The Bizarro-World Farm Report

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I almost felt guilty saying it the first time, but I’ll say it again: my life hasn’t changed much since we entered BizarroWorld. The main difference is that I don’t commute to work two days per week.

If we lived in a townhouse with no yard – which was the case in our California days – I’m sure I’d be suffering a bit of cabin fever by now. But on a six-acre mini-farm? Nope, no cabin fever. Spring has sprung, and the farm doesn’t know or care about social distancing, so the work goes on as usual.

Last November I was just starting to cut up a huuuge tree that fell down in the front yard.

I also had plans to cut down and cut up a tree near the creek that was dying and dropping widow-maker branches now and then.

I’d like to tell you how I took my manly tools and did a manly job of hacking through those trees, but I’d be lying. They’re gone now, but the manliest role I played was writing a check. The crew that cuts our pastures suggested coming out before the first cut of the year and doing the cleanup for us. We agreed.

They cut up the huuuge tree (most of it, anyway) and hauled away the wood.

They cut down the tree that was dropping widow-makers.

They also cut down two more dead or dying trees near the creek and burned the burn-pile of dead twigs and branches we’d been building up.

With all that work done by other people, I lodged a half-hearted complaint with Chareva about not getting enough exercise, especially now that the gym is closed. She’s a loving and sympathetic wife, so she solved my dilemma by assigning me the task of tilling the ground for one of her gardens.

It may not look like a physically demanding task, but keep in mind this is Tennessee. The state’s theme song is Rocky Top for good reason. The tiller is billed as a walk-behind model, but when you’re tilling soil on a hill that’s full of rocks and clay, it’s more of a bucking-jumping-wild-animal model. By the time I finished tilling the little plot of land shown below, I was winded and exhausted. Gym? Who needs a gym?

When Chareva doesn’t have chores for me, I’ve been getting outside for some fresh air and physical activity by working on my golf game.  I’m not playing actual golf, you understand. My nephew Eric (the Older Brother’s Oldest Son) is an avid golfer, and he recently sent me an email describing what it’s like to play actual golf in BizarroWorld, at least where he lives:

  • No concessions, bathrooms, or even clubhouse checkin/pay. Call with credit card or pay online and then show up. They open door, you tell them your name, and then they let you know which person/group you were behind.
  • No golf cart
  • No driving range
  • No removing pins. They turned the cup over so the ball would only go down about an inch in the hole to make it easier (and you wouldn’t remove the pin out of habit) to get the ball out.
  • They even removed the ball washers and bunker rakes

My (ahem) “golf course” looks like this.

I hit balls into the net. I have a contraption called a Swing Caddie SC2000 that reads the speed of the clubhead and the ball and tells me (in a kindly female voice) the carry distance and the total distance. I’m not sure why the manufacturers chose a female voice. Perhaps they tried a male voice originally and found it was making comments like, Seriously, pal, 125 yards with a seven-iron? Does your husband play too?

During non-Bizzaro times, Chareva spends a chunk of her day running the girls to school, to after-school activities, to her aerial silks classes, etc. That’s all gone for now, so she’s been spending extra time in the garden. She’s been using the wood chips she had delivered last year for garden paths.

This is asparagus she planted three years ago. It will be ready to eat this year. (Some of you carnivores out there may want to avert your eyes.)

The BizarroWorld experience reminded us that we bought the farm partly to be less dependent on the industrial food chain. When we had 40-plus chickens laying so many eggs we had to sell most of them, I felt we could get by for a long time if need be.

Well, Rocky Raccoons One through Nine eventually reduced the flock to seven. During the winter months, we even had to (egads!) occasionally buy eggs at Kroger.

We began re-netting and re-securing one of the old chicken yards last spring, then kind of lost our enthusiasm when our dog Coco was killed. But we’re probably one or two weekends’ worth of work from being done. So last week, Chareva bought nine new chicks. They’re called Golden Comets.

They’re currently living in a trough in the basement. Our cat Rascal is a nice, affectionate pet … but he’s a cat. His brain is hard-wired to issue a kill! command when he sees birds. Chareva engineered this high-tech security system to keep him out of the trough.

When they’re bigger and the old chicken yard is fully secure, we’ll move the existing flock to that yard, then put these chicks in the yard where the existing flock lives. At some point, we’ll need to re-secure the other old chicken yard so we can rotate the two flocks among the three yards.

I hope y’all are keeping your sanity out there.  Stay well, my friends.

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From The News (a.k.a. Dispatches From BizarroWorld)

So how are you getting along in BizzaroWorld? Truth is, my lifestyle hasn’t changed all that much. I get up on weekdays, do my programming work from home (which I do half the time anyway), then work on a music or software project for a few hours, then watch an episode of whatever Amazon or Netflix series currently has my interest. Same old, same old.

I do miss going to the gym. My daughter Sara and I usually work out twice per week. She’s 16 and can get by on youth, but I’m an old man whose body is less forgiving. I’m starting to feel a little soft. Chareva has assured me she has some manual-labor projects for me to tackle this weekend, so that will help.

The girls have concluded that their summer vacation began a month ago. At this point, I’m sure they’re right. I’d glad Sara elected to take the ACT in the fall instead of the spring. She scored rather well, and she’s been receiving recruiting letters from colleges we’ve never heard of, as well as many we have. We got a good chuckle from one college that thought it would entice her by bragging about its gender studies department. Suuuure, there’s a degree worth investing in.

Anyway, the news I’m focusing on in this post is all about the coronavirus, of course.

America leads the world in coronavirus cases and journalistic stupidity

I won’t link to any particular article, because heck, just pick one. You’ve seen the headlines: AMERICA NOW HAS MORE CASES THAN ANY OTHER COUNTRY, INCLUDING CHINA!

You are supposed to read those headlines and assume the virus has begun spreading like wildfire in the U.S. (and then, depending on which news source you’re consuming, blame Trump). If you have at least half a brain and are willing to use it, however, you’ll immediately grasp that the big jump in cases simply means widespread testing is finally underway. The more people we test, the higher the number of cases will go. That doesn’t mean more people are becoming infected.  It means more infections are being identified.

Do we really have more covid-19 cases now than China? Well, that would assume two things: 1) We can trust any data coming from the Chinese government, and 2) China is testing at the same per-capita rate as the U.S.  I wouldn’t bet on either.

Why testing wasn’t available earlier

BECAUSE OF TRUMP!!

Sorry, just had to do my impression of some lefties I know. Actually, John Stossel uploaded a video explaining how regulatory tangles prevented test kits and treatments from becoming available sooner. Let’s hope when this whole coronavirus panic is over, most of the regulatory streamlining he mentions becomes permanent.

Why I’m still not convinced this virus is particularly lethal

South Korea has been praised for its quick response to the virus and the extent of its testing efforts. Let’s do a little math using the figures from South Korea available in this report:

More than 376,000 people have been tested. So far 9,332 people have tested positive, and 139 have died. So … in South Korea, 2.4 percent of those tested are infected. I don’t know if they’re focusing their testing on those considered at greater risk. If so, the infection rate in the general population would likely be lower. Among those identified as infected, the death rate is 1.4 percent. Among the 376,000 people tested, the death rate is 0.037 percent, or one in every 2,705 people.

But that’s among those tested. The population of the entire country is more than 51 million, the vast majority of whom haven’t been tested. Within the entire population, coronavirus has killed one in every 369,784 people. For reference, run-of-the-mill influenza kills around 2,900 people per year in South Korea, according to this study.

