Monthly Archives: February 2017

On the March for Science, with added Professor Ceiling Cat (Emeritus)

Why Evolution Is True

Today National Public Radio, on its “Morning Edition Show,” had a four-minute piece on the April 22 March for Science scheduled in Washington, D. C. You can hear the piece and read the transcript here (it was written by Nell Greenfield).

The piece was pretty even-handed, quoting both advocates and critics. I suppose I’m largely on the fence about the March for several reasons (see my post on the issue here).

First, I approve of scientists marching in defense of the truth, and there are many reasons to think that the Trump administration is going to denigrate truth and muzzle scientists. But I’d prefer to wait until that happens in a more obvious way. After all, the Obama administration certainly damaged science, but in another way: repeatedly cutting funding to federal granting agencies. Nobody demonstrated about that.

Second, I worry that the march will turn into a partisan, political march involving…

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Which scientists saved the most lives?

Why Evolution Is True

Scientists are the unrecognized benefactors of humanity. How many laypeople will recognize the name of Fritz Haber or Karl Bosch? Togetether they’re estimated to have saved over a billion lives. What about Norman Borlaug? He saved over 259 million lives. Ann Holloway, Samuel Katz, Kevin McCarthy, Milan Milovanovic, Anna Mitus, and Thomas Peebles? Together—over 100 million lives. Andreas Gruetzig? 15,400,000 lives. These people invented synthetic fertilizers, new breeds of wheat, measles vaccines, angioplasty, and so on.

The average person might recognize the name of Edward Jenner, who popularized (but perhaps didn’t invent) smallpox vaccination, thereby saving an estimated 530,000,000 lives; and they’d probably recognize Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, whose polio vaccines saved the lives of over a million people, but I bet you could stop a college student, give them those three names, and none would be recognized.

You can see their stories, and read about (or question) the numbers…

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Which supplements work? New labels may help separate the wheat from the chaff

The Conversation

Ken Harvey, Monash University

New proposals from Australia’s drug regulator should give you a better idea if your complementary medicines do what they say on the packet.

One change proposed by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) is a “stamp of approval” on the packaging and promotional material of some vitamins, minerals, herbs and other supplements to tell you there is enough evidence to back health claims.

Other proposals include reducing the number of often unsubstantiated indications that manufacturers of complementary medicines currently make on their TGA application, which are then used as the basis for advertising claims.

The TGA also proposes incentives for companies to develop and market products with new active ingredients, or make new claims based on research.

The proposed changes, which are out for public consultation, follow the recent ABC Four Corners program, which highlighted long-standing problems with the way complementary medicines are currently regulated.

ABC Four Corners’ documentary “Swallowing it” highlights the shortcomings of how complementary medicines are regulated in Australia.

What’s the problem?

The TGA’s proposals are urgently needed to fix three major shortcomings of the current regulatory system.

First, consumer organisations and health professionals have lost confidence in the complementary medicines industry’s ability to regulate its own advertisements, and in the TGA’s ability to apply adequate sanctions when companies don’t follow the rules.

Second, there is little incentive for the manufacturers of complementary medicines to research new innovative products or prove existing ones work.

There are about 11,000 listed complementary medicines on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (indicated by Aust L on packaging). Listed medicines are meant to contain pre-approved, relatively low-risk ingredients, produced with good manufacturing practice and only make “low-level” health claims for which evidence is held. However, the TGA does not check these requirements before the product is marketed; post-marketing surveillance and upheld complaints show high levels of regulatory non-compliance.

But there are only 35 registered complementary medicines (indicated by Aust R on packaging) the TGA says have been thoroughly assessed for safety, quality and efficacy (there is also debate about whether many of these older products should still be on this TGA list). There are fewer products on this list because research to meet registration requirements is expensive, the public doesn’t understand the subtleties between an Aust L and Aust R product and a better return on investment comes from promotional hype and celebrity endorsement of listed products.

Third, the TGA provides only limited transparency about companies and products that fail post-marketing evaluation or have complaints upheld. This information is currently regarded as commercial-in-confidence, fuelling the perception the TGA is more concerned with helping industry than protecting consumers.

How could the new measures help?

