In science we trust

Friday, October 04, 2013

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Temple of the real

"Temple of the real" is the most beautiful description of a laboratory I've ever read. I saw it many years ago, and for a while every time I entered a lab there was a short moment of reflection and refocusing, not unlike the 'Oesh' greeting on entering a Kyokushinkai dojo in my high school days.

Of course science has its own issues with perception and reality. One might argue that reality cannot be perceived 'like it is' but only through our senses and instruments. But at least science is trying to close the gap. Not all actors in 'the real world' have the same intention.

Last week, about half an hour after I'd publicly argued that the primary function of government should be to protect its citizens against real (rather than perceived) risks and conflicts of interests, a leading European politician in the area of public health joined the meeting and asserted that perception of independence may be more important than independence itself. Like usual he left directly after his speech, no time for questions or comments.

It is perhaps to be expected that politicians considering the next election or appointment round will value public perception and Eurobarometer outcomes over reality. For public health, however, a focus on perceived rather than real risks is a bad idea; it wastes time and money, and may cost lives. Ideally, politicians should have the public good, rather than their own career, in mind. Those challenged by such selflessness may want to consider how future historians will judge them.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Apply with caution

I’ve decided to (almost) not write about the ILSI-EFSA case. Nor about bovists, present-day luddites, who are anti-globalists who would like to take society back. A long way back, preferably to the Dark Ages. The alternative meaning of bovist is toadstool, some of which are toxic.

In deciding to almost not write about them, I’m applying the precautionary principle. It is quite powerful, and sometimes useful. Some bovists would like to use it more often in public health decision making. However, it should be employed with caution as illustrated by the example below.

The precautionary principle is generally assumed to have been developed in Germany in the 1930s, perhaps with roots in England in the 19th century. I’d like to put forward the theory that it dates back much earlier than that; I propose that it was implemented around 50,000 years ago in a region that later became known as the Neander valley in Germany. After they discovered how to make fire, the Neanderthals argued it was very dangerous, with too many uncertainties, and invoked the precautionary principle to forbid its use. Our ancestors were less cautious. The rest, as they say, is history.

Take care, beware of bovists,


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A great start

Two citations from today’s inauguration address:

We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.”

“We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers.”

Thank you, President Obama. I’m happy to visit your great country on this historic day. Wish you all the best.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Danger: GMO (Greenpeace Membership Operation)

Whereas most would translate GMO to Genetically Modified Organism, the alternative meaning Greenpeace Membership Operation also holds true. Greenpeace and related organizations like Friends of the Earth have gained many members by demonizing GMO foods. However, their claims that all GMO foods are inherently dangerous to health have not been supported by evidence from safety studies or epidemiology.

Their latest try is related to an Austrian multi-generation study in mice that seems to show a loss of reproductive potential in GMO-fed mice (the study however was heavy criticized for technical shortcomings, e.g.

One might think Greenpeace would embrace this particular GMO food, as overpopulation is the root of all environmental problems ;-)

However, instead they claimed “… if this is not reason enough to close down the whole biotech industry once and for all, I am not sure what kind of disaster we are waiting for”.
Even if one particular GMO food would have a safety risk (which has not been demonstrated), demanding to close down the whole biotech industry is like arguing that the entire car industry should be closed if one model from one manufacturer did not meet a crash safety test.

It’s not that Greenpeace is merely employing smart marketing tactics, increasing their membership and influence at the expense of a novel technology. Worse, the result of their position on GMO foods damages public health. Resources for risk assessment, risk management and risk communication are in short supply. Due to the disruptive tactics employed by Greenpeace, and their success in making a large proportion of the (European) population believe that there must be something wrong with GMO foods, huge efforts have to be spend on GMOs by risk management, risk communication and risk assessment agencies (e.g This takes precious resources away from food safety issues like microbiological and chemical contamination that, in contrast to GMO foods, actually kill people.

I haven’t yet seen any estimates as to how many lives were damaged or lost by this inappropriate focus on GMO safety. However, I wonder how future health economists and public health historians will view the long-term effect of Greenpeace and related organisations on public health. It may well be that in the area of GMO foods, their net effect has been negative.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Still talking

The voters have spoken... and less than 1 in 150 agree with my preference. No seat in Parliament for EénNL. Should I emigrate? Note to myself: stay with science, don't go into politics ;-)

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Talking and lying

On 22 November 2006, elections will be held for the Dutch House of Representatives or Parliament (‘Tweede Kamer’). Although realising the shortcomings of politics, as illustrated by the derivation of the word parliament from the French ‘parlez’ (talking) and ‘mentir’ (lying), I consider it a citizen’s duty to vote. I’d planned to orient myself on my vote a bit earlier, but unfortunate circumstances in my family have priority.

