Where Did All the Baby Bottles Go? Interest Groups, Media Coverage and Institutional Imperatives in Canada’s Regulation of Bisphenol A

Author: Simon Kiss

Published in Canadian Journal of Political Science

Publisher: Cambridge University Press

Abstract: As part of an $816 million initiative to manage risks represented by possibly hazardous substances, Canada was the first country in the world to determine that the common chemical bisphenol A (BPA) should be classed as “toxic” and accordingly banned polycarbonate baby bottles. The process set up to conduct this risk assessment differed from the previous Canadian experience in that it was more formal, systematic and more pluralistic with much greater participation from interest groups. This case study examines the forces that impacted the regulatory process of BPA and argues that long-term, institutional and legislative forces interacted with short-term interest group politics and public opinion. It argues that the federal government issued a decision that went beyond what was scientifically validated but that reflects a widespread social perception of risk posed by chemicals that was embedded in the legislation governing the Chemicals Management Plan (CMP), public opinion and the media coverage of the issue. It uses existing literature on the nature of risk perception to assess critically the values underlying the CMP and those expressed in the regulation of BPA.


Where did all the baby bottles go? The regulation of bisphenol A in Canada

The other day I was rock climbing and someone dropped their glass water bottle, sending thousands of tiny, sharp shards of glass all over the floor, where dozens of people, some young children, were walking around in bare feet. Six years ago, this never would have happened because most rock climbers would have been using hard, reliable, plastic water bottles that were hardened with a chemical called bisphenol A (BPA). Thanks to an ongoing campaign by environmentalists and some scientists, BPA has become a modern day equivalent of DDT. Because of public pressure, retailers of products made with BPA, including baby bottles and outdoor bottles, withdrew their products and replaced them with a wide variety of bottles made from different products, including glass bottles, which, as noted above, have a tendency to break. In essence, people were convinced to act on one risk (the risk supposedly posed by exposure to BPA) and unwittingly opened themselves up to other risks (broken glass). But in all the discussion about the supposed risk presented by BPA, the issue was never framed this way. Sadly, discussions about threats to welfare (risks) usually are not.

This is one conclusion that emerged from my paper published online recently in the Canadian Journal of Political Science that examines the politics and science of Canada’s regulation of BPA. Canada was the first country in the world to regulate it, announcing in April 2008 that it was “toxic” according to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. The paper argues that this decision was not supported by scientific evidence. In fact, it produces documentary evidence that scientific experts in Health Canada felt that “at this stage, any risk from BPA is hypothetical”. Their own risk assessment described the evidence for the existence of some threat to human welfare as “limited” (see p. 71). Instead, the decision was a product of a widespread suspicion of chemicals that is the product of both cognitive and cultural forces. Continue reading

In addition, it was the product of very strong lobbying by Environmental Defence and other environmental groups and a great deal of questionable reporting by the Globe and Mail’s Martin Mittelstaedt which emphasized what flimsy evidence there is that suggests there is some threat to health, ignoring the much more robust evidence that indicates the opposite. But what Mittelstaedt and ED ignored, and what Health Canada knew but downplayed, was that all of the evidence that had been produced up to that point (and to this day) was based on flimsy methodologies or showed effects manifesting themselves at levels of exposure far higher than what Canadians are exposed to.

This is an important case for several reasons. First, the fear and suspicion of chemicals is widespread. The Sudbury father who recently sought a vaccine exemption for his daughter is on the record saying: “I don’t believe chemicals should be dumped into our system.” In research I’m doing on the politics of municipal water fluoridation, one of the common charges opponents make is that it is not fluoride that is added to the water, but rather hydrofluorosilicic acid. This compound dissolves into fluoride, but fluoridation opponents don’t know this or don’t care. By focussing on a term that caters to chemophobia, anti-fluoridation opponents can actually overturn fluoridation, an important public health initiative that can effectively and equitably improve dental health for a wide segment of the Canadian population. By acting on flimsy evidence, the federal government legitimates excessive fears of chemicals.

Second, journalists play a key role in amplifying risks. Thanks to Google Trends data, I was able to correlate the frequency of news stories about BPA in Canada with internet search interest about the same topic over several years. You can see the results here.

Correlating newspaper coverage with public interest in BPA.

Correlating newspaper coverage with public interest in BPA.

In nearly every week where there was a spike in newspaper interest in BPA, there was a corresponding spike in public interest in BPA. I’m pretty confident in saying that newspaper coverage (particularly Martin Mittelstaedt’s) coverage sent a lot of worried and curious Canadians to the internet to find out more, making the issue more salient in public opinion. A good example of Mittelstaedt’s reporting can be seen here where he describes BPA as “inherently toxic”. While this certainly sounds frightening, the fact is that BPA was only ever found “inherently toxic” to aquatic organisms, not for humans. Moreover — and my paper spells this out — this criteria was not enough to trigger a full screening assessment alone; at the early stage in the regulatory process, this finding was irrelevant. But Mittelstaedt and others made no mention of this because they didn’t want that fact to get in the way of a good scare story.

And lastly, this case shows the need for a better discourse about risks in politics and public policy. One thing that needs to be better understood is that invoking the existence of some threat to welfare (a risk) is only ever a partial equation. Other elements of that equation include what the quality of the evidence is that establishes existence of that risk. In the case of BPA, it was very poor. Yet another part of that equation asks whether public welfare is actually improved by doing anything about it and if so, what that should be. In this case, some environmental groups like Environmental Defence, Martin Mittelstaedt and Health Canada have valiantly protected us from risks based on some pretty flimsy evidence. And in doing so, they’ve helped take hard, reliable, unbreakable plastic bottles off the market place. And now, rock climbers, outdoor activists and parents are using glass baby bottles protected from a hypothetical risk, and now exposed to the risks posed by broken glass.

Clearly this is not the most tragic case of misperception of risks. But in other domains – such as how we try to deal with supposed threats from terrorists or try to minimize the risks from pesticides – failing to appreciate how dealing with one risk can expose us to others could make us all much worse off.

