Of Course Washington Is Broken: It Was Designed to Be

Want an end to gridlock and brinkmanship? Let’s dial back the founding fathers’ obsession with checks and balance

For a group of people dependent on public support for its professional survival, Congress has done a truly remarkable job of alienating the American public.

Over the past four decades, the polling firm Gallup has regularly asked U.S. adults about their level of confidence in various institutions. In June of this year, Congress hit rock bottom: Just 10 percent of respondents expressed a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the legislative branch of government. That’s down from 42 percent in 1973—a year blighted by an international oil crisis and marked by the country’s withdrawal from Vietnam.

You may think you know how Congress came to be so reviled: blame wealthy donors, political operatives focused on their party’s base, the gerrymandering of congressional districts, and an increasingly partisan media. Faced with these forces, elected representatives have become ever more extreme, divided, and dysfunctional. They’ve gridlocked Congress, which in recent years has lurched from one crisis to another.

At least, that’s the narrative we usually hear. Unless you’re a political-science junkie, however, you probably don’t know that this story is largely a work of fiction. Take a hard look at the evidence, and most of the explanations offered for Washington’s deep divisions crumble—which means we shouldn’t place much hope in modest tweaks proposed to pull our political leaders back toward the center.

No, if you’re yearning for an end to the deadlock—and be careful what you ask for—then it’s time to consider more radical solutions. We need to ask whether a band of eighteenth-century revolutionaries who had just thrown off the yoke of colonialism really have the answers we need for effective government today.

There is one part of the familiar narrative about Washington that is rock solid: Both the House and the Senate have become steadily more polarized over the past six decades. These graphs show the parties’ ideological leanings on economic policy, calculated using a tool called NOMINATE, which assesses the stances of individual members from their roll-call votes.

Poles apart: The ideological split between the two parties has grown since the middle of the last century. Dates are the first year of each Congress. Source: Voteview.com

To explain this trend, political commentators like to point to biased congressional redistricting. But this analysis doesn’t stand up under scrutiny. First, gerrymandering offers no explanation for polarization of the Senate, where redistricting is not an issue. Even in the House, where the rift is more marked and Republicans in particular have marched to the right, the story falls flat. Gerrymandering has been happening, and in recent years it has delivered a few seats to the Republicans, but districts that haven’t been redrawn also follow the polarizing trend.

Want to blame partisan media outlets for the mess? If so, you’re crediting them with influence they only wish they had. Talk radio and the dueling realities of Fox News and MSNBC may have risen to national prominence as Washington has grown more divided, but evidence that the media drives political outcomes is equivocal at best. The best-known study on the subject exploited Fox News’s patchy penetration of U.S. cable-TV markets between 1996 and 2000. It found that the channel’s presence seemed to boost the Republican vote by about half a percentage point.

A more recent attempt to measure the effect of media bias came up completely empty-handed. One month before the 2005 Virginia gubernatorial election, a team from Yale University sent voters in the state a free ten-week subscription either to the conservative Washington Times or to the more liberal Washington Post. Voters who were sent either subscription were more likely to vote for the Democratic candidate than were controls who received neither paper. Exposure to media seemed to have an effect, but not the political slant of the coverage.

Surely someone has thought it all through, and come up with solutions? The clearest prescription, from Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, both based in Washington, DC, includes a package of measures to wrest control from the ideologues and to bring the disenchanted center back into play: open primaries, mandatory attendance at the polls, and greater use of public funds to leverage campaign contributions made by small donors.

Sadly, these fixes are not much more convincing. Primaries in which only the party faithful can vote are often blamed for the emergence of candidates with extreme views. But some states already operate open primaries, and they don’t seem to help. Indeed, the most complete analysis of the issue concluded: “We find that the openness of a primary election has little, if any, effect on the extremity of the politicians it produces.”

Fining people small sums if they fail to turn up at the polls—while allowing them to register a “none of the above” protest vote when they do—is the norm in a handful of other countries. It might help in the U.S., but the best evidence Mann and Ornstein offer comes from conversations with Australian politicians who claim the practice encourages them to court the majority of voters who hold moderate views. So we’ll have to leave that on the shelf as intriguing idea yet to hurdle Evidence Base’s bar of acceptance.

What about campaign finance reform to lessen the impact of big money by leveraging the influence of smaller donors? Candidates have certainly become more reliant on donors who can throw around large sums of cash. But this proposal assumes that small donors are more moderate than their higher-spending counterparts, and new research from Adam Bonica of Stanford University, in collaboration with the team behind the NOMINATE scores, shows that if anything, their views are more extreme.

That’s not to say that campaign finance reform in some form wouldn’t help. But it’s notoriously difficult to control the influence of money in politics: In solving one problem, you tend to introduce another.

