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Why not give AIDS drugs to everyone? Jon Cohen’s bright idea

January 23rd, 2006

Andrew Sullivan cheers: he’s never met an AIDS drug he didn’t like

A column yesterday (Sun Jan 22) by Jon Cohen in the NY Times magazine achieved a new record in the level of absurdity proposed in HIV?AIDS, a field which already has more inconsistencies and irrationalities and scientific superstitions per square inch of publication than any other scientific study in history.

Jon Cohen is a Science writer and ex-Talk magazine scribe, who published a history of the AIDS non-vaccine five years ago, Shots in the Dark: The Wayward Search for an AIDS Vaccine, a book which apparently managed to overlook the biggest and most obvious reason for that failure (the fact that HIV is described by the scientific literature as acting as an effective anti-HIV vaccine already). He says that what we need to stop HIV?AIDS is really quite simple.

In Idea Lab: Protect or Disinhibit?, he suggests giving AIDS drugs to everybody.

Of course, researchers have made progress in treating patients who already have H.I.V., developing powerful drug cocktails that can stave off disease. But when it comes to preventing the virus’s spread, success is spotty. One of the few effective interventions involves the use of anti-H.I.V. drugs to keep a mother from infecting her baby. And an underappreciated facet to this story has far-reaching implications: both mothers and their uninfected babies receive the drugs.

If anti-H.I.V. drugs can help uninfected babies dodge the virus, might the same approach work for uninfected adults? Could the sexually active take antiretrovirals to avoid contracting H.I.V. in the first place? Intrigued by the prospects, some gay men already have experimented with what’s known as “pre-exposure prophylaxis” or PrEP: a recent survey conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at gay-pride events in four U.S. cities found that 7 percent of those interviewed said they had tried it.

A half-dozen studies are now under way that will determine whether these men are onto something.

(here is the whole piece

The New York Times

January 22, 2006

Idea Lab

Protect or Disinhibit?

By JON COHEN

At the end of every year, the Joint United Nations Program on H.I.V./AIDS releases an update on the epidemic. In keeping with tradition, the news for 2005 remained grim: an estimated 4.9 million people were infected with H.I.V. during the year – up from 4.6 million in 2003.

Of course, researchers have made progress in treating patients who already have H.I.V., developing powerful drug cocktails that can stave off disease. But when it comes to preventing the virus’s spread, success is spotty. One of the few effective interventions involves the use of anti-H.I.V. drugs to keep a mother from infecting her baby. And an underappreciated facet to this story has far-reaching implications: both mothers and their uninfected babies receive the drugs.

If anti-H.I.V. drugs can help uninfected babies dodge the virus, might the same approach work for uninfected adults? Could the sexually active take antiretrovirals to avoid contracting H.I.V. in the first place? Intrigued by the prospects, some gay men already have experimented with what’s known as “pre-exposure prophylaxis” or PrEP: a recent survey conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at gay-pride events in four U.S. cities found that 7 percent of those interviewed said they had tried it.

A half-dozen studies are now under way that will determine whether these men are onto something. The trials all focus on tenofovir (marketed under the brand name Viread), a drug that appears safer than the other AIDS medications on the market. Placebo-controlled trials are enrolling 5,000 people on four continents who are in high-risk groups, including gay and bisexual men, sex workers and injecting drug users. All told, the experiments will cost more than $40 million, which is being paid for by the C.D.C. and the National Institutes of Health, as well as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Dr. Susan Buchbinder, head of the H.I.V. research section at the San Francisco Department of Public Health, runs one of those trials, known as Project T. Buchbinder says she initially had “big reservations” about the research, because she worried about what psychologists call “behavioral disinhibition”: what if fear of H.I.V. declined in people who took the drug, and they then skipped using condoms or increased their number of sex partners? “It’s scary as an investigator, as a public-health official and as a person who has worked with the community for many years to think

about doing something that could paradoxically make the epidemic worse rather than better,” she says.

Buchbinder decided to conduct Project T because tenofovir PrEP had worked well in research monkeys and because she’d heard the anecdotes about underground use, including a cocktail known in street slang as “the 3V’s”: Viread, Viagra and Valium. If the intervention worked, she reasoned, then researchers could confront the problem of behavioral disinhibition head-on with education campaigns, much as they do with condom promotion efforts that simultaneously encourage monogamy or even abstinence. And if tenofovir PrEP fails to stop H.I.V. transmission or causes serious side effects, then people urgently needed that information too. (In part because the prospect of harming a healthy person raises formidable liability issues for Gilead Sciences, tenofovir’s manufacturer, the company says it has no interest in marketing the drug as a prophylaxis, even if trials prove that it works.)

Optimistic mathematical models show that if tenofovir PrEP is effective 90 percent of the time and is used by 90 percent of the people who are at highest risk of becoming infected, it could cut new H.I.V. infections in a community by more than 80 percent in a few years. That is, if behavioral disinhibition does not undo the benefits.

Dr. Marcus Conant, a San Francisco clinician who has specialized in AIDS since the start of the epidemic, has high hopes that tenofovir PrEP will work wonders. Indeed, he already prescribes it to a half-dozen select patients. “With my patients, it’s not even ethical for me to wait for the science,” Conant says. “I can identify those patients who I know are at extremely high risk. Should I wait for the scientific evidence to prove that it doesn’t work before I give it to someone where it may work?”

Even if it works spectacularly well, tenofovir PrEP will not substitute for an AIDS vaccine, the holy grail of prevention research. With a vaccine, a few shots can train an immune system to ward off a disease for decades. But tenofovir PrEP would work only if people take the drug repeatedly. Then again, no AIDS vaccine is on the near horizon. Tenofovir PrEP, in contrast, could prove its worth by 2008.

Jon Cohen is a correspondent for Science magazine and the author of “Shots in the Dark: The Wayward Search for an AIDS Vaccine.”

* Copyright 2006The New York Times Company

Actor/ political scientist/ editor/ talking head/ conservative/ gay blogger Andrew Sullivan, who as noted earlier, in his unquestioning, arts/ liberal/ political pundit based unalloyed faith in the HIV?AIDS medical authorities, returned this year to popping HAART regimen pills to revive his supposedly declining imnmune system, thinks this is a fine idea.

Daily Dish Sunday, January 22, 2006

Drugs And Negs

22 Jan 2006 02:21 pm

In the current HIV prevention discussion, this idea is well worth airing and perhaps pursuing: Why not put all HIV-negative men on a simple anti-retroviral regimen as a prophylaxis, rather than as a treatment? In any single case, the likelihood of possible transmission drops (because the drugs kill off the virus before it can take hold of a new immune system). The big studies being done will help confirm whether there are collective behavioral adjustments that undermine the effort to reduce transmission. My own view is that gay men, if the studies pan out, could and perhaps should embark on a proactive campaign to get as many sexually active men as possible on meds. It’s a way for HIV-negative men to do something which is not simply defensive in nature, and make decisions about their health in a moment outside the inevitable irrationality of a sexual encounter. We’re used to taking pills after we’ve become sick. Why not take them before – as a prevention technique? Even a mild decline in transmission could drastically alter the dynamic of the epidemic – for the better. Next up: involve vulnerable African-American women in the same discussion.

