Cancer: Risk vs. Hazard

Thursday, October 27, 2016

This morning, I ran into an article that raised my hackles for a moment, regarding claims by an agency of the World Health Organization (WHO) that gyphosate (known commercially as RoundUp) is "probably carcinogenic." In the lead-up to the meat of the article the following made me stop cold (The article concerns legal maneuvers by the manufacturer in relation to documents relevant to that assessment.):

In recent years IARC, a semi-autonomous unit of the WHO based in Lyon, France, has caused controversy over whether such things as coffee, mobile phones, red and processed meat, and chemicals like glyphosate cause cancer.

Its critics, including in industry, say the way IARC evaluates whether substances might be carcinogenic can cause unnecessary health scares. IARC assesses the risk of a substance being carcinogenic without taking account of typical human exposure to it. [bold added]
What? My mind immediately protested. Something is definitely wrong here, but it isn't exactly what I was thinking.

In attempting to dig into what might be going on -- bad science? bad reporting? -- I discovered that Derek Lowe, one of my favorite scientific bloggers, addressed this matter months ago. In particular, he passes along an analogy concerning risk vs. hazard:
A toxicologist interviewed in the Wired article makes a great analogy to explain hazard versus risk, which is what we're talking about here. Sharks are a hazard. They are fierce predators with sharp teeth, and they most definitely have attacked humans in the past. But for most people, sharks are not much of a risk. "Risk", technically speaking, refers to your chances of being harmed under real-world conditions, while "hazard" refers to the potential for harm. A large shark has plenty of potential to do damage to you, but should you be worried about that happening? It depends. If you're sitting in your car, probably not (you have other, more immediate risks to worry about). If you're swimming off a tropical beach, though, that may be another matter. And if you're doing so after cutting your foot and leaving a trail of blood in the water, I would seriously consider the shark possibility and act accordingly: your risk has increased to what most people would find unacceptable levels.

Fine -- but what about your risk when, say, you visit an aquarium? Remember, the hazard a shark poses has not changed during all this -- he's still hungry and he still has a mouthful of teeth. The shark is the shark. Your risk of being bitten by him has, in fact, increased a great deal when you visit an aquarium -- you've gone from a place (your home, your car) where there are (one assumes) no sharks whatsoever, and now you're in the same room with one. True, you're separated by a thick pane of glass, and true, it's hard to come up with a plausible chain of events that would lead to said shark chomping on your leg, but it's undeniable that this is much more possible than it was in the parking lot outside the aquarium or back in your bed. The odds are still vanishingly low, and not many people worry on their visit the aquarium about the chances of being bitten by a shark (nor should they) -- but if you write things up from the right angle, that visit can look wildly dangerous. "RISK OF SHARK ATTACK NOW INCREASED BY FACTOR OF ONE MILLION!"
Considering the first quoted passage again, it is not necessarily bad science to evaluate whether something might cause cancer in isolation from how much exposure someone might normally receive. But it would be irresponsible, when reporting such an assessment, not to make clear that the level or likelihood of exposure matters regarding how likely someone might be to contract cancer from the substance. And it would be bad journalism to gloss over such a distinction (assuming it is made), or not to seek clarification, given the widespread use of RoundUp over decades absent a concurrent "epidemic" of cancer.

The interested reader will find much more about the risks and hazards of RoundUp at the blog post I mentioned above, which is an oasis of sanity compared to much of what I have seen and heard about RoundUp over the years.

-- CAV

P. S. It is interesting to note what Bruce Ames, who invented a screen for possible cancer-causing substances, has to say about things that might cause cancer:
He argued against the banning of synthetic pesticides and other chemicals such as Alar which have been shown to be carcinogenic. He was concerned that overzealous attention to the relatively minor health effects of trace quantities of carcinogens may divert scarce financial resources away from major health risks, and cause public confusion about the relative importance of different hazards. Ames considered himself a leading "contrarian in the hysteria over tiny traces of chemicals that may or may not cause cancer", and said that "if you have thousands of hypothetical risks that you are supposed to pay attention to, that completely drives out the major risks you should be aware of." [links and notes dropped]


Wednesday, October 26, 2016

I don't really see the need for the neologism nor do I see the technique named by the title as "revolutionary." (Indeed, I think the technique is really an example of one that has already been named.) But I do see what is being done as worthy of thought and use. From a Los Angeles Times article on the subject comes one of several examples:

