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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Update on gene editing of human embryos–and other organisms


The National Academy of Sciences has confirmed officially that yes, as rumored for weeks, it will hold a meeting to thrash out issues posed by the new gene editing techniques. These will probably be ethical and policy issues mostly. In particular the much-talked-about fallout from the lab method using CRISPR/Cas, especially permanent edits to the H. sap genome that would be inherited by future humans–usually called germline editing.

germ cell gene editing

Time and place for the meeting not yet specified, but probably in the fall. The meeting was prompted by high-profile calls from scientists for a moratorium on gene editing  research. I won’t recap the background because you can find some of it here at On Science Blogs on April 24 and the rest of it at the On Science Blogs post for March 20.

Other species, other kinds of genetic modification

While we’re chewing our fingernails over the prospects for turning people into GMOs, let’s not forget that gene-editing can be done on anything with genes. Plants, including crop plants. Animals, including crop animals. Antonio Regalado described latter possibilities–hornless dairy cattle, for instance–at TechReview.

Although the current debate focuses on gene editing methods, we had a reminder only this week that other kinds of genetic engineering can generate potentially big trouble too. Researchers say they are close to giving yeast a group of genes for making morphine, codeine, and other drugs that have been derived from the opium poppy for thousands of years. Biotechnologists could produce industrial quantities of these opioids in giant vats.

There’s more to this story than cheaper pain meds, obviously. Robert Service’s long post at Science Insider describes the research so far and the impact it’s likely to have on policymakers and the trade in illegal drugs. At Talking Back, Gary Stix notes that, once the yeast genetic modifications are complete, “All that is needed is to feed spoonfuls of sugar to the engineered microbe.”

Stix quotes Stanford bioethicist Hank Greely speculating that incorporating the CRISPR/Cas system into the genetic modification process “may make it relatively easy for a criminal syndicate to engineer an opiate-producing yeast strain.” If regulators are slow to approve the process, Greely says, “It seems to me entirely possible that the only uses of this discovery will be illicit.”

Credit: TeunSpaans

Credit: TeunSpaans

Jeantine Lunshof, a visiting scientist in George Church’s cutting-edge genetics lab at Harvard, took to Nature to warn in particular about the potential dangers of gene drives, developed in Church’s lab. (Gene drives, a tool to modify entire species swiftly, were discussed here at On Science Blogs last summer.)

Lunshof’s point: the “outcry over designer babies and precision gene therapy should not blind us to a much more pressing problem: the increasing use of CRISPR to edit the genomes of wild animal populations. Unless properly regulated and contained, this research has the potential to rapidly alter ecosystems in irreversible and damaging ways.”

Gene editing and bioethics and capitalism

At the Bioethics.net blog, Craig Klugman trots out the well-worn Pandora’s Box analogy. We’ll doubtless be hearing a lot about poor Pandora even though her tale is not really relevant to the possibilities for gene editing.

That’s because gene editing isn’t only about loosing evils upon the world. If it was, deciding to oppose it would take little brain room. But gene editing is not wholly evil, not at all. There is talk about how it can cure some diseases permanently and perhaps also improve the human genetic condition. Which makes gene editing a genuine ethical dilemma–part potentially really good, part potentially really bad.

The recent announcement from the National Institutes of Health that the agency would not be funding any gene editing on human embryos appears to have struck many in the media as new news. Also, perhaps indirectly, as a declaration that the US government opposed the work.

But there is nothing new about this non-funding policy. As NIH director Francis Collins explained in an interview with Julia Belluz at Vox, in the 1990s “Congress said public federal funds will not be used for research involving derivation on human embryos. That says — no matter what I think — this type of research will not be supported by NIH.”

Of course it’s clear Collins does personally oppose human germline editing. He also pointed out that, even before the recent debates about human uses of gene editing, deliberative bodies around the world declared that modifying the human germline with the intent of producing living humans is a line that should not be crossed.

It may already be too late, though, to consider whether that line should be crossed. Nature Biotechnology asked 50 experts (mostly scientists) for their opinions on human germline editing. Most seem to think it is inevitable, although there were many ideas about how it should proceed and what, if anything, can be done to keep watch over it.

The article is not open-access. I hope the journal will change its mind about that. There’s a brief free summary at GenomeWeb, which may require registration.

Even if people decide that control of gene editing uses is necessary, as a practical matter it hardly seems doable. George Church says a CRISPR lab could be set up for $2000. Kevin Loria described the process at Business Insider.


