Tag Archives: selected

Inside the Flour Company Supplying America’s Sudden Baking Obsession

In Marker

A bag of King Arthur Flour propped up next to a baguette, eggs, and a whisk.

How King Arthur Flour found itself in the unlikely crosshairs of a pandemic

From my article in Marker, posted May 20, 2020

Baking bread was a regular family affair in Linda Ely’s childhood home, leaving her with a lifelong bread-baking habit and some powerful memories. “I think of my family every single time I bake,” she says.

Ely has been able to pay some of that gift forward to the thousands of people she has advised over the Baker’s Hotline run by the company she works for — and is to a tiny degree a part-owner of — King Arthur Flour. But in early March, Ely noticed a change in the questions. Partly it was an increase in the sheer number of calls, a jump that seemed more sudden and pronounced than the normal mild pre-Easter build-up. But even stranger was how many of the callers seemed, well, clueless. How do you tell if bread is done? Do I really need yeast? And strangest of all: What can I use instead of flour?….Read more

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A Prophet of Scientific Rigor—and a Covid Contrarian

In Wired

Collage of text medical symbols and portrait of Iannidid

John Ioannidis laid bare the foibles of medical science. Now medical science is returning the favor.

From my article for Wired, posted May 1, 2020

I’M STARING AT a small sea of frowning faces on Zoom. “I’m really angry about this,” says one of them. These are medical students at Columbia University, and I’m speaking to a class on communicating medicine. They’ve been friendly up until now, but that all changed when I brought up Stanford University epidemiologist John Ioannidis.

Ioannidis has been a fixture in medical-school curricula for years, achieving something akin to hero status. He’s one of the most-cited scientists of any type in the world, earning acclaim by dedicating his career to telling the fields of biomedicine (and others, too) how little trust one should have in their published research. But almost literally overnight Ioannidis has himself become a case study in how to screw up a medical study. And not just any study: This one concludes that Covid-19 isn’t all that dangerous….Read more

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Hunting for New Drugs with AI

In Nature

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The pharmaceutical industry is in a drug-discovery slump. How much can AI help?

From my article in the December 18, 2019, issue of Nature (“Innovations In” section)

….Because finding new, successful drugs has become so much harder, the average cost of bringing one to market nearly doubled between 2003 and 2013 to $2.6 billion, according to the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development. These same challenges have increased the lab-to-market time line to 12 years, with 90 percent of drugs washing out in one of the phases of human trials. It’s no wonder, then, that the industry is enthusiastic about artificial-intelligence tools for drug development….Read more

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Do You Trust Jeff Bezos With Your Life?

In Newsweek

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Tech giants like Amazon are getting into the health care business

From my cover story in the December 3, 2019, Newsweek

NwswkDrAmazonCoverOnlyArmed with two-day delivery, Amazon put thousands of stores out of business and established hegemony in retail. Along with others in Big Tech, the company also turned what you might have thought were your private doings into a marketable product. Now Amazon is positioning itself to move into health care in a big way. Experts think the $230-billion-in-annual-revenues retail giant is preparing to launch a service aimed at bringing nearly all health care together in a single, user-friendly app with all the convenience and pricing-transparency of its online store–and all the privacy and competition-crushing concerns, too….Read more

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The Worst Patients in the World

In The Atlantic

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Americans are hypochondriacs, yet we skip our checkups. We demand drugs we don’t need, and fail to take the ones we do. No wonder the U.S. leads the world in health spending.

From my article in the July 2019 issue of The Atlantic

I was standing two feet away when my 74-year-old father slugged an emergency-room doctor who was trying to get a blood-pressure cuff around his arm. I wasn’t totally surprised: An accomplished scientist who was sharp as a tack right to the end, my father had nothing but disdain for the entire U.S. health-care system, which he believed piled on tests and treatments intended to benefit its bottom line rather than his health. He typically limited himself to berating or rolling his eyes at the unlucky clinicians tasked with ministering to him, but more than once I could tell he was itching to escalate….Read more

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With a Simple Twist, a ‘Magic’ Material Is Now the Big Thing in Physics

In Quanta

QuantaGrapheneImage2The stunning emergence of a new type of superconductivity with the mere twist of a carbon sheet has left physicists giddy, and its discoverer nearly overwhelmed.

