“Missing link” or media stink?

May 21, 2009

A newly discovered fossil is more of a case of media malfeasance than an actual missing link. Hyped as the “missing link in human evolution,” the monkey-like Darwinias received a blizzard of media coverage. It was even the Google logo the other day. However, when Carl Zimmer could not find commentary on the fossil from experts not involved in the research*, he made some old-fashioned phone calls and discovered that experts considered most of the evidence in the paper to be “old news.” Today, Zimmer posted a timeline of terribly bungled science hype.

So, to recap: it appears that both PLOS and Atlantic Productions did not give journalists any time to consult with outside experts before launching a major press conference with a huge blitz of media attention. In other words, science writers who were trying to do their job well and responsibly were actively hindered. Those who declared ridiculous things, such as claiming that human origins were now solved once and for all, were not.

I have a hard time even imagining how this behavior could be justified. I’ve sent emails to the contacts listed in the PLOS press release on Darwinius both at PLOS and Atlantic Productions to ask why they took this course of action.

It’s disappointing that such big science news has turned out to be mostly hot air. We don’t get the limelight all that often, and it’s a pity that PLoS squandered it.

Of course, Piled Higher and Deeper said it best.

* Corrected re: Carl’s comment below. Original sentance said that Carl was “unable to get a copy of the peer-reviewed research.”


Newsy Bit: Science nominees held up by Congress

March 4, 2009

The Intersection and Questionable Authority report that the confirmations of Jane Lubchenco (to lead NOAA) and John Holdren (to lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy) have been held up in Congress by multiple anonymous holds.

John P. Holdren, nominated to lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Jane Lubchenco, picked for undersecretary of Commerce for oceans and atmosphere, had been expected to receive a quick floor vote. They received an amicable confirmation hearing Feb. 12 and plaudits from the science community otherwise.

But Holdren, a Harvard University physicist, and Lubchenco, an Oregon State University marine biologist, may have to undergo an extra round of review, Senate style.

Multiple senators have placed anonymous holds on the science advisers’ nominations, according to John D. Rockefeller IV , D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which has jurisdiction over the nominations.

“It’s infuriating,” said Rockefeller, who backs Holdren and Lubchenco’s hiring. “They’re brilliant scientists.”

This is bad because there’s $21.5 billion dedicated to science in the economic recovery package, and these people need to be in place to funnel it to the right sources. Questionable Authority has details on what you can do to get Congress to stop playing politics with critical science funding.

Speak out on overpopulation, but know the history first

February 12, 2009

Is talking about overpopulation and the environment really a taboo? Both Emmett Duffy and Rick MacPherson posted yesterday on the population control “elephant in the room.” Rick in particular wrote about his struggle to broach this topic in the context of coral reef conservation.

I think that this topic is so hard to discuss because it is inextricably entwined with racism and coercion. In a more extensive post a couple months ago, I outlined the unpleasant history of population control movements and detailed how they have fallen disproportionately on poor women of color. Historically, white women have had to fight for the right to limit their fertility, while women of color have had to fight for the right to be fertile.

Read the rest of this entry »

I can’t stand the rain – and neither can this autism study

November 6, 2008

Though the Republicans are famed for their War on Science, the left has plenty of anti-science anti-evidence faith-based cranks, too. A prime example is some of the anti-vaccine dribble published on the Huffington Post. David Kirby is best known for his thoroughly debunked book Evidence of Harm, and has now written a HuffPo column on the alleged link between autism prevalence and precipitation. Kirby takes the poorly done original study and runs wild, linking mercury and autism and rainfall and coal and vaccines in a positive orgy of denialism.

Respectful Insolence explains better than I can why the original study, published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, fails to establish a link between precipitation and autism. Here’s some select quotes from his excellent analysis:

Note that the authors did not correlate autism prevalence directly with raw mean precipitations but instead used a “relative precipitation variable.” When I see something like that, I know right away that there was no correlation between raw mean precipitation levels and autism…

The authors of the current study, although they tried to correlate for household income, didn’t even attempt to control for urbanicity. That alone makes this study highly suspect, at least to me…

Another problem with this study is that it examines only the Pacific Coast, specifically California, Oregon, and Washington. There is no indication that the observations made in this study are generalizable….

Now, It’s possible there may be a genetic susceptibility to autism that is triggered by an environmental factor or factors, but nothing–I repeat, nothing–in this study supports that hypothesis. Measures of genetic susceptibility were not even a part of the study–or even looked at! To use the words “genetic susceptibility” in the conclusions and to say that this study somehow supports an interaction of genetic susceptibility and environmental factors is just plain incorrect.

