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My Problem with Big Pharma
Has Newsweek Sold Out to Big Pharma?
Dark Side of Green, Continued
The Dark Side of Green
The Green Bandwagon
Green Book Award: Nominations Wanted
Wilson Wins “Green Book Award”
The End of Total War?
Does the Desire for Peace Cause War?
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This is my last Horganism post, or at least the last on I’ve enjoyed myself, in large part because you’ve been such smart responders. You’ve kept me on my toes by treating my skepticism skeptically. Thanks! I plan to start blogging again soon on the website of the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology, my academic home. Keep an eye out at Peace, John

My Problem with Big Pharma

Some readers have wondered what my problem is with Big Pharma, which in my last post I accused of corrupting medicine and journalism. My problem with Big Pharma is that its products are often--and especially in the case of psychiatric drugs--much less effective than claimed. This was a major theme of my book The Undiscovered Mind. See also my short 1999 oped for the Times, "Placebo Nation." That's also why I've been so scathing about Listening to Prozac, which a responder to my last post recommends, but which I consider one of the Worst Science Books. Peter Kramer's book explores, yes, with great philosophical subtlety the implications of a drug that dispels despair and makes us "happy." Is this happy new me really me? And so on, blah blah blah. But the premise of the book is false! If you read the peer-reviewed clinical trials rather than the puffery of Kramer you would know that Prozac and other SSRIs are no more effective than earlier antidepressants, such as tricyclics, and antidepressants as a whole are no more effective than psychoanalysis and other talking cures. When I made this claim in The Undiscovered Mind in 1999, it was treated as highly controversial, but now it's been overwhelmingly confirmed. Moreover, Listening to Prozac's surge to bestsellerhood in the early 1990s coincided with a surge in Prozac sales. Newsweek also boosted Prozac sales with a March 26, 1990 cover story titled "A Breakthrough Drug for Depression." And so we come full circle.

Has Newsweek Sold Out to Big Pharma?

The medical watchdog Vera Hassner Sharaz of the Alliance for Human Research Protection, whom I praised back in December, has attacked Newsweek for its cover story, “Men and Depression.” Newsweek, which like many mass-media outlets relies heavily on drug-company ads, states:

“Six million American men will be diagnosed with depression this year. But millions more suffer silently, unaware that their problem has a name or unwilling to seek treatment…The result is a hidden epidemic of despair that is destroying marriages, disrupting careers, filling jail cells, clogging emergency rooms and costing society billions of dollars in lost productivity and medical bills. It is also creating a cohort of children who carry the burden of their fathers' pain for the rest of their lives.”

Sounds pretty bad, eh? Give those guys Prozac! But Sharaz derides the Newsweek piece as “an infomercial masquerading as medical news” and “an example of corruption in journalism. Newsweek has surrendered its professional credentials by shamelessly engaging in disease mongering aimed at increasing profits for the mental health industry.”

Sharaz notes that the cover story coincides with an initiative of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), called “Real Men, Real Depression,” to persuade more men to seek treatment for depression. Sharaz argues--plausibly, imho--that the greed of Big Pharma lurks behind the NIMH initiative and Newsweek's coverage. “The marketing campaign appears to be a last ditch effort to gain new customers—and cash--for antidepression treatments.”

There is no more corrupting influence on science—and journalism—than Big Pharma.

Dark Side of Green, Continued

A reader has passed on a story about another green program gone awry, "Tire reef off Florida proves a disaster." Here's the intro:

A mile offshore from this city's high-rise condos and spring-break bars lie as many as 2 million old tires, strewn across the ocean floor — a white-walled, steel-belted monument to good intentions gone awry.

The tires were unloaded there in 1972 to create an artificial reef that could attract a rich variety of marine life, and to free up space in clogged landfills. But decades later, the idea has proved a huge ecological blunder.

Little sea life has formed on the tires. Some of the tires that were bundled together with nylon and steel have broken loose and are scouring the ocean floor across a swath the size of 31 football fields. Tires are washing up on beaches. Thousands have wedged up against a nearby natural reef, blocking coral growth and devastating marine life.