And then there are two irresistible economic forces: consumer demand and the demands of capitalism. At The Mermaid’s Tale, Ken Weiss bends over backward to be both realistic and fair-minded about the dilemma: “Even if the NIH prevents germline genetic engineering, we probably cannot stop other countries and private companies from doing it.  Profits are to be made and, to be fair, parents’ dreams of normal children will be catered to, hopefully in a positive way.  Generally, it is hard to believe that self-interests will not over-ride ethical interests, as they so often do when money is to be made.  Which is not to say that profit is the only motive–there is good to be done, and lives to improve as well.”

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Birth control news: Free contraception. Also: DIY abortion

birth control postcard villain

Birth control: science’s most important achievement
Effective birth control is, arguably, the most important human invention since language. Also the most important contribution of science to human welfare ever.

Discuss. But you’re going to have to work hard to convince me otherwise. For a few of the reasons why contraception matters so much (to men as well as to women and children), consult economist Sonia Orrefice’s recent post at The Conversation.

How to get free birth control

The government has just cracked down on insurance companies that haven’t been providing free birth control products as required by the Affordable Care Act (aka ACA–yes, the much-hated Obamacare.) The rules also apply way beyond Obamacare policies to other medical insurance policies, such as many offered by employers.

The US Department of Health and Human Services says insurance companies must offer women at least one of each of the 18 types of contraceptive options approved by the Food and Drug Administration. This includes not just the pill and intrauterine devices (IUDs) but also emergency (after-sex) contraception, sterilization, the patch, injectables, and other methods.

The right-wing Washington Times presents this news as just one more example of Obama’s imperial overreach (“HHS rewrites Obamacare rules: Orders free birth control for all”.) But of course free birth control (not to mention other no-copay women’s services) were always part of the ACA. The new regulations are simply very explicit about precisely what must be covered. The reason for such specificity is that a number of insurance companies have been weaseling out of that commitment.

Timothy Jost has a brief list of the 18 approved methods at the HealthAffairs blog, with a link to the PDF detailed list. You can also get the list here.

The new regulations apply only to birth control methods for women. Male sterilization and condoms are FDA-approved but are not on Jost’s list. If dependent children are covered on a woman’s policy, the free contraceptive services are available to them, too. The government’s detailed–very detailed–FAQ list is here.

The new regs don’t necessarily mean that women will be able to get a specific contraceptive free. As Phil Galewitz explains at Shots, “the plans may still charge fees to encourage individuals to use a particular brand or generic. For example, a generic form might be free, while a brand-name version of the drug can include cost-sharing, HHS said.” Also, the regulation doesn’t go into effect until the new plan year, which in most cases means not until next January.

However, a workaround from the government FAQs: “If an item or service is not covered but is determined medically necessary by the woman’s attending provider, there must be an easily accessible process for the woman to get that item or service.”

God is in the details. And  you can be sure that religious opponents of birth control will be looking for Him there.

The most effective birth control method is an IUD

They work really well, but intrauterine devices (IUDs) are not all that popular. Sarah Kliff’s Vox IUD FAQ notes that some of that foot-dragging is probably due to hangover bad press from the Dalkon Shield, an early ’70s IUD that injured hundreds of thousands of women and killed some of them.

Pelvic Xray showing IUD. Credit: Nevit Dilmen

Pelvic Xray showing IUD. Credit: Nevit Dilmen

Today’s IUDs are quite safe and keep sperm away from eggs far more reliably than anything else except sterilization, which is permanent. Although fewer than 10% of US women use IUDs, 40% of gynecologists do. Which tells you something.

The IUD’s great virtue is that it prevents pregnancy invisibly and automagically, but for only as long as the user wants it to prevent pregnancy. No daily pill, no weekly patch, no ducking into the bathroom to grease up and insert a diaphragm when opportunity knocks unexpectedly. With an IUD, get it and forget it. And when you’re ready to get pregnant, take it out.

See Kliff’s post for the few cons. All the approved birth control methods (and their risks) are compared and contrasted in the FDA chart here.

Although the IUD is cheaper than, say, the pill in the long run, a big barrier to IUD use has been the upfront cost. For one thing, inserting an IUD requires training, skill, and professional credentials.

