2013 in Science and Medicine: List of Lists of Lists

Happy New Year. Looking for something to read?  This should keep you busy through much of 2014: A roundup of Top Ten and Best of lists related to science and medicine in 2013. In 2012 the Higgs bosun topped everybody’s lists. 2013 was more of a miscellany.

Pavlof volcano in the Aleutian arc erupts in this image captured by astronauts on the International Space Station on May 18, 2013. Credit: NASA

Pavlof volcano in the Aleutian arc erupts in this image captured by astronauts on the International Space Station on May 18, 2013. Credit: NASA

Tracking the lists

Let’s begin with our friends at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker. They have kindly assembled several such lists, so I don’t have to. Many thanks.

First up, Tracker Charlie Petit, who not only presents us with his annual compilation of top ten and best of lists, but this year mines them to come up with a consensus list of 2013’s most important science stories.

In his List of Lists, he covers Discover‘s top 100 stories of 2013, Real Clear Science’s Top Ten, and also its list of Worst of the Worst, the biggest junk science stories in 2013. Plus the Australian Media Center’s Top Ten Best and also Top Ten Weirdest, Time magazine’s many Top Ten lists (only some of which pertain to science and medicine), and the Times (UK) list of most-read stories.

Topping Scientific American‘s Top Ten news stories was the sequester because of its impact on US science funding. That’s an odd self-seeking choice because the sequester affected government support of many things in addition to science. But never mind. There is also Wired Science’s list of top discoveries, Longform’s best stories, and Live Science’s list.

Science chose to promote what it called Top Ten Breakthroughs. Arrrrgh! For shame, doesn’t Science, of all places, know that “breakthrough” is a banished term if you’re serious about science?

Then Charlie consulted all his lists and drew from them a consensus on the biggest science stories of 2013. There turned out to be four that were  widely agreed upon by list-assemblers:

  • Atmospheric CO2 reaching 400 parts per million for the first time in modern history.
  • Cloning human stem cells and getting them to differentiate.
  • The Chelyabinsk meteor explosion over Russia.
  • Voyager 1 entering interstellar space, which–as Charlie is at pains to point out several times–is not the same thing as leaving the solar system.

More tracking from the Trackers

Tracker Faye Flam presented 2013 science stories “in which reporters repeated a conclusion that was not supported by the evidence they presented.”  One example was the claim that reading fiction makes you more empathetic. She also cited an Economist piece on how science gets it wrong. The piece focuses on mistakes and fraud in clinical and behavioral research and extrapolates to argue that all science is riddled with error. That reminded me of one of Jonah Lehrer’s New Yorker pieces, one from 2010, before his public disgrace, in which he argued that it’s OK to choose what to believe about scientific conclusions. The piece generated a lot of perfectly justified indignation, which I wrote about at the time.

She also presents discouraging examples of a continuing issue in science writing: the mistaken conflation of correlation and cause. This ought to be a simple problem to fix.  But it keeps happening, so apparently not. I suppose it’s partly due to non-science writers writing about research who don’t understand that just because two events occur together doesn’t mean that one causes the other. But some of  these misleading conclusions seem to be asserted by science writers who should know better. Perhaps they can’t resist the lure of potential headlines for what seems to be an off-the-wall finding.

Faye Flam’s example is a New York Times story claiming that women should avoid short-term relationships because they result in bad sex. She notes that the writer never considered another plausible explanation of the data, which is that bad sex causes women to cut relationships short. She’s quite right, of course. If I had time I’d deconstruct those two possible conclusions. I’d  point out that the first one is a product of reflexive woman-as-victim-and/or-slut thinking, while the second assumes women are in charge of their relationships. If I had time.

Head Tracker Paul Raeburn alerted us to 2013’s longer features related to science that you may have missed. Another of Paul’s year-end summations calls attention to a post about 2013’s worst health-related press releases, this from the estimable Gary Schwitzer of HealthNewsReview. Paul quotes Schwitzer thus: “I don’t think all public relations messages about health care are crap,” he writes. “But most of what I see is. And I can’t stand seeing public relations that may end up hurting the public.”

Paul also wrote ruefully about the publications that trumpeted “cures” that were nothing of the kind: cures for AIDS and HIV infection, several different cures for cancer (these from, among others, Time magazine and the New York Times), cures for type 1 diabetes and high cholesterol. And, my favorite, junk food as a cure for obesity. Looking forward to 2014, Paul says, “I predict, with great confidence, that we will see many more ‘cures.’ Modern medicine is a wonderful thing. Not to mention modern reporting.”

