Poetry by Scott Lentine about life on the autism spectrum

On Monday, I got an email from a 25-year-old named Scott Lentine, who described himself as a “25-year-old man with high functioning autism (PDD-NOS/Asperger’s).” Scott graduated magna cum laude from Merrimack College, majoring in religious studies and minoring in biology. He works as an office intern at The Arc of Massachusetts, where, he says, “I try to persuade lawmakers to pass key disability resources legislation to improve the lives of people with developmental disabilities.”

Scott sent me three poems that he’d written about his experiences that he asked me to share with people I know on the autism spectrum as well as “musicians and parents and friends of individuals on the autism spectrum who support improved health care access and employment resources to individuals on the autism spectrum.” He agreed to let me run them on PLOS; I hope you get as much out of them as I did.
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Category: Autism, Poetry | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

The whole cell pertussis vaccine, media malpractice, and the long-term effects of avoiding difficult conversations

Seventy years-ago, a pioneering American scientist named Pearl Kendrick combined killed, whole cell pertussis bacterium with weakened diphtheria and tetanus toxins to create the first combination diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus vaccine. It was an almost instantaneous success: In 1934, six out of every 100,000 Americans died of whooping cough. By 1948, that figure was less than one in 100,000; by 1960, there were fewer than ten cases of the disease per 100,000 residents.

In the coming decades, there were reports about complications from the whole-cell pertussis vaccine. This was not surprising: while whole-cell vaccines can be both effective and safe, their use of the actual contagion as opposed to an isolated component mean they are among the crudest of all vaccines. The whole-cell pertussis vaccine could cause febrile seizures, high fevers, and even fainting — reactions which are understandably scary for parents but which typically have no long-term effects. (My younger sister ran an extremely high fever after her first DPT injection, which she received in the late 1970s.) There were also unconfirmed reports — of brain damage, comas, even paralysis — which to this day have never been verified.

Fast-forward to April 19, 1982, when  WRC-TV, the local NBC affiliate in Washington, DC, aired a special titled “Vaccine Roulette.” The report, hosted by Lea Thompson, was an example of scare-mongering at it’s worst:
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Category: Health care, Media, pertussis, Public health, The Panic Virus, Vaccine safety, Vaccines | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 68 Comments

Twitter awesomeness: I get schooled in genetic sequencing


Category: Vaccines | 3 Comments

Edward Jay Epstein “submits that Fareed Zakaria is not guilty of plagiarism.” I submit that Epstein doesn’t understand what the word means.

I won’t dwell on this for too long, but: Last week, Fareed Zakaria was suspended from both Time and CNN for plagiarizing a portion of a column (for Time) and a blog post (for CNN) on gun control from a New Yorker article by Jill Lepore. When this came to light, Zakaria immediately apologized:

Media reporters have pointed out that paragraphs in my Time column this week bear close similarities to paragraphs in Jill Lepore’s essay in the April 23rd issue of The New Yorker. They are right. I made a terrible mistake. It is a serious lapse and one that is entirely my fault. I apologize unreservedly to her, to my editors at Time, and to my readers.

This was the classy and correct thing to do; after all, this wasn’t a close-call type of case: An entire, 68-word paragraph of Zakaria’s CNN piece had appeared, word-for-word, in Lepore’s essay.  In his Time column, Zakaria changed around a few words but also borrowed a couple of more sentences. Here’s Zakaria in Time (the identical words are in bold):

Adam Winkler, a professor of constitutional law at UCLA, documents the actual history in Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America. Guns were regulated in the U.S. from the earliest years of the Republic. Laws that banned the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813Other states soon followed: Indiana in 1820Tennessee and Virginia in 1838Alabama in 1839 and Ohio in 1859Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida and Oklahoma. As the governor of Texas (Texas!) explained in 1893, the “mission of the concealed deadly weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law-abiding man.”

And here’s Lepore in The New Yorker:

As Adam Winkler, a constitutional-law scholar at U.C.L.A., demonstrates in a remarkably nuanced new book, “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America,” firearms have been regulated in the United States from the start. Laws banning the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813, and other states soon followed: Indiana (1820), Tennessee and Virginia (1838), Alabama (1839), and Ohio (1859). Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma. As the governor of Texas explained in 1893, the “mission of the concealed deadly weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law-abiding man.”