At Salon, Valerie Tarico describes how her daughters paid $1200 each for hormonal IUDs, the reasons why this method has been so costly, and plans for making a new IUD, the Liletta, available more cheaply to low-income women. Find more details on the Liletta from Martha Kempner at RH Reality Check. The FDA approved it in March.

IUD adoption is growing, along with use of the other long-acting reversible contraceptive, the birth control implant, according to Madeleine Schwartz at Fivethirtyeight. Making them available free through the ACA is going to increase their popularity. Especially as word gets out about the statistics on effectiveness Schwartz quotes: “The IUD has a failure rate of less than 1 percent and is considered to be 45 times more effective than the pill and 90 times more effective than male condoms based on typical use.”

DIY abortion

Andrea Grimes is a Texas writer who recently reported at RH Reality Check on a wine-and-cheese gathering she threw for a few friends. It was not just a social occasion. The women were there to learn the World Health Organization’s protocols for safe self-induced abortion with the drug misoprostol.

It was something of a brave move. In Texas, Grimes explains,  assisting someone to obtain an illegal abortion is a felony (although, she says, “the law prevents pregnant people themselves from being prosecuted for attempting to induce an abortion on their own.”)

So Grimes proceeds carefully. “I let people know that the WHO information exists and that it is a medically sound, evidence-based protocol. I am always careful not to advise people directly to use miso; I don’t want to break the law, and neither do others who share the WHO protocols.”

Misoprostol is the second half of the conventional drug-based procedure known as medically induced abortion, commonly used for early abortion. Medication abortion is a standard medical procedure. It is not at all the same thing as emergency contraception, like Plan B, which is used to prevent fertilization shortly after unprotected sex.

The first half of conventional medically induced abortion employs mifepristone, RU-486, which is taken at a clinic or doctor’s office. Misoprostol is taken later, usually at home. Find a friendly description of standard medically induced abortion, including potential risks and side effects, at the Our Bodies, Ourselves site.  Or see the more straight description at WebMD.

But as the latest edition (2012) of WHO’s “Safe Abortion” explains, the two-pill process is only one approach to abortion. The second pill, misoprostol, can induce abortion by itself. (See, for example, the Executive Summary, p. 4.  The “Safe Abortion” PDF can be had free directly from WHO here, and also for free from the US National Library of Medicine here.)

Misoprostol is widely available because it has other medical uses. Some have nothing to do with reproduction–for example, preventing ulcers in people taking NSAIDS. It’s used in veterinary medicine too. In the US, misoprostol requires a prescription. But it is available over the counter in many other countries.

abortion DIY china misoprostol

Women on Waves cites studies showing that misoprostol-only abortions are successful 90% of the time and work best and most safely before 12 weeks of pregnancy. The site also has photos of what misoprostol tablets look like in several parts of the world.

There’s also news about the 2-drug form of medically supervised abortion. A study published in April in the journal Contraception described  new evidence-based protocols, conducted over 5 years with 13,000 women at Los Angeles-area Planned Parenthood clinics. The researchers  found that the protocols were more than 95 percent effective up to 63 days of pregnancy, according to Emily Crockett at RH RealityCheck.

The 63-day limit matters because the FDA has approved the two-drug medical abortion regimen only up to 49 days of pregnancy. The new protocols also used lower drug doses. At Medscape, doc Peter Kovacs found this pretty convincing, concluding “Several studies suggest that new protocols could be developed to extend the availability of medical termination services beyond 49 days’ gestation.”

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Torture and psychologists; picture the universe with Hubble and Webb telescopes

The worst bioethics scandal of the 21st century (to date)

We may have to wait until its own official independent report in June to know for sure whether the American Psychological Association really did collude with the Central Intelligence Agency and the Bush administration to put together a systematic program of torture. But the evidence so far is certainly, ah, suggestive.

It comes most recently from a report by folks Allie Conti at Vice calls “rogue psychologists and mental health experts.” (Peculiar word choice here, “rogue.” These are scientific and medical professionals deeply opposed to torture and any participation in it by scientific and medical professionals.)

The report details emails exchanged between APA officials and the CIA between 2003 and 2006. They show, John Bohannon says at Science Insider, that “The world’s largest professional organization for psychologists has maintained a surprisingly cozy relationship with the defense and intelligence community.”

A side note on torture basics

Torture is morally wrong, forbidden by law in several places, and against the Geneva Convention.

The science shows that torture is also worthless as a method for extracting information. People will say anything under torture, and do.