So I’m still where I was a couple of weeks ago. I understand we don’t want the virus to spread, and I understand that it’s killing people. But lots of things kill people. Auto accidents kill roughly 100 people per day, but we don’t order everyone to stop driving. Around 3,500 Americans drown while swimming or boating each year, but we don’t order them to stay away from pools, rivers and lakes. Hell, according to this article, 4,866 people in Japan drowned in their bathtubs in 2014. Should we outlaw baths?

The point is, I’m concerned we may be social-distancing ourselves into a deep and destructive recession over a virus that’s getting a helluva lot of press coverage, but may not be much worse than ordinary influenza, and may be far less deadly than many day-to-day activities we wouldn’t dream of giving up.

And it turns out Dr. Anthony Fauci, who’s leading the federal effort to contain the virus, isn’t exactly convinced we’re looking at a repeat of the 1918 Spanish flu either. Here’s a quote from an article he wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine:

On the basis of a case definition requiring a diagnosis of pneumonia, the currently reported case fatality rate is approximately 2%. In another article in the Journal, Guan et al. report mortality of 1.4% among 1099 patients with laboratory-confirmed Covid-19; these patients had a wide spectrum of disease severity. If one assumes that the number of asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic cases is several times as high as the number of reported cases, the case fatality rate may be considerably less than 1%. This suggests that the overall clinical consequences of Covid-19 may ultimately be more akin to those of a severe seasonal influenza (which has a case fatality rate of approximately 0.1%) or a pandemic influenza (similar to those in 1957 and 1968) rather than a disease similar to SARS or MERS, which have had case fatality rates of 9 to 10% and 36%, respectively.

At least that’s what he wrote a month ago. If he’s changed his mind on the expected fatality rate, I’m not aware of him saying so.

No social-distancing in Sweden?

We should all pay close attention to the infection and death rates in Sweden for the simple reason that unlike most of the world, they’re not hunkering down at home.

While most of Europe is firmly locked down in a bid to curb the spread of Covid-19, Sweden is taking a softer line, keeping primary schools, restaurants and bars open and even encouraging people to go outside for a nip of air.

This stands in stark contrast to the urgent tone elsewhere and has sparked heated debate whether Sweden is really doing the right thing.

The country has reported more than 2,299 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 41 deaths.

Let’s do some quick math. Sweden has a population of 10.12 million. I don’t care about the confirmed cases, because unless everyone is tested, we don’t know how many people currently have or previously had the virus. With 41 dead, that’s one death for every 246,829 Swedes. In the U.S. so far, there are currently 1,470 covid-19 deaths, which translates to about one death for every 222,448 people.

So the Swedes, who are not on lockdown, have a slightly lower per-capita death rate than the U.S., which is on full lockdown. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues.

Apparently the Swedish government has issued warnings, but people are ignoring them.

On Tuesday, the Swedish government announced that restaurants and bars would only be allowed to provide table service to avoid crowding, but stopped short of actually closing them. Health authorities also urged people to reconsider trips to visit relatives over Easter.

But for many, life is carrying on close to normal. Bars and restaurants were full at the weekend, and Stockholm’s city buses have been jam-packed at rush hour despite the social distancing recommendations.

Like I said, let’s keep an eye on Sweden. If their death rate doesn’t begin to climb beyond ours, we need to seriously wonder if all the stay-at-home orders are making a difference.

What if we’re trying to stop the spread of a virus that’s already been spread?

The link doesn’t work anymore, so I won’t bother with it, but I clipped this text from an article in the Financial Times:

The new coronavirus may already have infected far more people in the UK than scientists had previously estimated — perhaps as much as half the population — according to modelling by researchers at the University of Oxford.

If the results are confirmed, they imply that fewer than one in a thousand of those infected with Covid-19 become ill enough to need hospital treatment, said Sunetra Gupta, professor of theoretical epidemiology, who led the study. The vast majority develop very mild symptoms or none at all.

Bingo. Rand Paul tested positive, but had no symptoms. Prince Charles had mild symptoms that could have easily been written off as an ordinary cold. We keep hearing about people who’ve tested positive but didn’t know they were infected. Keep that in mind.

The research presents a very different view of the epidemic to the modelling at Imperial College London, which has strongly influenced government policy. “I am surprised that there has been such unqualified acceptance of the Imperial model,” said Prof Gupta.

The Oxford study is based on a what is known as a “susceptibility-infected-recovered model” of Covid-19, built up from case and death reports from the UK and Italy. The researchers made what they regard as the most plausible assumptions about the behaviour of the virus.

The modelling brings back into focus “herd immunity”, the idea that the virus will stop spreading when enough people have become resistant to it because they have already been infected. The government abandoned its unofficial herd immunity strategy — allowing controlled spread of infection — after its scientific advisers said this would swamp the National Health Service with critically ill patients.

But the Oxford results would mean the country had already acquired substantial herd immunity through the unrecognised spread of Covid-19 over more than two months. If the findings are confirmed by testing, then the current restrictions could be removed much sooner than ministers have indicated.

Okay, it’s a model. Models can be wrong. But it got me thinking about this article, which I read a few days ago:

A “strange pneumonia” was circulating in northern Italy as long ago as November, weeks before doctors were made aware of the novel coronavirus outbreak in China, one of the European country’s leading medical experts said this week.

“They [general practitioners] remember having seen very strange pneumonia, very severe, particularly in old people in December and even November,” Giuseppe Remuzzi, the director of the Mario Negri Institute for Pharmacological Research in Milan, said in an interview with the National Public Radio of the United States.

“This means that the virus was circulating, at least in [the northern region of] Lombardy and before we were aware of this outbreak occurring in China.”

The current thinking among the scientific community is that the first infection in Lombardy was the result of an Italian coming into contact with a Chinese person in late January. However, if it can be shown that the novel coronavirus – officially known as SARS-CoV-2 – was in circulation in Italy in November, then that theory would be turned on its head.

One of Chareva’s relatives who works in an emergency room in Illinois told her the same thing: there was a sudden increase of patients with respiratory issues in November, but tests showed it wasn’t any of the ordinary flu strains. (The patients he saw all recovered, by the way.)

I’ve heard over and over that we weren’t prepared because nobody knew we’d end up with so many sick people.  And yet I found several articles written in November or earlier warning that a nasty flu season was coming.  Here’s one from Forbes:

The flu season is off to a particularly early start this year with seemingly more influenza activity last month than any other November since 2009, the year of the H1N1 flu pandemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of November 17-23, flu activity had appeared in all 50 states. Looks like the flu has already gone “viral,” so to speak.

A December article in Infection Control Today offered this warning:

The 2019/2020 influenza season is expected to be a rough one. Flu activity in Australia, often used as a litmus test for the United States, left many alarmed at what we might see this winter … Based upon the surveillance data in both Australia and America, the early indicators point to a severe influenza season for 2019/2020.

Could some of those cases have been Covid-19?  I looked online to see if people who were infected and recovered can still test positive. Nope, not after two to three weeks. Which got me wondering … since most people have either no symptoms or mild symptoms, and since coronavirus wasn’t on anybody’s radar back in November, is it possible the virus was circulating earlier than we currently believe? Is it possible millions of us were infected, but most of us barely noticed? Are we shutting down the world economy to prevent the spread of a virus that’s already been spread?

I don’t know. And since we can’t go back and retroactively test people who may have been exposed in November or December and recovered, we’ll probably never know.

But coronavirus has to be way worse than ordinary flu because hospitals are being overwhelmed and that hasn’t happened before!

I hear you.  In fact, I did some research online and found articles about hospitals being overwhelmed, governors declaring a state of emergency, doctors having to treat patients in temporary tents because all the hospital beds were occupied, etc.  But the articles were from 2018.  Yup, 2018.

We’ll start with a United Press International article:

Hospitals across the United States are scrambling to treat a mass influx of flu patients.

