Everything We Thought We Knew About Salt and Health Was Right

Unlike sugar and trans fats, we might accept salt in our food as a human necessity, an ancient mineral that conveniently boosts flavors in bland fare.

But we’ve been fed a line about sodium chloride. That’s what Dr. Michael F. Jacobson claims in his new book Salt Wars: The Battle Over the Biggest Killer in the American Diet.

For decades, Jacobson has worked with the Center for Science in the Public Interest — a group he helped found — to advocate for tighter health regulations on American food, writing a heap of books along the way advising on the science behind nutrition.

It might seem as though scientists just can’t make up their minds about the health effects of a salt-heavy diet, but Jacobson says the conflicting messages are a mix of junk science and industry deception. He argues that science has long confirmed that we consume too much salt, leading to unnecessarily high rates of cardiovascular disease, and his book tracks the half-century-long fight between “Big Salt” and health advocates — like himself — seeking to reduce the stuff in our food. Jacobson says it’s finally time to cut the salt in our food by one-third and act on the facts we’ve known all along.

The Saturday Evening Post: How do you defend the science you put forth in your book? Is there a scientific consensus that sodium consumption is too high?

Michael F. Jacobson: There has long been a consensus that we should reduce sodium intake to reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes. The consensus is reflected in statements from organizations like the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the World Health Organization, and the American Heart Association. These are not organizations that take risky positions or base their statements on flimsy evidence. Typically, in fact, they wait far too long to tell the public to do one thing or another.

In contrast, the “opposing side” — if you want to put it that way — has a comparative handful of studies that have been criticized for basic flaws from the day they were published. At this point, I hope that the debate over salt has ended. Last year the National Academy of Sciences issued a report that summarily dismissed those contrarian studies as being basically flawed. They dismissed them with a sentence, citing the other evidence that has long been mainstream.

SEP: You write about the “J-shaped curve” — the finding that lower salt intake also results in a high risk of cardiovascular disease — as the basis of a lot of these “contrarian” theories around salt. What do you make of the science behind it?

Jacobson: It’s junk. The PURE studies [Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology], which have been the most widely publicized as showing that consuming less salt could be harmful, are based on taking one urine sample from a number of participants at the beginning of the study. One sample. It’s not even a 24-hour collection, which is the standard for measuring sodium intake. The next assumption they make is that one sample is representative of a person’s lifetime consumption, but it’s not. Maybe that person ate out that day, or maybe they had cancer and were barely eating. People have long criticized that research, but in the last few years two studies completely debunked it.

Last year, the NAS did a report on sodium and cardiovascular disease. They did a meta-analysis of the best studies that involve 24-hour urine collections and found the expected linear relationship. They dismissed the PURE studies and others that found the J-shaped curve, as fatally flawed. I hope that ends the controversy.

A few years ago, Congress said the government shouldn’t take action to reduce sodium until the NAS did a study to look at sodium’s direct relationship to cardiovascular disease. Well, now they have done that study, concluding that lowering sodium is beneficial and not harmful.

SEP: How would you say that news media figures into the controversy around diet science like this?

Jacobson: I don’t understand why health journalists have given unwarranted credence to the PURE studies and their predecessors, because they’re so contrary to what the bulk of the research says. I think they, starting with The Washington Post and The New York Times, have been really irresponsible. Maybe it is an example of “man bites dog” to some extent. I bet editors love those stories that publicize the contrarian view, especially when the researchers are at respected institutions.

In the case of the PURE studies, they’re not tainted with industry funding. Rhetorically, it’s easier to shoot down studies that are funded by the snack food industry or something. But I’m really puzzled, and many other people in the field of hypertension and cardiovascular disease are shocked that those [PURE] researchers continue to get funding for that kind of research, and that respected publishers — like the Lancet or British Medical Journal — accept these studies. They certainly confuse the public.

The same phenomenon has taken place on a whole range of public health issues of great importance. With the lead industry — defending lead in gasoline — it goes back 100 years. Typically, it’s industry either sponsoring the research, or, if the research is independent, then ballyhooing the research that supports their views, saying, now government can’t act until we do studies that may be impossible to do.

With salt, there’s been a “moving of the goalposts.” Thirty years ago, the evidence was clear that increasing sodium intake increased blood pressure, and increased blood pressure then increased the risk of cardiovascular disease. Almost every researcher agreed then that raising salt increased the risk of cardiovascular disease, but after a couple of studies contrarians said that those conclusions couldn’t be coupled, that we had to prove directly, with randomized controlled studies, that raising sodium increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. Those studies are almost impossible to do. A few studies (I mention them in Salt Wars) provide some evidence, but they’re all limited in one way or another. But the American Heart Association and the WHO and others say that that research is totally unnecessary, they are certainly not funding the research, and we have far more evidence than we need to call for policies to reduce salt in the food supply and diet.

The thrust of the bulk of the field is to say, let’s reduce sodium throughout the food supply to “make the healthy choice the easy choice.” There are studies showing that if you start with lower-sodium foods and add salt, you’ll generally end up with less salt than what we see in most of our foods now.

SEP: You’ve been involved in health advocacy for many decades. What have you seen change in industry and policy as far as the American diet is concerned?

Jacobson: With salt, the policy battles began in 1969 when the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health said that sodium in the food supply should be lowered. At that time, and currently, the Food and Drug Administration considers salt to be “generally recognized as safe,” and could be used in any amount. But on the basis of the existing research back in 1978, we [Center for Science in the Public Interest] petitioned the FDA to adopt regulations to lower sodium, and top researchers supported the petitions.

