Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Book Review: The White Man's Burden

If you are interested in development in any way (including in an armchair fashion), you must read this book. Snarky fun mixed with depressing stats to give an accurate and overall negative view of the traditional development industry.

Especially good is the chapter "Invading the Poor". Most of the foreign aid in the US is military; Easterly shows that such military aid is useless to harmful. Also good are the 'snapshots' beginning each chapter, showing real life issues -- anecdotal, but they put things in perspective.

The book is summed up in a paragraph close to the end:
Aid won't make poverty history, which Western aid efforts cannot possibly do. Only the self-reliant efforts of poor people and poor societies themselves can end poverty, borrowing ideas and institutions from the West when it suits them to do so. But aid that concentrates on feasible tasks will alleviate the sufferings of many desparate people in the meantime. Isn't that enough?
It's enough for me.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Once again

Yes, we know -- women in the sciences have to be twice as good to do the same job. They have to worry about things men don't.

Read it. I don't have much to add.

Who are these people?

Why are we talking about small farmers resisting the national animal ID system (NAIDS)? How about because the majority of cow-calf farms (80%) in the US have fewer than 50 animals? Because more than half of those farms don't use any form of individual animal identification? Because those animals travel hundreds of miles and mix with animals from a wide area before slaughter? Because those are your hamburgers and steaks?

Why are we talking to hobby farmers? Because we (and by 'we' I mean the NYT) are a city paper with no connection to the livestock industry.

NAIDS is in no way an invasion of privacy. If you are selling animals for public consumption, you cannot claim that identifying them as having come from you is invading your privacy. If that was true, factories would never be responsible for replacing faulty products and the recall would disappear. I know you don't want to think that your animal might start a pandemic, but it could!!! No matter how safe your farm management is. No matter how libertarian your views are. NAIDS is a public safety measure. Accept it.

And then the editorials!

In the same vein as the last post, but a bit sideways: people seem to think the process of protecting their food supply doesn't move quickly enough. This editorial suggests that more funding will speed up the investigations into deadly outbreaks.

While I'm never going to be against more funding for my field (that would be like asking to not be given a raise), I don't think that's the answer. In fact, I dare say there is no answer. Do you think the FDA is reckless with your food safety? Do you believe in the 5 second rule? Do you eat at notoriously unsafe fast food restaurants? Do you eat bagged spinach without washing it? Do you blame the FDA for that.

Of course you do. We don't believe in personal responsibility anymore, only corporate faults and legislation to punish them.

As to the issue of speed . . . we're limited, but it's not usually by funds. We're limited by the speed (or lack thereof) of the diagnosing physicians, laboratories, and state health departments. We're limited by the helpfulness (or lack thereof) of the people involved in the outbreak in answering questionnaires. We're limited by political wrangling in the main offices, deciding the economic cost/benefit ratio of the possible moves. We're limited by the fact that there are a lot of people out there eating a lot of food.

Lesson to take home (this may sound familiar if you've been reading a while): you're responsible in large part for your own food safety. We can do our best to keep your food free of pathogens and pollutants, but you're going to have to accept some of the onus of food safety.

Shoeleather Epidemiology

You cannot do epidemiology in a bubble. Or (entirely) in a lab. It is applied or it is nothing.

When the NYT lauds the detective work of the epidemiologists who traced down the Taco Bell E coli outbreak, are they praising the field or misunderstanding it? Yes, it was necessary to ask around to find the link between these cases. Yes it was well done. But how else were they supposed to do it? I can't see that the researchers did anything remarkable in this case. They followed the time-honored tradition of John Snow (review of The Ghost Map to come when I finish reading it). They weren't breaking ground.

And yet. They did a good job. They found the culprit. They got it shut down. Good for them. They deserve an article in their praise. Maybe such articles will lead more people to understand what it is we do!

After a long pause

Fueled by sugar/chocolate/cocktail wieners from the Dean's Office Holiday Party, I return to write all those posts I've been meaning to. The last week and a half have reminded me why research never appealed to me before I learned about epi -- who wants to spend 5 hours a day with a micropipetter? Give me a laptop any day . . .