addendum: I’ve always wanted to remark on this, but never had a post in which I could do so — but isn’t it more than a little ironic that so many web sites try to sell Viagra in the form of soft tabs?

Putting The Green In Greenland

Researchers have found the DNA of beetles, moths, and flies as well as traces of plant life in ice core samples from Greenland, the Los Angeles Times reports today. It demonstrates that the world was significantly warmer than previously thought, and that the glaciers of Greenland may have been a more recent development:

Ice-covered Greenland really was green a half-million or so years ago, covered with forests in a climate much like that of Sweden and eastern Canada today.
An international team of researchers recovered ancient DNA from the bottom of an ice core that indicates the presence of pine, yew and alder trees as well as insects.
The researchers, led by Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, say this is the first proof that there was forest in southern Greenland.
Included were genetic traces of butterflies, moths, flies and beetles, they report in Friday’s edition of the journal Science.

Historians have long known that Vikings established colonies on coastal Greenland over a thousand years ago, but that it disappeared as the Little Ice Age waxed. The creep of the glaciers killed the agricultural efforts of the colonists, and they eventually abandoned Greenland. Researchers had assumed that the colony took advantage of an exceptionally warm temporary weather pattern that freed the land from its normal icy status, but this discovery could show that the glacial period of Greenland is the exception rather than the norm.
That has some implications for the climate-change debate. Advocates of anthropogenic climate change use Greenland as key evidence in their argument. They claim that the loss of Greenland’s glacial mass — which is still in dispute — shows the effect that mankind has had on the Earth’s climate. If Greenland’s glaciers have only recently formed, then that argument makes little sense. Some estimates of the age of the DNA from the central portion of southern Greenland have them as recent as 116,000 years ago.
The entire notion of anthropogenic climate change needs much more study. Some people joke that when the Vikings begin farming Greenland again, they’ll begin to consider it. Now it looks like we can abide a forest in central Greenland and still have little over which to panic.

Of Market Forces And Organ Donors

Until now, I have not commented on the story regarding the Dutch game-show giveaway of two kidneys, which may surprise CQ readers, since the issue is one that hits very close to home for my family. Michael van der Galien’s post about the television competition for a dying woman’s organs expresses frustration about how the controversy reflects on The Netherlands, but the show is only the symptom of a global problem with organ donation — and a demonstration that market forces will prevail in any situation where demand far exceeds supply:

In the Netherlands we have a new television show: De Grote Donor Show (The Big Donor Show). What’s the show about you ask? Well, quite simple: this Friday 37 year old Lisa will donate one of her kidneys… on television. Three people who need a new kidney will be there. They have to answer questions. After that, Lisa will decide who gets her kidney. The viewers have an active role as well: they can SMS (to advise Lisa probably).
There is a lot of debate going on about this show in the Netherlands. Some consider it a good thing: we do not have enough people who are willing to donate their organs (after they die). This ’stunt’ or show, might make it easier for people to make the decision to donate their organs. However, there are also people who object, who find it tasteless. Members of Parliament have asked questions about the show, some want the government to ban it (it’s being broadcasted on a government-owned channel). …
Well, this certainly puts the Netherlands on the map once again. I am very pleased to see that whenever the world talks about us, it is usual about something ridiculous, like now. Wouldn’t want the world to take us seriously, now would we? No, lets happily enforce the idea that we are more liberal than liberal, more tolerant and open-minded than tolerant and open-minded: no rules. No moral values. No nothing! Hedonism rules!

Reuters also noted this controversy a couple of days ago. The Dutch government and the EU registered protests with the broadcaster, BNN, objecting to the network turning organ donation (and death) into entertainment. BNN still plans on airing the program tomorrow night.
This follows on the heels of a Washington Post column that caught my eye a month ago by Dr. Sally Satel, arguing for a market approach to organ donation in order to increase the supply:

It is a sad time for the 96,000 patients waiting for kidneys, livers, hearts and lungs: The chasm between supply and demand grows wider each year. By this time tomorrow, 18 people in need of an organ will be dead because they did not get one soon enough.
Kidneys are in highest demand; currently, 71,000 people need a renal transplant. They will spend, on average, five years on dialysis while waiting for an organ from a deceased donor. At least half will die or become too sick to undergo a transplant before their name is called. …
Lamentably, too many transplant professionals are resigned to rationing. The alternative is to create a larger supply of organs — and the most likely way to achieve it is through a safe, regulated system in which donors can receive compensation for their organs. The idea of rewarding living donors for a kidney, or their estates if they give an organ after death, has long been taboo. Yet as thousands die every year the idea is being taken more seriously — and it should be.