A few years later, the FDA in the Reagan administration was headed by a hypertension expert, and he said that we should lower sodium by taking a voluntary approach and that if industry didn’t lower sodium, he would mandate it. That commissioner left the agency after two years, and meanwhile industry did next to nothing. Then, CSPI focused on getting sodium labeling on all foods, and we helped get the nutrition labeling law passed, which mandated labeling like the Nutrition Facts labels that list sodium on all packaged foods. So we waited to see whether labeling would reduce sodium intakes, and when I looked at it 10 years later I saw that, no, it didn’t seem to have any effect. Sodium consumption stayed the same. So in 2005 we re-sued the FDA and filed a new petition. By then, the evidence was far greater that sodium boosted blood pressure. But the government did nothing. So we then succeeded in getting Congress to fund the NAS to do a study on how to lower sodium intakes.

In 2010, the NAS published a landmark report saying the FDA should mandate lower sodium levels in the food supply, but the FDA commissioner immediately said they would push again for voluntary reductions. It took a while — six years in fact — for the FDA to come up with voluntary targets for lowering sodium in packaged foods. That was in June 2016, just months before the Obama administration left office, so clearly there was not enough time to finalize those targets.

Four years later, the Trump administration still has done nothing. Absolutely nothing. Although, two years ago, the FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb — who’s been in the news about COVID-19 — said that reducing sodium is probably the single most important thing the FDA could do in the nutrition world. Unfortunately, he left office a few months later and the FDA did nothing.

It’s been 10 and a half years since the NAS called for mandatory reductions in sodium, and the last time that the CDC looked, in 2016, there had been no change in sodium intake in 30 years. At this point, I think the most we can hope for is the implementation of those voluntary targets. The FDA chose targets that would lower sodium to recommended levels — if all food manufacturers complied, which they won’t — in 10 years. In 10 years, a lot of people are going to be dying unnecessarily.

SEP: What was the Salt Institute? Would you characterize it in the same way that people think of the tobacco lobby or the oil lobby?

Jacobson: Steven Colbert said that the Salt Institute shouldn’t be confused with the Salk Institute, because the Salk Institute cures polio while the Salt Institute cures hams. That got a laugh from the audience [when Jacobson was a guest on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report in 2010]. The Salt Institute was long a lobbying group set up by salt manufacturers, like Morton Salt and Cargill.

In the book I call it “the mouse that roared.” It was a small organization — five or six staff members and an annual budget of about three million dollars — but they were real tigers when it came to defending salt. Any time people criticized sodium levels in the food supply and recommended changes, the Salt Institute would be out there with vitriolic statements, pamphlets, interviews. They generated a large amount of press that I think contributed significantly to muddying the waters. They made much of that J-shaped curve theory, that reducing sodium dramatically could actually increase the risk of heart disease. But in March of 2019, they abruptly went out of business, and no one, to my knowledge has explained why.

SEP: Since the Salt Institute has disbanded, do you see an opening for salt regulation?

Jacobson: Well, the Salt Institute was never the real powerhouse. The major player was the mainstream food industry, including Kellogg’s, General Mills, McDonald’s — all the big companies, through their trade associations, and especially the Grocery Manufacturers Association. The industry kind of begrudgingly went along with voluntary reduction, but when the FDA proposed action, they nitpicked almost every single number in the FDA’s proposal. The butter and cheese industries wanted their products entirely dropped from the plan. Surprisingly, at the beginning of 2020, the Grocery Manufacturers changed its name [to Consumer Brands Association], changed its focus away from nutrition labeling and nutrition issues in general. The two main lobbying groups essentially withdrew from the playing field.

That certainly should make it easier for the government to take stronger action on sodium. But will it? I don’t know. Many of those big companies will lobby on their own. The snack food industry has SNAC, frozen food companies have the Frozen Food Institute, pickle makers have Pickle Packers International, restaurants are defended by the National Restaurant Association, and the meat industry has the North American Meat Institute. It’s hard to know how the disappearance of those two groups will affect things but making progress won’t be a cakewalk.

Between voluntary and mandatory approaches, the voluntary approach rewards companies that don’t do anything. I talked to one official at Kraft Foods, and he said that Kraft has tried to reduce sodium, but its competitors didn’t, so Kraft felt it had to go back and restore the salt. The advantage of mandatory regulation is that it provides a level playing field for companies that want to do the right thing.

SEP: Looking at the whole scope of the last 50 years or so, what would you say makes it so difficult for the U.S. to make and pass policy regarding dietary health?

Jacobson: It’s the power of industry. But also, much of the public sees a smaller role for government compared to countries in Europe, for example. Here, we have a culture of “rugged individualism.” There’s a feeling that people can lower their sodium intake if they want, a much more voluntary, individual approach.

In contrast, the British government, in the mid-2000s, adopted recommendations to lower sodium and backed that up with a pretty aggressive public education campaign. Then they used the bully pulpit to press industry to lower sodium. Within five years, the UK achieved a 10 to 15 percent reduction in sodium intake, compared to a goal of 33 percent reduction. But after a change in government, the new government lost interest.

Chile, Mexico, Israel, and a couple of other countries have passed laws requiring warning notices on packaging when foods are high in calories, saturated fat, sodium, or sugar. These are put on front labels and are very noticeable. In Chile, the law has been in place long enough to measure some results. There have been a significant number of products that have lower sodium, sugar, or fat content to escape those warning labels. That has been the most effective policy I know of to lower the sodium content in foods and presumably to lower sodium intake.

SEP: Have we seen better health outcomes in Chile as well?

Jacobson: It’s too early to know. Something like cardiovascular disease takes so long to show up. There are also so many other things going on in Chile that come into play.

SEP: Do we see sodium affecting communities differently in the U.S.? For instance, African-American communities?

Jacobson: African Americans seem to be more salt-sensitive than whites. They also have higher rates of hypertension. African-American women have much higher rates of obesity. So, when you couple obesity with hypertension, that’s a formula for cardiovascular disease. But every subgroup of the population ends up with hypertension. By the time Americans are in their 70s and older, 80 to 90 percent have hypertension. That’s why people should lower their sodium intake, lose weight, and avoid too much alcohol, to avoid gradually increasing blood pressure.

