Archive for the 'Science and the Media' Category

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:

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44 responses so far

Aug 31 2011

The Coming Hydrogen Economy

Just a decade ago hydrogen fuel cells were going to change our world. We were going to have an infrastructure to distribute hydrogen and fuel cells in our cars that are so efficient and environmentally clean that you could use them to power your home.  So confident were the predictions of the “coming hydrogen economy” that car companies (like GM) banked on the technology, deciding to leap frog over hybrids. George Bush called for investment in the technology, and California’s govenator decided to get a head start on building the hydrogen infrastructure.

Now, a decade later, the hydrogen economy seems like just another false promise of future technology – like flying cars and jet packs. It turns out there were some non-trivial technical hurdles that needed to be overcome, and the assumption that they would easily or inevitably be solved was unjustified.

First, it needs to be recognized that hydrogen is not an energy or fuel source. There is negligible free hydrogen on the earth. That means that hydrogen has to be stripped from hydrocarbons or some other existing fuel, or hydrogen gas has to be made by putting the energy into it. So hydrogen is largely an energy storage system, not a source of energy.

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16 responses so far

Aug 15 2011

MS and the Promise of The Genome Project

The Human Genome Project  (HGP)- the project to map the entire human genome – was one of the big public science endeavors that captured the imagination. It started in 1990 and took 13 years to complete, completing the map in 2003 (but certainly not ending the project). Unusually for most such big projects, it was completed ahead of schedule and below budget. The project benefited tremendously from improved techniques and advancing computer power. Sequencing the first genome took about 300 million dollars. Today we can do it for about 10,000 dollars, and the price continues to fall geometrically (about half every 9 months).

By all accounts the HGP was a huge success. But 8 years after the completion of the first human genome map there is the vague sense in the public that the promise has not been fulfilled. The public was promised that the HGP would allow us to identify genes associated with diseases, and then craft cures based upon that knowledge. So where are all the genetic cures we were promised?

What is really going on is that even a big-picture successful science project like the HGP can be overhyped by the press. By mapping the human genome scientists were given a powerful tool with which to investigate disease. It still takes, however, a tremendous amount of research to translate that tool into specific knowledge about an individual disease, and then further translate that specific knowledge into a proven treatment. The pipeline for translating the basic knowledge of the HGP into an actual treatment is about 15-20 years optimistically (and that is after a specific disease is pursued genetically.

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11 responses so far

Jul 28 2011

Some Bad Reporting about Archaeopteryx

Archaeopteryx lithographic is one of my favorite fossils. The Berlin specimen is practically a work of art. It is also a classic example of a transitional species, with a compelling blend of avian and dinosaur features. As much as it’s possible for a single fossil to be so, Archaeopteryx is a smoking gun of the evolution of birds from theropod dinosaurs.

It is also a much maligned fossil. Creationists have attacked it in every way imaginable, calling it a fraud, and ironically at times saying it’s just a dinosaur, and at others saying it’s just a bird.

But perhaps the most common misconception about the fossil, and about transitional fossils in general, is that their value as evidence for an evolutionary connection is dependent on their being a literal ancestor of the descendant group (in this case, birds). In other words, Archaeopteryx’s value as a transitional fossil is dependent on it being on the direct line that led to birds. This, however, is almost certainly not the case, and is also mostly irrelevant.

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10 responses so far

Jul 01 2011

More CAM Debate in the Atlantic

I have stayed only peripherally involved in the debate going on over at the Atlantic over alternative medicine, spawned by an article by David Freedman. I first wrote about the article here, with a follow up here. Orac has written a series of articles about it as well, and we covered it on Science-Based Medicine.

The Atlantic has also hosted an ongoing debate on the topic. Apparently at the Atlantic they feel that a fair debate is to have six prominent advocates on one side, along with the original author of the article, against a lone token skeptic on the other side (Steve Salzberg). Well, at least they are not revealing any bias. At the urging of Salzberg they did add a second token skeptic, David Colquhoun.

The debate, such as it is, at least reveals the current rhetorical tactics of the CAM proponents. They can be summarized largely as – we know that CAM modalities don’t work, but we’re nice and they will give you a good placebo effect. Plus science-based medicine isn’t perfect (shocker), so (false dichotomy) we offer an alternative. CAM proponents further try to take as much credit as they can for just good medical practice and some science based modalities, like nutrition, exercise, and good communication skills.

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123 responses so far

May 26 2011

CBC Program on Homeopathy

Recently CBC in Canada aired a program on homeopathy for their series on consumer protection called Marketplace. The segment was titled Cure or Con and was generally a good program. It was not a hard-hitting skeptical treatment of homeopathy, but it was a fair treatment of the evidence and arguments concerning homeopathy. There was no “false balance”, although they did give homeopathy proponents an opportunity to tell their side of the story.

