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Posts Tagged ‘journalism’

I Guess I Have to Retire From Blogging Now

April 6, 2011 3 comments

xkcd has (once again) said it all. Basically summarizing my entire blog in a single cartoon.

 

There’s just…nothing left for me to add. What more can be said? What am I going to do with my time now?

I guess I could try knitting…

 

Acupuncture and Stroke: The Globe and Mail’s Epic…Win???

September 29, 2010 1 comment

 I guess you could call this post “Part 2” in my examination of science reporting in Canada’s national newspaper The Globe and Mail.

My previous post dealt with the horrific reporting on the supposed link between cell phones and cancer. This time around, I’ll be dealing with an article on acupuncture.

Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine wherein needles are inserted into the skin. The needle insertions are supposed to redirect the flow of qi energy in the body, which subsequently cures whatever ails you. (Check my previous post about acupuncture for a more thorough explanation).

Scientific consensus is that acupuncture offers nothing more than a placebo effect. Yet, most insurance companies continue to cover it (including mine).

So when I saw an article about acupuncture in The Globe, was ready for more fodder for my skeptical mind. But I was pleasantly surprised. Somewhat. Just a little.

The article reports on a recent review of 10 studies looking at acupuncture as a therapy for stroke patients. Not surprisingly, the researchers found no evidence that acupuncture helped the recovery of these patients.

While the article does a good job making this finding clear, it does cloud the issue by talking about the supposed “problems” with studying acupuncture.

One of the most glaring problems confounding the study of acupuncture is that it’s challenging to compare it to anything. While researchers studying the effects of a drug can make a direct comparison by giving some patients the medicine and others a placebo, the same isn’t true of acupuncture. Researchers often give one group of patients acupuncture and use a “sham” therapy on another group, in which needles are inserted at non-acupuncture points in the body.

The problem with that approach is that patients may still get a benefit from the “sham” needles, even if they’re not inserted at the correct points in the body.

The “sham” treatment is the placebo in this type of study, and these sham treatments are often developed with the help of trained acupuncturists. The fact that sham acupuncture gives a similar benefit to the patient as regular acupuncture is not a “problem”, it is evidence. Evidence that acupuncture does not provide any benefit other than a placebo. If the treatment does not provide a statistically significant effect beyond that of a placebo, it is not effective.

Proponents of acupuncture usually try to fog the minds of potential customers by saying that acupuncture cannot be studied by standard “Western” practices; that it should be exempt from scientific study because it is somehow “different”. Even the Globe and Mail article manages to contradict itself on this point:

Dr. Korner-Bitensky said there is no solid evidence showing stroke patients can truly benefit from acupuncture.

“For patients and families I would say [acupuncture is] not where you want to put your major commitment in terms of therapy,” she said.

But there’s another important point that shouldn’t be discounted, Dr. Korner-Bitensky added: Some patients simply believe in acupuncture therapy, and that alone could somehow benefit them.

Sorry, but science is a methodology, not an ideology. “Belief” is not enough. If acupuncture produced a real effect, it should be testable and quantifiable. But it doesn’t.

Now the question always arises at this point: “Even if it is just a placebo, why is that bad? It still makes people feel better. Why can’t we let it continue?”

There are several reasons. The first is that if acupuncture is covered by health insurance, it means that we are all collectively footing the bill for a medical treatment that doesn’t work.

Second, if we allow a treatment which doesn’t work to continue, we open the door for similar treatments and ideology to become mainstream, such as faith healing or homeopathy.

Third, if we continue to allow treatments which don’t work to exist, we run the risk of ordinary people choosing “alternative” treatments, treatments which have been proven ineffective, over science-based treatments that do work.

Finally, acupuncture is not always completely benign. There have been reports of needles being left in, punctured bladders, and there is always the possibility of infection.

So although this Globe and Mail article wasn’t an all-out “Win”, it wasn’t a Fail either. But it does serve to bring up discussion about alternative medicine and the associated dangers of giving them more credit than they deserve.

Cell Phones and Cancer: The Globe and Mail’s Epic Fail

September 26, 2010 3 comments

So I wake up around 8:30 on Saturday morning. I’m enjoying a nice coffee and watching a “Hell’s Kitchen” episode that I’ve PVR’d.

Then I open my laptop to read the news, and right there on the home page of The Globe and Mail I read the headline: “The Disturbing Truth About Cell Phones”

Here we go…

The author of the article quotes a book newly released called Disconnect. Even though the book admits that there is no conclusive evidence that cell phones are in any way dangerous, the article still manages to come across as fear-laden and lazily researched. The article claims that studies show that the risk of glioma, a rare type of brain tumor, doubles with cell phone use. Funny, that’s not what this review of the literature says.

One thing that I think science journalists are particularly bad at is understanding that you cannot prove a negative. There are a large number studies which show there is little or no evidence that cell phone use is associated with increased health risks. However, when these studies are covered in the press or quoted by those opposed to cell phone use, they simply say that this shows “more study is needed”.

