Archive for the science Category

Vaccine Panic – Don’t Blame The Mums!

Posted in complaints, science with tags , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2009 by lesmonde

In recent months, vaccine panic has arguably supplanted the eternal Evolution vs Creationism debate and global warming as the cause célèbre of the sceptical community. For those not au fait with the issue: there is a growing and increasingly vocal community of self-styled “anti-vaxxers” who have decided, in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence, that vaccination programmes are a danger to health and long-term wellbeing, particularly of children. Opposition to vaccination ranges from mild trepidation, to the belief that mass vaccination is a systematic attempt at specicide by the “New World Order” to reduce global population. I’m not kidding.

The issue came to the fore with the publication by the now notorious (or heroic, I suppose, depending on which side of the needle you fall) Dr Andrew Wakefield of a paper in The Lancet purporting to have identified a possible connection between autism, bowel disease, and the MMR vaccination. The paper itself was unremarkable and inconclusive, but Wakefield’s subsequent interactions with the press, in which he advised caution against the MMR vaccine ignited a national health scare during which uptake dropped to as little as 61% in some parts of the UK and saw measles return to the UK as an endemic disease. Wakefield’s study has now been discredited and renounced by the majority of his co-authors, and the evidence that vaccination causes neither autism nor any other long-term health problem in anything other than negligible numbers is vast and overwhelming. Yet the controversy continues to be perpetuated.

In the last few days Wired magazine has published an excellent article by journalist Amy Wallace which tackles some of the frothing irrationality surrounding vaccination and its spurious link to autism. The article has inflicted upon Wallace a not insignificant and often unpleasant or indignant e-mail response, which she is currently tackling on her twitter. What’s interesting is that a large amount, if not all, of the negative feedback is coming from parents. Either the parents of young children, or the parents of children with autism. The protests are poignant:

“The PARENT knows their child more than anyone in the world. The PARENTS, Ms. Wallace, NOT Mr. Offit.”

“I have a Son that needs Me – not another needle.”

“Me and mine are not a herd. Human beings are capable and entitled to decide for themselves what to put in our bodies.”

These are parents who feel the need to defend themselves from the accusations of irresponsibility in their decision not to vaccinate. And the implied irresponsibility is sharp: Wallace’s article points out that, as vaccination uptake drops and herd immunity slips away from communities, children are now dying from preventable diseases. Often the accusations are explicit. As Jenny McCarthy, mother of an autistic child, crusades against vaccinations in the US, so a website has appeared, the controversial but pertinent Jenny McCarthy Body Count, which counts the number of cases of and deaths from diseases which, until the recent panic, had become little more than curiosities and links them explicitly to McCarthy’s high profile campaign. It’s little surprise that such indictments provoke fierce defence.

But the blame doesn’t lie at the feet of the parents. It doesn’t lie at the feet of Jenny McCarthy. Parents, by and large, cannot conceive of taking any action which will cause their child to come to harm. Charged by all their instincts to protect their child, the choice between “X causes immediate harm” and “X causes no immediate and direct harm”, when X is something they don’t fully understand, is a no-brainer. The consequences of ignoring the first appear direct and causal, the consequences of ignoring the second are far less cut and dried to the majority who understandably have little knowledge of epidemiology and immunology. In the light of the mountain of evidence demonstrating the safety of vaccines, this is not a rational approach, but is it really fair to point the finger at parents who act irrationally in the interests of the wellbeing of their children? I don’t think it is.

The complaints from parents, vilified by these remote and unapproachable journalists and scientists, that they “only want to do the best for their children” are deeply understandable. This motivation cannot be credibly denied. It’s the press that’s to blame for the current debacle; the press who published with neither appreciation of the facts nor care for the consequences; the press who give a voice to the charismatically irrational. The press made this the issue that it is and, where the wellbeing of children is concerned, that’s a beast that’s hard to get back into the box.

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“The Mice, The Owls, and The Bright Blue Frogs” – A Thurberian Fable

Posted in nonsense, science on September 16, 2009 by lesmonde

I really enjoy the fables of James Thurber, so I thought I’d try my hand at a tribute (or a rip-off, depending on how charitable you are) about a subject close to my heart.

