Exciting new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease? Nah.

So, exciting new drugs for treating Alzheimer’s disease, right?

Wrong. Or, rather, let’s allow for semi-miraculous outcomes and say instead that this recent news is unlikely to be right.

Most of the news concerned research results on two monoclonal antibody drugs reported at last week’s Alzheimer’s Association International Convention in Washington. Both drugs attack beta amyloid, the protein that is suspected by some researchers of gumming up the brain. Not a theory embraced by all, however.

The two drugs aren’t even new drugs. Solanezumab, from Eli Lilly, has already bombed in two previous clinical trials. Biogen reported some results from aducanumab, adding to data released in March.

There are plenty of hard-nosed critiques out there, so it’s difficult to understand the media huzzahs. Unless so-called reporters are just swallowing press releases whole.

Oh, wait . . .


Emily Underwood described the drugs’ uneven history at Science, observing of the new results, “the small cognitive benefits and the fact that one trial didn’t show any reduction in the amyloid in people’s brains left plenty of room for skepticism.”

Kevin Lomangino took stock at HealthNewsReview and noted “So why bother to present provisional results that don’t even demonstrate that the drugs had any noticeable effect? As Matthew Herper points out at Forbes, the show at this week’s conference may have been more about company stock prices than about informing patients and the public.”

Lomangino was unhappy at pretty much all the coverage except for a piece at NBC–and even that was damaged, in his view, by a cheerleading hed. Which presumably the writer of the reasonable story had nothing to do with, as is so often the case.

HT: HealthNewsReview

HT: HealthNewsReview

At In the Pipline, pharma researcher Derek Lowe is not happy about the aducanumab study’s small size. “And the first thing that has to be learned from watching clinical research (especially for a disease like Alzheimer’s) is that you cannot draw conclusions until you see a large, well-run data set. Ignore this advice at your peril. The list of promising-looking Alzheimer’s ideas that have evaporated on contact with a larger trial is long and terrible.”

As for solanezumab, Lowe says Lilly claims to be seeing more effect in the patients who started the therapy earlier, but “not everyone is buying that interpretation. The effect they’re seeing may well be clinically meaningless.”

Solanezumab failed to meet its endpoints in two Stage 3 clinical trials. Leading researchers to proclaim, in one of the more tortured arguments ever, that the disappointing outcome must mean that it works not just on symptoms but on the underlying disease itself.


Doc Perry Wilson treats this argument with the contempt it deserves at Medpage Today, saying solanezumab is “unlikely to have any clinical benefit” and calling the announcement “a Master Class in how to spin your drug that failed its original trial.”

Recent research is also showing that even if a splendid Alzheimer’s drug arrives, it may be splendid for only part of the population. Frederick Kunkle reports at the Washington Post that African-Americans with Alzheimer’s disease also seem to suffer from additional brain pathologies less frequent in Caucasians, notably the accumulation of abnormal proteins called Lewy bodies and lesions in tiny blood vessels.

Researchers at the Alzheimer’s meeting have also found that older women with cognitive decline seem to get worse and progress to Alzheimer’s disease twice as fast as men, Laura Geggel reports at LiveScience.


According to Harry Johns at Congress Blog, Alzheimer’s is already the US’s most expensive disease, one that threatens to bankrupt Medicare. Today, Medicare spends nearly 1 out of 5 of its dollars on caring for people with the disease. By 2050, a generation from now, it is estimated that will climb to nearly 1 in 3 dollars.

Neuroscientist Douglas Fields, writing at a SciAm Mind guest blog, is optimistic that even the obstructive current Congress will be open to funding more Alzheimer’s research. The key, he says, will be early diagnosis. Well, maybe. But until there are effective ways of treating early Alzheimer’s, early diagnosis is kinda beside the point, isn’t it? Or could even be a bad idea, considering what bombshells like this hopeless news can do to patients and their families?

Bloomberg View attempts a rational economic argument for more research: “Lawmakers may also want to consider that taxpayers will end up paying either way. Medicare and Medicaid will spend $153 billion caring for patients with Alzheimer’s and other kinds of dementia this year, or about 261 times what the NIH will spend looking for ways to prevent and cure the disease. Until one is found, these numbers are way out of balance.”

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First Americans mystery again plus $100 million search for extraterrestrials


Oh, goody. Dueling papers. Always a treat. And dueling papers in the same week in Science and Nature, an extra-special treat.

The topic a hot one, as befits dueling papers: Based on genetic studies in ancient and modern Native American populations, whence cometh the First Americans?

Moreover, the studies were carried out by two of the 800-pound gorillas of genetic populations studies: David Reich’s Harvard lab (in Nature) and the group led by Eske Willerslev, based at the University of Copenhagen (in Science).

In fact, although you wouldn’t know it from the media, which loves a fight, the papers are in broad agreement about the data and even about its implications for theories of migration.

First, the consensus that underlies the current First Americans migration story: More than 20,000 years ago, a group of people came from Siberia to what was then the Bering land bridge between Asia and North America, now long drowned in the rising post-Ice Age seas. They lingered in this grassy, productive place, perhaps for a few thousand years.

Then, maybe driven away as their green land disappeared under water, they ventured south, probably along the Pacific coast. (My favorite theory is that these migrations were at least partly by boat.) By 14,600 years ago they had gotten all the way to what is today southern Chile, nearly to Patagonia. This is the well-dated inland site at Monte Verde. Impressive.

This means–and much genetic evidence now confirms it–that there was only one major Paleolithic migration from Asia to the Americas. However, there is a discombobulating genetic fact that both these papers wrestle with: detection of a bit of Australo-Melanesian ancestry in a few–but only a few–Native American groups, mostly in South America. Both papers end up accounting for this by suggesting that there may have been two migrations, not just one.


Note that neither of these papers postulates something so romantic (and unlikely) as a Kon Tiki-type voyage in reverse, paddling from the Antipodes eastward across the Pacific. Instead they rest their theorizing on the firmly established human inclination to wander and to procreate.

Because the Willerslev group found no trace of the Australo-Melanesian DNA in their ancient DNA samples, the Science paper argues that it may have arrived in the Americas relatively late–perhaps a migration to the Aleutian Islands (where this DNA is also found.) This journey is hypothesized to have taken place about 9,000 years ago. After which, I guess, the idea is that the Australo-Melanesian DNA then trickled southward, eventually into South America.

Seems like a bit of a stretch. I wonder especially about the (relatively) small number of ancient DNA samples studied. As we all know, because we have been told it so often, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Maybe the Australo-Melanesian DNA signal will appear in ancient American DNA too, when more of it becomes available?

But the Nature paper’s theory is also unappealingly intricate. Reich and his colleagues think those genes may be fairly ancient. They account for them by inventing a (conveniently) now-extinct East Asian “Population Y” that is only distantly related to today’s Andamanese, Australian and New Guinean populations.

But the American editions of these genes “cannot be due to a single pulse of migration south of the Late Pleistocene ice sheets from a homogenous source population.” Their suggestion: since it appears that genes from a Clovis burial are what are now thought of as classically Native American, try looking for the Australo-Melanesian genes in non-Clovis sites.


Are these two ideas really in such direct conflict, except maybe about how long ago those anomalous genes entered the Americas? They both cope by proposing a second migration.

