What do “health conscious consumers” have against science?

A recent Slate post about Wal-mart trying to hone in on the organic foods market had this throw-away bit:

In any case, there’s a certain irony in Walmart’s new organic food interest. The company has historically stocked its shelves with foods full of substances that are the bane of health-conscious customers—aspartame, MSG, and high fructose corn syrup, among others. 

Now there’s plenty of stuff in food that we have a reasonable amount of evidence that we know is “bad for you,” but it’s not these.   There’s no evidence that aspartame causes cancer or any of the other maladies people like to impute to it (nice summary here).  MSG is just awesome and makes your food taste better and that’s it (great summary here).   When I learned of this myth years ago (a Gladwell article, I think) I bought some Accent and started using it on various foods.  Mmmm.  Also, I totally avoid Chinese restaurants that advertise “no MSG.”  Just like I’d avoid a restaurant that advertised “no salt!”  And, lastly, I’ll admit that HCFS isn’t good for you, but there’s absolutely no evidence that it is any worse for you than sugar.  And, yes, all these myths are probably more evidence that (certainly at times) liberals can be just as ideologically ignorant of science as conservatives.

Quick hits

1) I loved seeing “Sue” the T. Rex in Chicago a few years ago.  Here’s the story of how Smithsonian was blindsided on how expensive she would be and was massively outbid.

2) Here’s a school system that thinks making a fellow student “uncomfortable” (in this case by twirling a pencil) should lead to a suspension and psychiatric evaluation.

3) I was prepared to think Jezebel was over-reacting, but these ads are truly horrible.

4) The reason that acceptance rates at top colleges are down is because too many kids are applying to way too many schools.  And you get this:

Bruce Poch, a former admissions dean at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., said he saw “the opposite of a virtuous cycle at work” in admissions. “Kids see that the admit rates are brutal and dropping, and it looks more like a crapshoot,” he said. “So they send more apps, which forces the colleges to lower their admit rates, which spurs the kids next year to send even more apps.”

5) The marijuana legalization opponents predicted a major crime way if marijuana became legal.  Not at all surprisingly, they are wrong.

6) Not just unemployment, but labor force participation rate is a real problem these days.

7) All those constant Lumosity pitches are not based on a lot of actual science, but here’s some evidence that brain-training really works.  Time to start playing the N-back game?  (I’ve actually been thinking this might really benefit my son with ADHD).

8) The best evidence Obamacare is working.  Drum on how you’ll never actually hear even a modest admission of that from conservative sources.

9) I love looking at American health care in a comparative perspective.  A really good article on how the German system works and what we can learn from them.

10) Tell white people they will be a minority and they become more conservative.  Yikes.  Jamelle Bouie on how this means the whole country could end up like Mississippi (double-yikes!)

11) American’s are hopelessly resigned to the fact that we can’t make meaningful changes in campaign finance.  And I’m one of them.  Larry Lessig says we need to get past this.  He’s right, of course.  But I’m just too skeptical of real change.

12) Vox explains the oil curse.  Simple but compelling.

13) I started reading this column about the recent Ebola outbreak and thinking about the book I read last summer by David Quammen about zoonotic diseases.  Then I noticed the column was by Quammen.

14) Listened to a fascinating Fresh Air interview about a new book detailing how Michael Rockefeller (of those Rockefellers) was likely killed and eaten by cannibals.  And here’s a Slate piece on the book.  Pretty amazing and compelling stuff.

15) Been reading for a while about how caffeine can improve your athletic performance.  Here’s a nice how-to guide from Vox.  (Before our 5-mile doughnut run, I actually gave my 14-year old son some caffeine– something he otherwise never has).

16) Totally deserves it’s own post, but since I haven’t gotten around to it yet… Here’s how a recent study find tens of thousands “suspicious votes” in NC.  But history very strongly suggests that when they are examined more closely, only a very small handful will be the result of malfeasance.  Not surprisingly, Republicans are simply pretending otherwise.

17) I’ve long known Jim Demint is a moron.  He argued this week that “big government” had nothing to do with ending slavery.  Jamelle Bouie’s takedown.  Adam Gopnik’s is even better:

This is, in plain English, so ignorant that, as I say, there has been no shortage of corrections. A debate about whether big government freed the slaves is pretty much the only debate that a liberal is guaranteed to win. The Civil War was the original big-government overreach: it came from Washington, D.C.; it involved raising new taxes (in fact, it is the origin of a number of taxes); it confiscated rifles from rebels; it did special favors for minorities (in this case, the special favor of recognizing them as human beings and setting them free from lifelong bondage); and, in the end, it imposed a bureaucracy on an unwilling population (that is, it imposed the Union Army on the South). Many things can be said about the Civil War, but not that it was done with the benign neglect of the federales. The moral point was argued for decades, as it is with most issues in a democracy. But that big government freed the slaves is as sure a fact as any in history.


