BSE Nonsense

This was written as a response to this article. I put a fair amount of time into it, so I figured it would be worth re-posting here.

What a load of pseudoscientific garbage. Before I start addressing specific errors and spin, I’d like to suggest that anyone interested in this topic read Richard Rhodes’s Deadly Feasts, in which the real science regarding BSE and vCJD is described in painstaking detail. That said, on with the show…

BSE is not contagious and cows cannot give it to each other or other animals just by living together. Nor can they give it to people. There’s never been a single case.

Just because cows can’t get BSE directly from each other doesn’t mean they can’t get it from a common source. If everyone living around a certain water source seemed to get river blindness, would you want to live there? After all, river blindness isn’t directly contagious so, according to this author, you’d be perfectly safe. Nonsense. A huge number of diseases and parasites, including some well-known ones such as malaria, do not infect members of the same species directly but do infect them nonetheless by jumping from one species to another.

BSE is an bovine-specific example of a Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy (TSE) which has many species-specific names but is really the same underlying prion/protein disease, and it is notoriously capable of jumping between species. Nervous-system tissue from deer or elk infected with Chronic Wasting Disease has been conclusively shown to trigger BSE in cows. A similar experiment with the squirrel form of TSE has shown similar results. BSE is generally considered to have arrived in cows in the UK from sheep (in which scrapie is endemic) either directly or via pigs.

The problem with BSE is not intra-species infection, but infection from a common source, and that common source still exists in the US beef herd.

Since 1997 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has prohibited the use of most mammalian protein in animal feeds given to all ruminants — conventional and organic.

That’s hardly meaningful when the FDA does hardly anything to enforce the ban and the industry itself does even less. Cases of mammalian protein being found in beef-cow feed, even though it’s nominally illegal, are so common that I don’t even need to cite them. Just Google.

It appears to have a genetic component 5 to 10% of the time, with a small percentage iatrogenic

If five to ten percent have a genetic component and a few percent are iatrogenic, what about the other ninety percent? The answer can be found in one of the author’s very own citations.

The epidemic of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in the United Kingdom, which began in 1986 and has affected nearly 200,000 cattle, is waning to a conclusion, but leaves in its wake an outbreak of human Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease

Note that they don’t call it a “possible outbreak” or a “theorized outbreak”; they’re pretty unequivocal that it’s a real outbreak. Their reasoning can best be explained by reference to the following quote:

Then, from May to October 1995, the CJD Surveillance Unit was notified of three cases of CJD in patients 16, 19, and 29 years of age (23,24). On neuropathologic examination, all three patients had amyloid plaques, which was unexpected in view of their occurrence in only 5%-10% of sporadic cases of CJD.

The reference to amyloid plaques is significant, because they are a distinguishing feature of variant CJD which is believed to be associated with BSE contamination. Some cases of CJD occur spontaneously – “sporadically” in the article – but that doesn’t mean all cases. It’s similar to the situation with cancer; some cases are of unknown origin, but there are many known risk factors and many of those lead to characteristic forms of cancer. In the case of CJD, the appearance of amyloid plaques is strongly suggestive – in the scientific meaning of that phrase – of infectious origin.

To sum up, then, the author commits the following egregious errors, which are too serious to be considered merely accidental:

  • Addressing only direct intra-species infection, ignoring the possibility of infection from a common source even though such infection is the dominant pattern for hundreds of diseases.
  • Pretending that something never happens just because one of the most toothless regulatory agencies in the US government has declared it illegal, despite overwhelming that its illegality is widely ignored.
  • Conflating vCJD with generic CJD, presenting findings about one as though they were about the other and ignoring the possibility that spontaneous and infectious origins can coexist.

If Szwarc’s article sounds like beef-industry PR that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Szwarc is a columnist for Tech Central Station, with a decidedly laissez-faire anti-government pro-food-industry bent; here’s another example of her “everything’s OK” style having to do with oysters, and a quick search on the site turns up plenty of others. Tech Central Station is a notorious front for the DCI group, a Washington lobbying firm. Personally I believe that such blatant industry propaganda has no place on a forum supposedly devoted to factual debate.

It might be worth noting that there’s another author at TCS named Iain Murray. After a bit of head-scratching I remembered that there’s also an Iain Murray who is the most frequent poster over at The Edge of England’s Sword. Same person, or just a coincidence? I have no idea; if anyone can shed any light on the matter I’d appreciate it.

Game Theory for Dummies

This is a piece I wrote a couple of weeks ago on Whistle Stopper. I’ll probably recycle some of my other “greatest hits” there as entries here over the next few days.

In honor of the late John von Neumann’s 100th birthday, here’s a little review of some things we should have learned from game theory – a field he practically founded.

