Field of Science

Does a standing desk lengthen your lifespan?

Standing desks are all the rage lately. These desks allow you to stand up while working on your computer. Some standing desks can be raised and lowered, so you can alternate during the course of the day between sitting and standing. The principal argument for these desks is that they provide health benefits.

Proponents of standing desks claim, plausibly, that they give you more energy and improve posture. The CDC has found that standing desks (or “sit-stand” desks) reduce upper back and neck pain and improve moods. At Smithsonian.com, Joseph Stromberg reported that standing desks reduce the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes. And a 2012 Australian study found that prolonged sitting increased the risk of death. In other words, standing up more and sitting less can help you live longer. All this makes me want to stand up right now.

The newest claim is that standing up lengthens your telomeres. If true, this would provide a mechanism to explain how standing up might lengthen your life. The new study, led by Swedish scientist Per Sjögren, appeared this month in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Telomeres are special DNA “caps” on the ends of everyone’s chromosomes. As we age, these caps gradually get shorter, and if they get too short, the cell dies. They function as a kind of molecular clock, telling a cell when it’s old. A substantial body of scientific evidence shows that if you can maintain telomere length, cells—and their owners—will live longer.

But how could merely standing more, or sitting less, shorten our telomeres? Being skeptical, I read the paper.

Here’s what Sjögren and colleagues did: several years ago, they conducted a study measuring the effect of exercise on weight, cholesterol levels, and a few other characteristics. That study included 101 people, all 68 years old. They randomly chose 49 people (14 men, 35 women) to study the effect of exercise on telomere length. They used blood samples taken 6 months apart, both before and after the exercise regimen. This was all completed back in 2011.

Previously, they reported that there was no difference in telomere length between the “exercise” group and the control group. So how can they publish a new study that seems to reach the opposite conclusion? It turns out there isn't a new study at all, but a re-analysis of the original data.

In the early study, the exercise program did have some significant effects: it increased the amount that people walked around by 1663 steps per day, and decreased their sitting time by 2 hours per day. However, people in both groups spent less time sitting over the course of the study. So the scientists re-analyzed the data and looked at telomere length as a function of four more measurements. For one of these measures, change in sitting time per day, telomere length was reduced enough that the relationship showed a p-value of 0.02.

Unfortunately for Sjögren, this new finding is based on just 12 individuals. That's a tiny number for a scientific study. And when I looked at the key figure in the paper, it’s pretty clear that the effect depends critically on just 2 of those 12 individuals who had both reduced sitting time and longer telomeres. Take those 2 people out, and the effect vanishes. The authors admitted that
“The study sample is small and we cannot rule out that the findings are a chance phenomenon.”
We've seen this sort of thing before: a small study with a minimally significant effect. Usually these types of results never get replicated. As much as I’d love to believe I could lengthen my telomeres by standing up a bit more each day, this rather implausible findnig is simply unconvincing. It’s based on a sub-group of only 12 people—and furthermore, this is a re-analysis of previous data, which feels an awful lot like cherry-picking. If there is any effect, it’s very small.

Nevertheless, other studies do show health benefits from spending more time walking and less time sitting. A daily walk probably confers the same benefit as a standing desk, but a standing desk isn’t a terrible idea either. Just don’t count on it to lengthen your telomeres.

Should we test all women for breast cancer-causing mutations?

In this week’s Journal of the American Medical Association, famed geneticist Mary-Claire King argues that all women over age 30 should be tested for cancer-causing mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. King, who made the original discovery of the link between BRCA1 and breast cancer, is one of the world’s leading experts on how mutations in these genes cause cancer.

But her proposed new universal testing policy, which fellow Forbes contributor David Shaywitz calls “audacious,” goes far beyond what other experts recommend. Earlier this year, the highly regarded U.S. Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommended testing BRCA genes only in women with a family history of breast or ovarian cancer. 

Although there’s no question that King is an expert on BRCA gene testing, I think she’s gone much too far with her latest proposal. She has the science right, but she is far too optimistic about how her recommendation would actually play out. The policy might save some lives, but it would also cause a great deal of pain.

