Medical Journalism is Ill

Gary Schwitzer asks,

Is the news media doing a good job of reporting on new treatments, tests, products, and procedures? Ray Moynihan and colleagues analyzed how often news stories quantified the costs, benefits, and harms of the interventions being discussed, and how often they reported potential conflicts of interest in story sources [1]. Of the 207 newspaper and television stories that they studied, 83 did not report the benefits of medications quantitatively, and of the 124 stories that did quantify the benefits of medications, only 18 presented both relative and absolute benefits. Of all the stories, 53% had no information about potential harms of the treatment, and 70% made no mention of treatment costs. Of 170 stories that cited an expert or a scientific study, 85 (50%) cited at least one with a financial tie to the manufacturer of the drug, a tie that was disclosed in only 33 of the 85 stories.

Moynihan et al. (2000) inspired some Australians to do a similar survey in 2004, which found after six months that Australian print and online news coverage of medical advances was “poor.” Now, Schwitzer has done a more extensive survey of United States media. The punchline is as follows:

In our evaluation of 500 US health news stories over 22 months, between 62%–77% of stories failed to adequately address costs, harms, benefits, the quality of the evidence, and the existence of other options when covering health care products and procedures. This high rate of inadequate reporting raises important questions about the quality of the information US consumers receive from the news media on these health news topics.

Details are available at PLoS Medicine. Now, we just need somebody to pay for a similar survey of non-medical science reporting.

(Tip o’ the fedora to Steve Novella.)

Gah! But Yay!

I grew up (to the extent that I have grown up) reading the works of Larry Gonick, expositor of science and history in cartoon format. As Cosma Shalizi wrote, “When I think about it, I realize a truly substantial proportion of my basic knowledge of the world derives from reading Larry Gonick’s Cartoon Guides and Cartoon History of the Universe.” So it was with great interest that I read in the Mercury News of 10 April 2008 that Gonick “hopes to work on a cartoon book about calculus” once he’s finished The Cartoon History of the Modern World Part II, which is really the fifth installment in the Cartoon History of the Universe series. However, that Mercury News article commits a serious gaffe:

Gonick hasn’t actually yet put in cartoon form a subject he knows at least as well as history: mathematics.

Ahem. The Cartoon Guide to Statistics (1994), coauthored with Woollcott Smith of Temple University. And that’s not even mentioning his “Science Classics” feature in Discover magazine, a regular two-page comic which often covered mathematical topics. We could go on to list the mathy subjects addressed in his other science books and even in his histories, but really.


This I have learned:

That when a young woman says, “I love you,” and demands that you write about your encounter with Neil Gaiman, you set aside the time to write about meeting Neil Gaiman. If I can get a scanner to cooperate with me, this write-up will be an illustrated one.

I’m also trying to get my verbiage organized for another book review, this time of Leonard Mlodinow’s The Drunkard’s Walk (2008). The back cover has an endorsement from David Berlinski — yes, that very one — but don’t let that fool you: it’s actually a good book. (I’m imagining a gruff, cigar-chomping editor with too many books to manage, firing a memo to the PR department: “It’s a book about math. Send it to that other guy who wrote about math.”) The historical interludes, such as the biographical sketches of Cardano and Pascal, transform the mathematics from dry, “textbook” material into the product of human curiosity, and the slice-of-modern-life examples succeed in making the subject feel relevant. Paragraphs with lots of numbers in them might be intimidating at first blow, but such is the way the world works; I’d suggest keeping paper and pencil at hand, working through the arithmetic as you progress through the book. Stuff is stated in words which I’m used to seeing in equations. This is probably a prudent move when writing for an audience which finds algebraic symbols even more imposing than decimal digits and long division, but after a while, I really began to appreciate how concise and powerful algebraic notation is, and I suspect that a deliberate attempt to remove the terrors of it might reap long-term benefit.

Either before or after I get that finished — probably before, from the way my drafts pile looks right now — I’m going to post the first of a few essays stemming from Alan Sokal’s new venture into exposition, Beyond the Hoax (2008). Again, this is a good book with its own intimidating aspects. Like the science-writing anthology I reviewed a while back, Beyond the Hoax serves to emphasize that books are best understood as part of a library, with no one “text” being the last word.

Back into my burrow I go.

“Uh, It Should Not Catch Fire”

MIT: when electrocuting one pickle is not enough.

