Archive for June, 2009

How science regulates our sexual behavior

June 30, 2009

As someone who’s never tried to conceived a child under pressure, I have to roll my eyes at this kind of thing, from Reuters:

Having sex every day improves the quality of men’s sperm and is recommended for couples trying to conceive, according to new research.

Until now doctors have debated whether or not men should refrain from sex for a few days before attempting to conceive with their partner to improve the chance of pregnancy.

But a new study by Dr David Greening of Sydney IVF, an Australian center for infertility and in vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment, suggests abstinence is not the right approach.

Plug away, friends.


Doc couldn’t hit the broad side of a prostate

June 30, 2009

I’m starting to understand why some of us don’t trust doctors.

The AP reports:

A doctor accused of botching dozens of prostate cancer surgeries at a Veterans Administration hospital admitted Monday that he sometimes missed his target when implanting radioactive seeds, leaving patients with incorrect dosages.

But Dr. Gary D. Kao called the mistakes commonplace in aiming seeds at the walnut-sized prostate, which sits near the bladder and rectum, and he steadfastly refused to become a scapegoat for the scandal at the VA Medical Center in Philadelphia.


The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has found that 92 of 116 men treated in the hospital’s brachytherapy program received incorrect doses of the radiation seeds, often because they landed in nearby organs or surrounding tissue rather than the prostate. Kao performed the majority of the procedures under a VA contract with the University of Pennsylvania, where he was on staff.

The NYTimes went high with this tidbit:

[Kao] said he was voluntarily appearing before the committee, led by Senator Arlen Specter, Democrat of Pennsylvania, to “correct some very serious false allegations in recent publications about me, most notably The New York Times.”

And further:

The Times’s examination of the prostate cancer unit at the hospital also found that the errors resulted from a systemwide regulatory failure, in which none of the safeguards intended to protect veterans from poor medical care had worked.

Dr. Kao did not deny placing large numbers of seeds outside the prostate, but he said investigators were wrong to single him out. “It’s a recognized risk of the procedure,” he told the panel.


Under questioning from Sen. Arlen Specter, Kao acknowledged that he never informed patients when he missed the prostate or delivered insufficient doses.

Which is maybe why, according to a Times photo caption, Specter got Kao to hug a former patient!

I’m not sure what to make of the above, except that I need to read more Gary Schwitzer.

Science journalists: lazy, credulous, overworked?

June 29, 2009

Last week some elder colleagues of mine were Twittering about the lack of skepticism among science journalists, particularly in cases where scientific journals are perceived as strongly dictating story selection, a practice that was characterized as “lazy.”

They were referencing a special report on science journalism published by Nature. Here’s the full list of stories.

My former boss at, Ivan Oransky, highlighted a piece on the invention of newspaper science journalism as an outgrowth of the Progressive era’s faith in perfecting the world through science and technology.

It’s an eye-opening article, written by Boyce Rensberger, the influential former director of MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Fellowship. David Dobbs made the point that if science journalism was so recently conceived of, and in a specifically cheerleading mode, it could explain why members of our profession are content to report journal articles as the main news of the day.

As someone who has always secretly wanted more guidance from veterans in his field, but hasn’t always known where to turn, I inserted myself into the conversation. I’d love to hear some of those folks (Rebecca Skloot was the third) elaborate on how they think skepticism is apportioned in our profession, so those of us working in it can improve what we do. 

For starters:

  • Do reporters in particular beats tend to be less skeptical than reporters in others?
  • Is there something about those beats that drives them toward or away from skepticism?
  • Is there more skepticism in web-only publications or in web-print? And again, in what subjects or types of content?

I feel more comfortable engaging with a separate piece by Toby Murcott, a former BBC science reporter, on “toppling the priesthood” of science. I’m not sure what I think of the specific strategy he recommended — that science somehow be “opened up” for journalists to help them cover it more analytically — but I concurred with his description of what it’s like to be a reporter covering a science beat.