Women are busy!

NPR ran a story earlier this week looking at how Republican women in Texas were trying to fend off Democratic attacks.  One of the leaders is queried on the equal pay issue and her response is just awesome(ly bad):

Here’s Christman being interviewed on the ABC affiliate in Dallas.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What’s the solution then, do you think, for equal pay then, Cari?

CHRISTMAN: Well, if you look at it, women are extremely busy. We lead busy lives, whether working professionally, whether we’re working from home and times are extremely busy. It’s just that it’s a busy cycle for women and we’ve got a lot to juggle and so… [emphasis mine]

Women are too busy to care about equal pay?  What?!  This Palin-esque incoherence says it all.

Gay marriage = inter-racial marriage?

Loved this Connor Friedersdorf post on gay marriage.  Pretty much my sentiments exactly:

Liberals generally think of themselves as proponents of tolerance, pluralism, and diversity. Some liberals are also eager to stigmatize and punish opponents of gay marriage. Is that a betrayal of their values? If so, these liberals tend to argue, it is no more problematic than the decision to exclude white supremacists from polite society. As an email correspondent put it, if you object to a boycott against a tech company whose CEO gave $1,000 to the Proposition 8 campaign, “I guess you find the Montgomery Bus Boycott objectionable as well. If not, you might want to come up with a better rationalization for why you’ve chosen to give aid and comfort to those who would deprive gay people of basic rights available to others.” 

In Slate, Will Oremus made a stronger version of the argument…. “But this is different. Opposing gay marriage in America today is not akin to opposing tax hikes or even the war in Afghanistan. It’s more akin to opposing interracial marriage: It bespeaks a conviction that some people do not deserve the same basic rights as others.” …

My position has always been that civil unions are not enough—that gays ought to have full marriage equality. But the pro-civil-union, anti-gay-marriage faction is instructive. Opposition to interracial marriage never included a large contingency that was happy to endorse the legality of black men and white women having sex with one another, living together, raising children together, and sharing domestic-partner benefits as long as they didn’t call it a marriage.

Does that clarify the inaptness of the comparison? …

To justify stigmatizing folks he disagrees with on gay marriage in a way he’d never stigmatize antagonists on “tax hikes or even the war in Afghanistan,” Oremus claims he’s identified a special case. He thinks gay-marriage opponents are different, because they believe “that some people do not deserve the same basic rights as others.”

That’s ostensibly his red line. And many on his side of the argument make similar claims. Yet I find their outrage curiously, unwittingly selective.

Proponents of drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen believe “that some people do not deserve the same basic rights as others.” Advocates of deporting illegal immigrants believe “that some people do not deserve the same basic rights as others.” Advocates of spying on Muslim Americans believe “that some people do not deserve the same rights as others.” Indefinite-detention apologists believe “that some people do not deserve the same rights as others.” On a weekly basis, I write about all sorts of civil-libertarian causes, foreign and domestic. Let me assure everyone that there is no end to policies implicitly or explicitly premised on the notion “that some people do not deserve the same rights as others.” If that’s the standard, why are gay-marriage opponents the only ones being stigmatized? [emphasis mine]

I know decent well-meaning people who do not think gay marriage should be legal.  In my experience they are nowhere near the moral equivalent of unrepentant racists.  I think advocating for gay marriage is a worthy and moral cause.  That said (and I think I’m going to get serious pushback for this), I think on some level people (especially liberals) really want to feel like they are part of something big and important and a movement.  The Civil Rights movement is over (regardless of whether it’s work is done or not) and I think a lot of liberals probably like to feel like this is their Civil Rights movement.  And again, not that it’s an unworthy cause, but I’m not going to apologize for arguing that the Civil Rights movement of the 60′s was dealing with another whole level of wrongness and discrimination:

But it’s not credible to argue that they’re in the same moral category as the bigots who sustained Jim Crow, or that the narrow right they’d withhold has done similar harm and thus warrants the same response (even if you believe, as I do, that withholding the name marriage is wrong andharmful).

