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Lest You Want to Do More Than Sit Under The Tuscan Sun

Blue Screens

When I traveled to Italy a few years ago I found the blue screens on computers to be the most memorable travel experience, you know, aside from the terraces and olives and Caravaggios of travel lit - the "Blue Screens of Death". I hadn't seen so many blue screens since the 1990's. Fresh off the plane, the machine to purchase tickets took our money without producing train tickets. The station agent cocked his head and displayed doleful eyes at our request for a refund. Like it was the most absurd thing he'd ever heard! Then he walked around the room gesticulating at exhibits A, B, C, D...all blue screens on all computers, and he explained verbosely in Italian: That's why we wouldn't get a refund. He did finally produce our tickets, not because we explained how to fix the screen problem - which he dismissed with a flick of the hand; not because we subsequently insisted that he use a telephone work-around; but most likely because we threatened to sit there forever. We are usually in a big business hurry, but...

That was only the beginning of Blue Screens in Italy. Blue screens at the airport, blue screens at internet cafes, the hotels, the train stations, the offices, even at the empty museum exhibit -- how? This was a far cry from countries even a decade earlier where the remotest places, say in Asia, got on online and stayed up and doing business. That was my Italian experience.

Trials

Today, Italy is still looking a little medieval, isn't it? All that ancient stone architecture with the tiny little windows romantic in one view, lends a sinister backdrop to the bizarre Perugia murder trial, which Perugians complain sullied their town's reputation.

Then there's the other trial, that of the seismologists being tried for information they supposedly didn't provide to townspeople of L'Acquila before the earthquake. Thousands of scientists have written to protest the prosecution of scientists. Actually, the scientists did relay the risk of earthquake on that day, about 1:1000, but subsequently a government official garbled the message. At the same time, disturbingly, a non-scientist was claiming (falsely) to be able to predict earthquakes based on radon gas measurements. So that radon-guy jacked the townspeople up, then the official tried to reassure them, now the scientists are on trial.1

Shutting Down Speech

This week, the computer screens went black in Italy. The government introduced a new wiretapping bill that imposed severe restrictions on online speech. The Italian bill declared that the online author of any 'alleged defamation' would need to correct the problem within 48 hours or be punished by a large fine. Guilt of defamation would be in the eyes of the "defamed". Wikipedia protested with a blackout.

Wikipedia's action got the bill partially changed to apply only to larger businesses, not blogs and Wikipedia. But as Nieman Lab explains, the bill stills stands. Furthermore, it's the overall state of press freedom in Italy that's "dismal". As Nieman Lab writes:

"Berlusconi owns the influential private media company Mediaset; he exercises direct control over state television. Italy's 100,000 professional journalists, to get work, must belong to the Ordine dei Giornalisti -- a group that is, in effect, a modern-day guild. This year's Freedom House survey of global press freedom, citing 'heavy media concentration and official interference in state-owned outlets,' ranked Italy as only 'partly free."

It makes it seem like blue screens would be the least of their problems. I know, it's totally biased to judge Italy on these select things, just it would be to judge Americans on their predilection for their cowboy hats, guns and anti-science moves. Nieman Labs interviews several people (from Perugia) who understandably worry how severely the government threatens press freedom. And of course many other governments, not only Italy, seek to curtail internet expression. If governments continue to corral the "Internet" -- rather, the now familiar "internet" - will we have to start calling it the "Intranets"?

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1 In a recent post, we criticized Fox News for profiteering on the weird, absurd, and false earthquake predictions of Jim Berkland. This trial adds another dangerous twist to Berkland's odd-ball predictions. Confusing people about the real risks isn't just bad for science, it's an actual liability for governments.

Science Blogging: The Better Journalism?

Science Journalism Debauchery

Has anyone aside from science bloggers had so many rules imposed on them? OK, maybe science journalists. In the 1990's, when the debate over genetically modified (GM) seeds motivated the headline: "MUTANT CROPS COULD KILL YOU" (Express February 18, 1999), the British government attempted to correct the fear-mongering headlines. That didn't work, so to stem future journalistic liberties of that sort, the Parliament tried to subdue the culture that propagated such rumors.

They issued a a lengthy report warning of further journalistic depredation from "the approaching era of digital TV" and the "increasing ghettoisation". (No mention of the internet.) More journalists needed to be "scientists", they said, after surveying GM stories put out by all of eleven UK publications over two days. Only 17% of the stories were written by science journalists, they found, and not any of the commentary came from "science writers". The Science and Technology Committee of the House of Commons, the Royal Society, and SmithKline Beecham suggested punishing future misbehavior, especially for getting the facts wrong:

"media coverage of scientific matters should be governed by a Code of Practice which stipulates that scientific stories should be factually accurate. Breaches of the Code of Practice should be referred to the Press Complaints Commission."

Of course an editor at the Independent responded describing how writers could conquer the facts but still mislead the reader. Thankfully, there's often a compelling counterargument. So in the end, the report's authors settled for a rather bland collection of guidelines dealing with Balance; Uncertainty; and Legitimacy.

And of course while the Parliament fretted about the fate of genetically engineered crops, over at News of The World...

Digital Science Journalism - Publishing Freedom

When science blogging came along it seemed to offer an alternative to the maligned mainstream media science journalism. But despite its growing stature, it too has been besieged by criticism. Some of this came from mainstream media, especially in the beginning.

But interestingly, while traditional science journalism often gets attacked from the outside, online science journalists indulge in lots and lots of self-flagellation. Perhaps this is to be expected from people who labor at the frontier of the often masochistic bench science, replete with high rates of experimental failure. Or perhaps self-criticism makes it easier for science bloggers to generate conversation? Work out their identities? Get traffic?

Of course there's much more to online science journalism then blogging, but I'm going to limit my comments to that. Acronym Required started about seven years ago, and from the rather echoey halls of 2004 science blogging, the medium exploded. Now it impressively fills some of the gaping holes in other science journalism.

We last commented on the state of "science" television programming in 2007 -- and why comment further? The science blogging world offers an amazingly vibrant alternative, filled with witty, reflective, analytical, smart, and generous writers -- especially considering the frequent debauchery of mainstream journalism. Which makes the persistent whine of self-criticism all the more puzzling. Is it some evolutionary thrust gripping science bloggers to impose governing rules on their peers?

This is especially amusing in the context of how blogs started, to augment search. Search itself started in a era that included the (albeit, totally unrealistic) perception of internet as free of boundaries, regulations, and governments. Consider this piece from early 1996:

"We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth. We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity."

Radical, but the philosophy is actually alive and well among quite a few technologists today.

Search back then was pretty rudimentary, thus the role of blogs. To understand just how rudimentary, look at this old Yahoo page with its awesome user interface. (Accompanied by the great ad with a winking person who looks photo-shopped from two different faces, asking awkwardly: "So, My Yahoo! or yours?".)

My point is, the world in which blogging started was simple. For one, an early blog was often not much more than some geek saying -- "hey I found this cool site": link -- so I'm cool too, right? These "trusted links" made a prehistoric stab at "community" and "personalization" -- because who could trust something called the "World Wide Web", with its random collection of and unknown "links"?

Secondly, through innovation if not mindset, the Internet and blogging celebrated independence from tradition. As the internet expanded, many bloggers took to the medium in defiance of the exclusive world and onerous rules of offline publishing. The audience for blogs in the beginning was a very small group of internet users, frontiersmen strongly connected by their independence, who were by default "the community".

Page Views

As the originators of the real commercial internet intended, soon people realized they could make advertising money on the internet, and "pageviews" became an all important metric. The number of people publishing on the internet grew and bloggers were then advised to "keep it short". This advice about post-length was couched as insight about readers short attention spans. But it was as much about drawing pageviews and revenue. "Keep it short" and the unspoken "make us money" became compulsory over 'make it interesting'.

When Tumblr and Twitter arrived on the scene with truly short-form platforms, some of the same organizations then suggested that blogs could actually be a venue for "long-form" writing. Finally, just as the fashion industry moved away from dictating skirt lengths sometime in the 1980s, people eventually stopped dictating ideal post length. Of course they still told people what to do, they just moved on from making demands on post length.

To Join Or Not To Join

It's my impression that science bloggers find more rules to bandy about than others, but granted, I don't have enough data to swear that economists, say, are really more laissez-faire. I couldn't possibly document all the various rules that science bloggers have proposed for other science bloggers over the years, but to illustrate my point, I'll mention a few.

First there's the question of where to host your blog. Some insist that science bloggers should join a science blogging network. This came about when the number of online science bloggers reached a point where they could actually form a group. Those advocating joining offer compelling reasons -- traffic, exposure, "community". Now, the number of such science blogging "communities" has surpassed our ability to keep track of them. There are still pros and cons to joining of course, depending on your goals, technical abilities, impressions of the different online venues, how your schedule might accommodate blogging, etc. But your agreeable answer to join is existentially far more critical to a potential host than to you. After all, the hosts wouldn't exist without the bloggers.

Of course the notion of "online community" includes many possibilities. Communities can be collaborative, nurturing, educational - great; or, if you've observed them in action, joining such an online science community can be like joining the military, where participants -- "travel to exotic foreign lands, meet interesting and exciting people, then kill them."

Proving Your Worth

Once the blogger decides where to put their blog, a barrage of other considerations and demands will follow. For example, in 2007 bloggers for peer-reviewed research reporting (BPR3) emerged, proposing

"to identify serious academic blog posts about peer-reviewed research by offering an icon and an aggregation site where others can look to find the best academic blogging on the Net."

While interesting as a business aggregation proposal, the blog "Peer-To-Peer" diplomatically commented on the idea, saying it would be impossible for such an icon to assure the "quality of the blog post itself". Or, we might add, to insure the quality of the writer's analysis, the quality of the science journal, the quality of the science research, and so on.

Questions of ethics in science blogging are constant, carrying on from earlier discussions of ethics in blogging and science journalism. Way back in 2003, bloggers started wondering whether they should adopt journalists' standards. Perhaps journalism in 2003 was wrapped in mystique that shrouded realities like "MUTANT CROPS COULD KILL YOU", but the drumbeat of ethics has since trailed science bloggers. I can't see how this could be useful people have written strong arguments noting that blogging wouldn't exist if bloggers weren't ethical. Nor has the whole ethics thing really led to changed behavior as far as I can see, but those who push "ethics" will forever peer over our shoulders.

Still other people demand, as the Parliament did 1999, that science bloggers/journalists only blog about things they know. Quite a qualitative statement considering variations in breadth and depth of knowledge among both scientists and journalists. A comment here provides a good rebuttal to that idea. You could also reason that writing solely about what you know at any moment, like the biomechanics of kangaroo tendons, for instance, despite how interesting that may be to you, might be a good way to become a lazy, narrow minded, outdated, and one bored stiff writer to say nothing of your readers'.

Recently the subjects of anonymity and pseudonymity re-emerged and preoccupied many science bloggers. I'm not going to weigh down this post talking about that, except to note 1) that the discussion has largely revolved around the value and necessity of a particular type of individual authentication, and 2) that the discussion has largely ignored the politics and economics driving such individual authentication.

Other people try mark out precise roles for science bloggers/journalists. Science writers should be "educators", they say, or "explainers", or priests of "how things work". Each such suggestion is an invitation for extensive discussion and cogitation, and naturally other people will vehemently disagree with every proposal. So then why don't bloggers just do what suits them best? Or does the constant criticism and re-definition create "community" (and pageviews)?

Getting The Details Right

We've touched on some general instructions to bloggers about how to blog about science. There are more detailed demands too, aimed at all of science blogging and journalism, as the divisions between online and offline media blur. For instance:

  • 2005: Don't use the word "Global Warming": Thus implored some scientists reasoning that people would confuse climate change with their local weather.
  • 2006: Don't use big words: So lectured the film "Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus". The version I saw at Tribeca, 2006 highlighted words used by scientists in dialogue that were "too big", while characterizing Intelligent Design folks as small word people, i.e. comparatively approachable and understandable. It employed character assassination on all fronts by advising scientists to drop their testy, pompous attitudes, while basically infantilizing people who were religious. Some scientists took this whole thing to heart, overlooking how the movie slyly played to both audiences. People who knew the fairly simple polysyllabic words could be secretly smug that they knew the words when the definitions flashed on the screen like some weird spelling bee; and the other side of the audience could be smug about the portrayal of scientists as surly and smug.

  • 2007: Don't publish on Fridays: The IPCC panel and hundreds of scientists took flack from the communication "framers" for publishing their 2007 report on a Friday (link accessed 04/11) because 'any veteran journalist would know better'. The same post chastised the report for lacking "drama" like portraying "polar bears on melting ice". The authors gave another paper kudos for "reframing the IPCC report" with a "corruption angle" that gave it "more legs". In other words, said the framers, don't be scientists or reporters be PR ringmasters.
  • 2008 "Don't use the word "denial", "denialist", or "denier": Some scientists said that labeling climate change denialists as such was pejorative.

At the time, each of these instructions drew passionate discussions. But times change -- or don't change. Today it's fine to use "global warming" and "denialist". Science Friday still airs to large audiences on Fridays, and Science Magazine successfully publishes, Friday, after Friday, after Friday.

As charming as "Flock of Dodos" was - do big words really make science/scientists extinct? If we believe that message, should we then be discouraged that in 4 years, the Flock of Dodos trailer has 13,376 views on Youtube, while Hoax of Dodos, the Discovery Institutes pathetically best response, has almost as many -- 11,405 views? OK true, the "Pulled Punches" video (cut scenes from Flock of Dodos) has 18,605 views. But for perspective on what 18,605 views means on YouTube, the video "Emma Watson Punches Interviewer" (Jan 19, 2006), has 4,159,895 (all view numbers as of 05/11). Despite the fact that "Punch" is a catchy keyword to put in your comparatively boring science video, what does all this mean for science and science journalism?

"Blogging" is Worthy

What if none of these rules and instructions make science blogging "better", whatever better is? What if people still deny climate change for example, no matter what the facts and no matter what manner we convey them? While pursuing better communication is incredibly important, as is presenting ideas compellingly, how much of science knowledge lost by miscommunication is really any responsibility or fault of scientists and journalists (online or offline)? How much should be attributed to the political inclinations, personal distractions, and various passions of our audiences?

In reality most science journalists have zero time to write stories, whether or not they have generous deadlines. Those stories must always be very compelling just to get read. The extreme example of this fact, illustrated by a UK journalist, applies to most writing:

"You are writing to impress someone hanging from a strap in the tube between Parson's Green and Putney, who will stop reading in a fifth of a second.

We may not like this. We may wish readers didn't prefer reading science only when it's infused with sex or violence or something that 99% of the population have some opinion on. We may wish that journalists really comprised some "fourth estate", or could make a difference, or could educate readers. What if science writers could just all write about their own fascinating interest, rather than about something dictated by advertising? And what if the audience would just read, and not worry about about ethics, badges of legitimacy or whether education was happening as they read?

But until science journalists make a lot more money or have a lot more time, that won't happen on any large scale basis. But most science bloggers write for free or pittance. And if you write mostly for free on a blog, shouldn't you just write? Or does it have to be for some higher purpose (agreed upon by the consensus of one of many "communities")? Because wasn't that the whole purpose of blogging?

Science bloggers should keep in mind what their up against. The lifeblood of mainstream media consists of headlines the likes of this week's "GM Blunder Contaminates Britain With Mutant Crops", about "Frankenstein" crops.

So I'm sure whatever you write, dear blogger, will stand up just fine. And until "offline" journalism reaches different standards, can we stop insisting/demanding/pleading that bloggers "ARE journalists too"? Maybe science blogging could stand on its own apart from journalism if the community of science bloggers trusted themselves.

The Confusion of Science & Medical Research (Part II)

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In our last post we riffed off column in the New York Times titled "Medicine of the Move" (earlier titled "The Body Politic"), where Gail Collins opened with the statement: "sometimes you just want to tell the medical profession to make up its mind". Granted, we conceded, medicine and science can seem confusing. We described in Part I how medical profession recommendations come from science research, which the press can make appear contradictory. As an example, we showed differences between caffeine/diabetes research as presented in the media, compared to the research presented in the original source. We walked through different experimental protocols that would appear to show different results to the unpracticed reader. Finally, we emphasized that although headlines make ordinary science progress into "news" every day, a small research step reported in the "news" should not be confused with a public health recommendation.

As for public health recommendations, yes, doctors change them. But is it that the medical profession that "can't make up it's mind"? After all, medical advice comes from science research studies. Maybe it's scientists who can't make up their minds? In this post I'll explain why people puzzle me when they often complain that doctors/scientists "can't make up their minds". Secondly, I'll explain why I believe this popular notion is actually dangerous.

Would the World Be Better if The Medical Profession Didn't Evolve?

My first point I'll pose in the form of a question -- would the complainers rather that science and medicine be static than dynamic? Lets take the subject of Collins' NYT column that dealt with hormone therapy for female menopause.

First, lets look briefly at medical history. Hormone therapy came of age in the 1960's, a half a century ago. For perspective, let's look at an accelerated time frame. A century ago, doctors didn't understand that bacteria caused food poisoning. Doctors who admitted patients for so-called "ptomaine poisoning" could wash out patients' mouths, insert tubes in their stomachs, feed them milk, and wring their hands as they watched people stricken with food-borne bacterial infections die. Fifty years later, things had progressed. By mid-century, scientists understood bacterial infections and how they could be treated with antibiotics.

Medicine in the 1950's and 1960's saw the advent of the polio vaccine, the development of ultrasound to see babies inside the womb, and treatment of chronic kidney failure by hemodialysis. In 1960 and 1961 scientists along the East Coast of the US learned that the Hepatitis A virus was caused by shellfish contaminated with raw sewage. In the 1950's and 1960's doctors made major advances in cardiac surgery so they could repair congenital heart defects in babies. Such repairs became feasible when doctors realized that they could use a patient's relative as a live "heart and lung machine". From that 'proof of concept' technology advanced to machines that could keep patients oxygenated during heart surgery. As you can imagine, the first "heart surgeries" were risky business, and are new procedures in every field of medicine, especially surgery. The 1950's and 1960's brought major improvements to medicine, but in fits and starts. Mid-century, post WWII was the era when hormone therapy became popular.

Who To Blame?

Based on recent findings about the risks associated with hormone therapy, women and doctors now hesitate before turning to hormone therapy. Collins, who developed breast cancer that she attributes to hormone therapy, ended her NYT column with this: "Actually, I don't blame anyone. Except maybe the guy who wrote that "Feminine Forever" book." She's referring to an early hormone therapy proponent and author, gynecologist Dr. Robert Wilson. Today, the book's title sounds suspiciously pseudo-medicine but it probably sounded different to women in the 1960's, half a century ago. At that time of "women's liberation", Wilson chastised the predominantly male medical community for being callous to women. A 1966 Time Magazine article described Mr. Wilson's complaints about doctors:

"physicians generally dismiss post-menopausal changes as part of the 'natural' aging process. Their attitude, [Dr. Wilson] suggests tartly, stems from the fact that "most doctors, being male, are themselves immune to the disease." As he sees it, the menopause is "castration," and [Wilson] asks whether his colleagues would tolerate so casually a similar fate in themselves.

So in the era of women's liberation, Wilson accused men as standing-by while women were one day bra-less free spirits, and the next day "castrated" at the youthful age of 50. Which is why in 1966, as Time Magazine wrote:

All over the U.S., women in their 40s and 50s are going to doctors and demanding "the pills that will keep me from growing old." Women in their 60s and over are asking for "pills to make me young again." In each case, what they are really asking for are doses of hormones to slow down or reduce the ravages of age.

Now, a half a century later, science studies are finally catching up with individual accounts and showing that some of the risks people had always worried about with hormone therapy could not be ignored. But for the last half a century some women got terrifying first hand knowledge of risks they probably had no had no idea they were assuming. Breast cancer is one of the most publicized concerns, with studies showing 8 in 10,000 women per year contract breast cancer who wouldn't have without hormone therapy. In addition, women who take estrogen and progestin risk more strokes, blood clots and urinary incontinence.

To be fair, there are associated decreases in the incidence of colorectal cancer and hip fractures with hormone therapy. Many women benefited and swore by hormone therapy. But the problem was, no woman nor her doctor could predict which risk vs. benefits bucket she might fall into. That's always the hardest part, predicting risk given very few knowns and a vast number of unknowns. Today scientists continue to do research in order to try to find a way that women can glean the benefits of hormone therapy but not incur the risks.

As hormone therapy fades in popularity it may seem intuitive to damn whoever made it popular. Perhaps hormone therapy was in part a cultural movement that's gone the way of hippies? Not quite. Half a century later, women's liberation is less of a cultural driving force in the United States, but women of all ages take take other risks, for instance with plastic surgery. Decades from now, this too might look silly. But now, there's all sorts of rational urging that not only to stay young looking, but to keep a job, to stay in the job market, women must stay looking youthful.

Moving away from the NYT column, if you want to cast blame, there lots of targets. Profit making companies -- pharmaceutical, insurance and media -- all distort public health knowledge. Much has been said about each of these industries. But people should just as well blame the human body for not making medical science easier and more predictable. Genetic variation assures that people can react differently to the same treatments. The same medication that cures one person, will do nothing for another, and in rare cases will kill another.

Many women never incurred any negative outcomes from hormone therapy. Scientists are still working to understand why. Doctor try to apply that knowledge for patients' health. Fortunately for all of us, scientists and doctors don't give up, therefore science and medicine continue to evolve. People who think change is a curse, who infer therefore that this progress is a curse should spend some time perusing old medical journals.

The Logic of Blaming Scientists

Medicine and science do change in half a century, true, and that's a good thing. But even if you're looking at science or medical progress over a short time span, does saying medicine/science can't make up its mind make sense?

Isn't it a little like saying "the press can't make up its mind"? After all, science research is almost always translated for the public by the press. So do "science columnists" like John Tierney at The New York Times behave in concert with journalists/data movers like Julian Assange at WikiLeaks? Can these journalists ("sources", to some) be lumped with TV personalities or "citizen journalists" at the Huffington Post? With twittering science journalism professors? Sure, you can clump together professionals if that feels convenient, but in an honest moment no one would compare the entire cohort of "scientists", "doctors", or even "journalists" to a school of ten thousand sardines flitting hither and thither through the sea until they expire in Santa Barbara harbor from depleting all available oxygen.

Just as absurd, the statement that science or medicine "can't make up its mind" presses the illogical notion that scientists collude in order to present the disparate or outlying findings that you immediately find looking across any subject's vast body of research. I'm sure scientists would love to be gifted with such inordinate non-existent powers over research grants, graduate student experiments, science publishing, reviewers, etc. in order to collude, but the universe is not so magical.

Clearly, these ideas about scientists' ignorance or malevolence do not make sense, but that does not stop their spread. And while the NYT lede was perhaps tongue in cheek, the very common sentiment that scientists can't tell what's really going on in all the conflicting research leads to more insidious behavior. This is our second point.

Fostering Dangerous Attitudes about Science and Medicine

Propagating the myth that scientists and doctors present "conflicting" results, and "can't make up their minds" leads citizens to exasperation with research. Few acknowledge how it's all filtered through the press. Fewer still peruse the even the summary, called an "abstract", of original studies, most of which are publicly available online (for instance health at Pubmed).

In this way, the commonly expressed sentiment that scientists change their minds can become in essence a self-serving excuse for apathy: 'How can I take care of my health when scientists and doctors can't even make up their minds?' As the subtitle of the NYT article puts it: "It's very difficult to be a civilian in the world of science." Oh, woe are we. But ironically, by blaming scientists/doctors, citizens resign themselves to fate and thus open themselves to manipulation.

So second to pointing out the fundamental essence of science and medicine that advances at a rapid pace, fortunately for us, I suggest that the myth that scientists can't make up their mind is insidiously destructive because it enables manipulation of the public in matters of science and medicine.

Take personal health. If people believe they are helpless, they're less likely to try and understand the science that effects them, less likely to do research, and less likely ask questions of doctors. Distrust of allopathic medicine can also lead people to ignore doctors, to turn to "woo-woo" theories, or to become susceptible to relentless pharmaceutical advertising and absurd press headlines aimed at readers. It's fine to criticize woo-woo science, as many scientist do, taking on homeopathy, acupuncture, anti-vax, chiropractic, chrystals, etc.; but scientists and critics are intellectually blinkered if they do that without acknowledging the anti-science industry that gives these sorts of "healers" their power.

Once people have fully accepted the premise that scientists and doctors "can't make up their minds" on health, it's a small step to convince them that science can't make up "it's mind" on anything else either.

Are climate scientists predicting an Ice Age or Global Warming cry shills for energy "business as usual" (BAU) such as fossil fuel lobbies? And now half the US population doesn't believe in climate change, a situation that doesn't bode well for any species. I simplify of course, people also choose not to believe in climate change because they don't see anything they can do about it. But often that learned helplessness starts with a false indictment of scientists. As in personal health, the false indictment that scientists really don't know anyway is self-serving because it breeds fatalistic apathy.

The apathy leads to further victimization by those who work most effectively when citizens don't pay to close attention. Not only do people believe they can't do anything about global warming, they justify their stance by saying the scientists don't know what's happening either. This becomes the perfect atmosphere for severe policy moves like the destruction of the EPA. Polluted air and water disproportionately effect the elderly, poor, and very young who can't protest, but in the end it will effect everyone. Propagating distrust in science by claiming science can't make up it's mind creates the perfect apathetic breeding ground for such radical policies.

To conclude, I heartily disagree with the idea the medicine or science can't make up it's mind. First, too often people confuse press headlines with medical advice derived from many research studies, each of which is only a building block to public health recommendations. As medical history shows, it's these changes, commonly called progress, that has expanded our lifespan (albeit with risks). It defies logic to say that scientists collude to create conflicting results. Most importantly, the popular idea that science or health professionals "can't make up their minds" feeds a learned helplessness that in turn opens citizens to further manipulation.

(Whose responsibility is it to make sure that people understand science research? In the end, it's of our responsibility. Unlike many others, I don't agree that it's up to the scientists' to educate the general public. But that's the subject of another post.)

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1 Pointing out that the media can distort the actual results of studies for the sake of a headline, we asked why, for instance, the lead author would be quoted in this Science Daily study saying "We have known for many years that people with or at risk of Type 2 diabetes should limit their caffeine intake", when the author's actual science journal study (M.-S. Beaudoin, L. E. Robinson, T. E. Graham. An Oral Lipid Challenge and Acute Intake of Caffeinated Coffee Additively Decrease Glucose Tolerance in Healthy Men. Journal of Nutrition, 2011; 141 (4): 574 DOI: 10.3945/jn.110.132761) reported correctly that studies have found a "negative correlation between long- term coffee consumption and type 2 diabetes risks"? See? Study says one thing, news report on the study says another.

August Reading - Neural Coupling, Google Coupling, Bombast & War Rhetoric (Notes)

  • In Sync Communication

    In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), "Speaker-listener neural coupling underlies successful communication", Princeton researchers used fMRI to record the brain activity of people communicating. They found that people more successfully communicated when the listener's brain activity mirrored the speaker's brain activity. When people can anticipate and predict one another's speech, their brain activity becomes "coupled", which leads to better understanding.

  • Technological Coupling? Google AIandYou

    Once upon a time, Microsoft vowed, preposterously - it seemed at the time, to "put a computer on every desk, in every home." Another mid-1990's Microsoft marketing campaign asked whimsically, "Where do you want to go today?" We've come a long way. This week, Google's Eric Schmidt promised:

    "If I look at enough of your messaging and your location, and use Artificial Intelligence... We can predict where you are going to go."

    Schmidt's declaration unnerved more than a few people. But if I were monetizing Google's growing collection of search data, I too would use this line when marketing to states, businesses, and advertisers. For the US military in the throes of the Wikileaks' revelations, Schmidt's announcement might be reassuring, an excellent business proposition. But is Schmidt's assertion possible? Or is it one of those technological promises like 'we will sequence the genome and cure disease', or 'voice recognition software will translate anything', that will ultimately fail to advance as promised?

  • Technological Unveiling

    Even if Google's promise doesn't reach its imagined apex, today's technology allows the unprecedented unveiling of people. From the article, "The Web Means The End of Forgetting", in New York Times:

    "In 1890, in perhaps the most famous article on privacy ever written, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis complained that because of new technology -- like the Kodak camera and the tabloid press -- ''gossip is no longer the resource of the idle and of the vicious but has become a trade.'' But the mild society gossip of the Gilded Age pales before the volume of revelations contained in the photos, video and chatter on social-media sites and elsewhere across the Internet."

    The author goes on to describe companies who make a business of restoring a marred on-line reputation, showing that the technological unveiling phenomena is certainly not hurting business for anyone, of course, and this is key. Now that Google reassuringly promises to restore the balance of power for business and governments that might feel as though information is a little too "free", by promising that not even one commenter will be inadvertently shielded, those who may have been threatened by the internet (governments) can relax?

  • Does the Internet Propagate Bombast, Polarity, and Cognitive Dissonance?

    On one hand Google promises to predict "where you will go next". On the other hand, for individuals who want to be heard, the internet is so vast their voices easily get lost. Although people who once held a prominent platform of authority seem most anguished in their reactions to this, public discourse in science, politics, economics, immigration, foreign policy -- anything -- now turns to YELLING, goes polar, spirals downhill, and gets crazy and scraped of tempered reason. Some people wonder if the web is to blame for the rumor cacophony.

    But strangely, some of the same people who have focused on the internet's role in incivility, have in fact been most falsely and most viciously maligned, not on the internet, but by talk show hosts with daily audiences in the millions -- Cass Sunstein by Glenn Beck, for instance. In his latest salvo Glenn Beck told audiences that Sunstein would lead government to tax "rumors". This might indeed undermine Beck's existence, if only it were true.

    As I've mentioned, I don't agree that the web has promulgated incivility. With the web, at least, there's some barrier of entry -- both internet access, and the ability to read. Talk shows on radio and TV are far more accessible not only to those who like to be talked at, but to the millions of workers/voters whose jobs involve driving or working everyday NOT at the computer. Arguably, Glenn Beck single-handedly contributes far more to the culture of incivility, intolerance, and hate crimes, than the skeeviest internet site or most prolific or vile commenter.

    But as I see it, the internet seems more unwieldy to the people/organizations/institutions who before the internet, enjoyed a much more exclusive and unassailable platform.

  • "Why American Writers and Speakers are Often Bombastic"

    People love to blame the rise of the internet for incivility and the like, but perhaps we've always been a society prone to uncivil bombast. Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) wrote of his observations traveling around America, in his book "Democracy in America:

    "Each citizen of a democracy generally spends his time considering the interests of a very insignificant person, namely, himself. If he ever does raise his eyes higher, he sees nothing but the huge apparition of society or the even larger form of the human race. He has nothing between very limited and clear ideas and very general and very vague conceptions; the space between is empty..."

    "Writers, for their part, almost always pander to this propensity which they share; they inflate their imaginations and swell them out beyond bounds, so that they achieve gigantism...By this means they hope to catch the eye of the crowd at once and easily keep it fixed on themselves, an object in which they often succeed..."

    Wrote Tocqueville: "Writer and public join in corrupting each other."

  • How Things Work: To War! With Excellent "Evidence"!

    The internet is not the only territory of falsehoods and rumors. Carne Ross, UK diplomat in charge of the Iraq dossier at the UN who resigned the Foreign Office over the Iraq War, cited some British documents detailing the risks of invading Iraq versus the successful containment policy at the time. What method did the US and UK use to convince the public? The Financial Times quotes Ross:

    "This process of exaggeration was gradual and proceeded by accretion and editing from document to document, in a way that allowed those participating to convince themselves that they were not engaged in blatant dishonesty. But this process led to highly misleading statements about the UK assessment of the Iraqi threat that were, in their totality, lies."

    In comparison, the ("fictional") movie, "In The Loop" satirizes the British government's Iraq decisions for it's abrupt and buffoonish launch into war war. While the underlying arguments of mushroom clouds and the like have been proven groundless, we have a mix of theories as to how the UK and US managed the PR segue into war.

  • WikiLeaks

    Andrew Bacevich, and also the New Yorker, noted some hypocrisy in the US military's stance on WikiLeaks (no, not with the 'blood on their hands' drumbeat). They observe that the military's intention to punish the perpetrator of the Afghanistan documents leak runs opposite of the military's complacency about its own leaks in the past. Bacevich said (transcript):

    I do think is a reprehensible action. But it's also reprehensible when, in the summer of 2009, before President Obama had made his Afghanistan decision, that the McChrystal recommendation was leaked to the Washington Post, which effectively hijacked the debate over what the Obama administration should do about the Afghanistan war. And I don't remember Admiral Mullen or Secretary Gates or these other people deciding that they were going to go find out who leaked the McChrystal recommendations, because I believe that that is as reprehensible as this leak of the 90,000 documents. That was a direct assault on civilian control of the military. So if you're going to get upset about one, you ought to get upset about the other, too."

    WikiLeaks continues to be a fascinating case study for the military, technology, journalism, international law, and foreign policy, as well as bystanders.

WikiLeaks and the Churches - Hacking, Journalism, Government...

Does WikiLeaks show us the possibility of the "World Wide Web"? Or is it a sinister threat to our sacred institutions?

Only The Government is Qualified to Redact?

Last weekend, as everyone knows, WikiLeaks posted documents that uncover the mundane details, the daily dirt of the Afghanistan war. The leak is unique in its sheer volume. It's also unique in that information is not condensed to a seconds long news flash with an explanation provided by a general or government official, in order to insulate us from the shock value war carnage. War is ugly and complicated, as described in all the books about the Iraq war that many people read, like Fiasco; or one I liked, Rory Stewart's The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq. But for other citizens in the US and watchers of cable news, the wars abroad are remote and easy to ignore.

The WikiLeaks documents challenge the our architected ignorance of war by documenting unsavory details of our country's various "allies", the killing of civilians by wayward drones, intelligence mistakes, and small details like the attempted poisoning of an American geologist. In short, the everyday deaths, maimings, destructions and deceptions. War is of course, war.

Assange asserts that in airing these documents, he hopes citizens pressure the government, and that the details revealed embarrass some generals and goad them to behave better. While Assange has his agenda, involved states struggle to frame the leak within their agendas. Citizens have been barraged with guidance from official and unofficial sources about how much attention to pay to the deluge of unsettling news. At first most officials advised there was No New "News", which could mean anything, but seemed to implore: Pay no attention! Pay no attention! That compelled WikiLeaks and some news outlets to argue that indeed, This Was New News, detailing line item after line item of the gory "new news".

So then commentators put forth a more nuanced stance. Take the statements of Stewart A. Baker, Assistant Secretary for Policy for the United States Department of Homeland Security under George W. Bush, who talked with Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute in "Dangerous Leaks", on BloggingHeads TV today. There was no "new news", Baker said, but new details about people and places that endangered military strategy and individuals. When told by Sanchez that WikiLeaks was redacting information in 15,000 docs to prevent that sort of thing, Baker responded that WikiLeaks was inept at that task because they couldn't know which information was dangerous. WikiLeaks could only pretend to protect sources and individuals in the documents, Baker said. The government was far more qualified to know which information to redact when they released information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). But even the government made mistakes he said. In other words, we are told not to pay no attention because the news is not important, then told that the news endangers people and it must be stopped, then told that we should have asked the government to give us the important news that the didn't give us in the first place. What are we supposed to think about these contradicting statements? Will anarchy break out if the public knows more via "unofficial sources"?

House of Critics

It's not just governments who pursue Assange. Competing organizations in the "important leaked documents space" also criticize WikiLeaks and the personal motives of Assange. The owner of Cryptome says WikiLeaks' mission is corrupted by money. Steven Aftergood, of Secrecy News blog, has said that WikiLeaks threatens individual liberties by disclosing documents for disclosure's sake. Other hackers have accused WikiLeaks of endangering national security.

Some naysayers have other disputes. Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, called accused Assange of not working with journalists, saying:

"This is not journalism...did they write stories, talk to sources, analyze the information, go to the government for a response or put it in context? Did they do something to inform the public about what these documents show? No."

Still others accuse WikiLeaks of working under the mantle of transparency, but operating in a completely opaque fashion. Following the New Yorker's June 7th article on Assange: "No Secrets: Julian Assange's Mission for Total Transparency", one letter to the editor of The New Yorker criticized Assange's leak history, citing inconsistencies between his stated goals and the history of his actions: "On the surface, [Assange's] ideology seems to say: Full transparency leads to greater honesty and a better global society.", the letter writer wrote, "But why then publish private church data intended for the use of its leaders?"

This specific quote refers to the release of Church of Scientology leak described in the June 7th article. But let's consider that. The Church of Scientology has its awful secrets. Other churches, for instance the Catholic Church, and its leaders, also squirreled away very private church data for centuries. Only when many brave victims, mostly young boys, stepped forward to reveal the priests' transgressions was the destructive force of those private crimes revealed. If technology had enabled a leak earlier? Would some of those crimes been prevented?

The Sacrosanct Institutions and Freedom of Information

The letter to the New Yorker editor might as well have been referencing the "church" of government. It could have been referencing the church of the military, the church of hacking, or the church of journalism, all sacrosanct institutions to some.

Look for instance at "the church" of journalism. What is "journalism" these days? Is it a useful tool for eliciting government response and context as Lucy Dalglish says? Or is journalism, due to technology and psychology research, more and more the public relations arm of institutions? Does it live up to its potential? Do we really need generals to put war incidents in context for us? Or, as citizens, can we be enticed to be both interested and trusted as intelligent judges of how effectively our tax money is being used in wars? Or is that a fairy tale? More pragmatically, isn't there just too much information for the fourth estate to efficiently parse?

You don't need the FOIA to access WikiLeaks' cache of secret documents. The government has (at least momentarily) lost a tiny bit of control, as have the government journalists. The Church of Scientology has fewer secrets. Assange asserts that this is a good thing and that it was all his goal. We don't know. Long ago, when the internet first came to be, some crazy people thought it would provide a new frontier for open information, would break the barriers erected by states. But ordinary citizens have always found themselves on the wrong side of information asymmetry when it came to knowing what governments were up to. Does WikiLeaks shows another possibility? Maybe in this new age, as Obama promised, government will be transparent, participatory, and collaborative. Maybe the Obama government will accomplish its stated transparent information goals. But perhaps all the transparency won't all be found at sites like transparency.gov in the cloud. But maybe Open Government will be defined by citizens too.

Why Can't We Be Friends? The Pepsi Wars.

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The skirmish over at ScienceBlogs between PepsiCo and the science bloggers actually made me feel sorry for Pepsi.

Pass The Bong and the Aspartame

You have to admit, PepsiCo has had a tough month. First, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom banned Pepsi from vending machines, a move that elicited potshots from conservative DC paper The Washington Times, with the headline: "Pass The Pot Brownies, But Drop That Soda". Expounding on that clever cliche, WT wrote: "In the City by the Bay, it may soon be easier to get a pot-laced brownie than a can of Pepsi".

Oh yeah, nailed it! Hippies in the "City By The Bay" ("Frisco" to some) -- don dirty tie-dyed t-shirts to stand on corners flashing "peace" fingers, swaying to the music, flowers in their hair and THC soothing their psychedelics' addled nerves, else the badly parented long-haired youth are driving around in orange Volkswagon buses, pot smoke billowing out the windows - yup, The Washington Times really knows "The City By The Bay".1

The battle used to be between Pepsi and Coke. Coke would lose its big university or city contract to Pepsi, then Pepsi to Coke, back and forth. But this time, all soda was ousted, and no sooner was soda ejected from San Francisco city vending machines, then PepsiCo was yelled off ScienceBlogs.

SciBling Hospitality?

It must have been a confusing time for PepsiCo. ScienceBlog editors at first warmly courted PepsiCo, who titled their blog invitingly: "Food Frontiers". But they couldn't even pen a "Hello, World! Corn syrup is so good for you", before "SciBlings" (ScienceBlog bloggers) rose up en masse from their virginal science blog space and confronted the evil sugar-water mixer about their "stealth" advertising.

I wasn't there. But it's mid-July, pretty slow in science news, so I thought I'd Twitter all the anger and consternation, not to mention the mass exodus of SciBlingers. This I think, will entertain all the marketing gurus, dogs, porn stars, and some cool peeps who follow AcronymRequired. Unfortunately, before anyone could figure out whether to call it PepsiCoGate, Pepsigate, or Pepsicopalyse, Pepsi's Food Frontiers bloggers had skedaddled as if confronted by a battalion of helmeted storm troopers spraying plastic bullets and tear gas at their sit-in.

Safely back at PepsiCo.com, the Food Frontiers bloggers publicly reminisced about the "very candid feedback" and their "intent to embrace that conversation".

The regrouping bloggers from PepsiCo talked microbial stability, acidity, phosphorous content, obesity, and salt, vis-a-vis PepsiCo. And as promised, Pepsi engaged "that conversation", by answering the demands of SciBlingers who chased them out of their Special Science Space back into the World Wide Web. PepsiCo "embraced" the assault from SciBlingons when one Science Blog writer asked (none to politely):

"Does the material leave your own computer when you write a post, ever? I.e, pass in front of other people's eyes? Is there a standard workflow for producing a blog post that involves any kind of oversight or inspection?...The truth is that if you'all blogging researchers can only write approved copy, then the whole blog thing really is probably a bad idea".

To this, Pepsi responded promptly and sweetly: "Thanks Greg Laden" in a post they titled unambiguously: "The Posting Process on Food Frontiers".

But will such sugary pabulum engage ScienceBloggers? No. Only two people responded to the thoughtful PepsiCo post, and neither of them reciprocated by "embracing" the drink maker in the same way Pepsi wanted to embrace them.

I would have suggested that Food Frontiers could have been a little more in Sciblingers' faces - such as: "WTF is YOUR process -- why do so many ideas conflicting with your world view meet with such profane outbursts and bunkerbuster-style attacks? What are you, the Department of OK Blogs?" Now that, would be "engaging the conversation", sciblingy-like. Plus, summer is boring online and that would have really added some tinder to the whole thing. Instead we got this light, huggy-bubbly, PepsiCo marketing stuff.

Maybe the PepsiCo Food Frontiers bloggers were jittery, wan and weak from a diet of caffeine, phosphorous, sugar, water, and natural flavors. Or, possibly they were devouring cans of spinach voraciously and weight-training vigorously, but saving their vim and vigor for this week's attack on a more familiar foe -- CocaCola.

In the newish YouTube spot which may revive the Pepsi-Coke wars, the two opposing soft drink truck drivers meet in a diner and swap colas, "Why Can't We Be Friends?" by the band War, a 1970's song. As one driver drinks a soda, the other betrays him (can't tell you why). Then they get mad and crash through a window together. The Associated Press wrote:

"Analysts say people love the funny, spirited rivalry of the decades-old cola wars and the move will benefit both soda makers. That's good news for the $100 billion industry, which is seeing weak soft drink sales as shoppers switch to healthier juices and teas."

That's more like it, the funny, spirited, decades-old rivalry, like grandpa and his brother, just pining for the good 'ole days? See how it works Sciblingers? Friendly public rivalry.

Butlered off the Isle?

Of course, I don't really feel sorry for Pepsi. They have a nice new sepia toned 1970's ad and a brilliant business, patenting and selling corrosive sugar and water drinks. But soda's not so healthy for humans or the environment (as we've written in "Childhood Obesity, The American Way", or "Pop's Out Drug's are In", or "Coke: Teaching the World to Sing", or "Why So Fat? It's System Wide", or "Common Sense Foods in Schools""). And PepsiCo doesn't need us, they can always fall into the arms of Coke, or the loving the Cato Institute, or FOX, and many others.

Apparently there was more going on at ScienceBlogs than PepsiCo, there always is. I've read and mostly enjoyed ScienceBlogs since the inception. There weren't too many bloggers way back then and I've watched SB evolve with particular interest. So I get it. But Sciblingons! Sheesh! "Spirited rivalry" and gentle brawls people! Do you really need to beat them up, throw them off the island, bash their heads in, then drown them? What good are they too you then?

Just my opinion. I believe that ScienceBlogs has done wonders for getting others online writing about science. A ton of SB bloggers blog seriously about science, every day, good stuff. But some bloggers get increasingly spiteful as they vie for the attention that blogging compels, then use that attention to generate a certain brand of PR for SB. The level of conversation often spirals downward (there must be some entropy model that describes it). And that downward spiral seems infectious -- I've noticed Nature has been forging new ground lately in diluting their brand with some profane blogs also.

Pepsi's not the first one to feel SciBlingon wrath, though sleepy-hot July always gives these incidents an extra charge. Remember the Nature/Butler/PLoS fracas of July, 2008? It was similarly acrimonious with a familiar corporate/underdog theme.

These bloggers know their power, they say. But this is how SB looks from the outside, to me, an independent sometimes-blogger. Everyday science bloggy, bloggy, bloggedy, great - oh, too boring? Yawn? Then Boom, Smash, Bang, big tizzy over at ScienceBlogs over something, lots of media coverage. Repeat. For someone not in the thick of it, the episodic commotions tempt a plea for perspective.

I hope ScienceBlogs settles -- certainly finding eager writers shouldn't be a hurdle, and there are 60 left. I look forward to future writing from the diaspora. But I would also venture that it's complicated, messy business, this advertising stuff, this ethical boundaries stuff. It's pretty easy to inadvertently be seen as hypocritical trying to carve arbitrary ethical boundaries that suit your own very personal interests. As a minor, minor example, isn't most blogging just personal branding/advertising? But your brand is pure as the driven snow, whereas Pepsi's is marred by soda pop? Anyway, I'm not sure getting Pepsi off of ScienceBlogs, although certainly a "cause", was one worthy of the show or the arena.

--------------------------

1 Actually, in another "City By The Bay", they plan to grow pot by the acre, an unfortunately timed news story which you'd think would crush my defense. But then the city will tax it, hopefully so they can pay for a much needed police force. Complicated. Another story.

Boehringer Ingelheim Gets No Satisfaction From the FDA

Manufacturing Consent

An FDA panel last week rejected Boehringer Ingelheim's application for flibanserin, a drug the company claims treats "hypoactive sexual desire disorder" (HSDD) in women. Boehringer's studies showed that low libido women who took the "film-coated, 100mg tablets" had on average ".8 more satisfying sexual events (SSE) per month (hey, it's statistically relevant) than the control group. But the drug caused side effects such as nausea, dizziness, and fatigue. The panel said the company did not prove that the drug increased desire despite Boehringer's claim that an SSE was an adequate "downstream" measure of desire.

The drug is controversial for reasons other than efficacy and side effects. Boehringer says research shows HSDD affects 6-10 percent of women. But half of that study's researchers were company consultants and employees, and speakers attending the hearing disagreed that the low libido occurred that often. Nevertheless, the Boehringer crafted an intensive marketing strategy to build buzz around flibanserin. In Australia, the marketing firm Ethical Strategies Pty Ltd invited influential sex experts to Sydney on behalf of Boehringer to "discuss a common yet relatively unrecognized medical condition". The company offered payment of $1,000, airfare, food, and accommodation. The experts discussed the important "research" and strategies to increase awareness of HSDD, and their participation, promised Ethical Strategies, was "confidential".

None of this is too shocking, but doctors and researchers voiced their disapproval of Boehringer's approach calling it a "thinly veiled marketing campaign filled with bias, misinformation and celebrity endorsement". One noted that "women don't need treatments with real side effects for imaginary diseases designed by a marketer", and others offered their opinions that the research was a "scam" and not of "clinical meaningful benefit".

Fear of Flying?

HSDD itself is a disputed diagnosis. The American Psychiatric Association recently proposed that HSDD be subsumed into another disorder. That the condition once solidly in the realm of the psychiatric field is being labeled a biochemical disorder may ruffle some feathers. One psychiatrist said: "a women's desire for sexual emancipation is very worthy. I fear that it's being hijacked by a profit-oriented industry that doesn't really try to understand women and their sexuality." Another doctor said: "The messages are aimed at medicalizing normal conditions, and also preying on the insecurity of both the clinician and the patient.

Both these statements are odd. If you're speaking on behalf of women, isn't it a little patronizing to characterize the company's marketing as "preying" on women's "insecurity"? The research may be sketchy and the mechanism is not like Viagra. But should the pill work, aren't women sophisticated enough to balance risks of fatigue and nausea with ".8 more sexually satisfying episodes" per month? Horrifying side effects have been streaming alongside pharmaceutical ads on TV for years, many of them far more disconcerting than "nausea". Now that women are out of the kitchen, voting, graduating from college in higher numbers then men, etc., do women really need "emancipating"? I don't know. But doesn't it all sound so, I don't know, 1970's?

And That Name!

And my thoughts on naming: Next time around Boehringer may want to reassign the detail. "Flibanserin" is just weird. Others agree. NYPost called it "unsexy", and one Nature blogger prefers "pink viagra", which he said "rolls off the tongue so much more easily than filba... filiba... flibasero..." The proposed trade name "Girosa" really doesn't cut it either. Hard "G"...as in organism? Or soft "G"...as in gender? Eeewww....but what do I know?

Air America, Unfortunate Name, But Good Run

Does it seem like Democrats, time and again throwing themselves into a dither at the slightest G.O.P. provocation, are suffering severe post-traumatic stress after eight years of Bush and just need to calm down? Fresh off the Massachusetts upset, they seem distracted from their mission, busy future-tripping that their worst nightmares will come true. To fuel the angst, the G.O.P. postures in Illinois. Then Air America just ups and goes off the air, which of course causes the right-wing talk show cabal to scream a death knell for liberal anything -- media, politics, commentators...

"Air America", Auspicious Name?

Looking at it objectively, "Air America" did quite well given the odds. Consider first that they dared name it "Air America". Look at the history of previous organizations with that name (actually at first they called it Air America Media, then shortened that). Longevity-wise, the network lasted far longer, six years, than "Air America" the charter airline, described as "a short-lived charter airline founded in 1989, but discontinuing service in 1990".

Reputation-wise about the worse I ever heard was from Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitas, who expressed surprise when a reporter told him the network was doomed: Air America is "still really on the air?"

Personally, I never listened to the network, for no particular reason, but whatever Air America did or didn't do (and of course, just like Massachusetts, everyone has an opinion) Air America the network couldn't be more controversial than "Air America" the CIA airline which ran for sixteen years in Southeast Asia conducting logistics and recognizance missions, transporting civilians and refugees, and perhaps smuggling heroin, and opium for Asian despots.

Progressive Media's Place

Air America Media started during the Bush administration, when FOX seemed to have its hand around the throat of the public airwaves. Rachel Maddow got her start at Air America, and Senator Al Franken also played a central role for the network before becoming a senator. The network previously went bankrupt in 2004, before being bought and revived, and filing for bankruptcy again. I'm not sure what really happened, but Air America proved to be a worthy effort, if not a viable business.

Liberal or progressive media is not "dead", as FOX would have it, just because Air America did not succeed as a business. Nor does one business going off the air signal that the country is "moving right", as some commentators would have it.

Democracy Now, for one, is stronger than ever, broadcasting to over 800 stations around the world. Here's Amy Goodman in an interview with KCTS TV talking about media's job to hold politicians accountable, the place of the media as sitting around a huge kitchen table and having an "open discourse", a "lively" discussion, a "robust debate" about the "critical issues of the day"; and the "mainstream media" in general -- "What do I think of the mainstream media? I think it would be a good idea".

Where The Science News Goes

The Los Angeles Times Science section is a-ok. Except, worryingly, the LA Times now puts Science in a subcategory under the category "US and World", in one of the top ten categories that editors use to divvy up the news: "US & World", "Local", "Business", "Sports", "Entertainment", "Health", "Living", "Travel"", "Opinion", and "More".

LA, Hungry for Hotlist, Brand X and The Envelope?

Let's look at how this works.

  • Under the category "Entertainment", the LA Times has these subcategories: Movies, Television, Music, Celebrity, Arts & Culture, Company Town, Calendar, the Envelope, and Hotlist, in that order. Don't think they missed any "Entertainment" "news".

  • Under the category "Living", the paper assigns these subcategories: Health, Home, Food, Image, Travel, Autos, Books, Hotlist, Brand X, Magazine and "Your Scene". Can't imagine they've missed much "Living" "news".

  • Then, under the category "US and World", the paper puts these subcategories: Washington, Nation, Afghanistan, Middle East, Latin America, Asia, Science, Environment, and ominously, Obituaries -- again, in that order.

The LA Times has put "science" on the same level of "brand X", "the envelope", and "company town".

Bucket List

Get it? All the real news, all the stuff that really might impact us; like the whole rest of the world beside LA; two killer, budget decimating wars; 51 US states; global warming; stem cell research; microbiology research; astronomy and the universe; on and on -- all live in one convenient news bucket beside biographies of the dead.

Technology is in "Business". And where is "Europe"? I can't find it. Completely missing from the line-up? Perhaps so old world, that some editor shoved it into Obituaries? Does the Los Angeles Times have a grudge against all of Europe? Does that include Russia? Or is "Russia" in "Asia"?

I'm worried. Because if the LA Times can get rid of all of "Europe", then it looks like the editors and managers have placed the two categores Science and Environment disconcertingly close to Obituaries. Say a little prayer for Science News, one banana peel away from the grave?

Notes on Science Dust-Ups and Dirty Laundry

The past couple of weeks have been filled with stories about scientists' public dust-ups, intriguing to all, especially non-scientists. Why are they so interesting? Maybe such sordid tales offer something beyond dry research results sexed-up by editors desperate to grab readers weaned on YouTube? Maybe the stories make scientists seem not quite so pocket-protector laden and boring? (We're not boring, really!) But since we all know people who slow down to gawk at accidents, others who link lavishly to tales of disease, distress, death, and dismal demises, perhaps those people are just as enamored, in the same schadenfreude way, to science bickering and wave-making?

  • Ice Floes and Climate Woes: Antarctica is losing ice from the eastern side as well as the west, according to a study in Nature Geoscience, an event that could significantly increase sea levels. But that's not the news everyone's focusing on these days. What interests them are the emails exchanged between a few scientists, stolen from a server at East Anglia University in England and broadcast on the internet.

