The Rise of the Robotic Work Force

ImageFamed roboticist Rodney Brooks is back with a breakthrough invention that could revitalize American manufacturing and automate millions of jobs.

From my article in Inc. Magazine

Two years ago, Scott Eckert, while on vacation in the south of France, gathered his family around his laptop. The month before, he had accepted a job as CEO of a secretive start-up that was developing an industrial robot, and now he was about to see a video of the first demo of the machine.

He and his two children watched silently as the robot, which turned out to be no more than a small, cranelike arm, shakily grabbed and lifted a plastic disk. The video ended. His 6-year-old son broke the silence. “Dad, is that it?” he said. Eckert wondered the same.

Everything about the company Eckert would soon be running had been a bit mysterious. When the headhunter contacted him months before, he wouldn’t tell Eckert much except that the company had been founded by famed scientist Rodney Brooks, who, until a few years earlier, had led…read more.

 

Innovation: Mining on the Moon

Image

Check out this solar-powered rover designed to prospect for ice on the moon.

From my article for the Big Ideas Special Report in Inc. Magazine

In the past three years, NASA satellites have discovered evidence of ice on the poles of the moon. That’s a huge boon for future space missions, because lunar ice could be a source of water, oxygen, and fuel. Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology recently unveiled a prototype of a solar-powered lunar rover, Polaris, designed to locate ice on the north pole of the moon and extract samples for analysis. The 300-pound vehicleis made of light, tough composite materials and can accommodate a drill and science instruments weighing up to 176 pounds. William (“Red”) Whittaker, director of the Field Robotics Center at Carnegie Mellon University, founded Astrobotic in 2008. Since then, the company has received $3.6 million in contracts from NASA; it is a front-runner for the Google Lunar X Prize, which will be awarded to the first team to land a privately developed robot on the moon. Astrobotic plans to send Polaris to the moon in October 2015 using a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, the same rocketused to complete a recent cargo run to the International Space Station…read more.

Rise of the (Friendly) Drones

ImageUnmanned aerial vehicles like the Predator have been a hit for the military. Just wait 
until ordinary folks get their hands on them.

From my Impatient Futurist column in the October issue of Discover Magazine

The Predator unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, has proven a formidable weapon for the U.S. military, quietly lurking in the sky and then zipping in to loose a missile on enemy targets. Its effectiveness raises an important question: When will I have a robotic plane of my own buzzing about that I might summon down to teach a lesson to some of the many deeply annoying people who cross my path? A mild Taser zap or even just a spitball would be fine.

I’m very likely out of luck on this score, due to the bizarre fact that neither Taser zaps nor spitballs share the constitutional protection afforded bullets. So I’ll just have to find other ways to make use of the tiny airborne drone that will almost certainly be at my beck and call in the not-too-distant future…read more.

House Calls for the 21st Century: Carrying a Doctor in Your Pocket

impatientHome diagnosis kits will soon let you give yourself a checkup whenever and wherever you want.

From my Impatient Futurist column in the September issue of Discover Magazine

I don’t know why people complain about going to the doctor for checkups. I’d go every week if I could. It’s not just for the sociability of exchanging interesting new microbes in the waiting room, or the pride in hearing my doctor mutter with approval when I hand her the 58-page printout of all the illnesses I’ve self-diagnosed based on what I’ve read on the Internet. Rather, it’s because I know that a lot of creepy things can happen in my body in a whole year.

Since my health insurance plan inexplicably won’t pay for weekly checkups, I’m faced with long, distressing gaps between visits. As with so many annoyances, this one got me wondering…read more.

CAN FACEBOOK-STYLE ELECTIONS PRODUCE CANDIDATES WE ACTUALLY “LIKE?”

ImageIn the coming decade, 
online primaries and elections might loosen 
America’s gridlock politics.


From my Impatient Futurist column in the September issue of Discover Magazine

Feuding between Democratic and Republican leaders has rendered the U.S. government nearly dysfunctional, with the summer 2011 deficit standoff only the most egregious recent example of gridlock run amok. As growing numbers of Americans say they are fed up with both parties, the door would seem open for an alternative. Historically, third parties have failed miserably: Ross Perot, the most successful independent presidential candidate in modern times, did not win a single state 
in 1992. Technology is changing the electoral rules, though, inspiring reformers to envision a new and more open brand of politics, one built around online voting and Facebook-style campaigns.

For a brief, shining moment last spring, it seemed as if that revolutionary concept might take hold in the United States. Americans Elect, founded and initially bankrolled by billionaire venture capitalist Peter Ackerman, launched plans to create a virtual third party via…read more.

HIGH-TECH SOAPS MIGHT JUST CLEAN UP THE PLANET

soap

The worst industrial spills call for something stronger than the old-fashioned bar sitting in your soap dish.

From my Impatient Futurist column in the June issue of Discover Magazine

Between freak arctic melting, Japanese nuclear melting, and antibiotic resistance popping up everywhere, I can’t help but see the world as tiptoeing into pre-apocalypse. If there is some sort of crapstorm coming and I’m lucky enough to survive it, there’s one thing I know for sure: I’m going to need a really good hand-cleaner for the aftermath. When I come in from a hard day of zombie hunting, it won’t be just dirt that I’ll need to get out from under my fingernails.