SEP: What would a lower sodium diet look like for a lot of people?

Jacobson: Packaged foods and restaurant foods would be lower in sodium. At restaurants, portions would even be smaller. There would be little effect on taste. Let me remind you that no one is saying that industry should eliminate all salt. Rather, it’s lowering salt as much as possible without destroying the taste of the food, and maybe replacing some of the salt with flavorful ingredients.

Using less salt is the cheapest, easiest thing to do. Another way is to replace salt with potassium salt. It doesn’t taste as salty, but it helps counteract the blood pressure-raising effect of a high-sodium diet. Companies can also add more real ingredients and herbs and spices. For home chefs, McCormick, Chef Paul Prudhomme, and Mrs. Dash sell salt-free seasonings. The classic study is the DASH-sodium study. It’s a randomized controlled study — the best you can do — done by researchers at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and elsewhere. They lowered sodium by one third, from 3,400 mg, the current average daily intake, to 2,300 mg, the recommended intake, and they found that people consuming the 2,300-mg level of sodium liked the food even more than the higher level! So, I think concerns about taste are completely overblown. People quickly get accustomed to less-salty foods.

SEP: What are some personal decisions that people can make to decrease their sodium intake?

Jacobson: Sodium levels in the food supply will not drop to healthy levels instantly, no matter what the FDA does. In the meantime, consumers have to protect their health. When you’re eating processed foods, you should compare labels, because there is wide variation among different brands of the same or similar foods. Swiss cheese has one-fifth or less of the sodium in American cheese, and you can make a perfectly good sandwich with Swiss cheese. For that sandwich, you can also choose a lower-sodium bread. Bread, because we consume so much of it, turns out to be one of the major sources of sodium. You can make lots of modest changes to achieve major reductions in sodium.

We should also be cooking more natural ingredients from scratch. That invariably results in lower-sodium foods, because we’re controlling the salt. The third thing is to eat out less often. Restaurant foods have huge amounts of sodium, especially table-service restaurants like IHOP or Chili’s. That’s partly because the portions are enormous. The more food you eat, the more sodium you consume. From a chef’s point of view, the two magical ingredients are salt and butter. And it’s not just chain restaurants. Chefs have generally not been trained to lower sodium. The best thing you could do is to cook at home from scratch using lower-sodium recipes.

I mentioned how some companies are using potassium salt, and consumers can use it too. Look for “lite salt” at the supermarket. Morton and other companies sell this, and half of the table salt has been replaced by potassium salt, so you automatically cut back when you’re cooking or sprinkle it on your meal.

SEP: Looking back at the last year of presidential debates, moderators always ask a question about the biggest issue facing Americans, and I’ve never heard a candidate say that it’s salt. So, what would you say to people who think we have bigger problems and salt just isn’t that important?

Jacobson: We do have other pressing problems. Tobacco is killing a lot more people than salt. But high-sodium diets are killing tens of thousands of people each year. Health economists and epidemiologists estimate that if we can cut our sodium intake by one-third to one-half, that would prevent 50,000 to 100,000 premature deaths every year. We’re seeing the same thing around the world, where high-sodium diets are causing more than one million deaths a year. I see salty diets as the cause of a pandemic.

We have to deal with COVID-19, that’s the immediate pandemic. High-sodium diets are harmful over a longer time frame. But our society really needs to take these problems seriously even though the deaths are not immediately linked to the cause. An airplane crash kills 300 people and that gets a lot of attention, and it should. But with public health crises, where deaths are less easily associated with the cause, solving the problem is easily postponed, especially when industry stands to gain by not solving the problem. High-salt diets are absolutely something that political leaders need to address.

Featured image: © 2020 The MIT Press, Photo by Chris Kleponis

What to Do About Plastic Bags

The cost of convenience is an island. Or, rather, many islands of floating plastics throughout the Pacific Ocean. Reports of dangerous and toxic ocean litter are a disturbing visual for our mounding plastics problem, but we seem to be at odds for a lasting solution. Taking action against free plastic bags can be a start.

Across the country, a patchwork of laws governs the use of plastic grocery bags. In some states — like California and, soon, New York — consumers must pay extra at checkout to use a more recyclable version of the plastic sack.

But in most states, we’re left to watch as the cashier triple-bags a Vidalia onion. Like an addictive narcotic — we just can’t quit.

Consider this an intervention.

A little more than a week ago, China’s National Development and Reform Commission and the Ministry of Ecology and Environment announced sweeping plans to curb single-use plastics throughout the country. The Chinese government says it will ban “nondegradable plastic bags” in cities by the end of this year and in rural areas by 2022. Twelve years ago, China made its first big move on plastic bag pollution, prohibiting retailers from distributing them for free and outright banning ultra-thin plastic bags.

In America, however, it seems many have accepted the ubiquitous plastic shopping bag as an inevitability. In fact, the journey to single-use plastic dependency in the U.S. has been a relatively short one guided by lobbyists and trade associations.

These urban tumbleweeds have only been drifting around the U.S. since 1979. In 1984, The New York Times covered the “battle of the grocery bags,” calling the paper-or-plastic question “a standoff between the future and the past, the familiar and the chic, the tastes of city dwellers and those of suburbanites.” That year, plastic grocery bags made up only 20 percent of the grocery bag market, but plastics consultants and Mobil representatives were confident that their thin polyethylene bags would soon take over. They were right.

After all, the strategy of the plastics industry since the ’50s has been to promote a throwaway lifestyle counter to the thriftiness of the war years.

