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Organic = Good, Right? OOOPS!
Don’t pick on the sprouts, and don’t even pick on Organic. The danger here is the way you and I perceive and respond to risk, a subconscious decision-making process that often works well, but which sometimes can create risks all by itself.
Organic = Good, and Mass-produced = Bad. Right? The latest example that that assumption is naïve, and wrong, and potentially dangerous, is the recent discovery that the worst food-borne disease outbreak in Europe in decades may have been carried by organic bean sprouts. But don’t pick on the sprouts, and don’t even pick on Organic. The danger here is the way you and I perceive and respond to risk, a subconscious decision-making process that often works well, but which sometimes can create risks all by itself.
Setting aside the issue of whether organic food is intrinsically any healthier than non-organic food, or safer because pesticides have not been used, organic farming offers no advantages over non-organic agriculture when it comes to by far the greatest risk our food poses, the risk that what we eat might carry germs. The suspected sprouts in Germany are only the most recent example of organically produced food believed to have made people sick. Organic eggs and spinach and lettuce have caused big outbreaks in the U.S. in the past few years. The way those foods are produced and processed and shipped is part of the risk, but we make it worse because of the positive/healthy/better-for-you reputation organic food enjoys. That encourages the assumption that organic food poses less danger of carrying disease. That leads to less of the caution that should be applied in handling all foods; washing, cooking, temperature control. So our benign assumptions about organic food can raise our risk.
But this is just one small example of a larger and more profound phenomenon, something which in “How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Match the Facts” I call The Perception Gap, when our feelings about a risk don’t match the facts and the gap between our emotions and the evidence creates risks of its own. Here are a few others similar to organic food;
- We are less afraid of herbal and natural medicines than of the human-produced kind - pharmaceuticals. That can be dangerously dumb. Ephedra and St. John’s Wort are just a couple high profile cases of natural drugs that caused harm. A 2004 study of Ayurvedic herbal medicines found that one sample in five purchased from local stores in Boston contained up to 10,000 times more lead, mercury, or arsenic than U.S. safety standards deemed safe.
- Most of us are less afraid of radiation from the sun, which causes 1.3 million cases of skin cancer a year in the U.S. and approximately 8,000 deaths from melanoma, than radiation from cell phones and nuclear power plants.
- We are less afraid of mixing the genes of plants indiscriminately by “natural” hybridization than by the much more precise and controlled process of changing just one gene in a lab.
What’s the common thread in what seems like so much irrationality? The perception of risk is not just a matter of the facts, but also depends on how those facts feel. One of the subconscious psychological filters we apply when assessing how scary something feels is whether it’s natural or human-made. Natural risks feel less scary. Human-made risks feel scarier. The sun is far more likely to give you cancer than radiation from a nuclear power plant or a cell phone or from power lines, but the sun is natural and the others are human-made, so even though they are all radiation risks, they don’t feel the same.
The problem is, this can lead to problems. Not worrying enough about natural risks and worrying more than we need to about human-made ones may not always lead to the healthiest choices.
- People who worry more about human-made vaccines than the natural diseases those vaccines keep in check are making a dangerous mistake, for themselves and for the community in which otherwise-controllable diseases can then spread.
- Fear of nuclear radiation contributes to energy policy that favors the use of coal, which produces vastly more harm to human and environmental health (even considering the harms from Chernobyl and Fukushima), while lack of fear of radiation from the sun raises your risk of skin cancer.
- People afraid of genetically modified food impede the use of a technology that could improve the health of millions. Yet many of those most worried about GM food raise their risk by taking (and swearing by) unregulated herbal medicines which cause harms we’d scream bloody murder about if they were caused by drugs from the pharmaceutical industry.
Risk perception is intrinsically subjective. At this point in human evolution there is no way to take emotions out of the process. Perfect objective reason, as appealing as it is, is just not possible. (As Ambrose Bierce once wrote, “Brain, n, the organ with which we think we think.”) So criticizing this as irrational is wrong, and counterproductive, because it traps us in a fruitless debate over how we should go about perceiving risk more objectively, rather than moving on to the real question…how do we reduce the risk of getting risk wrong when our feelings don’t match the facts.
Here’s what we can do. We can heed the insights from a rich body of research that has revealed in detail where the Perception Gap comes from. We know that natural risks are less scary, voluntary risks are less scary, risks over which we have control are less scary, risks with which we’re familiar are less scary. And those are just few of the details risk perception research has discovered.