Actually, I could use that doomsday soap now—or rather, we all could. That’s because most of the human race has no intention of patiently waiting for an unspecified apocalypse and has already gotten a head start on mass despoiling. So far the tides of toxic waste and exploded-oil-rig crude haven’t made it as far as my sleepy burb. But right now somebody somewhere is facing a mess that Softsoap…read more.

YOUR DOMESTIC ROBOT SERVANT HAS ARRIVED (IN A FASHION)

humanoid

All you need is $400,000 and the patience of Job.

From my Impatient Futurist column in the May issue of Discover Magazine

Like many people with limited social skills, I’ve always wanted a robot. And I’ve never been the least put off by the strict movie rule that having a robot can only result in its owner being pushed down the stairs, sucked into the vacuum of outer space, or enslaved with what’s left of humanity. I’m well aware that movie rules are hardly ever wrong, but it hasn’t been fear of betrayal that’s kept me from having a robot helper. It’s been the lack of their existence, in spite of a century of big talk. And this has left me not only without the sort of non–emotion-experiencing companion who could really understand me but also with a lot more laundry, cooking, dirty dishes, and child care than a technophilic citizen of the 21st century should have to put up with.

Useful home robots have always been about 20 years in the future, according to experts—a discouraging estimate, since the same experts assure me every other exciting technology under development is only 5 years away. Yes, I know, you can drive over to Walmart and pick up a carpet-vacuuming “robot” to keep your lawn-mowing “robot” company. While you’re there, why don’t you also grab a “house” in the camping department? I’ve got no interest in keeping company with hundreds of dumb, whirring little things. Scampering scrubbers and pot-stirrers are way too small and stupid to push me down the stairs when I’m not looking. read more.

Warped Sense of Time Heightens Temptations

ImageImpulsivity arises from a tendency to want small imminent rewards more than big future benefits. How can we correct our skewed values to care for our future selves?

From my article in Scientific American

(Preview only, full article requires subscription or payment) 

Walk into any fast-food restaurant, and you can watch a small crowd of ordinary people doing something that is utterly irrational: eating junky, excess-weight-inviting food likely to leave them feeling bad about their bodies and open to a host of serious ills. We literally line up to trade our health and self-image for a few minutes of pleasant mouth feel and belly comfort—because the latter is right here, right now, whereas the former is months, years and decades away…read more.

The Perfected Self

B. F. Skinner’s notorious theory of behavior modification was denounced by critics 50 years ago as a fascist, manipulative vehicle for government control. But Skinner’s ideas are making an unlikely comeback today, powered by smartphone apps that are transforming us into thinner, richer, all-around-better versions of ourselves. The only thing we have to give up? Free will.

From my cover story in the June 2012 issue of The Atlantic

 

My younger brother Dan gradually put on weight over a decade, reaching 230 pounds two years ago, at the age of 50. Given his 5-foot-6 frame, that put him 45 pounds above the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s threshold of obesity. Accompanying this dubious milestone were a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes and multiple indicators of creeping heart disease, all of which left him on a regimen of drugs aimed at lowering his newly significant risks of becoming seriously ill and of dying at an unnecessarily early age

He’d be in good company: a 2007 study by TheJournal of the American Medical Association found that each year, 160,000 Americans die early for reasons related to obesity, accounting for more than one in 20 deaths. The costs are not just bodily. Other studies have found that a person 70 or more pounds overweight racks up extra lifetime medical costs of as much as $30,000, a figure that varies with race and gender. And we seem to be just warming up: cardiologists who have looked at current childhood obesity rates…read more

Disruption Comes (Finally!) to Commercial Real Estate

How Jason Freedman (no relation) and 42Floors cooked up a killer business idea that could turn commercial real estate on its head.

From my article in the May issue of  Inc. Magazine

Jason Freedman hunches his shoulders against New York City’s December chill and walks faster, nudged both by the cold and by being late. He and David Woodworth, co-founders of an Internet company called 42Floors, both stand out a bit with their buoyant, vulnerable Californianess as they swim against the trudging, elbowing crowds.

Focused on the iPhone he clutches a foot in front of his face for navigational purposes, oblivious to how dorky and unsafe this seems on these streets, Freedman races on to the next stop in a two-day string of meetings, Woodworth trailing a few feet behind.

Freedman and Woodworth are several months into the creation of 42Floors, which aims to… read more

The Kitchen of the Future

An introduction to the visionaries planning tomorrow’s high-tech, ultra-efficient, green, and even mood-altering spaces designed for much more than cooking.

From my article in the April 2012 issue of Gourmet Live

The kitchen of the future has a long past. At world fairs and trade shows going back more than a century, crowds have been tantalized with slick visions of the extraordinary ways we’d be preparing foods in the coming decades. In particular, notes Ruth Oldenziel, a professor of American and European history at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, and coeditor of the book Cold War Kitchen, futuristic kitchens have long been used by marketers to excite us about new technologies. In the 1900s, it was the magic of natural-gas stoves, then in the 1920s and 1930s, the spread of electric and telephone utilities, then refrigeration in the 1940s, on through microwave ovens in the 1950s and even nuclear power in the Atomic Age kitchen (to say nothing of today’s quesadilla presses and single-serving coffeemakers). “In every generation, the kitchen of the future is a sort of passport photo for innovation,” says Oldenziel.