Even if you haven’t troubled to read the scientific literature before misleading the public, and thus still have no idea that HIV?AIDS is the most questioned ruling hypothesis on earth, endlessly exploded by a leading retroviral scientist at exhaustive length in top journals, not to mention eviscerated in more than sixteen books and many articles and web sites by all manner of specialists and science writers and laymen who have made a close study of the topic, this has to be the oddest proposal that has come along for some time.

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“This is his bare hint of the elephant in the room, the vast dirty secret which is hidden by denial by the hapless patients of HIV?AIDS in this country, and their supposed rescuers

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For the immediate problem it suggests is, of course, side effects. Cohen recognizes this drawback by talking of a new drug which is supposed to have fewer side effects than the norm for HAART drugs, the standard regimen which gave Larry Kramer a liver transplant and is wont to render your appearance rather unpleasant with fatty deposits in the wrong places, before eventually killing you off.

The trials all focus on tenofovir (marketed under the brand name Viread), a drug that appears safer than the other AIDS medications on the market. Placebo-controlled trials are enrolling 5,000 people on four continents who are in high-risk groups, including gay and bisexual men, sex workers and injecting drug users. All told, the experiments will cost more than $40 million, which is being paid for by the C.D.C. and the National Institutes of Health, as well as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

In other words, the side effects of this “safe” drug remain to be seen. But there is one hint that tells us already what they are likely to be. The company which makes the drug says it has no interest in extending their beneficial influence to people without any sign of HIV,

And if tenofovir PrEP fails to stop H.I.V. transmission or causes serious side effects, then people urgently needed that information too. (In part because the prospect of harming a healthy person raises formidable liability issues for Gilead Sciences, tenofovir’s manufacturer, the company says it has no interest in marketing the drug as a prophylaxis, even if trials prove that it works.)

This doesn’t stop Cohen, of course, who believes that handing the stuff out in the gay community might cut new HIV infections by more than 80 percent, if it works “90 per cent of the time”. All this is based on “mathematical models, ie is nothing but speculation.

Optimistic mathematical models show that if tenofovir PrEP is effective 90 percent of the time and is used by 90 percent of the people who are at highest risk of becoming infected, it could cut new H.I.V. infections in a community by more than 80 percent in a few years. That is, if behavioral disinhibition does not undo the benefits.

What he means by the last sentence is that if it works and people feel they are protected against catching HIV, then they will get up to even more mischief, sexually speaking. This is the concern of his source for the idea, the chief of San Francisco city AIDS research:

Dr. Susan Buchbinder, head of the H.I.V. research section at the San Francisco Department of Public Health, runs one of those trials, known as Project T. Buchbinder says she initially had “big reservations” about the research, because she worried about what psychologists call “behavioral disinhibition”: what if fear of H.I.V. declined in people who took the drug, and they then skipped using condoms or increased their number of sex partners? “It’s scary as an investigator, as a public-health official and as a person who has worked with the community for many years to think about doing something that could paradoxically make the epidemic worse rather than better,” she says.

Is it research and thought, or media/Beltway babble?

If this is the usual quality of logic brought to bear on the epidemic by the chief city researcher at the ground zero of the US AIDS epidemic, one can only say that the continuing confusion about HIV?AIDS and the flourishing survival of an apparently baseless paradigm in the medical community is no mystery.

That is to say, if the premise is that the drug does protect against infection, why would it expand the epidemic if those protected against carrying HIV escalate their sexual antics? What Ms Buchbinder has to fear would be the expansion of hospital admissions for side effects, one would think, not new HIV positives.

But the bottom line is that the lack of sense and logic which permeates the minds of HIV?AIDS activists seems to have no limits whatsoever, even among professional commentators on the topic who have been around it for years.

This is probably because in paradoxical manner they do have sense and logic, in that their entire brainpower seems to be taken over by an effort to spin the consequences of the HIV=AIDS premise they are given by authority, and once having accepted that without question, they happily construct what are really quite logical extrapolations of the premise, and when they run into inconsistencies, they either overlook them or reinterpret them to accord with the sacrosanct premise.

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“It really is a marvel of modern society how one can accumulate every imprimatur of authority in one’s field – in this case, writing about AIDS, for the most part – and work for every bunch of editors in the top magazine strata, and not have one grain of sense or ability to question the assumptions of conventional wisdom.”

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This is in accordance with modern brain research, which is the subject of the next post here unless another outrage to common sense demands deconstruction first.

In the end, however, thinking based on faulty premises has to stop, and it seems clear that it has ground to a halt in both Cohen and Sullivan. The net result is that you get conclusions like this one with which Cohen finishes his column:

Even if it works spectacularly well, tenofovir PrEP will not substitute for an AIDS vaccine, the holy grail of prevention research. With a vaccine, a few shots can train an immune system to ward off a disease for decades. But tenofovir PrEP would work only if people take the drug repeatedly. Then again, no AIDS vaccine is on the near horizon. Tenofovir PrEP, in contrast, could prove its worth by 2008.

Why, pray, would one not be happy with this delightful drug if it works as hoped? Why would one need a vaccine? Would it not in effect be a vaccine, one with the additional advantage of not making everyone HIV positive, which a vaccine which bred antibodies against HIV would do – since the HIV test is for HIV antibodies, not HIV, which can hardly be found in any HIV patients without strenuous artificial measures? A population where everybody is HIV positive, which is what a vaccine promises, is hardly what we need.

The answer, of course, to why one wouldn’t want this darn drug as an easy prophylactic lies in the dreaded side effects. This of course is what is implied by Cohen’s fleeting mention of the fact that “tenofovir PrEP would work only if people take the drug repeatedly.”

The elephant behind the AIDS curtain

This is his bare hint of the elephant in the room, the vast dirty secret which is hidden by denial by the hapless patients of HIV?AIDS in this country, and their supposed rescuers, the drug companies and their human delivery system of officials, doctors, nurses and science-illiterate science writers and blogger/talking heads who won’t mention the elephant even as they grope in the dark and find its shape unmistakably there.

In this Alice in Wonderland landscape where bad science joins hands with denial, the emotions of hope and optimism can shine like a sun on a landscape without the shadows of reality. Thus we have a prominent AIDS doctor already handing out this stuff to “select patients”.

Dr. Marcus Conant, a San Francisco clinician who has specialized in AIDS since the start of the epidemic, has high hopes that tenofovir PrEP will work wonders. Indeed, he already prescribes it to a half-dozen select patients. “With my patients, it’s not even ethical for me to wait for the science,” Conant says. “I can identify those patients who I know are at extremely high risk. Should I wait for the scientific evidence to prove that it doesn’t work before I give it to someone where it may work?”

This then is the end result of the train of logic that results from the HIV?AIDS paradigm, that these privileged patients, in good health and not even HIV positive, will consider themselves lucky to join the HIV positive group whose main suffering is caused by the drugs they take, which eventually lead to death, according to all the critiques of the paradigm.

All one can hope is that the new drug will not have the same unpleasant effects as the old, which will perhaps give these unfortunate souls more time to browse the literature of dissent in this area and perhaps grow to understand just how much science argues against the paradigm, and perhaps wean themselves from this baby bottle ideology, which now aims to expand its circle of depredation even more widely in the population, at least among gays.