Just a few decades after the Times predicted a plastic bag majority, Bangladesh became the first country in the world to pass a thin plastic bag ban. In 2007, San Francisco banned them, sparking municipalities all over the country to start looking at bans and plastic bag taxes.

The backlash from big plastic came swiftly. Groups like the (puzzlingly named) American Progressive Bag Alliance, a division of the Plastics Industry Association, backed efforts against the bans, like state laws prohibiting plastic bag bans and taxes in municipalities. Currently, 14 states have implemented such ban-bans.

The plastics industry argues that their film bags technically can be recycled (a prospect that amuses environmentalists and anyone else familiar with the recycling rates of even easily-recycled items), and they dismiss widespread environmentalist organizing as government overreach or regulation run amok. The problem is, as Naomi Oreskes pointed out to me a few months ago, if an industry or interest can sow confusion on a scientific issue, they can effectively thwart progress. If people aren’t sure that a plastic ban is the way to go, they will likely favor the status quo.

The discourse around what exactly should be done about plastic bags has taken several turns in the last decade or so. In the best possible scenario for plastics interests, it has become an endless left-versus-right debate instead of a critical discussion on how to move forward.

You might remember an episode of Planet Money last year that claimed banning plastic bags could actually be worse for the environment than not. NPR’s Greg Rosalsky cites data that sales in trash bags rise upon banning thin plastic bags. But, as others have pointed out, overall plastic use in the study Rosalsky cites was still a net negative (-70 percent). Even though consumers bought more trash bags than normal, everyone was still using less plastic.

Planet Money, and others, also used fatalist logic (and questionable data) to claim that alternatives to plastic bags have a larger carbon footprint, and therefore might not be worth pursuing. Of course, any reasonable strategy to combat climate change should aim higher than merely curbing the emissions of cotton bag production. The notion that we can’t implement bag bans and taxes without contributing to greenhouse gases is useless contrarianism.

Meanwhile, the frightening discovery of microplastics — and their prevalence in our air, soil, and water — has brought to light the urgency of curbing our rampant plastic use. Since plastic grocery bags are cheap, light, and plentiful, they’re an especially insidious addition to the environment. When they make their way into waterways, light and waves pound them into tiny pieces that end up in our stomachs.

In the Ocean Conservancy’s 2014 International Coastal Cleanup, plastic grocery bags were the seventh most common item found. That means there were six other more-common items, like straws, plastic bottle caps, and cigarette butts. Bans and taxes on disposable plastic bags shouldn’t be seen as unique regulations designed to burden consumers and stomp industry, but rather the salvo of a new age in which we discover, collectively, how to live without single-use plastics.

After all, it’s not such a tall order. We were doing it just a lifetime ago.

Featured image: Shutterstock; edited by Nicholas Gilmore

Why Do We Ignore the Dire Warnings of Scientists? An Interview with Naomi Oreskes

In 2004, Naomi Oreskes led an analysis of 928 papers on “global climate change” published in journals between 1993 and 2003, and she found that none of them disagreed with the consensus view that humans are causing global warming. Despite this finding, many Americans have been confused or doubtful about the scientific consensus of human-caused climate change over the years. Oreskes co-wrote Merchants of Doubt and The Collapse of Western Civilization, about the well-funded campaign against climate science and the catastrophic consequences of our own inaction, respectively. Her new book, Why Trust Science?, presents a case for the reliability of scientific consensus in a society where trust in institutions has fallen. She is a professor of the history of science and affiliated professor of Earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University.


The Saturday Evening Post: You talk about how our trust in science should be based less on the scientific method and more on the idea of consensus among scientists. Should we be teaching that in school?

Oreskes: I think — and there’s a large body of literature to support this — that the process of vetting claims is equally if not more important, because that’s, in a sense, where the epistemological rubber hits the road. Even if a scientist did follow the scientific method — had a hypothesis, did an experiment, the experiment worked out — there are so many possibilities for ways it could be wrong. Most egregiously, the scientist could be a fraud, but there are also a lot of less egregious things that could happen.

How do we know that a claim is legitimate? That’s where the rest of the scientific community comes in. A scientific claim is not accepted as scientific knowledge until it’s gone through this process of vetting by the rest of the community, which, in many cases, can be quite a lot of people. It’s that process that takes us to the point where we can say we’ve looked at a claim closely from a lot of different perspectives and we’re confident that it’s right.

Post: There’s this idea that “scientists are always changing their minds,” particularly when it comes to claims about diet and health. Where is the consensus on that?

Oreskes: This is a really important issue. First of all, the consensus on diet is much more robust than a lot of people think. I try not to beat up on journalists too much, but they have a lot of apologizing to do in this area. There has been so much irresponsible reporting on the issue of nutrition. We actually have a pretty clear idea about food. If you look at the typical American diet, we know the average American eats much too much meat, and that makes it more likely for people to have cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, and colorectal cancer. There are a bunch of other things it may also contribute to, but those are the clearest ones. There is a huge body of evidence to support that claim. Now, we don’t have good evidence to say that you have to give up meat completely, but we do have very good evidence to say that if the average American were to eat much less meat they would, from a statistical standpoint, be much healthier. That’s almost unchallenged in the scientific community.

However, there are people who challenge it, and the media makes a big fuss about the people who do. Sadly, some of those people are supported by the meat industry. This is what we saw a few weeks ago. This encourages the exact sort of confusion you mentioned. If you’re an average person reading the newspaper, it seems like “last week red meat was bad, now it’s good. Who the heck knows, so I may as well just keep eating it.” In this case, I think we can say that’s exactly what the industry wanted. They want to create confusion — we know this from the history of tobacco — because confusion favors the status quo. So if you want people to keep eating a lot of red meat or to keep smoking or to keep driving big cars, one of the easiest ways to do that is to just confuse people.

Post: What would you say are some basic responsibilities of the media in reporting scientific stories?