What seems most intriguing to me is that both groups found the Australo-Melanesian DNA. So it is likely to be real, and it needs explaining. Maybe it would be better to view the two more as sparring papers rather than dueling papers, even though that makes this conflict somewhat less compelling and clickworthy.

Both papers also agree that the “Paleoamerican” model is wrong. That model, based on skeletal morphology rather than genes, argues that the true First Americans were Australo-Melanesians whose genes were swamped by later-arriving Siberians, as Gregory Cochrane explains at West Hunter.

At Embargo Watch, Ivan Oransky describes the maneuvering that Science and Nature went through to ensure that these papers got to journalists together. A very last-minute arrangement.

I wonder if that short lead time helps account for the media and blogging discussions of these papers, which I found unusually confused and confusing. It’s kinda defeatist, but I guess I’ll leave the last word to Razib Khan, whose exposition at Gene Expression was otherwise not terribly clear: “It is turning out that reality is crazier than our imaginations. Hold tight.”


I suppose it’s really no puzzle why the media reception for Yuri Milner’s $100 million project to search for alien life treated the news as if the project was Stephen Hawking’s. See, for example, Rachel Feltman at Speaking of Science and  Calla Cofield at LiveScience.

Who, after all, has ever heard of Yuri Milner? Even if he did have the public relations savvy to sign up Hawking (and other luminaries) and probably expected to be upstaged.

And I concede that Hawking’s endorsement raises an interesting question.  He is known for his fear that ETs would be so far above us in accomplishments that they would sweep us into oblivion, regarding us as we regard bacteria. Why, then, does he want to search for them? It appears that he can’t stand not knowing. Life arose spontaneously on Earth, why not elsewhere?


Lots of detail from Jon Brodkin at Ars Technica. Much of the $100 million will go to buy telescope time on the 100-meter Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and the 64-meter Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia.

At The Conversation, Jonti Horner will tell you everything about the history of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and Andrew Norton will tell you everything about why it will be a waste of time.


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What you might not know about Pluto and the New Horizons mission

Even with Iran nukes, and Greece surrender, and Donald Trump to absorb you this week, you can hardly have escaped immersion in NASA’s New Horizons mission and the triumphant Pluto flyby. Still, here are some bloggeries about this extraordinary space adventure that you may not have encountered yet.


Pluto has a heart!  Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Pluto has a heart! Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Dan Satterfield, of Dan’s Wild Wild Science Journal (an American Geophysical Union blog), posted a 14-minute video of scientifically accurate Pluto chaff between Stephen Colbert and Neil deGrasse Tyson. From which I learned that, comparatively speaking, if Neptune was the size of a Chevvy Impala, Pluto would be the size of a Matchbox car.

Mike Summers, one of the New Horizons team members, blogs about the history of the New Horizons project, and the jubilation over its success, at The Conversation.

I was bowled over by the news that New Horizons is carrying the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930. But so says Chris Arridge, who also explains at The Conversation how New Horizons scientists are coping with its ancient technology–more than ten years old, and in some cases closer to 20.

Charon, Pluto's largest moon. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Charon, Pluto’s largest moon. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

It had never occurred to me that there would be confusion over how to pronounce the name of Pluto’s largest moon, which is surely SHARE-on. But apparently there is confusion, even among the New Horizons scientists, as Nick Stockton complains at Wired. Also, I learn there, the moon was not, after all, originally named Charon after the mythological ferryman from Hell who carried souls across the river Styx. No, the name was based on the name of Charon’s discoverer’s wife.

Charon, ferryman. Credit: Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni

Charon, ferryman. Credit: Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni


SciGuy Eric Berger ponders what has just been learned about the science of Pluto and its moon Charon. Both have features–11,000-foot ice mountains, for example, and a remarkable lack of cratering–that suggest recent geological activity and a very young surface.

But that implies these deepest of deep-freeze objects, which have orbited 3 billion miles from the sun for billions of years, might retain enough core heat for . . . volcanos? Or are there tectonic plates? Is Charon big enough to cause tidal heating on Pluto? Is Pluto radioactive? George Dvorsky speculates and speculates at io9, but in the end throws up his hands and declares, “This really is completely crazy.”

Some of the larger of the estimated hundred-thousand objects (with their known moons) in the Kuiper Belt, the crowded outer solar system neighborhood where Pluto dwells. Credit: © 2015 The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory LLC

Some of the larger of the estimated hundred-thousand objects (with their known moons) in the Kuiper Belt, the crowded outer solar system neighborhood where Pluto dwells. Credit: © 2015 The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory LLC

If you want to consult one source only, see what Joseph Stromberg has done at Vox. You’ll be there a while, because it’s lots, including photos.  He also contributes 6 amazing things the mission has taught us so far. And a thorough explanation, with diagrams, about Pluto’s demotion to dwarf planet status and whether it and a few other similarly sized round Kuiper Belt objects should be declared (or in Pluto’s case re-declared) to be planets.


New Horizons apparently has the technical capacity to study another Kuiper Belt object while it’s there; all it needs is money. Mika McKinnon, at Gizmodo, wants you to plead with your Congressperson  for more cash to carry out this additional mission.

At NASA Watch, Keith Cowing is grumpy. Again. “To be certain, this mission is nerd cool and exciting – and inspirational – even if you do not know all (or any) of the science behind it. But at the end of the day, how many of the 300,000,000 people who paid for this truly understand what was done, why it was done, and why it was more important to spend ~$700,000,000 on this as opposed to [fill in the blank].”

Cowing is particularly miffed at NASA’s claim that the mission to Pluto was a necessary step to the mission to Mars, which he declares to be nonsense. “You do not need to go 3 billion miles to Pluto so that you can go 100 million or so miles to Mars and back.” That’s because NASA can muster enough funds to occasionally do impressive missions like a journey to Pluto and beyond, “but nowhere near enough to do the big things that its Public Affairs office would have you think are a done deal.”

For an entirely different view of NASA’s PR operation, see Adam Epstein’s longish and admiring piece at Quartz detailing how NASA mastered viral tweets and took over the Internet this week.

The New Horizons mission is noteworthy for another reason: the number of women working on it. “This may be the mission with the most women in NASA history,” says Adrienne LaFrance at The Atlantic. Or it may not be. The assertion is equivocal because she presents no numbers. This is an encouraging snap:

Women of the New Horizons flyby team at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Credit: SwRI/JHUAPL

Women of the New Horizons flyby team at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Credit: SwRI/JHUAPL

Alice Bowman is the mission operations manager, acronymed MOM. I am hoping that “mission operations manager” is the usual title for the US taxpayers’ space projects, and that other such are known as MOM too. Even when they possess Y chromosomes.

But let’s conclude on a nonquarrelsome  upnote from Steven Novella at Neurologica: “[The New Horizons mission] is a stunning validation of not only astronomy and physics, but of science itself. No other intellectual tool developed by humans has achieved such a success. No dowser, psychic, or spiritualist could have divined the information necessary to target the probe. No astrologer could have given us this information. Alchemy could not have powered the rockets so powerfully and precisely. . . This will be remembered as an achievement of our species, of our civilization, and of the power of science.”