When I pressed him on the lack of hard evidence that any of his and Mann’s proposals would make a big difference, Ornstein conceded that there are no magic bullets: “You hope that a bunch a changes that would have impacts at the margins would begin to turn this giant ocean liner around before it runs into the cliff.”

It’s a laudable sentiment, but I’m not convinced by it. Even the inventors of the scores used to quantify polarization in Congress seem somewhat stumped. Their best shot is that the division has evolved hand in hand with growing economic inequality. In their book Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches, Keith Poole, Howard Rosenthal, and Nolan McCarty make a strong case for this idea. But it’s hard to untangle cause and effect, and their analysis doesn’t lead to a practical solution for Washington’s woes: While President Barack Obama is making noises about tackling inequality, any attempt to gain serious traction on the issue would soon be shot down as “socialism” by partisans on the right.

With no clear way in sight of reclaiming the center, it’s easy to get mired in pessimism. “There’s not much chance that these problems are going to be dealt with until we’re literally at the point of bankruptcy,” laments Poole, a political scientist at the University of Georgia. “There’s going to be a calamity. There is no cure.”

Wow, that is bleak. I thought economics was supposed to be the “dismal science,” but on this showing, political scientists beat economists, hands down.

There is another way of looking at the problem, however, which involves a longer historical perspective. Here are those NOMINATE graphs again, taken back to the late nineteenth century, and with the Democrats split by geography. Now the current divide in Congress doesn’t look so extreme. If anything needs explaining, it’s why the ideological divide between the parties narrowed in the mid-twentieth century.

Back to the future: The bipartisan period of the mid-twentieth century was the historical exception. Source: Voteview.com

The answer has everything to do with the politics of race. The Democrats were founded as a liberal party, but after the victory of the Union in the Civil War—led by Abraham Lincoln’s Republicans—they became dominant in the white rural South and attracted supporters of a more conservative bent. By the middle of the last century, with liberals reenergized by the New Deal, the Democratic Party was composed of two distinct wings with diverging ideological outlooks.

This was the period when the center in politics held sway, but it was based on an uneasy coalition. Once the Democratic leadership embraced African Americans and passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the coalition was broken. The white South has since largely defected to the Republicans, giving two parties with distinct ideological identities and geographic strongholds.

It’s difficult to imagine any issue mixing things up across party lines in a similar way in future. In other words: Today’s marked polarization may simply represent America’s political elite reverting to type. If so, seeking to tone down the ideological extremes of Congress will ultimately be futile.

That needn’t mean eternal gridlock, however. Other countries get by with similarly polarized legislatures, but they do so by letting the majority govern without the checks and balances that dominate the U.S. political system.

This takes us into dangerously radical territory, because now we’re questioning the wisdom of the founding fathers. But let’s think about their motivations, and consider whether their concerns are still relevant.

Those who framed the U.S. Constitution had just fought to free themselves from colonial domination, and they needed to convince skeptical states that the new federal government wasn’t going to be similarly oppressive. The priority wasn’t to make government maximally effective, but instead to tie its hands. “It’s very clear that the founders intended a bias toward inaction,” observes Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver.

Is that useful today? The answer probably depends on how far your own political views diverge from those of the majority. Some on the British left yearned for the checks and balances of the U.S. Constitution during the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party swept all before it. And Tea Party activists would be tearing their hair out if the implementation of Obamacare was followed by the rollout of the rest of the president’s program.

But if you don’t like gridlock in Washington, letting the majority have its way more often may be the only viable option. Viewed from this perspective, Senate Democrats’ recent move to limit Republicans’ use of the filibuster to block federal-court nominees looks less like a partisan “nuclear option,” and more like an inevitable, necessary correction. Indeed, some of the political scientists I spoke with for this article see the Senate filibuster as an anachronism, and predict that its days are numbered.

Few are seriously talking yet about reforms that would require a constitutional amendment, such as scrapping midterm elections. As we’ve seen in recent years, these elections can deliver a House of Representatives dedicated to undermining the agenda of the president or can create two chambers, under opposing partisan control, who seem capable of passing little more than gas.

After sifting through the evidence, however, I can see no better way of giving Washington a fighting chance to get things done. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by current efforts to pass a modest bipartisan budget deal: On the difficult issues, Congress is still kicking the can down the road.

Yes, what I’m proposing would mean accepting that sometimes we have to give those whose views we oppose a few years to put their ideas into practice. But whichever side you’re on, you can take comfort in democracy’s main selling point: If we don’t like what our leaders do, we can always vote the bums out.

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The $100,000 Device That Could Have Solved Missing Plane Mystery

How can an airliner simply disappear? That’s a good question, because the technology to transmit “black box” flight data in real time is already available

As confusion reigns over the fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, you’re probably asking the same question as me: How, in today’s high-tech world, can an airliner go down with 239 people on board, leaving no clues?