The Mirror Of The Residential Schools Policy

There was a fascinating and troubling court decision on Friday that ruled that First Nations traditional medicinal practices are “aboriginal rights” in the context of section 35 of the constitution. Although the intent of this decision is, on its surface, to respect the aboriginal rights confirmed by the constitution and thus to ensure the vitality of aboriginal communities, I argue that this case mirrors residential schools policy. It does so in that it denies First Nations children the protection of medical interventions and perpetuates rhetorical space for a continued exploitation of First Nations people by powerful and predatory financial interests in the alternative health industry.

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In the case, a judge dismissed an application by McMaster Children’s Hospital to compel the Brant Children’s Aid Society (CAS)to take action to take into custody a child from the Six Nations reserve. The child in question had been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in August and, with the consent of the child’s parent, had begun undergoing chemotherapy treatment. In the hospital’s assessment, going through the full phase of treatment meant the child had a 90-95% chance of survival (Note: this study reports an 80% cure rate). After a brief period undergoing the treatment, one of the parents withdrew the child, ostensibly in favour of traditional medicine. Concerned about the child’s welfare, the hospital contacted the relevant CAS office (Brant) to gain some assistance in getting the child back into chemotherapy. The CAS declined to intervene, although it appears from the facts of the case that this was a considered, and not a knee-jerk, decision, whereupon the hospital filed the court action to compel Brant CAS to action.

Essentially the judge decided a fairly narrow, but crucially important, point. The importance of this decision cannot be understated. The judge ruled in the abstract that practicing traditional medicine is an aboriginal right confirmed under section 35 of the constitution. In the specific, he ruled that the parent of the child, as the substitute decision-maker, was practicing traditional indigenous medicine. Therefore, her decision was covered by s. 35 and could not be abridged, even by any evidence about the efficacy of said types of medicine.

This is a landmark and a terrible judicial decision. I come to this conclusion not through a particular professional interest or expertise in the politics of aboriginal rights in Canada, but in risk perception, risk management and the role of scientific evidence in public policy. Perhaps the worst flaw in the judge’s reasoning was to rely too heavily on concepts of “traditional” and “western” medicine as discrete, identifiable activities of human endeavor, even making reference to the “western paradigm.” “Paradigms” have a long history in the philosophy of science, particularly associated with the work of Thomas Kuhn. However, the concept has been so stretched, abused and misunderstood that its utility in the philosophy of science is questionable. Certainly, it is dubious to rest a judicial decision on which a girl’s life and the nature of aboriginal rights in contemporary Canada on such a shaky concept.

Central to Kuhn’s concept of “paradigm” is the notion of incompatibility, which is to say that two competing scientific paradigms are discrete, parallel and that the relative merits cannot be adjudicated in terms of evidence. This has been a tremendously powerful concept in the field of the philosophy of science and public discourse. But it is nowhere near a “proven” or “true” description of the nature of scientific theories and evidence. For one thing, as valuable Kuhn’s descriptions of the sociological process of paradigmatic construction has been, one can ask whether accepting the concept of a “paradigm” necessarily means that one must accept notions that evidence or facts cannot adjudicate between competing paradigms. Moreover, famously, one philosopher of science once argued Kuhn had failed even to coherently define a paradigm, counting 21 separate definitions in his original book.

One consequence of conceiving of traditional and western medicine as being composed of two competing paradigms is that it creates rhetorical space for a multi-billion dollar industry of highly organized financial interests to offer “alternative” medical services, including the Hippocrates Institute in Florida, to which the child’s parent turned in this case, at a cost of $18,000 after seeing a presentation . The industry is so huge and varied that it defies cataloguing in this space, but it ranges from corner store homeopathic, naturopathic and chiropractic providers to billion dollar nutritional supplement companies as well as clinics. What unites all of them is the premise that the medicine that people know, use and is tested is “western” and that what is not is complementary or alternative. For example, HPI Health Products Incorporated, based in Dawson Creek, British Columbia markets a highly successful line of pain supplements as “Lakota Herbs”. You might know them from a questionable television ad in the 1990s featuring a First Nations actor recommending the product. Most of its products are made from “natural products” such as willow bark, a plant that contains the chemical salacin. This product has been used throughout human history for its pain relief properties, including by Bayer to make….apsirin. The consequences of this example are important. It reveals both that the distinction between traditional and wesetern medicine is not so discrete, and that interests in the alternative health industry can colonize First Nations images and practices. In order for HPI to make any money, it has to differentiate its product, so it appeals to a widespread suspicion of western medicine and defines itself as both alternative and traditional.

There are a vast array of dubious rhetorical strategies available to people to make this link, many of them on display in front of the judge in this trial. I witnessed one expert argue that both alternative and traditional medicines focus on the health of the whole person. A second expert argued that traditional medicine was based on homeopathic principles. Homeopathy, of course, is a system of alternative medicine that has roots in medieval Germany and is premised on the notion that substances become more medically powerful as they are diluted out of existence.

One of the central arguments made by the defendants in the case was that pursuing alternative medical treatments at the Hippocrates Institute was an extension of traditional, Haudenosonee medicine and, more importantly, stands in contrast to “western” medicine. According to this news story, the decision to pursue treatment at the Hippocrates Institute was directly related to the decision to stop chemotherapy. Quoting from the story:

After securing financial support from family, she called Clement from the hospital waiting room on the 10th day of her daughter’s chemotherapy.
“He had the tone of voice where he was so confident,” she says.
“By him saying, ‘Oh yes no problem we can help her,’ that’s the day I stopped the chemo.”

However, the Hippocrates Institute has no connection to Haudenosonee people, history or culture. Instead is an archetypal institution of the “alternative” or “complementary” health industry. It offers classes in “lifestyle transformation” and “encourages people to draw from their vast inner resources to transform the quality of their health and lives.” Its goal is to: ” assist people in taking responsibility for their lives and to help them internalize and actualize an existence free from premature aging, disease and needless pain.” It also seems to have a singular focus on the power of food as a source of medicine:

Under the guidance of a knowledgeable and compassionate team, guests from all over the world benefit from health and nutritional counseling, non-invasive remedial and youth-enhancing therapies, state of the art spa services, inspiring talks on life principles and a tantalizing daily buffet of enzyme-rich, organic meals.

This is a powerful way to blur the differences between traditional and alternative medicine, in that, on their own telling, traditional medicines were herbs and plants provided by the Creator to grow.

