March 6th, 2003


Beware… commentary on the news

Gonna have a rash of entries coming here folks. Get ready to scroll.

From the New York Times, in yesterday's edition, comes Seeking to Shed Fat, She Lost Her Liver. The story is about a woman who bought a bottle of 90 capsules of usnic acid over the internet. Usnic acid is a dietary supplement, a category of items that is almost completely unregulated. As long as the makers do not make any claims to cure disease, the FDA can do little about them. Usnic acid is supposed to help with weight loss. Anyway, here's the paragraphs that really piqued my interest:

In fact, the product she took was not regulated by anybody. Mr. Parker, who produced the capsules, does not have a college degree or any training in pharmacology. He sells promotional T-shirts for a living. He said usnic acid was just a little sideline.

Mr. Parker said that bodybuilding was a hobby of his, and that taking usnic acid for weight loss had been "a buzz in the health and fitness community for years."

About a year ago, he said, he found a supplier in China via the Internet, ordered the usnic acid in 11-pound lots, had it tested for purity and then sent it to a local company to have it put in capsules and bottled.

He wrote the dosage instructions himself, he said, based on Internet research and feedback from people who used the compound. He then sold it, mostly via the Internet but also through a few health food stores.

What piqued my interest about it? That a guy without a college degree can make the stuff? No. What piques my interest is that someone would buy the crap from him.

When Jennifer Rosenthal took usnic acid, she said, it never occurred to her to wonder whether or not the product had been tested, studied or approved by the F.D.A.

I didn't think about that kind of stuff, she said. Not very smart.

This is the kind of health advice you are going to get if you don't check into things. It's why I harp on such things as water intake myths on the crack bored health forum. Too much bad advice getting passed around from person to person. Call me callous, but this woman deserved what she got for not checking into a drug she was putting into her body. Even if it was called a dietary supplement.

It's why I don't advocate alternative medicine. Basically, if there is some health claim to it, I wanna see studies before I'm willing to take it. Sure, I don't check into everything. For instance, if my doctor prescribes something, I probably won't make sure it is as effective as he claims. I consider the source.

Seriously though, the amount of health advice I see/hear passed around by non-health professionals without any iota of evidence to support it is astonishing.


Mental illness

Also from the New York Times is Revising the Script on Mental Illness and Violence which attempts to explain why we think of the mentally ill as violent when the vast majority are not. There's some interesting facts in this article, taken from a study by the Duke University Medical Center.

  • The incidence of violence is 5 times as high among people with serious mental disorders (e.g., schizophrenia, major depression, and bipolar disorder) as it is among those with no psychiatric illness.
  • People who use alcohol or other drugs are 12 to 16 times more likely to be violent as non-users.
  • Psychiatric patients have much higher rates of alcohol and substance abuse than the population as a whole.
  • When alcohol is controlled for, violence among subjects drops to 7 percent from 20 percent.

The conclusion being drawn from all this is that violence is related to the level of psychiatric symptoms. Decent conclusion. So is the conclusion that alcohol has a lot to do with it.

But his conclusion as to why people believe that mentally ill people are more violent? It's the media. He throws out the Jeffrey Dahmer case as an example of the media causing us all to to believe this. But he's wrong really.

It's really something called availability error. John Allen Paulos writes about it frequently. Anxiety, fear, and the force of a vivid anecdote can, for example, mask the mathematical distinction between the rate of incidence of some condition and the absolute number of instances.

In other words, the absolute number is more important than the rate in our minds. Most urban dwellers have encountered the mentally ill. And most have an experience or two with them becoming threatening or violent. They may not see it often. They may only see it a couple of times in a lifetime, but that is much more important than the statistic. Because it is personal, for one. It has more impact on our consciousness. And because it is negative and extraordinary. We do not remember things that do not stick out. Occurrences that are unusual, different from our daily routines, these we remember. It trumps the statistics we read in the newspaper and also outweighs all the non-violent mentally ill people we run into every day. Those are not as available to us as the bad experience.

How many people have had a mentally ill person do something unusual in a nice way, that didn't also scare us in other ways? I'm sure it happens. But it happens quite a bit less.

Thus, our perception.