It must be tough to be Dr. Dean Ornish these days. The man desperately wants to convince everyone to live on a low-fat vegetarian diet, and yet the Wisdom of Crowds effect is turning the tide in the opposite direction. People previously frightened into giving up eggs and red meat have gone paleo, improved their health, and announced as much to the crowd. Books like The Big Fat Surprise are shining a very bright light on the shoddy science that led to anti-animal-fat hysteria in the first place. Researchers are revisiting the science and declaring the low-fat diet a mistake.
This can’t sit well at all with Dr. Ornish, for whom the plant-based diet is clearly akin to a religion. In fact, I suspect that like many vegetarians and vegans, the thought process that formed his beliefs went something like this:
- Eating animals is a sin.
- Therefore, animal foods must harm your health – a punishment for committing sin.
- Giving up animal foods must improve your health – a reward for no longer being a sinner.
Ornish has spent his career warning of the health hazards of animal foods. The emerging evidence – the reliable kind, anyway – keeps contradicting him, so now he’s like a walking, talking example of the people described in the terrific book Mistake Were Made (but not by me): having staked out a very public position, he can’t possibly change his mind without committing career suicide. He must cling to that position to the bitter end.
And so Ornish pops up now and then to bang the Animal Foods Kill! drum yet again … by pointing to a lousy observational study here and a mouse study there. You never hear him quoting clinical studies on humans (i.e., the studies that actually matter) because those don’t support his beliefs.
Ornish’s latest attempt to bang the drum came in the form of an essay in the New York Times, which several readers called to my attention. Let’s take a look.
Many people have been making the case that Americans have grown fat because they eat too much starch and sugar, and not enough meat, fat and eggs. Recently, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee lifted recommendations that consumption of dietary cholesterol should be restricted, citing research that dietary cholesterol does not have a major effect on blood cholesterol levels. The predictable headlines followed: “Back to Eggs and Bacon?”
But, alas, bacon and egg yolks are not health foods.
And we know they’re not health foods because Dr. Ornish says so.
Although people have been told for decades to eat less meat and fat, Americans actually consumed 67 percent more added fat, 39 percent more sugar, and 41 percent more meat in 2000 than they had in 1950 and 24.5 percent more calories than they had in 1970, according to the Agriculture Department. Not surprisingly, we are fatter and unhealthier.
Notice how Ornish lumps added fat, sugar and meat together, attempting to paint them as members of the same murderous gang. It’s a bit like stating that the trio of Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy and Mother Teresa were responsible for more than 50 brutal murders. That’s technically true, but Mother Teresa’s share of the carnage was zero.
But what about that increase in added fat? Did we become fatter and unhealthier by consuming more butter and lard?
Dr. Mike Eades delved into Ornish’s creative uses of food-consumption statistics in a recent post. It’s worth reading the entire post, but here’s the bottom line:
The added fats are mostly vegetable oils – the exact type the vegetarian zealots insist are better for us than animal fats. Ornish reached way back to 1950 to grab figures on meat consumption so he could make a dramatic comparison with today and thus blame meat for obesity rates that began rising … wait for it … 30 years later. Let’s back up instead to 1970, when Americans were still lean on average and not suffering from record rates of diabetes.
Meat consumption rose by 13 percent from 1970 to 2005, but mainly because we eat a lot more chicken. During that same timespan, red meat consumption dropped by 22%, egg consumption dropped by 17%, and dairy consumption dropped a wee bit. Meanwhile, grain consumption increased by 45%.
Keep those figures in mind as we continue quoting Dr. Ornish.
The debate is not as simple as low-fat versus low-carb. Research shows that animal protein may significantly increase the risk of premature mortality from all causes, among them cardiovascular disease, cancer and Type 2 diabetes.
Dr. Ornish includes a link that goes to a study I already analyzed in this post. It’s another one of those number-crunching analyses of two lousy observational studies based on food questionnaires. Other analyses of the same parent studies (The Health Professionals Follow-up Study and the Nurses’ Health Study) have consistently shown that the participants who ate the most meat and eggs were also more likely to smoke, to drink, to be overweight, etc. In other words, we’re comparing adherers vs. non-adherers, not the effects of any one food.
But since Dr. Ornish apparently believes observational studies are rock-solid evidence, perhaps he can explain these results from a study of the Japanese elderly:
- Nutrient intakes in 94 Japanese centenarians investigated between 1972 and 1973 showed a higher proportion of animal protein to total proteins than in contemporary average Japanese.
- High intakes of milk and fats and oils had favorable effects on 10-year (1976-1986) survivorship in 422 urban residents aged 69-71.
- The survivors revealed a longitudinal increase in intakes of animal foods such as eggs, milk, fish and meat over the 10 years.
I guess animal foods will kill you unless you’re Japanese, in which case they extend your life.
Back to Dr. Ornish:
Heavy consumption of saturated fat and trans fats may double the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Once again, notice how he lumps trans fats and saturated fats together. The vegetarian and vegan zealots do that all the time – well, at least now that they’ve admitted trans fats are bad. Back in the 1980s, The Guy From CSPI was pushing trans fats as a safe alternative to animal fats. Point is, trans fats and saturated fats have very different effects on your health – which Dr. Ornish chooses to ignore.
