Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Dumb Science + Politics = Media Fascination!

The recipe is pretty simple: take some current topic of theoretical interest to many people (e.g. coffee drinking, organic food consumption, political views, amount of daydreaming, or some such), then pick some biological outcome to measure (e.g. death, prostate cancer, brain size, happiness, or some such) and try to see whether they correlate. Then, after you have made the fascinating finding (study finds that coffee drinkers less likely to develop constipation as octogenarians!), you get interviewed by "science journalists" and end up on TV and radio shows, even though most of these "journalists" appear to understand very little about science and have dismally low standards as journalists.

Case in point today comes from Salon as it references an article from the British paper The Telegraph about how different political views correlate with differences in the size of certain parts of the brain. The gist: "conservatives" appear to have larger sized amygdalas; the amygdala plays a central role in the processing of emotional reactions, which The Telegraph article describes as "often associated with anxiety and emotions." Moreover, conservatives have smaller anterior cingulates--a part of the brain the articles describe as "responsible for courage and optimism."

The reality? It's likely nonsense. The study hasn't been published yet (indeed, one very big red flag is the fact that the study findings are being released to the media before going through the theoretically rigorous process of peer review) so I can't comment with great precision on its validity. But it sure doesn't smell right: they took the "brain scans" (unclear from either story whether they were MRIs or CT scans) of two, yes, two Members of Parliament, one from Labour, the other a Conservative, and then reviewed the brain scans of 90 "students" (again, unclear if college-aged or not) and matched the sizes of the brain structures against a questionnaire designed to elicit political views. Again, the questions weren't made available, so it's really hard to know how they measured political values. Even so, the study design doesn't seem especially impressive. Students? Isn't the point of being a student to create one's worldview, meaning that some students will surely drift further toward the right in life, some further left, and some change not much at all? So how can this population be used to measure political attitudes? Is the distribution equal between men and women? Between whites and blacks? Immigrants and natives? Students and non-students? Well, we already know the answer to that question--and couldn't that bias the results all by itself?

Even more concerning is the whopper unloaded by the researcher himself when he said that he and his team were "very surprised to find that there was an area of the brain that...could predict political attitude." But his study predicted nothing at all! They took scans, administered a questionnaire, and then after the fact compared the two. Prediction would entail administering the scan and guessing what the responses would be before they were given. That's a freshman-level mistake and sure doesn't boost my overall confidence in the sophistication of this guy.

But the most odious part of this sorry little news flare is found in the first line of The Telegraph article, which begins, "Scientists have found that people with conservative views have brains with larger amygdalas." What's so singularly frustrating about this opener is that it quite possibly leaves less eagle-eyed readers with the impression that this is both a) unquestionably true because it was "found" like a little fact in the forest, and b) "scientists" are all agreed as to its truth--both of which seem dubious at best. At least in Salon, they change the passive verb formulation "scientists have found" to a more-cautious note of "a study to be published next year suggests."

It's still quite likely prattling nonsense, careful phrasing or no. And as the links supplied in the Salon piece make clear, political bloggers (apparently from both sides of the aisle) have seized on the findings and spun their own theories, each sounding as silly as the study probably is. People want scientific literacy? Find some journalists who have a sense of what constitutes good science and have them leave the junk to languish in throwaway journals, that's one place to start.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Tale of Two Values

On Christmas Day, the NY Times ran a story whose title really does give readers most of the necessary information in the article: "In Budget Crunch, Science Fairs Struggle to Survive." The article goes on to quote various educators worried about the impact of these cutbacks, but there aren't any real surprises.

But while the story is accurate in collecting and relaying the details, I'd argue that it is narrowly telling the story (granted, as good journalism often should). Even without a strained economy, science education--or indeed, education of any sort--has long played second fiddle to that Great American Obsession, sports. For much of the 20th century the two were able to coexist in something approaching harmony since there was plenty of money to go around. But even before the Great Recession of recent years, public schools have been faced with cutback after cutback, while both amateur and professional sports have gotten fatter and fatter, budgetarily speaking. I recall as a kid growing up in northern Ohio and listening to the radio on election nights as my family listened to the majority of school levies, most of which were asking for a pittance, go down to defeat.