But lost in all the fuss over electromechanical, thermal, and radiative marvels, according to Oldenziel, was much discussion about changes…read more

Coupon Deals and the Search for New Customers

From my article in the Small Business Blog of The New York Times

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about two small businesses that were taking different approaches to employing Groupon-style social-network marketing as a way of drumming up business.

One of them, a restaurant called Acropolis in Needham, Mass., went with Living Social, whose service closely follows the Groupon model — meaning the coupon company sends the offer out to its large database of local consumers, takes a big chunk of the revenue that comes from selling the discount vouchers, and doesn’t share much customer information with the small business that buys the deal.

The other, the Urban Escape Day Spa in Golden, Colo., tried a new service called SaveLocal, which is offered by Constant Contact, a company best known for its e-mail marketing tools. With SaveLocal, there are some important differences…read more

Your Personal Automated Mass Transit Vehicle Is on Its Way

Get out of your car and into your flying train, 
superclean superbus, and most impressive of all, your personal subway.

From my Impatient Futurist column in the the April issue of Discover

Despite my mania for all manner of irresponsible personal vehicles, I’m actually a public-transportation nut. A few of the reasons:
• I can read, check email, send text messages, or catch a few winks while I’m zipping to my destination
• I have built-in motivation for walking, given that I have to get to and from the bus or train stop
• I feel good that my ride isn’t fueled by the conversion of fossilized sea life into impending climate catastrophe
• I get to trade small talk and occasional newspaper sections with fellow transit riders.

But I know you have your very good reasons for being among the 98 percent of the population that shuns public transportation:
• You can read, check email, send text messages, or catch a few winks while you’re swerving into oncoming traffic and pedestrians
• You have built-in motivation for stopping at Wendy’s for celebration takeout, given that you haven’t had to walk more than nine consecutive steps the entire day
• You feel good about the copious burning of hydrocarbons, which is creating valuable new beachfront property
• You get to trade hand gestures and occasional gunfire with fellow traffic jammers.

Ok, go ahead and sneer at my bus through the windshield of your Range Rollover…read more

Good News, Spock—We’re Getting Closer to a Universal Translator

The rapid advancement of Google-style, statistical translation may help realize this long-time dream.

From my Impatient Futurist column in the the March issue of Discover

Those of us for whom Star Trek serves as a benchmark for technological progress can only bemoan the fact that hopes for faster-than-light travel to other galaxies seem to be receding at warp speed, given that we no longer even have faster-than-sound travel to France. But I would prefer to focus on the bright side: We’re rapidly closing in on the Universal Translator, which means that when I do finally arrive in France, I’ll be able to communicate as easily as if I were on Earth.

The Universal Translator, of course, was a handheld device that 
instantly converted Captain Kirk’s futuristically clipped English into the language of whichever vaguely humanoid alien was offering to buy him a blue drink. It is impossible to overemphasize…read more

Evernote: Company of the Year

Evernote is rejecting industry trends, getting customers to pay for something that’s free, and reinventing the way we remember

From my article in the December 2011 issue of Inc. magazine

Phil Libin remembers the moment he left childhood behind. It was nearly four years ago, when the funding for his Internet start-up fell through. He was 35.

   It had all been so much fun until then. But at 3 a.m., out of cash and having waited in vain for a venture capitalist or angel or CEO or anyone at all to return his increasingly desperate calls, Libin knew that he would have to pull the plug on Evernote, a software application that helps people remember things. “I realized I was going to have to wake up tomorrow and lay off everyone in the company,” he says….read more

Science Finds a Better Way to Teach Science

After doing some much-needed research, cognitive scienctists are suggesting a new way to boost students’ lagging scores: Get rid of the hallowed (and stultifying) classroom lecture

From my Impatient Futurist column in the the December 2011 issue of Discover

Teaching well is hard. I can cite my direct observations of the hundreds of victims of my occasional efforts over the years as a teacher of physics and writing. As I have stood lecturing brilliantly to a few dozen purportedly eager collegians, it has not escaped my attention that at any one time only three or four seem awake enough to keep up with their text messaging.
   Clearly the problem is not the content or presentation style of my lecturing, which, as I may have neglected to mention, is brilliant, or so I was once assured by a student who stayed after class to ask for a sixth extension on an assignment. Then again, from what I recall of my college days, I wasn’t exactly on the edge of my seat at my professors’ lectures, either. And most of my fellow lecturers don’t report much different. Could the problem be with the nature of lecturing itself?…read more

The Man Who Gave Us Less for More

Examining the crushing success of Steve Jobs

From my article in the January 2012 issue of Discover
(#8 of the top 100 science stories of 2011)


I was front row center when Steve Jobs unveiled the Apple Macintosh to the world in 1984 in 
Boston. While the crowd cheered and clapped 
and squealed, I was scratching my head. What did this pretty beige box offer that a hundred other computers didn’t already offer, besides a higher price, much less choice in software, and no 
compatibility with the rest of the world’s devices?…read more

Layer by Layer

With 3-D printing, manufacturers can make existing products more efficiently—and create ones that weren’t possible before

From my article in the January 2012 issue of Technology Review

GE thinks it has a better way to make jet-engine fuel injectors: by printing them. To do it, a laser traces out the shape of the injector’s cross-section on a bed of cobalt-chrome powder, fusing the powder into solid form to build up the injector one ultrathin layer at a time. This promises to be less expensive than traditional manufacturing methods, and it should lead to a lighter part—which is to say a better one.