Only once the wreckage is found, and the black box flight recorders are recovered, will we know what happened to Flight MH370. But there’s no good reason why this information has to be locked into boxes that go down with the plane. Indeed, the technology needed to stream crucial flight data to the ground is already on the market. It’s made by a Canadian company called FLYHT, and can be fitted to an airliner for less than $100,000.

We’ve been here before. In June 2009, Air France Flight 447 went missing over the Atlantic Ocean en route from Brazil to Paris. It took two years for its black boxes to be recovered, revealing that confused crew responses to conflicting airspeed measurements had led to a fatal stall.

Commercial airliners do transmit some information: radio transponders identify them when scanned by radar, and many are fitted with an Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, or ACARS, which periodically relays text-message like snippets of information about the aircraft’s status. In the case of Flight MH370, the transponder seems to have stopped transmitting, and the airline has reportedly declined to comment about ACARS signals while the incident is being investigated.

But black boxes record much richer flight data, including pilot voice communications. So why can’t this be sent to the ground? It’s not a new idea: more than a decade ago, computer scientist Krishna Kavi, now at the University of North Texas, proposed streaming this data to cloud storage, in a system he dubbed the “glass box.”

The main objection has been the bottom line. Transmitting data through satellites isn’t cheap, and if such a system were operating continuously, the cost would be prohibitive. In 2002, L-3 Aviation Recorders of Sarasota, Florida, estimated that a U.S. carrier with a global network would need to spend $300 million a year to stream all its flight data in real time.

L-3, which is the leading manufacturer of black boxes, clearly has a stake in the status quo. What’s more surprising is that its analysis has been widely accepted by industry experts and media commentators — in its reporting on Flight MH370, for instance, Wired claimed it would cost “billions of dollars” to implement flight data streaming across the airline industry.

That’s only true if you accept L-3’s false premise that all flight data would need to be streamed, all of the time. “You don’t need to spend money on streaming terabytes of data from normal flights,” says Paul Hayes, safety and insurance director with Ascend, an aviation consultancy based in London, U.K. Instead, systems could be designed to be triggered by unusual flight events, and only then start streaming flight data.

This isn’t just a theoretical possibility: such devices are already on the market, fitted to around 350 planes run by about 40 operators. They just haven’t been configured to be a “virtual black box,” and are instead transmitting data that help airlines plan maintenance, or work out how to minimize fuel consumption. “The system is available, certified and in use,” says Richard Hayden, a director of FLYHT, the company that makes the system.

FLYHT’s basic product is known as the Automated Flight Information Reporting System. It transmits data via Iridium satellites — which also allow people to use a satellite phone from anywhere in the world — and can be programmed to start streaming flight data when a plane deviates from its flight plan, or instruments suggest something is going wrong.

Of course, that wouldn’t yield much information if a plane is blown out of the sky by a bomb, or suffers a sudden catastrophic structural failure at cruising altitude. But in those rare cases, conventional black boxes are really the only viable technology.

Why haven’t airlines rushed to install the system on the thousands of planes in their fleets? The sad irony is that incidents like the loss of Flight MH370 are so rare nowadays that it’s hard to justify even moderate additional costs that might help solve such mysteries. After the Air France disaster, the International Civil Aviation Organization did consider the issue, but the industry has concluded that the likely savings — in terms of search, rescue and recovery costs — are too small.

David Learmount, an aviation safety expert with the trade publication Flightglobal, puts it bluntly: “The cost-benefit analysis doesn’t work out because aviation doesn’t kill enough people any longer to make it worth installing.”

That may well be the harsh economic reality of today’s airline industry — but try telling it to the families of the passengers on Flight MH370.

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Oscar Picks: How to Beat Your Film-Geek Friends

You don’t even need to have seen the movies. Let data science and the wisdom of the markets be your guide

I rarely watch mainstream movies.

I don’t know any of Hollywood’s movers and shakers.

Yet I’m confident I can beat the pundits in predicting this year’s Oscars.

I’ll even put some numbers on it: Cate Blanchett has a 99 percent chance of winning best leading actress for her portrayal of an imploding socialite in Blue Jasmine, and Matthew McConaughey a 92 percent chance of bagging best actor for Dallas Buyers Club. I’m also pretty sure 12 Years a Slave will walk away with best picture—I put its chances at 87 percent.

Of the big six Oscars, there’s only one that gives me pause for thought: Lupita Nyong’o looks a powerful contender for best supporting actress in 12 Years, but I wouldn’t call her a lock-in. I give her a 59 percent chance of winning.

Why should you follow my advice, given that Gravity is the only one of the nominees for best picture that I’ve seen?

In a word: data. I’ve been looking at forecasts made by modern-day soothsayers—the practitioners of predictive analytics—and I’m basing my picks on the method that performs best.