Not so the public financing of stadiums, which the public seems to adopt with a certain slobberingly stupid zeal, as witnessed in these articles on the financing of the Florida Marlins baseball stadium, an attempt to finance a professional soccer team stadium in Portland, Oregon, a brief take on the return-on-investment for Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, and details and an opinion about the huge tax subsidies the city of New York granted in the construction of the new Yankees stadium. Comparing the amounts of public money that  these businesses receive to the amount that school boards meekly request is akin to comparing the size of an NFL lineman to that of a Pop Warner player: you're not in the same, um, ballpark.

And we're surprised at the decline in educational standards in this country? Right.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

No, There Is Not a Cure For HIV

One of the guiding principles of the Billy Rubin Blog is quite simple: namely, that mass media in the US provides grossly distorted and exaggerated "news" to a largely uncritical public that appears to be not only more interested in ESPN, but only interested in said network. This blog's major concern is the distortion of scientific and medical news, and this week provided an example of just how irresponsible "journalists" can become in pursuit of a sexy headline.

"German doctors declare 'cure' in HIV patient," the Reuters headline proclaimed Wednesday. The story got legs immediately, and was picked up by nearly all of the outlets one would consider mainstream: the Fox coverage can be found here, CNN's article can be found here (more on CNN shortly), Yahoo's article is here, the US News & World Report brief is here. Once the stories showed up on the respective websites, it rapidly rocketed onto the "most viewed" and "most e-mailed" lists: at the time of this writing, the CNN site lists just over 10,000 Facebook "shares" and 413 comments--easily among the top 5 health stories for that website over the past week; over at Fair & Balanced, the numbers were almost identical.

One small problem: it's not really true. Oh, sure, the facts of the story, as reported, are correct: there was a patient infected with HIV, and this same patient now does not appear to have HIV due to a bizarre quirk of cell biology and transplant medicine (more on this shortly). But the truth of the matter is that one patient with HIV became improbably, almost impossibly, lucky, and aside from the scientific curiosity that the case has for the physicians and scientists who study and treat HIV, there's nothing so hugely important in this story that merits a splashy shout-out in the health sections of major news outlets.

The headline does most of the damage: doctors declare cure. The online dictionary Your Dictionary has three separate relevant definitions for the word "cure," which are: a) restoration to health or a sound condition; b) a medicine or treatment for restoring health, remedy; c) a system, method, or course of treating a disease, ailment, etc. In declaring "cure," the German doctors were using the first definition. Technically, it is a perfectly adequate definition. But the reason why the news media ran with the story, and the reason why it's gotten flashed all over the internet in very little time, is because they understood the word "cure" in the latter two senses--that there was some new magical treatment on the horizon for the tens of millions of people infected with the virus. And that is, quite simply, a dream: there's no cure at all. One guy just got very lucky.

This reality did not stop major networks from jumping on the "cure" bandwagon, when its science and health "correspondents" should have known better. Here is CNN's Elizabeth Cohen barely containing her enthusiasm for the story:

It's important to note that the anchor, in framing the story, asks his audience to "listen up" and says that "doctors in Germany claim they may have found a cure for HIV"--which isn't what they claimed at all, and again wildly exaggerates the importance of the story based on that misreading of the word "cure." This is followed by Cohen performing the two-step of noting the facts, but ignoring the meaning those facts have, which is that this is a whole lotta ado about nothing. "This is so fascinating that, even if this isn't the cure for HIV, which it's not, it's still amazing what these doctors in Germany did," she gushes [my emphasis]. What ensues is a lot of back-and-forth graphics reminiscent of Ross Perot's presidential bid. There are, indeed, caveats that lace their way through the discussion, but the overall tone of excitement and optimism is unmistakable.