As long as the likes of Andrew Sullivan and Jon Cohen assume the mantle of thought leaders in this arena, and fail to fulfil their first duty as pundits and go to the original source ie the scientific literature of the review of the claim, as well as of the claim, this route to enlightenment on the part of their followers seems to be unlikely to be followed, however.

Jon Cohen’s performance seems to be even more disgraceful than that of Sullivan, of course, since Cohen at least claims to be a student of science. Sullivan in AIDS is now just a nattering nabob of underinformed Beltway blather, which is par for the course for busy professional media pundits. Just look at Sullivan’s bio, to see how impossible it is that he could find much time to go to a library, even on the Internet. He must barely have time to change clothes between his appearances on television, his visits to the centers of night life, and his computer.

Cohen on the other hand has been a Science reporter for years, and although we appreciate that his dogged propagandizing for the bureaucratic and lab heroes of HIV?AIDS has led to trips to India and Beijing, a book contract and other perks, we really think that professionalism alone demands that he of all reporters should go back to the science and think and read for himelf before writing any more on the topic.

But of course this is a suggestion which is unlikely to be realized. A man whose reputation and fees hinge on the dangers of the “nasty virus” as he calls it is hardly in a position to reassess what amounts to his life’s work.

It really is a marvel of modern society how one can accumulate every imprimatur of authority in one’s field – in this case, writing about AIDS, for the most part – and work for every bunch of editors in the top magazine strata, and not have one grain of sense or ability to question the assumptions of conventional wisdom.

Jon Cohen is a writer for Science, the prestigious international weekly journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). He has covered biomedicine, specializing in vaccines, for the past fifteen years. Cohen began writing for Science in 1990, becoming one of the world’s leading AIDS reporters. In 1998, Cohen received a Sloan Foundation grant to complete Shots in the Dark: The Wayward Search for an AIDS Vaccine, which was published by W.W. Norton in January 2001. In addition to reporting on a wide range of scientific and medical topics for Science from many locales around the world, Cohen has done in-depth, investigative stores about the National Institutes of Health, tobacco industry funding of science, defense against bioweapons, the troubled vaccine industry, credit battles, the genomics revolution, and the science press itself. He also has written for the Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Slate, Smithsonian, Talk, Discover, the New Republic, Surfer, and other publications. His 1997 Science article about the rise and fall of an AIDS research program in the former Zaire won the international health reporting award from the Pan American Health Organization. From 1986 to 1990 he was senior editor at the City Paper in Washington, D.C. He earned a B.A. in 1981 from the University of California, San Diego, where he majored in science writing. Cohen lives in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California, with his wife, a TV documentary producer, and their two children.

Andrew Sullivan’s bio offers the same paradoxical evidence that one can attend Magdalen and Harvard, push one’s way into the top job of a major East Coast political weekly, and achieve enormous success in media as a writer for every big name in the book, and have absolutely no idea what is going on in the field of HIV?AIDS, where your very own health is at stake.

But of course, the solution to the paradox is clear. No one on the inside of the media looking in ever has much of a clue as to what is really going on, except in their own little world. To do that, you have to be on the outside looking in, and around.

But then, why do those who are members of the club seem to speak with so much canny insight and informed knowledge? That is because everyone on the inside says the same thing, so their words are constantly confirmed by each other. They are, in effect, the priests of an information religion.

As anyone who lives long enough knows, the only reliable source of knowledge is an independent mind and an independent bank account. Alas, these are increasingly rare in our modern hyper-organized and materially driven society, and they rarely gain access to power and influence.

Let’s hope the one development that promised to counter this trend, the Web, continues to resist being coopted.

Long live the independent blog, especially in science.

For confirmation of this theory of how membership of the club corrupts the mind, we offer as sufficient evidence this essentially fantastic view of the world of AIDS as seen through the eyes of Jon Cohen:

As a long-time correspondent for the journal Science and a leading authority on the global AIDS epidemic, Cohen has traveled the world documenting the human toll of AIDS and the social and medical research being marshaled against it. But he hadn’t seen anything as dire as Tambaram since his travels in the AIDS-ravaged lands of sub-Saharan Africa.

“Tambaram is how my mind’s eye imagines the Black Plague: long rows of filled beds with dying people,” he said in a recent interview. “The clinicians were fantastic: smart, humane, and generous. But this is a nasty virus, and it still takes a lot of money and know-how to keep HIV at bay. As the doctors there stressed to me, they’re doing the best they can. I could see that. It’s just that the best they can offer right now isn’t enough.”

Cohen is back in Asia now, joining thousands of health workers, researchers, activists and journalists for the 15th International AIDS Conference in Bangkok, which runs from 11-16 July. The theme of the conference is “Access for All,” but in a remarkable series of stories over the past nine months, Cohen has made clear that while there’s been great progress, the goal of proper care for all of those in Asia who are HIV-positive or suffering from AIDS remains far off. AAAS and Science will distribute thousands of reprints of his stories at the conference, without charge.

“There are an estimated 40 million HIV-infected people in the world,” Cohen said in the interview. “It depends on which equation you use to calculate which of those people need drugs now, but it’s a pitifully small number who are actually receiving them.”

Science Correspondent Jon Cohen Sees Perils, Promise in the Fight Against AIDS

Jon Cohen with Sun Fuli in Beijing

Jon Cohen with Sun Fuli in Beijing

[You can see a slide show and a photo essay that accompany Jon Cohen’s stories on AIDS in Asia. Read the full set of stories here.]

Jon Cohen arrived at the old Tambaram hospital in Chennai, India, on a Saturday morning last winter and saw sights that he hadn’t seen before in Asia. There were five AIDS wards, each with three dozen beds, and each of them filled to capacity. In the past year, he was told, the staff had treated 10,000 patients.

As a long-time correspondent for the journal Science and a leading authority on the global AIDS epidemic, Cohen has traveled the world documenting the human toll of AIDS and the social and medical research being marshaled against it. But he hadn’t seen anything as dire as Tambaram since his travels in the AIDS-ravaged lands of sub-Saharan Africa.

“Tambaram is how my mind’s eye imagines the Black Plague: long rows of filled beds with dying people,” he said in a recent interview. “The clinicians were fantastic: smart, humane, and generous. But this is a nasty virus, and it still takes a lot of money and know-how to keep HIV at bay. As the doctors there stressed to me, they’re doing the best they can. I could see that. It’s just that the best they can offer right now isn’t enough.”

Cohen is back in Asia now, joining thousands of health workers, researchers, activists and journalists for the 15th International AIDS Conference in Bangkok, which runs from 11-16 July. The theme of the conference is “Access for All,” but in a remarkable series of stories over the past nine months, Cohen has made clear that while there’s been great progress, the goal of proper care for all of those in Asia who are HIV-positive or suffering from AIDS remains far off. AAAS and Science will distribute thousands of reprints of his stories at the conference, without charge.

“There are an estimated 40 million HIV-infected people in the world,” Cohen said in the interview. “It depends on which equation you use to calculate which of those people need drugs now, but it’s a pitifully small number who are actually receiving them.”

[See the full interview with Jon Cohen here.]