They have asked staff to work overtime and some have set up triage tents and canceled elective surgeries to handle the flood of patients.

“We are pretty much at capacity, and the volume is certainly different from previous flu seasons,” Dr. Alfred Tallia, professor and chair of family medicine at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical Center in New Brunswick, N.J., told Time. “I’ve been in practice for 30 years, and it’s been a good 15 or 20 years since I’ve seen a flu-related illness scenario like we’ve had this year.”

Alabama, which declared a state of emergency in response to the flu epidemic last week, is facing a similar situation. Virginia’s hospitals are also overwhelmed by an increasing number of flu cases coming into the emergency room.

In New Jersey, emergency rooms are at full capacity and hospitals are restricting visitors, especially those with children, to help control the flu’s spread.

I’ll say it again: that article is from 2018. Here’s another from CBS:

Health officials in Southern California are warning the public that the current flu season is so intense that some hospitals are rerouting patients due to their increasingly limited capacity. From Laguna Beach to Long Beach, emergency rooms were struggling to cope with the overwhelming cases of influenza and had gone into “diversion mode,” during which ambulances are sent to other hospitals, CBS Los Angeles reports.

Here’s another from Modern Health Care:

In the middle of one of the heaviest flu seasons in years, hospitals must contend with both financial and clinical challenges.

The surge has left many hospitals overwhelmed, forcing some to set up triage tents outside of emergency departments. Others have resorted to emergency protocols such as postponing elective surgeries and limiting the number of visitors. Such activity is likely to hurt the bottom line, even though volume is increasing.

And yet another 2018 article from The Los Angeles Times:

The huge numbers of sick people are also straining hospital staff who are confronting what could become California’s worst flu season in a decade.

Hospitals across the state are sending away ambulances, flying in nurses from out of state and not letting children visit their loved ones for fear they’ll spread the flu. Others are canceling surgeries and erecting tents in their parking lots so they can triage the hordes of flu patients.

From Time Magazine in 2018:

In Fenton, Missouri, SSM Health St. Clare Hospital has opened its emergency overflow wing, as well as all outpatient centers and surgical holding centers, to make more beds available to patients who need them. Nurses are being “pulled from all floors to care for them,” says registered nurse Jennifer Braciszewski, and are being offered an increased hourly rate to work above and beyond their normal schedules. Many nurses have also become sick, however, so the staff is also short-handed.

From the Texas Tribune in 2018:

Big-city hospitals in Texas have been overwhelmed this week by an influx of flu patients, and state health officials say influenza activity is widespread across the state.

At Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, waiting rooms turned into exam areas as a medical tent was built in order to deal with the surge of patients. A Houston doctor said local hospital beds were at capacity, telling flu sufferers they might be better off staying at home. Austin’s emergency rooms have also seen an influx of flu patients.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Hospitals overwhelmed, more patients than hospital beds, hospitals having to treat people in temporary tents, medical centers postponing elective procedures to free up staff to care for the influx of sick people, etc., etc. Once again, that was in 2018.

What, you don’t remember that?  Probably not, because it didn’t become the every-hour-of-the-day news story, and we didn’t shut down the country to avoid infecting each other.

As I pointed out in my last post, if government officials held news conferences and reported all the deaths from influenza every time it comes around, we’d probably feel the same sense of panic all the nonstop news about the coronavirus is spreading.

It was a nasty flu that went around in 2017-2018.  When all the data comes in, we may find out the coronavirus wasn’t much worse.

Stay well, my friends.

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Welcome To BizzaroWorld

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Well, aren’t these some interesting times?

My girls haven’t been in school for two weeks, although this week would be spring break anyway.  They won’t return to school until at least April 3rd.

I haven’t been in the office either. We’re all working from home until at least March 30th, when the company bigwigs will decide whether it’s safe for us to breathe the same air. I don’t mind doing my programming job at home, of course. I do it half the time anyway. But it feels a little weird to be ordered to stay home.

I’m not sure what to make of all this. Part of me thinks we’re committing economic suicide for what will turn out to be little worse than the flu that goes around every year. Dennis Prager wrote a column recently that’s in line with my thoughts on the issue:

Some perspective:

Chinese deaths (3,217) account for half of the worldwide total. If you add Italy (1,441) and Iran (724), two countries where many Chinese were allowed in until recently, that totals another 2,165. In other words, outside of China, Italy and Iran — with 5,382 deaths collectively — 1,018 people have died.

Those numbers have gone up a bit since the column appeared, but keep in mind that the flu – run-of-the-mill flu – kills 30,000 or more people per year in the U.S. alone. The H1N1 swine flu of 2009 killed roughly 12,500 Americans.

Meanwhile, according to this article, 99 percent of the people who died in Italy suffered from previous medical conditions, and most were elderly. The average age of those who died was 79.5 years.

Back to Prager:

The thinking is that we must shut down the Western world to prevent the exponential growth of the virus. If we don’t, our hospital systems will be overwhelmed. Many thousands, maybe more, would die, as doctors have to make grisly triage decisions as to who gets care and who doesn’t. This latter scenario is reported to have already happened in Italy.

Though there is no longer an exponential growth in the United States, they may otherwise be right.

Is this thinking correct? The truth is we don’t know.

We have no idea how many people carry the COVID-19 coronavirus. Therefore, the rates of either critical illness or death are completely unknown. Perhaps millions of people have the virus and nothing serious develops, in which case we would have rates of death similar to (or even below) the flu virus. On the other hand, perhaps not many people carry the virus, but the rates of illness demanding intensive care and of death are much greater than those of the flu.

We can only be certain that shutting down virtually every part of society will result in a large number of people economically ruined, life savings depleted, decades of work building a restaurant or some other small business destroyed. As if that were not bad enough, the ancillary effects would include increased depression and divorce and other personal tragedies.

That’s what concerns me: we may be scaring ourselves into tanking a lot of businesses and jobs. If government officials and news anchors breathlessly reported all the people dying from run-of-the-mill influenza each winter, would we be any less scared? If every fatal auto accident ended up on the news — complete with pictures and press conferences by police describing the deaths -– would you ever want to take a casual drive again? Maybe not, considering you’d be hearing about roughly 100 people dying in their vehicles every day.

I’ve mentioned Dr. John Ioannidis in several posts, speeches, etc. He’s the doctor and researcher who studies the studies on diet and health and points out how unreliable most of them are. He wrote an interesting piece on our reaction to the coronavirus as well. It’s long, but here are a few quotes:

The current coronavirus disease, Covid-19, has been called a once-in-a-century pandemic. But it may also be a once-in-a-century evidence fiasco.

At a time when everyone needs better information, from disease modelers and governments to people quarantined or just social distancing, we lack reliable evidence on how many people have been infected with SARS-CoV-2 or who continue to become infected.

Bingo. You’re probably heard people on the news talking about the infection rate or the death rate. You can ignore whatever numbers they’re citing for the simple reason that we have no friggin’ idea how many people have the virus. An article I read last week quoted a woman who contracted the virus on a cruise ship. How awful was it? It wasn’t. She had a fever for a couple of days and that was it. For all we know, hundreds of thousands of people have already been infected and experienced a few symptoms they wrote off as a common cold.

This evidence fiasco creates tremendous uncertainty about the risk of dying from Covid-19. Reported case fatality rates, like the official 3.4% rate from the World Health Organization, cause horror — and are meaningless. Patients who have been tested for SARS-CoV-2 are disproportionately those with severe symptoms and bad outcomes. As most health systems have limited testing capacity, selection bias may even worsen in the near future.