Sometimes, all I can do is sigh and think, “Oh, Poseidon. These are my people.” If the caption is to be trusted, this was filmed during the 2007 Campus Preview Weekend, the occasion in the springtime when overachieving high-school students the world over come visit MIT to decide if they can make the Institvte their home. It’s rather Darwinian: the ones who can’t handle the idea of electrocuting pickles and detonating soda cans as a form of recreation go somewhere else. (Or at least they live in a sterile, prison-like West Campus dormitory where I never noticed them.)

I saw Neil Gaiman’s talk last night; it was good, but will take more time to write about intelligently. Until then, therefore, here is a capacitor bank being used to detonate a soda can:
Continue reading “Uh, It Should Not Catch Fire”

Genetics of Brain Evolution

Even buried as I am under a stack of PDFs talking about PDEs, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out some juicy videos describing actual, factual cutting-edge science, namely the talks from Rockefeller’s recent evolution symposium. I’m currently in the middle of Bruce T. Lahn’s (U Chicago) talk, “Probing Human Brain Evolution at the Genetic Level.” Click here and scroll down to find the link. What could be more appropriate for an elitist bastard than an explanation of genes which control brain size?

(Thanks go out to Abbie.)

Currently Reading

The most dangerous aspect of being trapped in the digital library’s virtual basement stacks is that you don’t want to come out.

Simon A. Levin (1992), “The Problem of Pattern and Scale in Ecology” Ecology 73, 6: pp. 1943–67. [JSTOR] [PDF].

It is argued that the problem of pattern and scale is the central problem in ecology, unifying population biology and ecosystems science, and marrying basic and applied ecology. Applied challenges, such as the prediction of the ecological causes and consequences of global climate change, require the interfacing of phenomena that occur on very different scales of space, time, and ecological organization. Furthermore, there is no single natural scale at which ecological phenomena should be studied; systems generally show characteristic variability on a range of spatial, temporal, and organizational scales. The observer imposes a perceptual bias, a filter through which the system is viewed. This has fundamental evolutionary significance, since every organism is an “observer” of the environment, and life history adaptations such as dispersal and dormancy alter the perceptual scales of the species, and the observed variability. It likewise has fundamental significance for our own study of ecological systems, since the patterns that are unique to any range of scales will have unique causes and biological consequences. The key to prediction and understanding lies in the elucidation of mechanisms underlying observed patterns. Typically, these mechanisms operate at different scales than those on which the patterns are observed; in some cases, the patterns must be understood as emerging form the collective behaviors of large ensembles of smaller scale units. In other cases, the pattern is imposed by larger scale constraints. Examination of such phenomena requires the study of how pattern and variability change with the scale of description, and the development of laws for simplification, aggregation, and scaling. Examples are given from the marine and terrestrial literatures.

Gyorgy Szabo, Gabor Fath (2007), “Evolutionary games on graphs” Physics Reports 446, 4-6: 97–216. [DOI] [arXiv].

Game theory is one of the key paradigms behind many scientific disciplines from biology to behavioral sciences to economics. In its evolutionary form and especially when the interacting agents are linked in a specific social network the underlying solution concepts and methods are very similar to those applied in non-equilibrium statistical physics. This review gives a tutorial-type overview of the field for physicists. The first three sections introduce the necessary background in classical and evolutionary game theory from the basic definitions to the most important results. The fourth section surveys the topological complications implied by non-mean-field-type social network structures in general. The last three sections discuss in detail the dynamic behavior of three prominent classes of models: the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the Rock-Scissors-Paper game, and Competing Associations. The major theme of the review is in what sense and how the graph structure of interactions can modify and enrich the picture of long term behavioral patterns emerging in evolutionary games.

Sébastien Lion, Minus van Baalen (2007), “From Infanticide to Parental Care: Why Spatial Structure Can Help Adults Be Good Parents” American Naturalist 170: E26–E46. [HTML] [PDF].
Continue reading Currently Reading

Requiescat in Wikipace?

Alun Salt, an archaeology PhD student and therefore a elitist expert by Internet standards, used to edit Wikipedia, but after five hundred-odd edits, he decided to give up and become Wikipedian Emeritus. In giving his reasons, he also made a prediction:

From the limited information available it looks like the combination of Knol [see here] and Wikipedia’s policies will be a Wikipedia-killer.

First off Knol will attract experts because of its emphasis on authorship. Additional features like collaborative authoring will attract people who can work together. You can also bet that Google will be marketing Knol as a tool to experts. Even without migration from Wikipedia that will be a blow. The material will be protected from plagiarism. If there’s one company that can find copies on the web, it’s Google.