Predicting the future is big business. With enough information on patterns of purchasing, for example, data scientists can spot impending life events merely from what’s in your shopping basket. That’s how retailers like Target can reportedly know a woman is pregnant even before she has told her family. You might also remember Nate Silver’s success in predicting Barack Obama’s canter to victory in 2012, and how he embarrassed the political pundits who had told us it would be a close-run thing.

Predicting the Oscars is harder than calling a presidential election because there is no poll taken beforehand of a sample of the people who vote—the 6,000 or so members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But there are other data to go on, including box office receipts, ratings from critics, and movies’ release dates. (Conventional wisdom says that producers hold Oscar contenders until late in the annual cycle, so that they are fresh in the memories of Academy members.)

Silver has tried his hand at predicting the Oscars. Twice, he’s scored only four for six in the top categories, and has blamed the limitations of the data for his failure to do better—he once lamented his inability to quantify the “jackassedness” of Mickey Rourke, who was Silver’s favorite for best actor in 2009 for his performance in The Wrestler, but was probably sunk by a history of disparaging remarks about the Hollywood establishment.

I’d be more cautious about my Oscar picks if this sort of statistical modeling was all we had to go on. But there’s another way of predicting future events. It depends not on what’s happened in the past, but on data generated in real time by the wisdom of the crowd.

To see how this works, head to the Hollywood Stock Exchange, one of several websites where people trade in futures markets tied to real-world events. The “Hollywood dollars” at stake there bring kudos rather than real cash. But the process is fun enough to motivate movie buffs to think hard about whether to buy or sell shares in Oscar nominees. As a result, the price of a nominee’s shares reflects the crowd’s best assessment of their chances. Just five days before the Oscars ceremony, 12 Years was trading at more than $14 in the market for best picture, with Gravity a distant second, priced at less than $5.

Why do I think prediction markets provide the best guide to Oscar picks? In a new study, David Rothschild, an economist with Microsoft Research in New York City, has compared the performance of different methods in predicting last year’s winners. He found that picks based on a real-money prediction market called Betfair outperformed the media pundits, and comfortably beat statistical models based on data like box office receipts and release dates.

Those statistical models do yield interesting tidbits of information—perhaps some small-talk for your Oscars party. The Farsite Group, a predictive analytics firm based in Columbus, Ohio, is basing its Oscar picks in part on a statistical model that heavily favors prior awards in the same season, and in part on bookmakers’ odds. It is forecasting a fairly close call for best picture, giving 12 Years a Slave a 55 percent chance of winning, and Gravity 38 percent.

Rothschild agrees that awards handed out earlier in the season do have some predictive power, but says that almost everything else is down in the statistical noise. Even so, you’ll probably be glad to know that audience ratings on Rotten Tomatoes are a better guide to Oscar success than critics’ choices.

All in all, though, Rothschild says that complex statistical modeling adds little to the power of a prediction market. In the past he employed a mixed approach when forecasting the Academy Awards, but this year his Oscar forecasts are derived entirely from Betfair, converted into percentage chances of winning using a tried-and-tested formula.

Many of Rothschild’s predictions, listed on his PredictWise website, are so confident that they make Nate Silver’s eve-of-poll forecast that Barack Obama had a 90.9 percent chance of winning the 2012 election look timid. Rothschild admits to being a little spooked by these numbers. “I would love to temper these predictions, because they scare me,” he told me. “But that’s what the data says.”

On Sunday March 2, all will be revealed. Having stuck my neck out, I’ll just have to fall back on the old cliché if Rothschild’s forecasts prove less than wise: Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.

Here, as a handy cheat-sheet for your Oscars party, are Rothschild’s predictions as they stood when I posted this article:

Picture: 12 Years a Slave — 87.4 percent chance of winning

Director: Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity — 98.2 percent

Leading actor: Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club — 91.9 percent

Leading actress: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine — 98.6 per cent

Supporting actor: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club — 97.2 percent

Supporting actress: Lupita Nyong’o, 12 years a Slave — 59.1 percent

Adapted screenplay: 12 years a Slave — 92.9 percent

Original screenplay: Her — 54.8 percent

Animated feature: Frozen — 99.1 percent

Animated short: Get a Horse! — 93.1 percent

Foreign language film: The Great Beauty — 86.0 percent

Documentary feature: The Act of Killing — 58.1 percent

Documentary short: The Lady in Number 6 — 91.4 percent

Live action short: The Voorman Problem — 61.7 percent

Original song: Let It Go, Frozen — 89.2 percent

Original score: Gravity — 91.6 percent

Cinematography: Gravity — 98.9 percent

Costume design: The Great Gatsby — 86.2 percent

Film editing: Gravity — 77.3 percent

Makeup/hairstyling: Dallas Buyers Club — 98.0 percent

Production design: The Great Gatsby — 71.2 percent

Sound editing: Gravity — 96.6 percent

Sound mixing: Gravity — 95.2 percent

Visual effects: Gravity — 99.8 percent

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Pet Lovers Beware: When The Drugs Don’t Work

We pour our hearts into caring for our animals, and spend small fortunes on their meds. What if the drugs are worthless?