So the bottom line is that besides being vicious and an offense against humanity, torture is also a really really stupid waste of time, energy, and money.

Yet a baffling dogged belief in its utility persists. I explored all this in a post here at On Science Blogs last December when the Senate Intelligence Committee released its damning report on the CIA torture program. So I won’t summarize the evidence further here.

More on those emails

Bohannon says the report and the emails, dug up by New York Times reporter James Risen, appear to contradict the APA’s previous assertions about its relationship with the CIA and the Bush administration. They were provided to Bohannon by Nathaniel Raymond, a human rights researcher at Harvard University. He told Bohannon in an email: “The APA’s complicity in adapting its ethics to countenance psychologist involvement in researching and monitoring torture is the worst bioethics scandal of the 21st Century to date.”

At Mind Hacks, Vaughan Bell is not so even-handed as Bohannon. The emails, Bell says, reveal that “the US security agencies have been handing out key contracts to high profile psychologists on the basis of shared political sympathies rather than sound scientific evidence. The result has been a series of largely ineffective white elephant security projects that have cost hundreds of millions of dollars.”

The Times published the report to accompany Risen’s piece.  Most recent blogging seems to be based on Risen’s piece, but The Guardian’s post by Raya Jalabi also links to a PDF of the report and contains a lot of detail from it.

Hubble's 25th birthday photo shows Westerlund 2, a giant young cluster of about 3000 stars. You can fly through the image to the cluster in 40 seconds at EarthSky. http://earthsky.org/space/fly-through-hubbles-25th-anniversary-image

Hubble’s 25th birthday photo shows Westerlund 2, a giant young cluster of about 3000 stars. You can fly through the image to the cluster in 40 seconds at EarthSky.

The Hubble at 25: a hero’s journey

Begun in expectation of lofty accomplishment, brought low by miscalculation and shame, then cleverly mending the mistake and finding ways around the obstacles, going on to accomplish so much more than had been imagined. That’s the classic hero’s tale, a mainstay narrative for the human psyche. And it’s the true story of a most magnificent human achievement, the Hubble Space Telescope.

The On Science Blogs planned celebration of the Hubble Space Telescope’s 25th birthday a couple weeks ago got postponed because of happenings here on Earth, like the Nepal earthquake and human-caused earthquakes here in the US. So here, a belated birthday tribute to a pretty spectacular success story for Homo sap.

When the Hubble was launched in 1990, its scientists were horror-struck to find that human error had made the telescope nearly blind, yielding only fuzzy views of the universe. More painful still, the mistake was revealed to the whole world at one of those disastrous backfiring press conferences that NASA manages to generate every so often. This one was worse, much worse, even than the revelation of the “arsenic bacteria” of 2010-11. Ian Sample recounts the the Hubble’s horrible but ultimately happy history at the Guardian, and so does Corey Powell at Discover’s Out There. It took astronauts 5 separate Space Shuttle missions to fix the Hubble, but in 1993, they did it.

Photographing the Universe in the future

The Hubble has taken more than a million images. The New York Times has put together a glorious selection, annotated by astronomers.  There’s a selection of quite different Hubble images in the slide show at SciAm. Editor Lee Billings calls them “far more humble” than the usual, but together they led to key discoveries about the universe.

Surely the most famous Hubble image is the one called the Pillars of Creation. Joseph Stromberg and Joss Fong have annotated and explained the image at Vox.

The pillars of creation. Credit NASA and European Space Agency

The pillars of creation. Credit NASA and European Space Agency

The Hubble will be dead soon. With the Space Shuttle gone it can no longer be repaired. In a few years it will shatter into blistered fragments in the Earth’s atmosphere as it plunges into the ocean.

The Hubble’s successor, much touted, is the James Webb Space Telescope, supposed to look even farther–and further–back toward the Big Bang. Now planned to launch in 2018, it is years behind schedule and of course billions over budget. Hank Campbell’s gloomy assessment is at Science 2.0. Campbell says the Webb is only 75% complete, the easiest 75%. It should, he argues, have been cancelled years ago and the money put to better use.

We can hope, I guess, that the Webb will turn out well after all. That it will become another hero’s tale, another rousing narrative of adversity overcome, a Hubble-like tribute to human accomplishment. But it doesn’t sound promising, does it?