Credit and HT: Gizmodo

Credit and HT: Gizmodo

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Alien life on a comet and mind-boggling mind-reading successes


Owing to a fortuitous agglomeration of events–and if you think “fortuitous” means “lucky,” you’re wrong–this is Science Fiction Week at On Science Blogs.



First, and most easily disposed of, is the claim that out-of-this-world microorganisms inhabit the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. That comet, you’ll recall, was the target of the amazing Rosetta mission and its Philae lander, discussed here a number of times. For example here and also here.

This claim of cometary aliens is one of the finer examples of the story that’s too good to check. So most of the persons who wrote the initial reports failed to look even briefly into the recent activities of one of the claimants. That would be Chandra Wickramasinghe, who runs the department of fanciful astrobiology at the University of Buckingham (“The only independent university in the United Kingdom, founded in the 1970s”).

Wickramasinghe has a history of this sort of alien life outlandishness, as Stuart Clark recounts at The Guardian’s Across the Universe. Clark’s post is, I guess, The Guardian’s attempt to make up for its initial credulous news story by “Rebecca Ratcliffe and agencies”. You can blame Ratcliffe and/or “agencies”, but knowing how newspapers operate, I suspect the true villain is the subeditor who cobbled the thing together. I hope Ratcliffe is mad as hell.

Salon also ran an uncritical piece originally, but its updated version by Jenny Kutner says The Guardian has issued a retraction. I’m not giving Salon a lot of points for this, since it retains the clickbait hed “Scientists might have discovered alien life on a comet” and subhed “The comet that a spacecraft landed on last year appears to be home to viral particles.”

I couldn’t find the retraction on The Guardian’s site, and it doesn’t seem to be noted in connection with the original news story, which is still up, although there is a link to Clark’s  debunking post.

For nonbiological accounts of the cometary features Wickramasinghe cited as evidence of alien life, see space scientist Monica Grady’s nice explainer post at Out of This World.



Why am I not surprised that Facebook is working on telepathy? Anything to ramp up the FB invasion of our minds. So my instinct is just to sneer and snark at all the fuss about Mark Zuckerberg, the face of Facebook, and his declaration this week that “You’ll just be able to think of something and your friends will immediately be able to experience it too.”

Good grief. Calamity. But the fact is that people–real people, not Facebook–are working right now on–well, they don’t call it telepathy. They call it brain-to-brain communication or brain-to-machine interface. To be sure, the work is at the pre-embryonic stage. But there is stuff going on out there that is . . . unsettling.

Jesse Emspak recaps some recent work briefly at LiveScience, link above in first graf. Emspak also quotes skeptics like the neuroscientist who pointed out that the idea of transmitting thoughts faces a serious barrier: we don’t know what a thought is. Not to mention that sticking wires into people’s heads, the present state of a lot of mind-reading technology, is risky.

Another researcher noted that the cases of success with getting the brain’s motor cortex to operate prosthetic limbs is not anything like the exchange of experiences that Zuckerberg babbled on about.

For you youngsters, this is Mr. Spock doing a mind-meld.

For you youngsters, this is Mr. Spock doing a mind-meld.

On the other hand, read Roli Roberts, an editor at PLOS Biology, who blogged (and bragged) about a 2012 paper he handled at PLOS Biologue. “Much of neuroscience arguably involves subjecting an animal to a stimulus and then trying to find out how the brain responds. This paper describes a spookily successful attempt to achieve the reverse – looking at the brain’s activity and trying to reconstruct the stimulus that must have caused it.”

The authors, based at Berkeley, placed electrodes on the auditory cortex of epileptics about to undergo brain surgery, spoke single words to the patients, made recordings. “The human brain has evolved computational mechanisms that decode highly variable acoustic inputs into meaningful elements of language such as phonemes and words,” they explain. The paper reports successful decoding the patients’ brain signals to produce single words, some surprisingly accurate.

The Roberts post has lots of detail and a recording. Ira Flatow interviewed senior author Robert Knight on Talk of the Nation; find the recording and the transcript here. At the Huffington Post, Kyrsty Hazell said first author Brian Pasley “compared this technique to a pianist ‘hearing’ the music a colleague is playing in a sound-proof room simply by looking at the keys on the piano.

And there’s more. Mark Harris, at Technology Review, recounts two examples of what he calls direct exchange of information between human brains. Both were published last year and used technologies that have been around for a while, an EEG (electroencephalography) cap and transcranial magnetic stimulation. One aim of this work to help scientists test “ideas about how neurons in the brain represent information, especially about abstract concepts,” Harris says. A good hed too: Are Telepathy Experiments Stunts or Science?

And then there are the two papers just published by Scientific Reports, one of Nature’s journals. The papers reported research at Duke on getting (1) rhesus monkey brains and (2) rat brains to communicate and perform collaborative tasks for juice or water rewards. As Carl Zimmer notes at Matter, “In many of the trials, the networked animals performed better than individuals.

Zimmer’s post suggests some possible human uses for what the Duke researchers are calling brainets, for example networked surgeons operating collectively on a single patient. But he takes his usual care in pointing out pitfalls, like the gigantic ethical problem of neural privacy. At New Scientist, Jessica Hamzelou throws such cautions to the winds, speculating about superhuman problem-solving abilities and doing away with language altogether.

The papers are brand-new, published Thursday (July 9), and I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot more about them. Made me wonder if Zuckerberg had early word of this new work before his speculation last Tuesday on telepathy.

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Down with time changes plus the NY Times hearty series on cardio developments


It must have seemed like a good idea at the time, the time being 1972, a time before computers ran the world. That’s when it was decided that a way must be invented to keep precision atomic clocks in sync with the Earth’s messy natural rotation.

Behold the creation of the leap second. We had one of them last Tuesday. Carl Engelking explains at D-brief: “Come midnight Coordinated Universal Time June 30, the official time will read 23:59:60 rather than resetting to 00:00:00.”

Credit: National Physical Laboratory via Spencer Kelly and Geek.com.

Credit: National Physical Laboratory via Spencer Kelly and Geek.com.

The latest atomic clock measures the frequency of a particular transition in the cesium atom. That amounts to 9,192,631,770 vibrations per second, which defines the second, the international (SI) unit of time. This clock will keep perfect time, neither gaining nor losing a second, for 300 million years, Ars Technica’s Megan Geuss explained when the clock was unveiled last year.

For reasons not completely understood yet, but which have to do with competing gravitational pulls of the Earth, the moon, and the sun, Earth’s rotation is slowing down a teeny bit. But the rate of slowdown is unpredictable. We think of a single rotation as a day, 24 hours, 86,400 seconds. Because of the slowdown, though, the actual average length of a day is roughly 86,400.002 seconds, according to Laura Geggel at Live Science.

So at irregular intervals, time as measured by the Earth’s   infinitesimally slower spin must be synchronized with time as measured by that ever-so-precise atomic clock. In 1972, they started adding a second every now and then–a leap second–to even things out.

Leap seconds have been inserted into our timekeeping 25 times, at first nearly annually. But, also for reasons not completely understood yet, it’s happened much less frequently since 1999. Only 4 times, says Amanda Montañez at Scientific American.

However, those recent leap second insertions have messed things up. Last time, in 2012, “reddit crashed, Gawker went down, lots of Linux servers fell over, and Australian airline Qantas had some computer problems that caused up to 50 delayed flights. While it was sometimes a case of computer admins being caught with their pants down (i.e., old systems and packages that haven’t been updated), it was also just the result of not enough corner case testing,” says Sebastian Anthony at Ars Technica.

This time, Wired’s Cade Metz was worried that it might derange the financial industry’s computers, already coping with the Greek crisis. But according to Stephanie Yang at the Wall Street Journal’s MoneyBeat, there were hiccups but no chaos.

Metz wants to get rid of the leap second, pointing out that its absence wouldn’t seriously revise the human sense of time for centuries. 700 years from now, when the clock says 11:30 although it’s “really” midnight, world time could be adjusted by half an hour in one lump. We do something like that twice a year for Daylight Saving Time anyway.

In November, the International Telecommunications Union will meet to discuss the leap second–again. They’ve already done so a number of times and always voted to keep it. Will this time be different?

And while we’re at it, we should get rid of Daylight Saving Time too. Among other reasons, it deranges our metabolisms, a form of jet lag we impose on ourselves twice yearly. To no purpose at all, and to the detriment of health. I have ranted on this topic several times here at On Science Blogs, for example here, so will not repeat myself this time.


Gina Kolata, New York Times science journalist, is a controversial topic among her peers, although some think she has no peers. According to Larry Husten, another top science journalist, who specializes in matters cardiovascular, Kolata is “the most extravagantly talented and gifted health and science reporter working today.”

At Six Incredible Things Before Breakfast, Malcolm Campbell called her recent article on stents his Read of the Week.  The stents piece was part of a four-part Kolata series, “Mending Hearts,” on new developments in cardio medicine, and you’ll be wanting to bet that the series will will win prizes and praises.

Credit: National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute

Credit: National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute

Health News Review tackled one of the pieces in the series, this one on transcatheter aortic valve replacement, calling it a compelling tale but saying it needed more detail. For instance, some focus on less-than-successful cases in addition to heartwarming tales such as Henry Kissinger’s.

At The Pump Handle, Liz Borkowski liked Kolata’s piece on how hospitals have cut time-to-treatment dramatically, part of the reason the death rate from coronary heart disease has dropped 38% in the last decade. Husten liked it too but was irritated that Kolata failed to mention a big reason for the other 62%–patients’ delay in calling 911 or otherwise being poky about getting themselves to the emergency room.

And he is outright angry at the stents piece, which says that a 2007 big clinical trial that was negative about stents didn’t change medical practice. Husten quotes the trial’s PI as saying it reduced the volume of stent use between 20-25%. Husten says, “the trial ended an era of stent mania, and initiated in its place a medical culture much more likely to question unbridled enthusiasm for new drugs or devices.”

Husten has other complaints too. He concludes that the series is “good, really good. But it could be better.”


owing to Independence Day and all.
heart flag

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Obamacare lives and Kennewick Man is a Native American


The Affordable Care Act (aka ACA, aka Obamacare) subsidies to help people buy health insurance got saved by the US Supreme Court after all, with the somewhat unexpected help (unexpected by me, anyway) of Chief Justice John Roberts. Here’s my entirely biased summary from last week’s On Science Blogs post on the then-pending Supreme Court Case (and other matters.)

And here’s SCOTUSblog’s Amy Howe on the decision: “Court backs Obama administration on health-care subsidies: In Plain English.” Also many many many more SCOTUSblog analytic posts that begin here.  In advance of the decision, JoAnne Kenen provided links to lots of helpful background at Covering Health, the blog of the Association of Health Care Journalists.

A couple of headlines make clear the opposing positions on that disputed language in the ACA, the basis for this ridiculous case:

From Hit & Run, a libertarian site: “Supreme Court Resigns Duties, Tortures English Language to Save Obamacare
Judicial restraint? More like judicial hysterical appeasement.”

From Swampland, at Time: “Supreme Court Rules That a Typo Should Not Undo Obamacare.”

President Obama and others, Sarah Kliff at Vox for one, say the ruling means the ACA is here to stay. At Kaiser Health News, Jay Hancock is not entirely sure that’s so. Several suits against the law are still pending, and Congress will go on trying to change the law. “The high court decision sets up the 2016 presidential election as the health law’s next big test, although by then it could be difficult to fully uproot even if Republicans take the White House.”

At the Health Policy Blog at the right-wing National Center for Policy Analysis, John Graham forecasts that “The People, Not The Judges, Will Replace Obamacare” and makes suggestions for some Congressional actions he believes are doable.

In the meantime, lower courts–even conservative ones–keep knocking down legal challenges to Obamacare’s declaration that birth control should be free to all those covered. Jessica Mason Pieklo explains at RH Reality Check.

These are all just first takes; by the time you read this post thousands of others will also have had something to say.

Where Homo sapiens came from

On to one of everybody’s favorite topics, the story of where we humans came from. I write about genetics and DNA all the time, but I’m still bowled over by how much the genome has, in just a few years, contributed to our understanding of our origins (and maybe, depending on where gene editing takes us, where we are going.)

But first, the past. I call your attention the new PBS TV series on human origins, First Peoples, which has just begun. I have watched the first hour, which gets things a little backward because it’s about settlement of the Americas, one of the last places we landed.

Like most science documentaries, it relies on docudrama techniques. Shots of impossibly hunky dudes, clad in tailored skins and apparently lice-free, wielding spears in gorgeous landscapes. Overpowering cookie-cutter music that frequently drowns out the narration. And a budget that apparently permitted only a few of these things because they are repeated over and over.

Credit: PBS

Credit: PBS

But the interviews are pretty straightforward and informative. And I can’t quarrel at all with the argument of the first hour, since it embraces a formerly off-the-wall notion about American migration that I wrote about, ahem, in 1999.

To wit, the first Americans didn’t get here by using their feet. They used their heads. They came by boat. After crossing what was then the Bering land bridge from Asia, they paddled down the Pacific coast about 15,000 years ago. A couple of thousand years later they were definitely in Chile, almost to South America’s tip.

At Ars Technica, John Timmer has some reservations about First Peoples, but ends up saying, “Scientifically, just about everything seems solid and reasonably current.” Agreed.

The Kennewick Man story, but not Kennewick Man, finally laid to rest

Which brings us to the very complicated Kennewick Man story, tackled in the first episode of First Peoples. Where does this 8500 year-old skeleton, found in Washington State in 1996, belong? Should his remains, old as they are, be turned over to Native American tribes for burial, as the law specifies? Or does he belong only to the science of paleontology? His skull shape is different from today’s Native Americans. Does that mean he’s not one of them? Might he even be, gasp, European?

Those are among the questions that have bedeviled scientific study of the remains. Last week a paper in Nature answered the question of origins definitively: Kennewick Man’s DNA is unquestionably Native American.

This new paper got a lot of publicity, but it isn’t really news.  The basic nugget, that Kennewick Man’s DNA is definitely Native American, was published by the Seattle Times in January, thanks to–of all  things–a Freedom of Information Act request. An indication of the politics of Kennewick Man. At GeneExpression, Razib Khan has details and discusses migratory theories. Ewan Callaway’s piece at Nature News is illuminating on the politics.