Yes, it is tough not having full legal equality, but the lack of a right to legally marry strikes me as a long way from the pervasive and crushing second-class citizenship that comprised Black life for the vast majority of our country’s history and I don’t think it does anybody any favors to pretend they are on the same level.

Lower tax rates… lower tax revenue

Surprise, surprise, after nice tax cuts for North Carolina’s wealthiest residents, tax revenues are… down.  SMH– you mean supply-side economics doesn’t work?!!  Oh, and the supposed economic benefits of our lower tax rates were going to create a budget amount to fund teacher raises.  Oh well, so much for that.  From WRAL:

 — Tax cuts that state lawmakers passed last year have trimmed the amount of revenue North Carolina is collecting to the point where promised raises for teachers are at risk.

When lawmakers wrote the two-year budget last summer, they left about $360 million unspent for this year, which they planned to use for proposed raises for beginning teachers. That cushion might not be there when the new fiscal year starts in July, however.

Lawmakers likely will have to use $200 million or so to cover another shortfall in the Medicaid budget, and the General Assembly’s Fiscal Research Division has issued a gloomy forecast for tax collections.

Although collections through the end of March were $12.1 million above target, personal income tax is coming in $221 million below forecasts, according to the Fiscal Research Division…

The revenue squeeze is the result of tax cuts included in last year’s overhaul of the state tax system already taking effect [emphasis mine], while other changes meant to offset the impact of the cuts, such as the elimination of several deductions, won’t be felt until people file their 2014 tax returns next year.

Well, who could have ever seen that coming?  Gee, if only there were some evidence that cutting (already low) tax rates doesn’t lead to increases in tax revenues.  Oh, wait, there is.  Who needs evidence when you’ve got Fox News.

A stupidity asymmetry?

First, read Ezra’s big article “how politics makes us stupid” which was featured to lead off Vox.   I’ve mentioned before the research that shows partisanship is so powerful as to make you bad at math, but Ezra nicely works this into a big piece about the state of politics today.  Read it, okay?

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I was intrigued by how Krugman used this as a jumping off point to suggest a partisan asymmetry in stupidity:

What Ezra does is cite research showing that people understand the world in ways that suit their tribal identities: in controlled experiments both conservatives and liberals systematically misread facts in a way that confirms their biases. And more information doesn’t help: people screen out or discount facts that don’t fit their worldview. Politics, as he says, makes us stupid.

But here’s the thing: the lived experience is that this effect is not, in fact, symmetric between liberals and conservatives. Yes, liberals are sometimes subject to bouts of wishful thinking. But can anyone point to a liberal equivalent of conservative denial of climate change, or the “unskewing” mania late in the 2012 campaign, or the frantic efforts to deny that Obamacare is in fact covering a lot of previously uninsured Americans?[emphasis mine] I don’t mean liberals taking positions you personally disagree with — I mean examples of overwhelming rejection of something that shouldn’t even be in dispute.

The thing is, the evidence is clear that liberals certainly can be just as “stupid.”  Over-reaction to GMO’s and gluten, anyone?  But, in the real world, I think it is safe to say there is definitely less of an impact of “stupid” liberal thinking.  So, what’s up?

One possible answer would be that liberals and conservatives are very different kinds of people — that liberalism goes along with a skeptical, doubting — even self-doubting — frame of mind; “a liberal is someone who won’t take his own side in an argument.”

Another possible answer is that it’s institutional, that liberals don’t have the same kind of monolithic, oligarch-financed network of media organizations and think tanks as the right.

Whatever it is, I think it’s important: people are people, but politics doesn’t seem to have the same stupiditizing effect on left and right.

Starting with Krugman’s second suggestion… ding, ding, ding, ding, ding!  Yep.  If liberals did have an entire political/media infrastructure feeding them the stupid, they’d be stupid.  Fortunately, we don’t.

But, I also think that actually interacts with the earlier proposition.  I think liberals are far less inclined to blindly accept that type of infrastructure.  There absolutely are real personality differences between liberals and conservatives.  For example, we in recent years there has been a huge divide where conservatives are much more likely to embrace right-wing authoritarianism (i.e., implicit submission to authority).  Other research suggests that liberals are higher on openness to experience and conservatives on conscientiousness and it is quite plausible to expect that these basic personality differences could result in substantially different rates of actually embracing “the stupid” in politics.