The World Health Organization could do their credibility a huge favor by sticking to what they actually know.  These are the same people who told us (with “evidence” that’s beyond laughable) that meat causes cancer.  Hey, WHO: if you want me to listen to you about the threat posed by a disease, don’t lie to me about the threat posed by a hamburger.  You remind me of this headline from the satirical site The Babylon Bee.

Anyway, Ioannidis crunches some numbers and says what while we don’t know what the death rate would be in the general population, he suspects it would be somewhere between 1.0 percent and 0.5 percent.

If we assume that case fatality rate among individuals infected by SARS-CoV-2 is 0.3% in the general population — a mid-range guess from my Diamond Princess analysis — and that 1% of the U.S. population gets infected (about 3.3 million people), this would translate to about 10,000 deaths. This sounds like a huge number, but it is buried within the noise of the estimate of deaths from “influenza-like illness.” If we had not known about a new virus out there, and had not checked individuals with PCR tests, the number of total deaths due to “influenza-like illness” would not seem unusual this year. At most, we might have casually noted that flu this season seems to be a bit worse than average. The media coverage would have been less than for an NBA game between the two most indifferent teams.

Makes sense to me.

On the other hand, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author Antifragile and The Black Swan, made his fortune by understanding and calculating risk. He believes social distancing for a few weeks is exactly the right thing to do.  Maybe, but I hope it doesn’t stretch into months.

It’s been interesting watching the run on food and other supplies at the local grocery stores. I’m not sure why people wait until a real (or perceived) threat is announced to start preparing for a lockdown. Tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, malevolent hackers, an electromagnetic pulse … there are all kinds of potential threats to the supply chain. Keeping some extra food and supplies around is a good idea in any year.

About a year after we moved here, our part of Tennessee was slammed by The Great Flood of 2010. When we bought the mini-farm, we asked the previous owner how she fared during the flood. The house stayed dry (it’s on a hill), but the creek that cuts through the front pastures turned into a river for about a week. She couldn’t leave the property.

With that and other potential Black Swan events in mind, we’ve made it a habit a keep a good stock of non-perishable foods and emergency supplies on hand. When the coronavirus panic finally ends, do yourself a favor and assume there’s another lockdown on the horizon somewhere.

Stay well, my friends.

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Review: Real Food On Trial

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It’s March, so I should probably make good on my New Year’s resolution to write a review of Real Food On Trial, the book about the persecution of Dr. Tim Noakes by the Health Professionals Council of South Africa (HPCSA). I read the book over the holidays, but as you know if you read my most recent post, I’ve been a bit distracted.

Most people in the low-carb/paleo/keto diet world probably know what happened to Dr. Noakes, at least in the general sense. It was, after all, big news on social media. I wrote about the trial, and I wrote about the appeal – the HPCSA’s second attempt to by gosh find Noakes guilty of something, despite being slapped down in their first attempt.

Real Food On Trial is the detailed, blow-by-blow version of the trials in all their ridiculous glory. Actually, Part Two of the book covers the trials. We’ll come back to that.

Part One, written by Noakes, is the story of how he evolved from promoting the standard hearthealthywholegrains! and arterycloggingsaturatedfat! advice to becoming an advocate for low-carb, real-food diets high in natural fats.

Dr. Noakes holds the highest rating South Africa can confer on a scientist. Science matters deeply to him. Science is what changed his mind. So early in the book, he takes the reader through both the science and his own experience – which included sending his type II diabetes into remission by changing his diet.

He knew the LCHF diet he now promoted was controversial, but much like the persecuted scientists whose stories Alice Dreger recounts in Galileo’s Middle Finger, he believed he was protected by the evidence itself. After all, scientists are supposed to be rational people only interested in finding their way to the truth. They welcome challenge and debate, right?

When I added these ideas in early 2012, I was certain that they were sufficiently correct for me to risk exposing them to a wider audience. I also assumed that because we live in a mature academic democracy in South Africa, these ideas would inspire a grown-up debate in the scientific community, especially among colleagues at my academic home, the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

Of course, the grown-up debate didn’t happen. Instead, several fellow academics at UCT blindsided Noakes with a media assault, accusing him (without citing evidence) of recommending a diet that would kill people. Despite his impeccable credentials as a scientist, they began publicly dismissing him as a “celebrity professor” promoting yet another “fat diet.” He began to realize that he’d committed the sin of challenging a dietary orthodoxy that had spawned billion-dollar industries – and as punishment, he’d been targeted for destruction.

Step one in the attempted destruction was a brand-spankin’-new meta-analysis of dietary studies known as the Naudé Review. Some of the UTC professors who had criticized Noakes were involved, and –- surprise, surprise! — the review concluded that LFHC diets are no better for health or weight loss than diets based on the conventional advice.

Noakes found both the timing of the review and its conclusions somewhat suspicious.

I was mildly surprised, as a meta-analysis of the effects of true LCHF diets had already been published the previous year. In the British Journal of Nutrition in May 2013, Nassib Bezerra Bueno and colleagues showed that people eating less than 50 grams of carbs per day (the diet I was promoting) lost more weight than those eating higher-carb diets. What is more, important health markers showed greater improvement in those eating the low-carb diet. I could not understand why we would need another meta-analysis of the same data. Unless, of course, the study was motivated by something other than the advancement of truth and science.

Say what? Scientists get together to produce a new study, and they’re not objectively seeking the truth?

The study was, of course, motivated by a desperate desire to discredit Noakes, as he learned later during the first trial. And as usually happens when scientists conduct a study to promote an agenda, there were problems with the study.

To make certain that the Banting/LCHF/‘Noakes’ diet had absolutely no hope of coming out on top, they did not even look at the diet that I advocate. Instead, they studied diets with an average carbohydrate content of 35%, knowing full well that the upper limit of the LCHF diet that I prescribe is between 5 and 10%, providing between 25 and 50 grams of carbohydrate per day.

We’ve seen that little trick in other studies. But when you’re attempting to bias a study, sometimes one trick isn’t enough. Zoe Harcombe conducted a deep-dive analysis of the Naudé Review and found it was full of errors, which she documented in a paper. If Noakes wasn’t suspicious before, he certainly was after Harcombe’s analysis.

Designing a study, the result of which is predictable before the study even begins, is not science. Rather, it is the scientific equivalent of match-fixing in sport. And, as in sport, if science is fixed, the question is, who is the ultimate beneficiary?

The answer: the dietitians who were already plotting to file charges against Noakes. They were just waiting for him to give them an excuse – which he did (although it was a flimsy excuse) with the infamous tweet.

On 3 February 2014, Twitter user Pippa Leenstra tweeted the following to me and Sally-Ann Creed, my co-author on The Real Meal Revolution:

@ProfTimNoakes @SalCreed is LCHF eating ok for breastfeeding mums? Worried about all the dairy + cauliflower = wind for babies??

On 5 February, I tweeted my response:

@PippaLeenstra @SalCreed Baby doesn’t eat the dairy and cauliflower. Just very healthy high fat breast milk. Key is to ween [sic] baby onto LCHF.

Within a few minutes of posting my tweet, Leenstra received a response from Ellmer, who described herself as a ‘paeds dietitian’:

@PippaLeenstra Pippa, as a paeds dietitian I strongly advise against LCHF for breastfeeding mothers. #notokay

To which Leenstra responded:

@Mellmer80 thx, why do u say that?

Ellmer chose not to answer her question on Twitter. Rather she suggested they take the discussion offline:

@PippaLeenstra Why dont you email me on marlene.ellmer@gmail.com and I will explain. Ps food flavours are definately [sic] passed through BM

As you may recall, when the HPCSA filed charges against Noakes, they claimed his tweet constituted medical advice, and that he had established a doctor-patient relationship with Leenstra. When I first read the charge, I thought it was clearly ridiculous. A reply on Twitter establishes a doctor-patient relationship? Are you kidding me?