Kaleb, I hope you’ll agree, is a handsome beast. In his youth, he cut an athletic figure, and was quite the wanderer. Indeed, without his lust for independent travel, he’d never have come into our lives. Having roamed once too often from owners who showed little interest in taking him back, he ended up in a rescue shelter in Ithaca, New York, and was adopted in 2005 by my girlfriend, Nadia.

Now in his twilight years, Kaleb doesn’t get around so well. He’s part German Shepherd, and is afflicted by the breed’s curse: hip dysplasia and osteoarthritis. In plain English: his hip joints are loose, which leads to cartilage damage and inflammation. It’s painful to watch him struggling to his feet, and while he still loves to go for a walk, his back legs start to give out before too long. But at least he’s getting the best possible veterinary care, we told ourselves.

At least we did, until an email hit my inbox some weeks back, sent to a discussion list of science writers. It referred to a study indicating that two food supplements—glucosamine and chondroitin—do little to help cats with disintegrating joints. I recognized the names as ingredients in Kaleb’s breakfast: Our dog-feeding ritual involves taking a chew containing these nutrients, then adding a dollop of peanut butter containing a couple of pills of a painkiller called tramadol.

Chondroitin is an important component of cartilage, and glucosamine a potential building block for its repair, so it makes sense that they might help his aching joints. But I’ll take hard facts over intuition any day, so I forwarded the email to Nadia and started to look at what studies on dogs with osteoarthritis have to say.

What I found was eye-opening. There’s scant evidence that either the supplements or the painkillers are doing much to ease Kaleb’s suffering. There is a treatment that clearly could do some good: a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, or NSAID. But we’d rejected that after discussion with his vet a year or so ago because of fears—possibly overblown—that it might damage his kidneys.

If you have a pet, this should be a cautionary tale. Americans spent $14.2 billion on veterinary care for their pets in 2013—and that doesn’t include proprietary health diets and food supplements. Put another way, pet owners pay about $850 annually in veterinary expenses per dog, and about $575 per cat. Factor in the emotional energy we invest in keeping our companion animals healthy, and you’d hope for high confidence in the end results. But as I’ve learned, much of veterinary medicine is based on shaky scientific foundations: The drugs prescribed for your dog or cat may work no better than those we’ve been giving to Kaleb.

Before you get angry, realize that mostly this isn’t your vet’s fault. The biggest problem is that their medicine cabinets are relatively bare. Like it or not, most of what we know about whether drugs work and are safe comes from clinical trials conducted by pharmaceutical companies to win marketing approval. Even though the sums we spend on our pets’ health may seem lavish, they’re a fraction of the budgets involved in human medicine, making it hard for companies to justify the costs of developing new veterinary drugs. That’s why the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s database of approved human drugs contains more then 6,500 entries, and the list for dogs fewer than 650.

If it’s on the approved list for animals, you can be reasonably confident that a drug does what it says on the label. Most worming tablets, for example, have been well tested for their ability to clear parasites from dogs or cats. But things can get murky with many commonly prescribed drugs, including antibiotics and painkillers, which have not specifically been approved for use in animals and where practice is based on extrapolations from human medicine—which may or may not be relevant to creatures with subtly different physiology, prone to different diseases.

Still, vets could make better use of the available scientific knowledge. Today, most doctors treating human patients accept the principles of evidence-based medicine, where best practice is based on data from multiple scientific studies. But many vets are reluctant to jump on that bandwagon, arguing that there’s not enough data on animals to justify this approach. “A lot of vets think that it will undermine client confidence,” says Brennen McKenzie, president of the Evidence-Based Veterinary Medicine Association and a vet at the Adobe Animal Hospital in Los Altos, California.

Think about what he’s saying: Some vets are reluctant to delve into what science has to say, out of fear that they’ll have to admit that they don’t know for sure how to make our pets well. A comment added to one of McKenzie’s blog posts, from a vet who had learned that glucosamine does little for osteoarthritis, underlines the point. “I can tell you it was hard for me to stop selling the stuff,” the vet wrote. “I was making money, the clients thought it was working … and I did not want to fess up and tell them they had bought something from me that was a waste of money.”

My own journey of discovery about Kaleb’s treatment began at a website called BestBETs for Vets, where the Centre for Evidence-based Veterinary Medicine at the University of Nottingham helps vets to ask the right questions—and shows them how to find answers in the scientific literature. Its examples include one relevant to Kaleb, considering the effectiveness of glucosamine and chrondroitin versus an NSAID called carprofen in treating dogs with osteoarthritis. The bottom line: “Carprofen is superior to glucosamine/chrondroitin supplements in reducing the clinical signs.”