A study published last March found a 75 percent increase in premature deaths from all causes, and a 400 percent increase in deaths from cancer and Type 2 diabetes, among heavy consumers of animal protein under the age of 65 — those who got 20 percent or more of their calories from animal protein.
Dr. Ornish forgot to mention a couple a couple of facts about that study:
- It’s yet another observational study based on food questionnaires and is therefore nearly worthless.
- Data from the same study showed that heavy consumers of animal proteins over the age of 65 had lower mortality and lower rates of heart disease and cancer, not higher.
So if this observational study actually tells us something about the health effects of animal protein (which it doesn’t), we’d have to conclude that meat will kill you until you turn 65, but after age 65 it will save your life.
Back to the good doctor:
Low-carb, high-animal-protein diets promote heart disease via mechanisms other than just their effects on cholesterol levels. Arterial blockages may be caused by animal-protein-induced elevations in free fatty acids and insulin levels and decreased production of endothelial progenitor cells (which help keep arteries clean). Egg yolks and red meat appear to significantly increase the risk of coronary heart disease and cancer due to increased production of trimethylamine N-oxide, or TMAO, a metabolite of meat and egg yolks linked to the clogging of arteries. (Egg whites have neither cholesterol nor TMAO.)
Ornish linked to a study to support that paragraph, so I checked it out. Here’s the abstract:
Mice that were fed a high-fat, high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet were found to have atherosclerosis that was not associated with traditional cardiovascular risk factors.
So I’m going to suggest you avoid (especially if you’re a mouse) the “Atkins Diet” version of laboratory rodent chow, which is a mix of corn starch, sugar, casein, and various fats including soybean oil, corn oil and Crisco.
Animal protein increases IGF-1, an insulin-like growth hormone, and chronic inflammation, an underlying factor in many chronic diseases. Also, red meat is high in Neu5Gc, a tumor-forming sugar that is linked to chronic inflammation and an increased risk of cancer. A plant-based diet may prolong life by blocking the mTOR protein, which is linked to aging.
To support those claims, Ornish referred to another mouse study and the observational study that showed a statistical link between meat and higher mortality up to age 65, but lower mortality after age 65. Since most of us will live to be 65 anyway, I think we can stop worrying about the meat. Eat it now, and after celebrating your 65th birthday, start eating even more of it.
Are you recognizing the Ornish method of persuasion by now? He’s like the Wizard of Oz, blowing a lot of smoke and bellowing loudly, but really hoping you don’t look behind that curtain. A quick reference to a mouse study (which he doesn’t identify as a mouse study), a quick reference to an observational study (citing one result but skipping the result he doesn’t want you to see), a quick conflation of trans fats and animal fats, and VOILA! – you’ve almost got an argument against eating animal foods.
An optimal diet for preventing disease is a whole-foods, plant-based diet that is naturally low in animal protein, harmful fats and refined carbohydrates. What that means in practice is little or no red meat; mostly vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes and soy products in their natural forms; very few simple and refined carbohydrates such as sugar and white flour; and sufficient “good fats” such as fish oil or flax oil, seeds and nuts. A healthful diet should be low in “bad fats,” meaning trans fats, saturated fats and hydrogenated fats. Finally, we need more quality and less quantity.
Hmmm … let’s rewrite that paragraph to reflect the actual evidence:
An optimal diet for preventing disease is a whole-foods diet that is naturally low in harmful fats and refined carbohydrates. What that means in practice is meat, eggs, vegetables, fruits and nuts, but little or no whole grains or soy products; very few simple and refined carbohydrates such as sugar and white flour; and sufficient “good fats” such as fish oil, natural animal fats, seeds and nuts. A healthful diet should be low in “bad fats,” meaning trans fats, processed vegetable oils, seed oils, and hydrogenated fats. Aim for quality, and you’ll probably find the quantity takes care of itself.
I didn’t bother to read all the comments on Ornish’s article, but I did come across this one:
So far, 331 comments posted. About 88% either disagree or have a different view than the author. I suppose if you agree with him, then you may not comment. But it is obvious the author is not connecting to his audience. I suspect he is not much different than other vegans I have met: for him, diet is a religion and he cherry picks the science.
Sorry, Dr. Ornish, but the jig is up. People aren’t buying these weak arguments of yours anymore. You can keep bellowing away about the hazards of animal foods, but it’s the information age now and the crowd knows better – and the crowd is loud.
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Chareva’s spring project is a labor of love, but it’s also quickly becoming a labor of necessity. When her flock of 26 (surviving) chicks arrived a few weeks ago, they were itty-bitty things — like these recently-arrived chicks Alana will be raising for a 4-H project:
Chareva’s chicks have already grown to look like this:
It’s so crowded in that trough, they’re probably wondering if they’re on the New York City subway. I believe I saw one of them scrawling graffiti on the walls. They need to get outside, and soon.
Trouble is, the raccoons and possums are already outside. We can’t move the chicks out there until they have a secure place to live. So we’ve been out there for long days, trying to get the first of the two chicken yards finished.
We’re making good progress. At the end of last weekend, the chicken yard looked like this:
Now it looks like this:
Not done, but getting there.