What makes such enthusiasm unfortunate is that it's a lie. Whether Cohen has deceived herself is unclear, but nevertheless the amount of fake hope generated by such a story is corrosive in at least two ways: it oversells what medicine is capable of, and in doing so helps to promote a backlash against the genuinely amazing things that modern medicine can accomplish.

CNN, to their credit, does make an attempt to contextualize the finding with an opinion piece stressing extreme caution when reading the story. But even here they screw the pooch a bit by throwing up the title "Why HIV advance is not a universal cure." Again, this is remarkably misleading--it's a cure only for one lucky person! A better title might have been, "Why HIV advance is not a cure at all."

What happened with this patient? You can read the articles for details but the quick version is that HIV lives in special immune cells, and this HIV-infected man had a cancer of the immune system. One of the principal ways we treat immune cell cancers is by completely destroying the patient's immune system and transplanting a different person's immune system into the patient (we also sometimes harvest the patient's own immune cells, get rid of the cancerous ones, and transplant them back in after "nuking" the patient's body, which is called an autologous transplant). The person who donated the immune cells to the patient had a special mutation in his immune cells that prevent HIV from entering the cell and setting up house; this donor is literally immune from HIV--part of a very, very small number of people on earth who cannot be infected by the virus.

Anyway, this is the Cliff's Notes explanation. What it misses (and what the news stories largely ignored as well) is that the bone marrow transplant that led to this patient's "cure" is basically a game of Russian roulette, with a high one-year mortality rate, a not-especially-impressive remission rate (it varies depending on the type of immune cell cancer, but they have nearly universally horrible prognoses), and causes unimaginable pain and suffering for the few months before and after the transplant. Even if there were an abundance of similar donors, we'd kill tens of thousands for the iffy chance of having "cured" an equal number. In the age of perfectly adequate HIV drugs--which keep the virus at bay but do not produce "cure" and thus need to be taken for life--this seems like a mad scientist's dream.

Where was the breakdown? Part of it lies at the feet of the German physicians, who might have thought more carefully about the implications of touting cures that simply aren't practical and thus don't really, truly exist. But I'd direct my venom at the health and science editors of the news outlets I've mentioned; there just doesn't seem to be any care taken in investigating this story, and in the case of Elizabeth Cohen's CNN piece, it's worse than that, as she runs away from the more sober implications of the story, even though she is fully aware of such implications, swept up as she is in the wonder of the Modern Medical Miracle. It's tremendously irresponsible journalism. This is a story that nobody should have touched.

Curiously, after seeing the article in a Reuters link at The New York Times, I have been unable to find any other mention of it at the Times website. Here is their page devoted to news on HIV. As of this evening (December 16), they appear not to think of it as worthy of their attention or their readers' attention. I not only concur with them, I applaud their restraint!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Evolution Ain't a Ladder, and We Ain't at the Top

The idea that we humans are the most privileged, most developed, most special creatures on earth has been around, of course, a very long time, further back than when the Bible creation stories came into being, further back than Gilgamesh, probably further back than when some guys took to painting on a wall at Lascaux. Since Darwin, though, we've known better: humans are just another species trying to make its way in the world, quite intelligent to be sure, but no more or less special than, say, a bacterium happily living in the soil.

But thinking of ourselves as the Most Special Species--where evolution is a ladder and the top rung is occupied by humans, who preside over all life much like Adam on the Seventh Day--has been hard to root out. Even intelligent and thoughtful people can fall into the metaphor in the midst of an otherwise lucid discussion about science. Such a thing happened today when Gina Kolata, the science writer for the New York Times, was writing about some new research on the killer bug Staph aureus.

Ironically, when I saw the article I thought that it would make a great blog entry from the perspective of how warped laypersons' perceptions are about the relative dangers of various microbes. Even those only with a nodding acquaintance with science often have heard of Ebola, no matter that Ebola is a very rare disease and no human case has ever occurred in the US (not from the lethal strains, anyway). Staph, meanwhile, which is an outright killer, was barely known outside of medical circles until the past decade, when the drug-resistant staph strain MRSA was the culprit in various outbreaks, including a famous outbreak among the St. Louis Rams football team. I often feel like I could have summarized the major clinical take-home point of my fellowship in Infectious Diseases in two words: "Staph kills."