I bring this up only because of a Daily Beast piece in which Edward Jay Epstein admonishes the “feeding frenzy of bloggers” going after “‘gotcha’ bait” — and then goes on to argue that Zakaria isn’t even guilty of plagiarism because Zakaria credited the scholar whose ideas he was discussing — i.e., Adam Winkler. (I’m not making this up.) If copying multiple sentences, word for word, doesn’t count as “the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own,” then what does?


Category: Ethics, Journalism, Media | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Jonah Lehrer’s missing compass

My first contact with Jonah Lehrer came almost exactly two years ago, on August 4, 2010. He had just published a 660-word Wired blog post titled “The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories,” which recounted an anecdote from the classic 1956 book, When Prophecy Fails, in which Leon Festinger and some of his colleagues developed the theory of cognitive dissonance to describe what happens when “disconfirmed” expectations produced counterintuitive results. In addition to being a fascinating piece of scholarship, Festinger’s book is a rip-roaring read; the main narrative details Festinger’s infiltration of a doomsday cult that prophesied the world would end on December 21, 1954.

I wrote to Lehrer because I had noticed two small mistakes in his post: First, he had incorrectly written that the massive flood that would destroy the world was supposed to come at midnight on December 20; the correct date was December 21. Second, he had misidentified the cult leader as “Marion Keech,” the pseudonym Festinger used in his book; her real name was Dorothy Martin.

Lehrer’s response was gracious and warm (“I’m a big fan of your work”; “If I can help support [The Panic Virus], please let me know”^) — and also a little bit off. He said that he hadn’t realized Keech was a pseudonym, which was plausible enough. He also wrote, “According to my copy of When Prophecy Fails, the flood was supposed to begin after midnight on 12/20, with the rapture coming on 12/21.”

Even at the time, that seemed like an odd and completely unnecessary thing to say.
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Category: Ethics, Journalism, SciWriteLabs | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 63 Comments

New review of Andy Borowitz’s “An Unexpected Twist” at Download the Universe

In 2008, Andy Borowitz’s knotted colon (and the “top rated” doctors that operated on him) almost killed him. His ebook about the experience, An Unexpected Twist, is a testament to Kindle Single’s raison d’etre: “compelling ideas expressed at their natural length.” My new review has just been posted at the online science e-book review Download the Universe:

What follows brings a whole new meaning to having a run of shit luck. After an operation to untwist his colon — “by hand, the artisanal way” — Borowitz undergoes another procedure to remove approximately two feet of his large intestine. No sooner had he returned home than he begins vomiting uncontrollably, “like I’ve just seen a Matthew McConaughey movie or something.” With the exception of a brief respite provided by a couple of enemas, hand-administered by Borowitz’s saintly wife, things only get worse; by the time he gets back to the ER the next day, his resting heart rate is 120, his blood pressure is crashing, and his stomach has filed with bile. As it turned out, Borowitz’s colon had, during the previous operation, “sprung a leak,” which means that “at this point ‘Shit’ is both a justifiable response and an accurate diagnosis.” His chance of surviving the emergency surgery that will attempt to fix this is approximately 50 percent.

Read the rest of the review at DtU.

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Apparently, Rob Schneider thinks ALL CAPS is a substitute for having a clue: A lower-cased, fact-based rebuttal

Anyone unsure of where Rob Schneider fell on the vaccine conspiracy scale can rest assured: he’s way down there on the sanitation-and-hygiene-wiped-out-infectious-disease-claiming, homeopath-quoting, Louise-Kuo-Habakus-praising end of things. To wit, check out this comment, which he left earlier this morning on my recent Txchnologist piece, “Vaccine denilaism isn’t funny, so why does HuffPost give Rob Schneider a forum?

This is Rob Schneider.

To quote Bernadine Healy, MD., former director, National Institutes of Health (NIH), “There are unanswered questions about vaccine safety… No one should be threatened by the pursuit of this knowledge.” The National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act (“1986 Act”) describes vaccines as “unavoidably unsafe.” FACT, In the last 2 decades more than 2 Billion Dollars has been paid to families of children injured or killed by vaccine injuries, paid by tax payers, (The 1986 Act indemnified Vaccine manufacturer’s against lawsuits).