The biggest pain in constructing a chicken yard is stretching the wire fencing between the posts. The stuff arrives in big rolls, and when you unravel it, it desperately wants to roll itself up again. Add in the fact that our land is hilly, with the angle of the hill seeming to change every few feet or so, and stretching the fencing tight across the posts and close to the ground is a wee bit of a challenge.
We made the job a bit easier by buying a fence stretcher. Fence stretcher … sounds like a cool contraption, eh? Something with levers and gears? Nope. It’s basically a 2 x 4 hunk of wood with two handles and a metal bar that clamps to the fencing.
Tighten down the metal bar, grab the handles and pull for all you’re worth. Then crouch there in that awkward position while your wife uses zip-ties to strap the sort-of-tight fence to the t-posts. Be patient. She’s going as fast as she can.
Those aren’t the exact directions, but they should be.
The zip-ties are a temporary measure. Once each section of fence is in place, we use metal clamps that hook to the fence, bend around the t-post, then wrap around the fence on the other side of the post. The chicken yards may become corrals for larger animals someday, so we attached four clamps to each pole.
Even with a properly-stretched fence, we ended up with gaps at the bottom here and there because of the dips in our land. Chickens won’t try to push under the gaps, but (as we learned the hard way with our chickens in the front pasture) a hungry raccoon or possum will.
If we don’t fix the gaps, we may as well ring the raccoon dinner bell. So Chareva will attach heavy-gauge chicken wire all the way around, then bend it out along the ground and attach it with garden stakes.
That protects against predators taking the low road. We also have to protect against predators that would climb over the fence and hawks that would swoop down for a chicken dinner to go. Last year we covered the front chicken yard with a big ol’ net that’s done the job quite nicely. We’re going to cover both of the new chicken yards with the same size and brand of net.
The one thing neither of us likes about using nets is having to bend over to walk beneath them. We elevated the net in the front pasture by using the barn as a tent-pole, but we still have to do the deep-bend move to get under the gate. I wondered aloud if there was some way to construct a human-sized entryway to the new chicken yards. After we kicked around a couple of ideas, Chareva remembered we have this thing:
That’s a dog kennel that’s been sitting in our front yard for years, serving no purpose whatsoever. Notice the human-sized doors. Instead of just using those, I suggested we take the whole thing apart and use it as fencing on the uphill side of both chicken yards. That would raise the net nice and high on one side at least.
Chareva agreed, but reminded me she helped a renovation crew-member move the dog kennel three years ago. Those panels are really heavy and will be difficult to carry up the steep hill, she warned me.
Nope. Not light, but not all that heavy either. As we trudged them uphill, she kept saying she could swear they used to be heavier. It occurred to her that she’s done three years’ worth of farm work since moving them the first time. She’s probably stronger now than she’s ever been in her life.
Anyway, re-purposing the dog kennel was the perfect solution. Each chicken yard now has a tall door on the high side of the hill, and with the panels all bolted together, they make for a sturdy fence. I had to pull up several t-posts I’d pounded in last week and re-position them against the poles in the panels, but it was worth the effort.
Unfortunately, when I bolted together the last panel at the far end (the other chicken yard we’ll finish later), I had a major brain-fart: I saw a four-foot gap between the end of the panel and the line of t-posts I’d pounded in last week. Rats, I said to myself, these don’t line up. We must have measured something incorrectly. So I pulled up several posts, tied a string from the panel downhill to the corner post, and pounded in the posts along the string.
If you take a peek at Chareva’s plans, you’ll recognize my mistake. I added a red line where I re-positioned the posts.
Whoops. Hours later, Chareva informed me the “gap” was intentional. That’s the opening for the “Flock A” chicken moat that will extend around the future garden. So when we get around to that chicken yard, I get to pull the posts again and pound them in for the third time. I’ve mentioned that pounding posts is a great workout for the triceps. If I keep goofing up like this, I’ll have triceps bigger than my thighs.
The hoop houses will be made from cattle panels bent into a U-shape and covered with vinyl. New vinyl that’s sufficiently thick is expensive, but Chareva found a deal on some that were previously used for highway billboards. (I was hoping one of them would have a BETTER CALL SAUL ad on it, but no luck.) She has the first hoop house almost ready to go.
We need to close off the chicken moats at night so predators don’t climb the garden fences and sneak into the chicken yards through the moats. We also need the nets to be secured to the fence all the way around.
Obviously, we can’t attach the nets to the gates that open the chicken moats. So we attached a bit of fencing over the entryway to the moat. The gate will close against the bottom of the fencing, and the net will be attached to the top.
I may also string a little barbed wire in between to discourage raccoons from trying to push between the strip of fencing and the top the of the gate. Raccoons are determined little critters.
When Chareva and I unrolled and positioned the giant net over the chicken yard in the front pasture last year, we had so much fun it nearly ended in divorce. Well, okay, it wasn’t that bad, but it was frustrating. We couldn’t quite figure out how to unroll the thing at first, plus it kept getting snagged on the barn.
We remembered the lessons from that experience. This time Chareva put a tarp over the metal snaggy bits on the hoop house, and we were able to unroll and position the net pretty quickly.
The net is where it needs to be now, but loose. Later this week we need to tie it down to the top of the fencing on all four sides. Then we’ll sink some poles into the ground to provide elevation on the low side of the hill. Ideally, we’ll be able to walk around most of the chicken yard without ducking under the net.