And Kennewick Man’s skull shape isn’t such a puzzle after all. It’s similar to the skull shape of the teenage girl found in an underwater cave in Yucatan. I wrote about this find, dated at about 13,000 years ago, last year. That date makes the girl the oldest American skeleton so far. Her mitochondrial DNA marks her as related conclusively to today’s Native Americans despite the different skull shape.

Kennewick Man. Credit: Chip Clark/Smithsonian Institution

Kennewick Man. Credit: Chip Clark/Smithsonian Institution

So what explains the skull shape differences between these ancient ones, who are by DNA clearly ancestors of today’s Native Americans? Evolution. And yes, it can happen that fast. The genetic ability to digest milk as an adult spread widely in Africa and Europe beginning at most no more than 8000 years ago.

The final turn to this twisted tale is inside baseball, of interest chiefly to science writers. The new paper was published with a very short embargo time, meaning it was made available to journalists only a day or so before official publication. Science writers were miffed because the brief advance warning–embargoed papers are usually handed out at least a few days before publication–gave them little time to prepare a complicated assignment that incorporates recaps of lots of political maneuvering in addition to explaining the DNA results.

Ivan Oransky has a juicy account at Embargo Watch, complete with indignant tweets. It’s also now clear what the unusually short embargo was almost certainly about: Nature hurried the paper into publication because there was pressure to tie it in to, ta-da, the First Peoples PBS series that was about to begin–with an initial episode covering the Kennewick Man story.

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Whither Obamacare? Philae phones home from comet! Approval for female libido drug?


Whither Obamacare?

The fateful US Supreme Court ruling on the legality of many subsidies for Obamacare health insurance premiums (the case known as King v. Burwell) is nearly upon us. Perhaps it will come as soon as Monday (June 22) although the betting seems to be that the big reveal will be stretched out theatrically to the last possible moment, Monday week (June 29).

I’m struggling to explain this ridiculous labyrinthine case simply. First, Obamacare = the Affordable Care Act (aka ACA). The claim that federal subsidies are illegal is based on a contorted reading of the ACA completely incongruent with its intention and even its language, which is at worst sloppy. I wrote a detailed explainer here at On Science Blogs last fall when the Supremes agreed to hear the case. For a really dark view of the prospects, see especially the comments I quoted from Supremes expert Linda Greenhouse.

No way in logic does the claim make sense. It is entirely, nakedly, political. And everybody knows it. Anyone making this argument must engage in mighty struggles to keep a straight face. I admire the performance art in Stuart Taylor’s remarkably even-handed, rigorously middle-of-the-road explanation, which can be found at Kaiser Health News.

But the potential consequences are not ridiculous at all. If the justices rule that insurance purchased through the federal exchange healthcare.gov cannot legally be subsidized, an estimated 6.4 million people will be forced to pay their entire premiums themselves, according to Sarah Kliff at Vox. (Many estimates are higher.) She also estimates that premiums could rise as much as 650%.

Credit: rightwingnews.com

Credit: rightwingnews.com

However, those who oppose any kind of national health insurance program (even one like the ACA, which is in no sense socialism, since it is market-based and exists entirely to put money in the hands of insurance companies) have experienced an epiphany of sorts. They have begun to grasp that 6.4 million pissed-off people (and lots of Democrats making righteous bellowings on their behalf) will not be good for Republicans.

So there is talk of finding legal ways to extend those subsidies after all. Which raises the question of why bring suit in the first place, but keep in mind that this is politics, where the only logic is the strategy for winning.

Here are some blogs that have been following the case closely; you will find many relevant posts here. First, the blog of the journal Health Affairs. Some noteworthy posts: “A Market-Based Contingency Plan for King v. Burwell” authored by several stars, both right and left, in the policy firmament.  “What Are The States Doing To Prepare For King v. Burwell?” A 3-part series. Part 3 here, with links to Parts 1 and 2. “GOP King v. Burwell ‘Fixes’ Not Fixes At All, Would Make Health Care Worse.”

The National Center for Policy Analysis, based in Dallas, seeks to privatize Social Security, Medicare, and a bunch of other things. So it opposes the ACA strongly, but its Health Policy Blog is sometimes not as snarky as you might expect.

Kaiser Health News compiles links to relevant articles and commentary, for example this summary of pieces about preparations for a Supreme decision against subsidies.  But it also produces original material like the Taylor post cited above.  Find all material related to health care law here.

NPR’s health care blog Shots has followed the ACA story too, posts collected here.

Philae has phoned home from the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko!

In our last episode in November, Philae, sent from the Rosetta spacecraft to land on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, had landed all right. But the landing was in an unknown shady place on the comet, and Philae needs the sun for power to function. After 211 days of silence, the comet has, huzzah, moved into a position where Philae is getting some sun at last. The lander has, well, phoned home.

Credit: European Space Agency Rosetta mission

Credit: European Space Agency Rosetta mission

The incomparable Emily Lakdawalla has all the details and a look at what’s next at the Planetary Society’s blog.  Here’s the blog at the European Space Agency, home to the Rosetta mission. Despite the Philae contact, it’s still not known exactly where the lander is on the comet.

Is the best yet to come for the female Viagra?

Is there anything good to be said about flibanserin, aka (incorrectly) as the female Viagra, which may be on the verge of FDA approval? Except, perhaps, that it’s a kind of declaration that women should get equal opportunity for great sex, even if it’s only (on average) .7 times more per month? And forget the health risks (sudden low blood pressure, sleepiness, interactions with booze and other drugs)?

The drug, which is of course a pink pill, diddles with neurotransmitters in the brain, making it a completely different proposition from Viagra. Viagra, inevitably a blue pill, which researcher Jayne Lucke calls a fix for “the hydraulics of erectile dysfunction,” increases blood flow to the penis to maintain an erection. Viagra is taken when an occasion arises. Flibanserin (trade name Addyi) must be taken daily.

Sprout Pharmaceuticals, which makes it, is reporting a 46% to 60% success rate. I can’t help wondering about the placebo effect here, which must certainly be relevant in a situation that takes place as much in the head as in other bodily regions. OTOH, the placebo effect is, undeniably, an effect. So maybe the proponents are right, and the oddly named Addyi is better than nothing?

David Kroll explains the technicalities (and is remarkably even-handed about the semi-political pros and cons) at his Forbes pharma blog. Martha Kempner’s post, reprinted at the Our Bodies Ourselves blog, lists a number of additional reasons why approving this drug might be a bad idea.

Poster for Orgasm Inc., Liz Canner's 2009 documentary on drug companies' efforts to medicalize and create a market for cures to women's sexual problems. Great reviews.

Poster for Orgasm Inc., Liz Canner’s 2009 documentary on drug companies’ efforts to medicalize and create a market for cures to women’s sexual problems. Great reviews.

At HealthNewsReview, Alan Cassels is scathing, calling the push to get the drug approved an Astroturf campaign (i.e., definitely not real grassroots.)  At LiveScience, Elizabeth Palermo lists 5 reasons a woman might not be interested in having sex, none of which seem very likely to respond to flibanserin. Not on the list, for some reason, is a partner who’s just not that titillating.

Which thought is a natural segue to The Onion, which has a brief report on FDA approval of a man who enhances female libido and provides 40% more orgasms per month. (HT to HealthNewsReview.) Oddly, the photo depicts a guy who needs a bra. Not my type at all. And The Onion warns that “when mixed with alcohol, the man becomes much less effective.”

