Cosmetics and Animal Testing

In today’s New York Times, Doreen Carvajal reports that cosmetic companies are scrambling to come into compliance with a 2009 ban on the use of animal testing for cosmetics in the European Union. 27 member economies strong, the EU can pass such rules, and watch the industry innovate to reach the goal of more humane treatment of animals.

As the 2009 deadline approaches, European regulators issue periodic tallies of the number of laboratory animals potentially spared by alternatives to animal tests, across all kinds of industrial uses. Part of the pressure for alternatives also stems from additional legislation, known as Reach, requiring companies to develop safety data on 30,000 chemicals over the next 11 years — research that could raise the prospect of increased animal testing.

In fact, the actual number of animals tested for cosmetics is small compared with medical or educational uses, according to a new European Commission report. But from 2002 to 2005 the tally grew 50 percent in Europe, to 5,571 animals.

I’d be interested to hear whether Sciencebloggers think about this. Can alternative means be as effective as animal testing for the purpose of proving that cosmetics are not harmful, and if so, will be see these innovations applied in other areas of traditional science?

60 Minutes on Calorie Disclosures

Although we discussed this issue earlier, I can’t help to point to a new segment on 60 Minutes exploring the issue of whether big chain restaurants should have to disclose the amount of calories in their food products (Video).

The denialism from the industry on this issue is pretty clear, but what’s interesting about the segment is the explanation of consumer biases that prevent the market forces from addressing this problem. One of the most basic forces here is optimism–consumers don’t think bad things will happen to them, generally, and in this context, optimism translates into seriously underestimating the caloric value of foods. And that optimism operates more strongly when a consumer thinks that the food is healthy (i.e., because they saw Subway commercials or the like):

Brian Wansink is a nutrition and marketing professor at Cornell University. He uses the mall as a laboratory, observing the food-court crowd like other scientists study rare tribes.

Wansink, who even wrote a book called “Mindless Eating,” finds that people always underestimate calories, but they get it especially wrong when they’re eating something they think is healthy.

On one of his recent “observation trips,” Wansink concentrated on meals from Subway, which markets itself as the healthy fast-food alternative. He asked people to estimate the calories of an especially caloric combo: a foot-long Subway sandwich with mayo, chips and juice.

“Now for this you estimated that it had about 300 calories,” Wansink pointed out to a man. “In reality it has 1,390.”

“When people are eating in a restaurant that they think is healthy, people grossly underestimate how much they eat by about 50 percent,” Wansink explains.

What’s interesting is that the standard business line is that more information is good for consumers, but here, they don’t want consumers to have ready access to information that could help them make better decisions about what to eat.

No Comment Needed!

The Predatory Lending Association (PLA):

…is dedicated to extracting maximum profit from the working poor by increasing payday loan fees and debt traps. The working poor is an exciting, fast growing demographic that includes: military personnel, most minorities, and a growing percentage of the middle class.

Hat Tip: Concurring Opinions.

Want to Water During a Water Shortage? Plant New Landscaping!

The Southeast is having serious water shortages. Just look at Lake Lanier, the main water source for Atlanta.


So, what do you do when you live in Palm Beach, FL, there is a water shortage, fines for washing your car or watering your lawn except during specified hours, and serious enforcement efforts in place? The Journal’s Robert Frank tells us:

…According to the rules, residents who put in “new landscaping” can water three days a week, instead of the usual one, for 30 days after the planting. Once that period ends, homeowners can plant yet again — and resume the thrice-a-week watering. That has led some Palm Beachers to put in new trees, shrubs and turf — often at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars per residence — just so they can run their irrigation systems more frequently.

One resident, who asked not to be named, said he returned to Palm Beach after the summer and found that he had the only brown lawn on the block. “When I asked everyone how they were watering, they all said ‘new plantings,’ ” he said. “So that’s the loophole. We’re all just ripping out the old lawn and shrubs and putting in new ones.”