The bitter truth is 3 out of 4 vaccine victims are turned away without any compensation through THE SPECIAL COURT. The heavy burden is placed on the families to PROVE vaccine injury, not the Vaccine Manufacturer having to prove it’s product’s safety and efficacy.

This is almost the exact opposite of what actually happens in the Vaccine Court, where there is a much lower bar to prove causality than there would be in a regular court of law. The entire Vaccine Court is set up to give the overwhelming benefit of the doubt to parents.
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Category: Comments, Health care, Public health, Vaccine safety, Vaccines | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 131 Comments

The Huffington Post plays up Rob Schneider’s anti-vaccine ravings — and it makes everything else on the site look bad.

I have a long and not-so-friendly history with The Huffington Post: My second post for this blog was titled “The Huffington Post — Featuring Bad Science and Facile Reasoning Since 2005,” and in the 19 months since then, I’ve written about how HuffPost features dangerously ignorant dreck, I’ve bemoaned the site’s “medical review board” signing off on vaccine fear-mongering, and I’ve written about how HuffPost has played a major role in perpetrating the myth that vaccines can cause autism.

I’ve also been hopeful that the launch of the site’s Science channel in January marked a change in attitudes — and it has, to some extent. (Heck, they even let me post a piece that implicitly criticized their past actions.) But recently, I’ve been despairing that the good work being done on the site has actually served to amplify the crazy. I wrote a piece about this that ran today on Txchnologist:

A little more than a month ago, HuffPost Science asked me to do a video interview for a piece they were putting together on why, despite the massive amount of information to the contrary, so many people still seemed to believe there was a link between vaccines and autism. The resulting five-minute segment, which ran on June 12 and was titled “Vaccines and Autism: Controversy Persists, But Why?” hits on a lot of the points I’ve been talking about since my book The Panic Virus was published in early 2011—including the media’s role in spreading misinformation.

Less than three weeks after that piece ran, the site prominently featured this gem: “Rob Schneider Links Autism to Vaccines, Rails Against Big Government.” …

The fact that…the offending piece ran on The Huffington Post’s Comedy channel doesn’t mitigate the ways in which [it] tarnish[es] the responsible reporting that occasionally appears on the site. It also doesn’t change the fact that an important part of The Huffington Post’s business plan is to use that responsible reporting as an implicit validation of this type of dreck. The “Also on HuffPost” box at the bottom of the Schneider story includes an embedded video of the HuffPost Science interview I did last month. Either the intention was to counteract Schneider’s paranoid conspiracy theories (which implies that his viewpoint is valid enough to need refuting) or to provide a different take on the story (which implies that there are two “takes” on this story in the first place). The effect is the same either way: delusional scare-mongering is treated as being worthy of rational discussion.

You can read the rest of the piece (and some entertaining comments) over at Txchnologist.

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Did the BBC rip off the Guardian’s Higgs boson explainer?

On Tuesday, Carl Zimmer, Deborah Blum, David Quammen and I discussed the Jonah Lehrer plagiarism accusations. (These are distinct from the recycling controversy, which we, along with Jack Shafer, discussed last week.) The general consensus: if there was an offense, it was more akin to jaywalking than vehicular manslaughter.

At one point in our discussion, I’d debated bringing up TV news programs, which regularly lift dispatches directly from the front pages of major metro newspapers without credit; I ultimately decided that that was a whole other topic that would only complicate matters.

Yesterday, an apparent example of TV news appropriation was brought to light publicized* by the ever-vigilant Ed Yong, who noticed that a BBC segment explaining the Higgs boson was virtually identical to a video demo Ian Sample put together for the Guardian. This isn’t an example where two dispatches are similar; the mechanisms used for the explanation (lunch trays, ping-pong balls, and sugar) and even some of the canned quips (“The tools I have are…a tray from our canteen” and “I’ve been to the BBC canteen”) are identical.

