Challenging the Gluten-Free Movement

Oats, barley, and some products made from them Photographer: Peggy GrebThe gluten-free movement is rising. According to a 2013 consumer survey, over 70 million American adults are trying to eat less gluten, a grain-based protein. That’s a 20% boost in recruits since 2010. By 2016, sales of gluten-free foods could hit $15 billion, a 40% increase over 2013.

Yet only an estimated 2o million Americans of all ages suffer from gluten intolerance. Around 2 million have celiac disease and another 18 million may have non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

So at least 50 million people are spending billions of dollars to avoid eating a protein that probably isn’t bad for them. Why? Does a gluten-free diet still benefit those who aren’t gluten intolerant? Is gluten intolerance more prevalent than experts believe? The answers don’t look good for the movement. Continue reading “Challenging the Gluten-Free Movement”

Twisting the Family Tree

Twisted Tree. Artist: Axel KristinssonOpponents of same-sex marriage sometimes raise the specter of legalized incest. For example, in the federal court ruling that upheld Louisiana’s same-sex marriage ban, Judge Martin Feldman writes:

[M]ust the states permit or recognize a marriage between an aunt and niece? Aunt and nephew? Brother/brother? Father and child?

In a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, Utah state legislators argue that the legal reasoning that declared Utah’s ban unconstitutional would indeed allow incestuous marriages.

Read on for an explanation and critique of how Feldman and Utah lawmakers each link same-sex marriage to legalized incest. Continue reading “Twisting the Family Tree”

Podcast: Defining Free Will

ON AIR with Atheistically Speaking. Host Thomas Smith and guest Ryan Born discuss the meaning of free will.This week, I returned to Atheistically Speaking to discuss free will. Back in June, Thomas and I had a good chat about moral philosophy and The Moral Landscape.

Earlier in July, Thomas aired two episodes on free will, AS49 and AS50. He shared his thoughts on an exchange between Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. Dennett wrote a review of Harris’ book Free Will. Harris replied to Dennett on his (Harris’) blog.

Our discussion spans episodes AS53 and AS54. We talked about how to define free will. Read on for a quick introduction to topics we discussed, along with some helpful links. Continue reading “Podcast: Defining Free Will”

$84,000 Drug Now or $600,000 Liver Transplant Later?

Sovaldi. It's cheaper than a new liver.A new drug called Sovaldi promises to cure 9 out of 10 patients with hepatitis C. Hep C is the leading reason for liver transplants.

Sovaldi’s price has led to an outbreak of sticker shock in the U.S., home to roughly 3 million hep C sufferers, many of whom qualify for publicly funded health care.

A 12-week Sovaldi regimen retails for $84,000, over four times the price of standard hep C therapy with drugs interferon and ribavirin. However, Sovaldi (taken with ribavirin) requires as little as one-fourth the time and stands to cure twice as many patients. It also has fewer side effects.

The drug’s price still alarms health insurers, including the public programs Medicaid and Medicare. U.S. lawmakers have requested financial documents from Gilead Sciences, the biotech firm that makes Sovaldi.

Gilead argues that the slower acting, less effective, and sometimes highly invasive treatment hep C patients might otherwise get ends up costing more than Sovaldi.

In this post, I’ll suggest that Gilead’s long-term savings argument offers a fleeting and superficial defense of the high price Americans pay for Sovaldi. Continue reading “$84,000 Drug Now or $600,000 Liver Transplant Later?”

Evil in All Its Forms

In the Wheaton College Ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court lets Wheaton temporarily forgo filing EBSA Form 700. It seems the 'E' in EBSA stands for 'evil'.The U.S. Supreme Court expanded exemptions to a federal mandate that requires employer health plans to cover birth control. The mandate already exempts churches and lets other non-profits file for a “religious accommodation.” The Hobby Lobby decision lets for-profit employers file, too.

The Wheaton College ruling lets Wheaton, a Christian non-profit, skip filing the accommodation form—EBSA Form 700—pending a hearing on whether the form violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The EBSA form goes to Wheaton’s health plan administrator, a separate entity that must cover the contraceptives Wheaton won’t.