Republicans play into Democratic hands

I’m not the biggest fan of the whole “war on women” narrative that the Democrats are using, but if the Republicans are so foolishly going to play into it, more power to them.  I’m all in favor of wage transparency as it clearly plays a role in preventing gender-based wage discrimination.  As I said yesterday, I suspect it plays a very small role, but I think there’s nonetheless a strong argument to be made for it.  So, the Democrats have tried to pass a bill in the Senate that broadens what Obama has just done with his executive order.  Ultimately, pretty small potatoes on changing the wage gap– but again, a step that I clearly think should be taken.  And yet, the Republicans are so in thrall to the Chamber of Commerce– “we’ll pay our employees what we damn well want and keep it a secret, damnit!!” that they’ve successfully filibustered the attempt:

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans on Wednesday blocked legislation meant to close the pay gap between men and women, framing an election-year fight between the parties over whose policies are friendlier to women.

The bill was an attempt by Democrats to press what they see as their electoral advantage among women in the coming midterm elections, but they fell short of the 60 votes they needed to prevent a filibuster and advance the legislation.

“For reasons known only to them, Senate Republicans don’t seem to be interested in closing wage gaps for working women,” Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, said in a floor speech.

Republican lawmakers have said that given existing anti-discrimination laws, the legislation is redundant and is a transparent attempt by Democrats to distract from President Obama’s much-criticized health care law.

Supporters of the bill, called the Paycheck Fairness Act, say it would bring transparency to worker pay by making it illegal for employers to penalize employees who discuss their salaries and by requiring the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to collect pay information from employers.

Mr. Obama signed executive measures on Tuesday that imposed similar requirements on government contractors.

Republican leaders assailed Democrats’ attempt to paint them as unsympathetic to women in the work force. The Senate Republican Conference on Wednesday called the pay equity legislation “the latest ploy in the Democrats’ election-year playbook.”

It may be a “ploy” but why are the Republicans playing right into the Democrats’ hand on this?  Perhaps the Republicans are being painted as “unsympathetic to women in the workforce” because they are, you know, unsympathetic to women in the work force.  It’s not at all clear, either, how this legislation is redundant.  Furthermore, the whole distraction from Obamacare argument is so stupid.  Are Republicans going to say that about every single Democratic initiative?  (Survey says… yes!)

This isn’t exactly a “war on women” but you’ve clearly got one side interested in creating more workplace fairness and the other side, not so much.  As long as Republicans continue to play along, the Democrats are politically wise to push the agenda to motivate women voters for the Fall.  Of course, the Republicans could make this all moot by actually supporting legislation that helps fairness in the workplace.  I’m not holding my breath.

Fox and climate

Surprise, surprise, Fox News does not actually accurately cover climate change.  Here it is in handy graph form via Media Matters:

Union of Concerned Scientists

Also interesting is the amount of coverage of a recent report by network:

Media Matters

I don’t really watch any cable news at all, but if I did, I think I might go with Aljazeera America, based on what I’ve seen read so far.  (They certainly have good taste in political experts).  I don’t know how they are doing, but I still cannot help but think that they are never going to thrive in America without a serious re-branding.

Obama and the gender wage gap

Enough with the $.77 on the dollar already!  This has got to me the most misleading/most over-used statistic in politics.  So frustrating to hear Obama– who surely understands the issue on a far more sophisticated level– to go on and on about this.  Sure, we should do what we can to shrink the gender pay disparity, but I would argue that most of the disparity is not actually about public policy.

So, so far I pretty much love Ezra Klein’s new Vox site.  Here’s a nice article on what exactly Obama is trying to accomplish on the pay gap via executive order.  Basically, it focuses on requiring transparency so that women can see when they are getting screwed and do something about it (or prevent employers from screwing female employees because the information will be transparent).  Okay, all well and good, but I’m going to guess that of the supposed 23 cent gap, the lack of transparency counts for a couple cents at most.

Anyway, what I really loved at Vox– here’s your value-added– was a great set of “cards” that really explain the gender wage gap and the research behind it.  A far better summary of the key issues involved I’ve seen most anywhere (than perhaps my lecture on the topic :-) in Public Policy).  To wit, this key bit:

Researchers argue endlessly over this question. Figures that only take annual, weekly, or hourly wages into account, for example, ignore the fact that men and women have differing levels of educational attainment and also tend to work in different fields.

Some studies have attempted to adjust for or measure these effects. A 2012 study from the American Association of University Women, for example, found a wage gap of 18 percent among recent college graduates. However, after adjusting for factors like occupation and college major, the study found a gap of 6.6 percent remaining.