First, it’s worth explaining why King thinks universal BRCA testing is a good idea. In her JAMA article, King and colleagues describe a new study they conducted in Ashkenazy Jews that showed, somewhat surprisingly, that 
“50% of families found to harbor BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations had no history of breast or ovarian cancer that would have triggered clinical attention." 
In other words, under current policy guidelines, 50% of people who have a damaging mutation in one of these genes will not have their genes tested. Many of them will eventually get breast or ovarian cancer—as King explains, women with harmful BRCA1 mutations have a 60% risk of cancer by age 60, and for BRCA2 the risk is 33% by age 60. That’s a very high risk, though it’s important to keep in mind that many women with these mutations will never get cancer.

With modern DNA sequencing technology, any large-scale genetic BRCA testing program is likely to uncover thousands of mutations that have no harmful effects, and thousands more whose effects are simply unknown. (Aside: each BRCA gene spans about 80-90 thousand nucleotides of DNA, and each of those letters can mutate in 4 ways, changing into one of the other 3 bases or just being deleted. This means there are at least 400,000 mutations possible in each gene, not counting larger deletions. A colleague and I published an article in 2010 describing one such BRCA test.) King is clearly aware that such reporting these mutations to patients would only sow confusion, and she recommends that:
“Testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2 should focus solely on unambiguously loss-of-function mutations with definitive effect on cancer risk…. A VUS [variant of unknown significance] can increase confusion and compromise clinical management; for population-based screening, these variants should not be reported.”
Herein lies one of the biggest problems with King’s idea. We don’t have universal agreement on which mutations have no significance, and even if we did, most physicians are not experts on cancer genetics. In our lawsuit-prone medical culture, there exists an unfortunate tendency to over-treat and over-report everything. 

Thus I fear that if we had wider BRCA testing, clinical labs would report all mutations back to physicians (how could they not?), and physicians in turn would report everything to the patients. The result would be that millions of women would be told "you have a mutation in BRCA1, and we don't know what it means." What's a patient supposed to do with that?

The other problem is that the only treatment to prevent breast and ovarian cancer is surgery to remove a woman’s breasts and ovaries. We don’t have a pill you can take, or lifestyle changes you can adopt, that will dramatically reduce your risk of hereditary cancer. But unlike a cancer diagnosis, the discovery of a BRCA mutation does not mean you have cancer. It simply means you have a risk, possibly a high risk, of getting cancer at a young age. We know from decades of research that people are not very good at evaluating risk. We tend to over-estimate the danger of events that seem very dramatic or visible to us, as cancer is to many people. 

By King’s own estimates, widespread BRCA testing would detect cancer-causing mutations in 250,000 to 415,000 women in the U.S. This estimate assumes the test doesn’t have false positives, which it almost certainly would. All of these women would then be faced with an extremely difficult dilemma: should they have both their breasts removed, or live the rest of their lives in fear of breast cancer? 

This dilemma was famously on display last year, when actress Angelina Jolie revealed in a New York Times article that she’d had a double mastectomy, after discovering that she carried high-risk BRCA mutations. Jolie’s mother died from cancer at the age of 56, and she explained in her article that as a result of the surgery, “ I can tell my children that they don’t need to fear they will lose me to breast cancer.”


King’s proposal is audacious, and it’s well worth debating. But without a better treatment option, telling hundreds of thousands of women that they have a high risk of breast and ovarian cancer carries a potentially enormous cost, both physical and emotional, for these women. Rather than putting huge numbers of women under the surgeon’s knife, we should instead double or triple our investments in research on treatments that may eventually make surgery unnecessary. 

Do high voltage power lines cause cancer?

This could be a very short article. I could just write “no, power lines don’t cause cancer"—but that wouldn't explain why so many people believe otherwise. And it won’t help people who are thinking about buying a home that has power lines nearby. So let’s look at this question a bit more closely.