Out and about: Regular short walks with our other canine companion, Posie, should help

So are Kaleb’s supplements doing anything at all? He started taking glucosamine and chrondroitin in 2007, advised by vets in Ithaca who hoped that they might help stave off joint damage. But now that he’s already arthritic, there’s little evidence that they will help, according to a recent systematic review of available studies. (In this case, human medicine provided a good guide to the likely effects in dogs: A huge clinical trial concluded in 2006 that the supplements don’t reduce arthritic knee pain.) If we want to work on Kaleb’s diet, the same review suggested, we might try formulas rich in fish oils, which have promising results in placebo-controlled trials. (And if you’re wondering why placebo controls are needed in veterinary studies, read the note to the right.)

So much for glucosamine and chondroitin. Now I needed to find out about tramadol, the painkiller that we add to Kaleb’s breakfast. I turned to Steve Budsberg of the University of Georgia, who specializes in canine osteoarthritis. “That’s too bad,” he responded, when I told him that Kaleb was taking the drug. “I think it just gets the dogs high.”

Digging into the scientific literature, I learned why Budsberg is skeptical. Tramadol is an opioid—essentially a synthetic version of morphine—and its painkilling effects in people depend largely on its conversion in the body to a substance called M1. But dogs don’t seem to convert tramadol to M1 as well as humans. I found just one controlled trial comparing carpofren and tramadol to treat dogs with osteoarthritis. The drugs were given for only a couple of weeks, and the main conclusions were that placebo effects are large, and that findings vary depending on how you measure a dog’s symptoms.

Why is tramadol widely prescribed to dogs with Kaleb’s condition, when the best evidence indicates that NSAIDs like carpofren are the most effective option? Fear of liver and kidney damage, two known dangers of NSAIDs, seems to be the main reason. But Budsberg believes this concern is overplayed, and worries that the vogue for tramadol has achieved little apart from reassuring vets and dog owners that they aren’t risking side effects. “They’re treating themselves,” he says.

As you can imagine, Nadia and I aren’t feeling so good about ourselves right now. Each of us has a PhD in biology, and yet we’d failed to ask all of the right questions about Kaleb’s treatment. We plan to get some fresh tests to see how stable his kidney function is, and talk to our current vet in San Francisco about whether it’s time to try carprofen. (Warning: asking more questions may mean spending more money.)

I’m pleased that we’re seeking better answers for Kaleb, but the big question remains: Why are vets recommending treatments that probably don’t work? One explanation is what psychologists call confirmation bias: Once we get an idea into our heads, we tend to pay attention to information that supports it, and dismiss facts that don’t. Vets aren’t immune, so it’s easy to see how initial positive experiences with a drug could color their judgment. They’re especially likely to be fooled into overestimating a drug’s impact on a condition like arthritis, which can wax and wane of its own accord.

If you’re a cat lover, you may be wondering if things are any better in feline medicine. Sadly not. There are even fewer studies on cats, which suffer from a number of mysterious conditions that are hard to treat. Particularly distressing is feline gingivostomatitis, a severe inflammation of the gums that occurs when the immune system overreacts to plaque in the mouth. “It’s a terrible thing,” says Karen Langeman, who runs the Porte Veterinary Hospital in Campbell, California, and sees one or two cases each month. Eating becomes very painful, and some cats have to have all their teeth pulled.

What triggers this exaggerated immune response is unclear, although it’s most common in cats with viral or bacterial infections. And without a good understanding of the cause, vets can do little but try to ease the symptoms with corticosteroids and painkillers.

Mysteries like these could be solved by more research, but how can we get vets to pay attention to the studies that have been done? It would help if professional bodies took a strong evidence-based stand. Sadly, the American Veterinary Medical Association flunked a test of its commitment to scientific principles in January, when its governing body voted down a resolution rejecting homeopathy as an “ineffective practice.” The association’s Australian and British counterparts already discourage homeopathy because of a lack of evidence for therapeutic effects—not to mention the absence of a good explanation of how the extremely dilute solutions used in homeopathic remedies might work. Yet the AVMA’s leadership feared the resolution was divisive, and argued that evaluating specific therapies isn’t its job.

You and I can also make a difference, by pressing vets to consider the evidence that does exist. I’m not suggesting repeating my exercise of digging into the research literature; that’s heavy-going, even for someone who makes his living writing about science. But we can keep our vets on their toes by asking better questions. “Very few of my clients come to me wanting to know what my rationale is for doing what I’m doing,” McKenzie says.

