Are blogs better than newspapers for medical reporting?

February 25, 2010

Dr. Val Jones writes about the utter pointlessness of trying to reason scientifically with mainstream  journalists on the blog Science-Based Medicine. Asked to contribute a skeptical perspective to the introduction of Reiki and other energy-based healing treatments to inpatients at a hospital in Maryland he – just to see what would happen – recorded his side of the story, which, in essence, is that there was neither evidence nor a plausible explanation for any of these practices.

“I did my level best to be compelling, empathic, and fair,” writes Dr. Jones, “but in the final analysis, not a single word of what I said made it into her  article. In fact, the final piece is free of any skepticism whatsoever. To Dr. Jones the take-home message from the experience is that:

“blogs like Science Based Medicine seem to offer the only guarantee of unedited rational thought on matters of health and medicine. Thank goodness we’re no longer beholden to mainstream media for all our health news and commentary. It is a shame that most consumers get their news from TV and other outlets that don’t seem to maintain a journalistic quality filter.”

To be fair, he was talking to Southern Maryland Newspapers Online, which doesn’t look like it pays its reporters more than $20-30k a year, if that. But is it reasonable to assume from this experience that blogs are more rational than newspapers in their coverage of health and medicine – or is a frustrated Dr. Jones turning his own anecdote into data?

A recent paper on accuracy in the media by Brian Trench and Steven Knowlton, two Irish academics at Dublin City University’s School of Communications, offers some perspective on the errors in science reporting: Studies in the 1970s, for instance managed to classify 42 kinds of error, from which scientists recruited to examine the media coverage “identified on average 6.2 errors per story, with only 9% of the stories held to be free of errors, a much lower rating than for general news.”

A 1990 study found  “that 40% of the stories contained statements ‘substantially different’ from the source document,” while a 1995 study “tracked back from media references to studies on breast cancer and found that over two thirds of the citations contained inaccuracies, including shift in emphasis, reporting speculation as fact and overgeneralising.”

Knowlton and Trench point out that science journalism fails most when it comes to putting data into context; reporters are prone to crib from press releases, which are themselves sources of inaccuracy, and leave it at that. As they note,

“The science-related errors reported here and in other such studies include those of significant omission and absence of qualifying statements, in other words, weak contextualisation. It is in these ‘subjective’ areas that the definitions of accuracy most obviously diverge between journalists and various types of source.”

So yes, it would appear that Dr. Jones prognostication is more correct than not.


Aliens tired of saucer-shaped spacecraft; flashing lights, abduction still popular

February 18, 2010

Flying saucers? So 1950s. Visiting aliens from outer space now favor triangular style craft, with or without flashing lights, according to the fifth release of UFO data from Britain’s Ministry of Defence. As CNN reports:

“The release highlights how the reported shapes of UFOs have changed during the past half-century, the National Archives said. Many of the reports in the latest file describe UFOs as big, black and triangular, whereas reports from the 1940s and ’50s tended to be about saucers or disc-shaped objects, they said.

“In the 1950s the next big leap in technology was thought to be a round craft that took off vertically, and it’s intriguing to note that this is the same period when people began to report seeing ‘flying saucers’ in the sky,” said David Clarke, author of a book called The UFO Files and a journalism lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University.”

Britain’s Ministry of Defence decided to make all its archives available to the public  due to the relentless requests filed under the country’s freedom of information laws. It has also decided to stop tracking UFO observations. As the Guardian’s  Nick Pope notes:

“As one reads the files, one can sense the MoD’s growing irritation with the subject – an irritation that arguably culminated on 1 December 2009 when the MoD finally disengaged altogether and announced that they would no longer be investigating UFO sightings reported by the public. Some of the files are entitled “persistent correspondent”. This is a coded way of saying “this person is becoming a nuisance”. As will be seen in future file releases – the last files won’t be released until 2011 – this frustration boiled over when the Freedom of Information Act came fully into force.”

When pressed by one correspondent for its policies for dealing with aliens kidnapping humans, Pope writes that the MOD responded with the ulitmate in  not-my-problem explanations: “Abduction is a criminal offence and as such is a matter for the civil police.”

UFOs: the (boring) truth is out there

Stories such as the Michael Howard UFO report are entertaining – but the MoD archives sadly explode the ‘X-Files’ myths

flying saucer

The MoD has released files on UFO sightings covering the period 1994-2000. Photograph: Getty

There’s an old saying that the best place to hide a book is in a library. The latest Ministry of Defence UFO files released to the National Archives contain more than 6,000 pages of documentation, so if there was a memo somewhere in there saying the MoD had a crashed spaceship hidden away in an RAF hangar somewhere, it might not be found.

Before I start all manner of conspiracy theories with that remark, however, I should say that there is no such memo and no such spaceship – and I say that as someone who spent three years of my 21-year MoD career working on this issue.

This is the fifth batch of UFO files to be made available and is part of an ongoing three-year programme to release the entire archive. The decision to release the files was taken in 2007, to deal with the administrative burden of responding to requests made under the Freedom of Information Act. At one time, MoD was receiving more FOI requests on UFOs than on any other subject.

The newly released files cover the period 1994 to 2000. It’s interesting to note that the cult TV series The X-Files was at the height of its popularity at this time. Might this have influenced people making UFO reports?

I’m sceptical about the link between science fiction and UFO sightings. While the popularity of The X-Files might make some people speculate about aliens and government cover-ups, there’s no evidence to suggest that sci-fi films and TV shows influence people’s perceptions of anything strange that they see. Given the current stratospheric popularity of the blockbuster movie Avatar, if people were being influenced by sci-fi in the way suggested, we’d be inundated with reports of people seeing blue aliens. We’re not!

So, how do the MoD’s real-life Mulders and Scullys compare to their fictional counterparts? Having done the job myself, from 1991 to 1994, I’m sorry to have to report that it’s not quite as glamorous as people might suspect. There’s no running around dark warehouses with guns and torches. It’s more a case of asking colleagues in the RAF to check the radar tapes and writing polite letters back to members of the public, stating that most UFOs turn out to be misidentifications of ordinary objects and phenomena.

For those with the patience to wade through 6,000 pages of documents, it’s a mixed bag. There’s a great deal of mundane correspondence between the MoD and the public, together with a vast number of UFO sightings which are clearly aircraft lights, satellites or meteors. But there is some more interesting material.

As well as today’s news story regarding the sighting of a large, triangular “humming” object in the sky above Michael Howard’s Folkestone home, other examples include the UFO seen by a police officer over the ground of Chelsea FC, and the air traffic controller at Prestwick who tracked an uncorrelated target on radar, travelling at phenomenal speed. Most disturbing, however, is the incident that occurred on 6 January 1995, when a Boeing 737 on approach to Manchester airport nearly collided with a delta-shaped UFO. The pilot and first officer both witnessed this and made an official report. Neither the MoD nor the Civil Aviation Authority could find any explanation.

As one reads the files, one can sense the MoD’s growing irritation with the subject – an irritation that arguably culminated on 1 December 2009 when the MoD finally disengaged altogether and announced that they would no longer be investigating UFO sightings reported by the public. Some of the files are entitled “persistent correspondent”. This is a coded way of saying “this person is becoming a nuisance”. As will be seen in future file releases – the last files won’t be released until 2011 – this frustration boiled over when the Freedom of Information Act came fully into force.


STATS Fellow Maia Szalavitz on ABC News

February 17, 2010

Last night, ABC News continued their series, ‘Family in Crisis: At the Breakpoint,’ which examines the options parents have to help their children. This segment focused on the “tough love” approach and whether it is helpful or harmful to those who are dealing with drug addiction.

“Tough love”, as Maia Szalavitz explains in today’s Huffington Post article, is the method of “breaking people in order to fix them”. She says:

“…the main point I want to make today is that whenever empathetic and supportive approaches to the treatment of addiction have been compared to tough love, empathy always wins-and by a large margin.”

Fellow experts agree as well. Maureen Channing, clinical consultant for The Meadows Rehabilitation Center in Arizona, explains in her ABC interview:

“What I see in our field is an evolution taking place…A little bit more sophistication in exploring the bigger picture with the individual, and in so doing, I think we are able to set limits and boundaries as opposed to erect walls around the individual.”

Szalavitz says that cutting all ties from the addict should be a last resort:

“If the person is stealing from you or if the person is engaging in behavior that’s hurting you, you may have to cut them off for your own good… But don’t think that that’s going to fix them either.”

The story reveals that balance is essential for helping an addict. Parents should be adamant that the addict change their destructive behavior and seek help; however, family members should also be willing to offer support and empathy.

You can watch this segment here.


Scientautism: A bad week gets worse for Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey

February 12, 2010

A week ago, America’s top vaccine schmexperts, Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey, denounced the General Medical Council in England. The Council  reprimanded Dr. Andrew Wakefield over the way he conducted his experiments on children for a paper, published in the Lancet in 1998, which can be credited with launching the idea that vaccines cause autism into mainstream public consciousness. The Lancet retracted the paper.

JennyJim described the Council as a “kangaroo” court in hock to BigPharma;  the Council described Wakefield’s research as “misleading” “dishonest” and “irresponsible.” Ten of the 13 authors had already disavowed the study.

As proof of the vital work Dr. Wakefield was doing on autism, JennyJim hailed a new paper he co-authored -

“…along with eight other distinguished scientists from institutions like the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Kentucky, and the University of Washington, of a set of studies that explore the topic of vaccinated versus unvaccinated neurological outcomes using monkeys.

The first phase of this monkey study was published three months ago in the prestigious medical journal Neurotoxicology, and focused on the first two weeks of life when the vaccinated monkeys received a single vaccine for Hepatitis B, mimicking the U.S. vaccine schedule. The results, which you can read for yourself HERE, were disturbing. Vaccinated monkeys, unlike their unvaccinated peers, suffered the loss of many reflexes that are critical for survival.”

The paper, which was published online last October, has now been withdrawn “at the request of the editor” of NeuroToxicology.

In a further agonistic development, a new case-control study to be published in the May edition of the Pediatric Infant Disease Journal failed to find an association between the MMR vaccine and autism; in fact, “for children vaccinated before diagnosis, autism risk was lower in children vaccinated with MMR than in the nonvaccinated.” (hat tip – Ben Goldacre)


“Yes, we can” more like “no, we can’t” when it comes to obesity

February 10, 2010

While one can only applaud the Obama administration’s energetic approach to obesity, it has to be pointed out that solving the problem isn’t going to be quite as simple as the first lady appears to think it is:

“This isn’t like a disease where we’re still waiting for a cure to be discovered – we know the cure for this,” Obama said. “This isn’t like putting a man on the moon or inventing the Internet. It doesn’t take some stroke of genius or feat of technology.”

Actually, it’s a lot more difficult than putting a man on the moon or creating the Internet. These were engineering and mathematical problems.  But as New York Times science writer Gina Kolata pointed out it in”Rethinking Thin”  (a great summary is here), even with the best intentions in the world, most dieters fail. Moderate exercise doesn’t really work to reduce weight. There are astonishingly robust physiological mechanisms that prevent weight loss — and the genetic factors determining weight may be set in the womb and driven by our broader food secure and sedentary lifestyle.

In fact, what is most notable about the research on tackling obesity is that it points to the  futility of  “no, we can’t” rather than the hope that  “yes, we can.”


Silicon Ale-y

February 9, 2010

New research shows, that yes, beer might just be good for your bones. The study finds that the beverage is rich in dietary silicon which, in addition to calcium, is important for bone health. The findings will be published in this month’s issue of Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture.

100 commercial beers were tested and it was found that the silicon level varies greatly depending on the type of beer, with amounts ranging from 6.4 to 56.5 percent.  The Los Angeles Times reports that in beer, silicon is present in the form of soluble orthosilicic acid and about half of that can be absorbed by the body.

According to Live Science, the researchers found that India Pale Ales have the highest average silicon levels, with an average of 41.2 mg/L. Rounding out the top three is Pale Ale with 36.5 mg/L and ales with 32.8 mg/L.  Light lagers (17.2 mg/L) and non-alcoholic beers (16.3 mg/L) had the lowest silicon levels.

Charles Bamforth, lead study author and professor in the food science technology department at the University of California, Davis, says:

“Beers containing high levels of malted barley and hops are richest in silicon…Wheat contains less silicon than barley because it is the husk of the barley that is rich in this element. While most of the silicon remains in the husk during brewing, significant quantities of silicon nonetheless are extracted into wort and much of this survives into beer.”