For the past century or more, humans have been surrounding ourselves with an ever-growing array of electrical devices. All of these devices create electrical or magnetic fields, often called EMFs. There’s no doubt that our exposure to EMFs has increased dramatically in modern times. Not surprisingly, many people have worried that this is a bad thing. The belief is so pervasive that NIH has at least two websites devoted to this topic, one by NIEHS and one by NCI, as does the Medical College of Wisconsin. Realtors have created webpages to inform home buyers about how power lines might affect the value of their home. Not surprisingly, you can easily find companies on the Internet that will sell you devices (such as SafeSpace and EMFshield) to protect your body from the supposed perils of EMF.

People worry especially about high-voltage power lines, probably because they are carried by very large, highly visible structures that look vaguely threatening. This fear seems to have started with a 1979 study in which Nancy Wertheimer and Ed Leeper reported a correlation between high-voltage power lines and childhood leukemia in the area around Denver, Colorado. Wertheimer's results spurred numerous studies in the years since. A review of the evidence in 1995 pointed out that
“There is no known mechanism by which magnetic fields of the type generated by high voltage power lines can play a role in cancer development. Nevertheless, epidemiologic research has rather consistently found associations between residential magnetic field exposure and cancer.”
Scientifically, the question at the time was, were these associations real or coincidental?  If they were real, what’s the mechanism? Clearly, further studies were needed. Well, twenty years later, the data are in: power lines do not cause cancer.

In 2002, the WHO commissioned a huge (339 pages) and very thorough report on all the types of electrical and magnetic fields on the planet and how these EMFs might effect our health. Among its findings were:
“There is little experimental or theoretical evidence that mutations could be directly caused by ELF [extremely low frequency] magnetic fields…. There is little evidence that ELF electric or magnetic fields can cause malignant transformation of cells in culture.”
The final conclusion of the WHO commission was that
“Static electric and magnetic fields and extremely low-frequency electric fields are not classifiable as to their carcinogenicity to humans (Group 3).”
Group 3 means we don’t have any positive evidence that EMFs cause cancer. The only lower category, Group 4, would mean we have evidence that electromagnetic fields do NOT cause cancer, but such evidence is very difficult to produce. In other words, they concluded that the evidence didn't support a link, but more studies might yet find something.

After the 2002 report by the WHO, a study in 2005 raised the alarm again. In that study, Gerald Draper and colleagues claimed to find an association between the distance to the nearest high voltage power line and childhood leukemia. Draper found that living less than 200 meters from these power lines (in England and Wales) raised the risk of leukemia significantly compared to living at least 600 meters away.

The scientific reaction to the Draper study immediate and highly critical. Hepworth and colleagues pointed out that the results did not support a causal role for electromagnetic fields (which were not measured), but at best a geographic correlation. Kheifets and colleagues demonstrated out that the effect disappeared when the control groups were analyzed differently. Other critiques quickly emerged as well: a sign that science was working to self-correct, as it often does. But Draper’s study was widely reported, while the criticisms were not. The critiques, though, paint a compelling picture that Draper’s work was seriously flawed.

One of the most recent studies is from 2013 by Elliott et al. who looked at over 50,000 cases of cancer, including leukemia, brain cancer, breast cancer, skin cancer, and others. They found no increased risk for any of these cancer types and concluded
“Our results do not support an epidemiologic association of adult cancers with residential magnetic fields in proximity to high-voltage overhead power lines.”
This debate sounds very familiar. Many false hypotheses, such as the notion that vaccines cause autism, or that acupuncture can reduce pain, show the same pattern: a few small studies produce weak positive evidence, but then larger, better studies fail to back them up. Proponents always call for more studies, but if the effect is real, it doesn't disappear when you do a bigger study. If anything, the effect should appear stronger.

A major problem that the EMF alarmists have, which none of the proponents have ever answered, is one of mechanism: how is the very weak EMF from a power line supposed to cause cancer? Multiple theories have been suggested: maybe EMFs affect the movement of magnetic particles within cells, or alter the voltages across cell membranes—but as the editor of BMJ, Geoff Watts, put it in his response to the 2005 Draper study:
“Evidence to support these and other ideas is at best thin and at worst non-existent.”
So no, electrical power lines do not cause cancer. But they're still ugly. We should bury them all underground.