As national security advisor and secretary of State during the 1970s, Henry Kissinger was considered America's greatest international negotiator. When asked who he considered the best such negotiator he had encountered, he nominated Egypt's then-President Anwar Sadat. Why? Because of a pre-suasive tactic Sadat regularly employed that allowed him to get more from a negotiation than was warranted by his political or military position. Before beginning negotiations, he would assign an admirable trait to the opposing side (perhaps Israelis' "well-known" tradition of fairness or sympathy for the underdog or support for those in need) that fit with what he wanted. In other words, Kissinger said, "Sadat gave his opponents a reputation to live up to" -- something they then did remarkably often.
It may at first seem that Sadat's "pre-suasion" efforts were directed primarily at shaming the Israelis, at making them concerned about how they would look to others if they did not show some flexibility, but that is not the case. He reminded them of a moral ideal they possessed (whatever its merits) and set the stage for them to remember that ideal during negotiations. Like the other examples in the article, Sadat, was really framing his positions in terms he wanted his interlocutors to have in mind when he proposed them.

The above is hardly intended to dismiss this thought-provoking article: Anyone interested in persuasion has to take into account how the human mind -- which makes mental connections all the time -- works. Helping one's potential audience see the merits of a case, either by helping that audience value what one has to offer or allaying understandable concerns, can indeed make arguing one's case far simpler and more persuasive.

-- CAV

Lost Decorum, Missing Rewards

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

One of the things I like the most about headhunter Nick Corcodilos's blog, Ask the Headhunter, is that his advice for those who seek jobs (or employees) so readily translates to many other areas. A recent example of this was when he ended up discussing the importance of etiquette -- something that too many people seem to imagine is irrelevant to the hiring process. A hiring manager had written to him that a rejected applicant had seemed surprised to hear back at all. Corcodilos responded in part:

If you don't inspire good people to say nice things about your company, you can't hire good people. It starts with that thank-you note; even with a no-thank-you note. Where it really starts is with your hand writing a personal note; with that hand attached to an arm attached to a warm body that gives a damn. Because if you don't give a damn about people who apply to your jobs, pretty soon everybody will know, including your shareholders.

And that, Mr. CEO and Ms. Member of the Board of Directors, is why you need to make sure your HR department and your managers are polite, wear clean underwear, and write thank-you notes.
Even my limited experience hiring babysitters provides evidence of the value of treating employees and potential employees like human beings. For example, I once managed to hire an excellent sitter months after I'd rejected her, because I mentioned in my "no thank you" letter that the rejection was merely because I'd found two good sitters already and didn't have enough work for a third. She remembered me when I contacted her later, after one of those became unavailable. As another example, I have also not had to advertise at all at least twice because sitters have volunteered that they had friends who also sat. If rudeness has its own penalties, benevolence has its own rewards.

-- CAV

Snuffing Out Pseudo-Emergencies

Monday, October 24, 2016

Welton Chang has a piece at Medium titled, "How Proper Planning and Being Organized Sets the Table for Productivity," and it offers a concise, but rich list of suggestions. I encountered the article through a Lifehacker post highlighting a "backwards planning" technique for meeting deadlines (or at least detecting those that will need negotiating in advance). That is new to me, and I plan to try it, but here's one that has served me very well over the years:

Organization, whether it be the file structure on your computer or the way you maintain written notes, means being able to call on the things and knowledge you need in a timely manner. I can't tell you how many times I've gotten frantic emails or calls from colleagues who misplaced a file or can't remember something and need to be reminded. Keeping yourself organized and having a system prevents these kinds of pseudo-emergencies from cropping up.
Pseudo-emergencies. What an apt term. And, yes, one of the first things that disorganized people do when they panic is -- if you're unfortunate enough to be working with them -- to suck you into the crisis. I am not sure whether I am more relieved that I have often been able to snuff such calls out quickly, or amazed at how disorganized many people get away with being. One of my biggest pet peeves is having to find something I know I have, and double if I have to drop what I'm doing and do so for someone else.

I hope I find backwards planning half as rewarding a practice.