The problem here is that all these claims cannot pass evidentiary tests of efficacy. They do not work. “Western” medicine, by contrast, is defined by its commitment allowing claims to stand only so long as they are supported by evidence. It is not my first choice to quote from a comedian on a point of such grave concern, but Tim Minchin truly said it best, when he said that by definition, “alternative” medicine has not been proved to work or has been proved to not work. “Alternative” medicine that has been proved to work is ….medicine. This is precisely what happened with willow bark and aspirin. Used by traditional cultures, European and others, everywhere, scientific methods proved and refined its efficacy and it became….medicine.

And here we arrive at the problem with defining traditional, alternative and western medicine as different, but equal, paradigms. “Western” medicine is not in any way “western”. It is medicine. It is worth noting, European life and society were equally marked by “traditional” forms of medicine. Some ultimately passed tests of efficacy and became “medicine”. Others, such as bleeding, were swept aside and destroyed by the onslaught of “western” medicine in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. I have myself had conversations with elderly German women who praise the “traditional” knowledge of herbs that their grandparents knew and bemoan the loss of those traditions in the face of “western” medicine. “Western” medicine, it seems, was as destructive to particular “western” traditions as traditional medicines.

These concepts that we commonly use to navigate the field of contemporary health care lead us into traps with damaging, even fatal, consequences. In particular, when medicine is deifned as “Western,” the rhetorical space is created that is necessary for financial interests like the Hippocrates Institute and giant pharmaceutical companies peddling all sorts of snake oil to convince people interested in “traditional” medicine that what they both share is that they are “not western”. In this case, the Hippocrates Institute charged the family $18,000 for a treatment program that has reportedly included lessons in developing a positive attitude and learning how to eat raw, vegan diets. This reveals again the distinction between alternative and traditional medicine. Not only did First Nations diets not vegan, no human community has subsisted in human diets since we developed fire and cooking. The trend to veganism and raw food is almost entirely a product of education and affluence.

This is what I mean when I speak of the “mirror of the residential schools policy”. This may not be a perfect metaphor for what is going on here, but it is good enough, I think, to put it out there. When you put a picture in front of the mirror, you can still grasp the conceptual outlines of what is involved. A person is a person, a house is a house. But what was on the left is on the right. Positions are reversed. In the residential schools policy, elements of the Canadian state forced First Nations children to residential schools to assimilate them. Some elements of the state were racist and malevolent, but I suspect (this stands subject to verification) some were actually well meaning but misguided”. However, we all know the consequences were near genocidal.

Today, we have an element of the state (McMaster University) still making an attempt to apprehend a child, not to destroy them, but to save them. By contrast, we have other elements of the state (Brant CAS and the judge) cooperating with predatory white people and well-meaning allies in the worlds of health care, the university and the law, seeking to prevent this. Ironically, the past legacy of the residential schools policy as a justification. The roles are kind of reversed, as in a mirror, but the effect is going to be the same: a First Nations child is going to die.

If we cease thinking about medicine as “western” and, instead, think about it as medicine that has been proven to work, then we can also cease demonizing contemporary doctors and hospitals as current manifestations of past colonial attempts and seeing predatory quacks as anti-colonial allies. Instead, we can look at what medicine can offer First Nations people. We can think about it as the best that white society can offer, not the worst.

One of the arguments I often hear against the thesis that the treaties signed between First Nations and the Crown meant that First nations subsequently gave up rights to their territory and became wards of the state is that the spirit of the treaties was meant to enable a joint sharing of the land and a joint prosperity. If we stop thinking of medicine as “western” does this not open up space for us to make the same argument? Do McMaster and its proven treatments start to look like the best that “western medicine” can offer and the predatory quacks at the Hippocrates Institute as the worst?

Press Freedom, Journalism and the Duty to Answer Questions

Recently, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau announced that he would no longer deal with any journalists from the Sun News outlet because of a particularly virulent report from Ezra Levant.

While this is serious inside baseball, it does touch on an important point in press-government relations: Does the freedom of the press imply a duty to answer questions? Although the Trudeau-Levant kerfuffle is small-ball, the question is a larger one.

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My first reaction is that, no, a free press does not imply a duty to answer questions.

Press freedom is usually justified on the grounds that citizens require information about public affairs that does not stem from the state itself and that a free press is a useful check on state power. On the face of it, I don’t think that the latter reason for a free press gets you at all close to justifying an obligation to answer questions. The former reason might get you closer in that in a hypothetical world where no politicians took any questions from any journalists, the citizenry might lack sufficient information to serve as citizens. But it fails on a couple of other counts. First, the obligation seems wholly impractical to implement. Second, though, even in the hypothetical scenario I described above that did involve the executive being held to account to the legislature in debate open to a free press and the legislature being held to account to the people in open elections, with a free press operating, you’d be hard pressed to argue that citizens had no access to information.

This comes up pretty often, whenever a politician gets in a fight with journalists. Politicians rarely win out when they do get in these conflicts. But it’s one thing to say that it’s good sense for politicians to deal with journalists, and another thing to say that there’s an obligation to answer questions. While most journalists are reflexive enough to be aware that a free press does not imply an obligation to answer questions, a lot of the coverage of events like these gets pretty close to implying that there is a duty which is being shirked.

Of course one of the main reasons many journalists often push this interpretation is that it’s in their interests to. I’m currently working on a research project with a colleague that will put forward some survey data from politicians and journalists that will show the competing standards for particular democratic standards differ greatly. Journalists in particular hold to standards that, surprise, surprise, emphasize the importance of their own role.

Responding to the “New Public”: The Arrival of Strategic Communications and Managed Participation in Alberta

Author: Simon Kiss

Published March 2014 in Canadian Public Administration.

Abstract: This article examines the rise of more strategic, professional and politically sensitive communications in the Government of Alberta and argues that citizen demands for transparency and participation are also reasons for the increased importance of strategic government communications. Accommodating these demands in the context of traditional representative democracy requires politically sensitive staff who can manage processes without jeopardizing the government’s re-election or policy agenda. This article draws on analyses of government documents, interviews and the archives of premiers Getty and Klein.

On What Types Of Causes Should Political Scientists Focus?