“The Mice, The Owls, and The Bright Blue Frogs”

Once upon a time, in a far off woodland, lived a colony of little brown fieldmice who spent almost all of their time living in little burrows in the ground. Occasionally, a precocious and bright young mouse would question, as precocious and bright young mice are wont to ask questions, why it was that they were committed to such a miserable subterranean lifestyle when there were such beautiful and bountiful trees and grasses and streams and sunshine outside. In response the eldest and wisest of the mice would tell of a time when death was delivered daily on their ancestors by a family of vicious clawed and sharp beaked owls that lived in the trees around their burrows. And, anyway, it wasn’t so bad down here, there was plenty to eat, they were safe and they wanted for nothing.

One day, a particularly precocious and cocksure young mouse refused to accept the explanation. “Pah!” he said, rolling his eyes, “It’s not so good down here, my uncle must wear glasses and I’m sure that’s because he’s constantly straining his eyes in the dim light.”

The other mice looked around and, sure enough, a small but visible proportion of their colony did have eye problems.

“And these owls,” continued the young upstart “if they even exist, can clearly be dissuaded from eating us if we just assert ourselves. Why, there are a colony of bright blue frogs just two hillocks west from here, who spend their days hopping around in the trees where these so-called owls supposedly make their homes. Indeed, they couldn’t be more conspicuous, and they come to no harm!”

The other mice cheered, and it was resolved that afternoon that they should leave their burrows for the open air where all eye problems would be cured and they could enjoy the beautiful and bountiful trees and grasses and streams and sunshine outside. Furthermore, it was agreed that, come night-time when the owls were most active, they should stride around confidently, making themselves as conspicuous as possible, to dissuade the owls from attacking them.

News of the massacre reached the bright blue frogs within three days and, being a conscientious species, they resolved to make the journey two hillocks east and respectfully bury any body parts that remained.

The End

Edit: It appears, from feedback, that this was a little too obscure, I’ve clearly not struck the right balance between metaphor and clarity necessary for accomplished fable writing.  OH WELL.

Depression and “Chemical Imbalance”

Posted in science on September 3, 2009 by lesmonde

The main aetiological explanation for depression in the public consciousness is undoubtedly the “serotonin hypothesis”. This probably manifests more popularly as the idea that depression is somehow the result of a “chemical imbalance” in the brain, and therefore that sufferers of depression (whose suffering is not in question) are somehow the passive victims of an organic condition, like victims of diabetes, for example, and that this can be righted with medication. It’s a neat explanation, which, I guess, is why it’s so appealing. However, the evidence, as it so often does, suggests that depression is nowhere near this simple.

The serotonin hypothesis was the product of two papers, both published in the mid 1960s. Basically, the authors of these papers suggested that a deficit in a certain group of neurotransmitters (the monoamines, which include serotonin) could be a cause of depressive illness. Their suggestion was based on an observation that inhibiting a (entirely natural) process which breaks down these chemicals, while feeding patients a diet which includes their precursors, seemed to alleviate depression. This was a perfectly reasonable mechanism to suggest, on the evidence available, but that’s all it was: a suggestion. And the logic of this hypothetical mechanism is not without its critics:

“Some have argued that depression may be due to a deficiency of [noradrenaline] or serotonin because the enhancement of the enhancement of noradrenergic or serotonergic neurotransmission improves the symptoms of depression. However, this is akin to saying that because a rash on one’s arm improves with steroid cream, that the rash is due to steroid deficiency.” – Pedro Delagado and Francisco Moreno, writing in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry

So, how does the evidence for the “Serotonin Hypothesis” stack up? The answer, it seems, is not very well. To this day there exists no roundly accepted evidence demonstrating reduced serotonin levels in the depressed. Indeed, attempts to demonstrate a link in even the most severely depressed patients have been regarded as fraught with problems and therefore inconclusive. It has also been demonstrated that depression cannot be induced in the healthy by depleting serotonin – an observation which, if accurate, would fatally falsify the serotonin hypothesis. This patchy and inconsistent evidence does much to raise doubt over whether a condition such as depression can be explained by a mechanism as simple as that proposed in the serotonin hypothesis.

All of this is compounded by the fact that, contrary to its popular image, serotonin can’t rightly be described as a “mood improving” chemical. Like all neurotransmitters its effects are highly context dependent, different parts of the nervous system will respond to serotonin in different ways; responses which are modulated by the different ways in which different cells respond to serotonin, all of which is subject to modulation by the local chemical and anatomical environment. Serotonin is no more a “happy drug” than metal’s to be feared because it’s what swords are made of.

But if the drugs are helping people what does this matter?

