Saturday, September 27, 2014

Literature Review of Safety and Health Effects of Organic

The Inst. of Food Technologists has issued this Scientific Status Summary to update readers on the organic foods industry.

This review discusses the differences between organic foods and conventional foods with respect to food safety and nutritional composition and makes clear that several qualitative differences exist.

Organic foods and conventionally grown foods are not the same. However, the health tradeoffs are not all on the side of organic, and maybe not even generally.

it is premature to conclude that either food system is superior to the other with respect to safety or nutritional composition. Pesticide residues, naturally occurring toxins, nitrates, and polyphenolic compounds exert their health risks or benefits on a dose-related basis, and data do not yet exist to ascertain whether the differences in the levels of such chemicals between organic foods and conventional foods are of biological significance.

The specifics are interesting.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Devil is in the Pumpkin Spice

Starbucks just launched it’s Pumpkin Spice Latte and I’m very excited about it. As a Starbucks Barista, I dump Pumpkin Spice into just about every drink I consume at work. So it’s a shame when I see a meme like this making the rounds:


This kind of thing doesn’t pass the sniff test for me. but I’m happy to see other people actively disproving these hyped up health scare stories. Compound Interest is one of them:


You might notice that Compound Interest didn’t respond to several accusations that FoodBabe made. Being non-organic, non-vegan, containing pesticide residues, and made from GMOs are not criticisms when it comes to actual science. So these criticisms only appeal to people who are already sold on weirdo health pseudo-science.

The one biggest criticism of the Pumpkin Spice is the one that everybody already knows. It is packed with sugar. Maybe it’s not a toxic level, but you’d probably be doing your body a favor by going easy on the autumn drink. On the other hand, we trade-off health for pleasure all the time, and that’s okay. Just be aware of the tradeoffs.

Total Peace Requires Anarchy. As much Peace as we can get Requires Minarchy

Libertarians have correctly pointed out that we can’t have peace without anarchy. Government is inherently violent, and uses violence to enforce its rules. A non-violent government would not fit our intuitions about what a government is at all. Rather it would be some sort of club. To take away violence is to make government lame and unable to continue. When we dream of world peace, or even domestic peace, we are dreaming of anarchy, necessarily.

Non-libertarians can properly rebut, “but we can’t have anarchy without peace!” If we had peace we wouldn’t need government. Peace must come first, then anarchy, because government violence against the violent is society’s mechanism for keeping violence from becoming out of hand. Once murder and rape rates drop to 0%, and we have assurance that it stays there because the heart of man has changed, then we can talk about anarchy.

Let me first say that I’m an anarchist, and I challenge the assumption that the only reason why society is not one great big riot is because of government. But lets leave that aside for a second.

What is interesting to me is how close to anarchy the non-libertarian rebuttal implies. It is basically what minarchists have been saying for a long time. Maybe violence against the violent is necessary, but how does that justify minimum wage laws? Or taxes spent on education? Or the legal drinking age? These are all situations where government is utilizing violence, not to prevent more violence, but to promote other values. If it were true that if we had peace we wouldn’t need government, then they would support government action only to the extent that it promotes peace, but no further.

Non-minarchists should come to terms with the reality that they do not want world peace. Violence is here to stay. Even if private sector violence ends, the public sector should still continue using guns and fists to promote certain values. Furthermore, if you really listen to what people believe would happen without so many non-peace promoting laws, they should admit that the wish for world peace would send the world spiraling into disarray. After all, if we had peace, who would build the roads?

Monday, August 25, 2014

Short Argument against the Ice Bucket Challenge

Awareness is a scarce resource. We can’t spend our attention on every single thing that matters. So we must allocate our attention to things that matter more, and less attention to things that matter less. ALS is so far down on the list of social ills that it really does not deserve our attention.

Other things far down on the list: school shootings and domestic terrorism.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Does an Altruistic Model of Charity Predict Crowding Out?

