“This week…we threw the scientists under the bus”

Note: As always, this post is my own opinion and does not necessarily represent the opinion of my employer

As I was watching Meet the Press this Sunday, I caught a great quote from NBC’s Nancy Snyderman.  Starting at around 06:12 of this clip,  she sum’s up what I’ve been feeling this week:

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“This task force did not look at the economics.  Their job was to look at the pure science. And I think in some ways we hear from the scientists, don’t like the message, and this week I believe we threw the scientists under the bus.  We in this country have three hot button scientific issues.  We have stem cells, vaccines, cancer screening.  We need to step back as a society and let the scientists present their data and then, as an informed populace, look at it, talk about it.  And what happened on Monday was that the headlines then ran with the weak…

“…instead of intelligent people saying, ‘OK, what does this mean and how do we mean it’ And the task force basically said to women in their 40s, individualize yourselves, talk to your doctor.  This is all about, and I think Nancy and I agree on this, better technology.”

The science says what the science says, and in this case, it wasn’t popular.  I don’t know that I agree with the new guidelines in terms of the public health message they put out, but I do believe that the time has come for greater discussion about the merits of mammography, and the need for improved technology in this area.  That discussion seems to be getting lost in the discussion, and I am glad that Dr. Snyderman brought it up.

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Utilizing Social Media

A while ago I did a presentation for the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance on utilization of traditional and social media as it relates to media relations professionals.  Since then, I’ve received a few requests for the slides, so I decided to post them here:

If you have questions, feel free to submit them via the comments.

Science Writers: Day 2

The second day of the Science Writers 2009 conference began the New Horizons briefings, hosted by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW), a 501(c)3 non-profit organization devoted to improving the quality of science writing. My favorite sessions on day 2 were a session on Information Technology that focused on catching plagiarism, and a Statistics session that highlighted some Florida election troubles (not the election you’re thinking of).

Informatics and Plagiarism Scandal

Starting out the day, Harold “Skip” Garner, PhD of the Univ of Texas and his team created a web-based software program, called eTBLAST, to scan databases, like Medline (online database of biomedical research papers), to look for instances of duplication that may indicate plagiarism.  As someone who works a research agency that is also the single-largest source of funding for medical research, I found his research interesting, and just a little bit frightening.

The modern research environment is extremely competitive.  The cost of doing medical research is increasing, while the dollars available for that research has been in steady decline.  Academic researchers are judged, in large part, by the number of publications bearing their name, and the number of research dollars they bring into the institution.  A common mantra among scientists, in both public and private settings, is “publish, or perish.”  Perhaps it is this pressure to publish the next big paper, so that you can bring in the big research dollars so that you can publish the next paper, that drives some toward unethical behavior.

Previous studies cited by Dr. Garner have attempted to quantify instances of unethical behavior and found that 0.3% of researchers admitted to faking data, 1.4% admitted to some form of plagiarism, 4.7% published the same data more than once, and as many as 10% included authors that shouldn’t have been included.

Using their text analysis software, the researchers created a searchable database, called Deja Vu, which lists “highly-similar” publications found in Medline.  They currently list over 79,000 papers that are strikingly similar to other papers in the database.  The papers must be verified by hand, and currently only 6372 have been verified.  Mixed in that 6372 in that number are papers that were reprinted with permission, papers that are corrections of previous publications, papers from authors that republish after expanding upon their original work, etc.

The team follow-up on 206 papers, which had, on average, 86% of the same text and 73% of the same references as an earlier paper.  They sent surveys to the authors of the duplicate papers, and to the authors of the original papers.  Ninety-three percent of the authors of the original papers had no idea that their work had been copied.  As for the authors of the latter papers, 25% denied any wrongdoing, while 35% admitted and apologized.  So far, over 90 investigations have been initiated, and there have been over 50 retractions. I’m thinking that, in the “publish or perish” world, imitation is NOT considered flattering!

Nobody Does an Election like Florida

The second speaker was Arlene Ash, Ph.D., a statistician with Boston University whose recent work has focused on what she calls vote theft.  Dr. Ash shared data from the 2006 Congressional election in Florida’s district 13, where Republican Vern Buchanan earned a very narrow, 369 vote victory over Democrat Christine Jennings.

The problem, according to Ash, lies in the missing votes.  In Sarasota county, one of the four counties that make up the district, there were 18,000 people (15 percent) who voted for other elections, but didn’t vote for the Congressional race.  Other counties only had three-percent missing votes, indicating a clear anomaly.  Adjusting for the norm, there were 15,000 excess missing votes in Sarasota county.