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Earthquake in Nepal: science, media, health risks in dispute

Perched as it is, smack in the Himalayas, that great climbing wall heaved up by the titanic tectonic shoving match the Earthly regions we call India and China have been waging centimeter by centimeter for many millions of years, Nepal will always be shattered by earthquakes.

Red circle shows the location of the main earthquake that struck Nepal on April 25, 2015. Orange circles show locations of aftershocks. Circle size indicates intensity of the shock. Credit: United States Geological Survey (USGS)

Red circle shows the location of the main earthquake that struck Nepal on April 25, 2015. Orange circles show locations of aftershocks. Circle size indicates intensity of the shock. Credit: United States Geological Survey (USGS)

We still don’t know how calamitous was the one that hit Nepal last Saturday. But there are dire predictions.

DotEarth’s Andrew Revkin has been reporting estimates from one highly respected expert who says there may be more than 50,000 deaths all told, with a minimum of 25,000. Another, though, tells him that the Nepal government’s estimate of 10,000 is more likely. The post includes many details about the scientific basis for these estimates, plus a Q&A and a map of shaking intensity of the shocks far more detailed than the simpler USGS maps accompanying this post.

In an earlier post, Revkin discussed an alternative scenario, possible reasons why the death counts so far have been significantly lower than predictions made before the quake. At SciAm, Christina Reed posted another expert interview that also emphasized how both deaths and damage were looking as if they might be less awful than originally feared.

Updated satellite map of aftershocks and the primary shock of the 2015 Nepal earthquake (25th April 21:30 UTC+5:30). Credit: United States Geological Survey (USGS)

Updated satellite map of aftershocks and the primary shock of the 2015 Nepal earthquake (25th April 21:30 UTC+5:30). Credit: United States Geological Survey (USGS)

Becky Oskin reports at LiveScience that some experts say more shocks are still to come because the big one didn’t release all the seismic pressure trying to explode beneath the Himalayas. The ground has already moved about 10 feet near the capital Kathmandu, but there may be up to 50 more feet to go, according to one.

At Achenblog, Joel Achenbach mulls over the fact that, although earthquake prediction is enormously useful in a general way, particular earthquakes are still very often a surprise–occurring at different times and places and strengths than expected. What are the implications–for Japan, for California, for Virginia?

Achenbach is hopeful that, thanks to recent efforts at making Nepal more earthquake-aware, the toll there will be less bad than some fear: “I’d like to think that science and communication can make a huge difference when it comes to disasters.”

The multimedia earthquake

Mountain communities like Nepal are subject to what Richard Bissell and Thomas Kirsch call “a trifecta of risk”: a seismologically active landscape, hillsides prone to slide and avalanche, and, often, poverty that precludes construction of earthquake-resistant structures.  Carl Engelking has posted YouTube drone footage of earthquake destruction in Nepal at Drone360.

Credit: Nirmal Dulal

Credit: Nirmal Dulal

Folks at the American Geophysical Union have of course jumped into action. At Dan’s Wild Wild Science Journal, Dan Satterfield has collected links about earthquake science and videos. At the Landslide Blog, Dave Petley has posted a running series of pieces (and videos) reporting on the earthquake’s impact.

Josh Fischman has geologic details of the continuing struggle between the landmasses that created the world’s highest mountains in infographic form at SciAm. At the SciAm blog Rosetta Stones, Dana Hunter has collected many links, including information about contributing to relief efforts.  Relevant past pieces from SciAms of yesteryear have been collected here.

Medical matters in Nepal now

People have begun to behave as if the immediate crisis is over, but now there will be worries about coming health risks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is telling US residents not to go to Nepal unless they must. But there’s not much blogging yet about medical matters.

Engineer Abhishek Yadav was at home in Kathmandu when the earthquake hit last Saturday. He described the chaotic scene for the BMJ blog. Older structures dissolved into clouds of dust, but so did newer ones; there are building codes, but they are widely ignored. Some private hospitals closed after the government ordered free medical care for all. Predictably, medical supplies ran out, power was shut down.

Credit: Krish Dulal

Credit: Krish Dulal

Doc Paul Auerbach has gone to Nepal to help with medical efforts, and the BMJ blog is also running his postings.  At Live Science, Rachael Rettner talks to UNICEF about what to expect. Including the central question of clean water.

Department of earthquake pessimism

Trolling for free graphics to illustrate this post, I stumbled into this US Geological Survey’s more-or-less real-time (one day) map of earthquakes around the world. Yikes.