Alas--a more in-depth discussion about the warped perception the public has about various diseases will have to wait, because Kolata fell into the we're-on-top ditch midway through the article. While discussing the predilection that Staph has for human blood over other animal species, Kolata wrote, "Staph definitely preferred human blood...but there also was a definite trend, the higher up the evolutionary scale an animal was, the more the bacteria liked its blood" [my emphasis]. But Gina, it just ain't so! Those creatures whose blood was more liked by Staph were more closely related to humans on the evolutionary tree, but not higher on a scale, not more "advanced", not more worthy of the description "living thing." Evolution allows for adaption to particular living conditions, and the creatures that occupy each niche are all equal. The best way to visually think of the web of life is as a two-dimensional non-vertical tree (the vertical version, with "man" at the top, can be found in an exemplary drawing from the early 20th century below). We're just hanging out at the end of a branch like every other living thing.

Tomorrow, a brief commentary about this Reuters piece announcing a "cure" in an HIV patient. While the facts are true, the message is deeply misleading.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Dearth of Republican Scientists

There's an essay in Slate today that wins points for turning arguments completely upside-down. In "Lab Politics," author Daniel Sarewitz encapsulates pretty much his entire point in the subtitle: "most scientists in this country are Democrats, and that's a problem."

So far, so good--although my own politics aren't likely to turn Red anytime soon, I don't disagree with his observation. Problem is that he seems to think that the fault of this imbalance lies largely with the scientists themselves, rather than a Republican Party whose unequivocal anti-scientific, anti-intellectual rhetoric has driven the vast majority of scientists away.

Sarewitz spends most of his time discussing the climate change debate, and making the very slippery contention that "disagreements over climate change are essentially political--and that science is just carried along for the ride." To be fair, he doesn't quite assert this: rather, he asks it rhetorically, implying that there's more than a grain of truth to it. He explains:

For 20 years, evidence about global warming has been directly and explicitly linked to a set of policy responses demanding international governance regimes, large-scale social engineering, and the redistribution of wealth. These are the sort of things that most Democrats welcome, and most Republicans hate. No wonder the Republicans are suspicious of the science.

There are at least two misconceptions here. First is that "evidence" about global warming is directly linked to a political program by the scientists themselves--implying that scientists are working in lock-step with the Democratic political establishment to bring about policy change. This is largely nonsense, and ironically describes fairly accurately how the other party operates. Second, nobody "welcomed" climate change as an excuse to legislate "large-scale social engineering,"--whatever that means--so his whole analysis sounds like a daydream to me.

Climate change is a fact. It's extent can be debated, but not its existence. To pretend that "Republicans are suspicious of the science" is to give the Republicans far too much credit: they simply deny that there's any scientific validity to anything with which they disagree a priori. No wonder the Republicans are suspicious of the science--good grief! The Republicans don't believe in evolution! How could you expect them to believe in anything that requires scientific literacy? No Republican politician in this country can reasonably expect to gain the presidential nomination if they support the teaching of evolution in public schools. How could you expect scientists to willingly join such ranks?

There are thinkers on the public scene who are vocal enthusiasts for science and who simultaneously hold beliefs that don't dovetail with the Democratic party: author and football columnist Gregg Easterbrook is one such voice of whom Billy is fond. A generation ago, his politics would have put him squarely in the center of the Republican party. But the Republicans sold their soul to the devil around that time, and decided that the best way to deal with the fallout of unpleasant scientific facts was to attack science itself. Those intellectuals are in search of a home, neither comfortable with the Democratic party (Billy sympathizes, though he no longer finds his home there because he's fallen off the other edge) for political reasons, nor with the Republicans because of their hate-mongering anti-intellecutalism.

So please, Mr. Sarewitz, spare me the false equivalencies.