The problem here is that we’re no longer entirely sure that the drugs are helping people. Recent studies have provided evidence that selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs, such as as citalopram (cipramil), paroxetine (seroxat), fluoxetine (prozac), sertraline (zoloft), and many others) – drugs which purport to “rebalance” the “imbalance” of serotonin – perform little better in alleviating reported symptoms of depression than identical pills containing no drug (link). On top of this, a simple programme of cardiovascular exercise has been shown to be no less effective than a programme of anti-depressants.

Is it really what we want to have ineffective drugs based on hypotheses that are, at best, dubious? Especially considering that this model of understanding lends credibility to the idea that depression is an inescapable biological phenomenon, the manifestation of a malfunctioning brain. This view can only be hugely disempowering for the depressed.

Clearly, the causes of depression need to be better understood if we’re to develop an effective model for caring for those who suffer from the condition. Resigning people to the conclusion that they are the sufferers of some organic malfunction which can be corrected but not cured by chemical intervention is, quite simply, telling them something which hasn’t stood up to scrutiny. This is not to say that there’s no neurochemical contribution (one or more siblings with depression is a significant risk factor, for example, although I’d imagine the line between genetic and environmental input in most of these cases will be irrecoverably blurred), it’s simply to say that we currently have scant idea of what that contribution might be. And, as for a simple explanation such as “chemical imbalance”, the facts are that science has no idea what the correct balance of brain chemistry is, or if there even is something that could be described as a “correct” balance. The mind is far too complex.

That neurochemistry only modulates our potential response to multitudinous psychosocial and environmental factors needs to be considered – and it is very possible that a cure, not simply a treatment, lies in the consideration of these external factors and situations that the depressed individual finds themselves exposed to. Of course, unless we want to entertain concepts such as “the soul”, we have to accept that behaviour is, at its very root, a chemical event. But the trend for this biological reductionism in depressive illness is, I feel, misguided. Just as we can’t learn much about aerobatics from studying the chemical properties of the polymers in a stunt-plane’s fuselage, neither can we learn much about complex social behaviours from studying the chemistry of the brain.

Nullius In Verba

Posted in complaints, science on August 29, 2009 by lesmonde

For all but the happy hermetic few, enduring lifestyle advice from peers and apparent professionals is one of the ubiquitous trials of human life.  One of the most neglected questions in this kind of discourse is the simple question “how do you know?”  It’s the perplexing absence of this line of enquiry that’s responsible for some bizarre but frighteningly common phenomena.  Individuals using purple crystals to cure boils on their arse, for example, or a self-assured barstool psychologist explaining to you exactly what your dream of an expanding green stoat tells you about your future.

These things, and other, far less blatantly silly beliefs, are examples of received wisdom.  Pieces of advice and knowledge passed on through word of mouth and, all too often, simply accepted as true.  One doesn’t have to travel far to find claims being made simply because the claimant thinks they sound like they make sense or, even more disturbingly, simply because they like the idea.  For an extreme example, pick up any “Dream Dictionary” from the Mind, Body and Spirit section of your local bookshop, for example.  You’ll find a book packed from cover to cover with apparent facts and bald assertions.  Conspicuous by its absence, however, is any kind of attempt to demonstrate how such knowledge has been come by.  That doesn’t necessarily make it wrong, of course.  It simply makes it useless – and it sets the precedent that we should believe something to be the case simply because it’s come from the mouth of someone who sounds like they know what they’re talking about.  It’s a handicap of human nature that we tend to lend credibility to individuals who appear to know more than ourselves and who speak with authority.  We’re suckers for charisma and we’re all laymen in most fields of knowledge.

The literature of bona-fide science, however, makes superhuman efforts (the task of referencing is not a thigh-slapping, white knuckle ride of thrills and laughter) to allow the reader to find out exactly where, when and how facts have been established.  It seeks to neutralise the charisma or authority of any claimant.  Science leaves a paper trail of dry facts and observations and the conclusions they help us reach.  It’s this commitment to accepting only claims that have been reliably demonstrated – and ignoring claims that can’t be or haven’t been (not as wrong, necessarily, simply as undemonstrated) – that accounts for the overwhelming success of science.  Space travel isn’t possible because engineers gave credence to every idea that sounded like it might make some sense, it’s possible because they concentrated on principles that have been reliably tested.

