Warning: Alcohol Studies May Impair Judgment

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- So much news, so little time! Science sometimes makes headlines and even more often gives us a different way of thinking about the stories of the week. I’d like to delve into a few timely topics in a sort of lightning round:

NIH Discontinues Search for Proof of Alcohol’s Benefits

Many of us would love to know the health impact of moderate alcohol consumption, and researchers had just started a large-scale study to get at the answer. But now, after a panel reviewed integrity problems, the National Institutes of Health has pulled the plug.

The plan was to divide 7,800 participants into two groups, one abstaining completely and one drinking a single daily serving of beer, wine or any other alcoholic drink. Researchers were to follow the subjects for 10 years, making this the first large-scale controlled study of moderate drinking.

But an investigative piece in The New York Times cast doubt on the study’s potential for objectivity, raising alarms that researchers were shaping the protocols to serve the interests of the sponsors — in this case the alcohol industry. In a report released this week, an NIH working group collaborating with epidemiologists seconded those concerns:

Interactions among several NIAAA staff and industry representatives appear to intentionally bias the framing of the scientific premise in the direction of demonstrating a beneficial health effect of moderate alcohol consumption…..the trial could show benefits while missing harms.

To date, the evidence often touted linking alcohol with health benefits comes from observing large populations, but in those cases it’s nearly impossible to detangle the various influences of diet, exercise and other lifestyle factors. In the late 20th century, there was a great hype surrounding the so-called French paradox — the notion that red wine must be an elixir of health because French people lived longer than Americans despite eating more butter and cheese (certainly because they also drink red wine, right? Right!?). But there’s very little evidence, it turns out, for the harms of butter or cheese. Other observational studies have suggested moderate drinkers are slightly more likely to get breast cancer than are nondrinkers.

This new study would have been different. Instead of simply observing patterns in drinking and health, it would have divided one large group in two, randomly, and altered nothing but their alcohol consumption. But NIH Director Francis Collins was emphatic about the fatal nature of this study’s flaws. Quoted in Science, he said that “many of the [NIH] staff who have seen the working group report were frankly shocked to see that so many lines were crossed.”

Planet of the Cows

Researchers have guesstimated the total weight of various life forms, and concluded that although humans make up only about .01 percent of the total, our activities have changed everything. Among mammals, for example, the total mass now comprises only 4 percent wild animals, 36 percent humans and 60 percent livestock. And chickens make up 70 percent of the total bird biomass.

The project, whose results were published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, incorporated satellite images and data from multiple other studies. The researchers also estimated that by total mass, wild animals had been depleted by 83 percent since the start of human civilization. And half of the wild plant biomass is gone. Quoted in The Guardian, lead researcher Ron Milo said he was surprised at the impact farming has had on the Earth, and plans to be more mindful of his meat consumption.

Recreating the Neanderthal Brain, in Miniature

Scientists announced at a meeting this month that they’ve grown “minibrains” in a dish, starting with human stem cells engineered to resemble those of Neanderthals. The research, done at the University of California, San Diego, builds on a relatively newfound ability to grow human brain cells into lentil-sized bits of tissue called “organoids,” which develop some of the structure of actual brains. The experiment is aimed at understanding how we differ from Neanderthals — close cousins of modern humanity who diverged from our main lineage 400,000 years ago and interbred again after 60,000 years.

Building human brain organoids has helped scientists study the way the Zika virus and various genetic mutations affect brain development and function. Now, they’ve reportedly engineered human cells to carry some of the genetic variations found in Neanderthal DNA but not in modern humans. The researchers say some of those genes are thought to affect the Neanderthal brain.

The lead researcher, Alysson Muotri, was quoted in the journal Science saying that he’d like to “recreate Neanderthal minds.” Until recently, scientists assumed that Neanderthals were not quite human, but early in the 21st century, geneticists revealed that they interbred with anatomically modern humans to the extent that many people today carry up to 4 percent Neanderthal DNA. Anthropologists have shown that Neanderthal people may have buried their dead and created artwork. The “human” line has blurred.

Scientists working with these brain organoids insist these collections of cells can’t possibly think or feel or experience consciousness. But in a recent story in The Atlantic, some admitted they are still trying to figure out what consciousness means and how we’d go about detecting it.

And while the technique sounds dazzling, scientists such as paleoanthropologist John Hawks say that it can yield only limited clues to the much bigger question of who these hunter-gatherers were, how they lived and what they thought about. 

Bees Are Not Smarter Than Aristotle

Scientists have come to realize that size doesn’t matter that much when it comes to smarts. Little animals including birds and even bees can count, for example, and solve some complex problems. But the claims of amazing abilities started to strain my capacity for belief this month when the press reported that bees had understood a concept that had eluded even the greatest ancient philosophers the notion of zero.

Here’s how Smithsonian Magazine described bees’ induction into the ranks of beings that understand zero:

In a press release, the authors of a paper published June 8 in the journal Science called species with this ability an “elite club” that consists of species we generally consider quite intelligent, including primates, dolphins and parrots. Even humans haven’t always been in that club: The concept of zero first appeared in India around 458 A.D., and didn’t enter the West until 1,200, when Italian mathematician Fibonacci brought it and a host of other Arabic numerals over with him.

To be fair, this is not what the bee researchers claimed in a paper published in Science, but simply how it was promoted in press releases. What the researchers actually claimed was that bees recognize that a set of zero objects is less than a set of one or two objects.

To test the bees, the scientists presented them with visual displays with different numbers of shapes and used sugar water rewards to train them to land on the panel with the fewest shapes. Then they started introducing displays with no shapes, and the bees were clever enough to land there, recognizing, it would appear, that nothing is less than something.

I have no trouble believing that the bees can do this. What I find less than credible is the notion that Aristotle would have failed to grasp this pattern or that he and his contemporaries would not have been able to decide what to do if offered the same price for a bag with one pomegranate, or an empty bag.

Scouting around for answers, I came across a Scientific American piece by math writer Evelyn Lamb, describing number systems without a zero. Some sounded quite sophisticated. In a phone conversation, she said she, too, is unconvinced that people from cultures without a zero would fail this test passed by toddlers, bees and parrots, smart as they all may be.

She was helpful in pointing out that there’s a difference between zero and an empty set. Zero is a number that was indeed not part of many otherwise sophisticated mathematical systems, while the empty set is more like that bag with no pomegranates, or for the bees, a screen with no shapes.

Scientists who study animal counting pay attention to this distinction. In this paper in journal Behavioral Processes, for example, researchers reviewed experiments on preschoolers and monkeys. Both could recognize that a set with no dolls or cookies was less than a set with one or two. But those same primates and kids could not reliably order the numerals 0, 1 and 2.

Understanding zero as a number eludes some adults, too. Lamb says many people can’t grasp that zero is an even number, for example, which is why some laws dividing by even or odd last license plate digits often say “even numbers or zero.”

I found a similar point in a Scientific American piece Robert Kaplan, author of “The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero”: “The mathematical zero and the philosophical notion of nothingness are related but are not the same.”

None of this takes away from the wonder that creatures with a pinhead-size brain can recognize an empty set, even if it doesn’t elevate them above most of humanity over history.

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