Meanwhile, the busy USGS has updated the US danger-zone map to reveal that the riskiest places at the moment are mostly in the heartland. At ScienceInsider, Eric Hand says that the new map shows for the first time that there are 17 areas in 8 states with frequent induced earthquakes, thanks to the oil and gas boom.

New map highlights US earthquake risk zones. Blue boxes indicate areas with induced (human-caused) quakes. Credit: USGS

New map highlights US earthquake risk zones. Blue boxes indicate areas with induced (human-caused) quakes. Credit: USGS

“So far, most induced earthquakes have done no more than rattle windows. But a few have been big enough to damage buildings, and now USGS says that it can’t rule out the possibility of a magnitude-7 temblor, which would cause widespread damage.”

Let me muster some departing optimism. Hand also reports that, in addition to pleasing thee and me, the drop in oil prices is closing some potentially dangerous production sites.

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Homo sap is now a GMO. Shall we edit the genes of human embryos?

Well, the rumors that scientists in China have been messing around with fully predictable genetic engineering of human embryos, discussed here at On Science Blogs a month ago, turn out to be true. Fully predictable hell has broken out. More will, predictably, follow.

The good news is that, despite a considerable amount of previously reported success with the gene editing technique known as CRISPR/Cas9 in cell lines and even in living creatures, these early attempts on human embryos ended up a mess. It’s good news because that failure may give us a bit of breathing room to figure out what should be done about genetic tinkering with an embryo that will affect that person-to-be’s descendants. Or, more practically, whether anything can be done, given that these new technologies are (relatively) cheap and simple to use, and portable.

The researchers, at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, took care to short-circuit ethical objections by doing this early work in 86 human embryos fertilized imperfectly during in vitro fertilization, embryos that could not survive and would normally have been thrown out. Their target was the gene for ß-thalassaemia. Mutant versions of the gene are responsible for a range of inherited blood disorders and can be fatal.

The procedure worked properly in only a handful of cases. Most of the time the new genetic material inserted itself in the wrong place in the genome. The process also created mosaics: embryos where the desired change was present in only some of its cells, not in all. It is not known how using embryos that were abnormal to begin with affected the outcome.

Despite this unsettling start, in principle there is no obvious reason why, eventually, normal human embryos cannot be edited successfully, as has been done in monkeys. I wrote about the monkey work here more than a year ago.

Sister macaques Ningning and Mingming were the first primates whose genomes have been monkeyed with using CRISPR/Cas9 technology. The work was reported in February 2014. Credit: Cell, Niu et al.

Sister macaques Ningning and Mingming were the first primates whose genomes have been monkeyed with using CRISPR/Cas9 technology. The work was reported in February 2014. Credit: Cell, Niu et al.

The new paper appeared in the Springer journal Protein & Cell and is open-access. Why, you ask, not in Nature or Science, which loooooove hot papers? These top journals do want hot papers, they do, but apparently don’t want them as hot as this one. Both journals turned it down–on, it is said, ethical grounds.

Is this an unethical paper? I’d say no, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment.  My guess is that the journals just decided they didn’t need the hassles the paper is inviting. The published paper’s metadata shows that Springer took only one day to decide otherwise. On April Fool’s Day, in fact. Try not to read anything into that date.

Protein & Cell‘s Impact Factor can be guessed at by noting that the paper was published April 18 but appears, astonishingly, to have languished unnoticed and unheralded for a few days. Does Springer have a PR department? Or is it just . . . shy?

Rounding up blog posts about the new human gene-editing paper

The paper has generated an extraordinary amount of media attention, much of it repetitive.  At Ars Technica, John Timmer provides a straightforward and mostly straight science account of the work described in the new paper and the technical problems it emphasizes. Tia Ghose explains some of the technical difficulties the researchers ran into–and potential solutions–at LiveScience. Ghose also notes rumors that several other labs are at work on human embryo editing.

Critics fall mostly into one of two camps. Some want no genetic work done on human embryos period, especially work that could affect future generations. Others would like to find ways to make preliminary exploratory research on human gene editing acceptable but hold off–for how long is not clear–on any attempts to apply this work to embryos intended to survive. The Chinese work, carried out on crippled embryos that would otherwise have been discarded, seems to me be an example–and, by those criteria, perfectly ethical.

Rob Stein, at Shots, focuses on critical assessments of the work, emphasizing how the failures the Chinese describe demonstrate that human embryo editing is far from any clinical applications. Genome Web summarized several other negative comments.

Razib Khan urges everybody to calm down at Gene Expression, noting that the failures mean that human embryo gene editing is far from being a consumer product. He says the real danger will be something like “a government or society [that] isn’t bound by normal human ethical standards, and begins to basically treat their population like livestock. As is usually the case the major issues looming are not scientific, but have to do with human volition.”

At The Loom, Carl Zimmer’s explainer begins with the new Chinese paper. But the post is really a walk through the history of attempts to fix human disease with genetic engineering, linking to a number of Zimmer’s past pieces for amplification.

Homo sap becomes a GMO

Chris Gyngell’s post at Practical Ethics comes down squarely in favor of human germline editing on grounds that it offers immense potential benefits. People who oppose it Gyngell dismisses as emotional rather than rational.

Gyngell argues that the scientists who have called, respectively, for a germline editing moratorium in Nature and a pause in Science fail to show why “general concerns about this technology warrant such extraordinary disapproval, while the same concerns in other technologies are ignored.” Why, Gyngell wants to know, does germline editing deserve special attention?

Because, Paul Knoepfler responds sternly, germline editing involves “experimentally de novo creating designer babies with gene edits that the resulting genetically modified people could then pass along to future generations forever with unknown consequences.” Knoepfler is a stem-cell researcher and passionate blogger who has come up with his own plan that would permit germline gene editing to go forward as research but stop short of attempting to bring a genetically modified baby into existence.

Wired’s Nick Stockton has collected comments from scientists and ethicists who have been involved in the Nature and Science commentaries calling for human germline editing to stop altogether or at least slow down. These commentaries were discussed here at On Science Blogs last month.

Hank Greely, of Stanford Law School, a co-author of the Science call for a pause in the research, told Stockton he thinks the Chinese researchers have nothing to be ashamed of. But the fact that the work was doable, however imperfectly, “makes it even more urgent to have a societal conversation about how far to go.”

I love the flag-waving self-absorption of Wired’s hed, “America Needs to Figure Out the Ethics of Gene Editing Now,” with its implication that it is this country’s job to make ethical rules on gene editing for the world. It’s going to be hard enough to make rules for the US. Doing human embryo research with government money is against the law here, but there are no restrictions whatever on what companies and other private organizations can do.

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Concussion, TBI, human evolution, Neanderthal DNA, blogging news

Concussion, traumatic brain injury, and life’s hard knocks

Search “concussion” in the media and you’ll come away thinking hard knocks to the head are chiefly a problem for kids and football players (or kid football players.) Last fall the blog of the Dana Foundation, which focuses on brain research and education, called it the “NFL Concussion Crisis.”

But as Fred Powledge points out at NPR’s blog Shots, concussion is a far more serious problem for old folks, of whom he is one. They have the highest rates of traumatic brain injury-related hospitalizations and deaths.

Powledge’s is a very personal account of his very personal concussion, which landed him in hospitals for two weeks last fall and is still irritating his life today. Recovery from concussion is s-l-o-w. A writer, he complains particularly about a frustrating increase in typo production.

This MRI of a human brain reveals injury (in red) to the brain’s coverings following mild head trauma. Credit: Lawrence Latour, NIH.

This MRI of a human brain reveals injury (in red) to the brain’s coverings following mild head trauma. Credit: Lawrence Latour, NIH.

Christie Aschwanden’s post at Fivethirtyeight is–predictably since the new home of Nate Silver’s data journalism enterprise is ESPN–about concussion in football. But she points out that “we still don’t have a way of definitively diagnosing concussion. Do we even know what a concussion is?” (Side note: This is an opportunity to point out that Aschwanden has recently joined Fivethirtyeight as lead science writer, boosting the site’s science-writing cred at least 538% after last year’s inauspicious start, described here at On Science Blogs.)

What concussion is is what it is now called formally: TBI, traumatic brain injury–or, in Powledge’s case, MTBI, mild traumatic brain injury. Although when it happens to you, he notes, MTBI doesn’t seem so mild. Not that the rename resolves much of concussion’s mystery, since what happens after depends on the severity and frequency of the blows that cause it, and what parts of the brain are traumatized, and the person affected’s general state of being.