The innovation is at the forefront of a radical change in manufacturing technology that is especially appealing in advanced applications like aerospace and cars. The 3-D printing techniques won’t just make it more efficient to produce existing parts. They will also make it possible to produce things that weren’t even conceivable before—like parts with complex, scooped-out shapes that minimize weight without sacrificing strength. And the technology could reduce the need to store parts in inventory, because it’s just as easy to print another part—or an improved version of it—10 years after the first one was made. An automobile manufacturer receiving reports of a failure in a seat belt mechanism could have a reconfigured version on its way to dealers within days…read more

In Memoriam: The Space Shuttle

With great ambivalence we note the passing of 
the first and only reusable spaceship, the space shuttle, 
on July 21, 2011. Our prayers are with NASA.

From my article in the January 2012 issue of Discover
(#6 of the top 100 science stories of 2011)

The space shuttle, which long served NASA and humankind as a low-Earth-orbit 18-wheeler, died on July 21 at the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida, after gliding to an uneventful touchdown from a routine mission. It was 39 years old. The shuttle program had been suffering for several years from a wasting loss of enthusiasm for its high price tag and untamed risks. The final cause of death was failure to find any reason to keep pouring billions of dollars into an obsolete space ferry that lacked a stirring mission…read more

A Few TV Appearances

I was on John Stossel’s show on Fox in September, discussing why experts often turn out to be wrong. You can watch it by clicking on the “play” icon above, or by going here.

And because of Andy Rooney’s death, I thought I’d repost the CBS segment in which Rooney and I tour his office to discuss the useful role that clutter can play. You can see the clip here.

Why Economic Models Are Always Wrong

A fundamental problem with the mathematics of models ensures we’ll always get unreliable predictions

From my article on the Scientific American Website, posted Oct. 26, 2011 (A companion piece to my feature article on economic models in the Nov. 2011 print edition, posted just below
)

When it comes to assigning blame for the current economic doldrums, the quants who build the complicated financial risk models, and the traders who rely on them, deserve their share of the blame. But what if there were a way to come up with

simpler models that perfectly reflected reality? And what if we had perfect financial data to plug into them?

   Incredibly, even under those utterly unrealizable conditions, we’d still get bad predictions from models.
   The reason is that current methods used to “calibrate” models often render them inaccurate….read more

Study proves it’s not unhealthy to be overweight? Nah.

Researchers at the University of Manitoba have released a study on the relationship between body mass and health problems. Here’s a typical mass-media report on the findings, headlined, “Overweight people don’t have bigger health problems, study finds.”
 