When all that’s done and the hoop house is finished, we can finally get the chicks out of their subway car.
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Waaaaay back in 2009, I wrote a post about the Los Angeles City Council’s ban on new fast-food restaurants on the city’s south side – a poor area with a high level of obesity. Here’s part of what I wrote:
The ban hasn’t done diddly, of course — and won’t — but it did serve one important purpose: it satisfied the congenital need of politicians to do something! whenever they see a problem.
Before getting into the economic and nutritional stupidity of this ban, I’m going to risk receiving some hate mail by actually acknowledging the elephant in the room: racism. South Los Angeles is populated almost exclusively by African-Americans and Hispanics. Telling them they can’t have any more fast-food restaurants in their neighborhoods is paternalistic and insulting. It’s rooted in the notion that they can’t make smart decisions for themselves, and therefore need a government nanny to hide the cookie jar.
When I wrote that post, I hadn’t yet read Thomas Sowell’s terrific book The Vision of the Anointed, so I didn’t describe the Grand Plan Fast-Food Ban as an example of The Anointed at work. But boy howdy, that’s exactly what it was. Here’s a quick recap of how Sowell describes The Anointed imposing their vision (which I recounted in more detail in my speech Diet, Health and the Wisdom of Crowds):
1. The Anointed identify a problem in society.
Yeah, okay, there’s a high rate of obesity on the south side of Los Angeles. It’s a problem.
2. The Anointed propose a Grand Plan to fix the problem.
Let’s ban new fast-food restaurants from opening on the south side! Very grand indeed.
3. Because they are so supremely confident in their ideas, The Anointed don’t bother with proof or evidence that the Grand Plan will actually work.
As I pointed out in the 2009 post, the Rand Corporation had already produced a study showing there were more fast-food restaurants per capita on the west side of Los Angeles – a mostly-white area where obesity isn’t a problem. So that would suggest proximity to fast-food restaurants wasn’t the cause of obesity. There were zero studies demonstrating that limiting fast-food restaurants would do diddly squat. But hey, we’re talking about The Anointed here. They don’t need proof or evidence. All they need are good intentions.
4. If possible, The Anointed will impose the Grand Plan on other people (for their own good, of course).
I’d say not allowing people to open new restaurants (which would fail if they didn’t have willing customers) pretty much qualifies as imposing a plan. That’s the thing about those Grand Plans: they almost involve confiscating and spending other people’s money or limiting other people’s freedoms – or both for a truly Grand Plan.
5. The Anointed assume anyone who opposes the Grand Plan is either evil or stupid.
In this case, I’d say the City Council idjits probably view the fast-food restaurants as evil and the people who eat there as stupid – which of course means they need The Anointed to (ahem) help them by limiting their choices.
6. If the Grand Plan fails, The Anointed will never, ever, ever admit the Grand Plan was wrong.
Fail? Now why in the heck would a Grand Plan based on zero evidence and a healthy dose of economic illiteracy fail? But I predicted in 2009 that it would:
Fast-food restaurants are convenient target, but shooting at the wrong target doesn’t get the job done. Banning McDonald’s and other fast-food joints from poor neighborhoods won’t make poor people any leaner. But it will create another tribute to the economic stupidity of legislators … namely, it will deprive a lot of unskilled but work-minded teenagers of their first job opportunities, with at least the possibility of moving into management someday.
It’s been seven years since that ban was imposed. That ought to be enough time for the positive effects of limiting other people’s freedom to manifest, eh? An article from the Los Angeles Times describes the results:
Seven years ago, Los Angeles made national headlines with a novel attempt to reduce obesity in South L.A. by banning new fast-food restaurants.
A “novel” attempt. If you saw my speech, you may recall that Sowell says The Anointed are attracted to ideas that are new, bold, or exquisitely expressed. New and bold are substitutes for supported by evidence they’ll actually work.
But a new study found the effort has not achieved its intended goal.
Well, I am shocked.
A Rand Corp. report released Thursday says that from 2007 to 2012, the percentage of people who were overweight or obese increased everywhere in L.A., but the increase was significantly greater in areas covered by the fast-food ordinance, including Baldwin Hills and Leimert Park.
The study also found fast-food consumption went up in South L.A. as well as across the county during that time.
Now, the logical response would be to admit that the ban was a bad idea and stop curtailing other people’s freedoms to make their own decisions – such as the decision to open a restaurant. But we can’t expect logic from The Anointed. They never admit a Grand Plan was a bad idea. If anything, they insist that we need to do the same thing again – only bigger.
Which is why these quotes shouldn’t surprise any of us:
Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who co-wrote the zoning restriction with former Councilwoman Jan Perry, said he wasn’t surprised that the Rand report says it didn’t have any health effect. But he maintained that it was a vital first step in reducing the number of fast-food restaurants and breaking unhealthy eating habits in the region.
I see. It’s a total failure, but also a vital first step. Those next steps must be real doozies.
This is why it’s important to read books like The Vision of The Anointed. Sowell describes these people and how they think so perfectly, it’s like reading the script before you see a play. You know what’s going to happen next.
“We never believed it was going to be an overnight situation where all of a sudden the community was going to be healthy,” he said.