If the 15,000 people voted in a similar pattern to the rest of the voters, then the missing votes would not matter.  However,  according to Ash, these votes were not lost at random, and therefore one cannot assume that the votes would be distributed as the non-lost votes.  Polls that showed the Democratic candidate having a strong lead prior to the election seem to confirm this suspicion.

It is speculated that many of the votes were lost due to the design of the ballot in that Florida county (wait, this feels familiar).  On the Sarasota ballot, the congressional race did not get its own page, as many of the other votes did.  It was squished at the top of a page, occupying about a quarter to a fifth of the page, while the rest of the page was occupied by one other election.  Also, for some reason, the headers of the  sections with for the other elections were highlighted with bright colors, while this one was just white.

Ash believes that this constitutes vote theft, which, according to her, occurs when the choices of eligible voters who make reasonable efforts to vote are not counted.  In other words, disenfranchisement.

Vote THEFT seems kind of harsh, but it does seem awfully fishy.  Considering the high potential for error when different places have different ballots, why don’t we just have standardized ballots in this country.  If we have standard passports, and are moving toward standardized ID’s, why not standard ballots?

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Science Writers 2009: Day 3

The third day of the Science Writers 2009 conference was hosted by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW), a 501(c)3 non-profit organization devoted to improving the quality of science writing. Each year, as part of the annual Science Writers conference, CASW’s New Horizons sessions, which are hosted by a different university each year, showcase emerging research in multiple areas of science.   My favorite session on day 3 was a session on personality by a professor of psychiatry.

Personality: What you stuff says about you

George Carlin once quipped, “That’s the whole meaning of life…trying to find a place for your stuff.” In his presentation, UT-Austin’s Dr. Sam Gosling discussed his research about personal belongings and what they reveal about personality. 

If you’ve ever seen a set of door rooms, or a row of office cubicles, you know that different people will do very different things with identical spaces.  The frat boy’s dorm room will look no more similar to the room of goth chick, than my many post-it laden desk looks next to that of an OCD-suffering, super neat colleague.  The way we organize our spaces, the items we keep in it, and the type of mood we try to portray in that space say a lot about our personality, even if we don’t intend it to do so.

  • On of the first processes that links us to our spaces is the “identity claim” — those things we do that declare ownership.  From the type of plaque we put on our desk, to the stickers that someone puts on their dorm room door, these are things that we put in our space that are purposely meant to let others know that this is our space.
  • The second process, which is not necessarily a conscious form of communication, involves changes we make to our space that affect how we feel — wall colors, music choices, photos, etc.  Although these things are more private, they tell people entering our space a lot about us.
  • The third is what Gosling called “behavioral residue.”  When we occupy a space, we leave marks behind, such as making marks in the books we read a lot, or leaving things in a certain place.  These are the unintended consequences of our actions.

To conduct his experiments, Gosling sent a team of researchers into a space and asked them to take notes about the space, and their impressions of the person’s personality on five dimensions.  Not wanting to bias the results by allowing the note-takers to see what the person looked like, he considered removing any visible photos of the person prior to the experiment.  However, the photos that someone chooses to display are an important part of the second level of interaction listed above.  To overcome this issue, he placed post-it notes over the faces of the owners of the space in any visible photos, so that the note takers could make unbiased observations about the person’s personality.

There were five personality dimensions included in their observations:

  1. Openness to Experience (intellect, imagination, curiosity, creativity)
  2. Conscientiousness (order, duty, deliberation, self-discipline)
  3. Extraversion (sociability, assertiveness, activity, positive emotions)
  4. Agreeableness (trust, nurturance, kindness, cooperation)
  5. Neuroticism (anxiety, depression, moodiness, vulnerability to stress)

He had a separate team go in and physically record (through notes, videos and still photos) the space being examined, and asked people who personally knew the owner of the space to fill out a questionnaire about the owner of the space.

Gosling’s team also examined other types of spaces, such as personal websites and Facebook pages, and compared their results to data collected during short meetings, info collected on the questionnaires completed by social acquaintances, and information on the person’s ten favorite songs.

Of the personality dimensions being examined, Facebook pages and Social behavior (via questionnaire) were the best indicators of extraversion, while personal websites, dorm rooms, offices and favorite music were best suited to indicate openness.  Conscientiousness was best demonstrated through personal websites, followed by dorm rooms, and neuroticism was evenly distributed between personal websites, dorm rooms and social behavior.

Gosling cautioned that there is a danger in putting too much emphasis on any one object within a person’s space.  He provided an example of a straight-A student, well known for her conscientiousness, who had an emasculate door room.  As the note-takers went through the room, they found drug paraphernalia packed away neatly in a box in the corner of her room.  The researchers were convinced that this was a sign of a deep routed secret in this person’s life, and that the outward portrayal of conscientiousness was an attempt to cover drug use.  As it turned out, the student’s roommate was going away for a semester, and ask her to look after her things.  So, being the conscientious person she is, the student collected all the belongs, filed them in a box, and put them in the corner so they wouldn’t be disturbed.  Gosling’s stressed is that it is important to look for themes among the belongs, and not analyze the belongings individually.  One object can have multiple meanings, and by watching for patterns you can get the best indication of personality.