The proposal to restrict companies to only making pre-approved, “low-level” indications and claims for a product, such as, “may relieve the pain of mild osteoarthritis”, will minimise the risk of misleading consumers. But it is not yet clear how the list of allowed indications will be established nor how a specific product will be matched with an appropriate allowed indication.

The regulator also proposes manufacturers apply for “intermediate-level” health claims falling outside the permitted list (outlined above). An example might be, “our formulation of cranberry reduces the frequency of recurrent urinary infections in women”. For this, the TGA would have to assess the evidence substantiating the claim for a particular product. If the evidence stacks up (and there’s a debate about the type of evidence needed), the product could then carry a TGA “stamp of approval” on the label and any promotional material. But it is not clear what this “stamp of approval” will be. Is it text, a symbol or both?

Not everyone agrees a TGA ‘stamp of approval’ should be in the form of a symbol, like this.
(Unofficial mock-up created by Ken Harvey)

In preliminary TGA stakeholder consultations, consumer representatives supported a prominent visual identifier (like a logo or symbol) because of the failure of the existing Aust L and Aust R labelling to inform consumers. But industry representatives were concerned a highly visible identifier for a small number of evidence-based complementary medicines might affect sales of the bulk of listed products without one.

The TGA’s proposals encourage innovation because they will stimulate companies to engage in research to qualify for a TGA “stamp of approval”. The proposal also suggests companies that develop a TGA approved evidence-based claim would be awarded a three-year period of data protection to stop others freeloading on their research.

But the proposed changes do not yet address the need for greater transparency in the regulatory process. For instance, it is not clear whether the TGA’s assessment of evidence to back higher-level health claims for complementary medicines will be publicly available, as they are for prescription medicines.

What happens next?

These proposed changes, which are out for public consultation until March 28, 2017, sit alongside other recommendations aimed at improving the advertising complaints system.

If the TGA implements this package of recommendations, Australia will be a world leader in how complementary medicines are regulated. Despite the substantial and increasing use of supplements, no other country has developed a system that helps consumers and health professionals separate the evidence-based wheat from the chaff, improves confidence in the industry, stimulates more evidence-based products and has the potential to boost exports.

The ConversationKen Harvey, Adjunct Associate Professor, School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Explainer: trickle-down economics

The Conversation

Gigi Foster, UNSW

To anyone who lived through the years of Ronald Reagan’s US presidency, the term “trickle-down economics” should already be familiar. While Reagan wasn’t the first politician to say “trickle down” with a straight face, the economic story signalled by the term was frequently invoked during the Reagan years, most famously to justify massive tax breaks that disproportionately favoured the rich.

The origins of trickle-down can be traced back to William Jennings Bryan, but his phrasing – “leak through” – didn’t really catch on. Through the years the same basic idea has also been known variously as “supply-side economics” and “Reaganomics”.

Critics of trickle-down policies haven’t overlooked the fact that giving the rich a helping hand may yield political benefits for the politicians offering that help. Since Reagan’s time, trickle-down economics has been derided by other politicians as “voodoo economics” and as “the rich pissing on the poor.”

The broad idea of trickle-down economics is that giving economic help to companies or people at the top of society should, through one of various possible mechanisms, generate benefits for those in layers further down. Let’s look at the various mechanisms through which this is theorised to work.

Mechanism 1: Corporations who get tax cuts increase investments in the country that gives them

In theory, some companies might be drawn to expand operations in Australia because of lower company tax rates. If those expansions created jobs for previously unemployed people, or equal or better jobs for Australian workers compared to what those workers previously could get, then the benefits would be spread to workers. Plus, these companies could add to the demand for Australian-made intermediate goods.

If the expanding companies were more productive than other companies, due to using more efficient production processes, then this could also raise overall Australian productivity. In theory this would allow all of us to get more out from putting less in.

Yet many companies are more likely to look to other margins when making the decision about whether to enter or expand in Australia. These might include the cost of labour, the degree of red tape, qualities of relevant markets, and Australia’s geographical location.

This is partly because the tax breaks usually floated by politicians are modest, and also because the corporate tax rate differences between Australia and many of its peers are comparatively small anyway. There is also a lemmings-over-a-cliff concern here: if our peer nations start taxing companies at rates below what is required to finance effective government, should we follow them?