If we had not found a donor for the First Mate, she would not have survived long enough to get a cadaver donor in the present system. She had been on dialysis for only a year, and she barely made it to the finish line with a live donor. Another couple of months on that plan, and it would have meant the end for her. When I tell you that her donor is a hero, I mean that very literally.
So what do we do to save the lives of everyone else on the list? The simple fact is that we have a rationing system that does not work, as Dr. Satel explains. We have a demand that far exceeds the supply, and we have put in place regulations that artificially keeps the supply low — for noble reasons, but those noble reasons are costing thousands of lives every year.
The kidney transplants with the best track record for success are live transplants, even those where the donor is unrelated to the recipient, as was the case with the FM. Many brave people volunteer for these every year, even for people they don’t know. However, these donors face significant financial disincentives. The recipient’s insurance covers 100% of the medical costs, but the donor loses time at work, a significant period of recovery in some instances, and restrictions on activity. By law, they can receive no compensation. If they could, it’s at least possible that more would donate.
And that’s just the American system. In the single-payor systems, the supply problem is not organs as much as it is transplant surgeons. Three years ago, the London Telegraph reported that viable kidneys had to be discarded due to the lack of qualified transplant surgeons. The government rationing of compensation for doctors provided no incentive to spend the extra time and money to learn that specialty. It created a shortage on another part of the distribution chain that ended up with the same result: people who needed organ transplants didn’t get them in time.
When we ration irrationally, we get irrational results. The BNN show tomorrow night is an example of this. Denied the ability to acquire a kidney through some rational method, these kidney-failure victims will abase themselves in public in order to save their lives. Denied a rational method of receiving compensation for her donation, the terminally ill woman will have to choose other, less objective means for rationing her kidneys. It sounds terrible, and it is, but you’d better believe that I would have jumped at the chance the first few months of this year to get one of those kidneys, had we not already found a donor.
I’m not suggesting a kidney bazaar, where the highest bidder gets the organs and only the rich can find transplants. However, we have to find a system that generates a much larger supply for organs than the one we have now, and we have to move away from the old methods of rationing if we want to save lives. Satel’s proposals put us on the right track. It’s certainly less disturbing than grinding up embryos to find elusive treatments for diseases, and much less ethically objectionable.
UPDATE: Virginia Postrel, one of the heroes who donated one of her kidneys not long ago, has more thoughts about the “egregious” status quo (via Instapundit).

This Sounds Like A Class-Action Suit In The Making

Scientists have won FDA approval for a birth-control pill that halts the menstrual cycle altogether. The Washington Post reports that Lybrel will halt periods in 60% of women who take it daily, but some women’s health advocates warn that the research did not go far enough into the effects that will have:

The Food and Drug Administration yesterday approved the first birth control pill that eliminates a woman’s monthly period.
Taken daily, the contraceptive, called Lybrel, continuously administers slightly lower doses of the same hormones in many standard birth control pills to suppress menstruation. It is designed for women who find their periods too painful, unpleasant or inconvenient and want to be free of them.
“This will be the first and only oral contraceptive designed to be taken 365 days a year, allowing women to put their periods on hold,” said Amy Marren of Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, which expects Lybrel to be available with a prescription by July. “There are a lot of women who think that’s a great option to have.” …
“There may be important health consequences that we don’t know about,” said Christine L. Hitchcock, an endocrinology researcher at the University of British Columbia. “I don’t think we understand everything that the menstrual cycle does well enough to say with confidence that you can abolish it and not have any consequences.”