I have a PhD in biochemistry and three years postdoctoral research, so if I am reporting a discovery in my field, I can make a reasonable attempt at understanding the technical detail and will have a sense of the overall history, evolution of ideas and current debates. I will know who is a leader in the field, and who is an outlier; I will be able to distinguish majority views from minority ones. Yet as a science journalist I am expected to cover more than just biochemistry. I need to be able to report on findings in cosmology, ecology, particle physics and much more. To draw on the knowledge of scientists in these fields, I must first find out which scientists are most relevant, and have a sense of their opinions and place within the field. All of this takes time, which reporters often don’t have.

This is partly why so many journalists resort to doing the bare minimum: reproducing press releases. Many journalists will telephone or e-mail one of the main contributors given on the press release to ask a few supplementary questions; but there is rarely the time or the expertise to go into the full story of how an item of research came to be, and how it fits into the bigger picture.

(See my previous post, on bullsh-t and science journalism.)

Interestingly, Murcott makes one of the same points Rensberger did: science journalists are not respected by their peers!

As science correspondent for the BBC World Service, I regularly experienced the quiet frustration some elements of the newsroom felt with science journalists. My colleagues felt that we reported on published papers without significant analysis, depth or critical comment: we just translated what scientists said.

Indulge my defensiveness for a moment: Would these “other journalists” be, say, the hard-hitting business journalists who saved us from the financial meltdown? Or maybe the genius White House correspondents who kept us from invading Iraq? I know he’s talking about the BBC. But you get what I’m saying. If science journalism is less than uniformly skeptical, it’s hardly the sole offender.

I’m not saying science journalism isn’t “problematic” by the standard of cultural perfection, or even optimality. As Rensberger alluded to, we’re still coming out of a cultural conception of science as revealed truth, which muddies the perception that science can be a powerful tool for defending subtle elements of the status quo. The science stories I see on sites like Yahoo News and are often pure entertainment, which is fine. We all like that stuff, to some degree. Stoned wallabies making crop circles? You need to know about that before you die. (I’m sure other science news orgs had their own jokes like we did at about what kinds of stories would get pageviews. It wasn’t only sex. I think monkeys were high on the list.)

To Murcott’s point, I think we’re all trying to topple the priesthood in our own way, meaning we can disagree on how to get there from here. My colleagues above would probably not agree with Murcott that science needs to be “opened up.” They’d say, cultivate sources, find better stories, give more context. I don’t disagree. I do think Murcott is right to point to structural institutional effects, which are at least transiently relevant. 

  1. To have a science news web site, you have to put up — what? — a good dozen pieces of content a day, including news and light features, especially multimedia, and with breaking news on top of that.
  2. For “news” to mean something other than what’s in the journals that day, you need good beat reporters. By no means do any of them have to be MDs or PhDs. But you have to acquire some of the specialized knowledge of your beat somehow, and having it upfront could mean the difference between burnout or room to breathe.
  3. Once you’ve got experienced, knowledgeable reporters, you can start to approach something like the Wall Street Journal Health Blog. And even if you have to throw up a lot of fluff to attract eyeballs, with forethought and skill, you can still insert the kinds of stories that deserve to be read: conflicts of interest in biomedicine, DNA evidence in the courts, regulatory agencies gone rogue.

I don’t have any numbers here, but from what I remember of Digg Science, I feel like there’s a healthy market for muckraking, although maybe interspersed with enough fluff that we don’t all get too depressed.

To speed the day, Murcott recommends opening up peer review reports to journalists. (To be published in most scientific journals, a manuscript has to survive scrutiny by several independent experts in the field.) My immediate reaction was, “Pff, whatever. I’ve had access to that in some cases, and the reporting uncovered it all.” And I had no journalism background going into this line of work! I’m the kind of person who got into the field for journalistically “incorrect” reasons, in particular a semi-idolatrous relationship with science.