More subtly, the incentive effects we’d predict from a company tax break are complicated by the fact that no company operates like a person. Though we attribute human traits to companies routinely, in reality the decisions companies take are myriad and in many different areas.

Each is taken by some individual person in a particular department with particular, constrained, information and decision-making authority. It’s not guaranteed that each such decision maker in a company will know about a bit of extra cash due to a tax break and be spurred because of it to take a particular decision in their realm that dovetails with decisions taken by other company workers.

To the extent that the company does not act as a unit, the hoped-for labour demand and productivity effects may not materialise. The same is true if that tax-break money is used for other purposes, like funding dividends to shareholders or lining the pockets of the top brass.

Mechanism 2: Rich people who get tax cuts will use the extra money in a way that helps the country as a whole

The main idea here, as with Mechanism 1, is that more investment will create more jobs and potentially increase productivity (which results from those jobs). Some rich people might indeed invest the extra dollar directly into the stock of an Australian business. In fact, since rich people have a lower marginal propensity to consume than poorer people, they’re more likely to spend an extra dollar on investment than on stuff.

Nonetheless, a rich person might choose to buy Australian-made products with that money, which should act as a stimulus to Australian businesses. Of course that person could instead shop online for an overseas product or take an overseas trip, in which case that extra dollar would flee the country.

A rich person might instead lend the bank that extra dollar by depositing it into a bank account. If the bank then promptly loaned that money out to domestic borrowers, then we might see a positive economic effect, if the main borrowers who benefit from this looser cash were businesses that went on to use the money for a productive purpose.

If the extra dollar ended up going to less productive businesses, we might see a temporary uptick in employment and intermediate goods sales that then melted away when the business was out-competed. If home buyers got the money instead, it might mainly fuel increased house prices.

Mechanism 3: Aggregate tax revenue will rise when taxes are cut

Perhaps the most radical notion in supply-side economics is that cutting taxes might, counter-intuitively, raise tax revenue.

Suppose a company were making $100 in profits and faced a company tax rate of 30% (creating $30 in tax liability), but then the tax rate dropped to 28%. The extra $2 of “found money” might be invested in the business in a way that generates a rise in profits, say to $110. This would then create a tax liability of $30.80, or $0.80 more than the government collected under the higher tax rate.

Notice how large the return on the investment of the “found money” had to be, in order to create even a tiny increase in corporate tax revenue, from this 2-percentage-point tax break.

More taxes could also be raised if the employees of that company, as it expanded, shared in its increased productivity in terms of their taxable take-home pay. An increase in government tax revenue could then in theory be allocated to welfare, infrastructure, and other progressive budget line items, benefiting more people indirectly.

Naturally, this is not necessarily how things will play out. The “found money” from the tax break might be used by a company in ways that do not yield an increase in productivity and profits of the required amount to create a tax revenue hike for the government; and any revenue hike may not be directed to progressive expenditures.

In sum, careful listeners might sometimes hear a gentle trickle in our economy, but many parts of the waterwheel would need to be positioned just right in order to generate a steady flow.

The ConversationGigi Foster, Associate Professor, School of Economics, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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“Islamophobia motion” in Canada stirs controversy

Why Evolution Is True

There’s a great to-do in Canada about a motion (“M-103”, which is not a law but a recommendation) about discrimination, one that singles out “Islamophobia” as deserving special mention. The bill was introduced last December by the Liberal MP Iqra Khalid, a Pakistani-Canadian, and is being discussed now in the House of Commons. Here it is:

Systemic racism and religious discrimination

That, in the opinion of the House, the government should: (a) recognize the need to quell the increasing public climate of hate and fear; (b) condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination and take note of House of Commons’ petition e-411 and the issues raised by it; and (c) request that the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage undertake a study on how the government could (i) develop a whole-of-government approach to reducing or eliminating systemic racism and religious discrimination including Islamophobia, in Canada, while…

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Stop the gratuitous slaughter of Alaska’s wildlife

Why Evolution Is True

According to the Dodo, the Sierra Club, and other sites, the U.S. House of Representatives just voted to overturn a prior ban on hunting in the wildlife refuges of Alaska. The resolution allows hunters to enter dens and slaughter entire families of bears and wolves, as well as to lure animals with food and shoot them at point-blank range. They can also use the unspeakably cruel leg traps, and even shoot from helicopters!