Oreskes: The most important one, from my work, is knowing that science isn’t ever based on just one study. So, even if that study had been completely kashrut, and there’d been no industry bias, it would still behoove journalists to say “new study questions…” instead of “new study refutes conventional wisdom.” No one study can refute conventional wisdom because science just doesn’t work that way. Science is about bodies of evidence, bodies of data, ideally collected by many different people — to avoid bias and groupthink — ideally using different methods. Let’s say you had a study that was really methodologically robust and seemed to say “what we thought about X might not be right.” You should dig in and talk to other people in the field about how it was done and how likely it is that this study will really challenge our thinking. The vast majority of new studies don’t. The emphasis should be on that robust body of evidence.

Post: It feels as though there is a trend of distrust in science, given climate change skepticism and the anti-vaccine movement. Has trust in science waivered significantly lately, or does it only seem that way?

Oreskes: Mostly it only seems that way. We actually have quite good data from public opinion polls that show this, and, by and large, the vast majority of American people still trust in science. It is true that trust in experts of all kinds has declined since the 1960s, if you take the long view, but trust in science has actually fallen less than almost any other area, so trust in business, in government, in journalism — these have fallen dramatically since the ’60s. Relatively speaking, as a sector of society, scientists are doing well.

There are these conspicuous areas where we see the rejection of scientific findings by certain groups of people. It’s not a general distrust of science overall; it’s a rejection of findings in areas where people perceive that the findings of science conflict with their worldviews (political views, religious views, in some cases their economic interests). This is what sociologists call implicatory denial. We deny things because we don’t like their implications, and people do this in all aspects of their lives. What is special about our current period is the exploitation of implicatory denial. We now have organized networks of people who deliberately try to stoke doubt about climate change, evolutionary biology, and vaccination for political or economic reasons. This makes it difficult for scientists, because most of us aren’t interested in getting involved in a big, public, messy debate. But if you don’t get involved and explain to people what is going on, the American public will hear a lot of disinformation. When people hear something many times, they often will believe it’s true even if it’s completely false. Some of these groups know this.

Post: Do scientists have an obligation to act as their own “PR?”

Oreskes: I am sympathetic to scientists’ desire to do science, because that’s what they’re trained to do. A lot of scientists would prefer to be left alone to do their work. But I think we have to embrace a slightly different version of what constitutes “our work.” We have to accept that park of the work is explaining what we do to people.

Most science in America is funded by the American taxpayer. If we expect the taxpayers to pay for what we do, then we should also expect to spend some time explaining it, and explaining why it’s worthwhile and how the American people get their money’s worth many times over from scientific research. It’s in our own self-interest to do that. In addition, I think there’s a kind of social obligation, because if we don’t do that other people are quite happy to step in and create confusion. That leads to damaging results, like people failing to vaccinate their children and innocent children dying from preventable diseases.

Post: Should scientists be politicians?

Oreskes: By and large, no, because most scientists are not good politicians and most politicians are not good scientists. In general, no, scientists should be scientists. They should do the work for which they are trained and for which they have talent, but I think some adjustment of our conceptualization that were to incorporate a higher component of communication and outreach would be in order.

Post: As far as climate science is concerned, do you notice a trend of public figures accepting that we face a climate crisis while offering solutions that fail to address the scale of that crisis?

Oreskes: I think that’s correct. You can think about denial as not simply being an on-or-off switch, but as being a sort of spectrum. A lot of the work I’ve done is on hardcore denial, people who are completely rejecting scientific findings and generally doing it for motivated reasons. There is also what we could call “soft denial.” We’re seeing this now with politicians who will propose solutions that are nowhere near good enough or ambitious enough to actually address what’s going on. It’s not as pernicious as the hard denial that I’ve written about, but it is still damaging.

If you propose something really ambitious, you can be dismissed as being “unrealistic.” I think people who propose things that are inadequate are being really unrealistic too. There’s a way in which people like to pretend that they’re the grown-ups in the room. A lot of the time, that’s incredibly unrealistic, right? They’re pretending they’re being realistic, but they’re actually not because they’re not addressing the severity of the problem.


Featured image by Kayana Szymczak and Why Trust Science? © 2019 Princeton University Press. All Rights Reserved.

The Accidental Invention of the Lifesaving Pacemaker

Wilson Greatbatch — who was born 100 years ago today — was tinkering with an oscilloscope in 1956 when he installed the wrong resistor and accidentally invented the implantable artificial pacemaker.

Greatbatch noticed the device could be altered to drive a heartbeat and realized this was exactly what was needed to replace the bulky, painful pacemaker machines hospitals were using at the time. Patients with so-called “heart block” were suffering blackouts, dizziness, and often death because their hearts’ own electrical impulses could not properly function. By running electrodes directly from his new machine into the muscle tissue of the heart, Greatbatch discovered that his artificial pacemaker could keep a patient’s heart on track indefinitely.

First, the device was tested on dogs, then — after some design improvements — it was ready for human testing in 1957. The medical marvel of “an amazing new pocket-size ticker” was covered in this magazine in 1961 in “Making a Heartbeat Behave.” The implantable artificial pacemaker allowed people with heart problems, many of them children, to lead full, active lives without the fear of constant fainting, or worse. “Among the achievements of today’s engineering wizards this is one of the most dramatic,” writes Steven M. Spencer, “an electronic ‘heart’ you can hold in your hand, a transistorized ‘spark of life.’”

In 1961, there were about 100 people using the new device. Now, about 3 million people in the world have an implanted pacemaker. Greatbatch’s invention was one of the most important of the 20th century, giving a renewed lease on life to millions of people in the decades after his serendipitous discovery. In the 1970s, he went on to develop a corrosion-free lithium battery so that pacemakers could run for a continuous 10 years instead of the previous 2-year lifespan.

