Ted Cruz is not as smart as Galileo, whatever he claims

Global temperatures for the past 125 years. It's getting hot!
The word in Washington lately is that Senator Ted Cruz–who just announced that he’s running for President–is supposed to be a very smart guy. Some of this comes from Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, who said last year that Cruz was “clearly among the top students” at the prestigious Harvard Law School. Dershowitz is very liberal, while Cruz is very conservative, so one assumes that Dershowitz wouldn't say this if it weren't true.

Perhaps Cruz was an excellent law student. But when it comes to science, Cruz is no whiz kid. On the contrary, he seems to be woefully ignorant. We know this because despite his lack of expertise, he doesn’t hesitate to make sweeping pronouncements about scientific matters.

In just the past week, Cruz has weighed in on two major science issues, and he's been wrong on both. First, in an interview a few days ago with the Texas Tribune, Cruz stated that global warming isn’t happening. This wasn’t the first time he’s made that claim, but this time he threw in what’s known in skeptical circles as the "Galileo gambit," a well-known ploy of conspiracy theorists. He compared his global warming denialism to Galileo thusly:
Today, the global warming alarmists are the equivalent of the flat-Earthers. It used to be [that] it is accepted scientific wisdom the Earth is flat, and this heretic named Galileo was branded a denier.”
Cruz managed to get at least two things wrong in a single sentence here. 

First, Galileo did not become famous for arguing against flat-Earthers: he argued that the Earth revolved around the sun (the heliocentric model of the solar system) rather than the sun revolving around the earth (the geocentric or Ptolemaic model, after the Greek philosopher Ptolemy).

Second, Galileo was not a denialist, nor was he called one. He was not denying a vast array of scientific data to make his point–just the opposite, in fact. The data showed that the Earth and other planets revolved around the sun, and the Catholic church (among other institutions) didn’t want to believe it, and therefore they forced him to recant. The Church didn't call Galileo a "denier."

Cruz's statement is not just wrong: it's also arrogant. Cruz is comparing himself to Galileo, one of the greatest scientists in history, as if he (Cruz) were making a brave scientific stand against a dogmatic opponent. This is the crux of the Galileo gambit: the speaker claims to take a heroic stand against a powerful foe while defending the truth. Sorry, Senator Cruz: you’re no Galileo. Not even a little bit.

And let's not ignore Cruz’s scientific claim: that the Earth isn't getting warmer. Here's one of his quotes:
"And many of the alarmists on global warming, they’ve got a problem cause the science doesn’t back them up. And in particular, satellite data demonstrate for the last 17 years, there’s been zero warming. None whatsoever."
Oh good. Ted Cruz has evaluated the satellite data and figured this out. Who knew that he was not only a lawyer but also a scientist? Real climate scientists–who understand this issue far, far better than Cruz–disagree. For example, NASA and NOAA recently announced that 2014 was the warmest year on record. They also explained that 
“The 10 warmest years in the instrumental record, with the exception of 1998, have now occurred since 2000. This trend continues a long-term warming of the planet, according to an analysis of surface temperature measurements by scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies.” (See the Figure.)
There’s no mystery about why Cruz and others deny global warming: the oil and coal industries have conducted a vigorous campaign for years now, primarily targeting Republicans, to cast doubt on the science. The reason is simple: fossil-fuel companies are worried that if we take global warming seriously, we might burn less fossil fuel. Their lobbying campaign is working: Cruz has certainly fallen into line.

Meanwhile, coastal areas are fighting rising sea levels, and the Arctic and Antarctic are melting. Lobbying might change the minds of politicians, but the planet doesn't care.

Now let’s look at the second bit of dodgy science that Senator Cruz endorsed this week. He announced his candidacy at Liberty University, a Christian fundamentalist college in Virginia that was founded by Jerry Falwell, an evangelical Southern Baptist minister. Liberty University’s Center for Creation Studies teaches students that the the Earth is only a few thousand years old and that all species were placed here by an all-powerful god, exactly as described in the Bible. Not surprisingly, students and faculty at Liberty University deny the facts of evolution. To a scientist, Cruz's appearance at Liberty University is an in-your-face endorsement of creationism.