We are sure to be hearing more about concussion in older folks over the next couple of years. That’s because Hillary Clinton, now age 67, suffered TBI after a fall in 2012. She spent 3 days in the hospital and, Lenny Bernstein reports at To Your Health, is fully recovered. But the episode will certainly surface as the 2016 Presidential election campaign roars on. I’m expecting rumors of permanent brain damage.

Why is the human skull so hard? Bro science knows.

The subject of concussion permits me an excuse to drag in a favorite topic, paleontology, specifically the evolution of the human skull. At his blog Laelaps, Brian Switek tackles two University of Utah researchers who have argued that “Hands evolved to punch faces. Faces evolved to take punches.” Switek points out that the idea that hands can be weapons, therefore they evolved to be weapons, is a post hoc fallacy common in arguments about evolution.

He notes that the researchers didn’t look for signs of broken facial bones or blunt-force trauma on skulls of early humans like Australopithecus, nor did they “try to model how early human skulls would have reacted to the stresses of an incoming fist. The entire argument is simply that australopithecine skulls look like they could take a punch. . . This is bro science – dudes pummeling each other driving human evolution.”

Pardon me while I take a moment to happy dance around the delicious notion of bro science.

Switek also notes that although early humans like the Australopithecine Lucy were bipedal, their hands were anatomically rather like those of their tree-living ancestors.

i.e., they couldn’t make fists.

Pow, right in the kisser!

I also want to drag in this Charles Choi report at Live Science on the oldest sample of Neandertal DNA, dated at around 150,000 years ago. Not a complete genome, or at least not yet.

Nothing to do with concussions, although it does involve a human skull.  This is basically an excuse to run this extraordinary photo of the still-buried Neandertal, known as Altamura Man, who supplied the DNA. He is encrusted in calcite formations.

The skull of Altamura Man, a Neandertal buried in an Italian cave and dated at about 150,000 years BP. The rest of his body is encased in calcite formations. Credit: Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage

The skull of Altamura Man, a Neandertal buried in an Italian cave and dated at about 150,000 years BP. The rest of his body is encased in calcite formations. Credit: Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage

McKenna moves

Speaking of professional moves by really good science writers, Maryn McKenna, she of Wired’s Superbug blog and many other professional highlights, has moved to Phenomena, the mini-blog network at National Geographic. Her new blog, Germination, sounds as if it will still be mostly microbial. The focus, she says, will be on “public health, global health, and food production and policy—and ancient diseases, emerging infections, antibiotic resistance, agricultural planning, foodborne illness, and how we’ll feed and care for an increasingly crowded world.”


HealthNewsReview rebirth and relaunch

And while I’m up and announcing novelty, the venerable HealthNewsReview, veteran vetter of medical journalism, is celebrating its 9th anniversary with a spiffy web site redesign and relaunch. Gary Schwitzer’s introductory post recaps some history.

HealthNewsReviewers have analyzed nearly 2000 medical news stories so far in the blog’s almost-decade. You will probably not be surprised to learn that only 14% of them deserved 5 stars, but I guess it’s somewhat encouraging that only 4% of them got 0 stars.

A particularly helpful–and terrifying–new feature is the decision to take on press releases as well as articles. This makes terrific sense, since so many so-called science and medical articles simply rehash the release, and often just reprint it verbatim–frequently without acknowledging that it is a release and sometimes even having the chutzpah to add a staffer’s byline. Schwitzer explains the reasoning for adding analysis of releases here, summarized neatly under the hed “News releases can lead media like sheep – hiding key problems.”

Exhibit A is a multi-author bashing of a University of Wisconsin release on use of a prostate cancer drug to slow memory loss in women with Alzheimer’s disease. The verdict: “Misleading to the point of deception . . . Yet it appears that journalists and other web producers bit on the bait and followed the lead of the news release unquestioningly.”

Oy. Scary. But much needed.


About back-patting bloggery

Linking to posts by friends and colleagues is common among bloggers, including some famous and highly regarded science bloggers, naming no names. I’ve been blogging about blogging weekly for nearly 6 years, but have been pretty restrained in this practice.  If I do say so myself, and I do. However, this makes two weeks in a row. Last week it was Joel Shurkin’s fine Inside Science series on the discouragements of Alzheimer’s disease research. This week it is Fred Powledge’s insightful account of his concussion, aka mild traumatic brain injury, at NPR’s Shots.

Some readers will have noticed that Fred Powledge and I have the same last name.  That’s no accident. Full disclosure: Fred Powledge is my first husband.

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