Riiiight. Seven years — which I think we’d all agree is equivalent to “overnight” — wasn’t long enough. The fast-food ban will work … it will just take another 20 or 30 years to show real results.
I didn’t mention it in my speech, but Sowell explains in his book that The Anointed escape the blame for their failures because it often takes years for the failure to manifest. By contrast, if an engineer proposes a new, bold, exquisitely expressed plan to build a bridge and then the bridge falls down, he gets the blame – and nobody cares how exquisitely he defends his design. Bridge fell, your plan was bad, you’re fired. It’s the same with programming, by the way. My code either works or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, the results are immediate and I take the blame.
Parks said the ordinance was meant to be part of a larger strategy that includes bringing grocery stores and farmers markets to replace fast-food restaurants, but that part has been more difficult to accomplish.
In other words, the plan didn’t go far enough. I”m guessing if I got Mr. Parks on the phone, he’d inform me that the “larger strategy” has been undermined by people who are evil or stupid.
Like reading the script before you see a play …
Over the last several years, more research has focused on the social factors that affect health, such as where people live, how much money they make, and how close they are to places that serve healthy food. Studies evaluating the increase in obesity have found that the food that is available in a neighborhood can directly affect what people eat.
The Rand study, however, shows how hard it can be to translate that research into effective policy.
Well, here’s a thought: MAYBE THE ANOINTED SHOULD STOP TRYING TO COME UP WITH “EFFECTIVE POLICY” AND LEAVE EVERYONE ELSE THE @#$% ALONE FOR A CHANGE.
Valerie Ruelas, director of the Community Diabetes Initiatives at USC, said that what people eat is based on a complicated mix of behavior, preferences, education, location, access and other factors. She was not surprised that the L.A. policy had little effect on people’s eating habits and obesity rates, according to the Rand study.
“You’re not going to find the one pill that’s going to solve all the problems,” Ruelas said.
A pill? Of course not. A pill is a little itty-bitty thing. If you want to solve a problem in society, you need a Grand Plan. Just ask The Anointed.
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Chareva’s spring project arrived on Saturday. It looked like this:
The delivery guys asked me where to dump the hardware. I pointed to Chareva and said, “Ask her. She’s the farmer.”
One of them chuckled. “So you’re the farmer around here, huh?”
“Yes, I’m the farmer. He’s the husband. His job is to pay for everything and lift the heavy stuff.”
I was going to tell them I’m actually in charge around here, but Chareva didn’t grant me permission to speak.
Anyway, Chareva ordered all that hardware because she spent the cold-and-icy season making big plans for our side field. The plans look like this:
We currently have two flocks of chickens living outdoors, one in the front pasture and one in the side field. We also have 26 chicks living in the basement, and 12 more on the way. The front-pasture flock includes old hens, some younger hens, and two roosters. They’ve pecked the ground inside their pen down to the dirt. They need fresh grass.
The old hens and at least one of the roosters will soon be re-purposed as chicken stock. The younger hens, the chicks in the basement, and the chicks still on the way will live in the side field, along with the chickens already living there. I’m not sure how Chareva plans to divvy up all the birds, but we’ll end up with Flock A and Flock B. She might divide Flock B in two, with a fence in the middle of their chicken yard.
If you look at Chareva’s drawing, you’ll notice both flocks will have access to a narrow area surrounding her gardens. She added that to the plans after a reader linked to an article about building a chicken moat. The moat is one of those ideas that’s so brilliantly simple, I wanted to slap myself for not thinking of it before.
As you’ll recall, we get morning visitors who look like this:
I love seeing deer out there, but several readers warned that deer will happily leap a fence to eat up a garden. From what I’m told, however, they won’t jump a double fence. We’d considered stringing some sort of barbed-wire fence around the garden to discourage the deer, but the chicken moat is much more useful. The chickens will eat bugs migrating towards the garden, and they’ll peck away the weeds that would otherwise grow into the garden fence. Plus the deer won’t (supposedly) jump the moat. Like I said, brilliantly simple. A triple-duty solution.
Both chicken yards will be covered with nets, as will the chicken moats. Without nets, we’d be raising chickens for the privilege of feeding the local hawks.
It was a gorgeous weekend in our part of Tennessee, so we got busy with the construction job. Chareva had already marked off the fence lines with string, so all we had to do was add labor. (As small-time farmers, I believe we’re exempt from child-labor laws. Besides, we call it exercise, not labor.)
There were new gates in the load of hardware, but we also have some old gates that have been sitting on the property since we moved here. One of them was bent out of shape, so I convinced it to straighten up and fly right by applying a sledgehammer.
Most of my workday consisted of pounding in t-posts. The t-post hammer is heavy, so I guess that fits the “lift the heavy stuff” part of my husbandly duties. Pounding posts into the ground is also a great workout for the shoulders and triceps.
We learned on previous projects that eyeballing a t-post and saying “Yup, that looks straight” is a bad idea. The steep hills fool the eye. So with each post, I pounded it in a bit, then used to level to adjust the tilt, then finished pounding. And it was a lot of pounding:
The newly-pounded t-posts in the picture below will form one of the chicken moats:
Chareva wants the interior gates bolted to wood posts. She and I dug a hole as deep as the length of my arm to sink one of the posts. She bought long posts, so even with more than two feet below ground, I’m tempted to carve totems into the remainder.