As it stands now, I’m inclined to reassess how to put my skills to best use. Maybe I need to divide my time between academic pursuits and journalistic ones. I think it would be fun to be a cross between Sally Lehrman and Evelyn Fox Keller, using science and critical theory to expose ways that scientific discourse enforces damaging ideas about race, class and gender. Any good daily journalist is doing the same thing, just on shorter deadlines and with less theoretical baggage.

If you’ve read this far and consider yourself a working journalist, I’d be interested to hear how you handle the pressures of the job and what motivates you to get up in the morning.

Update [7/1/09]: Brandon Keim, a writer for Wired Science, has posted a really compelling reply to my final question. See also the comment below by Robin Lloyd of Live Science, who radiates Zen. I’ll say something more explicit about my own motivations soon.

The climate bill you’ve maybe heard about

June 28, 2009

Now’s as good a time as any to begin a bittersweet game of catch-up on affairs of the climate. On Friday, the House passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (ACES), by a vote of 219 – 212.

What is ACES?

At the heart of the legislation is a cap-and-trade system that sets a limit on overall emissions of heat-trapping gases while allowing utilities, manufacturers and other emitters to trade pollution permits, or allowances, among themselves. The cap would grow tighter over the years, pushing up the price of emissions and presumably driving industry to find cleaner ways of making energy. [The New York Times]

"grumble grumble"

"grumble grumble"

Bullet points!:

  • “The final bill has a goal of reducing greenhouse gases in the United States to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and 83 percent by midcentury.”
  • “When the program is scheduled to begin, in 2012, the estimated price of a permit to emit a ton of carbon dioxide will be about $13.”
  • “The bill would grant a majority of the permits free in the early years of the program, to keep costs low.”
  • Next up: it goes to the Senate.
  • But first, these words from Climate Progress:

    For climate-politics realists, the vote today is a staggering achievement.  Today was the first time the U.S. House of Representatives has ever voted on climate legislation.  This country hasn’t enacted a major economy-wide clean air bill since the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990.  And that bill had a cap-and-trade system where 97% of the permits were given to polluters.  And it focused on direct, obvious, short-term health threats to Americans. And that was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, when the entire Republican establishment wasn’t dead set against any government led effort to reduce pollution.

    Yet Waxman-Markey did get 8 Republican votes, which is 8 more than the stimulus bill got!  This bill needed Republican votes, which will also be true in the Senate.  The closeness of the House vote — with 44 Dems voting No — makes clear that the really hard work is yet to come.

    Apparently Democrats from coal-producing states don’t like to support measures that could disrupt (or be spun as disrupting) their constituent’s livelihoods, which means the bill could face a tough fight in the Senate.

    The main point I take from Emily Gertz is that although ACES isn’t particularly ambitious compared with EU policy, the U.S. has to pass something like it to have credibility going into U.N. climate change talks in December.

    Without concerted action, you can’t do much to mitigate climate change; it’s too deeply connected to global economic development. Here’s Andrew Revkin on his Dot Earth blog:

    The bottom line remains, as the International Energy Agency warned in its  2008 World Energy Outlook, that 97 percent of projected growth in emissions of carbon dioxide from energy use through 2030 (without aggressive action) will come in developing countries, with three-fourths of that growth in China, India and the Middle East.

    The pace of emissions and long-term warming largely will be determined by how the Obama administration and other leaders of industrialized powers handle that reality.

    Psst, hey you guys.

    June 25, 2009

    © CERN

    © CERN

    There’s a new way… to possibly study THE HIGGS BOSON OMFG!!!!

    In 2007, CDF researchers observed hints of exclusive, virtual gluon reactions in the form of high-energy photons radiating from colliding protons and antiprotons. Now the team has sifted through nearly 500 muon-antimuon pairs, identifying 65 that must have come from the decay of the Χc–very close to the rate predicted in 2005 by a team at Durham University in England [1]. Because the Χc has similar particle properties to the much heavier Higgs boson, the same basic reaction should produce the Higgs at the higher collision energies provided by the LHC, says Albrow. “It’s the strongest evidence that the Higgs boson must be produced this way, if it does exist.”