"The really good idea was to provide habitat for marine critters so we could double or triple marine life in the area. It just didn't work that way," said Ray McAllister, a professor of ocean engineering at Florida Atlantic University who was instrumental in organizing the project. "I look back now and see it was a bad idea."

If nothing else, these stories make me wary of schemes for counteracting global warming, such as the one that Mike Cook has been flogging in this space. But I still believe in green!

The Dark Side of Green

Andrei, my friend and nemesis, worries in his response to my last post, “The Green Bandwagon,” that I’ve lost my critical faculties lately, and have degenerated into slogan-spouting: “War is bad.” “Nature is good.” The road to hell, he warns, is paved with good intentions. And platitudes.

He’s struck a soft spot. A couple of weeks ago the New York Times ran a story, “Once a Dream Fuel, Palm Oil May Be an EcoNightmare” (online access restricted), about the unintended consequences of a green fad. Some excerpts from the story, by Elisabeth Rosenthal:

Just a few years ago, politicians and environmental groups in the Netherlands were thrilled by the early and rapid adoption of ‘sustainable energy,’ achieved in part by coaxing electrical plants to use biofuel — in particular, palm oil from Southeast Asia….
But last year, when scientists studied practices at palm plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia, this green fairy tale began to look more like an environmental nightmare. Rising demand for palm oil in Europe brought about the clearing of huge tracts of Southeast Asian rainforest and the overuse of chemical fertilizer there. Worse still, the scientists said, space for the expanding palm plantations was often created by draining and burning peatland, which sent huge amounts of carbon emissions into the atmosphere… Considering these emissions, Indonesia had quickly become the world’s third-leading producer of carbon emissions that scientists believe are responsible for global warming, ranked after the United States and China, according to a study released in December by researchers from Wetlands International and Delft Hydraulics, both in the Netherlands...Biofuelswatch, an environment group in Britain, now says that ‘biofuels should not automatically be classed as renewable energy.’ It supports a moratorium on subsidies until more research can determine whether various biofuels in different regions are produced in a nonpolluting manner.

Okay. We’re human, we're going to make mistakes. But not always. A few decades ago, ships and factories were using the Hudson River as a sewer. Then nature-lovers like my friend John Cronin, the original Riverkeeper, sued the polluters and stopped them. My kids can swim in the Hudson now. Sometimes good intentions have good outcomes.

The Green Bandwagon

I got a job at Stevens Institute of Technology two years ago in part because I enjoy infecting susceptible young minds with memes. I get a special kick, I admit, out of propagating negative memes, like those in The End of Science. But lately I've found satisfaction in spreading positive messages, pointing out, for example, that science and engineering can help us solve some of our most pressing problems, such as war and environmental catastrophe.

That’s why my friends and I at Stevens created the Green Book Award, which will be given to Harvard’s Edward Wilson on May 9. That’s why I’m bringing Peter Davoren, CEO of Turner Corps., who happens to be a neighbor and friend, to Stevens on April 11 to talk about “green construction.” Turner is one of the world’s largest builders and a leader in green construction, which attempts to minimize environmental impacts of buildings, as well as lowering operating costs and improving the quality of life of occupants and neighbors. Green construction incorporates features such as solar energy, water recycling and recycled building materials.

I realize that for some companies “green” is just another marketing slogan. And ordinarily I try to avoid jumping on bandwagons. But I’m happy to be on the green bandwagon, and to urge others to climb on board. The more crowded it gets, the better.

Green Book Award: Nominations Wanted

We’re seeking nominations for the next Stevens Center for Science Writings Green Book Award, the first of which was given to Edward Wilson for The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. Candidates for the award, which includes a check for $5000, must be nonfiction books that address environmental issues and are published sometime in 2007.

Just to give you a sense of what we’re looking for: A close runner-up to The Creation was Fields Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change, by Elizabeth Kolbert. If we had given out the award a year earlier, it would have gone to Jared Diamond’s Collapse (even though technically it was released at the end of 2004). Publishers, authors, readers can submit nominations to me at [email protected] or (if you want to send the book) John Horgan, Center for Science Writings, Stevens Institute of Technology, Castle Point on Hudson, Hoboken, New Jersey, 07030.