I didn’t realize until I read the book that the HPSCA’s charge wasn’t just silly; it was hypocritical in the extreme.

If this were the case – in other words, had I established such a doctor-patient relationship – then Ellmer’s latest tweet constituted supersession. By providing her contact details to Leenstra, Ellmer was seeking to make Leenstra her patient; in effect, she was stealing my patient. And stealing another medical professional’s patient is a breach of the HPCSA’s rules. If I were to be charged for breaching the rules, then the HPCSA would have had to act against Ellmer, too.

But of course, the real fun began when dietitian Claire Julsing Strydom joined the fray with her own tweets.

@ProfTimNoakes @PippaLeenstra @SalCreed I AM HORRIFIED!! HOW CAN YOU GIVE ADVICE LIKE THIS???? @ProfTimNoakes @PippaLeenstra @SalCreed YOU HAVE GONE TOO FAR, BE SURE THAT I WILL BE REPORTING THIS TO THE HEALTH PROFESSIONAL COUNCIL SA

@ProfTimNoakes @PippaLeenstra Pippa I am a breastfeeding mom of a 4 month old & a RD [registered dietitian] with a MSc in dietetics this info is shocking.

@ProfTimNoakes @PippaLeenstra Pippa please contact me on 011 023 8051 or Claire@nutritionalsolutions.co.za for evidence based advice

According to HPSCA rules, Strydom was now also attempting to steal a patient. But of course, she was never charged.

Leenstra, the supposed “patient” in the relationship, tweeted to everyone in the thread she had elected to follow the advice of the dietitians. As far as Noakes was concerned, that was the end of the matter.

As a result, I considered my job done and I disengaged. Leenstra had received the information she had sought. She had made her choice. That is why Twitter exists: to share knowledge and information that allows the interested participants to make their own informed decisions.

But of course, the dietitians now had the excuse for a prosecution they’d been planning all along.

True to her word, Strydom submitted a formal complaint to the HPCSA in the form of an email sent at 08h47 on Thursday 6 February 2014. It read:

To whom it may concern.

I would like to file a report against Prof Tim Noakes. He is giving incorrect medical (medical nutrition therapy) on twitter that is not evidence based. I have attached the tweet where Prof Noakes advices [sic] a breastfeeding mother to wean her baby onto a low carbohydrate high fat diet.

I urge the HPCSA to please take urgent action against this type of misconduct as Prof Noakes is a ‘celebrity’ in South Africa and the public does not have the knowledge to understand that the information he is advocating is not evidence based – it is especially dangerous to give this advice for infants and can potentially be life threatening. I await your response.

Kind regards,
Claire Julsing Strydom

Part Two of Real Food On Trial was written by journalist Marika Sboros, who attended and covered both trials. Reading the detailed account of the trials alternately infuriated and amused me. I was infuriated because the trial never should have happened. As Sboros explains:

From the outset, I found the charge of unprofessional conduct suspect. After all, the HPCSA reserves such a charge for practitioners who have committed really serious offences, such as sexual misconduct, theft, grievous harm or causing the premature death of patients. The HPCSA also does not have any ethical rules governing doctors’ conduct on social media.

Replying to someone who asks you a question on Twitter is hardly in the same category as sexual misconduct or causing grievous harm, wouldn’t you say? And who exactly was the victim here? Leenstra, the “patient,” elected to listen to the dietitians. She wasn’t harmed. Her infant wasn’t harmed (and wouldn’t have been harmed if Leenstra had listened to Noakes instead). So again, who was the victim?

The answer: the dietitians, of course.

When the first attempt of Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) to hold a hearing against Professor Tim Noakes rolled round in Cape Town in June 2015, it was easy to spot his supporters. They were dressed in bright-red T-shirts, the colour of the cover of Noakes’s book The Real Meal Revolution. It had sold more than 160 000 copies in its first six months, making it South Africa’s bestselling book ever. It quickly became the ‘bible’ of Banting, as the low-carbohydrate, high-fat (LCHF) lifestyle has become known in the country.

As the hearing progressed, it became clear that the book had played a crucial role. Its success had infuriated doctors, dietitians and academics alike. Among them was dietitian Claire Julsing Strydom, who had reported him to the HPCSA in February 2014 for what the public had dubbed the ‘Banting for babies’ tweet. As Noakes’s legal team would later note in their closing argument, these health professionals were furious with him not only because they disagreed with him on the science for optimum nutrition but also because the public appeared to be listening more to Noakes than they were to them. In other words, they were losing influence, and business, to Noakes. The Real Meal Revolution thus appeared to be one of the reasons that Noakes’s critics were so keen for the HPCSA to silence him.

The HPSCA couldn’t prove that Noakes had harmed anyone with his dietary advice – in fact, it’s clear that many, many people have been helped by following that advice. But he was sure as shootin’ harming the reputations of the dietitians. Emails discovered by his defense team (which the prosecution never intended the defense to see), revealed that the dietitians had been gunning for Noakes well before the infamous tweet. Here’s part of one sent to the HPSCA by Strydom:

Just would like to follow up on the Tim Noakes problem – the bashing of the profession continues and we need intervention from the HPCSA as a matter of urgency. As ASDA we do comment, but the HPCSA has a much bigger clout and we are desperate for an intervention.

In other words, We’re not big enough to really hurt the guy, so we want you to do it.

And so they tried. That’s where the whole, crazy affair becomes amusing. (Well, in retrospect. I’m sure Noakes wasn’t amused at the time, since HPSCA was trying to ruin him.) As Sboros recounts testimony and exchanges among attorneys, the prosecution team begins to look more and more like a courtroom version of the Keystone Cops.

For starters, their (ahem) “star” witnesses didn’t seem know what a ketogenic diet is.

All the HPCSA’s witnesses referred to ketogenic diets as if they were synonyms for danger and premature death. All displayed surprising ignorance on the topic, conflating ketosis with ketoacidosis. The former is a natural, benign bodily state. The latter is potentially fatal, fortunately rare and seen mostly in patients with uncontrolled type-1 diabetes.

When Strydom took the stand, she promptly shot herself in the foot:

Strydom’s testimony was incriminating – of herself …. By communicating on a social media platform as a medical doctor, ‘who is trusted and regarded as a celebrity in South Africa’, Noakes had given ‘advice’ that constituted a ‘public health message,’ she said.

Strydom appeared oblivious of the deep legal, ethical holes she was digging for herself and Ellmer. If Noakes had a professional relationship with Leenstra, then she and Ellmer also had one. Both had tweeted far more extensively to Leenstra than Noakes had done. And if Noakes had given medical ‘advice’, then so had she and Ellmer. By Strydom’s own logic, she and Ellmer would also have been guilty of supersession.

Michael van der Nest, one of Noakes’ attorneys, pointed out the hypocrisy during cross-examination:

Strydom had no choice but to concede and Van der Nest pressed the point home: ‘You did not consider [Leenstra] to be the patient of either Professor Noakes nor Ms Ellmer, because otherwise you would have been taking her over as a patient, and that was not what you were wanting to do, correct?’

Strydom was forced to concede that there was no doctor-patient relationship.

No doctor-patient relationship. That’s one pillar of Strydom’s complaint effectively demolished. Not that she’d give up easily, of course.

Strydom became flustered and said that she was only concerned about Noakes giving ‘dangerous’ advice to the breastfeeding mother.

Van der Nest pointed out that the HPCSA had not charged Noakes with giving dangerous advice. In effect, Van der Nest told Strydom, she believed that she had a monopoly on free speech. She also believed that if she disagreed with Noakes, then the HPCSA had to prosecute him.