So back to the Kirby column. Kirby is an anti-science crank because he refuses to acknowledge the overwhelming evidence that there is NO LINK between vaccines and autism. From Dr. Paul Offit, chief of the division of infectious diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and author of Autism’s False Prophets:

In response to the concern that vaccines caused autism, the public health and academic communities responded, performing a series of large, carefully controlled, epidemiological studies. Ten separate groups of investigators found no link between MMR and autism and six groups found no link between thimerosal and autism. Because of the strength, consistency, and reproducibility of these studies, the notion that MMR or thimerosal cause autism is no longer a scientific controversy.

Kirby is an utterly unreliable source – note that he’s still plugging the vaccine-autism connection in this column.  Unfortunately, he’s not alone. There are rumors that Obama is considering making Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. the head of the EPA – and RFK is an anti-vaccine crank as well. If Obama truly values science – and I believe that he does – than I hope that he will appoint people who can make scientific decisions based on the evidence. Because fear-mongering and denialism sure don’t sound like change.

Thanks to Martini-Corona, who requested that I unleash the Oyster Hounds upon this Kirby column. Now released, the Oyster Hounds are frolicking in the rain and gnawing on David Kirby’s femur.

The sordid history of population control

November 3, 2008

I consider population control to be the albatross of the environment movement. It usually stinks, but we just can’t get rid of it. Recently, the Global Population Speak Out (GPSO) is attempting to de-stank discussions of population control and the environment. The premise of the GPSO is:

What if a large number of qualified voices worldwide, many of whom might not have emphasized the topic previously, were to speak out on population all at once? The strength of numbers might help weaken the taboo and bring population to a more prominent position in the global discussion.

Oh, good, let’s talk about it! Too bad that the GPSO webpage utterly fails to acknowledge the nasty history of population control.  Read the rest of this entry »

Fish = sea kittens in crazy, crazy PETA-land

October 27, 2008

I KNOW they want publicity, but I can’t resist. PETA’s new Save the Sea Kittens campaign is a spectacular example of…of…of…something that only David Foster Wallace could have adequately described. Clearly, some pot-addled intern was like, “DUDE! If we, like, said that fish were like kittens, nobody would, like, eat them. Cause kittens are cute ‘n’ stuff!”

On the Sea Kittens homepage, you can create your own Sea Kitten. (My officemate named his “Chum.”) You can also read “sea kitten bedtime stories” about the sad, desperate, and factually bereft lives of fish, erm, sea kittens. One example:

Tony the Trout is the smartest Sea Kitten in his school. Already litter-trained at 2 months old, Tommy went on to double-major in neuroscience and environmental studies at Clamford University, eventually graduating with honors.

When Tony is caught and fed to a precocious young child who, having eaten one mercury-filled sea kitten too many, falls to the bottom of his class, the irony is not lost on him.

Ah, the smell of scare-mongering is even better than that of fried trout! And don’t they mean fresh-water-kittens? Oh, never mind.

Even on their more serious-ish webpage, PETA does not call fish anything but “sea kittens.” This leads to awesome headlines like “Scientific American: Ocean Sea Kittens Feeling Effects of Recreational Anglers.”

Oh yes, seafood IS the scariest food, but only because PETA has helped me realize how delicious my land kittens would taste with tartar sauce.

Yes, Virginia, you CAN be fit and fat

September 11, 2008

Being of the short and busty type (hi, fellow Jewish women!), I’ve long had a contentious relationship with the metric of Body Mass Index. Even when I was climbing large mountains every day (sometimes with 70 pounds of food on my back), I could never get my damn BMI to go from “overweight” to “normal.”

So it was with great cheer that I read this NY Times article on the lack of relationship between BMI and health. If you’re active, you’re better off than if you’re inactive, regardless of what you weigh.

Several studies from researchers at the Cooper Institute in Dallas have shown that fitness — determined by how a person performs on a treadmill — is a far better indicator of health than body mass index. In several studies, the researchers have shown that people who are fat but can still keep up on treadmill tests have much lower heart risk than people who are slim and unfit.

This should be obvious, but “fat” in our society is such a synonym of “lazy/ugly/BAD” that it’s not. Of course, the article goes on to mention that a BMI of 25-30 is not really what people think of when they think of fat. (Calculate your own freakishly large BMI here – the fat pink person is a nice touch.)

“People get confused by the words and the mental image they get,” said Katherine Flegal, senior research scientist at the C.D.C.’s National Center for Health Statistics. “People may think, ‘How could it be that a person who is so huge wouldn’t have health problems?’ But people with B.M.I.’s of 25 are pretty unremarkable.”

Oh! By unremarkable, do you mean…normal??? To recalibrate your expectations, check out the Illustrated BMI Categories. (Previously).

Quasi-relatedly, Joy Nash made this kickass video on Staircase Wit. She comes up with excellent, all-purpose comebacks to nasty weight-related comments. Some of her comebacks will work for other kinds of street harassment, too. And I love her style and poise.