It’s an epidemiological study, which means researchers looked back at a bunch of historical data about people and then tried to draw associations between those people with certain characteristics or behaviors, and how they fared over time. Epidemiological studies are much cheaper and easier and usually quicker to do than almost any other type of study, and they seem impressive because they often involve large numbers of people. But they also are some of the least reliable studies, being typically plagued with just about every problem that a study can have, including confounders (what happens to people in the study may have little or nothing to do with the causes that are being looked at), confusion of cause and effect (what happens to people in the study may actually be causing the factors that are being studied, rather than being caused by them),unrepresentative samples (the people being studied may not be typical of the population we care about), trying to draw conclusions from small differences, and more. Most studies about the relationship between health and weight we hear about are epidemiological studies,and we’ve had ample evidence over time that these are some of the least reliable among generally unreliable epidemiological studies.
But there may be something else to worry about with the conclusions of this Manitoba study, something that makes me wonder if the findings are actually right–but not for the reasons implied in reports of the study. 
Last year I met with Oberlin College biologist Keith Tarvin, who studies foraging behavior in animals. Tarvin explained to me that throughout most of the animal kingdom, animals will generally put on excess weight when provided with plenty of calorie-rich food and not givenany reason to be physically active, such as having to forage or hunt for food, or having to avoid predators. (Animals that need to keep weight down in order to survive are sometimes an exception–birds,for example, can’t fly if they get too heavy.) Situations where animals lose weight, on the other hand, are usually associated with some pathological state or threat–as for example when fish keep weight off in order stay small to be less visible to and appealing to predators, or to slow their maturation in order to preserve fertility and lower energy needs during times of drought, extreme temperatures,food shortages or other environmental pressures.
In other words–and at this point I’m merely expressing a conjecture that came up in my chat with Tarvin—it may be that, weight-related health factors aside, having a stronger appetite is associated with being well-suited to the environment. Or to put it differently,keeping weight off when there is plenty of rich food around and no pressing reason to be physically active is, in a sense, a pathological state. Apply this theory to human society today–and at this point I’m degenerating into my own conjecture–and we might well predict that being overweight is associated with being, in some ways at least, healthier than those who keep weight off.
Does this mean we should stop worrying about being overweight? Absolutely not. To conclude as much would be confusing cause and effect. If this conjecture is right, it means that being overweight is in someways an effect of being healthy; it doesn’t mean that being overweight confers any health benefits. And in fact, the possible rightness of this conjecture should have no bearing whatsoever on the well-established fact that carrying excess fat is generally unhealthy, and that people improve their health and lower their health risks when they lose excess fat.
Even if it’s true that people who are overweight are in many cases healthier in some ways than many people who are not overweight, theselucky overweight would still on average even further improve their health by losing the excess weight, and those who are not overweight would become less healthy by putting on excess weight.That doesn’t mean that weight loss is a pathological state, even though it’s usually associated with one in the animal kingdom. We should understand that the loss of excess weight is a good thing,even if, in a way, it is an unnatural thing in our society of plentiful, overly stimulating, calorie-dense food and sedentary lifestyles. That’s why our goal should be, in effect, to change what’s natural in our society–so that people are pushed by everything they see around them to avoiding excess weight, rather than being pushed to consume rich food and avoid physical activity as they are today.
To have even a decent chance of proving that losing excess weight will make you healthier–or to solidly prove just about any theory about the relationship between excess weight and health–we’d need a randomized controlled trial in which people are randomly assigned to either become fatter than they are, or lose weight, or maintain their weight. That trial is never going to happen, for what I hope are obvious reasons. And this brings us back to the problems with epidemiological studies like the one done in Manitoba. They rarely answer the questions we really want to ask. Instead, they give us answers that only raise more questions. There’s nothing wrong with that–it’s how science operates. We should be grateful scientists are conducting these studies, and appreciate the fact that they add to our knowledge base. But we should also be aware of the extreme limitations and qualifications that attach to the findings.
Inthe case of the Manitoba study, I think it’s fair to say the study at best tells us little about the healthfulness of avoiding being overweight, and at worst is, at least in how it’s being reported,extremely and even dangerously misleading. One of the biggest problems with the obesity crisis is the lack of awareness and motivation on the part of a sizable percentage of overweight people.When a study like this gets press claiming that being overweight seems to be as healthy as not being overweight, we take a big step backwards, and cause real damage that could in principle be measured in the loss of many years of life in the population, not to mention the drop in quality of life experienced on average by the overweight.I wish scientists and journalists would start taking these issues into account in their reports to journals and the mass media.

A Formula for Economic Calamity

Despite the lessons of the 2008 collapse, Wall Street is betting our future on flimsy science

From my article in the November 2011 issue of Scientific American

The market crash of 2008 that plunged the world into the economic recession from which it is still reeling had many causes. One of them was mathematics. Financial investment firms had developed such complex ways of investing their clients’ money that they came to rely on arcane formulas to judge the risks they were taking on. Yet as we learned so painfully three years ago, those formulas, or models, are only pale reflections of the real world, and sometimes they can be woefully misleading….read more

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2011

[Includes my Atlantic article profiling meta-researcher John Ioannidis]


From the introduction, by Mary Roach:

…Good science writing is medicine. It is a cure for ignorance and fallacy. Good science writing peels away the blinders, generates wonder, brings the open palm to the forehead: Oh! Now I get it! And sometimes it does much more than that…. (See the book.)

Doing Business in China

Michael Lee is on the verge of becoming the first American entrepreneur to build big in the world’s most populous country

From my article in the Oct. 2011 issue of Inc. magazine

Michael Lee is eerily quiet as his world comes down noisily around him. Packed into a cramped conference room in his company’s modest offices in Nanjing, China, Lee’s key managers are at one another’s throats. The more angrily they spit blame at one another for the disastrous, unsalvageable situation the company finds itself in, the more enervated Lee seems to become, until finally he is no more than a slumped statue following the action only with slight movements of his eyes….read more

Why US Green-Tech Firms Are Moving to China

Boston Power’s move reflects China’s willingness to provide incentives for companies in electric vehicles and other strategic industries

From my Sep. 9, 2011, article on the Technology Review Website

Many in the U.S. have an interest in getting clean-tech ventures off the ground. Among them are the government, capital markets, industry, and science labs. But China seems ready to do more on every front to make such projects happen, and to do it right now—without red tape or concern about economic turmoil.
     Leading-edge battery maker Boston Power appears to have come to that conclusion. The company is set to move to China, where the government is helping to cut the firm a $125-million deal that no one else is likely to match. The deal could leave the company poised to be a part of what could be a mushrooming market there in electric vehicles…..read more

The Impact of an Obese Presidential Candidate–Chris Christie?–on the Obesity Crisis

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie continues to insist he won’t seek the Republican nomination for the U.S. presidency, but many suggest he’s likely to reconsider. I normally avoid commenting on any individual’s weight issues, but I feel compelled to make an exception for Christie, who is obese, for two reasons. First, he’s a high-profile public figure who seems to be at least flirting with those who want him to run for president, which in my opinion means he ought to expect to surrender all rights to privacy in virtually all aspects of his life, as have most governors, not to mention potential presidential candidates. Second, the president of the United States is a role model for tens of millions of people, perhaps especially including children. Anything the president does, or anything he or she is, is likely to affect the choices people make about themselves for years to come. And in this the choices relate to a serious crisis in public health.

