A River Still Runs

8 May 2012

I grew up near the Piscataquog River in New Hampshire, and have been pleased to see it’s been well protected from development. This map shows how well.

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, by Charles C. Mann

13 March 2012

imageClose your eyes and picture this: You’re staring from the deck of a small ship at the land now known as Virginia. The year is 1607, and you are Capt. John Smith. What you see in your mind’s eye is probably something like the images that open Terrence Malick’s 2005 film The New World: a virgin forest of stately trees bathed in that certain slant of light. What you’re ignoring is the understory.

In the science of forestry, the understory is the mix of seedlings and saplings, shrubs and herbs and all the smaller trees that grow happily in the shade of the bigger trees or wait patiently for wind or fire to expose them to the sun.

In the discipline of history, “understory” doesn’t mean anything. I wish it did, because the word would elegantly describe Charles C. Mann’s 1493, which is about some of the people, animals and plants ignored by “world history.” Mann’s previous book, 1491, drew attention to Native American societies before the European conquest. (The reason that the English walked so easily through the Virginian understory was that it was anything but virgin: it had been worked for generations by the natives.) Now, in 1493, Mann lays out the ecological and economic interplay of the European and, importantly, African arrival in America; Mann’s epic ambition spans continents, themes and five centuries of history.

Too Many Laws

10 June 2011

Philanthropist George Soros has not communicated his opinion of state laws that restrict telephone use by automobile drivers. But his latest essay, “My Philanthropy” (New York Review of Books, June 23, 2011, Vol. LVIII No. 11), offers a hint of how this fascinating wealthy man would prefer to see scientific research driving public policy.

As I see it, mankind’s ability to understand and control the forces of nature greatly exceeds our ability to govern ourselves. Our economy has become global; our governance has not. Our future and, in some respects, our survival depend on our ability to develop the appropriate global governance. This applies to a variety of fields: global warming and nuclear proliferation are the most obvious, but the threats of terrorism and infectious diseases also qualify; so do global financial markets.

Global governance could improve our response to infections disease, and to public health more broadly, no doubt. But mere national governance, in the United States, would go a long way toward, say, making our highways safer by prohibiting cell-phone use by drivers. As it stands now, according to recent research sponsored by Public Health Law Research,

Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia have at least one form of restriction on the use of MCDs [mobile communications devices] in effect. The laws vary in the types of communication activities and categories of driver regulated, as well as enforcement mechanisms and punishments. No state completely bans use of MCDs by all drivers.

(A map accompanies this paper. I have tried to map cell-phone driving laws by state, and it is neither simple nor clear, because the laws are a mess. Feel free to create a better map: the data that Ibrahim, Anderson, Burris and Wagenaaer collected are freely available there and here.)

Ibrahim, Anderson, Burris and Wagenaaer conclude that

State distracted-driving policy is diverging from evidence on the risks of MCD use by drivers.

despite the availability of data. This is where I turn to Soros, whose essay is as much about “why I love humanity” as it is “why I give away money.” Soros, like many of us, once learned that ” free speech and critical thinking would lead to better laws and a better understanding of reality than any dogma.” But…

If thinking has a manipulative function as well as a cognitive one, then it may not be necessary to gain a better understanding of reality in order to obtain the laws one wants. There is a shortcut: “spinning” arguments and manipulating public opinion to get the desired results. Today our political discourse is primarily concerned with getting elected and staying in power. [The] hidden assumption that freedom of speech and thought will produce a better understanding of reality is valid only for the study of natural phenomena. Extending it to human affairs is part of what I have called the “Enlightenment fallacy.”

Soros, notorious for his distaste for George W. Bush, FOX News, and Karl “We create our own reality” Rove, explicitly calls out the Republicans for their manipulation of the public, but recognizes that it’s a bigger problem. He concludes that the message he is trying to communicate is “a profound rethinking of the workings of our political system.” He could invest  some millions in the dautning task of changing the public attitude toward public health and public policy.