Here’s the Guardian’s piece; I can’t seem to find a way to embed the BBC video, but you can see it here:

The reaction when Ed pointed this out on Twitter were pretty universal: Carl Zimmer (“slam-dunk rip-off”), Deborah Blum (“outright theft”), Maryn McKenna, Martin Robbins, Tim Carmody, and David Dobbs, among others, all agreed this was out of bounds. Apparently, someone at the BBC did, too: The video on the site now includes a note saying, “The demonstration is taken from an idea originally devised by Ian Sample of the Guardian. See also the classic analogy from UCL’s David Miller, and one from Don Lincoln from Fermilab who uses water.” The phrasing — “taken from an idea” — and the hat-tips to other people seems too cute by half; as Deborah noted, “groveling called for here.” (That seems to be going on now, too: at 3:04AM EST, the BBC correspondent in question tweeted, “None top the originality/genius of@iansample – the beauty quark of UK science journalism http://bit.ly/M7tF2L  json#sugarpingponggate‬! #corr“‬.)

So — what do you all think? Is this type of stuff SOP? Do any regular BBC watchers agree with Robbins, who says that’s the second or third piece in the last several days the BBC appears to have pinched from other sources? Should we be paying more attention to on-air appropriation?

* Ed points in, in the comments, that he was actually tipped off by Guardian deputy editor Ian Katz.



Category: Ethics, Journalism | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

SciWriteLabs 8.3: Adjudicating the Lehrer plagiarism accusations. Plus: Are we ignoring the truly frightening trends in journalism?*

Two weeks ago, Jim Romenesko revealed that Jonah Lehrer had recycled work from a 2011 Wall Street Journal column for a recent blog post on NewYorker.com. As anyone who has been following this knows, plenty more revelations followed, including accusations that Lehrer had plagiarized from New Yorker colleague Malcolm Gladwell.

Last week, I pivoted off of the discussion about Lehrer in a piece on Salon.com that attempted to codify some sort of judgment system — I called it the Blair scale, named after Jayson Blair — that could be used for journalistic transgressors. Several people also asked me to talk about this in a larger context, so I decided to round up some folks and do a new SciWriteLabs. I’m lucky these four pros agreed to participate; I think you’ll agree that the conversation that follows goes off in some interesting directions. (This entry is the final of three; the first one, which talked about consequence-free plagiarism, rules for blogging, and much else, is here, and the second one, which pondered whether it’s kosher to recycle Facebook updates in “real” journalism and whether we need a Son of Sam law for media miscreants, is here. Given the subject matter, I also feel compelled to note that this introductory passage is virtually identical for all three entries.)

Without further ado, our esteemed panel:

Deborah Blum – Author of The Poisoner’s Handbook, among many other books; Wired Science blogger; professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

David Quammen – Author of Song of the Dodo, among many other books, including the upcoming Spillover, about zoonotic diseases; three time National Magazine Award winner.

Jack Shafer – Press and politics columnist for Reuters.com; longtime media critic; former editor of Washington City Paper. (Note: Jack didn’t weigh in on this final entry; his thoughts can be found in the earlier ones.)

Carl Zimmer – Author of A Planet of Viruses, among many other books; frequent contributor to The New York Times and National Geographic, among other publications; Discover Magazine blogger.

Seth: David, last week, you raised a number of authors who have published books they’ve claimed are non-fiction: John Berendt, Truman Capote, Lillian Hellmann, and James Frey. That’s a whole other interesting conversation that hopefully we can have one day soon, but it might be too much to deal with here. I would look to take a look at the most serious allegations against Lehrer: plagiarism. This gets back to something Deborah implicitly raised when she talked about a second rush to judgment that criticized the criticizers. While I think some of the hand-wringing about Lehrer’s journalistic onanism (h/t to Jack for that phrase) might be a little over-the-top, I don’t think it’s out of bounds. I do have a problem with what I think are inaccurate accusations of plagiarism. As far as I know, these stem from three paragraphs in Imagine that Edward Champion linked to some of Malcolm Gladwell’s work.

The first two examples both come from a Gladwell piece that ran in 2000 titled “Designs for Working.” (The repeated examples are in bold.)
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Category: Ethics, Journalism, Media, SciWriteLabs | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments