Henry Miller

Henry Miller

Henry I. Miller, M.S., M.D., is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where his research focuses on public policy toward science and technology. It encompasses a number of areas, including pharmaceutical development, the new biotechnology, models for regulatory reform, and the emergence of new viral diseases.

Like much that transpires in politics, most of the anti-genetic engineering campaigns we’ve seen over the past 30 years are not what they seem; they are more propaganda than populism.

An example is this year’s Proposition 37 on the California ballot, which would require the labeling of certain “genetically engineered” foods. Several aspects of this initiative are important to Californians.

For a start, as public policy it fails dismally. Prop 37 flunks every test: scientific, economic, legal and common sense.

Genetically engineered foods are not in any way a meaningful “category,” which makes any choice of what to include wholly arbitrary. Nor are they unsafe or any less “natural” than thousands of other common foods. Therefore, as federal regulators have said, a mandatory label erroneously implies a meaningful difference where none exists.

Genetic modification has been with us for millennia. Breeders regularly move genes between unrelated species, yielding fruits such as tangelos and pluots. They also routinely use radiation or chemical mutagens on seeds to scramble a plant’s DNA to generate new traits. On average, we consume dozens of these genetically improved varieties of fruits, vegetables, and grains every day.

Experience with genetically engineered foods? Americans have already consumed more than 3 trillion servings of them with not even a single tummy ache.

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The Cigarette Smokescreen

Cigarette smoking is one of the major preventable scourges of human health. Public health experts and regulators—and yes, even smokers—know it. But by being politically correct and focusing on unproven or misguided approaches, the FDA is passing up a historic opportunity to mitigate the health effects of cigarette smoking. Specifically, FDA officials are struggling to reconcile science and politics in applying their new powers to regulate tobacco. They aren’t succeeding.

As a result of the landmark 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, the FDA was tasked with regulating not just cigarettes, but a range of tobacco products. The agency’s oversight of tobacco is fundamentally different from any other product it regulates simply because tobacco is an inherently, irredeemably dangerous product. Unlike drugs, it isn’t beneficial in any way; and unlike food, it isn’t a necessity.

The legislation gives the FDA the authority to review and ban proposed new products unless they are proven to significantly improve public health. This has already led to unanticipated legal and scientific arguments over so-called “reduced harm” products.

The director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, Dr. Lawrence Deyton, seemed to be on the right track, at least in principle, when he told the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco last year that “complex problems require multi-faceted, comprehensive approaches based on the best available science.”

However, the agency’s approach to several regulatory issues belies Deyton’s homage to science (a traditional trapping of many a regulator assuming a new office).

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When Bureaucarts Stymie Science

“If we can save only one child’s life…” is a phrase frequently used to justify one initiative or another. It has been invoked in recent years to promote causes ranging from the installation of seatbelts in school buses to anti-alcohol campaigns directed at pre-teens. But when it comes to saving lives through certain infant vaccinations, public health officials seem not to grasp the concept.

Consider meningococcal disease, a rare but devastating bacteria-caused illness that primarily affects infants and children. Its elimination has been on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s list of priorities since 1999, but in early 2010, around the same time that a vaccine to prevent meningococcal disease in infants was submitted to the FDA for approval, the CDC began to show signs of retreating from its earlier resolve. Its motives are unclear.

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Scientists learn pretty quickly to turn a deaf ear to abuses of fact and distortions of data. The reality is that if you tried to correct every huckster who makes outlandish claims for this diet pill or that new age "cleanse," you’d quickly find yourself engaged in a full-time and futile effort.

There are times, though, when you can’t look the other way. When science is being bent into particularly unspeakable positions or when the perpetrator is someone others look to with trust, it is necessary to speak up and say, "Enough – this must be corrected; the truth must be told!"

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Cleaning up the EWG’s Dirty Dozen

Consumers are often confused by seemingly conflicting advice from “experts.” Some recommend low-carb, high-fat diets; others, low-fat Mediterranean ones.  Some tout the benefits of hormone replacement therapy for menopausal symptoms, while others emphasize the risks. The scientific studies of these and other subjects are sometimes inconsistent.  But while consumers may puzzle over the differing views of experts, they can be dangerously misled by activist NGOs whose agenda is baseless fear-mongering in the interest of fund-raising.

Consider the Environmental Working Group (EWG), leader of the “cell phones cause cancer” nonsense.  Another of their lame hobby horses, which they trot out regularly, is the supposed danger of pesticides on produce.  And each time — like Charlie Brown fooled by Lucy pulling away the football at the last second — the media buy into it.

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No Politician Left Behind

Rep. Michelle Bachmann’s (R-MN) stunning gaffes over Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s 2007 executive order requiring all Texas girls to receive a vaccine against the human papillomavirus should further raise the odds against her longshot attempt to gain the GOP presidential nomination.  Although the incident will become merely a footnote to history, it raises a critical, broader issue: the importance of politicians’ judgement and insight – or lack thereof.

It’s no wonder that pols, especially members of Congress, have so often been spoofed.  “Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of Congress.  But I repeat myself,” quipped Mark Twain.  Humorist Will Rogers addressed the consequences of these deficiencies: “When Congress makes a joke it’s a law, and when they make a law, it’s a joke.”

There are innumerable examples of the joke being on us.  A friend of mine was seated at a banquet table with the family of then-Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kansas), who was later to become secretary of agriculture in the Clinton cabinet.  The family expressed relief at his having entered politics because none of them thought Dan was smart enough to enter the family business: auto shredding and scrap metal.  I attended a symposium that Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Virginia), then chairman of the powerful House Commerce Committee, addressed via teleconference.  As he recited from a prepared statement, he included the “stage instructions” – such as “Pause for emphasis” –  that had been inserted by his speechwriter.  And where one line inadvertently had been duplicated, Bliley read it a second time.

More recently, Congressman John Salazar (D-Colorado) related this anecdote: “You know, when I was debating what became the 2008 Farm Bill, I had a member of the Ag Committee actually ask me if chocolate milk really comes from brown cows.  I asked if he was joking and he assured me he wasn’t.”  A member of the Agriculture Committee?

Politicians constantly suffer from foot-in-mouth disease.  Consider these gaffes:

  • Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) proclaimed on the House floor last year that “victory had been achieved” by the United States in the Vietnam war and that, “[t]oday, we have two Vietnams; side-by-side, North and South, exchanging and working.  We may not agree with all that North Vietnam is doing, but they are living in peace.”  The truth is, of course, that since the withdrawal of the United States in 1975 – three years after Lee graduated from college (with a degree in Political Science) — what used to be North and South Vietnam have been united under a single communist government.

Rep. Lee is a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

It was also Rep. Lee who during a visit to the Jet Propulsion Lab asked a NASA scientist whether the Mars Pathfinder probe had photographed the flag that astronaut Neil Armstrong had left behind in 1969.  Armstrong had, of course, left the flag on the moon, not Mars.  No manned spacecraft has visited Mars.

  • Texas Gov. Rick Perry himself doesn’t emerge from scientific and technological controversies unscathed.  He recently referred to evolution as a “theory that’s out there” that “has some gaps in it.”  Reminds me of the comment attributed to one of his predecessors, Texas Gov. “Ma” Ferguson (1875-1961), who offered during a debate over bilingual education in the 1920s, “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for Texas schoolchildren.”

It’s no sin not to be a polymath but most of us who have spent time in Washington have noted politicians’ abject failure to know what they don’t know.  Psychiatrists call this lack of insight.

Are these aberrations stupidity, dementia or personality disorders?  To find out, shouldn’t there be some vetting or testing of people in, or who aspire to, critical governmental positions?  After all, we require bus drivers and hairdressers to prove their competence before they are permitted to ply their trades, and applicants to most police forces undergo psychological testing.

Maybe we should treat dissatisfaction with our representation as a medical, rather than a solely political, issue by asking candidates and incumbents to volunteer for periodic intelligence and mental status testing.  After all, we often demand to know whether a candidate has recovered from open-heart surgery, cancer or a stroke, and many states require elderly drivers to be re-licensed.  Isn’t control over the nation’s coffers and the responsibility for declaring and waging war as important as the ability to drive a car?

A mental status exam by an expert offers an assessment of cognitive abilities, memory and quality of thought processes.  It includes assessments of alertness; speech; behavior; awareness of environment; mood; affect; rationality of thought processes; appropriateness of thought content (presence of delusions, hallucinations, or phobias); memory; ability to perform simple calculations; judgement (“If you found a letter on the ground in front of a mailbox, what would you do with it?”); and abstract reasoning.

An intelligence test measures various parameters that are thought to correlate with academic or financial achievement.  Every legislator need not be a genius, but I’d like mine to be smarter than the average trash collector.

The journalist and satirist H.L. Mencken observed, “Congress consists of one third, more or less, scoundrels; two thirds, more or less, idiots; and three thirds, more or less, poltroons.”  Testing might help us to weed out a few idiots.  Getting rid of the scoundrels and poltroons will be more difficult.

(photo credit: Gage Skidmore)

Poll Dance

The eighteenth-century Irish statesman and writer Edmund Burke wrote that in democratic governments, "Your Representative owes you, not only his industry, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion." In other words, political leaders should lead, a concept that seems alien to U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk. Citing a recent poll that purportedly showed that a majority of Americans expressed doubts about the value of free trade, Kirk explained that the Obama administration would not push for free trade agreements with other countries.

Despite the inclinations of the lemmings on Pennsylvania Avenue and the ignorance of the American people, free trade overwhelmingly benefits society. It allows a division of labor that encourages countries to focus on those things they produce most efficiently—whether that be manufacturing, technological innovation, agriculture, or the provision of services. Free trade stimulates innovation, raises productivity and creates new wealth, thereby raising living standards. How ironic that the U.S. Trade Representative and his boss, President Obama, seem to be ignorant of these facts, or do not care about them. (Or, perhaps, they fail to factor them into policymaking because of organized labor.)

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Let Them Drink Dust!

In any scientific dispute spawned by the Endangered Species Act, the government almost always wins. Even if persuasive scientific evidence shows that federal environmental regulators are wrong or that they ignored all the facts that didn’t fit their preconceptions, the courts routinely defer to them.

But not always. In litigation that has been playing out in California for the last four years, regulators have been so incompetent and dishonest in the federal (mis)management of the state’s water supplies that the courts ruled against them. The U.S. District Court has found repeatedly that federal regulators failed to perform the most rudimentary analysis before ordering massive cuts in water that have reduced California’s supplies by more than a third during the last three years. “This is evidence of [Fish and Wildlife Service] intransigence,” the court ruled in the most recent of these cases at the end of August. “The agency’s ‘lack of data’ apologetic is the premise for the agency to do what it chooses.” (As the principal federal partner responsible for administering the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has primary responsibility for recovering and conserving imperiled plant and animal species.)

In this instance, FWS was proposing to use 300,000 to 670,000 acre-feet of water to flush a handful of minnows called delta smelt a few miles farther west in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. (The lower amount is enough water to meet all of San Francisco’s drinking water needs for nearly two years.)

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Gardasil and the GOP

More than an hour into last night’s debate, Rep. Michele Bachmann attacked Gov. Rick Perry on the HPV vaccination controversy — or more accurately pseudo-controversy. It stems from an executive order issued by Perry in 2007 that required all Texas girls to receive Gardasil, a vaccine against the most common strains of human papilloma virus, before entering the sixth grade. However, Texas lawmakers blocked that mandate. Some critics argued that the vaccine was too new to have been confirmed safe, while others said that Perry’s order would preempt parental rights or give girls a false sense of security, possibly causing them to become sexually active at a young age.

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