The 3 Dumbest Products Sold By Whole Foods Market

Whole Foods "Whole Body" products.
I have a love-hate relationship with Whole Foods Market. On the one hand, I love their fresh produce, their baked goods, and many other food choices there. On the other hand, they seem to have embraced anti-science positions in the interest of keeping everything “natural.”

Before describing what they do wrong, let’s start with some things they get right. Their seafood sustainability policy supports fishing practices that allow wild fish populations to survive. This is a shining example that other stores would do well to follow, if we want to preserve remaining stocks of wild salmon, tuna, swordfish, and other fish. Whole Foods stores now mark each fish with a sustainability rating shown as a bright-colored label next to each fish. Bravo!

Whole Foods also offers chicken and beef that was raised humanely, following animal welfare standards that they clearly describe on their website and in their stores. For those who care about the way farm animals are treated, this is a valuable option.

But in some areas of the store, especially their “health” section, Whole Foods wades deep into pseudoscience,  So here are the three of the most egregious examples.

1. Whole Foods sells homeopathic medicines that are little more than snake oil. They make claims for health benefits, both on their shelves and on their website, that are based on little more than magical thinking. For example, they sell “homeopathic flu remedies” claiming that “when taken at the first sign of sickness, these can provide temporary relief of symptoms including fever, chills, and body aches.” This is simply false: no homeopathic treatment has ever been shown to be effective at treating flu symptoms. (I’ve written about homeopathy in more detail here and here.)

It’s ironic that on the one hand, Whole Foods proclaimsWe've long believed that consumers have a right to know what's in your food”. But when it comes to homeopathic remedies, they neglect to inform consumers that these remedies do not contain the ingredients on the bottle at all. That's because homeopathic preparations are so diluted that not a single molecule of the original substance remains. Even more absurd, though, is that even if they weren't diluted to nothing, most homeopathic ingredients have never been shown to have any health benefits to begin with.

2. Whole Foods has an anti-GMO policy, adopted across all their stores, that ignores the science of GMOs. They announced last year that they would label all products in their stores to indicate whether they contained Genetical Modified Organisms. They also have announced that they are trying to eliminate GMOs from their shelves. 

Why is Whole Foods opposed to all GMOs? Their answer is simply: 
Crops are currently modified to survive herbicide treatment, produce their own pesticides and resist certain diseases.“
This answer is a true statement, though it does not describe all GMOs, nor does it explain why we should avoid them. For example, golden rice is a form of rice that’s been modified to contain more vitamin A than regular rice - a modification that is designed to prevent blindness in children, particularly in poor, rural regions where rice constitutes a major part of the diet. Golden rice has even been blessed by the Pope. Is Whole Foods opposed to this form of GMO?

And what’s wrong with engineering a crop to resist disease? Some foods would basically disappear from our shelves if we didn’t have disease-resistant versions. For example, the Hawaiian papaya was nearly wiped out by a virus until, in one of the first uses ever of genetic modification, plant scientists created a resistant variety. This saved the industry, and the papaya itself has exactly the same nutritional value it had before.

I suspect that Whole Foods (and many anti-GMO types) are mostly opposed to Monsanto’s Roundup Ready GMO crops, which are modified to allow farmers to use more of Monsanto’s herbicides. I can sympathize with that position - but not with opposing all uses of GMO technology. That’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

3. Whole Foods won’t sell the pain relievers aspirin and ibuprofen, because they’re not “natural." Instead, their Whole Body department sells a wide range of nutritional supplements, for which they make claims such as this
“Not sure which supplement to choose? Grab a full-spectrum wellness or immune support formula. These combinations of herbs, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants are specifically designed to effectively improve overall wellbeing and enhance immune support.“ 
That’s just gobbledygook, but it's carefully worded to avoid FDA regulations. The phrase "enhance immune support" is a common go-to phrase for supplement makers, because it sounds science-y. Not only are supplements mostly useless, but taking megadoses can actually harm you. And there’s no scientific reason to think that “natural” products are better for you. After all, snake venom is 100% natural.