From my April 30, 2019, article in Quanta Magazine (also published in Wired)

Pablo Jarillo-Herrero is channeling some of his copious energy into a morning run, dodging startled pedestrians as he zips along, gradually disappearing into the distance. He’d doubtlessly be moving even faster if he weren’t dressed in a sports coat, slacks and dress shoes, and confined to one of the many weirdly long corridors that crisscross the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Jarillo-Herrero has never been a slacker, but his activity has jumped several levels since his dramatic announcement in March 2018 that his lab at MIT had found superconductivity in twisted bilayer graphene — a one-atom-thick sheet of carbon crystal dropped on another one, and then rotated to leave the two layers slightly askew….Read more

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How to Almost Learn Italian

In The Atlantic

Language apps like Duolingo are addictive—but not particularly effective.

From my article in the December 2018 issue of The Atlantic

Late one chilly evening last September, I excused myself from a small group huddled around a campfire to peck at and mumble into my phone.

No way was a camping trip going to make me miss my Italian lesson.

For most of the preceding year, I had religiously attended to my 15-minute-or-so daily encounters with the language-learning app Duolingo. I used it on trains, while walking across town, during previews at the movie theater. I was planning a trip to Rome in the late spring, and I’ve always been of the mind that to properly visit a country, you’ve got to give the language a shot.

But I had another reason for sticking with it: Duolingo is addictive….Read more

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Health Care’s ‘Upstream’ Conundrum

In Politico

When it comes to the long-term health of the country, findings now show the big problem might not be health care at all—it might be everything else. Can researchers get politicians to pay attention?

From my article in January 2018 in Politico

At the heart of America’s vaunted health care system is a frustrating puzzle. The United States pays three times as much per citizen as the average of other wealthy nations—far more than even the second-highest spender, Switzerland, adding up to $3 trillion a year. Yet for all that enormous expenditure, we come in dead last among those nations in lifespan. And as the bills climb, our life expectancy is actually shrinking.

What’s going so wrong? If our national health care were a corporation, that return on investment would get its CEO immediately fired. Plenty of experts are ready to point fingers at various causes: our lack of universal health care, industrialized food system, PoliticoUpstreamsuburban lifestyles, and profit-driven tangle of insurers and drug companies and hospitals. Surely those play a role. And yet other countries face each of these, and other challenges as well, and still manage to spend less and enjoy better health overall.

Looming over the American conversation about public health is a growing suspicion that there’s a bigger reason for our uniquely poor showing, one that has been staring us in the face for years. It’s an explanation rooted in one simple statistic: While we pay more for health care than any other country in the world, when it comes to spending on social services—education, subsidized housing, food assistance and more—we rank in the bottom 10 among developed countries.

It’s easy to think of “health” as just another category of social-service spending. But a great deal of modern research suggests that it might be more accurate to think of it as the payoff of all the other services put together. Elizabeth Bradley, president of Vassar College and a former Yale researcher widely seen as the world’s foremost expert in the relationship between social services and health, has documented how the ratio of a country’s social-service spending to health care spending is highly correlated with health outcomes around the world. “The right question for our political agenda is, ‘What’s going to give us the most bang for the buck in health outcomes?'” says Bradley. “What our work has shown is that the answer is spending on social services.” Read more

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The War on Stupid People

In The Atlantic

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American society increasingly mistakes intelligence for human worth

From my article in the July/August 2016 issue of The Atlantic

As recently as the 1950s, possessing only middling intelligence was not likely to severely limit your life’s trajectory. IQ wasn’t a big factor in whom you married, where you lived, or what others thought of you. The qualifications for a good job, whether on an assembly line or behind a desk, mostly revolved around integrity, work ethic, and a knack for getting along—bosses didn’t routinely expect college degrees, much less ask to see SAT scores. As one account of the era put it, hiring decisions were “based on a candidate having a critical skill or two and on soft factors such as eagerness, appearance, family background, and physical characteristics.”

The 2010s, in contrast, are a terrible time to not be brainy. Those who consider themselves bright openly mock others for being less so. Even in this age of rampant concern over microaggressions and victimization, we maintain open season on the nonsmart. People who’d swerve off a cliff rather than use a pejorative for race, religion, physical appearance, or disability are all too happy to drop the s‑bomb: Indeed, degrading others for being “stupid” has become nearly automatic in all forms of disagreement. Read more

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How Junk Food Can End Obesity

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Demonizing processed food may be dooming many to obesity and disease. Could embracing the drive-thru make us all healthier?