There seems to be no genuine conservation reason for overturning this ban, which was previously applauded even by hunters, as well as the citizens of Alaska. As the Sierra Club notes, there’s no scientific evidence that killing these animals will effect any kind of needed change, for these mammals are already being managed by the state of Alaska. Rather, this seems to be a Republican-inspired sop to hunters who want to put a grizzly-bear rug on their floor…

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Ayaan Hirsi Ali on cultural inequality

Ayaan Hirsi Ali (born 1969) is a Somali-born Dutch-American activist, author, and former Dutch politician. She is has been a vocal critic of Islam,  as well as a feminist and atheist. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is currently a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford, and the founder of the AHA Foundation, which exists to protect women and girls from abuses. She will visit Australia in early April to discuss reforming Islam.

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SCIENCE, NOT SILENCE

The March for Science is a celebration of our passion for science and a call to support and safeguard the scientific community. Recent policy changes have caused heightened worry among scientists, and the incredible and immediate outpouring of support has made clear that these concerns are also shared by hundreds of thousands of people around the world. The mischaracterization of science as a partisan issue, which has given policymakers permission to reject overwhelming evidence, is a critical and urgent matter. It is time for people who support scientific research and evidence-based policies to take a public stand and be counted.

ON APRIL 22, 2017, WE WALK OUT OF THE LAB AND INTO THE STREETS.

We are scientists and science enthusiasts. We come from all races, all religions, all gender identities, all sexual orientations, all abilities, all socioeconomic backgrounds, all political perspectives, and all nationalities. Our diversity is our greatest strength: a wealth of opinions, perspectives, and ideas is critical for the scientific process. What unites us is a love of science, and an insatiable curiosity. We all recognize that science is everywhere and affects everyone.

Science is often an arduous process, but it is also thrilling. A universal human curiosity and dogged persistence is the greatest hope for the future. This movement cannot and will not end with a march. Our plans for policy change and community outreach will start with marches worldwide and a teach-in at the National Mall, but it is imperative that we continue to celebrate and defend science at all levels – from local schools to federal agencies – throughout the world.

MARCH WITH US

The March for Science is an international movement, led by organizers distributed around the globe. This movement is taking place because of the simultaneous realization by thousands of  scientists, and science enthusiasts that that staying silent is no longer an option.  There are marches being planned across the United States and internationally.

We encourage everyone to follow to local organizers to stay updated, and reach out if you want to help!

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Australia’s electricity market is not agile and innovative enough to keep up

The Conversation

Hugh Saddler, Australian National University

On the early evening of Wednesday, February 8, electricity supply to some 90,000 households and businesses in South Australia was cut off for up to an hour. Two days later, all electricity consumers in New South Wales were warned the same could happen to them. It didn’t, but apparently only because supply was cut to the Tomago aluminium smelter instead. In Queensland, it was suggested consumers might also be at risk over the two following days, even though it was a weekend, and again on Monday, February 13. What is going on?

The first point to note is that these were all very hot days. This meant that electricity demand for air conditioning and refrigeration was very high. On February 8, Adelaide recorded its highest February maximum temperature since 2014. On February 10, western Sydney recorded its highest ever February maximum, and then broke this record the very next day. Brisbane posted its highest ever February maximum on February 13.

That said, the peak electricity demand in both SA and NSW was some way below the historical maximum, which in both states occurred during a heatwave on January 31 and February 1, 2011. In Queensland it was below the record reached last month, on January 18.

Regardless of all this, shouldn’t the electricity industry be able to anticipate such extreme days, and have a plan to ensure that consumers’ needs are met at all times?

Much has already been said and written about the reasons for the industry’s failure, or near failure, to do so on these days. But almost all of this has focused on minute-by-minute details of the events themselves, without considering the bigger picture.

The wider issue is that the electricity market’s rules, written two decades ago, are not flexible enough to build a reliable grid for the 21st century.

Vast machine

In an electricity supply system, such as Australia’s National Electricity Market (NEM), the amount of electricity supplied must precisely match the amount being consumed in every second of every year, and always at the right voltage and frequency. This is a big challenge – literally, considering that the NEM covers an area stretching from Cairns in the north, to Port Lincoln in the west and beyond Hobart in the south.