I should be clear that Ted Cruz didn’t explicitly embrace creationism and deny evolution when he announced his candidacy, but he did choose Liberty University, and he must know its views about evolution. I wrote to Senator Cruz to see if he believed in young-Earth creationism, or if he believed that species evolved over millions of years, as science has demonstrated. He didn’t reply.

Virtually all of modern biology and medicine has its basis in evolution. No serious scientist disputes that evolution is by far the best explanation for the species around us, and for a thousand other phenomena that scientists study every day. The debate about the fact of evolution is long over. As a scientist, I find it just embarrassing to have prominent U.S. politicians publicly deny evolution.

Actually, I suspect that Ted Cruz isn’t really a creationist. I find it hard to believe that a guy who went to Princeton and Harvard, and apparently did quite well at both schools, can really believe the Earth was created 4,000 years ago. I also wonder if he truly believes that the world's leading climate scientists are just making stuff up about the Earth warming. Maybe he’s just pandering to his right-wing audience and his campaign donors.

Do politicians need to make decisions about science? Of course they do. But science can be incredibly complex and specialized. A good president (or prime minister, or governor) will identify experts–independent ones, without conflicts of interest–and seek their advice. Ted Cruz is no scientist, as his recent comments demonstrate, but I predict he won't be the only U.S. presidential candidate to make misguided remarks about science.

A true fountain-of-youth drug combo?

This is really, really interesting. Can we alleviate the effects of aging by getting rid of "bad" cells in the body?

A new study from the Mayo Clinic and the Scripps Research Institute reports that a novel cocktail of two unrelated drugs 
dramatically slows the aging process—alleviating symptoms of frailty, improving cardiac function and extending a healthy lifespan.” 
The scientists who conducted the study, led by James Kirkland, Laura Niedernhofer, and Paul Robbins, screened 46 different compounds to find ones that would interfere with the ability of senescent cells to survive. The two that seemed to work best were quercetin and dasatinib. They call these drugs "senolytic" for their ability to kill senescent cells.

Old cells are supposed to die and let the body replace them. Most of them do, but some cells become senescent: old geezers who just won’t go away. The problem is, these cells just don’t sit quietly in the living room reading a book. Instead, they make lots of noise, throwing things around that can mess up the living room and make all the other cells miserable. At a molecular level, they secrete enzymes that cause inflammation and other problems, which may explain the relationship between these cells and age-related chronic diseases such as heart disease and osteoporosis. 

This current line of research started about four years ago, when the Mayo Clinic's Jan van Deursen published a study (in mice) showing that if you could selectively destroy senescent cells, the mice had fewer age-related diseases and lived up to 25% longer. Senescent cells, it seems, are definitely a problem.

The challenge is that very few cells are senescent, even in very old people, and it's difficult to destroy these cells without harming all the healthy cells around them. In the new study, Kirkland and his team screened 46 different compounds to find ones that could interfere with what they called “pro-survival” genes in senescent cells. The theory is that the senescent cells have a special ability to survive, and if we can interfere with that ability, the cells will die.

The two compounds they found are very different. Quercetin is a common plant extract, found in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, especially capers, red onions, plums, and cranberries. Dasatinib, in contrast, is a highly specialized cancer drug made by Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE:BMY) and sold under the name Sprycel®. Dasatinib is used to treat CML, a form of leukemia. Quercetin is cheap and easily available, while dasatinib is very expensive and cannot be obtained without a prescription.

The study results were very impressive: after a single dose, mice had improved heart function that lasted up to 7 months. Periodic doses worked too: mice showed improvements in a wide range of age-related symptoms, including bone loss, tremors, grip strength, and overall body condition.

Before everyone runs out and buys a giant bag of red onions (or a quercetin supplement), I should inject a dose of skepticism. Quercetin’s effect on lifespan has been studied before, and it came up short. A study in 2013 by Stephen Spindler and colleagues looked at extracts of blueberry, pomegranate, green tea, black tea, quercetin, and other plants, feeding each of them to mice in a controlled experiment. None of the mice lived longer, and Spindler reported that 
our results do not support the idea that isolated phytonutrient anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatories are potential longevity therapeutics.”

