Archive for the 'Science and the Media' Category

Feb 28 2013

Tattoo Electrodes

Headlines read: “Temporary tattoos could make electronic telepathy and telekinesis possible.” The technology is actually quite cool and interesting, but it is distressing how much of the mainstream reporting has been calculated to misinform for the sake of some cheap sensationalism. The technology is interesting enough without turning it into science fiction.

The temporary tattoos are really skin surface electrodes that can read electrical signals, such as EEG signals from the brain. They can also incorporate other sensors, like heat or light sensors. They can contain antenna to receive energy or communication, and wireless technology to communicate to devices.

The electrode circuits are also thin (100 microns), flexible, and small. Combining several features into such a small device is the real advance here, expanding the number of feasible applications of such technology.

Continue Reading »

Share

2 responses so far

Feb 19 2013

Comments to Science Articles

A study presented at the AAAS meeting (and yet to be published) looked at the effects of the tone of comments following a science article on the interpretation of the article itself. The researchers presented a balanced article on the dangers of nanoparticles, followed by fake comments. One group read fake comments that were polite, while another read comments that were rude and personal.

Because the study is not published I can’t review the details, but the way it is reported (and discussed here on NPR) makes it sound like the content of the comments were the same, and only the tone was varied. Also, the rude tone was just rude, and did not rise to the level that we would call trolling. The researchers found that the rude comments significantly affected how the content of the article was perceived, pushing readers to believe that nanoparticles were more dangerous.

This is a question that every bloggers, and perhaps especially science blogger, faces – how do we moderate the comments to our articles. It is not uncommon, for example, for commenters to hold me as the author of a blog post responsible for claims made in the comments, as if I obsessively police every comment. At the same time, if the author is participating in the comments perhaps it is reasonable to make inferences about which comments they challenge and which they do not.

Continue Reading »

Share

31 responses so far

Nov 30 2012

Another Journalism Fail on the Denver Bug-UFO

A couple weeks ago I wrote about a local Denver news report about “mysterious UFOs” caught on video. The news report includes several videos of blurry dark objects zipping past the camera and actually tried to make this into something interesting any mysterious. The report is an excellent example of a journalism failure when dealing with such topics.

In the age of the internet, such local news stories can now go internationally viral, which is apparently what happened here. This is a double-edged sword for the local news teams – they seem to revel in the widespread attention their local fluff news stories garner, but also seem a bit stung by the criticism it equally attracts.

Now, the news station, Fox 31 WKDVR in Denver, and the reporter, Heidi Hemmat, have decided to double-down on their original journalism failure, apparently concluding that negative attention is a good thing. Their follow up report is entitled: Insect expert: UFOs over Denver not bugs; images on video remain a mystery. Wrong and wrong. What they have offered us is another example of how journalists fail to properly cover controversial science stories.

Most of the videos in question clearly show some sort on insect close to the camera. A few of the videos show what is probably a bird flying by. Some have argued that there are also videos showing what might be a radio controlled plane – there is one quick shot of a video which might show this, but it’s not clear. What is clear is that the majority of the videos are bugs and birds (mostly bugs).

Continue Reading »

Share

6 responses so far

Jul 27 2012

Anti-Fluoride Propaganda as News

A news article in the Sacramento Bee declares: “Harvard Study Finds Fluoride Lowers IQ – Published in Federal Gov’t Journal.” Except – this is not a news item, and it’s not really a study. The article is about a recently published systematic review and meta-analysis – not new data. The term “study” is vague, and I find it often causes confusion.

Far worse than this common imprecision is the fact that this article, under the “News” tab on the Bee website, is not actually a news report. It is a propaganda article written by the NYS Coalition Opposed to Fluoridation, Inc. and distributed as a press release. The Bee does post a disclaimer at the top of the page, reading:

This section contains unedited press releases distributed by PR Newswire. These releases reflect the views of the issuing entity and are not reviewed or edited by the Sacramento Bee staff. More information on PR Newswire can be found on their web site.

That’s better than nothing, but I wonder how many people reading the press release will notice and read the disclaimer. In my opinion, a news outlet should not reprint press releases sent out from advocacy organizations clearly intended to promote an agenda. They especially should not print them under the banner of “News.” The disclaimer is not adequate.

Continue Reading »

Share

10 responses so far

Jun 12 2012

The Science of Prometheus

I’m a huge fan of science fiction, especially hard science fiction, and also of scientific deconstructions of popular works of science fiction. I also enjoy other forms of speculative fiction – I don’t require scientific accuracy, or even plausibility, to enjoy a good book or movie. I’m perfectly willing to suspend disbelief or allow for “gimmies” – OK, there’s subspace and you can travel faster than light. I’m good with that. I appreciate, however, when sci fi writers try to work within the scientific framework as much as possible, to minimize “gimmies”, and to extrapolate thoughtfully from established science. What I am not tolerant of, however, is gratuitous errors in science. There’s just no excuse for that in science fiction.

I saw Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel, Prometheus, over the weekend. What follows is a sequence of spoilers, so be warned. I will try not to discuss plot points unnecessarily, but if you don’t want any spoilers wait until after you see the movie to read further. This is also not going to be a movie review, just a discussion of some of the science in the movie.