Continent-sized electricity grids like this are sometimes described as the world’s largest and most complex machines. They require not only constant maintenance but also regular and careful planning to ensure they can meet new demands and incorporate new technologies, while keeping overall costs as low as possible. All of this has to happen without ever interrupting the secure and reliable supply of electricity throughout the grid.

Until the 1990s, this was the responsibility of publicly owned state electricity commissions, answerable to their state governments. But since the industry was comprehensively restructured from the mid-1990s onwards, individual states now have almost no direct responsibility for any aspect of electricity supply.

Electricity is now generated mainly by private-sector companies, while the grid itself is managed by federally appointed regulators. State governments’ role is confined to one of shared oversight and high-level policy development, through the COAG Energy Council.

This market-driven, quasi-federal regime is underpinned by the National Electricity Rules, a highly detailed and prescriptive document that runs to well over 1,000 pages. This is necessary to ensure that the grid runs safely and reliably at all times, and to minimise opportunities for profiteering.

The downside is that these rules are inflexible, hard to amend, and unable to anticipate changes in technology or economic circumstances.

Besides governing the grid’s day-to-day operations, the rules specify processes aimed at ensuring that “the market” makes the most sensible investments in new generation and transmission capacity. These investments need to be optimal in terms of technical characteristics, timing and cost.

To borrow a phrase from the prime minister, the rules are not agile and innovative enough to keep up. When they were drawn up in the mid-1990s, electricity came almost exclusively from coal and gas. Today we have a changing mix of new supply technologies, and a much more uncertain investment environment.

Neither can the rules ensure that the closure of old, unreliable and increasingly expensive coal-fired power stations will occur in a way that is most efficient for the grid as a whole, rather than most expedient for individual owners. (About 3.6 gigawatts of capacity, spread across all four mainland NEM states and equalling more than 14% of current coal power capacity, has been closed since 2011; this will increase to 5.4GW and 22% when Hazelwood closes next month.)

Finally, one of the biggest drivers of change in the NEM over the past decade has been the construction of new wind and solar generation, driven by the Renewable Energy Target (RET) scheme. Yet this scheme stands completely outside the NEM rules.

The Australian Energy Markets Commission – effectively the custodian of the rules – has been adamant that climate policy, the reason for the RET, must be treated as an external perturbation, to which the NEM must adjust while making as few changes as possible to its basic architecture. On several occasions over recent years the commission has successfully blocked proposals to broaden the terms of the rules by amending the National Electricity Objective to include an environmental goal of boosting renewable energy and reducing greenhouse emissions.

Events in every state market over the past year have shown that the electricity market’s problems run much deeper than the environmental question. Indeed, they go right to the core of the NEM’s reason for existence, which is to keep the lights on. A fundamental review is surely long overdue.

The most urgent task will be identifying what needs to be done in the short term to ensure that next summer, with Hazelwood closed, peak demands can be met without more load shedding. Possible actions may include establishing firm contracts with major users, such as aluminium smelters, to make large but brief reductions in consumption, in exchange for appropriate compensation. Another option may be paying some gas generators to be available at short notice, if required; this would not be cheap, as it would presumably require contingency gas supply contracts to be in place.

The most important tasks will address the longer term. Ultimately we need a grid that can supply enough electricity throughout the year, including the highest peaks, while ensuring security and stability at all times, and that emissions fall fast enough to help meet Australia’s climate targets.

The ConversationHugh Saddler, Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Climate Economics and Policy, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Trump’s bizarre press conference: Is he mentally ill?

Why Evolution Is True

If you missed Trump’s press conference yesterday, you missed one of the most bizarre behaviors of an American President I’ve ever seen. It’s matched in my memory only by Clinton’s “I did not have sex with that woman” assertion, and Nixon’s “I am not a crook” statement.

But this went on for 74 minutes, and if James Joyce could write a press conference in the style of Ulysses, it would be this one. I’ve put the whole video of the press conference below, and reproduced in its entirety the email I got from CNN about the conference. CNN even gave its report the headline I’ve put below (click on screenshot to go to story). And I recommend you click on the link below called “Trump’s most memorable lines,” which include this gem:

“The leaks are real, the news is fake.”
and this palpable lie:
“This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine

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