Now, if that doesn’t irritate you, check this out–under Florida’s rules in Palm Beach, if you use a lot of water, you just pay a surcharge. So, guess what the fabulously rich do? Use all the water they want and pay a surchage:

Consider Nelson Peltz. The investor and food magnate’s oceanfront estate, called Montsorrel, is among the island’s biggest water consumers. His 13.8-acre spread, which combines two properties, used not quite 21 million gallons of water over the past 12 months — or about 57,000 gallons a day on average — at a cost of more than $50,000, according to records obtained from the local water utility. That compares with 54,000 gallons a year for an average single-family residence in Palm Beach, says Ken Rearden, assistant city administrator of West Palm Beach. (West Palm Beach supplies Palm Beach’s water.)

Yes, an average home uses $54,00 gallons a year. Compare that to some Palm Beach mansion owners:


Some Palm Beach estates use huge amounts of water despite the city’s restrictions. Chart shows gallons consumed in the 12 months ended Oct. 1, 2007.
Nelson Peltz
13.8 acres 20,863,216
Dwight Schar
Executive chairman, home-builder NVR
6 acres 12,155,000
William L. Koch
President, mining concern Oxbow
7 acres 4,519,416
James H. Clark
Netscape co-founder
5 acres 3,452,020
Sydell Miller
Co-founder, Matrix hair-care products
4 acres 1,032,240
*second property; **adjoining property he owns

Ben Goldacre on Homeopathy

Sometimes people wonder why the skeptic types get all worked up over a behavior that is usually seen as at-worst harmless. Ben Goldacre explains why, in one of the best, and clearest articles on the problem of homeopathic medicine.

This is exactly what I said, albeit in nerdier academic language, in today’s edition of the Lancet, Britain’s biggest medical journal. These views are what homeopaths are describing as an “attack”. But I am very clear. There is no single right way to package up all of this undeniable and true information into a “view” on homeopathy.

When I’m feeling generous, I think: homeopathy could have value as placebo, on the NHS even, although there are ethical considerations, and these serious cultural side-effects to be addressed.

But when they’re suing people instead of arguing with them, telling people not to take their medical treatments, killing patients, running conferences on HIV fantasies, undermining the public’s understanding of evidence and, crucially, showing absolutely no sign of ever being able to engage in a sensible conversation about the perfectly simple ethical and cultural problems that their practice faces, I think: these people are just morons. I can’t help that: I’m human. The facts are sacred, but my view on them changes from day to day.

It’s awesome. Read it.

I could have told him that

Richard Black investigates the common crank claim that science is just an old boys network designed to throw sweet, sweet grant money at their friends. Guess what? The evidence of this conspiracy is lacking.

I anticipated having to spend days, weeks, months even, sifting the wheat from the chaff, going backwards and forwards between journal editors, heads of department, conference organisers, funding bodies and the original plaintiffs.

I envisaged major headaches materialising as I tried to sort out the chains of events, attempting to decipher whether claims had any validity, or were just part of the normal rough and tumble of a scientist’s life – especially in the context of scientific publishing, where the top journals only publish about 10% of the papers submitted to them.

The reality was rather different.

The sum total of evidence obtained through this open invitation, then, is one first-hand claim of bias in scientific journals, not backed up by documentary evidence; and three second-hand claims, two well-known and one that the scientist in question does not consider evidence of anti-sceptic feeling.

No-one said they had been refused a place on the IPCC, the central global body in climate change, or denied a job or turned down for promotion or sacked or refused access to a conference platform, or indeed anything else.

Whether this exercise has conclusively disproved a bias is not for me to say – I am sure others will find plenty to say, doubtless in the courteous and gracious language that typifies climate discourse nowadays.

But I will say this; if someone persistently claims to be a great football player, and yet fails to find the net when you put him in front of an open goal, you cannot do other than doubt his claim.

Andres Millan, who wrote to me on the subject from Mexico, offered another explanation for why scientific journals, research grants, conference agendas and the IPCC itself are dominated by research that backs or assumes the reality of modern-day greenhouse warming.

“Most global warming sceptics have no productive alternatives; they say it is a hoax, or that it will cause severe social problems, or that we should allocate resources elsewhere,” he wrote.

“Scientifically, they have not put forward a compelling, rich, and variegated theory.

“And until that happens, to expect the government, or any source of scientific funding, to give as much money, attention, or room within academic journals to the alternatives, seems completely misguided.”