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More fallout from the retracted gay marriage paper; social sciences under fire

For the third time here at On Science Blogs, fallout from the fraudulent Science paper about the ease of changing opposition to gay marriage. The commentary now has moved on from that particular paper to the shakiness of social science research in general–and the shakiness of scientific research in general too.

Lo, the liberal conspiracy

First, some fun, eviscerating the Wall Street Journal editorial charging that Science published the paper because it fed liberal biases. To begin with, the editorial writer(s) (or the WSJ research staff) couldn’t seem to get the facts right.

For example, David Broockman and Josh Kalla, the Berkeley grad students who brought down the paper’s first author Michael LaCour, were not seeking to replicate the work. They were studying it because they wanted to do a similar research of their own. That difference strikes me as significant: The fraud was revealed not by competitors who wanted to tear LaCour’s work apart but by friendlies who wanted to extend it. Discovering that the paper’s data were fake was a kind of accident.

fraud retracted paper

Jesse Singal has an extended takedown of the WSJ editorial that describes other errors at New York Magazine’s Science of Us blog. But his main point is that the idea of a liberal conspiracy in the social sciences is just silly. “If the social sciences ‘often seem to exist’ to promote research suggesting, for example, that people can be talked out of their conservative views, then why are there so many reams of studies showing basically the opposite? What kind of half-assed academic conspiracy would allow in so much disconfirming evidence?”

Singal has jumped on this tale with both feet and several posts, which don’t seem to have been collected under a single URL. Pity. The centerpiece is his lengthy tick-tock explaining just how the fraud was, reluctantly, unearthed.

At The Passive Habit, Cameron says, “Singal effectively rebutted the Journal’s editorial, though his answer to the bigger question about the credibility of social science wasn’t as convincing.” Cameron argues, and I agree, that the social sciences do possess a liberal bias. But it’s not a conspiracy. It’s human nature, a byproduct of liberal leanings. And, I would add, a political leaning not only among social scientists, but among all scientists.

Social science  methodology sucks

On Science Blogs has had a lot to say over the years about the particular maladies that infect social science research. They include in-your-face fraud but also, and far more pervasive, methodology that just sucks. For example, a reason the literature on nutrition is so useless is that it has depended on self-reports. We cannot be trusted to remember accurately what we ate even this morning, let alone a week ago. Also, human nature once again, we lie about what we eat.

In a post at Newton Blog headed “Why Everything We ‘Know’ About Diet and Nutrition Is Wrong,” Ross Pomeroy makes that point and thinks it may explain why, as he says, nutrition research is awash in woo. “Sure, the scientific literature on nutrition is bulging with studies, but at the same time, it’s watered-down with weak, meaningless information. Perhaps that’s why nutrition has become rife with hucksterism.” Pomeroy believes one solution is random controlled trials, but as we’ll see in a moment, the clinical trial may be part of the problem, not a solution.

Shortcomings like these are one more factor in the long-term efforts in Congress to cut funding for political and other social sciences. Efforts that have succeeded. The House recently voted to raise the National Science Foundation’s budget–but cut its funding for social science by 45%. Social science is only a small percentage of NSF’s budget. Still, the message is clear.

In a Monkey Cage post, John Sides describes these efforts and argues that to the extent social science can inform policy choices about people’s lives, it’s a valuable resource and should be funded. Of course politicians are not trying to defund social science because they are horrified by misconduct and/or less-than-rigorous methodology. But it’s surely a convenient bludgeon.

Malfeasance outside of social science

There’s plenty of malfeasance in the harder sciences too, of course. Misconduct damages people’s faith in science, but it does worse, too. Ian Roberts of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine participates in the Cochrane Reviews,  systematic reviews and meta-analyses of primary research in human health care and health policy. He is dismayed at the state of clinical trial data. As he wrote at The Conversation, “health research scandals put the health of millions of patients around the world in jeopardy.”

That’s partly because journal editors and reviewers simply take data in a paper on trust, as they did in the case of the gay marriage study. Just one example Roberts cites: a Cochrane review showing that a sugar solution prevents death after head injury was retracted “after our review editors were unable to confirm that any of the included trials took place.” And even when published trials are genuine, they are a biased sample. Trials showing no effects, good or bad, are rarely published.

fraud poster

Even if cases of out-and-out-fabrication turn out to be rare, there’s still plenty of junk science, much of it due to accident or error. For example, cell lines are sometimes not what they’re supposed to be.  Richard Harris observed recently at Shots, “A widely used cell labeled as breast cancer is actually a melanoma cell, it was recently discovered, and there are hundreds of similar examples.”

One recent study estimated that more than half of preclinical lab research cannot be reproduced, and the researchers put the annual cost at $28 billion. A critic pointed out to Harris that the inability to reproduce a study doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad study. It could mean, for example, that the Methods section was so poorly written that other scientists can’t repeat the study exactly.

I don’t find that hugely comforting.

And now, some optimism

Will all we are learning about the (un)trustworthiness of science lead to change? According to Retraction Watch’s Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky, it already has. Writing at The Verge, they point out that the scientific community listened when two mere grad students pointed out the statistical weirdnesses of the gay marriage paper. There’s “growing recognition among science journals that the tools of statistics represent an effective defense against fraud.”

Of course it’s not practical to vet statistics in each of the two million papers published every year. But Marcus and Oransky are bullish about post-publication peer review, citing a number of efforts.

For example, they advise checking out PubPeer, the “journal club” that carries out peer review after the fact and in public. The comments tend to the technical, of course, but they say the result has been published corrections and even retractions.

I haven’t tried it out, but the site says it has a browser extension that permits PubPeer comments to appear on PubMed and journal sites. Linking the critiques to the paper that provoked them would just be ideal, but it’s hard to imagine journals agreeing to live with it.

Marcus and Oransky conclude that relatively simple data analysis is a robust solution to weeding out fraud. Not simple for everybody, obviously, including many journalists. But, as they say, “bring on the geeks!”

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Eat chocolate and lose weight! Plus more on the fraudulent gay marriage paper

Eat chocolate! Lose weight! Lie to everybody!

The first response to journalist John Bohannon’s latest sting operation against schlock science journals and schlock science journalists–publishing a paper claiming that a chocolate bar a day helps people lose weight–was a savory combination of glee and hand-wringing. Oh boy, (a) journal editors and (b) journalists are (a) lazy and/or (b) fools! Beginning with the cocky description from Bohannon hisownself at io9.

In a guest post at Retraction Watch, HealthNewsReview’s Gary Schwitzer notes that the hoax may only have fooled only a few, despite the io9 hed “I Fooled Millions Into Thinking Chocolate Helps Weight Loss.” Schwitzer says, “Those few – whom I will politely call ‘journalists’ – did the rest of the fooling for him.

But a number of bloggers saw the dark chocolate project quite differently. I’ll begin with Faye Flam because it’s in all our interests to see her return to blogging about science and science journalism. Now at Forbes, Flam was one of the gone-but-not-forgotten Knight Science Journalism Trackers, RIP.  “His hoax seems unlikely to have fooled millions of people, but the viral story unveiling his trick may well have fooled millions of people into thinking he’d fooled millions of people,” Flam says. The hoax may seem to be one of those honest lies designed to foster public education and critical thinking. “But now Mr. Bohannon needs to show he really fooled millions if he wants to rise above the clickbait writing hucksters he’s trying to condemn.”