The hoop houses for the chickens will be constructed from cattle panels bent inside two rows of t-posts. Chareva and Sara set the distance, then I pounded in the posts.
Another of our spring plans is to fence in the side field and the back of the property. We got an estimate awhile back for having a split-rail fence installed around the entire farm, but decided the money would be better spent improving the house and buying a tractor someday. Nobody sees the side and back of the property besides us, so we’re going to use cattle panels. That job became much more feasible after I whacked my way through a jungle that had grown up around the side creek and discovered the t-posts are already in place.
I can’t capture the entire side field with my camera, but you can see a good chunk of it below. When the fence is in place, we’ll be able to open up the back yard and let the dogs run around here to their hearts’ content.
I suspect once the dogs have access to this area, the deer won’t be anxious to visit anymore. That’s the downside. The upside is that raccoons and bobcats probably won’t be anxious to visit either. With 70 or so chickens eventually living in the side field, that can only help.
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Dr. Malcolm Kendrick is the Mark Twain of medical writers, wielding his own pen warmed up in hell. Hell, in this case, is a modern medical system designed to persuade doctors and the public that nearly everyone with a pulse is abnormal and in need of treatment. In fact, I can summarize Kendrick’s latest book Doctoring Data by paraphrasing Twain himself: “If your doctor doesn’t read the medical literature, he is uninformed. If he does read the medical literature, he is misinformed.”
I first became aware of Kendrick when Dr. Mike Eades recommended his book The Great Cholesterol Con.
I ordered a copy and expected to be educated. I didn’t expect to laugh my ass off while being educated, but that’s Kendrick’s style. He attacks nonsense with facts and logic, yes, but also with a razor-sharp wit. (If you don’t read his blog, you should.)
As Kendrick has made clear many times, he’s not anti-medicine. He is a doctor, after all. Take surgeries and the true wonder drugs out of the picture, and many of us would be far worse off, if not dead. I’d be limping around on a ruined knee, deaf in one ear, and unable to raise my left arm above chest-level. So much for doing farm work and playing disc golf on weekends.
But Kendrick is very much against the nonsense that pervades much of preventative medicine these days. The nonsense is driven by what he calls doctored data. In a nutshell, the system works something like this:
Even though you’re probably fine, you undergo a lab test at your doctor’s insistence, and lo and behold, you’re diagnosed with a previously unknown “disease” … which was discovered just in time to coincide with the approval of a new wonder drug … which was approved based on suspicious data … from a study designed and run by the drug-maker … which paid key opinion leaders to sit on a government committee that wrote the treatment guidelines … which instruct your doctor to prescribe the new wonder drug … which produces nasty side-effects … which must be treated with more wonder drugs. Oh, and you also need to stop eating anything that tastes good.
Here’s how Kendrick describes the situation in the book’s introduction:
It has become exceedingly difficult to enjoy life’s simple pleasures. Lying in the sun… “Do not do that, or you will die of skin cancer.” Eating a bacon sandwich… “You mad fool, the saturated fat in that will raise your cholesterol levels and you will die of heart disease.” Putting salt on food… “That raises blood pressure and you will die of a heart attack or a stroke.” Drinking an ice-cold gin and tonic after a hard day’s work… “If you drink more than 15 units a week you risk dying of cancer and liver failure.” Hey ho, what jolly fun.
At the same time we are being cajoled to undergo ever more screening tests to pick up the early stages of cancer and numerous other diseases. As if this were not enough, your GP will be haranguing you to have endless measurements of blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels, to name but three. As if good health is only really possible through constant monitoring by the medical profession.
As for the elderly, it has become virtually impossible to find anyone taking fewer than four or five separate medications. One of my jobs is working in Intermediate Care where I help to look after elderly people, many of whom have suffered an injury or fracture of some sort. When patients enter this unit, the average number of medications taken is ten. That is ten different drugs, to be taken each and every day, some of them three or four times each day. I suppose it saves on buying food.
At the same time, the boundaries that define illness have narrowed inexorably. When I first graduated from medical school in 1981, a high cholesterol level was anything above 7.5 mmol/L. Over the years, this level has fallen and fallen to the point where a ‘healthy’ level is now 5.0 mmol/L. I suspect it will soon be 4.0 mmol/L. Anything above this figure, and you have an increased risk of heart disease – allegedly. Considering that over 85% of the adult population in the western world has a cholesterol level higher than 5.0 mmol/L this is a quite amazing concept. I will admit that I have never been that brilliant at statistics. However, it seems to me that attempting to claim that more than 80% of people are at high risk of heart disease stretches the concept of ‘average’ to breaking point – and well beyond.
The sad truth is that most of the advice we are now bombarded with varies from neutral to damaging. In some cases it can be potentially very damaging indeed. Advising people with diabetes to eat a low fat, high carbohydrate diet, for example. As a piece of harmful idiocy, this really could hardly be bettered.
How about frightening people to stay out of the sun, or slap on factor 50 cream at the first suspicion that a deadly photon may sneak through 10 layers of protective clothing? Not necessarily a good idea, because without vitamin D synthesis in the skin, from exposure to the sun, there is a significant danger that we can become vitamin D deficient, which can lead to all sorts of other problems.