Now, I am all for studying the long-term risks/benefits of cell phone use. However, it needs to be made clear that when a study shows “no correlation”, this is not “inconclusive”. The only thing which will satisfy journalists or anti-cell phone activists is a study saying that “cell phones proved to not cause cancer”. The unfortunate thing is that this will never happen.

It is impossible to prove a negative. It would be like saying “prove to me that the sun won’t rise one day”. In order to prove this, I will have to perform an infinite number of observations, which is of course impossible. I could tell you that all the evidence suggests that the sun will rise every morning that the Earth continues to rotate on its axis and the sun continues to burn. But I cannot conclusively say “the sun will always rise”.

The Globe and Mail article also performs a common fallacious argument, which is cherry-picking data. Even though there is a large body of literature on RF radiation and cell phone use, the small number of studies which suggest a negative health effect of cell phones are often touted as proof that they do, in fact, cause negative health effects. This is wrong.

You have to look at a whole body of literature, not just a few isolated studies. For example, here is a study which not only shows no negative health effects of cell phones, but actually shows it may help fight Alzheimer’s disease. This is an isolated case which demanded further study, but no other lab showed similar results. So you can see why you need to look at a large amount of literature to get an accurate picture. This is something The Globe article fails to do.

The article also talks about a study in which rats were bombarded with microwaves and found that they had damaged DNA. Not only that,

The rats also had brain-cell alterations, memory lapses and fluids leaking from their brains into their blood, indicating a breach of the blood-brain barrier.

Where do I start with this one?

Well the reference to the study is not given, so that’s a big problem. It is not stated at what powers or frequencies of microwaves the rats were exposed to. Big problem there, since it is not fair to compare different powers or frequencies than those used in cell phones. And the final problem is rats are not people. This may seem obvious to most of us, but results from a rat-based study do not always translate to humans. Many drug studies test drugs which helped disease models in rats, but failed to do the same thing in humans, the physiology is different. To tout this study as evidence that cell phones hurt humans is wrong. It may warrant further study, but it doesn’t prove anything.

So lets not start throwing out our cell phones in favour of tin-can phones or telegraphs just yet. The literature shows that there is no conclusive evidence linking cell phone use to negative health effects.

Lets remember to keep these things in perspective too. A study which was just published estimates cell phone related deaths in the United States over the last decade. Not from microwaves, but from talking or texting while driving. In 2005, there were 4572 deaths related to cell phone use while driving. In 2008, the number was 5870. The study also estimates that from 2001 to 2007, texting resulted in an additional 16 000 deaths.

These numbers are only for the United States, not worldwide. This is a problem that is more dangerous than RF radiation will ever be, even if it did cause damage to humans.

Even though I am not a huge fan of Oprah, she has the right idea with her “No Phone Zone” pledge.

You can read more about the dangers of using cell phones while driving and sign the pledge on her website.

The Adventure of Links: Sept. 13, 2010

September 13, 2010 Leave a comment

Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science posts a weekly summary of interesting links. Since this is one of the posts I most look forward to reading, I thought I would start my own version.

Welcome to The Adventure of Links for Sept. 13 2010.

Health

The weaknesses of the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s Health Check Program.

Doctors warn against homeopathic “vaccines” which may leave patients vulnerable to fatal diseases.

Yet another study which shows absolutely no association between thimerosal and autism.

Crap about electromagnetic hypersensitivity in the Winnipeg Free Press. Once again, they refuse to interview anyone who actually knows what they are talking about but instead opt for scare tactics to increase readership.

More alternative medicine propoganda from the Huffington Post.

Study suggests that when parents are more accepting of children’s sexual habits, it results in a reduction in teen pregnancy.

Astronomy

Large solar flare from September 8 caught in photos.

The ancient Greeks may have documented Halley’s comet back in 467 BC.

Special relativity could explain the origin of galactic magnetic fields.

Physics

“The Physics of Mud and Hair Gel”

The future of nuclear energy could rest on the use of Thorium for fuel. Thorium is theoretically more energy efficient and less likely to produce materials which could be used in weapons.

How breakfast cereal can help physicists explain the universe.

Australian scientists developing a real life tractor beam. It can only move tiny particles about a meter, but its a start.

Researchers at MIT announce they are creating self-repairing solar cells.

Stephen Hawking said some stuff in the past week which had nothing to do with god, but is much more important to our development as a species.

Fun/Funny

Playboy magazine for the blind.

Ways to reduce the amount of cow farts which contribute to global warming.

The first ever Klingon Opera. Yup, Klingon Opera.

Sony Playstation turns 15 this year. Let us celebrate all the wasted hours I’ve spent on mine.

Vancouver using a 3D image of a girl chasing a ball on the road to get drivers to slow down.

You thought we had put this one to rest, but no. “Galileo Was Wrong: The Church Was Right”, the first annual Catholic Conference on Geocentrism is being held in November. I don’t think I’ll go, but I might get myself a mug.