I find the idea of having one company in charge of hosting content and providing search functionality a little, well, spooky — and yes, that already applies to YouTube and Blogger — but moving on:
Continue reading Requiescat in Wikipace?

Scenes from the Physical Life

Thanks to Glennda Chui, I noticed a piece in the CERN Courier,Les femmes du LHC,” which interviews ten female members of the Large Hadron Collider project. For example, the dark-matter researcher Fabiola Gianotti is deputy spokesperson for the ATLAS collaboration (and a pianist who studied at the Conservatorio Giuseppe Verdi). Of being a woman in physics, she says,

Physics is, unfortunately, often seen as a male subject; sterile and without charm or emotion. But this is not true, because physics is art, aesthetics, beauty and symmetry. Women have obstacles in the field for merely social reasons. Research does not allow you to make life plans. And the difficulties for women with a family are many. Something should be done, for instance, to develop more structures that would enable women with children to go through a physics career without too many obstacles, starting with nursery schools.

And Gilda Scioli, an experimentalist from the University of Bologna, comments thusly on why physics is a male-heavy profession:

Because being a researcher is not an easy profession for women. What we do can only be done here. But if I had a small child and an experiment to do, what should I do? Do I say good-bye to everybody, leave for a year and ask my husband to breast-feed the baby?

Meanwhile, Seth Zenz explains what it’s like to be a grad student at CERN. (Hint: a stipend is like a salary for small values of N.) To make the task of cheap recreation easier, Tom Swanson has created Crackpot Bingo, to be played during those talks which turn out to be, shall we say, less than rigorous.

An Alloy of Pleasures

REVIEW: The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, edited by Richard Dawkins. Oxford University Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-19-921680-2. A PDF copy of this review is available here.


During the Christmas holidays last year, my mother and I were visiting a bookshop, and we passed by a display of general-audience science books. As a child, I had devoured such things, and propelled by sentiment mixed with curiosity, I looked over the titles, browsing for ones which I’d seen recommended or were written by authors I knew. Momentarily, however, a harsh edge cut through my sentimental reverie. “Look at this,” I said. “This book props up its thesis with phony numbers and citations which point to papers that don’t even discuss what the book says they do! And this one, here, tells a version of 1990s physics history which, to put it mildly, doesn’t match up with what other physicists remember. Oh, and this author, well, everybody is just astonished at how the clarity of his thinking implodes halfway through, when he stops thinking and starts faith-ing. And what’s this — quantum healing?

If the Gentle Reader were to deduce a “moral” from the story, it might be that I am a cantankerous individual with an acerbic disposition, and the reader would not be gravely in error. Beyond that, one could say that a science education nearly killed the general-interest bookshelf for me, and what University did not do, the science-blogging world definitely tried to finish. Caught up in this electronic tangle of opinions, discoveries and arguments, where new findings and reactions to them are all free for the taking, I’d seen the flaws of a great many books exposed. Precisely because online science writing makes irascible iconoclasm a way of life, though, it teaches the joy of discourse and the admiration of written words which, finally, work. Both of these aspects play into the value of The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, edited by Richard Dawkins.

This book collects passages written by seventy-nine scientists over the previous hundred years; though Dawkins himself has more than proven his talents as an expositor, his own writings are confined to introductory remarks giving context for each selection. Biology is represented quite strongly, and physics makes a good showing. Astronomy, other than the cosmological variety, makes mostly cameo appearances, and chemistry seems rather the poor stepchild. (Max Perutz, a Nobel Laureate, contributes a bit on X-ray crystallography which is largely an admiring biographical sketch of fellow laureate Dorothy Hodgkin, and the well-known neurologist Oliver Sacks is roped in to give a quirky reminiscence about tungsten! Primo Levi‘s tale of a carbon atom, though, is not to be missed.) Truly commendable is Dawkins’s inclusion of mathematics, a subject which provokes an unnatural fear even in literate readers who appreciate science and enjoy reading about the latest fossil or the most newly discovered extra-solar planet. The selections chosen for The Oxford Book are clear, memorable and not infrequently poetic. Upon occasion, they deliver on that great promise of science education: to provoke the learner into seeing the natural world and the products of the human mind in a new and unforgettable light. After reading what Stephen Jay Gould wrote about Charles Darwin‘s take on the humble earthworm, for example, it is difficult to see in the same way such a simple thing as worms coming out on a pavement after the rain.