However, the method of delivery for quercetin and dasatinib in the new experiment was different, and the combination of the two might have benefits that quercetin alone does not offer. As Kirkland point out, dasatinib and quercetin “are both approved for use in humans and appear to be relatively safe,” although they then go on to point out a variety of possible side effects, some of them harmful. They end, though, on a remarkably optimistic note: 
If senolytic agents can indeed be brought into clinical application, they could be transformative. With intermittent short treatments, it may eventually become feasible to delay, prevent, alleviate, or even reverse multiple chronic diseases and disabilities as a group, instead of one at a time.”
Of course, results in mice often fail when we try them out in humans–but not always. Let’s hope this drug combination shows the same effects in humans that Kirkland and colleagues observed in mice. None of us are getting any younger.

NIH distorts report showing risk of stroke after chiropractic

Why would an NIH center try to mislead the public about a newly published study that it funded? Last month NIH’s alternative medicine center, NCCIH, highlighted one of its studies with this headline: “Low risk of stroke after chiropractic spinal manipulation in older patients with neck pain, study finds.” 

This sounds reassuring, unless you read the study. It turns out that the risk of stroke was 10% higher in patients who saw a chiropractor compared to those who saw a regular doctor. Yet NIH wants us to believe that the study found no serious risk.

Why ask this question? Because earlier studies showed a small but frightening risk of stroke in younger people (45 and below) after chiropractic, caused by dissection of the vertebral artery. Strokes caused by a tear in this artery are extremely rare, but even a tiny possibility of a fatal stroke after a chiropractic manipulation is alarming. As Forbes writer Larry Husten reported last August, the American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association issued a statement warning that chiropractic neck adjustments might cause strokes. The AHA stated:
  • "Manipulating the neck has been associated with cervical dissection, a type of arterial tear that can lead to stroke.
  • Although a direct cause-and-effect link has not been established between neck manipulation and the risk of stroke, healthcare providers should inform patients of the association before they undergo neck manipulation."
I’ve written about this as well, both at Forbes and in The Atlantic Monthly. The risk is small but the consequences can be extremely serious.

So what's in this new study? The study, led by chiropractor James Whedon at Dartmouth College, was a large-scale survey of Medicare claims involving people aged 66 to 99. Its aim was to answer this question: "what is the probability of stroke following chiropractic spinal manipulation, as compared to a control group of subjects evaluated for neck pain by a primary care physician?" Key findings from the study included these (all from Table 2):

                     Hazard ratio for stroke at 30 days
All patients         1.10 (10% increase)
Patients aged 75-79  1.93 (93% increase)
Patients aged 80-84  2.50 (2.5 times more likely)
Patients over 85     3.59 (over 3.5 times more likely)

This looks bad: for all patients, the risk of stroke was 10% higher if they'd seen a chiropractor versus a regular doctor. In the older patients, the risk of stroke after 30 days was 1.9 to 3.6 times higher than for patients aged 66-69. (All four of these results were reported as statistically significant.) Yet the conclusions of the study–and the NIH press release–make no mention of these findings. The study itself concludes only that 
Among Medicare B beneficiaries aged 66 to 99 years with neck pain, incidence of vertebrobasilar stroke was extremely low. Small differences in risk between patients who saw a chiropractor and those who saw a primary care physician are probably not clinically significant.”
Talk about spin! The study provides no support for the dismissive statement that the increase in risk of stroke after chiropractic is "not clinically significant"; it seems they are trying to downplay their own finding of a statistically significant increase in risk. The NIH’s press release is just as bad: it merely parrots the study's conclusions, opening with the statement that “cervical spine manipulation is unlikely to cause a stroke,” and never mentioning the statistically significant 10% increase in risk or that the study was led by a chiropractor.

Despite the misleading press release, this new study adds to the evidence that chiropractic carries an increased risk of stroke, especially for older patients. As the American Heart Association recommends, patients should be informed of this risk before submitting themselves to a possibly dangerous neck manipulation. And NIH press officers should read the study before issuing a press release.