Mars dry ice.  Mars is so cold that frozen carbon dioxide, or dry ice, remains from season to season at its south pole. White areas are this residual dry ice cap; the darker parts are water ice with dust and particles trapped in it. From a Wired Science Gallery. Credit:  NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Mars dry ice. Mars is so cold that frozen carbon dioxide, or dry ice, remains from season to season at its south pole. White areas are this residual dry ice cap; the darker parts are water ice with dust and particles trapped in it. From a Wired Science Gallery. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Some other 2013 Top Ten and Best-of lists

Betsy Mason of Wired Science has put together several galleries of 2013’s best images. They range from striking landforms to microscopic structures to many gorgeous spiders (and some that eat bats.) There’s also a gallery of best photos of Earth from space. Feast your eyes, terrific stuff. I am including a couple of them here, both NASA images because they’re in the public domain and I won’t get sued for copyright infringement.

Technology Review provides several “Best of” lists. They are all about their own articles, but that shouldn’t put you off.  Check out pieces on the origin of life and also best communications stories (topped by the controversy over NSA spying, which if anything seems to be getting bigger rather than fading away.   See also best computing stories, best biomedicine stories, best energy stories, and best long reads.

And now, the top medical news of 2013.

The New England Journal of Medicine‘s Journal Watch is a pay publication aimed at medical professionals, mainly docs, who are presumably too busy to actually read journals in their specialties. Quite helpful to science writers too. Journal Watch does offer some of its posts free. These include year-in-review summaries for several medical specialties with links to their top articles on each.

There’s also a list of NEJM Journal Watch General Medicine’s most important medical topics overall, but those links are behind the pay wall.  Odd. The list all by itself, though, is useful for a glimpse into what topics the medical profession believes matters.

Looking forward to 2014

From space.com, new space missions.

All this month Medpage Today is running a video series on hot topics for medicine in 2014. They cover cardiology and heart surgery, infectious disease, breast cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, autism, diabetes, prostate cancer, diet, Crohn’s disease, asthma and allergy, AIDS, dermatology, rheumatology, emergency medicine, women’s health, stroke, health policy, and lung cancer. Some topics command more than one video, and several haven’t been posted yet.

As the year began, things were looking up for the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, aka ACA. The federal web site was doing better, people were enrolling in new insurance plans, and the giant attempt at a capitalist version of health care reform was looking as if it would survive after all last fall’s attempts to bring it down (although perhaps in modified form, depending on Congress.) On January 2 Phil Galewitz took stock at Kaiser Health News, outlining six developments that may alter public perception of Obamacare for the better.   Kaiser is, of course, following Obamacare closely; find its (very long) story list here.

Also on January 2, the CDC warned that the H1N1 pandemic flu strain that first surfaced in 2009 appears to be this winter’s predominant flu type. The elderly are usually the chief victims of flu, but this strain hits mostly the young and middle-aged. Find the CDC weekly flu surveillance report here.

China's 2013 trip to the moon--the first lunar landing in 4 decades-- unaccountably didn't get many headlines. This photo of the moon rover Yutu was shot by the Chang'e-3 lander. Credit: CNSA/CCTV via Universe Today

China’s 2013 trip to the moon–the first lunar landing in 4 decades– unaccountably didn’t get many headlines. This photo of the moon rover Yutu was shot by the Chang’e-3 lander. Credit: CNSA/CCTV via Universe Today

Inside BGI, the world’s largest genomics institution

China’s visibility in science continues to grow, and maybe we ought to be paying more attention. In 2013, China went to the moon.  We begin 2014 with Michael Specter’s long piece about the Chinese genomics giant BGI, which generates a startling 25% of the world’s genome data.   The piece appeared in the January 6 New Yorker. It’s behind a paywall, but I wrote about it Tuesday for the Genetic Literacy Project, which is not behind a paywall.

Specter’s piece is stuffed with information about the little-known BGI, a Chinese institution–I keep wanting to call it a company–with outposts all over the world. It’s also quite a nice example of science writing.   My take: “It’s a case study in how to place an enormous amount of scientific information before a largely non-technical audience with no pedagogical seams showing. While telling the BGI story, Specter has achieved a compact and uncomplicated primer on genetic basics, genes and their molecules. He even explains, very simply to be sure, how a sequencing machine works.”

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