The electronics savant worked into his senior years, developing treatment procedures for AIDS, a solar-powered canoe, and a low temperature nuclear fusion reactor. Greatbatch claimed in 2004 that he held more patents — about 150 — than any other living inventor.

Page from The Saturday Evening Post
Read “Making a Heartbeat Behave” by Steven M. Spencer from the March 4, 1961, issue of the Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image: Photo by Bill Shrout (SEPS)

Why Traffic Jams Are Never Your Fault

I have a problem with Chicago.

Every time I’m in the city, I find myself surrounded by terrible drivers. The highway traffic is dense, of course, but Chicagoans have a habit of exacerbating the congestion by driving with impatience and mania. They follow too closely, brake too often, and cause me unnecessary stress while I’m trying to enjoy WBEZ and daydream about a weekend in Andersonville.

The weird thing is that St. Louis drivers are the same way! Dallas and Denver, too. Bad drivers seem to follow me — an exemplary motorist — everywhere.

I talked to Benjamin Seibold to get some clarity on everyone else’s bad driving. Seibold is an Associate Professor of Mathematics at Temple University and the director of the Center for Computational Mathematics and Modeling, and he says that the tendency for traffic to become a stop-and-go situation is as natural and dependable as the winds of Lake Michigan.

Seibold has spent years researching “phantom traffic jams.” These are traffic jams resulting in stop-and-go traffic that occur for no apparent reason. We’ve all experienced one: you’re driving along in moderate to heavy traffic and suddenly there’s a holdup. Once you’re able to get up to speed again you realize there wasn’t an accident or construction site to cause the jam. So what gives?

“With congestive flow, it’s clear that everyone will go slower, but it would be possible for everyone to go slowly but steadily. Once traffic density reaches a certain threshold, then this uniform speed is dynamically unstable,” Seibold says. “So, that instability means that if you perturb the system a little, it doesn’t go back to it; it moves away from it.” In other words, we are scientifically unable to maintain good traffic flow during rush hour. Phantom jams are the result of collective driving behavior. Those small perturbations — engine hiccups, lane changes, decreases in speed from road curves or otherwise — amplify congestion in traffic.

Phantom jams are inevitable whenever human drivers are involved. To prove this, Seibold’s team performed an experiment in which 21 drivers drove in a circle. They created traffic waves (stop-and-go traffic) that resulted from the cumulative speed imperfections of all drivers in spite of each individual driver behaving somewhat predictably.

Video of how a jamitron progresses on a circular road. (Source: http://math.mit.edu/projects/traffic/)

The problems with stop-and-go traffic, other than being an annoyance, are that it’s costly and dangerous. Fuel consumption, and therefore emissions, is higher during traffic jams, and accidents are more likely. As Seibold puts it, “A higher number of strong braking events in travel is an indicator of collision risk, and traffic jams create these conditions in abundance. Uniform travel flow results in less than five percent of strong braking events.”

In the aforementioned experiment, Seibold’s team found a remedy to the traffic waves that made a significant difference. By inserting one autonomous car into the circle of human drivers, the researchers were able to stabilize the traffic waves caused by the 21 hopelessly flawed drivers. In the traffic scenario without the self-driving car, overall fuel consumption was 40 percent higher, but when the self-driving car was included, emissions of carbon dioxide were decreased by 15 percent and nitrogen oxides by 73 percent.

Does this mean we should be releasing fleets of robot cars to keep us in line on the highways? Or at least in Chicago? Maybe, but widespread driverless vehicles could still be many years away. There are other practical solutions, like variable speed limits shown on LED signs or ramp meters to control highway merging. These fixes can only go so far, however, and, as Seibold says, they depend largely on driver compliance and awareness.

So why not just teach people to be better drivers? While we might never be able to display the perfect vehicular control of a self-driving car, surely we could improve the overall flow of traffic by encouraging a steady gas foot. After all, the U.S. Forest Service’s recommendations for eco-driving seem to line up with the kind of driving that stabilizes traffic flow: smooth and slow acceleration and deceleration, maintaining a constant speed, etc. Seibold says it’s a long shot. “There is no way to naturally change the way people drive like this on a large scale,” he says.

These traffic waves exist independently of many other variables of travel. The fundamental laws of traffic flow are relatively uniform all over the world. Other countries have very different laws for highway speeds and overtaking, but it turns out that traffic flow, as it is impacted by density and how stop-and-go traffic happens, are rather similar in all countries, Seibold says. That said, generally in the southwest U.S., people are more accepting of traffic flow, and on the east coast there is more aggressiveness in driving behavior that can make jams more severe.

To Professor Seibold, the most interesting thing about studying traffic is finding the behavioral patterns that emerge in complex human systems that are not initially visible. To a mathematician, these patterns, like traffic waves, resemble phase transitions (like vaporization) or detonation waves (explosions). “If we want to improve our traffic systems,” he says, “understanding the connections between these phenomena is important.”

So, the movement of individuals is as predictable as natural laws and apparently not guided by some city-wide ignorance. Perhaps Chicagoans aren’t especially bad drivers. Regardless, on my next trip, I’ll be taking the train.


Featured Image: Repina Valeriya on Shutterstock

The Imprudent Promise of Plastics

In the exciting post-World War II years, the prophet of plastics rightly foresaw an industrial boom centered around these new durable and versatile materials.

Before buying a mountain to settle into in Vermont, Dr. Joseph Davidson had studied chemistry, served in World War I, and worked at Union Carbide’s K-25 plant in Tennessee, a secret factory that produced enriched uranium for the first atomic bomb. By 1950, he was president of Union Carbide’s chemicals division that held patents for laminated safety glass, vinyl compounds, and the trusty old plastic, Bakelite.