Let me start off by saying that in no way do I have anything critical or negative to say about Christie with regard to his obesity. Obesity in general has become a major crisis for humankind, and for most individuals it is a disaster at least for health, and likely in other ways. But that doesn’t mean that people who are obese have done anything wrong or inappropriate, or that there is anything deficient in their character or behavior, or that they should be given a hard time. I’d like to see most obese people motivated and encouraged to adopt healthier behaviors, and supported in their efforts to do so, both for their own sake and the sake of all us, since all of society feels the pain of the resulting high health-care costs, lowered productivity, and higher risks of obesity (given that it has been clearly proven that obese people raise the chances that the people around them will be obese, for a variety of reasons). But I’m strongly opposed to obese people being insulted or otherwise being given a hard time over obesity. Christie is no exception, public figure and role model or not. His weight doesn’t in any way affect what I think about him as a person or politician.

However, I think it’s fair and even necessary to speculate on the effect that having an obese president, or even candidate, could have on the public’s battle with obesity. I see two obvious possibilities:

1) It makes the problem of obesity worse by allowing obese people to feel that there must not be much of a problem with obesity, since we have such an admirable public figure who is obese.

2) It would help millions to lose weight by calling more attention to the problems related to obesity and solutions available to fix it.

Which way would it go? I think it would depend on what the obese candidate or president said about obesity. If he or she talked about it openly as a struggle and discussed the benefits of and means for losing weight in a smart way–namely, through behavior change approaches–then I think this person could be the best thing that’s happened to public health in a long time. If he or she refused to speak about it, or, even worse, insisted on explicitly passing obesity off as a non-problem, or made a comfortable joke of it, I think it would be a public health catastrophe.

I think there’s reason to believe Christie would be the more helpful sort of candidate and president with regard to attitudes about obesity. He was one of the first and very few prominent Republicans to speak out in favor of Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign, defending it against widespread Republican criticism. In my opinion that makes for an excellent litmus test on this question. Ms. Obama’s campaign is low-key but brilliant, hitting a real sweet spot in encouraging modest, gradual, comfortable, sustainable behavior change of the sort that could significantly improve the lifetime health of tens of millions of children. Most Republicans who have spoken out on it, meanwhile, have treated it like an evil conspiracy. It took courage and wisdom on Christie’s part to go against that flow.

That Christie himself is obese wouldn’t take away from any support he offers of efforts to do something sane about the public problem. Indeed, his own condition would likely add to the impact of any support he offered, and that would be true whether or not he himself is willing and able to substantially improve his health and health risks by losing some weight or speaking out on his own struggles. Were he to take those additional steps, of course, and become president, he could single-handedly become a hurricane of life-saving change in America.



One thing I can’t make up my mind on is what the effect would likely be if an obese candidate or president advocated a less-sound approach to weight loss. I fear that having a president who proudly announced being on an ultra-low-fat or ultra-low-carb diet, or a fasting diet, or a drug-assisted diet, or who expressed an interest in bariatric surgery, might end up doing more harm than good. These just aren’t safe and effective approaches to weight loss for most people over the long term, and embracing such an approach would lead many people to try them and end up regaining the weight, while distracting them from the behavioral approaches that can actually help over the long term. That potential damage, of course, would have to be weighed against the benefits of having a candidate or president who was at least willing to confront the problem of obesity and advocate taking action.

In any case, I truly hope voters don’t make any candidate’s excess weight a factor in their choices. But if we do elect a president who is obese, I hope he or she can at least on a public level become part of the solution to the obesity crisis, not the problem.


By the way, here’s a video of some of the media coverage of Christie’s weight vis a vis his candidacy:
http://www.newsy.com/embed-video/8585/


The Triumph of New-Age Medicine

Carefully controlled studies have shown alternative medicine to work no better than a placebo. But now many doctors admit that alternative medicine often seems to do a better job of making patients well

From my story in the July/August 2011 issue of The Atlantic

…You might think the weight of the clinical evidence would close the case on alternative medicine, at least in the eyes of mainstream physicians and scientists who aren’t in a position to make a buck on it. Yet many extremely well-credentialed scientists and physicians with no skin in the game take issue with the black-and-white view espoused by Salzberg and other critics. And on balance, the medical community seems to be growing more open to alternative medicine’s possibilities, not less.
   That’s in large part because mainstream medicine itself is failing. “Modern medicine was formed around successes in fighting infectious disease,” says Elizabeth Blackburn, a biologist at the University of California at San Francisco and a Nobel laureate… read more

Angry Responses to My Piece On Alternative Medicine

First of all, my deep apologies for not posting in so long. I’m going to get back to a regular schedule, I promise.

My long article on alternative medicine came out a few days ago in The Atlantic. In a nutshell, I explain why more and more doctors are recognizing that alternative medicine does a better job in some ways with many patients than mainstream medicine does–even though the core physical treatments of alternative medicine seem to rely mostly or entirely on the placebo effect. In particular, I make the case that alternative practitioners tend to invest more time and effort in helping patients adopt healthier lifestyles and attitudes than do mainstream doctors, and these changes are likely to do more for most people’s health and wellness on average than mainstream treatments.

