2012 - %3, January

Go Ahead, Watch More TV

| Mon Jan. 30, 2012 12:27 PM EST

Aaron Carroll flags a study suggesting that spending a lot of time in front of a screen (TV or computer) doesn't actually have any effect on your life span:

On the whole, I think consuming amounts of technology that would stagger mere mortals has not hurt me too much; I think I've turned out OK…It may be that there are other factors that are correlated with lots of TV time that may make kids or people worse off. Perhaps parents who let their kids watch enormous amounts of TV are more likely to be bad parents. Perhaps parents who let their kids watch enormous amounts of TV are working three jobs, struggling to make ends meet, and can’t play with their kids as much as they would like.

…Many of the studies account for that as best they can. But the media likes to run around extrapolating a small statistically significant correlation into headlines like "TV WILL KILL YOU!" The sensationalism is pretty staggering. This leads to a publication bias, where results that are likely to shock and garner headlines are more likely to get accepted and printed.

So I'm glad to see a negative study get published. I bet you didn’t know about this study, though. It was published last week with almost no fanfare, and I doubt you will see any news stories on it. When it comes to science, I fear the media isn't nearly as fair and balanced as many think they are.

Well, yeah. But this seems to be part of a bigger problem linked to the actual effects of lifestyle choices, not just the reporting on them: Surprisingly few seem to have much impact on mortality. Just in the past few years, new studies have raised pretty serious doubts about the supposed effect on mortality of obesity, salt, saturated fat, routine mammograms under 50, colonoscopies, prostate screening, LDL levels, and lots of other things. Now even a sedentary lifestyle is under attack. I would have expected that to be the last holdout.

One problem, of course, is our focus on mortality in the first place. Obesity may or may not kill you, for example, but it does make diabetes more likely and it does make your joints wear out faster. Modern medicine may be able to control the diabetes and replace your knees, allowing you to live as long as you otherwise would have, but you're still stuck taking lots of medication, paying for joint replacements, and being less mobile.

It turns out that there's just a helluva lot of uncertainty around a lot of things we once thought we had a pretty good handle on. On a broader note, this is one of the reasons that I'm skeptical of studies about health care policies that focus on mortality, even though many of them provide evidence for policy positions that I support. It's just too narrow a lens, because too few things have a major impact on mortality. We'd be better off, I think, spending less time on crude measures of death rates and more time on other good/ill effects of various policies. That would create problems of its own, but at least we'd be looking at things that are more sensitive indicators of whether our policies are working or not.

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If You Take Taxpayer Money, You Have to Follow Taxpayer Rules

| Mon Jan. 30, 2012 11:21 AM EST

E.J. Dionne makes the liberal case today that the Obama administration screwed up when it issued rules requiring insurance companies to cover contraceptives:

Speaking as a Catholic, I wish the Church would be more open on the contraception question. But speaking as an American liberal who believes that religious pluralism imposes certain obligations on government, I think the Church’s leaders had a right to ask for broader relief from a contraception mandate that would require it to act against its own teachings. The administration should have done more to balance the competing liberty interests here.

I'm just a big ol' secular lefty, so I guess it's natural that I'd disagree. And I do. I guess I'm tired of religious groups operating secular enterprises (hospitals, schools), hiring people of multiple faiths, serving the general public, taking taxpayer dollars — and then claiming that deeply held religious beliefs should exempt them from public policy. Contra Dionne, it's precisely religious pluralism that makes this impractical. There are simply too many religions with too many religious beliefs to make this a reasonable approach. If we'd been talking about, say, an Islamic hospital insisting that its employees bind themselves to sharia law, I imagine the "religious community" in the United States would be a wee bit more understanding if the Obama administration refused to condone the practice.

I can understand compromising over a very limited number of hot button issues. Abortion is the obvious one. But in general, if Catholic hospitals don't want to follow reasonable, 21st century secular rules, they need to make themselves into truly religious enterprises. In particular, they need to stop taking secular taxpayer money. As long as they do, though, they should follow the same rules as anyone else.

Study: Your Child is Not Fat Because You Had a C-section

| Mon Jan. 30, 2012 10:50 AM EST
Don't blame the Cesarean, ma.

There are plenty of risks that come with opting for a Cesarean section: There's always the chance of postpartum infection. There's a possible link between elective C-sections and higher infant mortality. The operation is often performed too early. And the scarring isn't exactly a plus.

But according to a recent study, the concern of "your kid will end up a fattie if you don't suck it up and give birth the way God intended..." can be crossed off the list.

Reuters Health has the story:

Kids born by Cesarean section are no more likely to become obese than if they are born vaginally, a new study concludes...For the new research, [scientists] used data on three groups of several thousand people born in Southern Brazil in 1982, 1993 or 2004...The new research is of particular interest in Brazil, because in 2009 more than half of the babies there were born by C-section. In the U.S., the number has been on the rise for years and is now over 30 percent.