A person’s space, and the stuff they put in it, reveal a lot about a person’s personality.  This had me thinking that I really need to clean my office.  Of course, Gosling also said that, unlike things we do to try to shape how people think about us, spaces don’t lie (which is why they make such good indicators).  If that’s true, and spaces can’t lie, then maybe cleaning my office would be futile.  After all, maybe I’m just a post-it over-using, messy office kinda gal.

Note: the slides from Dr. Gosling’s presentation are available on the CASW New Horizons website (with free registration).

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H1N1 Vaccine trials have begun

Vaccine trials funded by NIH have now started at several U.S. universities., and representatives from the CDC have said that they expect to have the vaccine ready by October.  Here are some of the things we have learned so far about the vaccine.

  • Five key groups have been identified for vaccination.  These include:
    • Pregnant women
    • Caretakers of young children
    • Healthcare and Emergency personnel
    • People 6 months to 24 years of age
    • People 25-64 who have chronic health conditions or compromised immune systems
  • The government hopes that there will be enough vaccine for everyone, but if there is a shortage at first, then certain groups should get priority.
    • Pregnant women
    • Caretakers of young children
    • Healthcare and Emergency workers with direct patient contact
    • People 6 months to 4 years of age
    • People 5-18 who have chronic health conditions
    • People over age 65 are encouraged to get the seasonal flu vaccine, but are not on the list of people recommended for the swine flu vaccine.
  • The vaccine will be grown in eggs, like the seasonal flu vaccine, so people who are allergic to eggs need to consult a doctor about options.
  • It is likely that people will need to get the swine flu vaccine in three doses.  Some reports have said that the subsequent doses will come 21 days earlier.
  • Vaccine tests are currently being conducted at the University of Maryland Medical Center, Baylor College of Medicine, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Emory University, St. Louis University, Seattle Group Health Cooperative, the University of Iowa, Vanderbilt University, Children’s Mercy Hospital and Duke University Medical Center.
  • Some school districts, including the District of Columbia, have announced that they will make vaccines available to students in school, with parental permission.

The pigs have the flu

Yesterday, Acting Secretary of Health and Human Services, Charles Johnson, declared a state of emergency, due to a recent increase in cases of swine flu (influenza type A H1N1).  The actual language read:

As a consequence of confirmed cases of Swine Influenza A (swH1N1) in California, Texas, Kansas, and New York, on this date and after consultation with public health officials as necessary, I, Charles E. Johnson, Acting Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, pursuant to the authority vested in me under section 319 of the Public Health Service Act, 42 U.S.C. § 247d, do hereby determine that a public health emergency exists nationwide involving Swine Influenza A that affects or has significant potential to affect national security.”

My first thought was, “Ha, I’m glad I don’t eat pork,” but of course, that was silly.  Swine flu isn’t transmitted by eating the cooked animal.  Temperatures of at least 160°F kills bacteria and viruses.  According to the CDC, swine flu is spread mostly through contact among pigs and from contaminated objects moving between infected and uninfected groups of pigs.  Flu outbreaks in pigs are fairly common, particularly  during winter.  What’s uncommon, and what we are concerned about now, is humans being infected by swine flu.  As of 1:00 pm today, there were 40 confirmed cases in the U.S. in five states (CA, KS,NY, OH, TX.), with additional cases reported in Mexico and Europe.

While the vaccine for the human version of the flu does not protect against swine flu, the symptoms are the same.  Therefore, people exhibiting a fever, cough, body aches, headaches, fatigue, nasal congestion, vomiting and diarrhea are being encouraged to contact their doctors, particularly if they have been in contact with sick pigs, or people who were in contact with sick pigs.

Prevention is mostly in the hands of farmers and veterinarians, through vaccinations and efforts to control outbreaks.  However, the public is being urged to follow general flu prevention guidelines, such as covering the nose and mouth when sneezing and coughing, frequent hand washing and avoiding groups (work, school, etc) when exhibiting symptoms.  Americans are also being urged to avoid nonessential travel to Mexico, where it is believed the current epidemic originated.

Treatment of swine flu includes courses of antiviral medications, such as Tamiflu and Relenza.  Both require a prescription from a physician.  The CDC has released 11 million courses from the strategic national stockpile for  use during this epidemic.

More information is available from the CDC, on their website at www.cdc.gov/swineflu/ or by calling (800) CDC-INFO.

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