At Covering Health, Tara Haelle points out that Bohannon’s io9 piece was timed to coincide with release of the German documentary on fads and frauds in dieting he concocted the sting for. She also notes that few real journalists were stung. Those who consumed the chocolate hoax by and large did not qualify as journalists. To their credit, none of the MSM bit.

Haelle’s post also explores the question of whether Bohannon’s project was unethical. The study had no official ethics oversight, and it involved drawing blood, which always carries a small risk. Since the participants didn’t know the study was a fake, their consent to be studied was not–could not be–full consent.

Jesus in chocolate. Credit: Jorgebarrios

Jesus in chocolate. Credit: Jorgebarrios

Was the dark chocolate clinical trial ethical?

For her ethics discussion, Haelle draws heavily on Hilda Bastian, my colleague here at the PLOS Blog Network, who blogs at Absolutely Maybe. Bastian’s exhaustive post on the dark chocolate hoax deals in part with the question of whether the “clinical trial,” involving 15 living, breathing study subjects, was ethical. The trickery involved deliberately poor study design, data manipulation, and some obfuscatory treatment of author credentials. But the project didn’t just deceive journals and some journalists and (possibly) millions of people who read about it and have allowed themselves to believe that chocolate is a diet food. It deceived the research subjects.

That’s because the trial itself was genuine enough. The subjects altered their eating behavior as directed–at a certain amount of inconvenience to themselves (and damage to the weight-reduction diets they thought they were on.) Did the researchers come clean and undeceive them after the fact? Not clear.

Bastian’s post links to an even more exhaustive one by Harvard Law’s  Michelle Meyer at The Faculty Lounge. Meyer’s post is largely an examination of the rules–and lack of rules–that govern human subjects research.

But she also points out that the dark chocolate hoax tells us nothing we didn’t already know. Bohannon professed to be surprised that some media were easily hornswoggled, a claim Meyer regards as balderdash. No science journalist could possibly be unaware of how much swill is written about junky science that pretends to flashy conclusions.

On the other hand, Meyer says, the general public, along with many non-science academics and policymakers “continue to disseminate and consume shoddy science, which—along with the fact that shoddy science is conducted and published in the first place, while careful replications and failures to replicate are more likely to collect dust in the proverbial file drawer—is an enormous problem, indeed, an enormous ethical problem. What we need are feasible solutions to make these groups aware of this problem, not more evidence of the problem that perversely contributes to the problem itself.”

More reasons for dismay about the dark chocolate hoax

An enormous amount of blogging has critiqued the chocolate diet project, but for the highest of dudgeon, it’s hard to top Chris Lee’s post at Ars Technica. He is upset in part about the deception of readers, arguing that all those people who search for fad diets “have been given yet another false data point and another failure to reflect upon.”

He is also furious at Bohannon and the filmmakers on professional grounds. Instead of concocting their own fake clinical trial, what they should have done, Lee says, was to unearth previous badly covered diet and health stories and confront the researchers and interview folks who believed what bad journalism told them.

The team “could have trapped reporters in their own laziness with these stories. But then they would have had to work harder to make the documentary interesting. Now, as I see it, we’ve been left with a lazy reporter that has made a documentary about lazy reporters.”

Here’s another reason for dismay. The denialists are using the dark chocolate hoax as evidence that neither journalists nor journals can be trusted on climate change and global warming either.

Anthony Watts turned over his climate-change denialism blog Watts Up With That? to guest blogger Howard Booth, who called Bohannon’s io9 post “an interesting peek into the terrible state of the scientific publishing process, and the media’s inability to hold scientists accountable.” Booth followed up with another Watts Up post describing Bohannon’s well-known sting of 2013, in which he submitted a fake paper to journals and 157 of them accepted.

More evidence of the terrible state of the scientific publishing process–and, by implication, a declaration that what scientists publish about climate change and global warming is not to be trusted.

A Maya lord forbids a subject to partake of chocolate

A Maya lord forbids a subject to partake of chocolate

That fake Science paper about attitudes toward gay marriage, cont’d

Brief update on events since last week’s On Science Blogs post about the notorious and now-retracted Science study purporting to show that people’s opposition to gay marriage could be turned around by talking with an advocate. The first author, Michael LaCour, has issued his defense. I hope you will not be surprised to learn that no one believes it.

Retraction Watch described LaCour’s response, noting his claim that the data supporting the paper don’t exist now because they were destroyed due to “institutional requirements.” There are a number of reasons for doubting those data ever existed.

At Discover, Neuroskeptic goes over some of the Broockman et al critiques of the Science paper discussed here last week. The conclusion: LaCour’s response has failed to refute them.

At Science of Us, Jesse Singal notes that LaCour’s response has nothing to say about the fact that the survey company LaCour claimed to have used says he didn’t, and the employee he claimed to have dealt with does not exist.

At Vox, Julia Belluz uses the events to argue that fraud like this is not just the result of a few bad apples, but grows out of structural flaws in the scientific process itself. For example, the pressures to keep quiet about fraudulent work are immense. David Broockman says he was repeatedly warned not to raise questions about the gay marriage paper lest he be seen as a troublemaker or worse.

And then there is the paper’s topic and its heartwarming conclusion. There is a powerful desire to embrace its findings. Denouncing the paper feels like trying to fight the overwhelming political tide favoring gay marriage. Or being against the entrancing idea that rational discussion is a tool for solving policy problems.

Which of us would not prefer to believe that prejudice can be overcome by reasoned discourse?

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[UPDATED] Fraud in Science: the retracted study on attitudes toward gay marriage

[Update added comments from Retraction Watch’s Adam Marcus and comment on Tara Haelle’s post at the health journalism blog Covering Health.]

There’s an interesting meta-question growing out of the flap over that Science paper that’s just been retracted.  I speak, of course, of the one by UCLA grad student Michael LaCour and Columbia political scientist Donald Green, published last December, the one purporting to show that people’s political attitudes (in this case opposition to gay marriage) can be overturned in the course of persuasive conversation with an advocate.

The meta-question grows out of the size and decibel level of the flap–if not the biggest ever, then certainly among the top ten. Could this be the beginning of a real reversal in the problem of fraud and misconduct in science?

And perhaps, she ventured hopefully, could it mean reduced gullibility of the media? Will it change the reflexive practice of swallowing whole any old paper if it’s on a hot topic like gay marriage, especially one in a major journal like Science?

In this case credulity swept over even savvy journalists and statistically expert political scientists–even while they noted with astonishment that the reported results were contrary to what previous researchers had found. In a post last week at Vox, Dylan Matthews acknowledged that originally he had called the results “kind of miraculous.” His new piece appeared under the forthright hed “This was the biggest political science study of last year. It was a complete fraud.”

At The Monkey Cage, political scientist Andrew Geller confessed in his mea culpa last week that he had marveled repeatedly in his original piece at the size of the reported effects, and even theorized about what could explain them. What did not cross his mind was the most parsimonious explanation: phony data. “The message, I suppose, is to be aware of the possibility that someone’s faking their data, next time I see an effect that’s stunningly large.”