Most positivist political scientists look for causal relationships inspired by Hume’s diction that we can only ever infer that A causes B to the extent that we observe A and B occurring together at the same time. So, as much as common parlance usually cautions against inferring causation from correlation, it’s actually a pretty important criteria in assessing causal relationships. Of course the difference between scientists and common parlance is that, when faced with a correlation, most scientists spend a lot of time clarifying that correlation before declaring it causal, i.e. they ensure that A in fact occurs before B temporally speaking and they try to determine whether there are any unobserved, third variables that make the correlation spurious. So, when scientists say a correlation is causal, it’s usually worth paying attention, much more so than when your astrologer notes that your birth was correlated with the ascendancy of Jupiter, or whatever.

I raise this because political scientist Salomon Orellana has published a new book on the relationship between parties, party systems and governance. One of his findings, outlined in a blog post at the Monkey Cage, is that there is a relationship between the number of parties in a party system and the incarceration rate in a country. In short, he finds that two-party systems tend to adopt more punitive, rather than rehabilitative, corrections policies. Continue reading

One of his graphs is here:

Relationship between legislative fractionalization and incarceration.

Clearly, there is a negative correlation there between the fractionalization (a measure of the number of parties in a party system) and the number of prisoners a country incarcerates. I have no reason to doubt Salomon’s evidence, modelling or reasoning about the possibility of unobserved control variables, so I’m fine to see that as a causal relationship.

But look at the United States! Orellana correctly identifies it as an extreme outlier, writing that: “although the American two-party system certainly does not explain everything about the U.S. incarceration rate, the country would nevertheless benefit from the presence of a “consistently heard” dissenter that can help break the vicious cycle of pandering.”

Later, Orellana concludes with this comment, calling for a reform to its electoral system.

Regardless of how reform might be implemented, the important point remains: the high rate of incarceration in the United States has roots in its electoral system. More political parties could ultimately mean fewer people behind bars.

I won’t dispute the second part of that statement – giving more access for third parties could reduce the incarceration rate – but I do dispute the first part of that sentence, that the high rate of incarceration has its roots in its electoral system. Here, Orellana is practicing good positivist social science, and it’s a great example of how good positivist social science can walk right into big problems. Namely, he is privileging the causal correlation that he has identified as the primary causeof his outcome of interest. One of the most important features of social life that complicates the positivist tendency to think about causation in correlational terms is that most outcomes are not determined by one single thing, but they can be determined by many different things.

A different way of assessing causal relations in empirical (note that I did not say positivist) social science is to look not for correlations but for the structures and mechanisms that underlie and create observed regularities. This is premised on a realist view of social science which has deep roots, but you can get a flavour of it by reading Daniel Little’s blog Understanding Society or by reading books like George and Bennett.

The thing that these scholars continually drive home is that correlations are usually only the starting point for empirical social science research. It’s more important to look under the hood of regularities and directly examine the structures and mechanisms (realists have those two words on auto-complete in their word processors) that create them. Doing this type of research is more loyal to the subject matter because human society is an open system where conditions at time 1 do not determine conditions at time 2. By contrast, Hume’s vision of causality, and the one that inspires most positivist social science, was developed very much with closed systems, such as the solar system, in mind.

Realist-inspired empirical research on this specific question would look at Orenella’s identified correlation, accept it as causal, and then looked at that glaring outlier and wondered about what structures and mechanisms caused such a deviation from the observed relationship.

I had the good fortune of taking a really amazing course on the contemporary political economy of the United States with Prof. Phil Wood at Queen’s University and his interest in the politics of prisons led me to some fascinating literature seeking to do what Orenella is *not* trying to do, namely, to explain the reason for the United States’ truly exceptional incarceration rate. Reading that literature gets you very quickly to the interaction between structures of racial inequality and the importance of the southern United States in shaping policy. A short version of this narrative speaks about the migration of African-American populations from the south to the north in the World War II era, leading to the creation of urban ghettos and difficult ethnic politics between non-white and black populations, and then the emergence of the New Right in the south and west of the United States amidst a backdrop of stagnating wages since the 1970s.

Orenella is probably right in his diagnosis: if there were a third party, or more attention to a third party paid, the incarceration rate would probably drop a little. But I think he is dead wrong when he states that the “primary root” of the American outlier is in its electoral system. He is only assigning it such an important role because, I suspect, as a solid positivist social scientist, he is thinking in terms of correlations, rather than structures and mechanisms.

I will close by simply saying that this is not just an arcane matter over which social scientists quibble. This matters for making good recommendations for policy-makers and for making our own choices as citizens. Orenella recommends modifying the party and electoral systems to give more attention to the margins. I recommend looking harder at the underlying structures of this problem, particularly the racial dynamics such as racist attitudes and institutional relationships between the US’ ethnic minorities? I wonder what is easier? There isn’t a clear answer to this, but I will note that the two-party duopoly has been more or less permanently for around 50 years. Since that time we have had massive transformations in people’s attitudes toward minorities, policies of managing ethnic diversity and the legal structure that governs ethnic relations. That might provide a hint as to what is actually easier to change.

Overregulation of Research by Ethics Bureaucracy?

There is an interesting article in the journal Mental Health and Substance Abuse that describes the frustrating experiences a team of researchers had gaining ethics approval for a research project investigating treatment options and services for aboriginal and refugee populations in northern Australia.

The researchers say that it took 10 months to gain full ethics approval, on a project that was funded for three years! Obviously there is a need to monitor social scientific and scientific research to ensure it is conducted in an ethical manner, given past experiences. But I share the authors’ concerns that the current system has become so unwieldy so as to raise the legitimate question about whether ethics approval processes have become such an obstacle to doing important social science research such that the approval process becomes unethical in itself?
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I have to admit, the research ethics board here at Wilfrid Laurier University is doing an admirable job trying to streamline the process. One thing I find frustrating is the limited ways in which the Tri-Council Policy Statement 2 on Ethics supports multi-institutional research projects. When a team of researchers is working on a common project, more often than not, each team member must get ethics approval from his or her own institution, unless the institutions engage in a lengthy and formal process to recognize each others’ decisions. Also, even the the TCPS2 does try to apply different levels of stringency to the ethics approval process depending on the vulnerability of the population and the possible hazards it faces, I still find there are frustrating hurdles to get over when conducting relatively benign research projects. I conducted several interviews with decision-makers at Health Canada about the regulation of BPA and NGO activists, for which ethics approval was necessary. That seemed like overkill to me.