I have nothing against birth control. It should be available as an option for anyone who wants it. If women want to take a pill that will eliminate menstruation as well as ovulation, that’s their choice. In some cases, it will allow women who have terrible problems with menstruation to lead normal lives. I see no reason for the FDA to reject it — but they should take the time to discover what that means for women before approving its use, especially the long-term effect on the ability to conceive. From the description in the Post, it does not appear that depth of research has been performed.
This sounds like a class-action lawsuit just waiting for a few years and a couple of lawyers. Vioxx was supposed to be a wonder drug too, and the First Mate had taken Propulsid for a couple of years before its recall. Neither of those had the profound systemic effect described for Lybrel. If I’m still blogging in ten years, I’m going to bet that we will be discussing a massive settlement with millions of women as plaintiffs.

US Health Care Saves More Lives Than Socialized Medicine

A new study by the Karolinska Institute in Sweden shows that the American health care system outperforms the socialized systems in Europe in getting new medicines to cancer patients. The difference saves lives, and the existing Western European systems force people to die at higher rates from the same cancers, although the Telegraph buries that lede (via QandO):

The researchers studied Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, South Africa and the US, as well as 19 European countries, with a total population of 984 million, and looked at access to 67 newer cancer drugs.
They found that the proportions of female cancer patients surviving five years beyond diagnosis in France, Spain, Germany, Italy were 71 per cent, 64 per cent, 63 per cent and 63 per cent respectively. In the UK it was 53 per cent.
Among men the proportions still alive at five years in the same countries were 53 per cent, 50 per cent, 53 per cent and 48 per cent. Again in the UK it was lower at 43 per cent.

The Telegraph rightly focuses on the British system and its deficiencies. However, when one looks further into the article, the point about the American system finally surfaces:

Dr Nils Wilking, a clinical oncologist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, said: “Our report highlights that in many countries new drugs are not reaching patients quickly enough and that this is having an adverse impact on patient survival. Where you live can determine whether you receive the best available treatment or not.
“To some extent this is determined by economic factors, but much of the variation between countries remains unexplained. In the US we have found that the survival of cancer patients is significantly related to the introduction of new oncology drugs.” …
The proportion of colorectal cancer patients with access to the drug Avastin was 10 times higher in the US than it was in Europe, with the UK having a lower uptake than the European average.

It’s funny how the supposedly equalized treatment of people under Western socialized-medicine models holds people back from new therapies and new medicines, while the American model of market-based medicine (with significant regulation) outperforms in this regard by a factor of 10. That response allows patients to start treating their cancers earlier, but what this report misses is that the American model also allows for earlier detection, thanks to the long waits for procedures like CAT scans and the like in Britain and other socialized systems.
And yet, the Democrats this year have already begun discussing how they will bring the American system closer to nationalization. Perhaps their presidential candidates should read this report first. Certainly American voters should familiarize themselves with it.

Bummer Of A Side Effect, Pal

Two new studies on marijuana may provide a stumbling block for legalization activists. ABC News reports that British and American researchers have found evidence that THC, one of the two active ingredients in cannabis, provoke psychotic reactions even in healthy people. How will this impact the legalization argument? I discuss that at Heading Right this morning, and with any luck, my co-bloggers and I will give new meaning to the term “talking heads” as we debate this topic.

Keep An Eye Out For This

Scientists have made the first practical eye prosthetic that restores vision, the London Telegraph reports. Six patients have been able to distinguish light patterns and even recognize shapes after the implant of the Argus II system:

A bionic eye that can restore sight to the blind could be on the market within two years, according to scientists.
The first six patients to try the revolutionary devices have learnt how to detect light, distinguish between objects and perceive direction of motion.
American scientists were this week given approval to test a more advanced version of the electronic retinal implant on up to 75 subjects.
The breakthrough offers new hope to millions of people around the world who have lost their vision to degenerative eye diseases, particularly those with macular degeneration – the most common cause of blindness in western countries. Up to 15pc of over-75s are affected by the condition.
It will also help those with retinitis pigmentosa, a group of incurable inherited eye diseases that cause the degeneration of the photoreceptor cells whose job it is capture and process light. The device takes the place of the photoreceptors.