Of course downing beer to increase the strength of your bones is not the best decision for your health. As the LA Times points out:

“Dr. Tim Byers of the University of Colorado Cancer Center is widely quoted today saying, ‘To conclude any bone health benefits from this study would require a great leap.’ Other researchers noted that heavy consumption is more likely to lead to bone damage when you fall over and break a leg or arm and that heavy alcohol consumption has a variety of deleterious effects.”

Although the study authors seem to be aware of this, saying to “Choose the beer you enjoy. Drink it in moderation.”


Bankers are like child abusers, says psychoanalyst

February 4, 2010

Today belongs to MedPage Today for its fascinating coverage of the American Psychoanalytic Association’s recent meeting in New York, which included an analysis of the financial crisis.The message? Don’t just blame greed: that may work as explanation in an Oliver Stone movie, but the psychoanalytic perspective is that other, equally powerful emotions kicked in once banking stopped being boring as a profession.

The entire process of consulting with financial (and not psycho) analysts, studying patterns and forecasts, stimulates the imagination and stirs up fantasies much like gambling, but with the illusion of greater scientificity.

At the same time, reports MedPage Today’s Kristina Fiore, the financial crisis revealed parallels with trauma theory. According to David M. Sachs, MD, it is false to assume that market abusers, like spousal or child abusers, will change their behavior; in fact, they are more likely to shift the blame to their victims.

This evasion of responsibility might explain why we didn’t see the classic financial  disaster trope of self-defenestration in the recent crash. In the stock market losses of the 1980s, leaping off the ledge seemed like the only response to losing other people’s fortunes, as it did in the crash of 1929, when syndicated columnist Will Rogers wrote that “you had to stand in line to get a window to jump out of, and speculators were selling space for bodies in the East River.”

In fact, as Bennett Lowenthal has pointed out, just two people used Wall Street as a perch to fall into the great hereafter after taking losses in the stock market crash of 1929. Black Monday in 1987 didn’t drive brokers and bankers over the ledge either, and the high profile financial suicides documented by New York Magazine may, in fact, shrink into statistical insignificance when compared to the overall number of people working in finance.

All of which might spell more rather than less anxiety for the pyschoanalytic profession, as research presented at the conference shows that the thought of a patient committing suicide is more distressing for analysts than a patient actually committing suicide. Clearly, the cliched stage-of-life leaping exits during financial crashes are more thought-about and talked-about than resolved with a thud. The question, I suppose, is how many bankers and brokers are patients who just haven’t made an appointment.

Other topics discussed at the meeting included the need for psychoanalysts to get out more. Harold Kudler, MD said that the idea that analysts were “introspective denizens of their own quiet offices” needed to be countered by leaving the office for mutually enriching engagements with the community outside.

Perhaps this will also lead to less rumination and more hard work. When the annual output of the top three psychoanalytic journals between 2001 and 2008 was combined, researchers  “found 76 original research articles, which yielded a mean of 9.5 total articles per year — only about three in each journal.”

As the lead author put it, “That’s not very many in a scientific field.”

The call for more rigorous research speaks to the wider, and fundamental debate over whether psychoanalysis, in its classic and commonly understood “Freudian” conception can actually be scientific.  As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who had a keen interest in the field, observed, the underlying problem with Freudian analysis is that it conflates possible reasons for thinking or doing something with actual causes for thinking or doing something. Popper dismissed psychoanalysis as unfalsifiable, and therefore immune to scientific validation.

Given these longstanding criticisms and the revelations that Freud was less-than-ethical in his treatment of his patients, psychoanalysis has been fighting a rearguard battle against irrelevance. But the backlash may have devalued not just psychoanalytic approaches to psychology, but also the value of psychotherapy. Not all behavioral diagnoses are necessarily neurological in orgin, admitting only treatment by medication, and as Esther Fine, PhD told the meeting:

“Unfortunately, it is now a prevalent notion that it is no longer necessary or relevant to understand the unconscious meaning of psychological symptoms. It’s becoming a popular idea to consider psychoanalysis, and even psychotherapy, ‘dinosaurs’ in the treatment of mental disorders.”

Given the rapid increase in prescription treatments for ADHD, it may be, Fine warned, that  teachers are  turning into interpretative shrinks, and parents, who seek a quick-pharma fix from their pediatricians, are avoiding  the possibility that they, and not neurology, are their child’s underlying problem.


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