How the truth came out

The fraud story came out, as is so often the case these days, via that essential science blog Retraction Watch. Ivan Oransky followed up a tweeted tip from Science News deputy managing editor Lila Guterman. Guterman, trolling Twitter in the wee hours, had seen a tweet about a paper posted on a Stanford web site that had uncovered fraud in the LaCour-Green paper. Here’s the analysis paper.

The irony about the fraud’s discovery is that paper authors David Broockman and Joshua Kalla, both grad students, delved into the Science paper’s data not because they smelled a rat, but because they were excited about the study and wanted to extend it. They weren’t even trying to replicate it.

Fraud Gay attitudes si-lacourtweet

The original study had been based on a project run by Dave Fleischer, who heads the Leadership Lab at the Los Angeles L.G.B.T. Center. The project sent gay canvassers into the Los Angeles neighborhoods where voters had supported Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California. “The canvassers followed standardized scripts meant to convince those voters to change their minds through non-confrontational, one-on-one contact,” says Maria Konnikova in her recap at the New Yorker.

This canvassing part of the study appears to have been carried out as planned. The LaCour-Green idea was to follow up the canvassing some months later to see if the persuasion methods had worked and attitudes toward gay marriage had changed. The December 2014 paper claimed that they had, dramatically.

More juicy details in  Naomi Shavin’s piece at the New Republic.  At the Chronicle of Higher Education, Steve Kolowich did a Q&A with data sleuth Broockman.  Data journalist Carl Bialik’s recap at FiveThirtyEight goes into some detail about the statistical clues that alerted Broockman and Kalla that the data were bogus.  At Americablog, Jon Green describes work by Tim Groseclose suggesting that LaCour faked data in other work too.

Speculations about fallout and the future of fraud

In an interview with Jesse Singal at Science of Us, senior author of the retracted paper Donald Green says “I’m quite confident that people are going to do this experiment. I want to do this experiment.” The irony is, Green says, is that there really was an experiment–the canvassing undertaken by the L.G.B.T group. What’s needed is to evaluate the results, as the December paper pretended to do. “Dave Fleischer and his canvassing team, they really did bust their hump to do these interventions, to give treatment messages, placebo messages, with gay canvassers, with straight canvassers — that’s all true, and it happened not once but in two separate studies,” Green says. “But the outcomes were never measured, so now we just need to do it with real survey data.

To the idea that the study will be done again and actually carried out this time, Daniel Flynn retorted, “Codifying gay marriage has never been about canvassers, gay or straight, persuading Americans. Voters, after all, rejected same-sex marriage in California, Wisconsin, Oregon, and other blue states only to watch judges order them to embrace it. America’s evolution on gay marriage came as a conversion by the sword.” Flynn’s post appeared at The American Spectator, the prominent opinion journal on the right.  He complimented the Broockman-Kalla exposé, despite the fact that their “Twitter feeds betray a decidedly left-wing bent.”

Donald Green (on the left) and Michael LaCour in happier days, from LaCour's Facebook page

Donald Green (on the left) and Michael LaCour in happier days, from LaCour’s Facebook page

Much of what has been written has been kind to Green, presenting him as a straight-arrow scientist hoodwinked by perfectly natural trust in a convincing grad student, LaCour, who turned out to be a con man. Charles Seife–best known, probably, for helping to bring down the science writer Jonah Lehrer–is not so forgiving of Green’s (and the journal’s) failure to inquire more deeply into LaCour’s nonexistent data. “Science magazine didn’t shoulder any blame, either. In a statement, Editor in Chief Marcia McNutt said the magazine was essentially helpless against the depredations of a clever hoaxer.”

That these things are true indicates that something is very amiss in science, Seife says. “Despite the artful passing of the buck by LaCour’s senior colleague and the editors of Science magazine, affairs like this are seldom truly the product of a single dishonest grad student. Scientific publishers and veteran scientists — even when they don’t take an active part in deception — must recognize that they are ultimately responsible for the culture producing the steady drip-drip-drip of falsification, exaggeration and outright fabrication eroding the discipline they serve.”

At Poynter, James Warren tries to extract lessons for journalists from this tale. Nothing you haven’t heard before, and also not really helpful here. Stop trusting small sample sizes, for example. Good advice, but completely irrelevant for flagging this study as bogus. As I noted above, the fakery fooled real experts. Including the co-author.

Ivan Oransky offered me in a small ray of hope in an email. He pointed out that the sort of statistical analysis Broockman and Kalla did to expose the fraudulent data in this study has become more common. He and Retraction Watch partner Adam Marcus described how this can work in their piece in the new Nautilus. It tells (as the hed says) “How the Biggest Fabricator in Science Got Caught.” That would be anesthesiologist Yoshitaka Fujii, who has now retracted 183 Potemkin papers.

Update 11:30am MST Friday May 29, 2015

In an email to me, Marcus emphasized that journals are more likely to catch fishy results if they pay close attention to the data in a submitted paper. But he also notes that it has not been the traditional role of peer reviewers or editors “to identify sketchy results.”

I didn’t know that.  Marcus is a journal editor as well as a founder of Retraction Watch, so I’ll take his word for it. But I’m a mere science journalist and have believed for years that this was exactly the sort of thing journal editors and peer reviewers were supposed to be doing, identifying sketchy results. Isn’t that the point of gatekeeping? Isn’t that why publishing in a peer-reviewed journal is desirable? Isn’t it a kind of seal of approval? If not, then what is journal editing and peer-reviewing about?

Marcus does have advice about changing that, however. He told me, “[A]s the tools of statistics are increasingly brought to bear in science publishing — as they were in the Fujii case, retroactively — the harder it will be to cheat. So editors and publishers should welcome these tools and find ways to use them more often.”

At Covering Health, the blog of the Association of Health Care Journalists, Tara Haelle has similar advice for journalists, based on something Oransky said in an interview: Keep a biostatistician in your back pocket.

Excellent advice. Also completely impractical for most journalists in most media in most circumstances. Some biostatisticans may be able (and willing) to spot fishiness in a cursory reading of  some manuscripts, especially if the imploring journalist is a friend or relation. Very few would be eager to plunge into a time-consuming extended analysis–especially as volunteers.

The New York Times and a handful of other top media would probably be willing to pay for such a service in a very small number of very occasional, very high profile cases. But a tame biostatistician on call is never going to be a real possibility for most science and medical journalists.  Science writers will have to pray for more scientist-heros like Broockman and Kalla–and more devoted journalistic (and apparently insomniac) tweet-scanners like Lila Guterman.

Our update is now ended, back to the original post

Oransky and Marcus argued in a New York Times op-ed last Saturday that the central problem in reducing fraud is doing something about incentives. By incentives they mean the drive to publish on a hot topic in a hot journal, which is the key to getting and keeping a job in science.

“But as you well know, there’s a scandal like this at least once a year, in fields from social psychology to stem cells, and yet the fraud continues,” Oransky told me.

So, back to my original question. Could this exceptionally noisy example begin a real reform process and do something about fraud and misconduct in science? Also, is there hope that those who write about science and medicine will give up simple regurgitation and get their skepticism on?


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