In contrast, ibuprofen and aspirin really work - but you can't buy them at Whole Foods. I continue to shop at Whole Foods for their many excellent food selections. But for anything medical, I shop elsewhere.

South Carolina lawmaker wants to force Creationism down students' throats

Well, it’s happened again. The great state of South Carolina has demonstrated that when it comes to ignorance of science, its legislators take a back seat to no one. They must have been jealous of Kansas, Louisiana, and Texas.

Last week, SC legislator Mike Fair, a Republican, proposed a new standard for teaching high school biology that encourages teachers to teach alternatives to evolution, by which he means creationism. He's been working on this for months; last spring he tried to pass a law that would have required students and teachers to construct arguments against evolution. After failing to get that through his committee, he has proposed a new law that says
“evolution is continually open to and subject to experimental and observational testing.”
Except of course that's not what he really means.

Let’s be clear: Mike Fair doesn’t want evolution to be taught in public schools. Instead, he wants to force students, using the power of government, to adopt his conservative Christian views, which teaches that God created all living things just as they are today, about 6000 years ago (or 4000 years, depending on who you ask). 

Fair has a history of trying to dumb down the teaching of science.  Back in February, he blocked the state education oversight committee from using the phrase “natural selection” in the state science standards. Speaking to the (SC) Post and Courier, Fair said 
“To teach that natural selection is the answer to origins is wrong. I don't think it should be taught as fact.” [Mike Fair, S.C. legislator]
Ignorant barely begins to describe this statement. Mike Fair clearly doesn’t have the faintest grasp of biology or genetics. He’s the last person that anyone should want to weigh in on science standards. His behavior goes far beyond mere ignorance, though: not only is he wrong, but he wants to use the power of the state to impose his religious views, under the guise of science, on every student in South Carolina’s schools. No wonder South Carolina is perennially ranked near the bottom of the country in public education. 

I have a confession to make. I grew up in South Carolina and went through the public schools there, from kindergarten right through high school. I met lots of guys like Mike Fair: popular, plays on the football team, student body president. These guys are usually bullies (we've all seen the movie), and that’s just what Fair is demonstrating now: he wants to bully every teacher, and every child, into listening to his ignorant views of science. I’ve no doubt that if Fair could require prayer in every school — Christian prayer, that is — he’d do that too. I grew up surrounded by this kind of nonsense, but I didn't speak up then because I would have been ostracized. Well, I'm speaking up now. 

Fair and his colleagues in the Republican-dominated S.C. House of Representatives argue that no, they aren’t forcing teachers to teach creationism — they just want to teach the controversy. Equally appalling is the position of the S.C. Superintendent of Education, Mick Zais, who agreed with this sentiment, saying: 
"We ought to teach both sides and let students draw their own conclusions."
No, you shouldn't. There is no scientific controversy about evolution. Evolutionary theory is based on an enormous edifice of facts, with literally tens of thousands of scientific papers providing evidence to support it. There is no competing theory out there.

Ironically, three years ago Fair introduced a bill to prevent the imposition of Islamic-based Sharia law in South Carolina. He justified this by saying 
A growing concern is the immigration of people who are accustomed to their religion and their civil laws being inextricably connected. For those newcomers to our state, this bill will be helpful to them as they are assimilated into our culture maintaining complete freedom to worship as they please."
Reading this sent my irony meter way into the red zone. Let me see if I understand: Mike Fair doesn’t want religion and civil laws to be “inextricably connected” — but he does want to require that public, state-funded schools teach his religious view of the creation myth. I guess what he meant to say is that it’s okay to mix religious fundamentalism and civil law, as long as it’s Mike Fair's brand of Christian fundamentalism.

South Carolina doesn't need its own set of science standards, nor does Texas, Louisiana, or Kansas. The laws of science don't change when you cross state lines or national borders. Allowing politicians to set science standards is a recipe for disaster, and is one reason why the U.S. continues to lag the rest of the world in science education—as South Carolina has once again demonstrated.