The research does rightly address a controversial Brazilian study published last May that suggested a correlation between C-sections and fatter children. (The working theory was that lack of exposure to bacteria from the birth canal could increase the chances of chunky brood.)

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 30, 2012

Mon Jan. 30, 2012 10:32 AM EST

Cpl. William Hopkins, a native of Clovis, Calif., a spotter with Company F, 2nd Aviation Assault Battalion, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade's Pathfinders, takes aim on a target with the Barrett .50 Cal. while Sgt. Lucas Cordes, a native of Hillman, Mich., a sniper team leader with Co. F, 282 CAB, watches to see if he hits the target, January 26, 2012. They fired the rifle at a target while moving at different speeds in a UH-60 Blackhawk at an aerial weapons platform exercise. Photo by the US Army.

Your Daily Newt: Defending Evander Holyfield's Honor

| Mon Jan. 30, 2012 10:23 AM EST
Former heavyweight champ—and Newt Gingrich constituent—Evander Holyfield.

As a service to our readers, every day we are delivering a classic moment from the political life of Newt Gingrich—until he either clinches the nomination or bows out.

When the World Boxing Council told Evander Holyfield it would strip him of his championship belt in 1990 if he didn't defend his title against Mike Tyson, the Georgia native knew just whom to contact—his sixth-district congressman. After beating an out-of-shape Buster Douglas to become number one, Holyfield scheduled his first championship defense against George Foreman. Both the World Boxing Association and the International Boxing Federation (boxing is sort of a bureaucratic nightmare) consented, but the WBC demanded that Holyfield take on Tyson first—or lose the crown by default.

So Holyfield asked to Gingrich to weigh in. And Gingrich, in turn, dashed off a characteristically bombastic letter to the WBC:

"It would be outrageous for the WBC to violate its own bylaws and take the title of heavyweight champion of the world away from Mr. Holyfield when he has done nothing wrong. If the WBC did strip him of the title, there would surely be cause for an official inquiry."

There was no inquiry; a New Jersey court ruled that the WBC couldn't strip Holyfield of a belt he'd fairly earned. The Tyson fight would have to wait, though, as the former champ was sent to prison later that year.

8 Videos to Commemorate the Beatles' Final Concert, 43 Years Later

| Mon Jan. 30, 2012 6:00 AM EST

"January 30" means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. In 1649, Charles I of England marked the date by getting his head lopped off by angry parliamentarians. On the same day in 1882, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born. Exactly 51 years later, Adolf Hitler was sworn in as chancellor.

And on January 30, 1969, some British rock band played its last concert on some rooftop in some part of London. There were four guys in the band, we think. One of the songwriters was from Liverpool. They might have done a show in Hamburg once or twice. Oh, and the group also had this peculiar affinity for never-ending pasturage of soft, red fruit with seed-studded facades....

…Okay, fine, you win. It was the Beatles.

As part of the two-album prelude to their dissolution in 1970, the band allowed British TV director Michael Lindsay-Hogg to film the (tense and foreboding) 1969 recording of their penultimate album Let It Be. The resulting documentary includes footage of that surprise midday concert on top of Apple Studio. (Police put the kibosh on the fun after a few buzz-killing noise complaints were made.)

The whole movie is well-worth watching: The live performances—particularly their electrifying work-outs of "I've Got a Feeling" and "Get Back"—show the band at their ragged peak. Keyboard extraordinaire Billy Preston hangs around to nudge the boys along with his precise electric-piano licks. And the behind-the-scenes glimpse at the Beatles' work ethic and squabbling is borderline elegiac.

In celebration of the forty-third anniversary of the rooftop set, here are seven of the best Beatles (and ex-Beatles) live recordings:

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The Wood Brothers Get Back to Their Roots

| Mon Jan. 30, 2012 6:00 AM EST
Oliver Wood, left, got his younger brother Chris, right, started on bass.

Chris and Oliver Wood hadn't played music together since childhood, but that all changed one night in 2004. Oliver's funky rock band King Johnson had opened a gig in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for his kid brother Chris' far-out fusion trio Medeski Martin & Wood. At some point during the headlining act, as Chris plucked lustily at his upright bass, Oliver carried his guitar onstage, plugged in, and melted into the sound.

Despite the brothers having spent years in the musical trenches, it had taken this long for them to strike a chord as professionals. But they share the sort of uncanny chemistry usually only found between veteran bandmates: John and Paul, Miles and Coltrane, Simon and Garfunkel, and now Chris and Oliver. "It was like watching myself play," Chris said at the time. Oliver calls it "a certain telepathy…a supernatural, psychic kind of thing."