As if they didn’t already look foolish enough, the prosecution team tried to prevent Noakes and his team from presenting scientific evidence that a LCHF diet is safe and often beneficial. Remember, in her letter encouraging the HPSCA to file charges, Strydom called his advice “dangerous.” By gosh, Noakes was giving medical advice that was going to kill babies! And yet at this point in the trial, the position taken by the Keystone Cops prosecution team could be summed up as:

Tim Noakes established a doctor-patient relationship on Twitter and gave dangerous advice. We’ve already admitted there was no doctor-patient relationship, and we don’t want to debate whether the advice is actually dangerous. Now can we please just conduct the Soviet-style trial we expected and find him guilty of something without all this bothersome evidence stuff?

You can imagine how that went over with Noakes’ attorneys.

Noakes had not asked to be prosecuted, Van der Nest said. Noakes had not asked to spend two years under a professional cloud, living with significant stress and having to spend a fortune on his own defence. ‘Dietitians brought the case against Noakes because he disagreed with them,’ Van der Nest said. ‘Because he had the temerity to hold a different view to them, they thought he must be prosecuted.’

Looking directly at [prosecutor] Bhoopchand, a steely Van der Nest said: ‘Do not get upset when you prosecute someone and he puts up a fight. That is the consequence of prosecuting someone for a tweet that was ignored by the so-called patient, Ms Pippa Leenstra. That is why we are here. [Noakes] is the defendant. He is entitled to defend himself to the fullest and he will.’

Fortunately, the committee chair, Joan Adams, agreed.

After an adjournment, Adams ruled that while the charge against Noakes might seem simple, it was complex. It made no sense, she said, for the HPCSA to charge Noakes with giving ‘unconventional advice’ only to deny him the opportunity to give evidence showing that his advice was not unconventional. The committee unanimously agreed, she said, that there was no reason to limit Noakes’s constitutional right to defend himself fully.

To defend himself fully, Noakes called upon three women Sboros dubbed Tim’s Angels:

They weren’t really celestial beings, but there was something scientifically angelic about the three experts who flew into Cape Town from three different continents to defend Professor Tim Noakes in October 2016: British obesity researcher and public health nutrition specialist Dr Zoë Harcombe, US science journalist Nina Teicholz, and New Zealand–based nutrition academic Dr Caryn Zinn.

Believe it or not, the prosecution team tried again to prevent them from testifying. Once again, the objections were slapped down by the committee hearing the case.

It’s easy to understand why the prosecution didn’t want these women anywhere near the courtroom: as Sboros recalls in the book, their testimony on the science was so solid, the prosecution barely bothered with cross-examinations.

You know the outcome: the committee found Noakes not guilty on all charges.

With that, the room erupted. Supporters rose to their feet, cheering, applauding and hugging. Noakes remained seated. He dropped his head into his hands but only for a moment. He later told me that he thought he would cry. Instead, he lifted his head, raised both arms and punched the air with clenched fists in victory, shouting, ‘Yes!’ His lawyers were equally jubilant, reaching over and embracing him and one another, their relief etched on their faces.

That’s when a sane person would decide it’s time to give up the persecution. But as we know, the dietitians didn’t believe they’d shot themselves in foot quite enough yet. They apparently told themselves this dangerous, horrible man who had to replied to a question on Twitter by offering dangerous, horrible advice simply had to be found guilty of something.

Immediately after the ruling, ADSA president Maryke Gallagher gave a TV interview and said that ADSA would not change its advice to the public. She repeated the claim that ADSA gives evidence-based dietary advice. Therefore, Gallagher signalled that while Noakes had won a significant battle, ADSA’s war with him continued.

When the HPSCA decided to appeal and drag Noakes through another trial, I wrote a post titled Dear Dietitians of South Africa: You Look Like @$$holes Right Now. See, that’s the reason @$$holes act like @$$holes: they lack the gene that tells a normal person, Gee, I really look like an @$$hole right now. I’d better stop what I’m doing.

Here’s how you can tell you’re being an @$$hole, even if you lack that gene: people who agree with your advice beg you to stop what you’re doing.

Two days before the appeal hearing, a group of doctors launched an online petition that the influential, US-based Nutrition Coalition immediately supported. The petition called on the HPCSA to ‘stop prosecuting’ Noakes. Before the week was up, more than 31,000 of doctors, scientists, dietitians and assorted others from across the globe had signed … Among the signatories was Harvard physician and nutrition professor Walter Willett. Willett promotes plant-based diets as the healthiest option. He is, therefore, on the opposite end, ideologically, from classic, animal-based low-carb, high-fat (LCHF) diets. Willet confirmed to me that he signed to signal his support for the right of scientists to express opinions even when they differed significantly from his.

But of course, the dietitians don’t believe in the right to express opinions that differ from theirs. So the persecution continued into a second trial – and the dietitians lost again. As Sboros put it:

The mere fact that the HPCSA was prepared to fork out millions in the prosecution, in a weak case with facts that never merited a second glance, and then fork out a couple of million more on appeal, doesn’t just speak volumes. It shouts volumes about the lengths to which powerful vested interests in food and drug industries and conflicted, captured doctors, dietitians and academics will go to suppress dissent.

That’s what Real Food On Trial is about: powerful interests ganging up to ruin a lone scientist because he dared to tell them (and the public) that their advice is wrong.

But in the end, they did us a favor. When Tim Noakes elected to stand up to these bullies instead of quietly riding off into the sunset, he didn’t just fight for himself. He fought for all of us. He fought for the right of scientists to challenge the consensus, to disagree, to speak their minds. And glory, glory hallelujah, he won. Nothing makes a bully think twice before bullying again quite like being on the short end of a good old-fashioned ass-kicking.

There’s much, much more to the book than I can effectively summarize here, so please, get your own copy.  If you’re like me, you’ll laugh, you’ll gnash your teeth, and you’ll utter words not considered polite.  But you’ll be glad you finally read the full story.

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Grief Break Over ‘The Train Man’

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We’re on a grief break. Chareva’s father, Alan Smiley, passed away on Monday evening. Those of you who have been following the blog for a long time may recall he suffered a massive stroke five years ago that put him in a wheelchair. The physical decline was immediate.  The mental decline became obvious over the past year.

Four weeks ago, he complained of pain and discomfort and was taken to a hospital. That’s when the family learned he had cancer in his stomach and esophagus. The cancer was already quite advanced, and the only option was to give him painkillers and keep him comfortable. The doctors said he may last a few months. It was a few weeks. On Monday, Chareva, her mother, and her younger brother were sitting by his bed as he slept, and he simply stopped breathing. He was 77.

It seems like only a couple of years ago we drove to Chicago for his 70th birthday party. The damage from the type II diabetes hadn’t overtly manifested yet, and he was still a lean mean fightin’ machine. I walked around the party with my video camera and asked people to describe Alan in one word.

Ambitious. Energetic. Determined.

One neighbor thought for a second, then said testosterone.

Perfect word. The neighbor meant it as a compliment, of course. In the 22 years I knew him, I never saw Alan become mean or belligerent. But he was definitely a man’s man. He loved tools and machines. He preferred manual labor over sitting at a desk. And he had that drive! drive! drive! that seems oddly absent in so many young men today.

It was drive! drive! drive! – combined with natural athletic ability – that made Alan the star of his high school football team. He was an all-state running back known for his quickness and toughness. Going through scrapbooks in their house some years ago, I found clippings from local newspapers highlighting his accomplishments on the football field. He told me one of his fondest memories was scoring a touchdown at Soldier Field in Chicago during a city championship game.