Not surprisingly, several prominent medical-science bloggers have gone ballistic at the suggestion that alternative medicine might have something going for it. Here’s a brief list of links to some of the notable, highly critical responses to the article:

Steven Salzberg’s response
Steven Novella’s response
David Gorski’s response
Matthew Herper’s response

I responded at modest length to each of these posts in the comment sections under the posts (except for Salzberg’s post to the Atlantic, where my response is on a separate page. Salzberg and Novella, both highly respected scientists (and Novella is a physician as well) known to be strongly opposed to alternative medicine, were interviewed by me at length for the article, and their viewpoints were, I think it’s fair to say, well-represented in the article. (Neither has suggested otherwise.) I didn’t interview Gorski, but mentioned him in passing in the piece. Gorski is a physician-scientist who must be among the angriest voices on the planet with regard to alternative medicine–he is the hardest-core of this group of hard-core anti-alternative-medicine warriors–and he went after me some months ago with regard to my Atlantic profile of John Ioannidis, the highly acclaimed physician-researcher who has found so many problems with published medical research. Herper is, I believe, a lowly journalist like myself.

I’d like to make some relatively broad comments about these mostly angry responses to my article. I’ll start off by pointing out that while these folks imply (they of course don’t come out and say so) that they are representing mainstream medicine and indeed all of science and perhaps all of Western thought, they are not. As my article makes clear, mainstream medicine has been slowly moving toward increasing acceptance of alternative medicine. Increasingly, Gorski and other hard-core opponents of alternative medicine are themselves gradually being pushed toward the fringes of medicine. (Gorski concedes as much in his post.) Whereas I found top physician-researchers happy to say good things about alternative medicine wherever I looked, including at some the most prestigious academic medical centers in the world–I wasn’t even able to fit them all into the article–I had to work a bit to line up two highly respected, articulate scientists who were intensely opposed to it so I could fairly present that point of view in the article.

Don’t take my word for it–go out and ask physicians you trust what they think of alternative medicine. Yes, many still object to it, and most have some concerns and hesitations about it (as do I), but I’ve found that most have come to accept to some extent the fact that some of their patients, for whatever reasons, seem to get some real benefits from it, and often with problems that seemed resistant to mainstream medicine. Why would a caring physician, or any scientist, find this fact so hard to take?

Some of the attacks on my article also attempt to paint me as an alternative-medicine “apologist.” But what does that even mean? Am I imagined to attend meetings of my fellow apologists where we come up with our arguments together? Apparently I’m being assigned to some terrible camp for which I’m supposed to be judged, rather than for my actual argument. Are my attackers mainstream-medicine apologists? Do any of us have to stoop to name-calling to make our points? For the record, I’ve never had anything to do with alternative medicine in my entire life until I took on this article, either as a patient or a journalist, and I did my best to come into it with an open mind, and with no skin in the game. If I’m an apologist for this field, I’m an incidental one.

There are two main claims that underlie all the attacks on my article. They are: 1) Because physicians could in principle provide the sort of health-improving attention to patients that alternative practitioners by most accounts are today much more likely to provide, and because it is so difficult to clearly prove that alternative practitioners do in fact do a better job in this regard, it’s wrong to say that alternative medicine offers any advantage in this regard.  And, 2), because alternative medicine incorporates core treatments that don’t actually have the (implausible) direct physical effect claimed, but rather work by the placebo effect, alternative medicine is a fundamentally evil, anti-scientific entity (voodoo!), and therefore one must never suggest there is any aspect of alternative medicine that might be good.

I can only shrug at these notions. You’ll either buy them or you won’t. I don’t, and most physicians don’t, as far as I can tell.

Those two basic arguments underlie Gorski’s particularly rabid rant, too. But if you read it, you’ll quickly find yourself buried in a detailed, apparently point-by-point refutation of virtually everything I say in my article. He goes through the article paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, finding in each the logical flaw, the fallacy, the error of argument. Do I compare A and B? Then I’m a fool because A and B are different! Do I contrast C and D? Then I’m a fool, because it’s a false dichotomy! Do I assert a point about science? What do I know about science, I’m a journalist, and therefore a fool! Do I quote a Nobel Laureate? Then I’m a fool, because I’m arguing from authority! Do I point out a problem with mainstream medicine? Then, fool that I am, I’m setting up a straw man! Do I cite a study? Then I’m a fool, because that study was trash, or I’ve misinterpreted it, or it doesn’t apply here! Do I say that randomized studies, the gold standard of medical science, can’t really settle the question of whether alternative medicine might ultimately do a better job in some ways? Then I’m a fool, because any question can be settled with randomized trials, and in fact the studies have been done!