    Physical Review Focus | A Higgs Boson without the Mess

    The crimes of Lee “Lightning” Murray

    June 25, 2009

    Lee Murray may go down in the books as the most successful bank robber in mixed martial arts history.

    I'm sorry, what $40 million are you referring to?

    "Right. Do you think if I had $40 million hidden away I'd be here talking to you?"

    A middleweight with an 8-2 record, “Lightning” Lee was arrested in June 2006 in the Morroccan capital, Rabat, for allegedly master-minding a $92-million cash heist — there’s no other word for it — from a Securitas depot in Tonbridge, Kent. (I don’t know what that means either.)

    Seven masked men with automatic weapons were involved in the 2006 heist, which began when two of the robbers abducted the bank’s manager. After the assailants forced their way into the high-security warehouse, they loaded the cash into three waiting trucks. Much of the loot was recovered, but approximately $40 million is still missing. [ESPN The Magazine]

    News accounts say it was the biggest cash robbery in history.

    Murray’s arrest, on charges of cocaine possession, came after he fled to Morrocco to escape extradition for his suspected role the Securitas job. His father was Morroccan (his mom’s English), so he had citizenship, and apparently Morrocco don’t extradite for nuthin.

    I am telling you all this because yesterday Lightning Lee was unexpectedly released from prison and then arrested again! Methinks Scotland Yard has worked out a deal with the Morroccans.

    Time Inc. has optioned a movie based on a 2008 Sports Illustrated story chronicling Murray’s exploits. Guy Ritchie* is going to have a hell of a time in the editing room:

    • Supposedly Murray TKO’d and punted the head of Tito Ortiz (the one married to Jenna Jameson) outside of a London nightclub in July 2002.
    • Three years later, in September 2005, he was stabbed in a brawl outside of what I assume was a different London nightclub. Doctors had to resuscitate him multiple times.
    • He was planning to break out of prison — with tiny saws:

    Last month, the Wrestling Observer newsletter reported that the fighter tried to break out of his cell by using tiny saws that were hidden in his food. According to the publication, [he] was thwarted when another prisoner broke into his cell, found the saws and informed prison officials.

    Oh yeah, he also did some MMA fighting, including an interesting 2004 bout with Anderson Silva, the dominant UFC middleweight champ, where the English commentators want their boy to win so bad you wouldn’t believe it. Watch the second round:

    I like to imagine that when Murray and Silva are clinched together, heads side by side, Murray is secretly whispering his criminal plans to Anderson, who’s like, “Whatever, Lee. As soon as we stand up, I’m going to kick you in the head again.” Except in Portuguese.

    *Guy Ritchie was Jake Rossen’s joke. (I also ganked Sherdog’s head shot.)

    Ask a materials scientist: Will Iran have democracy?

    June 25, 2009

    It’s a dream of mine to start a column called, “Ask a condensed matter physicist.”

    Muhammad Sahimi is a materials scientist, and that's close enough for me.

    Close enough: materials scientist / chemical engineer Muhammad Sahimi

    This would be sort of like Slate‘s advice column, “Dear Prudence,” except the answers would always begin by framing the ethical problem at hand in terms of a generalized Ising model, sort of like when Steven Strogatz blogged about the differential calculus of love.

    My unsatisfied longing may explain why I was charmed by the following passage from Declan Butler’s Nature News story, “Iran diaspora responds to protests.”

    Despite the repression, researchers are surprisingly optimistic about the eventual outcome of the protests. “I am completely optimistic that Iran will be a democratic state sooner than many think,” says Muhammad Sahimi, a materials scientist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, “The path will be difficult, but I have complete faith in the Iranian people’s courage and willingness to continue the struggle.”