Robert Kennedy's Anti-Vaccine Craziness

Robert Kennedy is obsessed with the notion that vaccines cause autism. He’s particularly obsessed with the discredited idea that thimerosal, a preservative used in some vaccines, causes autism. Now Kennedy is about to publish a new book on this topic, and he’s promoting it both in the press and, as described in today’s Washington Post, in the halls of Congress. He’s recently had personal meetings with U.S. Senators Barbara Mikulski and Bernie Sanders to try to convince them to take action based on his claims. Why is it that a scientifically unqualified anti-vaccine advocate can get a private audience with a U.S. Senator? Because he’s famous, that’s why.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is part of the most famous family in America. He’s the nephew of a former president and the son of a former senator and Attorney General, both tragically assassinated in the 1960s. Another uncle, Edward Kennedy, was a U.S. Senator for Massachusetts for decades. He gives hundreds of speeches a year, mostly on environmental issues, and he’s been an influential figure in the environmental movement.

But on the thimerosal issue, Kennedy has gone completely off the rails. He authored a Salon.com and Rolling Stone article (jointly published) nearly ten years ago that claimed not only that thimerosal-containing vaccines cause autism, but that “the government” knew about it and had been covering it up. Kennedy wrote then that
The story of how government health agencies colluded with Big Pharma to hide the risks of thimerosal from the public is a chilling case study of institutional arrogance, power and greed.”
Alarming-sounding stuff. The article is full of dramatic claims like this one. The only problem is, it’s all false.

I’ve been writing and speaking about the anti-vaccine movement for years, including articles in 2009 and 2010 on three landmark vaccine court rulings. As I explained back then:
Why was thimerosal introduced into vaccines? Well, early vaccines were administered from multi-dose bottles, in which bacteria could grow. In one particularly disastrous incident in 1928, 12 children in Australia died from staph infections after getting the diptheria vaccine from the same multi-dose bottle. After the introduction of thimerosal, bacterial infections caused by vaccination virtually disappeared.”
In the late 2000's, a special vaccine court conducted three lengthy hearings in which the anti-vax advocates were asked to present their best cases. One of the cases focused specifically on the question of whether thimerosal in vaccines cause autism. In that case, the judge concluded:
“The numerous medical studies concerning the issue of whether thimerosal causes autism, performed by medical scientists worldwide, have come down strongly against the petitioners’ contentions. Considering all of the evidence, I find that the petitioners have failed to demonstrate that thimerosal-containing vaccines can contribute to the causation of autism.”
As a lawyer, Kennedy should be able to understand this. The science, which Kennedy apparently does not understand, leads to the same conclusion: in study after study, scientists have found no link between thimerosal and autism, or any other kind of neurological disorder. And as RFK Jr knows, thimerosal was removed from childhood vaccines in the U.S. over a decade ago, and the rate of autism diagnosis continued to rise. This fact alone contradicts his major claim. 

What was shocking to me, the first time I heard Kennedy talk about thimerosal in vaccines, was how absolutely certain he is that he is right. Today's Washington Post article describes a man who remains utterly convinced, despite the mountain of evidence against him.

After Kennedy's Salon.com article appeared, scientists responded quickly and convincingly, pointing out its numerous flaws and distortions. Salon.com tried to fix the problem, issuing five corrections before throwing up their hands and removing the article entirely from their website. Rolling Stone also took down the article. Salon’s editor-in-chief wrote an apology, saying 
I regret we didn’t move on this more quickly, as evidence continued to emerge debunking the vaccines and autism link. But continued revelations of the flaws and even fraud tainting the science behind the connection make taking down the story the right thing to do .”
Kennedy has steadfastly refused to admit any errors, ever. As of today, his own website still displays the original article, without even the small corrections that Salon.com had made. He’s been embraced by the anti-vaccine movement: he gave a keynote talk at their annual conference, Autism One (prompting this response from one well-known science blogger), and he even spoke at one of Jenny McCarthy’s “Green Our Vaccines” demonstrations.