A brief aside about studies: There are hundreds of thousands of researchers whose careers depend on producing studies, so I’m not exaggerating when I say there is a study, and probably ten or 50 or 200 of them, for just about any reasonable question you could possibly think of, with results for each question pointing in every possible direction. And in medical science sooner or later someone manages to cobble together a version of study for each question that can be called a randomized study. When someone like Gorski sets out to prove a point, or (as is more often the case) trash someone else’s, he’ll point to one of these studies and cackle, QED! And when his opponent, if she is playing the same game, disses that study as junk and plunks down a different study that points in the opposite direction, Gorski will declare that study invalid in some way. And soon the two will be slapping studies down in front of each other and tearing them up like a violent game of crazy eights. I never go there. In fact, I would prefer to not quote studies at all in my articles for that reason, but editors strictly require it–I have never been able to win that argument. But I do so knowing the Gorskis out there will claim they can trump my study with their study, or howl at every point that isn’t backed up by a study.

At this point, if I were anything like Gorski, I’d fire back by taking on every single point of his rant, and show why each is flawed, and why every one of my points should stand. I won’t play that game, because it accomplishes nothing. (Well, I play it a little, but try to keep it short, and to assert a broader perspective.) There is no argument in the world that a Gorski can’t tear apart point by point, and (you’ll have to trust me on this) no tearing apart Gorski could produce that I couldn’t in turn rip to shreds. You can see these sorts of mind-numbing, often semi-childish back and forths in many of Gorski’s rants, since his targets do sometimes take the bait, and you can frequently see them play out in the comments underneath his posts, since he draws a crowd that loves playing this game.

The basic problem here is simply that of being unable to see the forest for the trees. Science by tradition endeavors to break down phenomena into their simplest component parts, and many scientists, and fans of science, become so enamored of this approach (which certainly has its benefits) that they are incapable of approaching anything any other way. I suspect this is why when Gorski enters an argument, he immediately atomizes. What he won’t, and perhaps can’t, do, is take a step back from the dueling studies and the logic errors and the flawed reasoning and the inappropriate comparisons, and instead look at the big picture objectively, and ask, What’s really going on here? What might I be missing? Is there another way of looking at this? Does there seem to be some important, underlying truth that’s being suggested here, a truth that may differ from the “truth” I’ve been clinging to, at least to some extent?

In the case of this subject, that shouldn’t be hard to do. My point is incredibly simple. Our healthcare system has left physicians unable to lavish the time on patients needed to make patients feel fully cared for, or to invest time and resources in getting patients to adopt the healthy behaviors and attitudes that are so effective in lowering the risk of our most serious diseases and in relieving the pain and discomforts of many,  many disorders. (I’m not even really making a controversial point here–you can read much the same in the pages of the New England Journal of Medicine of the Journal of the American Medical Association.) Alternative medicine practitioners often focus on these approaches, and many patients indisputably report that they benefit from it. Why should we care at all about medical science if it isn’t dedicated to making us feel more well? But the enemies of alternative medicine are so blinded by their disdain for the “voodoo” element of alternative medicine–the fact that its core treatments depend on the placebo effect, and have no plausible mechanism–that they refuse to give an inch on any aspect of alternative medicine. Never mind that this placebo effect has been shown to accomplish wonders with regard to how patients feel, or that many and probably most of the drugs that physicians prescribe also don’t do much more than placebo for most patients, along with carrying a risk of horrific side effects. And again, you can look all that up in the medical journals.

What I’ve tried to do in my Atlantic article, and in most of my work these days, is raise questions in areas where people already think they know the answer, but may not. I try hard to resist the temptation to claim that everyone should simply embrace a different answer, but rather merely endeavor to show that there may be a different answer, or set of answers, that work, to some extent, in some situations, for some people. I want to provoke intelligent conversation on a subject where many or most people didn’t think there was anything to discuss. I want to open closed doors. But the Gorskis of the world treat intellectual doors as if it is their sworn duty to keep them tightly latched shut. They claim they’re defending science. I assure you they are not. Nothing more closely represents the spirit of science than open-mindedness and a determination to put biases aside and seek out the ways in which one might be wrong. Nothing is a bigger affront to the scientific spirit than to put all one’s might into trashing all arguments and evidence that threatens a preferred point of view. I estimate I’ve interviewed over a thousand scientists in my career, and the great majority of them were perfectly willing to confess their doubts, their hesitations, their concerns with being wrong, the questions that haunt their work and beliefs. The scientists who never give an inch when confronted with opposition to their claims and beliefs, who react with bile and disdain, who tear apart and take no prisoners, are as far as I can tell outliers, and are easily and best ignored. They can blog to their hearts’ content, and win a core of like-minded fans, but in the end they won’t do much harm. They’re noisy preachers to the choirs.

But here’s the biggest point I’d like to make about the alternative-medicine debate: Don’t take my word for it, don’t take the word of the Nobel Laureate or the top scientists I quote, don’t take the word of the alternative-medicine practitioners I quote, and please, please don’t take Gorski’s word for it. Go out and see for yourself. Talk to mainstream doctors, and alternative-medicine practitioners. Talk to people about their experiences with different types of treatments. Decide for yourself whether there isn’t something interesting going on with alternative medicine, something that seems to provide real help to some patients who were let down in some way by mainstream medicine. We don’t all have to agree on what exactly is going on here, or whether it is entirely a good thing. But I’ll bet you won’t end up thinking that, as Gorski and others assert, alternative medicine is a purely evil and harmful thing that must be crushed. But fair warning: You may end being called an alternative-medicine apologist. On the other hand, you’ll be in good company.