So, yes, if you’re a parachute tester or an experimental pilot, arming yourself with the question “how do you know?” is probably prudent.  But does it really matter if the claims in a dream dictionary, or the claim that 95-99% of children born today are “indigo children” (I’d really like to know what they did to come up with that “95-99%”.  Those are solid numbers, indicating something has been measured.  I suspect they just pulled it out of their arse along with the rest of their ideas), or even the claim that such a thing as “indigo children” even exist, can be verified?  Well, for all intents and purposes, it probably doesn’t.  But entertaining such utterly unverified information does strike me as little more than an enormous waste of time.  Without knowing how they came to know the things they’re telling us, the information is no more useful than if I were to make to you the unsupported assertion that hopping on your head up a flight of stairs will make your next door neighbour less likely to contract pubic lice.  It’s like the fantasy worlds and imaginary friends that children concoct in their heads and treat as if they were true, except we’re talking about adults.

Anyway, this has been something of a ramble, but I guess what I’m saying is that to get the best out of the myriad advice that’s given to us (both directly and indirectly) and to make any sort of progress as a species, we need everyone, not just the scientists, to start making liberal use of the question “how do you know?”

“But What Have The Romans Ever Done For Us?”

Posted in complaints, science, Uncategorized on January 29, 2009 by lesmonde

Vomiting up inane opinions on things one knows nothing about is part of the pop-star package. It’s something we have to expect and learn to live with. Just look at that cunt Bono and his wiry, weasel-faced protege, Chris Martin offof Coldplay.
However, every so often one comes along with such a ludicrous, demonstrably flawed diatribe (usually against ‘the establishment’; whatever that is) that you have to chisel the impacted stupidity off of your eyes with a needle-gun and purify your ears with a year of silence.

At the tail end of 2008, the expiremental rock band TV On The Radio released their third album, entitled “Dear Science”. To some critical acclaim, I believe.
In an interview with Rough Trade’s Album Club Newsletter one of their number explained the title thus:

“The title comes from a letter I wrote to science that was pinned on the studio wall. I feel like: Come on guys just solve one problem just fix one disease. I swear to god I don’t need a smaller phone or a smaller mp3 player and we don’t need more defence system shit. Enough you friggin’ brainiacs. If you have brains, try to connect them to your heart, just for a second and see what happens. This record is the result of our desire to aspire to something higher than air conditioning or technology.” David Sitek, guitar/not knowing what he’s talking about/keyboard

It’s the classic, cliched, critique of “progress” trotted out every ten seconds by some self-important scrote like this Sitek character, who obviously doesn’t like to spend too much time thinking – unless that time is spent thinking he’s Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park. “Science has left human causes behind for the dollar of the arms industry or frivolous pursuits such as portable music players! Oh noes!”

I wonder if Sitek knows anyone who has died from polio? Or smallpox? Indeed, I wonder if he’s ever even seen anyone with polio or smallpox? Or had any experience of these things at all outside of history books or perhaps the tales of a grandparent? Perhaps a grandparent who lived twice as long as the average life expectancy when they were born.

Aside from sufferings that have already been eradicated, the efforts underway just now to understand conditions such as cancer and diabetes are positively Herculean. There are many, many more scientists working on these things than there are developing defense systems or miniaturising MP3 players.
I imagine Sitek’s response would be something like “So why don’t we have a cure for cancer yet, but we can build nuclear weapons, BRAINIAC! LOLOLOL”, possibly seasoned with some verbal flatulence about the Pharmaceutical industry covering up cancer cures to make money.
This idea that we could have cured cancer by now if we really wanted to is a common piece of anti-science rhetoric, chirped up by people who haven’t the first idea what they’re talking about.

Cancer is fucking complicated. It’s mind-meltingly complicated. Creating a nuclear weapon, putting a man on the moon, or whatever other piece of progress you want to compare it with for criticism simply doesn’t cut the proverbial mustard. These things are like making beans on toast compared with understanding, let alone finding some universal cure for, cancer. Here is an image demonstrating how some of the proteins involved in cancer (or believed to be involved in cancer) interact with one another. And that’s just a fraction of one part of the story. It’s a subject that involves genetics, epigenetics, biochemistry, cell biology, molecular physiology, physics, medicine and environmental biology. The possible permutations of human biology that could lead to cancer are unimaginable. No one person will ever understand the whole story.