ResearchBlogging.orgIbrahim, J., Anderson, E., Burris, S., & Wagenaar, A. (2011). State Laws Restricting Driver Use of Mobile Communications Devices American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 40 (6), 659-665 DOI: 10.1016/j.amepre.2011.02.024

Only Science Can Save Us, but Science Alone Can’t Save Us

26 May 2011

Chris Mooney, writing about the recently un-raptured believers, climate change skeptics, and Moms who refuse to vaccinate, in Mother Jones (“Rapture Ready: The Science of Self Delusion,”  May/June 2011) comes to the melancholy conclusion that science has proven that science seldom changes anyone’s mind; rather,

people respond to scientific or technical evidence in ways that justify their preexisting beliefs.

Mooney writes

…when we think we’re reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing. Or to use an analogy offered by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt: We may think we’re being scientists, but we’re actually being lawyers (PDF). Our “reasoning” is a means to a predetermined end—winning our “case”—and is shot through with biases. They include “confirmation bias,” in which we give greater heed to evidence and arguments that bolster our beliefs, and “disconfirmation bias,” in which we expend disproportionate energy trying to debunk or refute views and arguments that we find uncongenial.

I recommend Haidt’s essay, “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail,” published in Psychological Review in 2001. He has a gift for a telling analogy, as evidenced by the title. Involved as I am in public health law research, I am most taken by what Haidt calls

The Motivated Reasoning Problem: The
Reasoning Process Is More like a Lawyer Defending
a Client than a Judge or Scientist Seeking Truth.

But this metaphor describes pretty accurately the way that that public health research is incorporated into public health law: Something terrible happens, a law is passed in response, and (maybe) later we get around to research to show that the law worked. A teen texting and driving is killed in an automobile accident; citizens demand a response, and a law is passed. This seems modeled on what Haidt calls “social intuitionism.”

The central claim of the social intuitionist model is that moral judgment is caused by quick moral intuitions, and is followed (when needed) by slow, ex-post facto moral reasoning.

It also helps explain why there is such a bewildering variety of laws about distracted driving, for instance. And why all these laws seem to be based on no conclusive evidence.

Haidt, J. (2001). The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychological Review, 108 (4), 814-834 DOI: 10.1037/0033-295X.108.4.814

A Coke and a Smile?

29 March 2011

How can a law improve public health? In 2011, Public Health Law Research is asking “What is the impact of laws addressing consumption and purchase of sugar-sweetened and citric-acid drinks on oral health? ” The study, based at the Appalachian School of Law, is looking at “Mountain Dew Mouth” in Appalachia, the persistently poor teeth among America’s  impoverished hillfolk.

Back in 1911, in a courtroom in Chattanooga, it was caffeine, not sugar, that was on trial. According to Murray Carpenter in today’s (March 28, 2011) New York Times,

The trial grabbed headlines for weeks and produced scientific research that holds up to this day — yet generated no federal limits for caffeine in foods and beverages.

Those levels remain virtually unregulated today. As two researchers recently wrote in The Journal of the American Medical Association, nonalcoholic energy drinks “might pose just as great a threat to individual and public health and safety” as alcoholic ones, and “more research that can guide actions of regulatory agencies is needed.”

Nobody used the term “energy drink” in 1911, but the drink that was on trial in Chattanooga contained as much caffeine as a modern Red Bull — 80 milligrams per serving.

The drink was Coca-Cola.

It’s an entertaining story, and also, in the end, enlightening if dispiriting to twenty-first century public health law researchers.  “Harvey Washington Wiley, the “crusading chemist” who led the Bureau of Chemistry in the United States Department of Agriculture, had brought a lawsuit against the Coca-Cola Company, accusing it of adulterating the drink by adding a harmful ingredient: caffeine.” The Atlanta company hired its own expert to to test people who drank the stuff, taking advantage of the fact that most existing research had served Coke only to lab rats. The result was

a four-week trial dominated by anecdotal, contradictory or sloppy testimony.

“[The Coca-Cola scientist’s] testimony was by far the most interesting and technical of any yet introduced,” The Chattanooga Daily Times reported. But the jury never issued a verdict based on the science, because a week later the judge granted Coca-Cola’s motion to dismiss.

In court, it’s seldom the science or research that decides the case.