We can apply this self-awareness to protect ourselves from the pitfalls of our perceptions. The next time you face a choice that involves risk about something natural or about something human-made, just ask yourself how much this factor might be playing a role in how you feel about the choice, and whether the emotional characteristic that its natural or human-made has anything to do with it’s actual factual riskiness. Just add this element to your decision making process. Will thinking consciously about such emotional factors override them? No, not completely. But it might help you think a little more carefully, and hopefully, help you make healthier choices for yourself, your family, and your community.
Time for a delicious organic salad. But not before I wash everything really well.
Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT tomorrow.
Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
A study looks at the performance benefits delivered by asthma drugs when they're taken by athletes who don't have asthma.
- One on hand, the most common health condition among Olympic athletes is asthma. On the other, asthmatic athletes regularly outperform their non-asthmatic counterparts.
- A new study assesses the performance-enhancement effects of asthma medication for non-asthmatics.
- The analysis looks at the effects of both allowed and banned asthma medications.
WADA uncertainty<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMDc4NjUwN30.fFTvRR0yJDLtFhaYiixh5Fa7NK1t1T4CzUM0Yh6KYiA/img.jpg?width=980" id="01b1b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2fd91a47d91e4d5083449b258a2fd63f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="urine sample for drug test" />
Image source: joel bubble ben/Shutterstock<p>When inhaled β-agonists first came out just before the 1972 Olympics, they were immediately banned altogether by the WADA as possible doping substances. Over the years, the WADA has reexamined their use and refined the organization's stance, evidence of the thorniness of finding an equitable position regarding their use. As of January 2020, only three β-agonists are allowed — salbutamol, formoterol, and salmeterol —and only in inhaled form. Oral consumption appears to have a greater effect on performance.</p>
The study<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTIzMDQyMX0.Gk4v-7PCA7NohvJjw12L15p7SumPCY0tLdsSlMrLlGs/img.jpg?width=980" id="d3141" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ebe7b30a315aeffcb4fe739095cf0767" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="runner at starting position on track" />
Image source: MinDof/Shutterstock<p>Of primary interest to the authors of the study is confirming and measuring the performance improvement to be gained from β-agonists when they're ingested by athletes who don't have asthma.</p><p>The researchers performed a meta-analysis of 34 existing studies documenting 44 randomized trials reporting on 472 participants. The pool of individuals included was broad, encompassing both untrained and elite athletes. In addition, lab tests, as opposed to actual competitions, tracked performance. The authors of the study therefore recommend taking its conclusions with just a grain of salt.</p><p>The effects of both WADA-banned and approved β-agonists were assessed.</p>
Approved β-agonists and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzkxODk0M30.3RssFwk_tWkHRkEl_tIee02rdq2tLuAePifnngqcIr8/img.jpg?width=980" id="39a99" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b1fe4a580c6d4f8a0fd021d7d6570e2a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="vaulter clearing pole" />
Image source: Andrey Yurlov/Shutterstock<p>What the meta-analysis showed is that the currently approved β-agonists didn't significantly improve athletic performance among those without asthma — what very slight benefit they <em>may</em> produce is just enough to prompt the study's authors to write that "it is still uncertain whether approved doses improve anaerobic performance." They note that the tiny effect did increase slightly over multiple weeks of β-agonist intake.</p>
Banned β-agonist and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjI3ODU5Mn0.vyoxSE5EYjPGc2ZEbBN8d5F79nSEIiC6TUzTt0ycVqc/img.jpg?width=980" id="de095" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="02fdd42dfda8e3665a7b547bb88007ef" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="swimmer mid stroke" />
Image source: Nejron Photo/Shutterstock<p>The study found that for athletes without asthma, however, the use of currently banned β-agonists did indeed result in enhanced performance. The authors write, "Our meta-analysis shows that β2-agonists improve anaerobic performance by 5%, an improvement that would change the outcome of most athletic competitions."</p><p>That 5 percent is an average: 70-meter sprint performance was improved by 3 percent, while strength performance, MVC (maximal voluntary contraction), was improved by 6 percent.</p><p>The analysis also revealed that different results were produced by different methods of ingestion. The percentages cited above were seen when a β-agonist was ingested orally. The effect was less pronounced when the banned substances were inhaled.</p><p>Given the difference between the results for allowed and banned β-agonists, the study's conclusions suggest that the WADA has it about right, at least in terms of selection of allowable β-agonists, as well as the allowable dosage method.</p>
Takeaway<p>The study, say its authors, "should be of interest to WADA and anyone who is interested in equal opportunities in competitive sports." Its results clearly support vigilance, with the report concluding: "The use of β2-agonists in athletes should be regulated and limited to those with an asthma diagnosis documented with objective tests."</p>
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.