It’s good that he researched this and all, but frankly, it was a waste of time. It doesn’t matter what the crankery is, they’re always convinced the reason people don’t listen to their nonsense is that it’s some kind of conspiracy against them. And surprise surprise, when you actually try to make them provide evidence of said conspiracy, they can offer none. From the HIV/AIDS denialists to the cdesign proponentsists, you always see the same argument again and again. Science is a church, protecting dogma! It’s biased against us! You’re just conspiring to enrich your buddies with grant money! Blah blah blah.

You don’t need to waste any time investigating such nonsense, it’s a prima facie absurd claim.

Criminal Profilers and Cold Readers

Malcolm Gladwell has an interesting piece in this week’s New Yorker concerning criminal profilers, individuals who try to determine who a criminal is based on characteristics of the crime. The idea of criminal profiling has become very popular, with many television shows and movies based on the idea that a psychologist could divine the identity and motives of a killer. Gladwell explores whether these profilers really predict anything well, and in the process, compares the basic tricks used by psychics to criminal profilers:

A few years ago, Alison [author of “The Forensic Psychologist’s Casebook”] went back to the case of the teacher who was murdered on the roof of her building in the Bronx. He wanted to know why, if the F.B.I.’s approach to criminal profiling was based on such simplistic psychology, it continues to have such a sterling reputation. The answer, he suspected, lay in the way the profiles were written, and, sure enough, when he broke down the rooftop-killer analysis, sentence by sentence, he found that it was so full of unverifiable and contradictory and ambiguous language that it could support virtually any interpretation.

Astrologers and psychics have known these tricks for years. The magician Ian Rowland, in his classic “The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading,” itemizes them one by one, in what could easily serve as a manual for the beginner profiler. First is the Rainbow Ruse–the “statement which credits the client with both a personality trait and its opposite.” (“I would say that on the whole you can be rather a quiet, self effacing type, but when the circumstances are right, you can be quite the life and soul of the party if the mood strikes you.”) The Jacques Statement, named for the character in “As You Like It” who gives the Seven Ages of Man speech, tailors the prediction to the age of the subject. To someone in his late thirties or early forties, for example, the psychic says, “If you are honest about it, you often get to wondering what happened to all those dreams you had when you were younger.” There is the Barnum Statement, the assertion so general that anyone would agree, and the Fuzzy Fact, the seemingly factual statement couched in a way that “leaves plenty of scope to be developed into something more specific.” (“I can see a connection with Europe, possibly Britain, or it could be the warmer, Mediterranean part?”) And that’s only the start: there is the Greener Grass technique, the Diverted Question, the Russian Doll, Sugar Lumps, not to mention Forking and the Good Chance Guess–all of which, when put together in skillful combination, can convince even the most skeptical observer that he or she is in the presence of real insight.

He then goes on to describe the results of a brainstorming session from three FBI criminal profilers in 1984 who were trying to solve the BTK murders. Their recommendations sound a lot like a cold read and were far off from the mark:

They had been at it for almost six hours. The best minds in the F.B.I. had given the Wichita detectives a blueprint for their investigation. Look for an American male with a possible connection to the military. His I.Q. will be above 105. He will like to masturbate, and will be aloof and selfish in bed. He will drive a decent car. He will be a “now” person. He won’t be comfortable with women. But he may have women friends. He will be a lone wolf. But he will be able to function in social settings. He won’t be unmemorable. But he will be unknowable. He will be either never married, divorced, or married, and if he was or is married his wife will be younger or older. He may or may not live in a rental, and might be lower class, upper lower class, lower middle class or middle class. And he will be crazy like a fox, as opposed to being mental. If you’re keeping score, that’s a Jacques Statement, two Barnum Statements, four Rainbow Ruses, a Good Chance Guess, two predictions that aren’t really predictions because they could never be verified–and nothing even close to the salient fact that BTK was a pillar of his community, the president of his church and the married father of two.

In Defense of Homeopathy

Jeanette Winterson offers her “defence” in the Guardian, and I can’t wait for Ben Goldacre to rip into it.

She starts with this classic argument from anecdote:

Picture this. I am staying in a remote cottage in Cornwall without a car. I have a temperature of 102, spots on my throat, delirium, and a book to finish writing. My desperate publisher suggests I call Hilary Fairclough, a homeopath who has practices in London and Penzance. She sends round a remedy called Lachesis, made from snake venom. Four hours later I have no symptoms whatsoever.