Wilson Wins “Green Book Award”

At Stevens, the science/engineering school where I’ve been teaching the last year or so, I’m trying to raise awareness of environmental issues among students and faculty. With that in mind, I just created the Stevens Center for Science Writings “Green Book Award.” I’m thrilled to announce that Edward O. Wilson, one of our era’s greatest and most eloquent scientists, will receive the first Green Book Award for his new book The Creation.

Wilson will receive the award and talk about conservation, science and religion on May 9 in a public event at Stevens, open to one and all. Please pass around the following press release. Oh, and by the way, I’m looking for a permanent sponsor for this award.

Stevens’ Center for Science Writings honors
Edward O. Wilson with Green Book Award
Wilson selected for The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth

HOBOKEN, N.J. — Edward O. Wilson, Pellegrino University Research Professor, Emeritus, at Harvard University, is the recipient of the first Green Book Award from Stevens Institute of Technology’s Center for Science Writings. John Horgan, Director of the Center for Science Writings, created the Green Book Award to draw attention to books that raise awareness of environmental issues.

Wilson, whom the London Times recently called “one of the greatest men alive,” was selected for his book, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. Written as a letter from Wilson to a Christian pastor, The Creation argues that secular scientists and people of faith can find common ground in the cause of conserving nature.

Horgan will present the award to Wilson, which includes an honorarium of $5,000, during an event in the Howe Center’s Bissinger Room on May 9, 2007, at 4 p.m. After the award ceremony, Wilson will discuss conservation, the relationship between science and religion, and other issues in a conversation with Horgan.

Wilson, both an author and co-author of 20 books, has received many prizes for his writings, including two Pulitzers (for The Ants, co-written with Bert Holldobler, and On Human Nature). He has also won the National Medal of Science and the Crafoord Prize, the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for ecology.

This event is free and open to the public. For more information on the Green Book Award, contact John Horgan, Director of the Center for Science Writings, at [email protected], or check the Center’s website

The End of Total War?

In this week’s New Yorker, Adam Gopnik critiques David Bell’s book The First Total War, the subject of my last post . Citing Genghis Khan and other masters of destruction, Gopnik points out that total war—in which huge conscripted armies seek not merely to defeat but to destroy each other, along, often, with civilian populations--preceded the Napoleonic era. Gopnik also faults Bell for overstating the analogies between post-revolutionary France and our era.

“[F]or all Bell’s commendable desire to write living history," Gopnik remarks, "we may be at the end of the era of total war. Whatever the war in Iraq is, it is not a total war in any of Bell’s senses… Ours is a typical piece of colonial closet-cleaning gone badly wrong—a war with limited casualties (for the imperial power), remote operations, and men used as pieces on a chessboard rather than as blood cells in a hemorrhage.”

On the other hand, Gopnik adds, “All wars are total to the people they kill.”

Does the Desire for Peace Cause War?

I’ve been arguing ad nauseam lately that the first step toward ending war is to believe that we can do it. I was thus taken aback by the headline of an essay in the Sunday New York Times Magazine: “The Peace Paradox: How an urge to end war can lead to more war.”

David A. Bell, author of a book about Napoleon’s misadventures, notes that after the French revolution the new government renounced wars of aggression and issued a “declaration of peace to the world.” But soon France began waging war against all who stood in the way of achieving this utopian vision. “To achieve such an exalted end,” Bell writes, “any means were justified, and so there followed total war and the birth of new hatreds that made the idea of perpetual peace look more utopian than ever.”

Bell draws intriguing parallels between France in the Napoleonic era and the Bush regime, which has resorted to invasion, occupation, illegal detention and torture to fulfill its vision of pacifying and democratizing the middle east and ending terrorism. “Could it be, then," Bell asks, "that dreams of an end to war may be as unexpectedly dangerous as they are noble, because they seem to justify almost anything done in their name?”

Bell seems to imply that we should renounce our hopes for perpetual peace. Hogwash. All we should renounce is the notion that war is the way to peace. As pacifists like to say, there is no way to peace. Peace is the way.

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