Arthur Baum wrote about the inventor and plastics dynamo in this magazine in 1950’s “The World Goes Plastic,” focusing on Davidson’s estate on Mount Equinox. High on the Vermont mountain, a vast property Davidson had steadily acquired throughout the ’40s, were his home and the Sky Line Inn. The inn exuded a “certain soul-disturbing significance,” according to Baum, for the omnipresence of plastics in its construction: “Thus the inn is a sort of challenging physical demonstration of the young plastic industry’s claim that its materials are already an improvement on nature.”

1923 magazine ad from the Bakelite Corporation, touting the miracles of plastics from women's jewelry to naval warships.
The Saturday Evening Post, January 27, 1923

The praise heaped upon plastics — and the brilliant chemists behind them — was pervasive in the postwar years. The versatility of these thousands of new polymers presented a seemingly infinite set of possibilities for industry, medicine, and even a new American way of life. Innovators like Davidson seemed to have all the answers in the new plastic boom. All except one, of course: where will it all go once we’re finished with it?

The American “plastic age” began with Bakelite. First created in 1907 by Leo Baekeland, the “material of a thousand uses” came to be when the Belgian chemist found a way to control the reactions of phenol and formaldehyde to produce a moldable plastic. Bakelite could be used to make bowling balls, castanets, goggles, paper weights, and piano keys. A 1923 ad in The Saturday Evening Post boasted of the new plastic’s imperviousness to the elements that made it ideal “for your daughter’s jewelry and the ponderous dreadnaught.” Unlike old-news Celluloid, Bakelite held up to heat and electricity, making it ideal for electronics, weaponry, and everything in between. “It’s part of your everyday life!” a 1924 ad announced.

In 1939, Union Carbide bought the Bakelite Corporation. Chemists from across the complex international world of plastics were developing new polymers throughout the ’30s and ’40s, some of which would become staples of manufacturing. Nylon, polyethylene, and polystyrene were all perfected during this period. While Bakelite was a thermosetting plastic — meaning it was irreversibly hardened and shaped — these new thermoplastics could be pliable again when reheated.

The excitement around plastic’s endless prospects drove innovation for its own sake, as Jeffrey L. Meikle writes in American Plastic: A Cultural History: “The new generation of chemists, on the other hand, worked outward from chemical discoveries to the marketplace. When they found something of interest, they looked for ways to commercialize it. They were driven not so much by market demand as by the pressure of supply, an overabundance of chemical raw materials waiting to be exploited.”

The public wasn’t exactly clamoring for single-use plastics, but they were on their way nonetheless.

In 1950, Baum’s article stressed the plastic industry’s desire for a public educated in the subtleties of its products. Union Carbide and its competitors wanted consumers to know their acrylics from their alkyds just as they could tell cotton from linen. Manufacturer trade names for various plastics came and went. Some of them stuck, like DuPont’s “Nylon” and Dow’s “Saran,” and others, like American Cyanamid Company’s “Beetle Plastic,” were non-starters. At some point in the years following, the goal of branding polyethylene as some luxury material dropped off in lieu of a new one: teach the people how to throw it all away.

The Great Depression had instilled a sense of frugality and reuse into the populace. In the late ’40s and early ’50s, advertisements for plastic products focused on their design and durability. Dow’s “Styron” added “new color, beauty, and serviceability” to kitchenware and toys, and Monsanto’s “Lustrex Styrene” made “cheerful, convenient, and practical picnicwares” that were easy to clean. Disposability wasn’t yet a selling point, because it was more desirable to have a product that lasted.

Monsanto lifestyle ad from 1952, featuring a dinner table full of plastic dishes and silverware. The ad copy includes the tagline "Plastics make perfect gifts — for every occasion!"
The Saturday Evening Post, May 3, 1952

That changed, however, in the ’50s. A now-infamous Life magazine spread in 1955 welcomed the new era of “Throwaway Living” with a photo of a family gleefully tossing their disposable napkins, plates, and utensils into the air, rejoicing in the reduced cleaning time. The move toward single-use plastics wasn’t a random occurrence. It was a calculated strategy by the industry in the interest of protecting its bottom line.

As environmental scientist Max Liboiron writes in “Modern Waste as Strategy,” “The truism that humans are inherently wasteful came into being at a particular time and place, by design.” That time and place, according to Liboiron, was the Society of the Plastics Industry’s New York conference in 1956. Lloyd Stouffer, editor of Modern Plastics, Inc., stood before the trade group and declared, “the future of plastics is in the trash can.” His statement was to be taken literally: if plastic manufacturers wanted to ensure a steady demand for their products, they needed to encourage a culture of disposability. The industry needed to convince consumers that plastic wasn’t too good to be thrown away.

Seven years later, a pleased Stouffer addressed the conference in Chicago: “It is a measure of your progress in packaging in the last seven years that this remark will no longer raise any eyebrows. You are filling the trash cans, the rubbish dumps and the incinerators with literally billions of plastics bottles, plastics jugs, plastics tubes … The happy day has arrived when nobody any longer considers the plastics package too good to throw away.” In 1950, 2 million tons of plastic was being produced globally. By 1963, it was 13 million tons. Now, it’s about 400 million tons.

Magazine ad for Dow Chemicals from 1950. Features a child eating a slice of pizza off a yellow plastic plate. This advertises Dow's role in developing plastic household products, as well as its colorization methods.
The Saturday Evening Post, March 11, 1950

Where all that plastic would go once we were finished with it began to raise questions in the 1960s. Throughout the decade, scientists began to notice plastic particles being ingested by seabirds. First in the prions of New Zealand, then in the petrels of Newfoundland. In 1966, 74 of 100 dead albatross chicks in the northwest Hawaiian islands were found to have an average of 2 grams of plastic in their stomachs. In 1972, two papers in Science sounded the alarm over plastic particles — particularly polystyrene pellets — in the Atlantic Ocean. The papers sparked concern over plastic marine litter and suggested that the toxicity of plasticizers and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) could be hazardous to marine life and, in turn, human life.

