Archive for the 'Science and the Media' Category

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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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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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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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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Feb 14 2011

Reporting Preliminary Studies

A recent study, presented as a poster at the American Stroke Association International Stroke Conference, found a 61% increase in risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease among survey respondents who reported drinking diet soda compared to those who drank no soda.  The study has resulted in a round of reporting from the media, and in turn I have received many questions about the study.

Frequent readers of this blog should have no problem seeing the potential flaws in such a study. First – it is an observational study based upon self-reporting. At best such a study could show correlation, but by itself cannot build a convincing case for causation. Perhaps people who are at higher risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, for whatever reason, are more likely to choose diet sodas because they are trying to avoid unnecessary calories. Questions that should immediately come to mind – what factors were controlled for and how was the information gathered? According to an ABC report:

The researchers used data obtained though the multi-ethnic, population-based Northern Manhattan Study to examine risk factors for stroke, heart attack and other vascular events such as blood clots in the limbs. While 901 participants reported drinking no soda at the start of the study, 163 said they drank one or more diet sodas per day.

The study also controlled for “smoking, physical activity, alcohol consumption and calories consumed per day.”

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Jan 13 2011

Deer Criticizes Doctors for Defending Wakefield

Brian Deer is the investigative journalist who has spent years building a case that Andrew Wakefield’s original Lancet paper alleging a connection between the MMR vaccine and an autism-GI disorder syndrome was not only bad science, it was fraud motivated by greed. In part two of his BMJ series detailing the results of his investigation, Deer follows the money, showing that Wakefield stood to make millions from a monovalent replacement vaccine as well as testing for his proposed new GI disorder. For those interested in the details – read the BMJ article. In short Deer builds a convincing case that Wakefield created a fraudulent study designed to generate fear regarding the MMR vaccine that he would then exploit to make millions. Meanwhile he was also paid over a million dollars by trial lawyers to build a case against the MMR vaccine.

What I want to write about today is a recent blog post by Brian Deer in which he accuses the medical establishment of circling the wagons (at least initially) around Wakefield. Deer specifically cites Ben Goldacre and Paul Offit as examples of physicians who were unwilling to accuse Wakefield of fraud. Deer writes:

But a Philadelphia-based commentator was not impressed by the BMJ’s intervention. “It doesn’t matter that [Wakefield] was fraudulent,” Dr Paul Offit, a vaccine inventor and author in Pennsylvania, was quoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer the next day as saying. “It only matters that he was wrong.”

I wasn’t surprised. From his establishment vantage-point, this was the third time Dr Offit had popped up to opine on the issue. Twice previously he’d been quoted as saying that my findings were “irrelevant” (although he’d been happy enough to use them in his books). Science had spoken, his argument went. There was no link between the vaccine and autism. It was experts like him who should rule on this matter, he seemed to imply, not some oik reporter nailing the guilty men.

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Nov 22 2010

Help Launching New Show

You may remember The Skeptologists – a TV pilot featuring a group of skeptical investigators taking on a range of pseudoscientific claims. Well – that project is not over, although it has morphed a bit. The working title of the show is now The Edge. And, rather than try to get a commercial TV executive to bite on the idea, the producers (Brian Dunning and Ryan Johnson) are trying to get a grant to produce a season for public television. It’s still an uphill battle, but they are making progress. Phil Plait has moved on with his Discovery Channel contract, including Phil Plait’s Bad Universe. So, Pamela Gay has stepped in to fill his role on the show.

Pamela is also helping with the grant – and she has asked for help. She needs to show that there is demand for the kind of content we aim to produce, and this is where you (potentially) come in.

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Oct 15 2010

Do Mummies Get Cancer?

File this one under – massive and unjustified speculation based upon limited data.

There are multiple news reports of a recent study looking at mummies to see if there is any evidence of cancer. The results:

Professor Rosalie David, a biomedical Egyptologist at the University of Manchester, and a colleague, Professor Michael Zimmerman, searched for evidence of cancer in hundreds of mummies, fossils, and ancient medical texts. One might say that the silence was deafening.

This was an interesting study in medical forensics, but I do not think it is so obvious how to interpret it. The spin in the media is this:

The mummies don’t lie. David concluded that their findings, “along with other data from across the millennia, has given modern society a clear message—cancer is man made and something that we can and should address.”

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Oct 11 2010

Elixir of Life

In an SGU interview with Christopher Hitchens he commented that journalists tend to have a limited pallet of story themes from which they choose, and then they conform the story to the chosen theme. Stories always need to be about something, such as corporate greed or government malfeasance, so that is the story that is told – regardless of the pesky facts.

Bad science journalism works that way also. That is why we can joke about common cliches, such as “Missing Link Discovered,” “Scientists Baffled,” and “It turns out everything we thought we knew was wrong.”

One such science journalism meme is the “Elixir of Life” – a scientific “breakthrough” (there are no advances, only breakthroughs) that offers the hope of extended life or a panacea of sorts. These stories often follow another theme – taking an esoteric bit of research that is very preliminary and/or has very narrow implications, and then pulling from that research the most extreme speculative future application. That is why every basic life-science “breakthrough” could “potentially lead to a cure.”

To make matters worse, science press releases are increasingly engaging in this kind of rhetoric, and there seems to be a proliferation of lazy science journalists who are happy to pass along these press releases without further investigation.

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Jul 26 2010

Desiree Jennings on 20/20

Several months ago I was interviewed by 20/20 for a follow up news report on Desiree Jennings – the cheerleader who claims to have acquired severe dystonia from a flu shot – and that show just aired on Friday. I have been following this case as the core claim is neurological and has been grossly misrepresented in the media.

20/20 did a fair job, but it’s hard for me to tell what impression the average viewer will come away with. The first 2/3 of the story was presented from a credulous point of view – essentially just telling Jennings’ story without any hint of skepticism. But then the editorial tone flips, and they give the “other side.” They did a fair job in this section of the segment, and my point of view was reasonably represented. And then at the end they leave the audience with the question – real or fake? Not the best format from a scientific point of view, but it could have been worse.

To summarize the story, Jennings, who was 28 at the time, received a flu shot in August of 2009, after which she started to develop dramatic neurological symptoms including shaking and difficulty speaking. Her story was picked up by a local news station, and from their it was picked up by Inside Edition and became a national story. Jennings spread a considerable amount of unwarranted fear about the flu vaccine, aided by a credulous media who failed to do even basic vetting of her story. In an ideal world, the original reporters would have showed their video to an actual neurologist and the story would have been nipped in the bud right there. But that’s not he world we live in.

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