As the Bangkok conference nears, Cohen sees a world divided into rich nations and poor nations. The rich nations are refining their treatment programs, learning how best to use drugs to combat the virus, and pushing for a vaccine. But in the poor nations, and this includes the nations of Asia, “there aren’t a lot of options for treatment,” he says. “The big challenge is to get treatment to people, and there is a massive scale-up underway right now. But as of today, very, very few HIV-infected people in the world who are poor receive drugs or have access to drugs even though the price has plummeted.”

For years, Cohen says, most of the nations of Asia had been reticent about dealing with the spread of the infection among their people. That’s partly a function of denial, he suggests, a response shared by the United States as AIDS hit its stride there in the 1980s, and partly from the fact that the disease is relatively new to places like China. But in the past year, he’s seen a change.

“There have been very dramatic commitments from …India, China and Thailand to treat the people most in need,” he explains. “I also think that India and China are more forthrightly dealing with their epidemics than they were a few years ago. They’re acknowledging the scale and they’re also starting to deliver services. But almost every country, and I would include the United States here, is fighting this virus with one hand tied behind its back because of political agendas. That hasn’t changed much. It’s changing, but it’s glacial, it’s excruciating to watch…. The virus just doesn’t wait for anyone-it doesn’t care. It doesn’t play politics. It doesn’t have a brain. It doesn’t have morals. None of that matters to HIV. It just wants to copy itself and spread, that’s all it wants to do.”

What caused the change in those Asian countries? The factors vary from place to place, he says, but one element is common: Fear. The countries fear the impact on their economies. They fear international disapproval of the sort China faced last year over its failure to respond in a timely and forthright way to the SARS outbreak. And increasingly, he says, they fear the dire impact on their people.

“Think about it—in Asia, who really drives the epidemic?” Cohen asks. “Well, it’s driven by sex workers and mostly by their clients—that’s what really drives it. And so it’s easy for people to be moralistic and to say, ‘You got yourself into this—who cares?’ Countries come realize then, that, first of all, sex workers and clients are part of the population. They’re people too. And much as you might want to marginalize them, they have children, they have spouses, and those people often become infected often having done nothing that any moralist would say is wrong. In India, there’s a saying that a woman’s greatest HIV risk factor is getting married. Women are largely monogamous there. Many, many women have become infected after their husbands went to sex workers. Countries just start to accept that they can’t just put this disease in a corner and say, ‘This is something that happens to bad people.’

There is a window of opportunity open right now in much of Asia, he says. And while it gradually is closing, there remains time to save thousands of lives with effective intervention.

“Once you get to a certain level of spread, like South Africa, where you have 20 percent of the adults infected, you can’t base your prevention program around targeting those 20 percent of the people,” he says. “It’s just too large a group. But if you only have, as is the case in China now, somewhere around a million infected people, you can target those people for prevention care. You can target high-risk groups, like injecting drug users and sex workers, and really make a huge difference in preventing a widespread epidemic. That’s where Asia sits right now.”

Cohen has been covering HIV and AIDS since 1989. He has reported extensively for Science, and his 2001 book “Shots in the Dark: The Wayward Search for an AIDS Vaccine” (W.W. Norton & Company, 2001) won the National Association of Science Writers’ Science-in-Society award. His latest book, “Coming to Term: Mysteries, Myths and the Latest Science of Miscarriage” is slated for release by Houghton Mifflin in January. What’s striking, in an interview with Cohen, is not only his knowledge and eloquence, but his balance. He has seen the worst of the AIDS epidemic in places like Tambaram and sub-Saharan Africa, he has seen how politics at times cripples the fight against the disease, and yet his perspective retains strong elements of compassion and hope.

“The greatest cause for optimism is that the virus [in Asia] hasn’t spread that far yet. So there’s a terrific chance to use the new treatment programs to encourage people to receive tests,” he says. “If you can offer drugs, there’s more likely people will receive a test, because there’s something you can do for them.

“And then…on the edge of research, there are some really interesting possibilities. Research equals optimism, to me—that’s the whole idea.

“When I work in large AIDS wards, it of course depresses me—and I would have deep suspicions about anyone who didn’t feel saddened by the helplessness—but I also feel like, on some level, we are helping. When I go sailing and I’m piloting a boat, the motion of the sea doesn’t make me ill. It’s the same sort of feeling when I’m at work in a depressing situation: While I’m doing my job, it blunts the dizzying sensation of meeting many, many people in one place who I know only have weeks or days to live. I’m also buoyed by the wisdom that comes with great suffering, and I meet people everywhere who impress me with how well they handle the crises of life with AIDS.”

The journal Science, published by AAAS, has the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed general science journal in the world, with an estimated total readership of one million. AAAS, founded in 1848, is the world’s largest general scientific society, serving some 10 million people through 262 affiliated societies and academies of science. The non-profit association is open to all and fulfills its mission to “advance science and serve society” through initiatives in science policy, international programs, science education and more.

— Edward W. Lempinen

6 July 2004

Reason to despair of the level of attention of the general public

January 22nd, 2006

And why it means we must salute Thabo Mbeki

A somewhat worrying testament to the level of intelligence and alertness of the mass television audience came this morning on Sunday in New York, which ran from 7 am to 9 am on NBC in New York.

The producers apparently were unable to find, in whatever meeting they had to determine the contents of this broadcast, which presumably reaches a healthy slice of the population who are willing to emerge by 8.45 am Eastern Time on Sunday morning, any topic more relevant than that presented by a willing young woman from some housekeeping magazine.

Apparently the editors of that magazine had sat around as is their wont and brainstormed a new use for kitchen equipment -in this case, tea towels. Ranged along the studio counter were the inspirations they had come up with:

1). Take the tea towel, cover a piece of rectangular plywood with it, cut the surplus edges off, glue it to the wood, mount a couple off saucepan hooks to it, and mount on your kitchen wall for decorative effect.

2) Take a tea towel, cut a piece from it and fold in two, then seam it on two sides to make a colorful decorative bag in which to gift wrap a bottle of wine (tie with ribbon after inserting bottle).

3) Take a tea towel, just wrap the bottle without bothering to make seams, and tie with ribbon to achieve the same effect.

4) Some other “new idea” which escapes our memory as we were already resisting the mindbending triviality and sheer uselessness of these suggestions as to how we all might spend our next spare hour.

On the other hand, it is perhaps pleasant to be reminded that there are large swathes of the Sunday morning audience in the business capital of the world who are not lying in bed like sluggards contemplating the great issues which bedevil human existence but are willing to get up and pay attention to four new ways to use kitchen towels for decorative purposes.

This suggests that at least some people have produced order out of chaos in their own private existence to such an extent, ie have everything is in its place to such a high level of control and organization, that they have no better thing to do on Sunday morning at 8.45 am than be instructed how to make original uses of their spare tea towels, or even go out and buy new ones for these projects.

On the other hand we have to be concerned that this involves a narrowing of their focus of attention and a neglect of the great issues of the world that leaves them totally vulnerable to whatever nonsense irresponsible people may be peddling in realms such as health, since they must be reading very little on or off the Web and television is no source for questioning received wisdom, with the signal exception of John Stossel of ABC News.

This is why we feel that thought leaders such as Tony Fauci, Jeffrey Sachs, Bill Clinton, Nicholas Wade, Nicholas Kristof, Chris Mooney, Ronald Bailey, Andrew Sullivan and the editors of the New York Times are abdicating a very important responsibility when they fail to assess or reassess conventional wisdom in HIV?AIDS and act as propaganda broadcasters for a paradigm which has been effectively rejected by the most tested scientific literature on the topic.