Lately, voting is becoming more difficult. It isn't that my preferences evolve like the saying (sometimes wrongly attributed to Winston Churchill) “If you are not leftist when young, you have no heart; but if you remain leftist when growing older, you have no brain”. Voting is made harder by the similarities between politicians and cars. Modern cars, shaped by wind tunnels into optimal fuel efficiency, are hard to distinguish from each other. Likewise, polls and focus groups have moulded most politicians, especially those from the big established parties, into almost identical creatures. One must take care not to succumb to sympathy for religious fundamentalist, racist, or otherwise distasteful politicians just because they seem authentic compared to the wind tunnel models.

The Dutch political system offers the choice between several parties, and allows for creation of new parties in a relatively easy way. This is a clear benefit over systems that are essentially two-party, particularly those that seem to evolve into an almost ridiculous 50-50 split of the population (why vote? Just toss a coin). In contrast we Dutch must avoid the paralysis of choice: 25 parties have registered, 18 of them participating country-wide, of which 12 are expected to win seats in Parliament. I lack the time and the endurance to watch the circus of political debate that is unfolding on Dutch television; moreover, this will mostly involve wind tunnel candidates and is expected to be rather boring. In that sense, the late Pim Fortuyn is clearly missed. Not being wind tunnel shaped he enlivened the debate; sadly, he inspired the first political murder in the Netherlands in about four hundred years.

One of the most peculiar newcomers is the Animal Party (Partij voor de Dieren). It’s not like, decennia after giving women the right to vote, we’ve done the same for animals. Rather, apparently some people think that humans are so well off in The Netherlands, it’s time to give priority to animals. In the short novel Gen’esis I introduced the fictional activist group NatureFirst, whose members plan to commit suicide after having murdered as many people as possible, arguing that nature is best served by extinction of the human race. Within a year following publication, Pim Fortuyn was murdered by an animal activist. I guess his murderer Volkert van der Graaf will be made a honorary member of the Partij voor de Dieren.

Talking about voting rights, the Calvinist Staatkundig Gereformeerde Partij has for a long time been against voting rights for women (they probably still are – I wanted to check their website, but that is closed on Sundays. How this brings back memories from boring forced-inactive Sundays from my youth…). I’ve understood that in order not to lose half of their potential votes, they allow Calvinist women to vote for the party chosen by their husbands.

To go back to my choosing problem, wind tunnel shaping of politicians appears to diminish their charisma, so I can’t use this criterion. Fortunately, information technology is there to help. Two websites have been created to assist the indecisive voter. The first and oldest one is It starts with the question whether the Dutch should be allowed to directly choose their prime minister. In the current system, after the election the executive branch of government is formed, the biggest party delivering the PM. In contrast, many feel that the international representative of the Netherlands should be directly chosen. I wonder whether Harry Potter would have made it. As a related matter, it is a pity that the political parties, certainly the major ones, avoid addressing the future role of the Dutch royalty, whose hereditary position is an anachronism in today’s meritocratic society.

As befits the tolerant attitude of the Dutch, the query contains a question about legalisation of soft drugs. Have a joint!

Although the 30 questions cover only part of the programmes of the political parties they provide an interesting perspective, especially because the answers of the parties are also shown. Strikingly, the CDDP answers the first question affirmative, and says ‘maybe’ to the 29 others. No, they are not aiming to achieve the Guinness record for single-issue parties; according to their website they have set up a system of ‘continuous direct democracy’ (that’s the CDD) by allowing voters to select other political parties as 'leaders' on certain issues. The CDDP politicians (if elected) will then follow the 'leader' parties’ votes on these issues. An innovative idea; let’s see how it works out. Not with my vote.

Reassuringly, the Stemwijzer matches my profile close to a party I’ve voted for in the past, the VVD ('party for freedom and democracy'). However, the party leader has indicated his preference for continuing his coalition with the Christian Democrats, and I prefer to keep religion and politics separate. Moreover, the newcomer EénNL gives a better match.

The second site is After answering a list of questions, my place in the political spectrum is shown in a two-dimensional graph as right from the middle (still got some brains it appears), and neither progressive nor conservative. Closest parties in the graph, with equal distance, are again the VVD and EénNL.

Some consider a vote for a small party a lost vote, because small parties mostly don’t participate in governing. I disagree. First, opposition seats are important as well. Second, the internet tools that enable easy comparison of individual preferences with the programmes of all political parties greatly enhance the exposure of small parties to voters, so maybe after the elections they won’t be small anymore.

So with some hesitation because I haven’t seen much from their leader on television, and apart from what’s written in their programme I don’t know their intentions, I conclude EénNL may be my best choice for these elections. Congratulations Mr. Pastors. Use my vote wisely, please.