So, I’d like to pen a response, on behalf on science, to the letter that Sitek so rebelliously pinned to his studio wall:

Dear TV On The Radio,

While you utilise the latest products of our ever expanding knowledge of electronics and information in the studio to help you fulfil your aspiration to “something higher than air conditioning or technology”; while you utilise the machines we have built to exploit the physical laws of nature to get from A to B in promoting your record; while you take advantage of the way humanity has harnessed the power of electromagnetic radiation to broadcast your art across the globe; while you can eat and drink with reasonable confidence that what you’re eating and drinking won’t kill you; while you’re not worrying about myriad diseases any children you might have may succumb to; while you can go for an operation knowing that, through safe anaesthesia, you’ll be protected from pain and that, due to understanding of infection, you’re unlikely to die from gangrene following the procedure; while living well into your eighties…

Please remember not to tarnish the good reputation of the human brain which has brought us all of these things, by making stupid statements about things you know nothing about.

Yours,

Science

(P.S. Our brains are connected to our hearts, hence the unfortunate outcome of decapitation. You twat.)

Magic Eggs

Posted in complaints, science, Uncategorized on December 17, 2008 by lesmonde

Forgive me for leaping, like a startled springbok, towards fantastical assumptions but I had imagined that the purpose of The Metro was to deliver news. That is to say, that somewhere between its crisp, warm, fingertip muddying early hours to its time tiling the floor and windows of whatever papier mache and pipe cleaner vehicle us proles are riding home to our nests, I expect it to at least attempt to communicate information. I don’t expect much, either, I fully appreciate that it’s meant to be read at half-past-don’t-even-speak-to-me by bleary eyed ne’er-do-wells like me, but I’d like an attempt. A shot. A go. It’s not much to ask. Is it?

Yesterday morning, in “Microcosm” (which is The Metro’s column for science news), there was a festive little piece explaining that the head-cramp, rainbow-yawn and bum-sick which becomes endemic in the UK around “office party” season can be cured by simply gubbing an egg! How easy! Tell me more…

This is, they explain, because “chickens’ eggs” contain “a substance” which combats the toxic effects of acetaldehyde (the metabolite of ethanol that’s held to be responsible for making you feel like you have a pregnant hippo wallowing in the gloopy remnants of your brain).

What is this mysterious substance that makes chicken eggs a magic bullet in the war against beer disease? Boringly, it’s the ubiquitous amino acid cysteine, which is found in most foods that we’d consider, in balanced-diet-speak, “protein”. Cysteine is also considered a non-essential amino acid, which means our body can manufacture it all on its own.
So, where are The Metro getting their information? Well, they tail their story with an optimistic “…a study in the Journal of Inflammation Research found”.
And here is the study.
Seems decent enough for what it is, which isn’t a demonstration of eggs curing a hangover. They fed a potentially fatal dose of acetaldehyde to a bunch of rats, some of which had previously been fed heroic amounts of cysteine (the equivalent of an 80kg man eating 20g of pure cysteine) and found that the rats that weren’t full of cysteine were much more likely to die. So does this mean it’s plausible that an egg will help cure your hangover? Yes. But before we rush to sell an idea to the marketing people at Warninks, let’s be careful what we mean by “plausible” here. This is pub conversation plausible, not breaking news plausible.
Now, talking of breaking news, far be it from me to be an etymological pedant but, this study, deemed worthy of inclusion in a science news column from yesterday, was published in 1974. Thirty four years ago. Is this what passes for mainstream science journalism? I quickly turned to their entertainment pages for an exclusive on the death of Jimi Hendrix, but was denied. Their journalistic bloodhounds have yet to hit the scent of that trail, it seems.
Surely, if it was just a space filler they were looking for they might have found an interesting contemporary story. There are lots of scientists after all, doing lots of science, and some of it is about space, explosions or ferocious animals (unfortunately, not so much of it is about all three).

But, no, it seems there is a more sinister motive. The Metro, I suspect, are in the pockets of some sinister egg baron. Not 24 hours previously, they’d published another “magic eggs cure hangover” story. This time quoting a Dr Andrew Irving in saying that a breakfast of eggs will provide sufficient protein to overcome the hypoglycaemia (rather frighteningly described as “a reduction in blood levels” – enough to put anyone off the pop) of a hangover. Hypoglycaemia is low blood sugar. Eating protein will only combat this in very specific dietary situations, none of which are commonly experienced by your average western adult.

Perhaps I’m over-reacting. I don’t know. It is only The Metro after all, and it was 8am and my patience for bullshit was enfeebled by the unwelcome legacy of the beer I’d had the night before. If only I’d had time to boil an egg…