It was drive! drive! drive! – combined with an entrepreneur’s eye for opportunity – that propelled him from the poor, working-class neighborhood of his youth to a fabulous home in River Forest, one of the Chicago area’s wealthier suburbs. Fresh out of college, Alan already had a wife and baby to support. He was trying to make ends meet as a furniture salesman when he asked himself a question: These large companies buying all this new furniture … what do they do with the old stuff?  Then he asked the large companies. Then he had an idea.

He soon established a business that bought old office furniture and returned it to shiny newness through a process called electrostatic painting. Turned out there were a lot of companies and individuals happy to buy used office furniture if it sparkled like new.  Alan’s business was a success. He bought the fabulous house in River Forest when was he a young man in his thirties.

Later in life, he re-focused his business as an on-site electrostatic painting service. Thanks to the quality of his work — and his drive! drive! drive! – he became known as The Guy to call in Chicagoland if you wanted something made of metal to sparkle or shine.  If you’ve visited any landmarks in Chicago, you’ve probably seen Alan’s work.  He painted metalwork in Millennium Park, the Sears Tower, the Newberry Library, the Art Institute, and the Museum of Science and Industry. He painted the metalwork in Michael Jordan’s townhouse.

In Good Calories, Bad Calories, Gary Taubes suggested that we have the relationship between leanness and physical activity backwards. We assume that physically active people are lean because they’re physically active. It could be the opposite: naturally lean bodies don’t like to store energy as fat, so naturally lean people feel a compulsion to move to burn away the energy.

Alan was naturally lean, and he certainly had a compulsion to move. I remember him dancing the legs off of several women at our wedding reception. He’d wear out a dance partner, then go extend a gentlemanly hand to another one. I don’t think he sat down for more than five minutes after the dinner.

Keep in mind, the electrostatic painting was a physically demanding job. Just hauling the heavy paint guns in and out of a job site would qualify as a workout for many people. You’d think the guy would’ve spent his days off sitting in an easy chair.

Nope. Chareva remembers that on his days off, he always wanted to hop in the van and go exploring, or go to a hardware store to buy materials for some building project.

His best-known building project was the Ashland-Iowa Express – the riding train he built around the perimeter of his property, complete with switches to alternate tracks, crossing barriers, and a bridge. He’d always loved trains and decided he wanted his own. So he drove all over creation buying tracks and train cars to fix up. When the train was ready to roll, Alan and his wife threw a big party. We flew in for it. My parents drove up from downstate Illinois. His middle-aged neighbors – doctors, attorneys, CEOs, etc. – lined up to ride on the train along with the kids. Heck, they were smiling like kids. The Oak Park newspaper even printed a story about the guy neighborhood kids called the Train Man.

The video below was taken a couple of years after the party. That’s Sara taking a ride on the train.

The picture below is of Sara, Alana and their cousin Marzhan riding on Grandpa’s train.

Alan was unconscious or incoherent for most of time after the cancer diagnosis, and it occurred to me later I never thanked him for who he was and what he brought into our lives. So I’ll do it now.

Alan, thank you (and your wife) for a wedding and reception worthy of royalty. I know they were spectacular events because you loved your daughter so much, but trust me, my family and friends were dazzled and talked about the wedding for years after.

Thank you for trusting (after some initial doubts) that the standup comedian would take good care of your daughter even if the comedy career didn’t work out.

Thank you (and your wife) for giving my girls all those magical Christmases in that big house with the gigantic Christmas trees that nearly reached the ceiling of the great room. Seeing Sara, Alana and their cousin Marzhan toddle down the big stairway on Christmas morning and crawl under that tree to ooh! and ahh! over the mountain of gifts was simply awesome.

Thank you for moving to Franklin to be near us, even though it meant leaving your hometown of more than 70 years. Chareva and the girls got to see you often these last few years, and that means a lot now.

But most of all, thank you for being the fearless, positive, no-nonsense guy who raised (with your wife, of course) a fearless, positive, no-nonsense daughter. By being the father you were, you blessed me with an awesome wife.

Godspeed on the journey aboard whichever train is taking you to your next existence, Alan. We’ll miss you.

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A Big Crowd Of DENIERS!

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Last year I read The Smear, a highly illuminating book written by a former CBS reporter named Sharyl Attkinsson. As you may recall, I mentioned her in this post and included a YouTube video of her speaking about fake news. She gave this description of Wikipedia:

Anonymous Wikipedia editors control and co-opt pages on behalf of special interests. They forbid and reverse edits that go against their agenda. They skew and delete information in blatant violation of Wikipedia’s own established policies with impunity.

Yup. Like when, say, a vegan editor starts deleting articles about people and films who say animal fats don’t cause heart disease.

In The Smear, Attkinsson explains that much of what passes for major-media journalism today is nothing more than P.R. designed to promote an agenda. She describes the P.R. techniques, including labeling anyone who disagrees with the agenda as a denier or a conspiracy theorist. When you hear those terms, she explains, you’re supposed to just stop thinking about the issue.

Oh, he’s a denier, so he must be wrong. The media says this is a conspiracy theory, so there’s nothing to it.

Just one little problem: throwing around those terms isn’t an argument. It’s not a rebuttal. It doesn’t prove diddly. If CNN says leprechauns are changing votes in voting machines, and I say that can’t happen because leprechauns don’t exist, I may be a DENIER! — but I also happen to be right. If a bunch of tobacco executives testify before Congress that nicotine isn’t addictive, and I say they’ve buried research showing that nicotine is highly addictive, I may be a CONSPIRACY THEORIST! — but I also happen to be right.

When you hear DENIER, you are of course supposed to immediately equate the contrarian with a Holocaust denier. Denier? Has to be kook. Ignore and move on …

So it’s no surprise that defenders of the arterycloggingsaturatedfat! theory have taken to using the terms cholesterol deniers and statin deniers. Here’s an example from an article in The Guardian:

A group of scientists has been challenging everything we know about cholesterol, saying we should eat fat and stop taking statins. This is not just bad science – it will cost lives, say experts.

Wait, timeout. I’ve pointed this out before, but it’s worth mentioning again: whenever a media article includes phrases like say experts, or experts say, or the experts believe, you’re looking at an agenda-driven, biased article. The accurate statement on any controversial issue is some experts say. And of course, other experts disagree. Experts say in an article means this is what I, the reporter, believe and want you to believe as well.

Anyway …

According to a small group of dissident scientists, whose work usually first appears in minor medical journals, by far the greatest threat to our hearts and vascular systems comes from sugar, while saturated fat has been wrongly demonised. And because cholesterol levels don’t matter, they argue, we don’t need the statins that millions have been prescribed to lower them. A high-fat diet is the secret to a healthy life, they say. Enjoy your butter and other animal fats. Cheese is great. Meat is back on the menu.

Heh-heh … notice how she was careful to tells us the dissidents are people whose work usually first appears in minor medical journals.

This is more than bad science, according to leading scientists and medical authorities. It will cost lives. “Encouraging people to eat more saturated fat is dangerous and irresponsible,” is a typical verdict, in this case from Prof Louis Levy, the head of nutrition science at Public Health England (PHE).

Leading scientists and medical authorities … in other words, experts say. And of course, you’re going to tell us exactly why the science is bad, right?

The advice from PHE, the World Health Organization, the British Heart Foundation (BHF), Heart UK and other institutions and top academics is consistent. Butter and cheese may be fine in modest amounts in a balanced diet, but the saturated fat that they contain is potentially risky.

Well, there’s your proof. The organizations that have been preaching arterycloggingsaturatedfat! for decades still do so – as opposed to committing organizational suicide by admitting they’ve been giving incorrect and possibly harmful advice. I’m convinced.