Dramatic stuff, and enough to convince me that while it might use snake venom, homeopathy is no snake oil designed for gullible hypochrondriacs

Actually, the fact that she thinks this is a valid argument shows that it is snake oil designed for gullible hypochondriacs. As they say, the plural of anecdote is anecdotes, not data.

It get’s worse – ready for some quantum water woo?
Continue reading “In Defense of Homeopathy”

Uncommon Descent preaches about materialist morality

BarryA drops this idiot bomb on us:

Obviously, by definition, materialists cannot point to a transcendent moral code by which to measure moral progress. Indeed, it is difficult for them to account for moral progress at all because if materialism is correct, the “is” in a society defines the “ought.”

Gosh, given that the cdesign proponentsists are all about science they do spend a hell of a lot of time criticizing materialism. Until they get their god-o-meter up and running it seems as though that this is a fundamental conflict between their stated beliefs and practice. But that’s nothing new.

What I am curious about is whether or not materialists (code for atheists) can or cannot point to a transcendent moral code by which to measure human progress? And further, can the religious? I would argue the religious, if anything, are far more incapable of pointing to a transcendent moral code. After all you must ask, which religion, which book, which interpretation? Sure they can point to all sorts of crap, but they certainly can’t agree on the moral interpretation of their scripture. They change which parts of their code they listen to in any given century (we only really take 3 of the 10 commandments seriously for instance), how can they suggest they are in possession of a transcendent morality because of their religiosity?

Then see this whopper:

On what basis do you say that the recognition of the humanity of African-Americans is “progress” unless you have held up the previous nonrecognition and the present recognition to a code and deterermined the former was bad (i.e., did not meet the code) and the latter is good (i.e., does meet the code)? In other words, when you say we have “progressed” it is just another way of saying that the previous state of affairs was bad and the present state of affairs is good. But how can you know this unless there is a code that transcends time and place by which both states of affairs can be measured. Certainly to say that things were previously one way and now they are another is not the same as saying there has been progress. Change is not the same as progress.

Now, I don’t quite get what BarryA is talking about here. Is he saying ending slavery is not progress? Or is he saying that ending slavery can only be judged as a moral good if you are religious? Because, you know, none of those religious codes prohibit slavery buddy. If anything, they encourage it, and tell slaves to be obedient. So if you guys are in charge of the transcendent code, and it’s in one of your outdated books of silly metaphors, where are your slaves? Slavery was ended in this country when many people – including many religious people — decided we could transcend dogma that defended the practice.

Here’s a job for my commenters. Leave me your transcendent materialist moral code that you can use to measure human moral progress. Mine is something like, “Progress can be measured by increasing rationality, human happiness, and abandonment of the hateful dogmas that bind us to tribalism and bigotry.”

Transparency in Propriety Info Databases, or Did the Pizza Place Sell Your Cell Phone Number?


Have you ever forgotten to pay a bill and received a call about it on your cell phone? Ever wonder how they got your number? Well, you may have given it to them, but if you didn’t, they probably bought it from a commercial data broker, a company that sells personal information to businesses and law enforcement. Many of these companies exist, the most prominent are Choicepoint, Lexisnexis, Merlin, Tracersinfo, and Experian. They essentially operate search engines with proprietary information, and for a small charge, will sell all sorts of information about you.


But how did the data broker get your number? One hears rumors here and there about how they obtain and sell wireless phone numbers. One persistent rumor is that pizza delivery companies sell wireless number to commercial data brokers. Think about it–everyone orders pizza, and in doing so, provides an address and at least a first name.


I remember seeing that one of Lexis’ people finder databases advertised having a directory of wireless numbers, and that one source for them was pizza delivery services. But in going to their webpage, I couldn’t find mention of pizza delivery companies anymore. A trip to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine shows what happened with one product–Batchtrace, a popular search tool for debt collectors.

Back in 2002, Lexis advertised that pizza delivery companies, along with a whole bunch of other businesses, were providing phone numbers and other information to Lexis.


But in 2003, Lexis began to pare back some of these disclosures. This coincided with more regulatory and legislative attention on data brokers.


And by 2004, Lexis didn’t disclose any of their sources. This is too bad. Without information about the sources of personal information in proprietary databases, they just become back holes, and individuals do not make the connection between providing information at one business, and it being sold to another.