We were reminded yesterday that Tony Fauci, for example, was asked at one point by his sister Denise more than ten times if he didn’t think that Peter Duesberg of Berkeley had a point in reviewing and rejecting the HIV=AIDS claim in top journals in refereed articles. This is by Tony’s own account in the AAAS newsletter (referred to in our earlier post on Fauci the other day, Christmas gift to Jonathan must concern NIAID’s Tony Fauci, see AAAS Observer of September 1 1989, the newsletter of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, whose journal is Science, a note entitled “Writing for my sister Denise”.). His answer was to “laugh” at the idea.

His sister evidently does or did a lot more thoughtful reading that Tony and we would have thought he would take her advice and delve into the matter and even rethink his position, but apparently not. Apparently Tony felt even at that early stage in the great repressed debate on AIDS and its real cause that it wasn’t worth the effort, politically speaking.

Today, it is clear that no one in the higher echelons of the established media-health-complex thinks it worthwhile either, and won’t until some great editor of a major periodical takes matters into his or her hands and publishes an expose of the mass of wriggling political worms under the AIDS stone with sufficient chapter and verse that politicians and the running dogs of the other media cannot ignore it.

The point is that this is a democracy where a very large portion of voters are preoccupied with more immediate matters such as cutting up tea towels, and they trust and rely on their leaders in health as in any other realm not to mislead them, and that depends on such leaders using their brains and reading challenges to conventional wisdom, or at least getting their staff on the job, and not reserving their original thought processes exclusively for their lifetime projects of self advancement.

How many such people are there, in fact? In AIDS, only one person in the world seems to have taken this level of personal responsibility for promulgating a policy in HIV?AIDS based on accurate science, and that is Thabo Mbeki of South Africa.

Thabo Mbeki’s distinguished brain

A black revolutionary and intellectual, he was a prime mover in freeing South Africa from the chains of apartheid, and now he is the only leader so far on the world stage that will be able to take credit for the breaking of the chains of illegitimate scientific authority in HIV?AIDS, ie for the review and (according to the scientific literature) predictable downfall of the mass scientific and medical self-delusion in HIV?AIDS, when sooner or later this inevitably occurs.

We look forward to that day not only because it will scotch a paradigm which (according to the repeated reviews in the best refereed literature) is costing untold dollars, lives and misery without reason or evidentiary justification, but because it will strike a blow for the status of Africa and Africans in the world which will finally blow apart the remaining colonial mindset that allows ignorant reporters and editors in the US press to view the continent and its people as wholly benighted and superstitious woolly heads straight out of the pages of Black Mischief.

It really is about time that the New York Times stopped running little else about Africa other than famine, genocide, disease, supposed pandemic and, most sensationally of late, gross aberrations of sexual culture that its pith helmeted reporters unearth in dark corners of a continent which is in important ways the first cradle of human civilization, and which was a lot more stable and prosperous before it was disrupted by colonial takeover, exploitation and abandonment by the West.

Now we have the new colonial exploitation of African AIDS, and when Mbeki perceives this accurately as such (in line with the scientific literature which so many in the West ignore) he is demeaned in the New York Times and other media in the US as racist by editors and reporters are apparently less scientifically literate than Mbeki himself, who was trained as an economist.

It is about time that American media developed the same respect for Africa and Africans as they have for America and the Americans.

In this regard we like a relevant quote we came across recently by the neuroscientist and brain researcher Michael Gazzaniga of Dartmouth, who told an interviewer at The Planetary Society:

There isn’t ten cents worth of difference between the Kalahari bushman and the Oxford don. The cultural patina is different to be sure but the basic drives and mental capacities are more similar than different.

.

The Planetary Society

Michael Gazzaniga – psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist

” There isn’t ten cents worth of difference between the Kalahari bushman and the Oxford don. “

How were you motivated to choose your particular field?

When I was a young boy, our neighbor commented to my father one day that “Mike is going to be a philosopher”. I don’t know why he said that but I always had a bug in my bonnet to examine things. My father was highly curious and always trying to tinker with surgical procedures to improve the lot of his patients. Maybe I picked up on this. In high school I set up a laboratory in the garage to study the enzymes of rabbit muscle. My brothers and sisters also very much liked to tinker. One became a surgeon and the other a film maker, writer and creative artist. Maybe there is a gene in the family.

When I was older I was drawn into the field following a summer fellowship I received from Roger W Sperry at Caltech. I had written him about a job after I had read an article he had written on nerve growth for Scientific American. It was a captivating article and since Caltech was next door to where my girlfriend lived, I thought it would be a great idea spending the summer studying nerve growth.

After I arrived at Caltech, I saw for the first time, a bustling research lab and most of the scientists were working on animal models of split–brain research. It was fantastically interesting to a neophyte like myself and I have never looked back since. How the brain enables the mind is such a challenging subject, one gets out of bed every morning with vigor and purpose.

Click for larger image

What can you share about your creative process?

I am one of those who thinks the creative process is directly related to the amount of time one spends mulling something over. I come back and revisit ideas, data, thoughts, all the time. I think this keeps key semantic networks active and then “bingo” an inconsistency or consistency suddenly presents itself to consciousness and the beginnings of a new idea appear.

What ideas do you have for a future human community on Mars?

The human community will bring to Mars their brains. Fortunately or unfortunately that means it brings with them all the scripts and pre–wired programs for how we think, what we enjoy and how we form our coalitions. There isn’t ten cents worth of difference between the Kalahari bushman and the Oxford don. The cultural patina is different to be sure but the basic drives and mental capacities are more similar than different.

Ideas about how to change the basic nature of humans have failed, repeatedly. Thus, the community on Mars should take note of the good and tried ways humans have to enjoy each other on earth and take those plans to Mars. If they don’t, they will have unhappy people on Mars. The Brazilian government tried to change the way Brazilians should live with the town of Brazilia. That colossal failure is right up there with China’s attempt at the Great Leap Forward.

New environments are fascinating and challenging. We combine elements of the new place with different outcomes. Yet, the piece of biologic tissue that does these wonderful things is the same for all humans and hasn’t changed in thousands of years. On Sunday afternoon on Mars, citizens of the New City will still love a cold beer and a good NFL game.

We have been studying what Gazzaniga and other neuroscientists have to say about the human brain and its often rather defective operation, analytically speaking, and have discovered that with each passing year brain research explains more and more about the abysmal record of the scientific community in regard to the HIV?AIDS paradigm, and we will post about that very soon, once we have finished our morning operation of cutting up tea towels and other personal priorities.

Seas will rise eighty feet, helped by methane from plants

January 21st, 2006

Dwindling uncertainty in the greatest debate of all

Anyone who has finally chosen sides in the vexed question of human global warming – now you see it, now you don’t, according to which expert or journalist you read – might find that certainty undermined once again by current news and comment, depending which side you came down on.

The What, Me Worry? brigade, led by Tom Bethell currently, in his rather one-sided book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, now high on the Amazon hit list, and Fred Singer and Benny Peiser, both of whom run well informed mythbuster email lists puncturing every global warming weather balloon that comes within range, must surely have been given pause when they read the latest warming scare in the New York Review of Books.