So ask your vet why they think the drugs your animal is being given will work. We’re going to have to confront our own psychological biases, here: research shows that people prefer confident advice, sometimes even when we know those giving it have been wrong before. And good answers to these questions will inevitably be hedged with caveats about the small number of studies that have been done, and their limitations. If all you get from your vet is a bland assurance that they’ve been doing this for years, and see great results, get them to talk you through the scientific evidence. If they can’t do so, that should be a warning sign: It might be time to look for another vet.

Our companion animals do great things for us, improving not just our psychological well-being but also our physical health through knock-on effects like reduced blood pressure. The least we can do in return is to challenge vets to base their decisions on the best available science.

Kaleb, buddy, we owe you one.

Next Story — Want to Prevent Sexual Violence? Accept That You Know a Rapist
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rapists don’t stand out from the crowd

Want to Prevent Sexual Violence? Accept That You Know a Rapist

To tackle the problem, we must start by talking to middle school children

Steubenville, Ohio; Maryville, Missouri—small towns whose names have become shorthand for the debate about rape. The narratives from each are scarily similar: both begin with a drunken party and a teenage girl, incapacitated by alcohol; then comes the accusation of sexual assaults committed by high school football players. In the wake of these news stories, we’re warned that jock culture supports rape culture, and young women are told to stop getting drunk.

These reactions reveal our society’s myopic attitude to sexual violence. We want there to be simple solutions, like to “stay sober.” And we’re trying, as we’ve done for so long, to identify rapists as the other. We think of them as deviant strangers, lurking in the shadows, or as out-of-control jocks, fueled by testosterone and ego. It’s easier to do that than to face up to the real story revealed by the statistics on sexual violence. Here is the uncomfortable truth: Rapists are all around us. They are your neighbors, your colleagues; they may even be members of your family.

I should declare an emotional interest here. For much of my life I was unaware of the numbers on sexual violence, and had given little thought to the pain behind each data point. But when I was in my thirties I learned that rape was a formative experience for some of my female friends. More than a decade later, the revelations are still coming. Just weeks ago, in a brave commentary on sexual harassment and assault, a friend and fellow journalist listed twenty-one unacceptable things that men had done to her. The last item made me weep: “You can not rape me.”

Over the years, as I’ve thought about my friends’ stories, my emotions have swayed from sadness to impotent rage. But I should not have been surprised. The available data indicates that rapists are far more numerous than we’d like to think: When American men are asked whether they’ve performed specific acts that match the legal definition of rape, typically between 6 and 9 percent reveal themselves to be rapists.

It’s worth contemplating these figures for a moment. Did you ride the bus or train to work? If so, you probably shared your commute with a man who has committed a rape. Remember the last time you sat in a crowded movie theater? The statistics suggest that there was at least a handful of rapists in the room with you.

Expand the definition to include men who have groped someone or initiated other forms of unwanted sexual contact, and the numbers get even more disturbing. Some surveys indicate that more than a third of all men have perpetrated at least one sexual assault. And this may be an underestimate, because getting people to admit to felony crimes is incredibly difficult, even when anonymity is guaranteed.

Most of the men who commit serious sexual assaults are never arrested, but they turn out to be very similar to convicted rapists. In a 2002 study, David Lisak of the University of Massachusetts in Boston and Paul Miller of Brown University documented the “rape careers” of 120 rapists identified in four surveys of just under 1,900 American male college students. These men had not been apprehended for their crimes, yet nearly two-thirds were repeat offenders. They averaged almost six rapes each—a pattern that closely matched results from prior surveys of incarcerated sex offenders.

To put that another way: Your circle of acquaintances likely includes men who are every bit as dangerous as the known predators we urge the authorities to keep under lock and key for the rest of their days. This isn’t easy to accept, and you may be squirming at my assertion that there are rapists in your social circle. But we won’t be able to limit sexual violence if we deny its true nature.

The realization that sexual violence permeates our society explains why at least one in seven American women reports having been the victim of an attack meeting the legal definition of rape. Focus on groups particularly at risk and widen the definition to include other types of sexual assault, and again the numbers expand. Perhaps the best-known statistic about sexual violence comes from a pioneering study that found that a quarter of college women had been victims of rape or attempted rape, mostly committed by men they knew.

We might like to imagine that rapists are a tiny minority who can be swept off the streets and dealt with by throwing away the key, but once you understand the numbers it’s clear why punitive sentencing isn’t doing much to make society any safer. And it should be obvious that pointing the finger at jock culture, deranged sociopaths, or whatever bogeymen the media will identify next, is to miss the bigger picture.

This is depressing stuff, yet evidence that rape can be tackled is starting to emerge; it’s just that the most exciting results are not coming from prisons, nor from places where sexual violence seems especially common, like at colleges and in the military. Instead, they’re coming from middle schools. To be clear: If we’re to turn the tide of sexual violence, we should start by talking to eleven-year-olds.