Since those discoveries, our knowledge of the pervasiveness of plastic pollution has grown exponentially, just as our consumption of plastics has. In Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, author Susan Freinkel writes, “Our feelings toward plastic are a complicated mix of dependence and distrust — akin to what an addict feels toward his or her substance of choice.” Freinkel says that people just weren’t thinking about environmental issues in the 1950s, when plastic production was ramping up. “What’s different now,” she says, “is the massive volume of plastic production and the resulting mammoth amount of plastic trash, the new technologies that have allowed us to see and spread images of how much ends up in the oceans; the research efforts to that, and the utter breakdown of the recycling system, such as it was. It’s kind of a perfect storm for heightening awareness and concern — and hopefully real solutions.”

Professor Richard Thompson, a marine biologist at University of Plymouth, echoes concerns over the current massive consumption of plastics, especially since 40 percent of it is single-use. He says, “We knew [in the ’50s] that carbon resources were finite, and we also knew that space to handle waste was finite as well. The industry needlessly drove the linear use of that resource to waste.” Thompson says the end of life of a product should be considered at the design stage of everything, from textiles to packaging. Given the last 70 years or so of mounting plastics production, he says, “It would appear to be a deliberate attempt on the part of industry to enhance demand by encouraging wastefulness.”

In 2004, Thompson coined the term “microplastics” to describe the small particles of plastic that litter the oceans. While many plastic products take centuries to completely degrade — if at all — they do break down from mechanical processes into small, even microscopic, pieces. While the starches that hold such “biodegradable” plastics together will themselves biodegrade, they leave behind tiny particles that will be with us for a long time. Last week, studies from Environmental Science & Technology and World Wide Fund for Nature showed that these microplastics are making their way into our bodies. On average, we are ingesting about 50,000 particles of plastic each year, according to the research. The implications of eating and breathing all those microplastics are yet unknown.

The durability of plastics, once a celebrated characteristic, has turned out to be a curse of epic proportions.

Dr. Joseph Davidson’s “plastic mecca” on Mount Equinox was built when his brash new industry proclaimed its vinyls and resins to be more lasting and more exciting than traditional building materials. The Bakelite tiles and vinyl coverings in the buildings on Davidson’s estate would have lives measuring “in the hundreds of years,” according to Baum’s 1950 article. But, Davidson’s home, “Windswept,” and his Skyline Inn have since been torn down. In his later years, Davidson donated his many acres on Mount Equinox — little by little — to the only group of Carthusian monks in the United States. They settled on the mountain and built a monastery that opened shortly after Davidson’s death. Given the Carthusians’ penchant for simplicity, their charterhouse is made entirely of granite.

The article, "The World Goes Plastic" as it appeared in The Saturday Evening Post
Read “The World Goes Plastic” by Arthur W. Baum from the May 20, 1950, issue of the Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.


Featured Image: Union Carbide Corporation, The Saturday Evening Post, August 27, 1955

Slow Learner

Just as we were settling into winter, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported on the dangers awaiting us because of climate change. I read a synopsis of the report, which warned of an increase in cataclysmic storms, the dying off of certain animals, the prevalence of drought, and the risk to agriculture, all of which alarmed me. What the report failed to mention was how sayings I once depended upon are no longer true. April showers no longer bring May flowers. Now the showers come in March and the flowers show up in April, a month early. Not that I’m complaining.

Despite the early arrival of spring, I long for the days before climate change, when people respected science regardless of their political or religious affiliation. When I was a kid, I not only respected science, I feared it, primarily because of the man who taught it, Russel Kirts, and his unswerving devotion to truth and discipline. I heard about Mr. Kirts long before I met him — stories of smart-alecky teenage boys who had talked back to him and were never seen again, not that anyone objected, since this was in the old days when people just shook their heads and said of the newly deceased, “Well, you can’t say they didn’t have it coming.”

It would never have occurred to Mr. Kirts, or his students, to reject science because of one’s political or religious views. If certain students harbored doubts about evolution or Earth’s age, they had the good sense not to say so in Mr. Kirts’ presence. Even though I was a poor pupil, I got along fine with him, largely because of my limited vocabulary, which consisted of two phrases: “Yes, sir” and “No, sir.”

When he wasn’t preaching the wonders of science, Mr. Kirts farmed. As fine a teacher as he was, one sensed he preferred the farm, the fresh earth turned by the plow, the nuzzle of the horse, the snort of the pig. The occasional flake of manure could be spotted on his shoes, a clue his workday hadn’t started in the classroom, but in the barn. He was stout as that barn, with a bull neck and a buzz cut. In my senior year, a story circulated that he had been seen smiling, but alas, it was just a rumor and couldn’t be verified. Nevertheless, I liked Mr. Kirts, who returned to each student the same measure of devotion the student gave him. I was a slow learner, but persistent, so Mr. Kirts stuck with me, guiding me through the dense thicket of chemistry and physics.

Because I respected Mr. Kirts and his gospel, I have little patience for the casual dismissal of science so common these days, mostly by people who wouldn’t have stood a chance in Mr. Kirts’ classroom and therefore don’t know the difference between a neutron and a neuron. Unfortunately, this has not kept them from trumpeting their pre-Enlightenment worldview, which might be good for their pocketbook but bad for the rest of us. Mr. Kirts, who like all farmers knew the earth and her rhythms as intimately as a lover knows his beloved, would have seen something amiss in April flowers and would have faced the matter as clearly and directly as he did an obstinate bull.

Mr. Kirts is gone now, but I’d like to think his passion and message endure — to understand this wondrous blue ball we call home, to know her proper cadence, and to remember that when she is well, so are we.

This article is featured in the March/April 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image credit: Shutterstock