Everyone I interviewed was extremely capable of defending themselves and understanding the nature of our interaction. Most people never bothered to return to me the elaborate consent form that I had passed through the ethics process. Why bother? These are busy people.

Some of the interesting proposals for streamlining the process identified in the included a better way of regulating multi-institutional research ethics approval and accrediting some researchers with some form of ethics recognition that would speed their process. Researchers could earn accreditation through participation in training seminars and this would allow them quicker approvals for certain low-risk projects.

Globe and Mail Wipes Away Parliamentary Democracy with One Policy

The public editor of the Globe and Mail, Sylvia Stead, has written an explanation for why the newspaper will not refer to Premier Kathleen Wynne as “Premier” during the provincial election campaign.

The explanation is unfortunate and reflects the news media’s poor understanding of parliamentary government and an obsession with American-style presidential politics. Essentially, the Globe and Mail‘s argument boils down two facts. First, during a campaign, the premier is not primarily a head of government, but a politician, and second, not referring to the Premier as “Premier” gives an even field to opposition party leaders.

I don’t really know where to begin demolishing this nonsense, but let’s start here. First, whoever is premier is always a politician, whether they are governing or not. By working on the assumption that politics ends when the campaign ends, the news media perpetuate the belief that government decisions are somehow free of politics. I’m glad that we have politicians running the government, and not administrators or technical experts. Politicians are in the business of winning the consent of the people. Administrators and technicians are in the business of getting things done. Ultimately, I know who I want wielding executive authority.
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Second,this entire argument perpetuates the assumption that the business of the campaign is to elect a premier ‒ whom the Globe and Mail falsely terms as the “head of the province.” As an aside, the premier of the province is not the “head of the province;” she is the head of the government. In fact, no one is really the head of the province.

Regardless, this view of what this campaign is about is premised on the belief that we are operating in a presidential system of government, where the winner of the most votes wins the right to wield executive authority. But we do not have a presidential system of government; we have a parliamentary system of government, where people elect a legislature and the executive is appointed based on whether they can maintain the majority of the people’s elected representatives.

Some commentators find the way that political scientists and constitutional experts obsess about this distinction to be invalid in an era of mass democratic politics, where the system functions mostly as if elections were about determining the head of government and that politicians ignore this at their peril. Mostly they are right. Usually, the party who wins the most votes, gets the most seats and the person who leads that party becomes the premier. So the widespread perception that this campaign is primarily about the position of premier is not to be discounted.

But the principles of parliamentary government are set up in such a way that they do not mesh easily with presidential rules whereby whichever candidate gets the most votes becomes the head of the government.

The two views can clash badly in certain situations and when they do, it is incumbent on the news media to inform voters about the nature of the conflict. In 2008, just after Canadians returned a parliament where the Conservatives had a plurality of seats, the parties representing the majority of the seats launched an effort to form a new government ‒ backed by a majority of elected representatives and a majority of voters ‒ and replace the Conservative government. The Conservative government and the news media were scandalized that this could even be possible. But they were scandalized because they were operating on the assumption that our system of government is presidential, not parliamentary, and that only the voters can choose the executive. The net effect of this was to completely demonize the notion of a coalition of parties to provide a stable executive backed by a majority of elected representatives following an election. We are still dealing with the consequences of this and you can see how delicately the NDP and the Liberals address the issue of what might happen should neither party win a majority of seats after the next election.

It is even more frustrating to see this mistake peddled in the current situation because there is a very real possibility that the outcome of the provincial election could be some combination of the Progressive Conservatives winning the popular vote, but finishing second in seats, and either the Liberals or the NDP winning more seats, but less votes, and thus having to find an arrangement with another party. This would be a delicate situation, but one that is perfectly acceptable in a parliamentary government.

What is worse, though, and even a little embarrassing for the Globe and Mail is that this entire election could only have happened in a parliamentary system, where the people choose the parliament, but not the executive. This election wasn’t scheduled, as is the case in presidential election; it became inevitable when it was apparent that the executive lacked the support of the majority of the people’s representatives.

People often look at presidential systems as somehow more democratic because they see a more direct, unmediated relationship between voters and the chief executive and because the executive has no opportunity to ever avoid an election. The Globe and Mail reflects this desire. But by doing so, they are unwittingly obscuring and ignoring the ways in which parliamentary democracy is more democratic than presidential systems. It’s true that presidents never get to dictate the time of the next election. But the downside of that is that when a president becomes deeply unpopular, like, say when a president embroils a country in two complicated, expensive and risky regional wars, voters are effectively stuck with the president until the next election, no matter how much they want to get rid of him.

The beauty of the parliamentary system is that the executive’s position lasts only as long a majority of the legislature is willing to support it. To paraphrase the great Prime Minister James Hacker, of “Yes, Prime Minister,” voters can only vote against the PM (or president for that matter) every four years. Backbenchers can vote against him next week. And the week after that. And the week after that. And that’s exactly what happened here, and with Dalton McGuinty.

Of course, these kinds of pushbacks usually only happen when there is a minority parliament. But not always. Look at what happened in Alberta this year. Despite a solid majority of the Alberta Legislature, Premier Redford was essentially forced to resign by her own party and caucus because of her deep unpopularity. Moreover, behind the scenes, there is a lot more parliamentary participation within the executive and mechanisms for accountability than is often given credit for. It’s just that those affairs are quiet and complicated to understand, thus difficult for journalists to turn into news.

When I teach parliamentary government, I often tell students that the most democratic thing about parliamentary government is not elections; it’s that every day, every sitting, every session, the executive must always be courting the support of the majority of the parliament and is always held to account. This is no doubt easier for the executive in a majority parliament, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen and it doesn’t mean that it’s not important.

And it is this constant earning of the support of the legislature’s majority that the Globe and Mail is denying by not referring to Wynne as the premier. By purporting to create an open playing field for the three “candidates for premier,” the Globe and Mail is actually obscuring the fact that Wynne is the leader of the party that has formed the government since 2007 and whose elected representatives have supported all the popular and unpopular decisions that have been taken since then. By not referring to her as “Premier,” the Globe is somehow wiping away the Liberal record and pretending that this is just a free, open contest by three people for one position. In its attempt to cover this election in a presidential fashion, the Globe and Mail is obscuring the most democratic feature of parliamentary government.