    I’m a little disappointed Sahimi didn’t mention reaction barriers or glass transitions, but at least it’s a start, y’know?

    Here’s Sahimi on Iran’s nuclear program circa 2003; on why we shouldn’t attack Iran; and the hidden complexities of the election drama.

    Speaking of cocaine…

    June 16, 2009

    Here’s the most badass thing I read on my blog vacation, from the Guardian:

    “Health problems from the use of legal substances, particularly alcohol and tobacco, are greater than health problems from cocaine use,” they [the World Health Organization (WHO)] said [in March 1995]. “Cocaine-related problems are widely perceived to be more common and more severe for intensive, high-dosage users and very rare and much less severe for occasional, low-dosage users.”

    The full report – which has never been published – was extremely critical of most US policies. It suggested that supply reduction and law enforcement strategies have failed, and that options such as decriminalisation might be explored, flagging up such programmes in Australia, Bolivia, Canada and Colombia.

    And why would this report have never been published?

    At the point where mild cocaine use was described in positive tones the Americans presumably blew some kind of outrage fuse. This report was never published because the US representative to the WHO threatened to withdraw US funding for all its research projects and interventions unless the organisation “dissociated itself from the study” and cancelled publication. According to the WHO this document does not exist, (although you can read a leaked copy at

    Related: Clipse – Keys open doors

    Ars gets me all (sexually) excited about Ghostbusters

    June 16, 2009

    What would you think if you read this headline?:

    That’s right, you would think, “Awesome, they’re doing an MST3K-style group review of Ghostbusters, the classic 1984 movie starring Bill Murray and Dan Akroyd.”

    Sadly, you would be wrong.

    They’re in fact reviewing a new video game.


    Here’s the trailer.

    Obviously, I don’t follow video games. Interestingly, though, for some months I have been meaning to broach a topic that may be of interest to anyone who has read this far: the sexual politics of Ghostbusters.

    Consider the facts.

    • The movie follows three screw-up science nerds (plus Winston) who go around fighting off death (a metaphor for the ’80s?) and making awkward moves on Sigourney Weaver.
    • The big no-no is “crossing the streams” of hot plasma issuing from the mechanical bishops (or “proton packs”) they lug around.
    • Which they use to conquer death, by the way.
    • That is, until death takes the form of a comforting figure from childhood.
    • Which is right after it took the form of an Eastern European model in a tight pink figure-skating leotard (who looks like she could snort rails of coke the size of highway lane markings).


    • And along the way, Bill Murray publicly emasculates a strident environmentalist.

    I’m no expert in cultural criticism. I’m just noticing things. You tell me if they add up to anything you find meaningful.

    Adaptationism gets no rest in latest sleep research

    June 16, 2009

    From an interesting Time article:

    According to new research presented last week at the annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies in Seattle, adequate sleep may underpin our ability to understand complex emotions properly in waking life. “Sleep essentially is resetting the magnetic north of your emotional compass,” says Matthew Walker, director of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab at the University of California, Berkeley.

    The adaptationism:

    “If you’re walking through the jungle and you’re tired, it might benefit you more to be hypersensitive to negative things,” he says. The idea is that with little mental energy to spare, you’re emotionally more attuned to things that are likely to be the most threatening in the immediate moment. Inversely, when you’re well rested, you may be more sensitive to positive emotions, which could benefit long-term survival, he suggests [such as “finding a wife”].

    The cognitive psychology:

    Walker suggests that one function of REM sleep – dreaming, in particular – is to allow the brain to sift through that day’s events, process any negative emotion attached to them, then strip it away from the memories. He likens the process to applying a “nocturnal soothing balm.” REM sleep, he says, “tries to ameliorate the sharp emotional chips and dents that life gives you along the way.”

    The threat:

    “If you don’t let go of the emotion, what results is a constant state of anxiety,” he says.

    I let myself sleep in this morning. I’m feeling pretty good about that.