Warning! MSG and Penicillin are Bad for You! (Part 1)

I was hoping to wait a few weeks before writing about one of the mother lodes of Bad Science Writing, but a recent development has forced my hand.  A recent report on gluten sensitivity had compelled me to turn my attention to Bad Science Writing about nutrition.

ImageMy wife and I own and operate a small café/bookstore/bar.  She smoked for much of our married life until recently, but I never have.  Before we opened the store in 2001, we independently decided we did not want people smoking inside.  We have a wrap-around porch and we figured smokers could go outside.  Even so, we sometimes had customers complaining that we needed to stop people from smoking outside because they were allergic to cigarette smoke. 

Of course, this was nonsense.  These people had no symptoms of any allergy.  There was no sign of any real allergy symptoms, it was just that these people didn’t like the smell of cigarette smoke.  Neither do I, but I can deal with it if I have to.

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I can understand if you don’t like the smell of smoke and ashtrays, but please be honest with me if you want my help.  In the case of the porch, I guess I think you can always move around the corner, so I have little sympathy for smoke complaints as long as everyone is spending money.

But everywhere I go, people who just don’t like smoke claim to be allergic to it.  While I realize full well the dangers of smoking (both of my parents died of lung cancer caused by smoking) and the risks associated with second-hand smoke, I have never met someone allergic to cigarette smoke, although I am sure they exist.  Because of the complaints of smoke allergies, at least as much as the fear of second-hand smoke, we have made a 25-foot perimeter no-smoking zone outside of all the buildings at the University where I work.  I have no doubt the campus will be smoke-free in a few years. 

And I will have no problem with this.  From my childhood car trips with my parents smoking like chimneys in the front seat and me having to clean the car interior as a chore, I could happily never be around a lit cigarette again.  But I’m not allergic to them.

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In related news, I actually like MSG.  I like it a lot.  I add it to almost everything I cook.  My love for it was somewhat vindicated when the fifth taste, umami (in addition to sweet, salty, bitter and sour), was announced, but I was going to use it in any event.  I even put it on bacon.   

One day, a long-time friend saw the bottle of Accent in my cabinet and announced to me, “You know, MSG is bad for you.” 

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This was several years before all the Asian restaurants had to sign pledges not to use MSG in their food, and I asked him why MSG was bad.  He responded that his mother was allergic to it (she probably wasn’t, by the way). 

I replied that, by that reasoning, penicillin was bad for you, since some people are allergic to penicillin.  He reluctantly ceded the point.

The difference is that there was, for some reason, a public outcry about MSG and there has not been an outcry about penicillin.  As a result, you’d be hard-pressed to find a restaurant that would admit to using MSG, but penicillin is still readily available.

And don’t get me started about mold allergies.

The difference between MSG and penicillin is that there is no credible way to attack the efficacy of penicillin, but anyone can make up some pseudoscientific claim about MSG.  And, amazingly, a fair number of people will believe it. 

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While I will save a discussion about correlation and causation for a later post, suffice it to say that there after people who feel poorly much of the time and they are always interested in finding an explanation, and therefore a potential cure, for their woes.  So if you are feeling run down and read some crackpot story that MSG is bad for you, the evils of MSG become an attractive explanation for you maladies.  When enough people believe this, MSG goes away in the marketplace, at least in restaurants, despite having been used around the world for centuries.

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This seems to be due in large part to what is called the “nocebo” effect.  The evil twin of the placebo effect, the nocebo effect occurs when people sincerely expect something bad to happen to them after ingesting a particular substance.  Essentially, ‘if you build it, they will come” works here, too.  To a surprisingly large extent, inactive ingredients (sugar pills) will cause both positive and negative side effects if the recipient believes the effects will follow.  Here’s a recent-ish New York Times article on the issue.

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A related phenomenon works in the case of gluten, it seems.  First of all, let me be clear that celiac disease is a real thing.  It is an auto-immune disease that affects the small intestine.  For its victims, eating gluten can aggravate the very unpleasant and painful symptoms of their disorder.  But it is not an allergy.  Allergies to mold, smoke and MSG are real, as well, and whenever someone comes into contact with something that is a real allergen for them, suffering ensues.  But like mold, smoke and MSG, real gluten allergy is a very rare thing.  So why on earth are so many gluten-free products popping up in the market, almost always for absurdly high prices?  The “gluten-free” industry, estimated at $1.3 billion per year in 2011, continues to grow.  At the coffee shop I own with my wife, regular cookies are $.50 and gluten-free cookies are $2.50.  We sell a lot of them.  We’ve also started to stock gluten-free beer, which to my mind tastes terrible.  We sell it, too.  Far more than we would sell, statistically speaking, if we were only selling to people with celiac disease, wheat allergy or real gluten intolerance.   It seems like another case of the nocebo effect, all abetted by the prevalence of bad science writing out there—people have come to believe gluten will cause them gastrointestinal distress, so they both suffer symptoms when they are knowingly exposed to it and feel better when they think they are avoiding it.  And when enough people believe the claims about the harmfulness of gluten, we can expect the baking world to be transformed again like it was during the recent period of time where carbs were demonized.