Generally the program was considered a “win” among skeptics – a rare bit of good journalism on a controversial and complex topic.

Of course, the homeopathic community was not pleased (a reliable sign that the show did a good job). Just read the comments beneath the program linked above and you will see a long list of displeased homeopathy advocates running through the list of logical fallacies and making many misstatements of fact. The homeopathy community, in fact, organized a negative feedback campaign in response to the segment.

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18 responses so far

May 16 2011

Another Cure for Cancer?

In the last week I have received a flood of e-mails asking my opinion about an article, “Scientists cure cancer, but no one takes notice.“  The sensational theme is a familiar one – scientists hit upon a cure for cancer, but since the drug in question is already off patent (or is “natural”) the pharmaceutical industry is not interested in developing it. The more conspiracy-minded take it a step further and declare that “Big Pharma” will keep anyone else from developing it either.

Most of those e-mailing me saw the skeptical red flags in this story, but still many found the idea intriguing. Like most urban legends – something about the story resonates with our hopes and/or fears. The story rides this emotional wave, now supercharged by social media.

In fact, this is an old story about DCA (which I will get into below). The article that has been going around is four years old – there is no date on the article itself, but I recognize the story from several years ago (it has made the rounds numerous times) and there are four-year-old comments on the article. But, someone posted the article on their Facebook page, and someone else tweeted it, and it was retweeted and linked to by other Facebook pages and voila – the magic of the internet has breathed life into a dessicated urban legend.

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6 responses so far

May 06 2011

Brain Dead Reporting from Fox News

I was recently pointed to this news report from a local Fox affiliate – about an inventor who has developed an engine that can burn water. This is a topic well-covered in skeptical and scientific circles. The inventor, Denny Klein, makes all the typical claims that are made for such systems.

Briefly – you cannot use water as a fuel source. What Klein is doing is using electricity to electrolyze water into hydrogen and oxygen. Then he burns the hydrogen gas back with oxygen, creating a flame and water. The news report begins with his demonstration of his “oxyhydrogen” torch. But then it goes on to claim that Klein can also use his technique to fuel a car. The problem with this approach is that it takes more energy to split the water into hydrogen and oxygen then is recouped by burning the hydrogen back with oxygen. Water is therefore not a source of energy. At best it is a source of hydrogen which can be used to store energy – but you have to put the energy into it in the first place. All Klein’s process adds is an unnecessary step that decreases engine efficiency.

Klein’s device is nothing new, and his crank claims for it only demonstrate his lack of Google skilz. In fact, the oxyhydrogen torch was the first type of welding torch developed. This technology is 200 years old – it was first developed by chemist, Robert Hare.

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51 responses so far

Apr 28 2011

Social Media and Health Priorities

We are in the middle of a social-media revolution, which is rapidly changing the way we access information and engage in public discussion. The change is still incomplete, and all the ramifications are not yet clear – but that change is happening rapidly is clear. Scientific and health care institutions in particular are struggling to deal with these changes, to take advantage of them while not being buried by them.

In the past, to a large extent, scientists would largely talk with each other through journals and meetings, and only when scientific ideas reached a certain threshold would the media and the public take notice. But increasingly social media are allowing for the public to peek at the backroom process of science. Climategate is one example of what can happen when the candid comments of scientists (in this case via e-mail) are leaked to the public. While it seems there was no actual wrongdoing, the e-mails created a scandal that affected the public’s confidence in climate science.

More recently an internal memo among scientists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was leaked, leading to rumors that the Higgs boson had been discovered. But this was a very preliminary interpretation of results, the kind that happens frequently but had yet to be verified. This was just part of the noise of day-to-day research that would normally not filter through to the public attention.

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12 responses so far

Feb 15 2011

Reporting Medical Cases as Human Interest Stories: Chase Britton Edition

I have not been shy about discussing journalistic behavior that I despise – so here’s another one. Take an unusual medical case and report the following about it: 1) Doctors are baffled,  2) this challenges everything we thought we knew, 3) some are calling this remarkable case a miracle, 4) the patient (or their parents) did not listen to the doctor’s negativity, and bravely persevered.

In the reporting of the case make sure you emphasize the unknown as much as possible. Doctors are just besides themselves with how dang impossible the whole thing is. Then find a physician or other expert who is relatively clueless about how to deal with the media and goad them into saying all kinds of irresponsible but very sensational statements. In order to showcase the triumph of the human spirit, exaggerate as much as possible how much better the patient is doing than they should be, according to those nasty skeptical doctors.

Now before someone accuses me of being a curmudgeon, let me say that I get the human interest angle of unusual medical stories. I have no problem with showcasing brave and optimistic patients or parents, or even overly enthusiastic therapists. But I do object to rank mystery-mongering, getting the facts wrong, and not talking to proper experts. I also find it annoying when physicians or scientists who are not media savvy ram their feet down their throats.

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28 responses so far

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