This has the sea rising not three or ten feet but eighty feet, and talks of a fatal tipping point approaching, beyond which everything slides toward hell on earth without a chance to reverse it.

The Earth’s climate is nearing, but has not passed, a tipping point beyond which it will be impossible to avoid climate change with far-ranging undesirable consequences. These include not only the loss of the Arctic as we know it, with all that implies for wildlife and indigenous peoples, but losses on a much vaster scale due to rising seas.

The Earth’s history suggests that with warming of two to three degrees, the new sea level will include not only most of the ice from Greenland and West Antarctica, but a portion of East Antarctica, raising the sea level by twenty-five meters, or eighty feet. Within a century, coastal dwellers will be faced with irregular flooding associated with storms. They will have to continually rebuild above a transient water level.

Can this survey really be wrong? We do have one reason to think so, which is that the New York Review of Books’ record on HIV?AIDS stands as a remarkable testament to the principle that “the intellectuals are usually wrong,” as one academic put it recently in the New York Observer about international affairs. The Review drew upon Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet, instead of founder Robert Silvers’ correspondent at Yale, Serge Lang, and paid the price.

Horton is one of the few responsible establishment memebers who have devoted some time to analyzing the obvious difficulties with HIV as the cause of AIDS that Peter Duesberg has never stopped pointing out, and yet failed to grasp the nettle fully and tear it out of the ground as a grotesque weed in the flower bed of science, apparently because he cannot quite credit the full story of how entirely wrong HIV=AIDS must be, if the Duesberg critique is as correct as the faiulure of referees to fault it implies. He did come close to it, though.

As the editor of a leading medical journal one can empathize, perhaps. Few in high positions who enjoy the public trust in science are going to escape unscathed when HIV=AIDS unwinds, since almost everyone has gone along with it. There is a serious question as to whether science and medicine can afford to acknowledge such a 20 year gallop down the wrong path by leading scientists, ignoring every warning and followed by a baggage train which is now one of the largest ever seen in science, including its tens of thousands of hearses.

On the other hand, returning to the climate discussion, knocking out one of the assumptions of the tree huggers we have the remarkable news that Ronald Reagan may have been right after all to blame the trees (see Killer Trees

“After opining in August 1980 that “trees cause more pollution than automobiles do,” Reagan arrived at a campaign rally to find a tree decorated with this sign: “Chop me down before I kill again.”

****************************************

Trivial side note on successful lawyerly weaseling: The page referenced above is a Washington Monthly amusement called The Mendacity Index, which goes thorough four presidents (Reagan, Clinton and the two Bush’s) quoting their prevarications and asking the reader to choose the most mendacious. One example is that Clinton’s notorious line “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” (wags finger at camera). But in fact this could be defended and has been by dictionary mavens as an accurate statement. If you resort to Merriam Webster’s you will in fact find that the phrase “sexual relations” is defined as “coitus”, with no other meaning.

While claims are made that no other meaning is mentioned in any dictionary we found, however, a second meaning was listed at dictionary.com under Sexual Relations as 2. Sexual activity between individuals, a definition drawn from the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language published in 2000 by Houghton Mifflin. (End of trivial side note, resumption of post)

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According to the Max Planck Institute, that is, it turns out that plants and trees, which absorb carbon dioxide, are also giving off methane, a big global warming conributor, at a high rate:

In terms of total amount of production worldwide, the scientists’ first guesses are between 60 and 240 million tonnes of methane per year. That means that about 10 to 30 percent of present annual methane production comes from plants. The largest portion of that – about two-thirds – originates from tropical areas, because that is where the most biomass is located. The evidence of direct methane emissions from plants also explains the unexpectedly high methane concentrations over tropical forests, measured only recently via satellite by a research group from the University of Heidelberg.

But why would such a seemingly obvious discovery only come about now, 20 years after hundreds of scientists around the globe started investigating the global methane cycle? “Methane could not really be created that way,” says Dr. Frank Keppler. “Until now all the textbooks have said that biogenic methane can only be produced in the absence of oxygen. For that simple reason, nobody looked closely at this.

…By “looking closely” – despite established opinion – they made a discovery that will require textbooks to have their passages about methane production rewritten.”

In other words, a false paradigm that biological methane could not be created in the presence of oxygen threw scientists off, and in turn they misled us. The textbooks we were all following are wrong.

This is not the only reason to worry about trees, of course, for as it recently emerged there is a question where they should be planted to combat global warming. Evidently not in the North.

At this week’s (Dec 5 2005) climate conference in Montreal there have been a number of proposals to plant trees for the purpose of absorbing carbon emissions and helping mitigate climate change. However, a new study from the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory says that careful consideration should be given as to where these forests are planted. Planting trees in temperate regions could actually contribute to global warming.

The study, using complex climate modeling software to simulate changes in forest cover and then measuring the impact on global climate, found that northern forests tend to warm the Earth because they absorb a lot of sunlight without losing much moisture. The situation is different in the tropics where higher temperatures result in higher rates of evapotranspiration, the process by which forests release water into the atmosphere. Tropical forests may have a net cooling impact relative to northern forests.

The research has important implications for the greenhouse gas debate. The United States wants any future agreement on climate to include provisions for tradable carbon credits whereby industrial countries could exceed emissions limits by planting forests and exchanging carbon allotments with forested countries. These new findings suggest that reforestation programs should focus on planting trees in the tropics and not in temperate or boreal regions.

It seems that these examples at least confirm that there is always uncertainty in science and where there is uncertainty there is always hope. We have to say however that the onrush of basic findings about the human contribution to global warming is beginning to leave very little room for maneuver.

But what eventually becomes clear, as Bowen tells this long story, is essentially how irrelevant it is to the current climate problem. By burning coal and gas and oil in such enormous amounts, we have raised the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere far above what it has ever been during even the very long period one can study with ice cores. As such, a brand-new experiment is taking place, one that is out of control.

British researchers, examining almost six thousand soil borings across the UK, found another feedback effect. Warmer temperatures (growing seasons now last eleven days longer at that latitude) meant that microbial activity had increased dramatically in the soil. This, in turn, meant that much of the carbon long stored in the soil was now being released into the atmosphere. The quantities were large enough to negate all the work that Britain had done to switch away from coal to reduce carbon in the atmosphere. “All the consequences of global warming will occur more rapidly,” said Guy Kirk, chief scientist on the study. “That’s the scary thing. The amount of time we have got to do something about it is smaller than we thought.”

This seems especially true if one reads the New York Review of Books McGibbons piece, from which those paragraphs are excerpted.

The New York Review of Books has this short article by Hansen, The Tipping Point by James Hansen

The New York Review of Books

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Volume 53, Number 1 · January 12, 2006

The Tipping Point?

By James Hansen

The Earth’s climate is nearing, but has not passed, a tipping point beyond which it will be impossible to avoid climate change with far-ranging undesirable consequences. These include not only the loss of the Arctic as we know it, with all that implies for wildlife and indigenous peoples, but losses on a much vaster scale due to rising seas.

Ocean levels will increase slowly at first, as losses at the fringes of Greenland and Antarctica due to accelerating ice streams are nearly balanced by increased snowfall and ice sheet thickening in the ice sheet interiors.