From, “Does Welfare Spending Crowd Out Charitable Activity? Evidence from Historical England under the Poor Laws”

The theoretical foundation of crowding out is based on the traditional public good model of
charitable giving. Agents derive utility from a public good, in this case welfare provision or
the well-being of others, and regard their own and other agents' contributions to the public
good as perfect substitutes. This means the agent is purely altruistic, in that he is only
concerned with the total amount of welfare provided, such that the model predicts perfect
(i.e. dollar-for-dollar) crowding out between government provision of welfare and private
charity (see for example Warr 1982 or Bergstrom, Roberts and Varian 1986). However, since
the prediction of perfect crowding out is not empirically supported and the predicted level
of giving is unrealistically low, the model has been extended in several directions. One of
these extensions is the impure altruist model developed by Andreoni (1989 and 1990).2 Here,
agents are said to be impurely altruistic as they derive utility from their own contribution to
charity as well as the total level of welfare. One explanation could be that agents not only
care about the well-being of others but also wish to donate to charities `to do the right thing'
or `to do good'. This leads to a situation where crowding out is less than perfect, i.e. less
than one-for-one. Another explanation for less than perfect crowding out is, for example, a
signaling e ect of wealth from charitable giving, as in Glazer and Konrad (1996). However,
the predicted relation is still negative.

Friday, August 22, 2014

VOX and I on the Ice Bucket Challenge for ALS

For a serious thinking take on the trending ice bucket challenge, see this Vox article. What really impresses me is the gentleness with which they deliver their party pooper message.

Sometimes our decisions about donating don't even seem to be driven by values or potential impact — but by celebrities and the entertainment value of the fundraising campaigns they endorse. Look no further than the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge…

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, and its virality, raise some interesting questions about which charities and health causes we choose to give to. It seems to add further evidence to the fact that celebrities and gimmicks often drive our charitable donating more than, perhaps, they should…

ALS kills about 6,000 people in the United States a year. For context’s sake, understand that heart disease kills about 600,000, trips and falls within the home is about 6,000, and shark attacks is about 5. Both awareness and money are a scarce resources, should we really employ them on something so ultimately trivial?

William MacAskill, founder 80,000 Hours, suggests that people simply need to think a little more before giving. In particular, he draws a distinction between honoring a cause that matters to you and trying to do the maximum good with your dollars. "Showing respect or affection toward a loved one who passed away, for example, is an admirable way to donate." But it's not the same as thinking about the impact of your investment.

After being challenged, I looked into ALS. I really wanted it to be something important that properly deserves our limited awareness. It is not. I don’t think I will be accepting the challenge. It is not altruistic to give into a game that makes people feel like they’ve done something good when they haven’t. I think the amount of charity people want to engage in is largely fixed, and engaging in trivial charity crowds out the amount of engagement people want to have with other kinds. We have a cognitive and financial budget we’re willing to direct toward charitable causes. The budget is a little more than the point at which we feel the most good about ourselves (what looks like charity is mostly selfish but partly altruistic). The ALS ice bucket challenge is a waste of that budget.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Tolstoy on Progress

This is taken from chapter III of Tolstoy’s A Confession,

“That faith took with me the common form it assumes with the majority of educated people of our day. It was expressed by the word, “progress.” It then appeared to me that this word meant something. I did not as yet understand that, being tormented (like every live man) by the question how it is best for me to live, in my answer, “live in conformity with progress,” I was replying as a man in a boat would do if when carried along by wind and waves he replied to what for him was the chief and only question. “whither to steer,” by saying, “we are being carried somewhere.”

I’ve been interrupted by this word, “progress” over my life. People would ask me, “don’t you want something better with your life?” And I always wondered, what do you mean by better? Better assumes good, can you tell me what is the good? The effective definition of progress is a product of the cultural ethos, and it changed between places and generations. People should more often stop to think and realize that this unexamined definition of progress carries their lives somewhere, and though it may seem to be a good place, that’s the ethos speaking and it doesn’t always tell the truth. The ethos informs our moral intuitions all the time, and in a world that is absolutely convinced that moral intuitions are authoritative the people will continue to mindlessly follow the ethos.

Tolstoy seems to realize that the fleeting satisfaction from progress and the universality of it. Intrinsic suffering isn’t a psychological disorder called depression, it is the inherent consequence of not seeking what is good. We seek things, they make us feel nice, and then it goes away because it is realized that they were meaningless. So we are not filled. Progress is a convention which doesn’t bare fruit. We all suffer because we are unwilling to seriously seek an answer to what the purpose of life is. Instead of engaging with this uncritically held assumption, we fall back on progress. It is the death of meaning and of us.