The best-known lesson from game theory has to do with the Prisoner’s Dilemma. It’s a very simple game, actually invented by Albert Tucker, which goes like this:

Tucker began with a little story, like this: two burglars, Bob and Al, are captured near the scene of a burglary and are given the “third degree” separately by the police. Each has to choose whether or not to confess and implicate the other. If neither man confesses, then both will serve one year on a charge of carrying a concealed weapon. If each confesses and implicates the other, both will go to prison for 10 years. However, if one burglar confesses and implicates the other, and the other burglar does not confess, the one who has collaborated with the police will go free, while the other burglar will go to prison for 20 years on the maximum charge.

The interesting thing about the scenario is that there’s a temptation to “defect” (rat on your partner) but it only works if the other guy doesn’t do it. If both defect, the result for both players is worse than if they had both “cooperated” (remained silent). In other words, selfish opportunism screws things up for both players. This apparent paradox was studied extensively by many people, including John Nash (of A Beautiful Mind fame, who won a Nobel for it) and Robert Axelrod. Axelrod’s specialty was the iterated prisoners’ dilemma, in which two or more players play multiple rounds of the basic prisoners’ dilemma, remembering history and trying to maximize their results according to different strategies. As described in his book The Evolution of Cooperation the selfish opportunistic strategies are not optimal. The best strategies over the long term are those that encourage mutual cooperation, not pure competition.

Too abstract, you say? Not applicable to real people in real situations? Consider gridlock. It’s a very common and obvious example of people each trying to take advantage of others’ cooperative nature, and screwing themselves and everyone else in the process. Four people who approach an intersection in a cooperative frame of mind will all get through it faster than four people who each try to rush the light and end up creating a traffic jam.

Still not good enough? Consider these examples, then:

  • Imagine two companies, competing in multiple markets. One (Microsoft) uses bundling or predatory pricing to drive another (Netscape) out of a market, or perhaps out of business altogether. Once that is achieved, the monopoly holder is able to prosper despite inferior products or service. The more innovative competitor is gone, and the market suffers.
  • Imagine several airlines, each charging about the same price for tickets. This works great for them, so long as nobody “defects” by undercutting the others and trying to gain market share. As soon as someone does that, a price war ensues and they’re all worse off than if they had all settled for the profits from the cooperative arrangement.

Yes, these things really happen. Anybody who doesn’t see that is blind. A hasty interlocutor might at this point say that the second example shows how the selfish urge can defeat monopolistic schemes, but there’s a problem with that. The people who run companies know this stuff. Some of them knew this stuff before there was such a thing as game theory, and the others stayed awake in class. They know how to use game theory to their advantage, to profit from the first scenario and stay out of the second. They rely on people who didn’t stay awake in class to spread the dogma that lets them continue making money by means other than providing superior products and services. It suits their purposes very well indeed to have foot soldiers who reassure everyone that the “invisible hand” will take care of everything and there’s no reason for government to get involved. Another one of Axelrod’s results was that the only time opportunistic strategies do work is when there’s a high percentage of naive always-cooperate players for them to fleece.

So there you have it. From very basic game theory to real-life economics, the same principles hold true. Some people would have us believe that something will be magically different if we just turn this knob or push that button. That’s bunk. No rule is universal, but when a rule holds true across a broad variety of situations it’s less logical to believe it will break down in a new situation with no significant differences than that it will continue to hold true. Whether the proponents of such an illogical and counterfactual theory are simply naive or hope to benefit by convincing others of something they themselves don’t believe is unclear, but nobody who has studied game theory would ever be taken in.

Rest in peace, John von Neumann. Your work did make a difference.


“Daniel” over at Crooked Timber offers this comment about the equal-opportunity vs. equal-outcome debate:

I’ve never received (not for want of asking) a satisfactory answer from anyone who talks about “equality of opportunity” to the following two questions (also inspired by my time at business school, which I am coming to believe may have been less wasted than it seemed to be at the time)

1. What’s the point of doing anything if you’re not going to check whether it worked or not?
2. How do you find out whether a course of action worked or not, other than by the results?

The answer to question one is obvious: of course you have to check whether it worked or not. Question two is a good example of weasel wording: when he says “whether it worked or not” he’s talking about equal opportunity, but by the time he gets to “by the results” he’s talking about equal outcomes. He’s assuming an answer in the course of asking the question. One could measure whether opportunity was becoming more or less equal in a variety of ways other than by measuring outcomes. The most scientific, probably, would be to do a statistical analysis of the factors contributing to outcomes. If opportunity were becoming more equal, the sum of other factors would necessarily increase. Voila! Now you have a measurement of whether equal-opportunity programs are working, and an easy answer to a thoroughly specious question.