One reason for this is that sexual predators start young. “We want to get to people before they engage in sexual violence for the first time,” says Sarah DeGue, a behavioral scientist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia. In a 2008 study backed by the National Institute of Justice, 70 percent of men who admitted to sexual violence said they had committed their first offense by age seventeen. As any psychologist will tell you, it’s very difficult to change patterns of behavior once they have become ingrained.

Most importantly, we know that intervening in middle school can work. Some of the best evidence comes from archetypal small-town America. In November 1994, children at seven middle schools in predominately rural Johnston County, to the southeast of Raleigh in North Carolina, embarked on a program called Safe Dates.

Over the course of ten classroom sessions, kids at the chosen schools held discussions about healthy and abusive relationships, and how to help abused friends. They also learned strategies to avoid turning anger into abuse and to prevent sexual assault. By the time the program wound down the following March, the schools had each put on a play highlighting the issues they’d discussed, and children had designed posters to bring home the message, voting for the top three. At seven other middle schools across the county, lessons continued as normal, with no special focus on avoiding dating violence.

When researchers, led by Vangie Foshee of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, interviewed the kids one month after the program finished, they found less sexual violence occurring in the schools that had taken part in Safe Dates. What’s more, this positive impact persisted for at least four years.

A second program, Shifting Boundaries, recently proved its worth in the grittier surroundings of thirty of New York City’s public middle schools. At some, kids were asked to identify parts of the school where they felt unsafe, so that extra staff could be posted there. Posters were also put up to increase awareness of dating violence and sexual harassment, as well as the need to report either one. At other schools, the kids were given a series of lessons about preventing violence in dating relationships, based on the idea of respecting one another’s boundaries. A third group of schools got both parts of the program, while a final group was left unchanged.

The lessons alone didn’t seem to have much effect. But six months after the program ended, there was less sexual violence in both the schools that had the combined program, and those that changed just the school environment, in response to students’ concerns.

What explains the success of Safe Dates and Shifting Boundaries? Aside from the idea of “getting ‘em while they’re young,” one likely key factor is that both are implemented over an extended period, which fits with evidence from studies in college settings that longer-running programs are more effective than brief interventions.

Yet campus administrators seem reluctant to heed this message. “I have twenty-two hours of training materials,” notes John Foubert, of Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, whose program aims to change attitudes and behaviors that foster sexual violence. “But the attitude of colleges is: ‘Okay, you’ve got an hour. Use it.’”

Crucially, the successful middle school programs have been evaluated using randomized controlled trials, the gold standard for research evidence, in which people are randomly divided across groups that receive different interventions, one being a control—having either the standard practice or no intervention at all.

Sadly, other studies of strategies to reduce sexual violence mostly have fallen short of this standard. Many have measured changes in attitudes toward sexual violence, but not actual shifts in behavior. Sample sizes usually have been small. Often there was no control group, nor any long-term follow-up. No wonder, then, that the effects have often been small, and hard to detect.

With solid evidence from middle schools finally in hand, the CDC is now rolling out a program called Dating Matters, based on methods with good scientific support, in up to forty-five schools in four major cities—Baltimore; Chicago; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; and Oakland, California—involving some ten thousand children aged eleven to fourteen.

But this program and similar philanthropic initiatives are just drops in the ocean. Getting evidence-based approaches implemented in middle schools remains a tough sell. Many schools are reluctant even to broach the issue of sexual violence, given the inevitable push back they get from some quarters.

“It can take one parent in a middle school to shut things down,” says Dorothy Espelage, a psychologist in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s College of Education. Just imagine how the idea of teaching eleven-year-olds about sexual assault—based on findings promoted by government health officials—could be spun by the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Fox News.

Programs like Safe Dates and Shifting Boundaries can’t provide a comprehensive answer to sexual violence. But they’re a start. Now we need a similarly broad, intensive, and rigorously evaluated approach to take hold in other settings. It’s likely to involve efforts to disabuse men of “rape myths,” such as the pernicious idea that many women secretly harbor rape fantasies, to encourage bystanders to step in when things are getting out of control, and to teach women self-defense strategies and how to avoid risky situations.

And, yes, it may include programs to foster healthy, nonviolent masculinity among young male athletes, and to discourage the heavy drinking—by both men and women—that is a known risk factor in sexual violence.

Victoria Banyard of the University of New Hampshire in Durham is one of the leading figures in the field. As she recently wrote: It’s time to “go big or go home.” Experts working in a piecemeal fashion on different aspects of sexual violence need to get out of their silos, coordinate their efforts, and devise coherent plans to tackle the problem from middle school on up.

Given the extent of the problem, and its frequently devastating consequences, we simply cannot afford to give up and go home. If we want to stop reading horror stories like those from Steubenville and Maryville, or posts like my friend’s chilling list of things men should not do, we have to go big.

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