As Keith Kloor wrote today in his online column at Discover, Kennedy has not only failed to convince the world that he’s right (and the entire scientific community is wrong), but he doesn’t really care. He told Kloor that “if I die poor, then I go down fighting for what’s right.” (This despite the ridiculousness of the notion that the wealthy Kennedy family will ever be poor.)

By ignoring the scientific evidence that shows that thimerosal and vaccines have no link to autism, Robert Kennedy has placed himself firmly in the camp of conspiracy theorists and cranks. He’s also demonstrated breathtaking arrogance. He believes that despite his lack of scientific training, he knows the truth that every scientist who’s studied this issue has missed. 

Even worse, Kennedy is using his fame to spread anti-vaccine misinformation, which has contributed to an alarming rise in the number of infectious disease outbreaks here in the U.S., including major outbreaks of measles and whooping cough. Though I doubt he will listen to me (he’s ignored everyone else), Kennedy needs to take a hard look at the harm he’s causing to defenseless children, the elderly, and cancer patients, and anyone else with a weak or compromised immune system. His advocacy of bad science will cost lives, if it hasn’t already.

When I've heard Kennedy talk about environmental topics, where I agree with him almost completely, I’ve been impressed by his passion and his seeming command of the issues. But having heard him speak about thimerosal and vaccines, I now realize that he’s a dangerous idealogue, willing to distort the truth so thoroughly I can’t believe a word he says. The only solace I can take from today’s Washington Post article is that Senators Mikulski and Sanders don’t believe him either. Both of them brushed him off. Next time, they shouldn’t bother giving him an audience.

Stop teaching calculus in high school

Math education needs a reboot. Kids today are growing up into a world awash in data, and they need new skills to make sense of it all. 

The list of high school math courses in the U.S. hasn’t changed for decades. My daughters are taking the same courses I took long ago: algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus. These are all fine subjects, but they don’t serve the needs of the 21st century. 

What math courses do young people really need? Two subjects are head-smackingly obvious: computer science and statistics. Most high schools don’t offer either one. In the few schools that do, they are usually electives that only a few students take. And besides, the math curriculum is already so full that some educators have argued for scaling back. Some have even argued for getting rid of algebra, as Andrew Hacker argued in the NY Times not long ago.

So here's a simple fix: get rid of high school calculus to make way for computer programming and statistics.

Computers are an absolute mystery to most non-geeks, but it doesn’t have to be that way. A basic computer programming class requires little more than a familiarity with algebra. With computers controlling so much of their lives, from their phones to their cars to the online existence, we ought to teach our kids what’s going on under the hood. And programming will teach them a form of logical reasoning that is missing from the standard math curriculum.

With data science emerging as one of the hottest new scientific areas, a basic understanding of statistics will provide the foundation for a wide range of 21st century career paths. Not to mention that a grasp of statistics is essential for navigating the often-dubious claims of health benefits offered by various "alternative" medicine providers. 

(While we're at it, we should require more statistics in the pre-med curriculum. Doctors are faced with new medical science every day, and statistical evidence is the most common form of proof that a new treatment is effective. With so much bad science out there (just browse through my archive for many examples), doctors need better statistical knowledge to separate the wheat from the chaff.) 

Convincing schools to give up calculus won’t be easy. I imagine that most math educators will scream in protest at the mere suggestion, in fact. In their never-ending competition to look good on a blizzard of standardized tests, schools push students to accelerate in math starting in elementary school, and they offer calculus as early as the tenth grade. This doesn’t serve students well: the vast majority will never use calculus again. And those who do need it - future engineers, physicists, and the like - can take it in college. 

Colleges need to adjust their standards too. They can start by announcing that high school programming and statistics courses will be just as important as calculus in admissions decisions. If just a few top universities would take the lead, our high schools would sit up and take notice.

We can leave calculus for college. Colleges teach calculus well, and 18-year-old freshmen are ready for it. Every major university in the country has multiple freshman calculus courses, and they usually have separate courses designed for science-bound and humanities students. Many students who take high school calculus have to re-take it in college anyway, because the high school courses don’t cover quite the same material. 


Let’s get rid of high school calculus and start teaching young students the math skills they really need.