    Fox News and the usual suspects are gleeful of course, oiling up for a long campaign of undermining science and swaying wishy-washy people. Everyone else spectates, eagerly leaning into the ropes. The Financial Times avidly quoted 'both sides', first the "free-market think tank" CEI spokesperson who called the emails "global warming house of cards", then the scientist whose email revealed that he wanted to "beat the crap out of" a certain scientist, a phrase that one person sincerely explained as "a common pleasantry" among high-calibre scientists. Optimistic climate deniers are talking "smoking guns" and ClimateGate. But as Real Climate: put it in one of their posts:

    "if cherry-picked out-of-context phrases from stolen personal emails is the only response to the weight of the scientific evidence for the human influence on climate change, then there probably isn't much to it."

    "Probably" is understatement. Somehow the media constantly gets away with quoting 'both sides' without signaling to readers the truer story: One side has hundreds of studies - the scientists; whereas the other side is lobbying for some corporation, or out of desperate laziness. The science is depressingly convincing on climate change. But obviously people don't all embrace change, and to that end, the deniers have proven time and time again that hammering away with their fraudulent message will keep people consuming petroleum products.

    My take is that if you unearthed the email trove of any group - government, academic or corporate - you'd find some nasty, flaming emails, but not everyone sees it the way I do of course. Some scientists are calling for increased transparency.

  • Personal Genomics, What Risk? Researchers from the J. Craig Venter Institute and Scripps Translational Science Institute compared the results of two personal genomics companies for five individuals and found discrepancies in the disease risk predictions. The two companies, 23andMe and Navigenics DTC, responded to the paper in a recent issue of Nature. The two companies agreed with the criticism on some points and offered explanation on other points -- for instance about the differences between population risk and individual risks, and the importance of doctors' communication about genetic risks to patients.

    In other personal genomics news, Iceland's deCode Genetics went out of business, leaving it ambiguous, although we're assured that the genetic information will be protected, where their vast genetic data bank will end up.

  • Curly-haired Science Populizers Spar: Steven Pinker popularizes cognitive science and evolutionary psychology. Malcolm Gladwell popularizes sociology and social psychology. They both have Canadian roots and very curly hair. Now they're sparring. Pinker critiqued Gladwell's, "What the Dog Saw" in a recent issue of "New York Times. Like any good manager or professor, Pinker offers four paragraphs of compliments before he breaks out the sharp red pen. Gladwell is a "minor genius", Pinker writes, but "unwittingly demonstrates the hazards of statistical reasoning and who occasionally blunders into spectacular failures", and "frequently holds forth about statistics and psychology, and his lack of technical grounding in these subjects can be jarring."

    Pinker says that Gladwell provides "misleading definitions", and furthermore, he mistakenly calls an eigenvalue an "igon value." The criticism may seem idiosyncratic to the lay person, but subject area experts see things differently. They're more likely to believe that imprecise definitions and simplification lead to public confusion. What's interesting is that such criticism comes from Pinker, who, being a popularizer like Gladwell, must certainly recognize the necessity of selectively choosing what to include in rhetorical writing for huge non-science audiences.

    Gladwell responds that Pinker "is unhappy with my spelling (rightly!) and with the fact that I have not joined him on the lonely ice floe of IQ fundamentalism." Clever defense and countercharge - in other words, "Igon value" was a typo not a misunderstanding, intimates Gladwell; and Pinker is more or less an intellectual pariah. Gladwell also denigrates Pinkers' sources for being bloggers or online denizens: "our differences owe less to what can be found in the scientific literature than they do to what can be found on Google." Ouch, ouch and ouch.

  • Fantastic FOXP2 - The Speech Gene? David Shenk provides his blog at The Atlantic as a forum for a scientist and a New York Times journalist to spar about the journalist's presentation of science. Shenk posts a letter from University of Iowa neuroscientist and Behavioral Neuroscience Editor-in-Chief Mark Blumberg, to Nicholas Wade's about his New York Times story, "Speech gene shows its bossy nature." Blumberg takes Wade to task for calling FOXP2 the "speech gene".

    "the distinct possibility that the mutation influenced a myriad of other brain and body functions that, in turn, affected speech. Indeed, given all that we know about how genes work - as well as our sad history with grandiose claims about single-gene effects on behavior - wouldn't it be wise for all of us to be more cautious when communicating these findings to the public?

    In turn, Wade writes:

    "The role of this article was to update readers on a new finding, not to review the history of ideas about FOXP2. So there's no space to go into the argument about the gene's precise involvement with speech and language, much of which we have covered in earlier articles."

    Of all our notes, and all the other dust-ups in play in the news recently, I really enjoyed this presentation by Shenk because it gets to the heart of challenges with science communication and the work that scientists and writers must do to get science across to non-scientist audiences without generalizing or leading readers astray. Definitely worth reading.

  • Do Names Portend Profession? Yes, we're joking. But if you're into astrology and anti-vaccination, if you think global warming is a giant hoax, you may steer clear of certain girls' given names. "Isabella", for instance, is a pretty name, second in popularity for girls in 2008, but, like Arabelle, Anabelle, Belinda, Elizabeth, Isabel, Isabella, Mirabel, Rosabel, Sybil or Mabel, it comes with troublesome nicknames, like "Bella"" or "Belle", which can also stand alone. Bella is the wan female protagonist of new popular movie, "The Twilight Saga: New Moon". Bella loses her mind (according to reviews) when her vampire boyfriend goes missing. OK there may be worse things then your daughter mooning around for months over her missing vampire boyfriend...but what are they again?

    "Belle" of course, was the nom de plume of the anonymous British scientist, named after the movie, not the name "Isabelle", who blogged about her second life as a prostitute. News of the scientist blogger outed as "Belle de Jour" elicited delighted and scurrilous musings online and in real life. Online, BoingBoing posed a "takeaway debate", asking: "Is this good or bad for scientists/science bloggers?" In real life one scientist acquaintance told me that he'd read that women with Asperger's syndrome were often "loose" because they could compartmentalize (we didn't check his source). He then continued, thinking aloud, that "of course they might be scientists too", and his eyes lit up at his connection and all the potential relationships he would have previously discounted. So in that case, to BoingBoing's question, it might be good for scientists.

    But "good or bad" is not necessarily the only takeaway, as British columnists tell us. Rowan Pelling wrote: "Interviewers have been asking me breathily what I thought of Belle when I met her, as if my eyes must have been out on stalks at the idea of a PhD student turning tricks." Actually, it wasn't her "trade", but the excellent "quality of her writing", that "shocked" Pelling.

    To be honest, the parts of Belle de Jour that I read I found about as captivating as reading a Martha Stewart description on how to stuff pillows with barley husks, so clearly I'm not the best judge of this sort of thing. But columnists babbled on and there seemed to be no debate about her "writing" prowess. Clive James of the BBC gushed:

    "And what a female...she was Ernest Hemingway...a woman of outstanding beauty and brilliance...student of informatics, epidemiology and forensic science...a student of military strategy...the thinking man's dream girl...There is nothing this woman can't do, and you can tell by the history of her blogging...She knows everything. She even knows what informatics is. I looked it up, and basically it means information theory.

    Yikes. Chill, pal. Perhaps they edited my Scribner Classics Hemingway edition, but I don't recall Hemingway writing such doozies (albeit rare) as Belle's 'my pussy makes men cry'. So now then, (and speaking of names, we won't even go into the name "Brook[e]), back to BoingBoing, what's the takeaway for scientists? Actually, I would debate, not much with this flash in the pan story.

    But here's my takeaway from Brooke Magnanti. Magnanti works for the Bristol Initiative for Research of Child Health and studies toxicology, most recently on organophosphate chloropyrifos (CPF) used in pesticides. An abstract in Toxicology Letters by Magnanti et al, (Volume 189, Supplement 1, 13 September 2009, Pages S268-S269) suggests the EU policies on CPFs be changed to the more restrictive one of the US which limits indoor use. I find this interesting. Many people, myself included, tend to think of US policies for environmental hazards as laxer than EU policies -- but be careful about generalizations. Acronym Required wrote about US and EU policies, and the EU's REACH protocol here and here and here, and here. I know, science, far less interesting, sigh.

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