And later in the introduction:
So you trust the experts… right?
No, I do not think that would be the best way to go. In fact, long sections of this book are dedicated to an exploration of the role of the ‘expert’ (chapter six). The bottom line is that experts are just as prone to grasping the wrong end of the stick as anyone else, then hanging on for blue bloody murder. Far more so, in many cases.
If truth be told, my view of medical experts has become extremely jaundiced. At times I feel they are like those highly decorated generals in North Korea with the funny hats. They look splendid and important, but the only point of their existence is to suppress dissent and keep an idiotic regime in place. In reality, you are not likely to get much nuance from an expert. You are more likely to be ‘educated’ on the party line. Room 101 lurks.
I don’t have to convince a bunch of Fat Heads to be skeptical of experts, but the question remains: when we’re bombarded with medical advice, or with headlines proclaiming New Study Says Blah-Blah-Blah, how do we separate the gems from the garbage? To a large degree, that’s what Doctoring Data is about:
Should you believe everything, or believe nothing? Trying to establish any type of system for establishing the truth is clearly not simple, and it is fraught with its own biases.
Having said this, I do think that there are certain ‘tools’ that you can use to analyse health stories and clinical papers. Using them will allow you to spot many of the manipulations and biases. These tools are not complete, and they are not some sort of mathematical formula, whereby a score of five means the paper is true, and a score of ten means it is untrue.
However, I believe that they can guide you, and give you a much clearer picture of what is really happening out there in the murky world of medical research, a way of looking at the world to try and establish the truth. Or something as close to the truth as can be achieved.
The truth toolkit: Ten things to remember, to help you make sense of a medical story; they are also the chapters of this book.
• Association does not mean causation
• Lives cannot be saved; we’re all going to die
• Relative mountains are made out of absolute molehills
• Things that are not true are often held to be true
• Reducing numbers does not equal reducing risk
• Challenges to the status quo are crushed – and how!
• Games are played and the players are…
• Doctors can seriously damage your health
• Never believe that something is impossible
• ‘Facts’ can be, and often are, plucked from thin air
The rest of the book is like an in-depth version of Science For Smart People. Kendrick guides the reader through the process of how studies are conducted and how the numbers are crunched. Then he shows how everything gets turned upside-down and sideways so researchers can declare that a new wonder drug or procedure will “save” hundreds of thousands of lives … even if “saving” a life means extending it by an average of three months.
Statins, blood-pressure medications, various cancer screenings … as Kendrick repeatedly demonstrates with actual study results (minus the medical-industry spin), many of the sacred cows of “preventative” medicine don’t seem to prevent much of anything:
Those involved in cancer screening have even created their own, virtually-impossible‐to-understand language, in order to make their figures look stunning. Stunning they may look, but luckily there are other people out there who are less than stunned, and who choose to look a bit more closely.
The United States Preventative Task force reviewed all the data on Prostate Cancer screening (using the prostate specific antigen (P.S.A.) blood test) and came to the conclusion that it does more harm than good.
Lo, it turns out that the prostate screening test, which improves survival from 68% to 99% does not actually save lives – at all. Fantastic sounding cure rates, which completely bedazzle doctors, are simply meaningless.
In the chapter titled Challenges to the status quo are crushed – and how!, Kendrick cites examples of how results that challenge prevailing medical opinion are squashed … or fudged, or simply ignored. For example, one study was published with the title Excess deaths associated with underweight, overweight, and obesity.
Well, there you go: you clearly don’t want to be overweight or underweight. If your doctor glanced at the journal article, that’s the conclusion he or she would draw. Just one little problem: the actual study data showed that people in the overweight category (BMI of 25 to 30) had the longest lifespans. But wait, it gets even better:
You may note that, in this study, even those in the obese category (BMI 30-35) had a lower mortality than those of ‘normal’ weight.
The overwhelming belief in the medical community is that being overweight is bad for you. It causes a host of diseases, which will inevitably result in premature death. To state that being overweight means that you live longer is the scientific equivalent of standing up and shouting that the Emperor is not actually wearing any clothes at all.
So why did the paper’s title declare that the risky categories are underweight, overweight and obesity? As Kendrick writes:
If they dared to write a paper with this title… Excess deaths associated with underweight, normal weight, and obesity. …one of two things would have happened. Either the peer reviewers would have rejected it, or, had it been published, their names would be mud in the world of obesity research.
If the medical world crushes people who say being overweight won’t kill you any sooner, imagine how it treats people who say statins won’t save your life. Time to call in the North Korean generals with the funny hats.
In the chapter titled Doctors can seriously damage your health, I finally learned the origin of a colorful phrase that means giving someone a load of nonsense:
If someone was close to death, or even apparently dead through drowning or suchlike, conventional wisdom was that you could save their life by blowing tobacco smoke up their rectum with a pair of bellows. So strong was this belief that hundreds of set of bellows were hung up around the Thames to revive those who had fallen in and drowned.
The hell with CPR, just blow smoke up someone’s backside, that’ll do the trick. How idiotic does this now sound? Pretty idiotic I would think. However, very intelligent people believed it was true. Doctors thought it to be true… Not, of course, that I would necessarily confuse doctors with intelligent people.