The Oxford Book would serve as an excellent smörgÃ¥sbord of introductions for the reader who has grown interested in science but doesn’t know where to begin. Likewise, those who catch the biggest headlines and read about the flashiest new breakthroughs will likely benefit from a book about science which has stood the test of time, about discoveries which have kept on inducing breathlessness for several decades. A specialist trained in one scientific field could also enjoy an interlude of lateral thought, poking into a new domain of learning to flex the thought-muscles.

When I’ve heard people talk about a movie or a book being “an unalloyed pleasure,” they mean it to be joy without stopping, all good and nothing bad. Given that an alloy is a mixture of metals, the phrase also carries a trace contamination of the idea that the book or the movie being talked about only offers one kind of goodness — all drama and no comedy, let’s say. Consequently, I find myself describing The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing as an alloyed pleasure, a mixture of different satisfactions, in unequal amounts. The amazing facts, the flashes of wit, the moments of rapturous wonder are all there to be had, but Dawkins has also provided a series of portals to debate. I’m not talking about a nasty kind of political infighting, with accusations and character assassination, but rather the academic version of the same process: the rolling up of sleeves, the setting down of the teacup and the declaration of intellectual combat.

The book club meetings for this volume can, and should, be. . . volatile places.
Continue reading An Alloy of Pleasures

NEQNET Joins the Blogroll

Eagle-eyed readers will notice that a new entry has joined my “Blagnet” list on the right-hand sidebar. NEQNET: Non-equilibrium Phenomena is written by Dmitry Podolsky, a theorist at the Helsinki Institute of Physics. Like me, Podolsky is interested in mathematical methods which grow out of physics and turn out to be applicable to areas like market dynamics and evolutionary biology. Unlike me, he knows what he’s talking about (or at least has had more time to practice how to fake it). He’s also been writing about cosmology and his research therein.

Now, he just needs to find a couple co-bloggers named Rosen and Einstein. . . .

Thanks to Jacques Distler for noticing that NEQNET had gone on the air.

I Never Metajoke I Didn’t Like

Every once in a while, the world of science blogging threatens to implode into navel-gazing. This time, the question is whether the 800-kilo, ten-tentacled gorilla of, PZ Myers, should be telling his legion of readers about online polls in which aforesaid readers can choose to vote. Is it a mild form of low-investment activism, a kind of catnip for herding cats, or a joke which has outlived its welcome? Clearly, it’s time for the “wisdom of crowds” to decide!

[polldaddy poll=”604091″]

Voting will continue until morale improves.

Antiscience in Maine

BPSDBMatthew Linkletter, a Board of Directors member of Maine’s School Administrative District 59, has been trying to squelch science education in his district. How? By throwing creationist canards at his listeners and banking on their ignorance. Reports a local Kennebec newspaper,

Linkletter suggested during last week’s SAD 59 board meeting that the board discuss evolution, the “Big Bang Theory” and other studies he believes should be deleted from the curriculum. […] Linkletter said he wants the best science for SAD 59 students, who should “be armed with the truth.” They should be able to explain the origins of life according to evolution if it is taught in the schools, he said.

“Nobody has the answer to the origins of life. It’s a philosophical question.”

OK, stop right there. First of all, the origin of life is not a “philosophical question,” but one which we can approach scientifically, and indeed have already learned a great deal about. Second, the open questions which remain about abiogenesis do not impair our ability to understand what has happened since then, in the later evolutionary history of life, any more than our limited knowledge of how humans discovered fire or invented writing affects historians’ ability to know about the American Revolution. Finally, the Big Bang is a theory like gravity is a theory — so go away now, won’t you, and try to brush up on your own science education before ruining other people’s?

Unfortunately, others are chiming in against the cause of knowledge and fact:
Continue reading Antiscience in Maine

News From the Home State

Several bills have died recently in the Alabama State Legislature. According to an AP wire report, one of them would have “protected teachers from being fired for giving personal opinion while teaching controversial subjects like evolution.” In other words, the “Academic Freedom Act,” whose purpose really was to protect the teaching of creationism, has croaked. Let’s celebrate!

Oh, wait. Another bill which died would have “repealed the state’s ban on sex toys.”

Darn! The Darwinist agenda has been foiled once again!

(Tip a’ the fedora to Sensuous Curmudgeon.)