-- CAV

10-22-16 Hodgepodge

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Greens Excited About New Perpetual Energy Source

Reports are out that a group of scientists from Oakridge have accidentally discovered a relatively easy way to turn carbon dioxide into ethanol, itself a fuel. Engadget summarizes the news as follows:

The team was already looking for a way to convert C02 [sic] into ethanol but were convinced that doing so would require multiple steps and catalysts. Turns out they were wrong. The system is surprisingly simple. The team created a tiny array of nanoscale copper and carbon spikes mounted on a silicon surface. A nanodroplet of nitrogen sits on the tip of each point. When exposed to carbon dioxide and a small electrical charge, this catalyst sets off an complex chain reaction that essentially reverses the combustion process and converts the gas into liquid ethanol. What's more, because the catalyst is so small, there is [sic] virtually no side reactions so the ethanol is quite pure. I mean, you wouldn't want to make a martini with it but it can go straight into a generator and work. Plus, the entire reaction works at room temperature. [links in original]
The author then editorializes:
Were this technology ramped up for commercial or municipal use, it could provide a viable alternative for utility-scale batteries, like the one's [sic] Tesla sells. That is, in times of excess energy production from renewable resources, rather than store that electricity in a giant battery, we could instead convert it to ethanol and use that to power generators when renewable sources aren't producing. Plus it would be carbon neutral since the carbon dioxide generated from burning the ethanol would be reclaimed by the catalytic process. There's no word, however, on when this accidental invention will make it out of the lab. [bold added, links in original]
Hell. Why not just burn ethanol to begin with, capture its exhaust, and burn that ad infinitum? On a more serious note (not to mention, in answer to that question), there is word on why this discovery won't "make it out of the lab" any time soon, via a blog post by Derek Lowe, who also links to the scientific paper:
The headline writers should have read the conclusions section of the paper, however, where it says that "The overpotential...probably precludes economic viability for this catalyst". Basically, you have to use more electric power to get ethanol this way than the resulting ethanol can possibly be worth. The authors suggest some ways that this might be overcome, but those will be matters for a lot of further experimentation. It's worth noting (and the paper has many references to this effect) that if you just want to chew up carbon dioxide electrochemically, you can already do that with existing technology. The big issues are the cost of the electricity you need to run such a process, and where that electricity comes from. If the amount of carbon dioxide emitted to generate all that electricity is more than the amount you're removing and turning back into reduced carbon feedstocks, the whole thing is as useful as a vacuum cleaner that sprays extra dirt out the back. [bold added]
That out of the way, Lowe also does a nice job explaining what is interesting about this process, as well as the problems that industrial application would present.

Weekend Reading

"The more government intervenes and subverts these laws of human nature, the more dysfunctional and political an economy becomes." -- Michael Hurd, in "Nanny State Leads to Rigged Economy" at Newsmax

"Sometimes the job is the career, and sometimes the job is a means for subsidizing the career." -- Michael Hurd, in "Being in Love With Your Work" at The Delaware Wave

"In my years counseling people who have cared for loved ones with Alzheimer's, I've learned several things that can make the ordeal more bearable." -- Michael Hurd, in "The Pain and Loss of Alzheimer's" at The Delaware Coast Press

"[I]n a free market, people don't get paid for the effort they exert but for the value that they create." -- Don Watkins and Yaron Brook, in "Inequality Doesn't Matter if We're All Paid According to the Value We Create" at City A.M.

"To ask candidates to address climate change without addressing the unique benefits of fossil fuels is like asking the candidates to address vaccine side effects without addressing the unique benefits of vaccines." -- Alex Epstein, in "Warming Is Mild and Manageable: Opposing View" at USA Today

Don't (Necessarily) Hand Google Your Phone Number

Unless you also use two-factor authentication, it is more than safe to ignore Google's periodic urgings to "secure" your account by associating it with your phone number:
Using a few old Google accounts, I experimented with Google's account recovery options and discovered that if a Google account does not have a backup phone number associated with it, Google requires you to have access to the recovery email account OR know the security questions in order to take over an account. However, if a backup phone number is on the account, Google allows you to type in a code from an SMS to the device in lieu of any other information.
The article details how this last "feature" can be turned against you.

-- CAV

Friday Four

Friday, October 21, 2016

1. Oh, boy!, I thought, I get to referee again. Both of my kids -- three and five years old -- wanted to play hide-and-seek with me, exclusively.

Delightfully, I couldn't have been more wrong. I have no idea who came up with this solution, which seemed to arise spontaneously, but the hide-and-seek games each of my kids wanted to play with me merged and transmogrified into a what I can only describe as a "hide-and-seek race": When I was "it," the second kid to be found won, and when they were "it," the first to find me won. The best part about having kids is occasionally and unexpectedly getting to be a kid again, with them.

