Field of Science

Legalized pot is already saving $165 million per year in medical costs

This news will give anti-marijuana crusaders fits.

A new study in the journal Health Affairs looked in great detail at prescription drug usage in U.S. states that have legalized medical marijuana. Researchers Ashley Bradford and David Bradford collected Medicare data for the period 2010-2013 to answer two questions: are patients choosing marijuana instead of prescription drugs for conditions that marijuana might treat, and what has been the overall effect on Medicare spending?

The bottom line: in 2013 alone, when 17 states had legalized medical marijuana, Medicare saved over $165 million. A simple extrapolation suggests that if all states legalize marijuana, annual savings could be triple that amount, $500 million. (Obviously this extrapolation is over-simplified: it depends on the actual populations of those 17 states, and it only considers Medicare. Commercial healthcare plans may save far more.)

The authors, a father-daughter team at the University of Georgia, looked at over 87 million prescriptions from the Medicare Part D database, focusing only on conditions where marijuana "might serve as an alternative treatment." These fall into nine specific categories for which at least some evidence suggests marijuana could help: anxiety, depression, glaucoma, nausea, pain, psychosis, seizures, sleep disorders and spasticity. The best clinical evidence of marijuana's benefits, according to the study, is for pain, for which the clinical evidence is "moderate"; most of the other conditions have evidence rated as low or very low.

Prescriptions fell for 8 out of 9 categories, with the biggest drop occurring for pain medication: in states with medical marijuana laws, physicians gave out 3645 fewer pain prescriptions per doctor, a difference that is highly statistically significant. Or, in raw numbers, the annual number of daily doses (in 2010-2013) per doctor in states without medical marijuana laws was 31,810. In states with medical marijuana, the number dropped to 28,165. That's an 11.5% drop. Depression and seizures both showed very significant reductions in prescriptions as well.

Prescriptions rose for only one condition: glaucoma. This too was expected–as the article explains,
"Clinical evidence is very strong that while marijuana sharply reduces intraocular pressure, the effect lasts only about an hour. As a result, new patients who seek glaucoma treatment after learning about the potential benefits of marijuana are likely to receive a prescription for an FDA-approved drug."
In an interview posted on the University of Georgia website, study co-author David Bradford states that they also wanted to know if medical marijuana laws were just a backdoor way to allow recreational marijuana use, or if people were really using it as medicine. He continues:
"What our evidence is suggesting is that ... there is a significant amount of actual clinical use at work here."
As of today, 24 states have medical marijuana laws on the books. This new study suggests that legalizing marijuana in all states would save hundreds of millions of dollars in Medicare costs, and even more money for people not covered by Medicare–not to mention the savings from no longer wasting law enforcement resources prosecuting marijuana use.

Opponents of legalization have argued since the 1930's that marijuana is a "gateway drug" that will lead to more serious drug abuse and that it increases criminal behavior, without (as Bradford and Bradford point out) any good evidence proving these links. This new study now provides a strong financial argument for legalization: legalizing marijuana, at least for medical use, will yield substantial savings for our health care system.

Nobelists call for Greenpeace to drop its anti-science, anti-GMO activism

Golden rice is fortified with vitamin A to prevent blindness.
Has Greenpeace lost its way? I still remember my excitement about the Save the Whales campaign when I was in college, one of the first and most visible of Greenpeace's campaigns. These were the good guys.

In recent years, though, they have adopted as one of their causes a rigidly inflexible opposition to all genetically modified foods, a stance that has no basis in science and that threatens to block technology that has great potential for good.

This past Thursday, a group of 110 Nobel Laureates released a letter excoriating Greenpeace for its long-term campaign against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and especially against “golden rice.” The Nobelists' letter points out that science has shown that GM foods are just as safe and healthy as any other foods, and that Golden Rice has the potential to relieve a great deal of human suffering.

Unfortunately, anti-GMO activists at Greenpeace and elsewhere are ignoring the science. Their opposition seems to rely on two arguments, both of them superficially appealing, but both wrong.

First, there's the argument that "natural" is always better, whether it be applied to your food or to other aspects of life. Many people find this idea very compelling; after all, we humans are part of nature, so why not consume foods in their natural state? This argument is wrong for many, many reasons, far too many to list here, but I'll just mention a couple. We can start with cooking: it sure isn't natural, but cooking allows us to extract far more nutrients from our food, and is one of humankind's greatest inventions. Or consider pasteurization, an unnatural process that has saved countless millions of people from death by killing the bacteria that are present in purely "natural" milk and other products.