The pitfalls of a referendum

Published Dec. 18, 2013, in The Hamilton Spectator

Hamilton joins a growing list of cities all over North America where municipal water fluoridation is not just an important public health practice, but also a source of controversy. While Hamilton councillors recently rejected a proposal to hold a referendum on the issue, they turned over this discussion to the city’s medical officer of health to investigate the feasibility of a citizen task force, which will study the issue further.

A task force would, in our view, lead to far better decisions than a straight-off referendum. Although referendums can be powerful measures for citizens to govern themselves, they do not always produce an “informed” decision. More often than not, people do not carefully weigh the costs and benefits of various activities. Instead, they form judgments by using quick mental shortcuts.

Psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman calls this “thinking quickly” rather than “thinking slowly.” Clearly, everyday citizens can rise to the occasion to weigh the benefits and disadvantages of public health initiatives like fluoridation: they just need the context, time, resources and opportunity to do so. And they rarely have much of that.

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Open Government and Accountability?

A few weeks ago Premier Kathleen Wynne announced a new policy of “Open Government”. I read it with interest, but remain highly skeptical of, well, it. On its face, the policy seems to be composed of the appointment of a team of leaders from business, politics and the public sector. There are no trade union representatives, although perhaps one should not be too surprised by this in today’s age. There is one self-identified Conservative, one self-identified Liberal and none that I can identify from the NDP, although one person did work with the Mayor of Vancouver, who once sat as an NDP MLA in BC, so, who knows.

I raise this because the rhetoric of “openness” is premised on the notion of policy without politics: The engagement team is “just listening” and “engaging”; but if the ideological composition of the team is made up of one particular segment of the spectrum, well, politics seems fairly embedded into the process from the start, but without the advantage of clarity about the perspectives people represent. Thus, this attempt at non-partisan, open engagement, perversely, is highly opaque, rather than transparent. My colleague, Dr. Alcantara, made a similar point regarding the formal non-partisanship of territorial legislatures, here.

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This team is mandated to tour the province, “engaging people” to find out new ways of “engaging, innovating and collaborating”.

I find the rhetoric of “open government” and “transparency” and “accountability” fascinating; it has popped up routinely in Canadian politics, with the demise of the Meech Lake Accord serving as an important dividing line. You recall, was negotiated by 11 white men in suits (each of whom who had managed to win a majority of seats in their legislatures in the most recent election, but in today’s world, that doesn’t seem to count for much.) The exclusivity of that negotiating process led to a different, much more open and transparent and participatory process of the Charlottetown Accord, which, when put to a referendum of the citizenry as a whole, was defeated.

There are strong parallels between the situation in which the Wynne government finds itself and the situation that the Klein government found itself in 1992; and these parallels are instructive as to how common it is for Canadian governments to resort to this kind of rhetoric to secure their election and how often it fails. In 1992, the Progressive Conservatives of Alberta were long in the tooth, having been in power since 1971 (In the same way that one dog year is equal to about seven human years, one year in power for non-Alberta governments is equivalent to about 10 years for the governing party in Alberta). More importantly, it was struggling with the consequences of a policy whereby the provincial government was guaranteeing loans to private sector companies in a attempt to diversify the economy. One loan to a cell phone manufacturing company (!?) went bad when the company declared bankruptcy and the taxpayers were in the hook for about $500 million. People were mad, not just about the lack of funds, but also about the lack of transparency, openness and accountability in provincial decision-making. Alberta was ground-zero for the post-Meech Lake hostility to representative democracy and political parties and fed the growth of the populist, anti-party Reform Party at the time.

Enter Ralph Klein. The populist politician, par excellence, became Premier in 1993 and one of the first memos his government issued inside the government emphasized the need for a new dialogue with Albertans. His government quickly branded itself as one that “listened to Albertans”. His deputy premier and major backer, Ken Kowalski, wrote in an internal memo on the day Klein was sworn in:

The election of a new Premier creates significant opportunity to demonstrate a new openness in government communications and a new consultative approach in dealing with Albertans.

The Klein government made all kinds of ridiculous consultations: Klein was always on the radio, “talking to Albertans”; the government commissioned mailback surveys from the electorate about what the budget priorities should be, without any consideration of problems like self-selection bias; they commissioned expert summits to discuss issues, without thinking through potential problems of how people were selected or how problems were framed that were presented to summits; they passed Freedom of Information Legislation, and then promptly ensured that PR staff inside departments would monitor

There’s no wonder that the Wynne government is pursuing a strategy that shares the same premise, but has different manifestations. For one thing, it’s a lot cheaper for politicians to promise to be “open” and “accountable” than it is to, say, promise to raise the minimum wage, or address shortages in long-term care for seniors. For another thing, this demand for openness in government is rooted in a deep cultural suspicion of bureaucracies, particularly political parties.

This shift is fine; I welcome it even. But there are trade-offs, and one of the trade-offs with this cultural shift is that we lose the appreciation for the efficiency and accountability that actually are inherently built in to hierarchical and bureaucratic systems. The more that citizens continue to express this suspicion without acknowledging the merits built into bureaucracy, the more politicians will be happy to distract them with cheap promises of “openness”, “accountability” and “transparency” using them to win elections in a system that is built on and requires the bureaucracy of political parties and hierarchical public administration. More often than not, this kind of rhetoric distracts and enables the reelection of governments that probably don’t deserve it on other issues, rather than enhances citizen control over their governments.

Education, Cynicism and Government Advertising

The Canadian Press’ Dean Beeby had an interesting story the other day on a survey that attempted to gauge the efficacy of one of the advertising campaigns promoting the government’s Economic Action Plan (EAP). He obtained the analysis provided to the federal government by Harris Decima via the Access to Information Act and he kindly forwarded it on to me. Although we don’t have the individual level data, the aggregate data provide some interesting insights into the relationships between government advertising and public opinion.

The analysis is required by government policy to be conducted on every ad campaign, ostensibly to gauge its “efficacy”.

First, the top line numbers.