2. One morning this week, I had the pleasant surprise of spotting sun dogs for the first time in my life. I have no pictures of my own, since I was driving, but a dimmer version of the second image here will suffice. I spotted the right-hand one first, and wondered if it was simply part of a rainbow. But, then, its brightness jogged a memory, and a second look brought the reward of seeing both sun dogs and the sun.

3. To celebrate my birthday, my wife and I went last weekend to see Sully, which more than lives up to all the good things I'd heard about it. Although I first learned of the movie through HBL, I'll quote my usual go-to source for movies, reviewer Scott Holleran, whom I also consulted before selecting it:

Famous and accomplished Tom Hanks ... portrays Chesley Sullenberger with poise and command. The role requires that he show a man in full, to paraphrase Tom Wolfe, who goes from a haunted self-examination in a steamy mirror, self-doubt and fear of being found out as a fraud to supreme confidence in his knowledge of reality and his own judgment. He's a detective on his own case, putting New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in his proper place and stressing to Katie Couric the fact of his "whole life", as against merely this particular part of his life, until he integrates the facts of his extraordinary, slow-handed, guided mastery in the cockpit of an Airbus crippled by a flock of birds.
One thing that fascinates me about this superb movie is that I experienced it a little like the way the movie itself unfolded. Yes, I enjoyed it at the time, but I found myself remembering scenes in detail over the next couple of days and getting more out of them, culminating a couple of days later in an I really needed that! one sunny morning.

Between the demands of two young kids and my wife's unpredictable schedule, we don't get to see movies as easily or as often as we would like. This makes me really appreciate places like HBL and Holleran's site. It's nice to be able to find out what's good and make those trips count when we do get to make them.

4. I generally take some time off from current events (particularly politics) on my Friday posts, but this is too good to pass up. Psychologist Michael Hurd notes a Freudian slip on the campaign trail on the part of Hillary Clinton who, apropos of nothing, made it a point to insult Ayn Rand:
"Boyish" is a compliment, intended or not. It describes an innocent stage of life when one hasn't become hardened by the soulless, awful ideas to which many adults subscribe... [bold added]
Having a three-year-old son, I heartily concur. Our whole culture could stand to become a bit more boyish.

-- CAV

An Example of Constructive Dissent

Thursday, October 20, 2016

In a recent post, "Evil HR Lady" Suzanne Lucas addresses a question related to this year's nauseating presidential election with a preamble that made me smile:

First a couple of things, just because I've developed a nervous twitch over this election: Trump is not a conservative. Sure, he's running as a Republican, but he's not a conservative.


[J]ust to make things clear -- I'm a free market capitalist and a strict Constitutionalist. Basically, I have no good options in this election, but no bother because I NEVER have any good options. I just throw that out because often when I write about politics I get nasty emails saying, "You only said that because you love/hate [insert candidate of your choice]!" I am not supporting Trump and I am not supporting Clinton.
That last line just about sums up all I want to say about this election, and what interests me is why I was so glad to read it. Do note that it is not all that needs saying, nor is it all Lucas said.

I think the cathartic value of that opening for me boils down to justice and benevolence, both of which seem to be in short supply during this election.

That said, either "choice" will prove a disaster as the executive of a free republic, presenting short-term threats to individual freedom with the real possibility of damaging the cause of liberty for the long-term. On top of that, the fact that we face such a choice speaks ill of many voters -- arguably the majority -- who seem indifferent to anything but a willingness to be pandered to. And this mindless depravity is being drummed into our heads constantly by a largely complicit media. In other words, at least for this advocate of individual rights, this election presents a particularly acute feeling of what Ayn Rand once identified as "Cultural Value-Deprivation" and I can't remember a time when the temptation to give in to cynicism has been stronger.

Those of us who favor freedom must, for the sake of sanity, solidarity, and our sacred cause, say something in the face of all the hostility and indifference to freedom embodied by the two major candidates. Any respect a supporter for one of those two might feel for one of us must be marshaled to at least cause them to see that there might be a good reason to question that support. Our fellow travelers need to know now, more than ever, that they are not alone. And, most important, we need to dig down and remember, taking our own independent thinking as an example, if need be, that our cause is not lost. Others can choose to question their beliefs or even how they approach thinking about their beliefs, if we can find a way to help them see the value in doing so.

What Lucas said in her opening was exactly the kind of thing we should be saying when we have the opportunity. The last line was cathartic, but it served as an exclamation point to a positive alternative offered by someone who is widely and deservedly respected. My thanks go to the Evil HR Lady.

-- CAV