But as Greenland and West Antarctic ice is softened and lubricated by meltwater, and as buttressing ice shelves disappear because of a warming ocean, the balance will tip toward the rapid disintegration of ice sheets.

The Earth’s history suggests that with warming of two to three degrees, the new sea level will include not only most of the ice from Greenland and West Antarctica, but a portion of East Antarctica, raising the sea level by twenty-five meters, or eighty feet. Within a century, coastal dwellers will be faced with irregular flooding associated with storms. They will have to continually rebuild above a transient water level.

This grim scenario can be halted if the growth of greenhouse gas emissions is slowed in the first quarter of this century.

—From a presentation to the American Geophysical Union, December 6, 2005

ALso, The Coming Meltdown by Bill McGibbon

From the New York Review of Books, The Coming Meltdown by Bill McKibben

We are forced to face the fact that a century’s carelessness is now melting away the world’s storehouses of ice, a melting whose momentum may be nearing the irreversible. It’s as if we were stripping the spectrum of a color, or eradicating one note from every octave. There are almost no words for such a change: it’s no wonder that scientists have to struggle to get across the enormity of what is happening.

:

The New York Review of Books

Volume 53, Number 1 · January 12, 2006

The Coming Meltdown

By Bill McKibben

Thin Ice: Unlocking the Secrets of Climate in the World’s Highest Mountains

by Mark Bowen

Henry Holt, 463 pp., $30.00

Dancing at the Dead Sea: Tracking the World’s Environmental Hotspots

by Alanna Mitchell

University of Chicago Press, 239 pp., $25.00

The year 2005 has been the hottest year on record for the planet, hotter than 1998, 2002, 2004, and 2003. More importantly, perhaps, this has been the autumn when the planet has shown more clearly than before just what that extra heat means. Consider just a few of the findings published in the major scientific journals during the last three months:

—Arctic sea ice is melting fast. There was 20 percent less of it than normal this summer, and as Dr. Mark Serreze, one of the researchers from Colorado’s National Snow and Ice Data Center, told reporters, “the feeling is we are reaching a tipping point or threshold beyond which sea ice will not recover.” That is particularly bad news because it creates a potent feedback effect: instead of blinding white ice that bounces sunlight back into space, there is now open blue water that soaks up the sun’s heat, amplifying the melting process.

—In the tundra of Siberia, other researchers report that permafrost has begun to melt rapidly, and, as it does, formerly frozen methane—which, like the more prevalent carbon dioxide, acts as a heat-trapping “greenhouse gas”—is escaping into the atmosphere. In some places last winter, the methane bubbled up so steadily that puddles of standing water couldn’t freeze even in the depths of the Russian winter.

—British researchers, examining almost six thousand soil borings across the UK, found another feedback effect. Warmer temperatures (growing seasons now last eleven days longer at that latitude) meant that microbial activity had increased dramatically in the soil. This, in turn, meant that much of the carbon long stored in the soil was now being released into the atmosphere. The quantities were large enough to negate all the work that Britain had done to switch away from coal to reduce carbon in the atmosphere. “All the consequences of global warming will occur more rapidly,” said Guy Kirk, chief scientist on the study. “That’s the scary thing. The amount of time we have got to do something about it is smaller than we thought.”

Such findings—and there are more like them in virtually every issue of Science and Nature—came against the backdrop of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the now record-breaking Atlantic storm season that has brought us back around the alphabet and as far as Hurricane Epsilon. Because hurricanes draw their power from the warm water in the upper layers of the sea’s surface, this bout of storminess served as a kind of exclamation point to a mid-August paper by the MIT researcher Kerry Emmanuel demonstrating that such storms have become more powerful and long-lasting, and would likely continue to increase in destructiveness in the future.

But the hurricanes also demonstrated another fact about global warming, this one having nothing to do with chemistry or physics but instead with politics, journalism, and the rituals of science. Climate change somehow seems unable to emerge on the world stage for what it really is: the single biggest challenge facing the planet, the equal in every way to the nuclear threat that transfixed us during the past half-century and a threat we haven’t even begun to deal with. The coverage of Katrina’s aftermath, for instance, was scathing in depicting the Bush administration’s incompetence and cronyism; but the President —and his predecessors—were spared criticism for their far bigger sin of omission, the failure to do anything at all to stanch the flood of carbon that America, above all other nations, pours into the atmosphere and that is the prime cause of the great heating now underway. Though Bush has been egregious in his ignorance about climate change, the failure to do anything about it has been bipartisan; Bill Clinton and Al Gore were grandly rhetorical about the issue, but nonetheless presided over a 13 percent increase in America’s carbon emissions.

That lack of preparation and precaution dwarfs even the failure to prepare for the September 11 attacks, and its effects will be with us far longer. It’s not, of course, that America could in two decades have prevented global warming. But we could have begun taking the steps to keep it from spinning entirely out of control, steps that grow ever more difficult to take with each passing season. The books under review, though neither deals directly with the politics of global warming, help us understand some of the reasons why we’ve so far done so little.

The best of the two—indeed, one of the best books yet published on climate change—is Mark Bowen’s Thin Ice, which describes the science of global warming through the experience of the Ohio State University scientist Lonnie Thompson, the preeminent explorer of tropical and semitropical glaciers today, and the principal decoder of the secrets trapped in their ice. A minor defect is that the book was clearly designed to sell to readers of Jon Krakauer’s classic Everest account, Into Thin Air—the title and the cover are bizarrely similar. And because of that decision, too much space is devoted to Thompson’s adventures in the “death zone” above 18,000 feet on various Andean and Himalayan peaks, and too many tales are told about the Sherpas who make the expeditions possible and the hot-air balloons designed to float ice cores back to the base of the mountain before they could melt. These stories make the book needlessly long and distractingly repetitive, and detract a little from its emphasis on glaciers and what is happening to them.

But only a little. Bowen is one of the few people who could have written this book. Himself an expert climber who has written for popular magazines like Climbing, he also has a Ph.D. in physics from MIT. He has been able to climb mountains along with Thompson to examine the glaciers and explain both the scientific and political consequences of their melting.

For many years, scientists trying to reconstruct past climate history have studied glaciers. Since each year’s snowfall lies in a distinct layer, a core sample from such an ice field can be read much like a tree ring to distinguish long-term trends in weather. Moreover, small bubbles of air trapped in the ice can be sampled to provide a record of atmospheric conditions from any time in the past. One can tell from them how much carbon dioxide was in the atmosphere and what the weather was like—a Siberian core extracted in the 1980s demonstrated a perfect correlation between fluctuations in temperature and carbon dioxide levels and helped to embolden a few researchers to make the first global warming forecasts with real confidence.

For many years, researchers concentrated on taking core samples from alpine and polar ice—they were relatively easy to get to, and no one thought that high mountain ice in the equatorial zones would yield much interesting information because the tropics were seen as unvarying from year to year and hence climatologically dull. But beginning in the 1970s Thompson and his team began perfecting the techniques of drilling long, thin cores from the high and wild glaciers of Peru, Ecuador, Nepal, and Tibet, and then examining them in their laboratory in Columbus. They also began to translate the information latent in the cores.