62% of respondents report having heard of the EAP, although there was a massive regional variation in this number. Only 49% of Quebec respondents had heard about it while 72% in the ROC had heard about it. Only 38% of respondents recalled seeing the ad that was being evaluated, and, of those who had seen it, 6% of them actually “did” something in response to it. 32% of those spoke with other voters and 20% complained about the ad. In an earlier post I asked why governments bother to advertise. There, I showed that the level of federal government advertising had no correlation with stated vote intention for the party in power. This evidence suggests that government advertising doesn’t necessarily move people to make use of further information or government programs.
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There are some more interesting relationships going on here, though. For example, of those who had seen the ad, education was directly correlated with believing that the primary motivation behind the ad was government self-promotion. Those with lower levels of education were far more likely to see the ad as being about job creation and training program, but this changed for respondents with higher levels of education who were more likely to cite self-promotion as the motivation.

As education increases, so does the likelihood that someone would see the ad as being for the purpose of self-promotion.

As education increases, so does the likelihood that someone would see the ad as being for the purpose of self-promotion.

The interesting thing here is that both interpretations are probably right. If you look at the ad, it really does only talk about job creation and training programs. But let’s not kid ourselves, there’s an awful lot of self-promotion going on. So I don’t think this is fair to say that this is a story of greater democratic competence by those with higher levels of education who are somehow able to see through the government’s actions. I wonder if this is a manifestation of an increased inclination to political cynicism.

There is quite a lot of political research that suggests that news coverage that emphasizes the strategy as opposed to the substances of politics contributes to political cynicism in the population (Capella and Jamieson 1997), but this is slightly different. First, this deals with government advertising and second this deals more with how media materials are interpreted, rather than with whether they have any affect on citizens.

What makes the finding I highlighted above particularly interesting is that there is some substantial evidence that levels of education and political sophistication (a different but related phenomenon) are have both become recently correlated with levels of political cynicism see (inconsistently in Capella and Jamieson (1997), here in the Netherlands). Much more impressively, a cross-national survey of trust in government over time, Dalton found that the decline in trust in government across the industrialized world has been located among those with higher levels of education.

To the extent that this is true, this is exactly the opposite to the dominant assumption and empirical finding of post-war political science that assumed (and often documented) that trust in government was located in higher social classes and among those with higher levels of education (see this study from Oregon in 1961). This is a profound transformation and it introduces new complexities to governance. It’s possible that this loss of trust is an increase in democratic competence, but there are costs associated with it as well.

This kind of result should also give governments another reason to question whether they really want to shell out millions and millions more for government advertising; with a more educated populace, a good chunk of people are just going to see it as being about self-promotion.

The Limits of Evidence-Based Policymaking

There’s been a lot of commentary on the consequences of the Rogoff-Reinhart error, which is seriously undermining the empirical basis for the austerity program that has swept the US, Canada and Europe. I think this episode highlights the limits of evidence-based policy-making.

One clue that there is deep limits to the concept is that I’ve never actually heard a policy-maker claim that they are making policy without evidence. It seems that everyone justifies their policy preferences with some sort of evidence; it’s just that there is always a debate about what constitutes evidence. I also think that many liberal (and here I mean, small-l liberals with a strong commitment to equating justice with procedure, rather than outcome) scholars and citizens adhere to an ideal of evidence-based policymaking. I think it’s because they feel that somehow the nastiness of politics can be minimized in public policy making if we can all just agree on the facts and procedures for adjudicating facts.

Here I’ll make two claims: evidence can only inform, it can never resolve, political debate. And evidence-based policy-making will always be influenced, if not, determined by pre-existing values, rather than the other way around.

If evidence really could influence policy to the degree that the adherents of evidence-based policy-making claim it can, then we would be seeing a much quicker reversal of economic policy given that one of the essential pieces of evidence for austerity has been shown to be, well, wrong. Aside from this in Italy, austerity remains the dominant economic policy.
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It’s true it is early days and this development may ultimately shift global economic policy, but, the longer it takes, the more it proves my point. Evidence cannot be decisive for policy-making; instead, it interacts with deeper values which are of greater import. In terms of austerity, it wasn’t R-R that told policy-makers to adopt austerity; I assert that it fit with widespread, deeply-held values that a good life is one that is lived modestly with an emphasis on earning and saving money.

I write this post only partially motivated by the fall-out from R+R. But this episode reinforces some of the conclusions that I’ve drawn out of my ongoing research into the politics of the regulation of BPA in Canada and the US. Clearly, evidence mattered in that case. Both sides – those in favour of and those opposed to stricter regulations – marshalled as much scientific evidence as possible to support their claims. And both sides are guilty of calling the other “anti-scientific”. The problem is that there is no agreement on what constitutes evidence. Those who assert there is a great threat posed by exposure to BPA often rely on studies which often do show adverse effects from exposure to BPA, but base this conclusion on studies that only administered one or two different doses of BPA. When these small studies show a positive relationship between exposure and effect, environmental activists seize on them because they have already made value commitments that we are constantly being poisoned by toxins and that modern society is killing us.

It has to be emphasized: there are powerful structural forces that govern the scientific endeavour that leads to the publication of these kinds of exciting findings based on small sample sizes and dose ranges. Put yourself in the shoes of a new, untenured, natural scientist. You need to get grant money and you need to get publications. In tough economic times and the competitive scientific job market these pressures can be excruciating. But null findings just won’t cut it. Journals that are owned by a small oligopoly of media companies want citations to papers that they publish and tend not to attract a lot of notice. Findings that show that a substance does have an effect is likely to get cited.

The vast majority of positive findings are published when they show effects that are “statistically significant at the .05 level”. This means that there is only a 5 per cent chance that that published finding will have occurred by chance alone. But what that means is that even if scientists are entirely objective, then 1 in 20 scientific studies will be a false positive. However, scientists are not entirely objective. Too often, null results from studies are shelved and only the statistically significant studies are published. But, if we are never told how many null findings the scientist received before getting a statistically significant finding, then we have no way of determining whether or not the finding could be random noise or a real finding. Ben Goldacre has pointed out that this badly plagues pharmaceutical research, but Ioannides has found similar problems in medical research.

There are two wonderful images from a presentation to an expert working group on BPA from June 2012 that prove this point better than I ever could. This is around 50 random values ranging from 80 to about 145 plotted on the y-axis.
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Would you say that there is any pattern evident? Of course not.

Now, would you say the same about the following four values?