When it comes to statins, there is a huge database of research. Since 1994, the Nuffield department of population health at Oxford University, led by two eminent epidemiologists, Collins and Prof Richard Peto, has been amassing and analysing the data in order to figure out how well they work in preventing heart attacks and strokes.

They have published many papers. In 2016, in a major review in the Lancet, they concluded that lowering cholesterol over five years with a cheap daily statin would prevent 1,000 heart attacks, strokes and coronary artery bypasses among 10,000 people who had already had one.

I see. A paper was published in a medical journal saying statins are wunnerful, wunnerful and save lives. So it has to be true. And yet …

Last week’s letter of complaint asked Dr Fiona Godlee, the editor-in-chief of the BMJ, which publishes the British Journal of Sports Medicine, to intervene, saying the journal had run 10 pieces advocating low-carb diets and criticising statins in the past three years and that the reluctance to run the rebuttal showed a bias and lack of transparency.

Wait, you mean a different medical published articles criticizing statins? Hmmm, let’s do the math … a medical journal praises statins … another medical journal criticizes statins … divide by pi … carry the one … okay, I have the answer: the editors of the medical journal that criticized statins are DENIERS!

That’s the apparent (ahem) “logic” of the article. It’s nothing more than hit piece devoid of any actual logic.

Fortunately, the Wisdom of Crowds has been kicking in, whether the statinators like it or not. Check out this article in Science Daily:

A new study has found that patients with atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease cut their risk of a second major adverse cardiovascular event by almost 50 percent, if they adhere to taking a statin medication as prescribed by their doctors.

Wait, timeout. I have my doubts about how they came up with that 50 percent figure, but here’s the phrase that caught my attention: cut their risk of a second major adverse cardiovascular event. That means this study was of people who’d already had a cardiovascular event. To the very slight degree that statins work, they work better in people who already have heart disease.

I’ve mentioned the site called TheNNT, which is maintained by doctors to help other doctors evaluate the effectiveness and side effects of drugs. According to that site, among people who don’t already have existing heart disease and take statins for five years:

  • One in 104 will avoid a heart attack, but
  • No lives will be saved

In other words, the statin will prevent one non-fatal heart attack for every 104 people who take the drug.

Among people who have existing heart disease and take statins for five years:

  • One in 83 will avoid a fatal heart attack
  • One in 39 will avoid a non-fatal heart attack
  • One in 125 will avoid a stroke

In that major review in the Lancet, statinators Collins and Peto claim statins would prevent 1,000 strokes and heart attacks for every 10,000 people who take them. That’s one in 10. Look at those numbers from TheNNT again and tell me how that’s possible.

And keep in mind, the figures cited on TheNNT were compiled from the studies that were published. As we all know, drug companies used to just bury the studies they didn’t like.  Now they have register their clinical trials ahead of time.

Anyway, back to the Science Direct article:

While that’s good news for patients, the bad news, however, is that researchers from the Intermountain Healthcare Heart Institute in Salt Lake City found that only about six percent of patients are in fact following the statin regimen given to them to lower their cholesterol, negating any potential cardiovascular benefits.

Only six percent of people prescribed statins are taking them as directed? Why would people stop taking such a wunnerful, wunnerful drug?

Researchers also found that 25 percent of patients never filled their statin prescription in the first place, and 25 percent didn’t fill their second one.

Again, why in the heck would so many people quit this wunnerful, wunnerful drug after just one prescription?

This article from Healthline about the same study offers some clues:

No drug comes without potential side effects, but the most frequent one experienced with statins is reasonably minor compared to the risk of death from cardiovascular disease.

“Myopathy, which is muscle weakness, is the most frequently reported complaint, and severe myopathy (rhabdomyolysis) only occurs in about 1 in 10,000 patients,” Dr. Victoria Shin, a cardiologist with Torrance Memorial Medical Center in California, told Healthline.

That figure is, of course, absolute poppycock. One in 10,000? According to TheNNT (again, using figures from the studies that were actually published), one in 10 people who take statins for five years are harmed by muscle damage.  Not a bit of weakness. Actual damage. So Dr. Shin is only off by a factor of 1,000.

I recently watched an excellent Netflix series titled The Pharmacist, about a pharmacist (duh) who began raising hell about the opioid crisis and pill mills nearly 20 years ago. In one episode, we learn that Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin, insisted that less than one percent of people taking the drug become addicted. I’m sure they had (ahem) “research” to back that claim. But does anyone believe that figure is even remotely accurate? OxyContin didn’t become known as Hillbilly Heroin, with a huge trade on the black market, because only one percent became addicted.

The percentage of side effects reported by Big Pharma in their own trials are pure fiction. See if you can find 10 friends or relatives who’ve tried statins. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts (and you can keep the donuts) at least three of them experienced muscle pain and weakness. In fact, I recently came across this study of statin side effects:

AIM: We investigated the incidence of adverse drug reactions (ADRs) in patients treated with statins for cardiovascular (CV) risk among the United Arab Emirates (UAE) population.

CONCLUSION: The incidence of ADRs among statin users was 42.6%, and frequent ADRs (49%) were noted in patients with high CVD risk.

Hmm, let’s see … in pharma-sponsored research, the most frequent side effect is muscle weakness, but by gosh, it only happens in 1 in 10,000 patients. (Well, severe myopathy, anyway. How weak and sore do you have to get before they label it severe?) Meanwhile, in a study published just this year, 42.6% of people taking statins reported adverse drug reactions.

And it’s not just muscle pain and weakness. Here are some quotes from a recent article on the BBC news site:

“Patient Five” was in his late 50s when a trip to the doctors changed his life. He had diabetes, and he had signed up for a study to see if taking a “statin” – a kind of cholesterol-lowering drug – might help. So far, so normal.

But soon after he began the treatment, his wife began to notice a sinister transformation. A previously reasonable man, he became explosively angry and – out of nowhere – developed a tendency for road rage.

Then one day, Patient Five had an epiphany. “He was like, ‘Wow, it really seems that these problems started when I enrolled in this study’,” says Beatrice Golomb, who leads a research group at the University of California, San Diego.

Dr. Golomb, by the way, has been running her own research on statin side effects. She says the incidence of side effects is waaaaay higher than one percent, or five percent, or whatever the latest nonsense figure promoted by Big Pharma is.

Over the years, Golomb has collected reports from patients across the United States – tales of broken marriages, destroyed careers, and a surprising number of men who have come unnervingly close to murdering their wives. In almost every case, the symptoms began when they started taking statins, then promptly returned to normal when they stopped; one man repeated this cycle five times before he realised what was going on.

I hope he didn’t kill five wives before figuring it out. Now I’m wondering if Henry VIII was taking statins back in the day.

According to Golomb, this is typical – in her experience, most patients struggle to recognise their own behavioural changes, let alone connect them to their medication. In some instances, the realisation comes too late: the researcher was contacted by the families of a number of people, including an internationally renowned scientist and a former editor of a legal publication, who took their own lives.

Why are so few people actually following their doctors’ orders to take those wunnerful, wunnerful statins?

Because in the internet age, people experiencing the nasty side effects of statins can go online and find out yes, the statin is to blame. Back when my mom had joint and muscle pains from taking a statin, she didn’t know statins were the cause. (Neither did her doctor, who simply prescribed pain pills.)  Nowadays she, or someone she knows, would likely learn online that statins cause muscle and joint pains.  People share articles like the one above on Twitter, Facebook, etc.  The Wisdom of Crowds does what it does.

The statinators want us to remain ignorant and dutifully take the drug. Sorry, but that’s not going to happen. There’s no stopping or denying the Wisdom of Crowds … even if we’re a bunch of DENIERS!

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