Suffice it to say that there's nothing wrong with modifying our food to make it easier to digest, healthier (as with Golden Rice), or just tastier. The fact that some genetic modifications fail to do any of these things doesn't make GMOs bad, it just means that GM technology can be applied in other ways.

The other argument against GMOs, perhaps the more emotional one, is that they're just a stealth method to allow big agricultural corporations to sell more herbicides and pesticides. This isn't exactly wrong: Monsanto's RoundUp Ready® crops are engineered to allow farmers to use more of the herbicide glyphosphate. Regardless of the arguments about herbicides, the fundamental problem with this argument is that it's a gross over-generalization: just because you don't like RoundUp Ready® soybeans doesn't mean that all GMOs should be banned. As the National Academy of Sciences concluded in a report published earlier this year,
"it is the product, not the process, that should be regulated."
Greenpeace, pay attention. That same NAS report also concluded that GM foods are generally safe and just as healthy as non-GM foods.

Now consider Golden Rice, a variety of rice that has been genetically modified so that it naturally produces beta carotene, which humans metabolize to produce vitamin A. Golden Rice has the potential to reduce vitamin A deficiency, which has devastating effects in parts of the world where children struggle to get enough nutrition. As the Nobel Laureates' letter points out, vitamin A deficiency affects 250 million people worldwide, and
"Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of childhood blindness globally affecting 250,000 - 500,000 children each year. Half die within 12 months of losing their eyesight."
How could Greenpeace oppose something that could eliminate so much suffering? I can only conclude that the anti-GMO forces within Greenpeace are so consumed by their rigid opposition that they simply cannot see that GMO technology has the potential for great benefits.

GMWatch, an anti-GMO organizationpublished a lengthy response to the Nobelists' letter the day after the letter appeared. Their rebuttal contains two arguments: first, that Golden Rice isn't yet ready for widespread distribution (Greenpeace's response, printed in The Washington Post, made the same argument, saying "we are talking about something that doesn’t even exist"); and second, that the Nobel Laureates don't have the "relevant expertise."

Hmm. Neither of these arguments stands up to even a tiny bit of scrutiny. First, even if Golden Rice isn't ready for prime time, it's still a great idea. Would Greenpeace support Golden Rice if it were ready to be shipped to hungry children today? They don't say. And both GMWatch and Greenpeace fail to mention (or deny) the fact that one of the major reasons that Golden Rice isn't yet on the market is that anti-GMO groups have worked very hard to block it, lobbying hard for regulatory barriers and even ripping up a test field.

Second, the argument about relevant expertise is ridiculous. Sir Richard Roberts and Dr. Phillip Sharp, two of the Nobel Laureates who spearheaded the effort to write the letter, are among the world's leading geneticists and molecular biologists, as are many of the other Nobelists who signed the letter. I also have to point out that this is a classic ad hominem attack: rather than address the actual topic, GMWatch are attacking the messengers. (Also, somewhat bizarrely, GMWatch contradicts its own argument in an update they posted to their own article. In the update, they write that "[Dr. Phillip] Sharp is a biotech entrepreneur with interests in GMO research," essentially acknowledging that he is an expert in GMO technology.)

Ad hominem attacks may be entertaining, but they fail to support the Greenpeace argument that GMOs should be banned. Nowhere in GMWatch's article, or in Greenpeace's anti-GMO policy, is there any comment about the extensive scientific evidence that shows that GM foods are safe. As I've written before, you're far more likely to be harmed by being hit on the head by a corn cob than by some kind of deviant GMO corn gene.

I asked Sir Richard Roberts if he had any response to the arguments from Greenpeace, and he replied that:
“Greenpeace just reiterate the old arguments that are adequately debunked elsewhere. Why won't they just admit they got this issue wrong? Is it because they have consistently introduced roadblocks and then wonder why it is taking so long to introduce Golden Rice to the market? Are they serious?”
Greenpeace would do well to reconsider their position, as Dr. Roberts and his colleagues argue. They are flat wrong on the science of GMOs, and their dogmaticism is losing them the support of many scientists (and others) who are strong backers of Greenpeace's other causes. For example, Greenpeace's website features their "Save the heart of the Amazon" campaign, an admirable effort to protect a large swath of the Brazilian rainforest. They also have a major campaign to save the Arctic, a cause I support even more enthusiastically.

One last note: organic food stores, led (in the U.S.) by Whole Foods, have been eagerly promoting the "non-genetically modified" nature of their foods, and pushing for laws to require that all GM foods be labelled. First, I have to point out that this is nonsense. Virtually everything you eat has had its genes modified from their natural state, through centuries of breeding by farmers. The only difference with modern GM food is that we can precisely select the genetic changes we want, unlike the slow, incredibly inefficient methods of traditional agriculture.

Ironically (and this is delicious in more ways than one), Whole Foods does sell massive quantities of one GMO: sweet potatoes. It turns out that all sweet potatoes contain bacterial genes! As Tina Kyndt, Dora Quispe and colleagues reported last year, 291 different varieties of sweet potato all contain genes from a bacterium called Agrobacterium tumefaciens. This bacterium has the ability to insert bits of its own genome into its host, and it did exactly that to sweet potatoes sometime in the recent past, after humans started cultivating sweet potatoes (wild relatives don't have the foreign genes). Apparently, ancient human farmers preferred the sweet potatoes with the bacterial genes, and these were passed on to all modern varieties. So sweet potatoes are not only genetically modified, but they are transgenic: they contains genes from a completely different species.

I was at Whole Foods today, and I failed to notice any labels revealing that their sweet potatoes are transgenic. I'll keep checking.

[Full disclosure: I have been privileged to have collaborated scientifically with Sir Richard Roberts, one of the leaders of the group of Nobel Laureates who authored the letter on GMOs. I was not involved in the writing of that letter and I was unaware of it until it was published.]

Zika virus poses a greater threat than we thought

The Zika virus outbreak in South America has caused thousands of cases of microcephaly, where an infant is born with an unusually small head and brain. The threat is so serious that the CDC has issued a level 2 alert for anyone attending the Olympic Games in Brazil this summer. The World Health Organization has also issued travel precautions.

Most of the attention has focused on microcephaly, understandably so, but Zika threatens more than just pregnant women. In recent months, the evidence has been building that Zika also causes Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS).

GBS is a rare but terrifying disease, in which your own immune system attacks your nerve cells, leading to rapid paralysis and, in some cases, death. With the best available modern care, the death rate is about 5%, but it's much greater when patients cannot get high-level care.

The first report of Zika as a cause of GBS appeared earlier this year in The Lancet, in a study of a 2013-14 Zika outbreak in French Polynesia (Tahiti). 42 patients were identified with Guillain-Barré syndrome (a startlingly high number for this otherwise rare disease), and 41 of them tested positive for Zika. None of those patients died, but the study provided convincing evidence that Zika was the cause of GBS.

This year, reports have emerged of a sharp increase in the number of cases of Guillain-Barré in South America, where the Zika outbreak is most severe. As the Washington Post reported back in February, the small town of Turbo, in Colombia, which normally sees at most one case per year, has already seen five cases, three of them fatal.

In response to this threat, a group of more than 200 doctors from around the world has signed an open letter to the WHO (read it here) that
"call[s] for the Rio 2016 Games to be postponed and/or moved to another location—but not cancelled—in the name of public health."
The letter points out that Rio is at the epicenter of the Zika epidemic, with 32,000 cases so far, and the holding the games there–with all the associated travel involved–may accelerate the spread of the dangerous Brazilian strain.

The newly emerging risk of Guillain-Barré syndrome makes it clear that Zika virus presents a threat to everyone. The Rio Olympics are likely to make it worse. Anyone planning to visit Rio for the Games should take all the precautions they can, but the best plan might be simply to stay home.

I took the SAT so you don't have to. It's a very poor test of math skills.

As I write this, tens of thousands of high school students are hunched over desks, filling in little circles with number 2 pencils, laboring to complete the SAT, a test that will have an outsized impact on where they go to college. In my state, the test starts at the teenager-unfriendly hour of 8:00am and last a grueling four hours or more.

One of my daughters is among those students. and as preparation she took the four practice tests provided by the College Board–the private company that owns the tests. (The tests are administered by the Educational Testing Service.) There are two main parts to the SAT, a math test and a verbal test, and as every student knows, the scores range from 200 to 800 on each part. For many decades, this test has been one of the main gatekeepers to college: the US News College rankings use it, and colleges advertise the average SATs of their freshman classes. Every student wants to know what SAT score they need to get into their preferred university. 1.7 million high school students will take the SAT this year, and many of them will take it twice.

I wanted to understand what the test was like, so I took the math test with my daughter–three times. On three successive weekends, we each took one of the practice tests, and then used the answers provided by the College Board to score ourselves and review what we got wrong.

Here's what I learned from taking the SAT math test: it's all about speed. The concepts are not difficult; you need to know algebra, geometry, a little bit of trigonometry, and a tiny bit of statistics. The main skill you need, though, is speed. It's a very poor test of how well you understand math. For the three tests, I was only able to finish everything on time once. Even so, I had to work very quickly and I didn't have time to go back and check my answers.

Question 27 from SAT test 2 from the College
Board. "D" is the correct answer.
The math test has two parts: one with 20 questions, for which you get 25 minutes, and another with 38 questions, for which you get 55 minutes and where you're allowed to use a calculator. The test is designed to trip you up if you work too quickly: many of the multiple-choice answers match the answer you would get if you made a careless error of a particular type.

Doing well on the SAT requires that you know the tricks of the test, and that you've memorized many formulas so that they come to mind instantly. And I mean instantly: if you have to think for 30 seconds to remember something, that's far too long.

What's more, the questions themselves can be lengthy, and students might waste precious minutes just trying to be sure they understand the wording. For example, one question shown here filled half a page: just reading it would take some students longer than they can afford for this speed-obsessed test. (If you want to see a full-sized image, get the tests here.)

Statistics is a relatively new topic area for the SAT, and if the practice test is any guide, they haven't yet figured out how to construct good stat questions.  Here is one of them:

A researcher conducted a survey to determine whether people in a certain large town prefer watching sports on television to attending the sporting event. The researcher asked 117 people who visited a local restaurant on a Saturday, and 7 people refused to respond. Which of the following factors makes it least likely that a reliable conclusion can be drawn about the sports-watching preferences of all people in the town?
A)  Sample size
B)  Population size
C)  The number of people who refused to respond
D)  Where the survey was given 
The official correct answer is D, because (says the College Board) the survey was not collected from a random sample. However, I could argue that A is at least as good an answer, because 117 people is a tiny sample from what is called a "large town," and because we don't know that the people who visit this restaurant are un-representative of the town. Whether you think the answer is A or D, this is a lousy question to put on a test where the answers should be unambiguous.

You might be wondering what my score was. I'm not going to reveal that, but I will say that I had a higher score when I took the SAT in 1975, as a 15-year-old high school student. I must have been faster then, but I'm pretty certain that I understand math better now, after 35 years of working in a mathematical field. I suspect that the current test puts a greater emphasis on speed than the 1975 version, but there's no way to check that without copies of the 1970s-era SAT exams.

Let me put this another way: there's not a single question on any of the practice math SAT exams that I would call difficult. Most of them are quite easy if you know a bit of algebra and geometry. But unless you are fast, answering all 58 questions in 80 minutes is darn near impossible. For example, consider this simple problem:

At a lunch stand, each hamburger has 50 more calories than each order of fries. If 2 hamburgers and 3 orders of fries have a total of 1700 calories, how many calories does a hamburger have? 
This question is not multiple choice; you have to write down a number, which means you have to work it through. Any student who knows basic algebra should be able to solve this, but can s/he do it in less than 75 seconds? And if takes 90 seconds, does that mean s/he should be rejected by Yale?

As a measure of true understanding, the SAT math test is terrible. We should not be using it to make enormously consequential decisions about where almost every high school senior in the country goes to college. On a positive note, a growing number of colleges have rebelled and no longer require the SAT. Two years ago, a large study showed that, at colleges in this group, there was no difference in college performance between students who submitted SAT scores and those who didn't.

Perhaps pressure from colleges that are making the SAT optional will force the College Board to create a math test that measures something that matters for college success. They could go a long way towards a better test by simply giving students twice as much time. If that made the test too long, they could simply ask fewer questions. Meanwhile, I hope that more colleges will make the SAT optional, and instead use high school grades and other, more meaningful measures of a student's knowledge.

(*This was written on June 4, 2016, the date of the second SAT test in the "new" format. Prior to March 2016, the test had three parts, each with a maximum score of 800.)

Allergy sufferers beware! These eyedrops are a scam.

Spring allergy season is upon us, and plants are bursting into leaf and bloom, spreading pollen everywhere. For some of us, this otherwise beautiful season is a time to stock up on antihistamines and tissues, and we try our best to stay indoors.

When pollen causes red, itchy eyes, we look for eyedrops to provide some relief. The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology and has a list of eyedrops here that includes products such as Zaditor®, Alaway®, and others. These eyedrops contain real medicine that can soothe itchy eyes and reduce your allergy symptoms.

So I was in the pharmacy section of my local grocery store, Giant, looking for eye relief, but they were sold out of Zaditor. Right next to the empty slot, though, I saw a row of other eyedrops from a company called Similisan®, and I took the picture shown here.
Homeopathic eye drops at Giant Foods in Baltimore.
Looks legitimate, right? Each box has a cross on it (apparently intended to resemble the logo of the Red Cross), and they are in the pharmacy section. I picked up the box labeled "Allergy Eye Relief" to take a closer look, though, and saw the word "homeopathic" near the bottom of the box.

Uh oh. It turns out that these products are little more than very, very expensive bottles of sterile water. For $9.99 you get 10 ml of water that contains several extracts–in vanishingly small amounts–for which there is no evidence whatsoever that they have any effect on allergies. Similisan's allergy relief bottle contains:

  • Honeybee
  • Eyebright (a plant)
  • Sabadilla lily (another plant)

Yes, that's right: they grind up honeybees and put them in the eyedrops. The (wacky) idea is that because bee stings cause allergic reactions, a tiny bit of ground-up bee in solution will prevent those reactions. This flawed principle is the basis for all of homeopathy, which has stuck around for 200 years despite the complete absence of evidence that it works.

As I've written before, homeopathic drugs get a free pass on regulation, thanks to Congress. Homeopaths will tell you that their drugs are regulated by the FDA (they often make this claim in the comments on my articles - just watch), but they're not. All the FDA can do is check to see if the products contain the ingredients listed on the label. Unlike real drugs, though, the FDA does not and cannot require that these "drugs" have any effect whatsoever.

I don't think I need to say more about ground-up bees, but what about those other two ingredients? Eyebright is a plant that has "little or no evidence of efficacy" for eye infections. Its use dates back to the ancient Greeks, and has an interesting history:
"Eyebright was used as early as Theophrastus and Dioscorides, who prescribed infusions for topical application in the treatment of eye infections. This in large part was due to the similarity of the “bloodshot” petals to irritated eyes."
That's right: the flower petals look like irritated eyes, and this was enough to get the early Greeks to try them out as a treatment. Needless to say, the physical appearance of a plant has nothing to do with its efficacy as a medicine. (But try telling that to a homeopath.)

Sabadilla, the third ingredient, is a plant extract used as an insecticide, with an active ingredient called veratrine. As Laura Pottorff from Colorado State University explains, "its dust can be highly irritating to the eyes." Therein lies the homeopath's motivation for using sabadilla in eyedrops: homeopaths believe that a substance that irritates the eyes will somehow soothe the eyes if it is sufficiently diluted.

Similisan claims that their 3 homeopathic eyedrops will relieve itching, burning, watering, and redness in your eyes. The box just says it's "manufactured according to homeopathic principles," but doesn't explain that it hasn't been shown to be effective. You have to go to their website to discover that
"The uses of our products are in compliance with official Homeopathic Compendia. They were not the subject of approved applications reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration prior to marketing." 
In other words, they've never presented any evidence that these things actually work.

One can only hope that the sabadilla in Similisan's eye drops is sufficiently diluted; if not, you're putting insecticide in your eyes. The package says that all three ingredients are at 6X dilution, which in homeopathic jargon means 1 part in 1 million. The problem is that homeopathic substances have no real standards, so we don't know how much of the active ingredients were in the original mixture before dilution.

I was curious to see if Whole Foods Market sold the same stuff, and not surprisingly they do, in their special section devoted to homeopathy. (I've written about WFM and their love affair with homeopathy before.) The only difference is that Similisan costs more at Whole Foods, $11.99 to $14.99 depending on which flavor you buy (check out the photo below).

Homeopathic eye drops at Whole Foods Market. How much
money do you want to waste on a tiny water bottle?
Homeopathic eye drops are nothing more than really, really expensive water. At $10 for 10 ml, that works out to $1000 per liter. Similisan proudly states that it's sold at a wide variety of U.S. retailers and pharmacies, including CVS, Kroger, Publix, RiteAid, Safeway, Target, Walgreens, Walmart, and Wegmans. Seems like they're doing quite a good business selling their $1000/liter water.

Consumers beware: the eyedrops you're looking at, even in the Pharmacy section of the store, might be expensive, ineffective make-believe medicine. Make sure to read the package closely; the fake medicine is sometimes right next to the real stuff, and the packaging is designed to fool you.

Washington Post's Science section descends into pseudoscience

The Washington Post has some bad news about migraines.
Every Tuesday, the Washington Post has a special section devoted to Health and Science. It’s usually my favorite section, with features such as “medical mysteries” and highlights of the latest news from the world of science.

Not this week. Instead, the front page of the section featured a lengthy article that was a long anecdote by a woman who firmly believes that acupuncture cured her migraines. The title gave me a feeling of dread: “Acupuncture needles stung, but they cured my migraines” (the online version linked here has a different title). As I feared, there wasn't a whit of science in it.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: acupuncture is rank pseudoscience. It’s based on a primitive, pre-scientific notion of a “vital force” (for which no evidence exists), usually called qi, that runs through the body along meridians (no evidence for these either). Plunging needles into the meridians is supposed to manipulate this vital force and cure all sorts of things, ranging from pain to infections to cancer. All of this is nonsense. If you want to know more, I recommend Acupuncture Watch; or see Ben Kavoussi’s article explaining how postmodernism, with its notion that all truth is relative, has allowed acupuncture and other mystical, archaic beliefs to gain traction in medical practice; or check out Jann Bellamy’s discussion of acupuncture as “legalized quackery”.

I’ve written about the nonsense that is called acupuncture before (in 2013, and in 2012, and in 2010), so I won’t rehash that here. But it’s really disheartening to see a great (or once-great?) newspaper devote a large chunk of its weekly science section to pseudoscience.

Back to this week’s nonsense article. In this lengthy piece, author Margarita Gokun Silver describes how she began to experience debilitating migraines after the age of 40, which grew worse over time. She tried pain relievers, which worked at first but then stopped working. One expensive pill worked for the migrations but gave her severe nausea. Eventually, she writes, “exhausted by these side effects, I turned again to the Internet.”

Great. Now, there’s nothing wrong with looking for solutions in the Internet–we all do it. But this is an article in the Washington Post Science section! Nowhere does the author describe anything resembling actual science. Instead, she describes how she discovered a “breakthrough” in her yoga class, when another yoga student suggested acupuncture. She decided to give it a try.

(You might be wondering, who is Margarita Gokun Silver? She describes herself as a writer, novelist, and painter–not a scientist or a doctor.)

After several acupuncture sessions, the author tells us, her migraines seemed less frequent, and eventually she decided she was cured. She still gets migraines, but when they get bad she uses acupuncture again. This, she tells us, is her cure.

The entire story is a classic example of how we can fool ourselves into thinking that whatever we tried last is what worked. Migraines come and go, and this woman’s story is not unusual. She had a long series of bad migraines that eventually subsided, and she still gets them. When they were at their worst, she tried everything she could find, and when the episodes became less frequent, she gave full credit to acupuncture. She might just as well have tried chocolate milk, and then written an article claiming “chocolate milk cured my migraines!”

I don’t blame the author (well, not much) for wrongly believing that correlation equals causation. But we have scientific methods that are really, really good at figuring out if a treatment works. Scientists have already looked at this particularly claim, and the bottom line is that acupuncture doesn’t cure migraines. If you don’t believe me, then read the article about treating migraines by Dr. Steven Novella, a Yale neurologist who specializes in headaches, and look at his summary of how not to treat migraines, which points out that
“acupuncture proponents have been able to change the rules of clinical research so that essentially negative or worthless studies of acupuncture are presented as positive.”
Last week's Washington Post Science section was a major fail. I can't imagine why they gave a lengthy forum to a non-scientist to write about pseudoscience. If they wanted to feature a story about migraines, there's plenty of good science out there, even if there's no magical cure. What's next, Washington Post? Will you invite Jenny McCarthy to write about vaccines and autism, or Gwyneth Paltrow to discuss detox treatments? I sure hope not.