Fast forward to last Saturday night at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, and it's clear there's still no static in that psychic connection. After the Winston-Salem show, the brothers whipped up a demo of Oliver's soul-saturated roots-folk songs, sent it off to Blue Note Records, and the Wood Brothers were born. Their 2006 debut album, Ways Not To Lose, was an invigorating reminder of the understated power of the duo; NPR called it one of the year's top "overlooked" albums. Last week, the brothers kicked off a national tour in support of their most recent album, August's Smoke Ring Halo. Along for the ride is another sibling duet, Winnipeg's Sarah and Christian Dugas, a howling chanteuse with a dark blue melodic sensibility and her rhythm guitar-picking brother.

Lying With Charts, Global Warming Edition

| Mon Jan. 30, 2012 1:08 AM EST

In my email today, the Washington Times passes along some great news: "Global warming trend ended in 1997, new data shows." The link is to a piece in the Daily Mail that, sure enough, tells us that our real worry isn't warming, it's the possibility of the Thames freezing over. And to prove that the world is no longer heating up, they include one of my all-time favorite graphs. I've recreated it using NASA data:

Look! No warming trend! But do you see the problem? I've given you a hint by embedding the 1997-2011 data within a larger chart, instead of just producing it on its own, as the Mail did. So that should make things pretty obvious. But in case you need a bigger hint, click the link for the full set of data, not cherry-picked to begin with the huge El Niño spike of 1998.

Newt Gingrich Now Promising a Blood Feud for the Ages

| Sun Jan. 29, 2012 7:45 PM EST

So what happens after Tuesday if, as expected, Mitt Romney wins a convincing victory in Florida? John Heilemann tagged along as Newt Gingrich visited a couple of Florida churches today (his appraisal of the second visit: "By no small margin, it was the worst and saddest campaign event that I have witnessed in this presidential cycle") and reports that Newt is promising to keep running all the way to the end no matter what happens:

Pledges to continue the fight unabated in the face of harsh and/or humiliating outcomes are staples of presidential campaigns. And they are also patently meaningless....But in Gingrich's case, he might be serious, so much has he come to despise Romney and the Republican Establishment that has brought down on him a twenty-ton shithammer in Florida, and so convinced is he of his own Churchillian greatness and world-historical destiny. The same antic, manic, lunatic bloody-mindedness that has made him such a rotten candidate in the Sunshine State may be enough to keep him the race a good long time.

This strikes me as....surprisingly plausible. And you know what? Rick Santorum strikes me the same way. He's a true believer who's always been in this more for the attention than because he really thinks he has a chance to become president, and people like that can keep going forever. And of course, we already know that Ron Paul will stay until the bitter end.

I don't know how likely this is, but it's at least possible that all four of the current candidates will keep running all the way to the convention. But here's the real question: if Romney builds up a big enough head of steam, he'll declare victory and withdraw from future debates. Without Romney, no one will be much interested in airing the debates, and no one would watch them even if they were aired. So all three of the also-rans would have to keep up their campaigns even though they weren't getting regular time to yak on national TV and the press corps was no longer taking the race seriously.

Would they do that? I can hardly believe they would, but I guess you never know.

Can Economists Pick Winners in the Stock Market?

| Sun Jan. 29, 2012 2:03 PM EST

Suzy Khimm points us to the latest survey of economists and the general public sponsored by Northwestern University. She highlights their finding that while economists all agree that raising tax rates by one percentage point on the rich would bring in more revenue, only 66% of the public believes this. That's a big victory for Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. But I actually find this result more disturbing:

Survey respondents appear more confident than economic experts about one’s ability to predict the stock market. In response to the statement, “Very few investors, if any, can consistently make accurate predictions about whether the price of an individual stock will rise or fall on a given day,” 64 percent of economists strongly agreed whereas only 54 percent of the Index sample agreed. [Emphasis mine.]

More accurately, I might find this result disturbing, because it suggests that 36% of professional economists think that lots of investors can consistently and accurately predict the price of a specific stock on a specific day. Oddly, though, the 64% figure for economists is for those who "strongly agree," while the 54% figure for the general public is for all those who merely "agree." So perhaps 64% of economists strongly agree with this statement and 36% merely agree. That would be OK. But then again, maybe 36% of economists don't agree at all. That would be a travesty.

I'm curious to know which it is. But I'm even more curious to know why this survey project reports its results in such an ambiguous fashion and doesn't make the raw results available. What's up with that?

UPDATE: Thanks to Twitter, I have my answer. If I had only realized that the raw data was available at an entirely different website, based on a poll done three months ago, I would have gone straight here and discovered that, in fact, 100% of economists agreed with this statement. The only distinction is that 64% strongly agreed and the other 36% agreed.

So the relevant comparison, I think, is that 100% of economists agree with this statement but only 54% of the general public agree with it. It's not clear to me why the Northwestern folks seem to have rather egregiously fudged that.