Let me start with something that I really enjoyed. The planet that the ship Prometheus and its crew visit in the movie is actually a moon of a gas giant. I find this idea fascinating, and have speculated about this before myself. We are in the midst of an explosion of exoplanet discoveries. We are just now starting to get some data about what the typical configuration of other stellar systems is likely to be. We still don’t have enough data to answer this question, and our methods of finding exoplanets are biased toward large planets close to their suns. But we are starting to find smaller Earth-sized worlds far enough out to be in the goldilocks zone where liquid water can exist on the surface.

Continue Reading »

Share

71 responses so far

Jun 05 2012

Education and Vaccine Uptake

A new study, not published but to be presented at a meeting, purports to show that after the infamous Andrew Wakefield 1998 Lancet article alleging a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism, vaccination rates in the US declined by about two percent. This may seem like a small amount but has an effect on public health, and vaccine refusal typically occurs in pockets that bring vaccination rates below the level needed for “herd” immunity, allowing for outbreaks.

This, however, is all old news. There are two other pieces of information in the study that are interesting. The first is that the decrease in vaccination rates did not rebound after Wakefield and his Lancet study were thoroughly refuted. That genie was out of the bottle, and correcting the misinformation did not have the desired effect of putting it back in. This too is in line with other research and experience. It is easier to spread fear than reassurance. Once rumors are spread the damage cannot be undone.

The study also purports to find that the there was an inverse relationship between education level and vaccine use – college-educated mothers were less likely to vaccinate their children. Further, in the 8 years after the Lancet study this gap increased. This education-gap is also in line with previous research, but needs some explanation. We need to distinguish unvaccinated from undervaccinated, and vaccine non-compliance from vaccine refusal. When looking at the undervaccinated, and specifically those who missed scheduled vaccines, this correlates with lower socioeconomic status and less education. This is in line with a more general pattern – the fewer resources a family has the less likely they are to avail themselves of available health care.

Continue Reading »

Share

23 responses so far

Oct 21 2011

Fear Mongering the Flu Vaccine

In a recent article in The Canadian, journalist Anthony Gucciardi trots out long discredited anti-vaccine canards in the guise of actual journalism. The piece is poorly researched and resourced, blatantly biased, and amounts to little more than irresponsible fear-mongering about the flu vaccine.

Gucciardi writes:

Each dose of flu vaccine contains around 25 micrograms of thimerosal, over 250 times the Environmental Protection Agency’s safety limit of exposure.

Mercury, a neurotoxin, is especially damaging to undeveloped brains. Considering that 25 micrograms of mercury is considered unsafe by the EPA for any human under 550 pounds, the devastating health effects of mercury on a developing fetus are truly concerning.

Everything Gucciardi wrote is either outright factually wrong, or incomplete in a way that makes it highly misleading.

Continue Reading »

Share

58 responses so far

Oct 20 2011

Malaria Vaccine

Malaria is a serious illness in humans caused by several species of mosquito-born parasite (Plasmodium falciparum, vivax, and ovale). The CDC reports:

 In 2008, an estimated 190 – 311 million cases of malaria occurred worldwide and 708,000 – 1,003,000 people died, most of them young children in sub-Saharan Africa.

Efforts to reduce the incidence of malaria have largely focused on reducing the number of mosquitoes and preventing bites (for example by providing netting to cover beds), and these efforts can be very successful. But despite these measures malaria remains the 5th largest cause of death worldwide from infectious disease.

It was therefore exciting news when GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) announced a successful clinical trial of a new anti-malaria vaccine. The vaccine is the result of 24 years of research led by Joe Cohen. The report:

Final stage clinical trial data on RTS,S, also known as Mosquirix, showed it halved the risk of African children getting malaria, making it likely to become the world’s first successful vaccine against the deadly disease.

Continue Reading »

Share

8 responses so far

Oct 05 2011

Do Cold Drinks Alter Digestion?

A common theme of this blog is that there is a great deal of misinformation out there. The internet is a double-edged sword, providing tremendous access to useful information, but increasingly buried in a mountain of bad, poorly sourced, and often just incorrect information. So the savvy internet user needs to develop the skills necessary to distinguish reliable information from misinformation.

Here is just the latest example – I was recently sent a link to this article on Discover Fit & Health – Stop Drinking Water With Meals–Seriously. The articles carries the “Discover” brand, and many readers might confuse this for an indicator of reliability. The author, Sara Novak , is described as:

…writes about health and wellness for Discovery Health. Her work is also regularly featured in Breathe Magazine and on SereneKitchen.com. She has written extensively on food policy, food politics, and food safety.

So she is not some anonymous blogger, nor does she appear to be selling dubious supplements or some multi-level marketing scheme. She is a health journalist writing for a health magazine. And yet she gives her readers this whopper:

Continue Reading »

Share

30 responses so far

Sep 16 2011

Oz Gets Taken to Task Over Apple Juice

It certainly is encouraging to see a health reporter doing some actual no-nonsense health reporting – trying to bring some perspective and meaningful science to the public. ABC News Health and Medical Editor Dr. Richard Besser did just that when he took Dr. Mehmet Oz to task over his recent reporting about arsenic in apple juice. On Good Morning America Besser did not pull any punches – he accused Oz of fear-mongering, irresponsible reporting, and using bad science to scare his audience. There was no false balance or weasel words, it was all very refreshing.

The issue is over the safety of apple juice, a staple in the diet of many American children. The Oz Show did a segment where they reported that they found levels of arsenic in some brands of apple juice that exceed the safety levels for drinking water. Here are their results:

Continue Reading »

Share

44 responses so far

« Prev - Next »