Sadly, each generation easily convinces itself that such arrant nonsense has become thing of that past.
But such arrant nonsense isn’t a thing of the past. Doctors used to blow smoke up our arses; now they prescribe statins to beat down our cholesterol. I’d rather take the smoke.
That’s the point of Doctoring Data: there’s still a lot of nonsense in medicine – perhaps more than ever. I can barely turn on my TV these days without seeing a commercial for some new drug, always ending with the line Ask your doctor about SuperlaBlex or whatever it’s called.
No, don’t ask your doctor if you need the new wonder drug! The entire system of studies, reviews, approvals, guidelines, etc. is designed to convince your doctor that you’re ill and need that new drug. You simply can’t count on your doctor (unless you’re lucky) to be skeptical of modern medicine. You have to be the skeptic. Doctoring Data teaches you how to be an informed skeptic. As Kendrick writes in his closing:
How can Dr Kendrick be right, and all the highly decorated experts be wrong? Well, obviously, they are right about many things. However, when it comes to the area of preventative medicine it seems that every stick that can be grabbed at the wrong end, has been grabbed at the wrong end. Alongside this, experts seem obsessed with simplistic ideas where cause and association are hopelessly muddled. It has become a mess, in part driven by money. Things that are high should be lowered, things that are low should be raised. Yes, we have a drug for that… Kerrching. ‘Look for underlying causes? What idiot said that?’
So I decided to try and expose, if that is the right word, how data are produced. How statistics are used to terrify people, or falsely reassure them. Also, what are the drivers for this behaviour? I know I will be attacked for some of the things I have said. That is inevitable. However, that does not matter. What matters is that you, once you have read this book, can understand more clearly how and why data are ‘doctored’. You can then understand the headlines more clearly. Two sausages a day increase your risk of bowel cancer by 50%. Shock, and horror, and bollocks. You can make the decisions for yourself about what you can and should do to live a longer, healthier and happier life.
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Spring is nearly two weeks away, and a few days ago ice blanketed our property. The temperature that day was, if memory serves, around 10 degrees. I define that as “winter.” So when I woke up late on Sunday and Chareva informed me daylight savings time had already kicked in, I expressed my enthusiasm with words like @#$%, and &*$%, and perhaps even %$#@.
I hate daylight savings time. The last thing someone geared to stay up late and sleep late wants is for the clock to spring forward. There are cruel people where I work who occasionally schedule meetings for 8:30 AM … which will now feel like 7:30 AM to my night-owl body.
I’ve heard the excuse for daylight savings time: more daylight during the warm months, more daylight for farmers, blah-blah-blah. A reader sent me a graphic that perfectly captures my opinion of that one:
I guess the Old Indian didn’t read Paul Krugman and learn about the “multiplier effect.”
Anyway, if you want more daylight in your day, get up earlier. Don’t make the rest of us pretend the ungodly hour of 7:30 AM is actually 8:30 AM. Or at least wait until May.
Despite my grumbling about the time change, Sunday did feel like a sudden jolt of spring just three days after a sudden jolt of winter. It was 60 degrees outside, so I decided to take a walk-around look at the property. And while I was walking around, I figured I may as well carry some plastic disc things and throw them at baskets placed around the land.
The baby chicks who arrived during the deep-freeze of a few weeks back don’t look much like baby chicks anymore. I’d swear they’ve tripled in size already. And we have another 12 due to arrive this week for Alana’s 4-H project. So Chareva was already out back, sketching out how she’s going to build two more hoop houses and create two big chicken yards around her gardens.
After my round of disc golf in the front pastures, I walked around the back of the property to survey the damage caused by two ice storms. Most of the damage looked like this:
Waste not, want not. Chareva decided we’ll cut up all the broken branches and use them to create raised beds for the garden.
The mostly-destroyed fence in the picture below was part of our pig-run, which I described in this post.
Probably just as well that we need to rebuild. We’ve seen the pigs push their way right under a wimpy fence like this, so when it’s time to shoo them into the trailer for real, we’ll want something more substantial. Chareva already experienced the joy of chasing runaway pigs from her garden (as in the picture below) back to their pen. I don’t feel the need to experience a repeat.
We’ve had tire-grabbing ruts in our driveway since we moved in, but the ice storms deepened them into tire-ripping canyons. We’ve been steering around them, which means slipping and sliding in muddy grass after a rain.
So late Sunday afternoon, Sara and I did some road construction. We took Chareva’s garden cart down to the creek and loaded it up with rocks and stones of various sizes. (Tennessee’s theme song is “Rocky Top” for good reason. No shortage of rocks in and around that creek.) Dragging a cart loaded with rocks and stones up the long, sloping driveway was real exercise – and we did it four times. We filled the canyons in the driveway with bigger stones first, then smaller stones, then rocks, then gravel on top.
Sara earned enough Cabin Cash for her cabin last fall, but now she’s into furnishing it. She currently has her heart set on a rocking chair for reading. So even though she didn’t ask for it, I told her afterwards that she’d earned more Cabin Cash for her considerable assistance patching the driveway.
Meanwhile, I earned my first-of-the-year taste of working myself into a state of Dog-Tired Satisfied. With all the plans Chareva has for the property this spring, there’s much more satisfaction on the way.
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