In this post, I critique two analogies used in the Wheaton legal debate. The first is an execution warrant analogy from Wheaton’s filing with the Court. The second is a conscientious objector analogy from Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent. Continue reading “Evil in All Its Forms”

Facebook’s Emotion Experiment & Informed Consent

The Good, the Bad, and the Disinterested.For seven days in January 2012, roughly 689,000 Facebook users unknowingly took part in an “emotional contagion” study. Facebook reduced the percentage of positive posts, negative posts, or both in select news feeds. A comparison group had posts omitted from their feeds at random. Reducing negative posts led users to give status updates with fewer negative words and more positive ones. Reducing positive posts had the reverse effect. Reducing all emotional content in a user’s news feed made the user post less.

Critics of the study claim Facebook didn’t get users’ informed consent, making the study unethical. The published study says users consented when they agreed to Facebook’s Data Use Policy. Even if the paper’s authors are mistaken, their defenders say informed consent wasn’t required.

Read on for a simple summary and critique of the informed consent argument against Facebook’s emotion experiment. Continue reading “Facebook’s Emotion Experiment & Informed Consent”

Podcast: Moral Philosophy & The Moral Landscape

ON AIR with Atheistically SpeakingThomas Smith, host of the podcast Atheistically Speaking, had me on to talk about moral philosophy and Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape. Previous guests of the program include philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, a critic of Harris.

Thomas is a supporter of Harris’s scientific theory of morality. He and I had a friendly and fruitful discussion that spanned two, one-hour episodes. Both are available for free download. Read on for an outline of each episode, plus some related links. Continue reading “Podcast: Moral Philosophy & The Moral Landscape”

The Fight for Moral Truth

The Peak of Haplessness.In my essay for Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape Challenge, I assumed that serious competing theories of morality and value exist. Sam rejects this assumption. He contends that the only serious ethical theory is the one he accepts—consequentialism (explained after the jump).

Sam also rejects my assumption that ethics must be prescriptive. He says an ethical theory doesn’t have to impose any “shoulds” or “oughts” on us, such as “one ought to maximum collective well-being.” It only has to tell us what is morally good or bad. And Sam believes science can do so objectively (if we assume that “the worst possible misery for everyone is bad.”)

In this final reply to Sam, I argue against his defense of consequentialism and his rejection of moral obligations. Continue reading “The Fight for Moral Truth”

Science, Philosophy, & Reality

The Philosopher's Blueprint.Sam Harris has published his response to my winning essay in the Moral Landscape Challenge. I’d like to thank Sam for issuing the challenge and replying to my essay. I’d also like to thank Russell Blackford for all his hard work as contest judge.

In my essay, I say that Sam has “not brought questions of ethics into science’s domain.” I claim that ethics remains a “distinctly philosophical, not scientific” endeavor. My claim implies a distinction between science and philosophy, which in turn implies a difference in what we mean by “science” and “philosophy.”

In Sam’s response, he opens with the meaning of “science.” Here I reply to his remarks. In a future post, I’ll say more about the other two parts of Sam’s response, in which he talks about ethical theories and the meanings of “should” and “ought.” Continue reading “Science, Philosophy, & Reality”

The Courage of One’s Convictions Corrections

Self, Tribe, & Truth.Psychologists have raised doubts about whether we can reliably reason our way to true beliefs. Numerous studies suggest we’re prone to “motivated reasoning.” We sometimes argue against the facts due to unconscious goals that don’t aim at the truth.

The New Yorker and Vox interviewed Brendan Nyhan and Dan Kahan, respectively, two researchers who study reasoning that’s motivated by a threatened sense of self. Kahan calls it “identity-protective cognition.”  When facts clash with values that define a person’s sense of who she is, she’ll tend to “subconsciously resist” the facts and devise arguments against them.

Kahan and Nyhan suggest ways to manage this sort of motivated reasoning, particularly its impact on public debate about scientific issues like climate change and vaccines. Nyhan endorses a science communication strategy that “avoids any broader issues of identity.” Kahan recommends one that “affirms rather than threatens people’s values.” I’ll explain both approaches. I’ll then discuss another part of dealing with motivated reasoning—correcting the false beliefs it supports. Continue reading “The Courage of One’s Convictions Corrections”