Why are we growing corn to fuel our cars? Three reasons why ethanol is a bad idea.

Most of us are driving around right now in cars powered by a combination of gasoline and ethanol. Ethanol is a fuel alternative produced from corn (mostly), and it has been touted for years as cleaner, carbon-neutral alternative to gas.

The problem is that ethanol’s benefits have been greatly exaggerated, leading to Congressional regulations that required ever-increasing amounts of ethanol in our gasoline supply. The government requirement goes back to 2005, when gas prices were much higher and the U.S. was in the midst of the Iraq war. Ethanol was supposed to be a clean way to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. The growing mandate for ethanol has instead created an enormous, artificial demand that has had unintended consequences, many of them bad.

Some background: Congress requires automakers to meet fuel economy (“CAFE”) standards for all their cars and light trucks. To encourage ever-greater use of ethanol, Congress modified the CAFE standards in 2005. As a result of that law, this year the EPA will require refiners to use 18.1 billion gallons of ethanol to fuel our cars.

Politicians still love ethanol. In the 2016 presidential campaign, several candidates came out in support of continuing the corn-based fuel program, hoping this position would win them votes in the Iowa caucuses. Iowa is a big corn state.

Unfortunately for the rest of us, mandating the use of ethanol is a terrible policy. Here are three reasons why.

1. Ethanol lowers your gas mileage–a lot. Ethanol only has about 2/3 the energy content of gasoline, meaning it simply cannot provide the same amount of power per gallon (or liter) as gas. E85 fuel, which uses 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline, is widely available, and some gas stations now offer no alternative. Consumer Reports put E85 to the test, and found that highway mileage decreased by 29% and city mileage by 22%. Car and Driver ran their own tests and found a 30% drop in mileage on E85. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, nearly all gas sold in the US today has 10% ethanol–much less than in E85, but still providing lower fuel efficiency than straight gasoline.

Making things worse, ethanol attracts water and is more corrosive to some metals and rubber than gasoline. So it's bad for your car.

2. Using ethanol doesn’t reduce carbon emissions. The main argument for using ethanol is that because the carbon contained within it was recently put in the ground, burning ethanol (and releasing that carbon) is carbon neutral. Compared to extracting oil, which has lain in the ground for millions of years, growing corn and extracting ethanol puts far less carbon back in the atmosphere.

This argument makes sense, but only in a very narrow context. In an article published in Science in 2008, Timothy Searchinger and colleagues pointed out that previous analyses
“failed to count the carbon emissions that occur as farmers worldwide respond to higher prices and convert forest and grassland to new cropland to replace the grain (or cropland) diverted to biofuels.” 
When the scientists accounted for these land-use changes, they found that using corn to produce ethanol will double greenhouse emissions over a 30-year period. Switchgrass is only slightly better, increasing emissions by 50%. As the Union of Concern Scientists explains that “sustainable production is possible” only if we stop making ethanol from corn.

Admittedly this is a complex topic, but it seems that ethanol-from-corn simply doesn't reduce carbon emissions. Thus the entire justification for using ethanol to fuel our cars is unsound.

3. Increasing fuel efficiency means we’ll never be able to meet Congress’s mandated levels of ethanol usage, not unless we sacrifice even more gas mileage. Automakers have made great progress in producing more fuel-efficient cars, and the growing electric car market (Tesla!) mean that we’re using less and less fuel each year. This is terrific for reducing carbon emissions, but it means that Congress’s original mandate to use more ethanol becomes far harder to satisfy.

What happened was that back in 2005, Congress told us how to solve a problem (carbon emissions from our cars), instead of just encouraging us to solve it using innovative new ideas. Corn producers and their government representatives—governors, Senators, Representatives—all got behind the ethanol “solution” because they saw increased profits in it. Now we are stuck with a non-solution that, as the NY Times recently put it, is “a boon for Iowa and a boondoggle to the rest of the country.” It’s long past time to end the ethanol mandate.