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

Late last year, in a small health-food eatery called Cafe Sprouts in Oberlin, Ohio, I had what may well have been the most wholesome beverage of my life. The friendly server patiently guided me to an apple-blueberry-kale-carrot smoothie-juice combination, which she spent the next several minutes preparing, mostly by shepherding farm-fresh produce into machinery. The result was tasty, but at 300 calories (by my rough calculation) in a 16-ounce cup, it was more than my diet could regularly absorb without consequences, nor was I about to make a habit of $9 shakes, healthy or not.

Inspired by the experience nonetheless, I tried again two months later at L.A.’s Real Food Daily, a popular vegan restaurant near Hollywood. I was initially wary of a low-calorie juice made almost entirely from green vegetables, but the server assured me it was a popular treat. I like to brag that I can eat anything, and I scarf down all sorts of raw vegetables like candy, but I could stomach only about a third…read more.

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Survival of the wrongest

januaryfebruary2013cover_300x400How personal-health journalism ignores the fundamental pitfalls baked into all scientific research and serves up a daily diet of unreliable information.

From my cover story in the January/February issue of the Columbia Journalism Review

In late 2011, in a nearly 6,000-word article in The New York Times Magazine, health writer Tara Parker-Pope laid out the scientific evidence that maintaining weight loss is a nearly impossible task—something that, in the words of one obesity scientist she quotes, only “rare individuals” can accomplish. Parker-Pope cites a number of studies that reveal the various biological mechanisms that align against people who’ve lost weight, ensuring that the weight comes back. These findings, she notes, produce a consistent and compelling picture by “adding to a growing body of evidence that challenges conventional thinking about obesity, weight loss, and willpower. For years, the advice to the overweight and obese has been that we simply need to eat less and exercise more. While there is truth to this guidance, it fails to take into account that the human body continues to fight against weight loss long after dieting has stopped. This translates into…read more.

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How to Fix the Obesity Crisis

 

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Although science has revealed a lot about metabolic processes that influence our weight, the key to success may lie elsewhere

From my cover story in the February 2011 issue of Scientific American

Obesity is a national health crisis—that  much we know. If current trends continue, it will soon surpass smoking in the U.S. as the biggest single factor in early death, reduced quality of life and added health care costs.
Why are extra pounds so difficult to shed and keep off? It doesn’t seem as though it should be so hard. The basic formula for weight loss is simple and widely known: consume fewer calories than you expend. And yet….almost everybody who tries to diet seems to fail in the long run—a review in 2007 by the American Psychological Association of 31 diet studies found that as many as two thirds of dieters end up two years later

weighing more than they did before their diet.
   Maybe someday biology will provide us with a pill that readjusts our metabolism so we burn more calories or resets our built-in cravings so we prefer broccoli to burgers. But until then, the best approach may simply be to build on reliable behavioral psychology methods developed over 50 years and proved to work in hundreds of studies. These tried-and-true techniques, which are being refined with new research that should make them more effective with a wider range of individuals, are gaining new attention. As the NIH puts it in its proposed strategic plan for obesity research: “Research findings are yielding new and important insights about social and behavioral factors that influence diet, physical activity, and sedentary behavior….” read more (Subscription or payment to Scientific American needed to read full article at the site, but you can read a copy here)

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Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science

Much of what medical researchers conclude in their studies is misleading, exaggerated, or flat-out wrong. So why are doctors—to a striking extent—still drawing upon misinformation in their everyday practice? Dr. John Ioannidis has spent his career challenging his peers by exposing their bad science.

From my article in the November 2010 issue of The Atlantic

In 2001, rumors were circulating in Greek hospitals that surgery residents, eager to rack up scalpel time, were falsely diagnosing hapless Albanian immigrants with appendicitis. At the University of Ioannina medical school’s teaching hospital, a newly minted doctor named Athina Tatsioni was discussing the rumors with colleagues when a professor who had overheard asked her if she’d like to try to prove whether they were true—he seemed to be almost daring her. She accepted the challenge and, with the professor’s and other colleagues’ help, eventually produced a formal study showing that, for whatever reason, the appendices removed from patients with Albanian names in six Greek hospitals were more than three times as likely to be perfectly healthy as those removed from patients with Greek names….read more

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