The system combines an implant in the brain and another in the eye with glasses that contain an embedded camera to produce a display of light dots that form shapes. Researchers hope to improve the resolution within seven years to make it possible for patients to recognize faces. Presumably, the technology wll follow the same trajectory as computer displays and cameras, with miniaturization allowing for higher-quality displays.
At the moment, the Argus II is limited to those who have functional optic nerves. The science may eventually move past that, which would allow the long-term blind and those who have had their eyes removed to see again. The First Mate had one of her eyes removed and a vitrctomy in the other eye 27 years ago, so this system would probably not work for her. It’s encouraging, though, that scientists have come this far, and with more perseverance, they will make even greater leaps soon.
FIRST MATE ADDS: This sounds like it might be great for other people. When I was losing my sight, though, the shadows and shapes that I still could make out were maddening. My brain kept wanting to see more, and it was very frustrating to experience that. Once I completely lost my sight, I learned to visualize based on input from my other senses, and returning to that transition state does not appeal to me.

Here Comes The Sun

The proponents of man-made climate change want to force an end to the debate over the causes of global warming. Some want to treat skeptics as if they were Holocaust deniers or heretics of old. However, some scientists still have their doubts about whether global warming is real, and whether man has any impact on it at all:

Twenty years ago, climate research became politicised in favour of one particular hypothesis, which redefined the subject as the study of the effect of greenhouse gases. As a result, the rebellious spirits essential for innovative and trustworthy science are greeted with impediments to their research careers. And while the media usually find mavericks at least entertaining, in this case they often imagine that anyone who doubts the hypothesis of man-made global warming must be in the pay of the oil companies. As a result, some key discoveries in climate research go almost unreported.
Enthusiasm for the global-warming scare also ensures that heatwaves make headlines, while contrary symptoms, such as this winter’s billion-dollar loss of Californian crops to unusual frost, are relegated to the business pages. The early arrival of migrant birds in spring provides colourful evidence for a recent warming of the northern lands. But did anyone tell you that in east Antarctica the Adélie penguins and Cape petrels are turning up at their spring nesting sites around nine days later than they did 50 years ago? While sea-ice has diminished in the Arctic since 1978, it has grown by 8% in the Southern Ocean.
So one awkward question you can ask, when you’re forking out those extra taxes for climate change, is “Why is east Antarctica getting colder?” It makes no sense at all if carbon dioxide is driving global warming. While you’re at it, you might inquire whether Gordon Brown will give you a refund if it’s confirmed that global warming has stopped. The best measurements of global air temperatures come from American weather satellites, and they show wobbles but no overall change since 1999.
That levelling off is just what is expected by the chief rival hypothesis, which says that the sun drives climate changes more emphatically than greenhouse gases do. After becoming much more active during the 20th century, the sun now stands at a high but roughly level state of activity. Solar physicists warn of possible global cooling, should the sun revert to the lazier mood it was in during the Little Ice Age 300 years ago.

In a way, anthropogenic climate change speaks to an impulse within humans whenever contemplating catastrophes, real or imagined. In something between arrogance and fear, people cannot believe that they have no control over the origins of events that shape their lives. This causes people to look inward for root causes, and the larger the problem, the greater this dynamic grows. Hence we have people blaming the West for radical Islamist terrorism and believing that a greater dialogue with Muslim absolutists will end it.
Global warming seems of a piece with this. Despite conflicting data and incomplete models, environmentalists insist that the Earth has begun an unstoppable global-warming cycle due to the massive release of carbon for energy over the past century. Evidence to the contrary gets shouted down and those who would challenge this new orthodoxy get shouted down and treated as a greater danger than terrorists in some circles. The problem, assuming it exists, simply has to be caused by mankind — because it frightens some to think that we have no control over it at all.
I’ve written before that I think the use of hydrocarbons for energy has outlived its usefulness. It pollutes the air, not because of its carbon dioxide release but because of carbon monoxide and other pollutants. I grew up in Los Angeles and know a little about that. The extraction of crude has become a critical national-security problem. We need to apply our technological advantages to developing alternatives to crude oil for energy production — but we have to do it rationally, without encumbering our economy due to irrational hysteria.