Screen shot 2013-04-30 at 2.15.54 PM

That looks to me like BPA/coffee/smoking/cosmetics causes cancer/obesity/heart attacks!

Except the values are drawn from the same randomly selected 20 values in the first figure. Look closely, I can see at least two sequences of 4 randomly generated values that increase monotonically creating the impression of a linear, cause-and-effect relationship.

This is what gets published, even if it’s the product of random noise.

There are ways to guard against this, but they essentially involve doing large-scale, multi-generation rodent studies with a wide range of doses. But this costs a lot of money and sadly,the only people who have this kind of money to do research (which often results in null findings) are corporations who obviously have a strong interest in the publication of such findings when substances they produce are under scrutiny.

Just because it is funded by corporations does not mean the “evidence” is invalid according to strict scientific standards, but we’re not dealing in science: we’re dealing in politics. And this fact certainly excites activist groups, politicians, journalists, rival scientists and voters who see these kinds of studies not as “evidence” of no findings, but of “evidence” of collusion and corruption.

Into this vortex of institutional, economic and value-based judgements, politicians and regulators are called on to make a decision. They have developed some tools to improve the role of “evidence” in policy making, primarily through the use of systematic literature reviews and tools to evaluate the merits of different type of evidence.

But as I stated before, this always interacts with pre-existing values. An excellent example of this in the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. There, the Ministers of Health and the Environment are required to apply both the precautionary principle and the weight-of-evidence approach when publishing risk assessments of potentially toxic substances. The former, in one form, requires (some might say allows) regulatory action even based on inconclusive “evidence”. The latter requires regulators to rationally weight the merits of “evidence”, discounting weak “evidence” such as studies with small dose ranges, and according greater weight to large-scale, more credible, more reliable studies.

With the requirement to apply both principles entrenched in Canadian legislation, you can see how “evidence” can never answer the regulator’s question of what type of policy she should adopt. There is always a debate about what constitutes “evidence”. Those who are convinced that inconclusive “evidence” is actually sufficient “evidence” for action, will simply demand that the state act, those who disagree that the “evidence” is conclusive will simply state so. There actually is no “evidence” that can reconcile these two positions, because this is actually never about “evidence”; politics is about values and interests.

That’s why the R+R findings made such a splash in the first place, why their refutation won’t matter much, why BPA was deemed “toxic” even though the scrreening assessment explicitly states that it is safe at current levels of exposure and, frankly, why evidence-based policy-making is not so much impossible, just illusory. It can’t exist as the kind of decisive resolution to political challenges people want it to be.

RBC foreign workers controversy a sign of an increasingly anxious middle class

Published on Apr. 12, 2013, in The Huffington Post Canada

The public’s visceral response to RBC’s foreign worker scandal is about more than the sullied reputation of Canada’s largest bank. It could well be a cautionary tale for Corporate Canada on the volatile mood of Canadians grown weary of post-recession cost-cutting and job losses at companies that are still turning healthy profits.

The Royal Bank of Canada was thrust into the spotlight for its decision to outsource 45 information technology jobs to iGate Corp., whose workers in India were reportedly brought to Canada under the federal Temporary Foreign Worker Program to receive training from the very RBC employees they were replacing. It is illegal for a company to bring temporary foreign workers into the country if it puts Canadians out of work.

After days of public outrage and negative headlines, CEO Gord Nixon issued an apology on customers’ log-in pages and in national newspapers Friday.

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Public Opinion, Precaution and Toxicology

There is news today that a coroner in New Zealand formally ruled that the excessive consumption of Coca Cola led to the untimely death of Natasha Harris three years ago. Harris, it seems, developed a nasty habit of drinking up to 10 litres a day. “I find that when all the available evidence is considered, were it not for the consumption of very large quantities of Coke by Natasha Harris, it is unlikely that she would have died when she died and how she died” is what the coroner determined.

So what does this have to do with a blog about Canadian, politics and public opinion? Because this tragic incident illustrates a bedrock principle of toxicology that citizens, journalists and politicians often forget when our attention turns to issues of concern with possibly toxic substances. That principle is “the dose makes the poison.” It was formulated in the 16th century by the Swiss-German chemist Paracelsus and it holds that all substances (Coca-Cola included) are toxic in some quantity. Even something as seemingly innocuous as water can be toxic when enough has been consumed. This poor soul died from the excessive consumption of water during a brutal hazing ritual in New York. From this observation, the traditional role of toxicology has developed which is to ascertain at what level of exposure any given substance causes adverse effects.

With the rise of concerns about toxic substances in the post-World War II era, scientists have discovered some substances that deviate from this principle (see tamoxifen, an important drug in chemotherapy). But these effects are rare, difficult to demonstrate and the scientific debates that surround them are heated and complex. But when issues shift into the public and media spheres, the complex science behind these assertions, sadly, usually gets lost in the shuffle.
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There are multiple reasons for why this is. One reason is our own inability to perceive risks rationally. There is so much literature on the psychology of human risk perception that it is difficult to know where to start, but I might recommend this thispaper or this book. The long and short of the field of risk perception is that humans get very frightful about lots of things that actually present very little danger. After September 11th, Americans turned away from planes for their long trips and hopped into their cars, leading to a sharp increase in traffic fatalities in the months following.

Chemicals are one of those things that people fear a great deal. Ask people if they think the colourless, odourless chemical dihydrogen monoxide (the ingestion of which is the cause of thousands of deaths each year) should be banned and you’d be surprised (and a little concerned) at the number of people who would agree.

So when the public and the mass media turn their attention to issues of possible harm from exposure to chemicals, fears can be stoked, perspective can be lost and can lead, ultimately, to over- and unnecessary regulation of products and activity. For example, I was able to show in this paper that within-state newspaper coverage of Bisphenol A was positively linked to the chance that a US state legislature would introduce or adopt legislation banning products made with BPA the following year. It showed (again) the important role that increased media salience can have on policy changes. This, even though, scientific information suggests that exposure to BPA is hundres, if not thousands of times lower than the level at which there is a consensus that it causes adverse effects in rats (see here).

This research area is rife for investigation and it’s become a long-term project I’m working on, so I’m going to have a lot more to say about this in the future. I thought the news about Ms. Harris’ tragic death due to the excessive consumption of Coca-Cola was a useful way to set the stage for more thoughts and research to come.