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But there was no real reason for the hysteria over carbs, and for the majority of the population, there’s no reason to do the same thing to gluten.  But I think we might do it anyway.  So, despite what the bad science writing Internet wants you to think, not everything is bad for you.  Sometimes, it really is all in your head.

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Next week, I will discuss the placebo effect and another sort of bad effect of Bad Science Writing, and I’ll be writing more about nutrition writing often, so stay tuned.

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Practical Fusion is Just Around the Corner

I know there is a crisis in the public understanding of science.  Upwards of 40% of Americans don’t believe in evolution or anthropogenic global warming, and about as many do believe in astrology and ESP.  Believe me, that’s a disaster in so many ways that I can scarcely bear to think about it.  But it’s not the only problem that Americans have with science, and I don’t think it’s the worst one.

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More disturbing to me than the ignorance of one big segment of the public is the overconfidence and gullibility of another big segment.  And before I start bashing people, let me say that I don’t typically blame people for being ignorant, but I do blame them for their willful ignorance.  And I think the two groups I have mentioned are both guilty of that.

I took the title of this blog from a Facebook comment that I have made so often on some of my friends status updates that I am sure they are blocking my posts, “Bad Science Writing Will Destroy the World.”  I say this because much of my Facebook feed, and much of the popular media, is filled up with bad science writing which, as I may have mentioned, will destroy the world.  Why?  I was hoping you might ask.

The sort of bad science writing (and reporting) I refer to is mostly “gee-whiz,” good-news writing and reporting, and everyone from Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye to the writers for Gizmodo and I F@*king Love Science are guilty of it in equal parts.  This “look at what we can do” writing is harmful because it engages a fairly well-educated class of people, people who do believe in evolution and global warming and not in astrology, in a way that makes them complacent and optimistic when they shouldn’t be.  These people, many of whom are my former students, have become indoctrinated in what is called scientism, the belief that science is the source of all the answers and, in the extreme case, that science already has most of them.

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The title of this post comes from a joke with long-standing in the power industry: “Practical fusion has been just around the corner for the last 45 years.”

Here’s a fairly recent example from Reuters:
Genome Scientist Craig Venter in Deal to Make Humanized Pig Organs

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In this article, the reporter somewhat breathlessly reports that rejection-proof pig-human hybrid organs are, as it were, just around the corner:

“We’re going to start with generating a brand new super-accurate sequence of the pig genome, and then go through in detail and compare it to the human genome,” Venter, the founder and chief executive of Synthetic Genomics Inc, said in a telephone interview.

“The goal is to go in and edit, and where necessary, rewrite using our synthetic genomic tools, the pig genes that seem to be associated with immune responses,” said Venter, who is best known for his role in mapping the human genome over a decade ago and who created synthetic life in 2010.

Of course, the other shoe drops later in the article when it is revealed that:

If all goes well, Venter thinks his team will be able to deliver the cells in a few years. Testing the humanized organs in clinical trials to ensure they are safe in people will take many more years…if the team succeeds in developing humanized pig lungs, hearts and kidneys from these animals may also prove to be suitable for human transplantation.

and also that a company called Lung Biotechnology

will take a $50 million stake in [Venter’s] La Jolla, California-based Synthetic Genomics, which also will receive royalties and milestone incentives from the development and commercialization of the organs.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m not holding my breath waiting for pig lungs to be available for transplant.

It’s a complicated problem.  Most college graduates know very little “real” science unless they major in one of the sciences, and even then, they are so specialized that they lack a general perspective on the various fields and their interrelations.  And the students that go on to write for the news industry are seldom people who majored in a scientific field.  Even Bill Nye, admired as he is, is a master’s degree level Mechanical Engineer by training—training that occurred a long time ago.  And yet his is the most prominent defender of climate science and evolution.  A man with an irrelevant and outdated degree whose only other credential is as a host of a children’s show is now the official spokesperson for SCIENCE.

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So for now, we have a situation where the publicly accessible “experts” on science are talking to reporters with little background in the field and who then, as a condition of their employment, sex the story up in the telling of it.  And all of this is fed to an audience smart enough to know things are bad in the world but human enough to wish, desperately, that things were otherwise.  We all want to fix the environment, reverse the effects of aging and bad living, raise everyone’s standard of living and the like, but we don’t want to make any sacrifices doing these things. Hence, the market gives us the story we want—the story of the human/pig organ boom that is just around the corner.

Right after we get practical fusion.  On the surface of the Earth, I mean.

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