$.07 on the dollar of real discrimination is still $.07 too much.  But that strikes me as a far more manageable problem than the idea that women barely make 3/4 of what men do in the same job– a very erroneous and very widely held misbelief.  And there’s also this very true statement:

These studies can be illuminating, in the sense that they show that both measurable and immeasurable factors contribute to wage inequities in the US. However, simply adjusting for factors like college major and occupational choice can obscure deeper forces in the economy that push women into lower-paid occupations or to spend more time raising children.

Yes, indeed.  It’s a super-complicated set of interactions between cultural beliefs about women’s role and women’s and men’s own choices in the workplace.  I hate to see it so simplistically boiled down.  In fact, men typically work more when they have children– putting the emphasis on parenting via supplying resources rather than actually taking direct care of the children.  We know that women work less and and take more part time jobs and more time off from work because they do more actual parenting.  Sure, in some cases society is not-so-subtly steering them in that direction, but is it necessarily women who are making the “lesser” choice here?  Perhaps the problem is men’s choices to work more and not be as involved in their kid’s lives.  I guarantee you I could find a job where I make more money than I do know.  I also guarantee you that with that job I would see less of my kids.

Anyway, we should address real problems through policy where we can– I think major investment in quality childcare would be the best start policy-wise– but we need to recognize that this gap exists in a complicated space where truly eliminating the gap means major changes in society that have no easy policy fixes.


So apparently Jeb Bush is making enough noise these days that the Slovakian media has decided it’s time to hit up their go-to guy on American politics.  As long as I’m sharing my thoughts with the readers of Slovakian Pravda, here they are for you…

1. If he runs for presidency his biggest problem is probably his surname, isn’t it? What his biggest asset?
I think you could make an argument that an equally big problem is his moderate position on both education policy, and especially immigration policy, which do not go over well with the more conservative elements (i.e., Tea Party) of the Republican Party. I personally have a hard time imagining someone on the record in such a moderate way actually winning the Republican Primaries—of which roughly half the voters are Tea Party supporters (i.e., express sympathy with the Tea Party). And his surname is definitely a big problem—especially so with these very same conservative voters. Now, Mitt Romney was among the most moderate of the Republicans in 2012, but he said everything the Tea Party wanted whether he actually believed it or not. Jeb Bush has not shown a similar inclination thus far. And they seem primed to distrust him because right-wing conservatives have largely rejected both his brother and his father.
His biggest asset is that the moneyed interests in the Republican Party—the one’s who largely supported Romney—appear to be big fans. You definitely need more than money to win the nomination, but strong support—both financial and otherwise—from “mainstream” or “establishment” Republicans goes a long way. With Chris Christie seemingly damaged, Jeb Bush also represents the strongest hope of the establishment wing of the Republican Party.
2. Would you say he will run or not, and why?
My guess—pure speculation—is that he will not run. He strikes me as a smart, astute politician who will recognize that to actually win the GOP nomination he will have to transform himself into a fundamentally different politician, ideologically speaking. Mitt Romney was willing to do so, but I suspect Jeb Bush is not. Just a guess, though.

Common Core realities

I don’t know since when my beloved local NPR station got into writing such stories, but I love this piece disabusing many of the myths of Common Core:

“Common Core is a federal takeover of education.” 
The federal government did not write the standards, nor does it mandate that states adopt them.

They were developed by organizations made up of governors and school officials – theNational Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. These two groups insist that the development of the standards was state-led and included insight from educators and experts…

Opponents also condemn the fact that private foundations, such as theBill and Melinda Gates Foundation, helped fund the development of the standards.

On, no, private foundations!!

“Common Core standards mean students will have to take even more tests.” 
Common Core has not led to more assessments.

For decades, North Carolina has implemented state and national tests, regardless of the standards. Today’s tests are aligned to the new Common Core standards. Right now, North Carolina lawmakers are weighing the fiscal and academic consequences of replacing their own state-written with national tests aligned to the new Math and English standards.

Now that’s a big myth.  We’ve got too many tests, but it really has nothing to do with Common Core.  Basically, it seems that some people have decided to take everything they don’t like about education and blame it on Common Core (hmmm, sounds similar to a certain health care policy).  Anyway, more myths usefully debunked at the site.


Photo of the day

From the National Geographic Tumblr:

President and Mrs. Johnson and Vice President Agnew watch Apollo 11 lift off at Cape Canaveral, July 1969.Photograph by Otis Imboden, National Geographic

President and Mrs. Johnson and Vice President Agnew watch Apollo 11 lift off at Cape Canaveral, July 1969.PHOTOGRAPH BY OTIS IMBODEN, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC


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