Supremely Uncivilized Vehicles

I made the mistake of getting involved in Yet Another SUV Debate over at Whistle Stopper. About the only thing I can say is that Bradsher was right when he said that SUV marketing is designed to appeal to people at a very primitive level. People almost literally fall in love with their monsters, and any perceived threat to their beloved provokes what any student of animal behavior (or even an amateur like me) can recognize as territorial aggression. Higher brain functions are not involved. The most ardent free-market advocate will happily ignore the way that the government has done everything the auto industry asks – from relaxed safety/emissions/mileage standards to insurance regulation to tax breaks and foreign-vehicle tariffs – to assist sales of these highly profitable items. It’s their territory, they must defend it even if they have to become major-league hypocrites to do so. People who own SUVs without feeling at least a small twinge of guilt over making others pay the price for their marketing-induced preference need to grow up and get civilized. Their parents and teachers failed.

Bandwidth Equation

There’s a very old and variously attributed saying (no, Tanenbaum was not the first) that you can’t beat the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes. In a slight variation, a company in good old New Zealand has found a situation where the best bandwidth is provided by pigeons. It seems to me that some sort of fixed wireless, such as 802.11whatever with a high-gain directional antenna, would work just fine, but you have to hand it for them for finding a creative solution to their problem.

New PlatSync version

I’ve created a new version of PlatSync, with new features. There’s a lot more information in the last comment on my PlatSync article.


A while back Cyan, one of the few people who for a while made America’s Debate worth visiting, rose to the challenge of designing a vampire-platypus (“platypire”) image as a possible avatar on that site. The idea is, of course, a reference to this site’s original Romanian domain. In any case, it turned out that the image doesn’t work nearly as well at avatar size as it does in the original, and I don’t visit that site much since I found a much better one to satisfy my political-debate addiction, but it still seems worth sharing the results and thanking Cyan publicly for her efforts. She really did an excellent job; note especially that the platypus’s eyes and not just the bill have been grafted onto the following image, which must have required extra care.


Last night, I hit upon a very concise explanation of how my beliefs so often lead me into conflict with libertarians. For one thing, I reject their misappropriation of terms like “liberty” and “freedom” and “rights” to mean very specific things unheralded in any more general philosophical tradition. If I created the Patriot Party or the Human Party, would that mean that any of my political rivals should be assumed to be unpatriotic or against humanity? Of course not. It would only mean that they were opposed to my particular definition or interpretation of those ideas, which is a very different thing. I am opposed to the libertarians’ definitions and interpretation of certain ideas, even though I’m a strong supporter of those same ideas as more commonly understood.

That’s not the real crux of the conflict, though. The real sticking point is that I believe in people’s right to reap rewards for things that they do. Correspondingly, I believe in people’s responsibility to bear costs for things that they do. This idea is entirely compatible with classic liberal concepts like a social contract, progressive taxation (if one is mathematically competent enough to realize that proportionality need not be linear), and government regulation of markets. In fact, since a right is meaningless if it cannot practically be exercised, the right to reap rewards requires some of these other things to give it meaning.

What is not compatible with my belief is an absolutist definition of property rights. An absolute right to retain unearned wealth – whether it be from inheritance, passive investment, or monopolistic coercion – prevents that same wealth from becoming reward for people who have actually earned it. The existence of self-perpetuating centers of wealth undermines the meritocratic ideal that I espouse. In short, I believe property rights are secondary, legitimate only to the extent that they support the primary right to a reward and subject to mandatory modification where the two conflict. It’s easy enough to imagine a system where the right to a reward is preserved without any property rights whatsoever, though I happen to believe that strong (but not absolute) property rights are the preferred means to that end.

Unfortunately, thanks to people like Friedman and Hayek and Mises, many people have gotten the idea stuck in their mind that capitalism is all about property and not about rewards (or competition for those rewards). They’re putting the cart so far before the horse that the horse never even attains its destination. My conflict with such people largely stems from the fact that I care more about the horse than the cart, and they have become obstacles to that horse’s progress. If their misconceptions about property rights interfere with my right to be rewarded for my actions, I will never hesitate to point out the flaws in their beliefs. Whether they realize it or not they are supporters of aristocracy in opposition to meritocratic capitalism.

More Monotremes

Frank, from The Edge of England’s Sword, emailed me with the following pictures. I’ll integrate them into the main platypus-picture pages when I get a chance. Thanks, Frank!

Monotreme Day

Today is Monotreme Day. It’s not a recognized holiday, but it’s the anniversary of the day one year ago when Cindy and I saw our first monotremes in the wild on the way from Hobart to Strahan in Tasmania. We saw several echidnas (echidnae?) by the road, and a platypus at Lake St. Clair. That’s certainly an event worth celebrating.