The aim of their research was to figure out what had driven changes in the earth’s climate in the past—how and why ice ages emerged and retreated, why there have been smaller but abrupt swings back and forth in climate even during the current interglacial period. Thompson has done much to demonstrate that changes in tropical regions—which account, after all, for half the world’s surface—drive the process. Many of his findings conflicted with other research that seemed to show that events in the north Atlantic—particularly the waxing and waning of warm deep ocean currents —were the chief cause of rapid climate change in times past.

An immense amount of scientific effort (and, as Bowen makes amusingly clear, scientific vitriol) has been spent on this topic, with much debate about whether the principal causes of climate change have been in the Gulf Stream or the Indonesian Warm Pool or somewhere else altogether. But what eventually becomes clear, as Bowen tells this long story, is essentially how irrelevant it is to the current climate problem. By burning coal and gas and oil in such enormous amounts, we have raised the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere far above what it has ever been during even the very long period one can study with ice cores. As such, a brand-new experiment is taking place, one that is out of control.

The second half of Bowen’s book, interspersed throughout his tale of adventure at high altitudes but only loosely related to Thompson and his fieldwork, is a history of the realization that a vast change was taking place. It is the best compact history of the science of global warming I have read. Bowen begins, appropriately, with nineteenth-century scientists like John Tyndall and Svante Arrhenius, Europeans who began to understand how carbon dioxide acted as a heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere and who began to worry about the amounts of it that a newly industrialized society was spewing out of its stacks.

The story takes on more urgency in the 1950s, when oceanographers like Roger Revelle and Hans Suess undertook more concentrated speculation and when the environmental scientist Charles Keeling investigated the effects of CO2, taking actual measurements with a CO2 detector on the slopes of Mauna Loa in Hawaii.[1] He was soon able to show that the gas was indeed accumulating in the atmosphere, and doing so rapidly. (Pre–industrial revolution concentrations of CO2 were about 275 parts per million; by the late 1950s the number was 315, and today it is nearly 380.)

The story of greenhouse science continued in the 1970s and 1980s, as scientists began developing global climate models that attempted to forecast what the new chemicals would mean for the planet. And it reached a high point in the early summer of 1988 when one of the most important of those climate modelers, a NASA scientist named James Hansen, appeared before a hearing of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. The United States was enduring one of the great heat waves in its history:

Barges were stranded by the thousands in the Mississippi River. Civil War vessels last seen when Confederate troops scuttled them on their retreat from Vicksburg rose above the surface of the Big Muddy, a Mississippi tributary. The West experiences the worst forest fires in recorded history.

Against that backdrop, Hansen was given fifteen minutes to testify. He made three points: that he was “99 percent confident” that the earth was warming; that the warming could be traced with “a high degree of confidence” to the greenhouse effect; and that in his model the greenhouse effect was already strong enough to increase the odds of extreme summer heat and drought in the US. He was careful not to say that the heat wave of 1988 was the result of global warming (a claim that would never be possible for any particular hot spell or drought or hurricane); but he said something very important to a group of reporters as he left the hearing: “It’s time to stop waffling so much and say that the greenhouse effect is here and is affecting our climate now.”

That was the moment at which the greenhouse era really began. As a NASA employee, Hansen had shown great courage in speaking straightforwardly, which earned him endless trouble from his bosses in the federal government (the next year they tried to rewrite his congressional testimony until then-Senator Al Gore stopped them). But it also earned him contempt from his fellow scientists. In Bowen’s words,

They all objected to his simplification, his lack of caution, his disregard for the formal, highly qualified—one could even say codified—manner in which scientific conclusions are stated in the peer-reviewed journals.

If Hansen had succeeded temporarily in putting the issue before the public in 1988, “other forces had quickly swept it away.” Some of those forces came from industry—as Ross Gelbspan chronicled in his excellent 1997 book The Heat Is On, the coal and oil industry took up the work of disinformation in earnest, finding a few scientists and scientific hangers-on to write Op-Ed pieces and appear on talk shows to provide a “balanced” view. Journalism proved unequal to the task of separating scientific consensus from minor or trivial dissent; almost every story about global warming was accompanied by an obligatory statement of denial.

Science, on the other hand, both rose to the occasion and failed badly. The world’s climatologists organized themselves into the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, in those heady months of 1988. With large government funding that was partly made available because of Hansen’s warnings, the panels of experts soon had a vast collection of studies and computer models to pore over. And though the IPCC’s procedures were byzantine—they relied, Bowen writes, on “a peer review process…incalculably more cumbersome than anything ever applied to a scientific issue before”—the group eventually managed to reach a potent conclusion. By 1995, the IPCC was ready to conclude that “the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate.” This result was remarkable: more than a thousand scientists, working through a process that allowed much political input from governments concerned to deny global warming, nonetheless found the evidence so overwhelming that they were able to state that one species, ours, was now changing pretty much everything on the face of the planet.

But at the same time, the conclusions were watered down and over-hedged, playing at least as much into the hands of the few remaining skeptics, who seized on every possible opportunity to dampen public concern. The scientific method, pursued in this fashion, seemed unequal to the gravity of the task at hand. Bowen writes, “I believe it is fair to say that serious scientific debate about the existence and potential danger of human-induced global warming died with that statement.” That is true—but it’s also true that it contributed remarkably little to the larger public debate, especially in the US. And that’s a failure for which scientists bear some of the blame.

Bowen quotes Hansen:

The scientific method does require that you continually question the conclusions that you draw and put caveats on the conclusion—but that can be misleading to the public. It seems to me that when we talk to the public we have to try to give a summary. And it’s not easy for most scientists to do—and not easy for me.

Clearly, for the mild-mannered Hansen, who has no taste for public controversy, it was not easy. But he did it. And for that, as well as for his original scientific work, he deserves not only enormous credit but also, I would suggest, the Nobel Prize, perhaps the first joint Chemistry-Peace award.

By contrast, when Bowen first interviewed Thompson in 1997 on the slopes of the highest mountain in Bolivia, he found him reticent to a fault:

He hid behind [the] details. He would not come out with a grand pronouncement about global warming…. He may have been holding back out of fear that I would distort his words, but I think he was also looking over his shoulder at his academic peers, aiming to duck the potshots that inevitably flew in those days when anyone walked out on a scientific limb and said in public what nearly all of them knew inside.

It would be, he writes, “almost a year and a half before Lonnie would carefully open up.”

But through his talks with Bowen, and also more and more with policymakers and other journalists, Thompson has performed a very valuable public service—more valuable, in some ways, than his research into paleoclimatology, interesting as that is. Thompson’s most important scientific contribution is his simplest: by going back year after year to tropical glaciers in order to take core samples for his “real” work, he has been able to document the astonishing speed with which those glaciers are disappearing. His photographs documenting this trend have been valuable in persuading people to take global warming seriously. There is something alarming and undeniable about change occurring across the globe that can be measured from one year to the next, for instance, the Qori Kalis glacier on Quelccaya, which Thompson has been visiting for thirty years:

They always camp in the moraine by the large boulder that Qori Kalis was pushing downhill when Lonnie first saw it…in 1974. An eighteen-acre lake now lies between the boulder and receding glacial margin, a lake that did not exist as recently as 1987.

And the loss was accelerating. One set of photos taken in 1992

demonstrated that the tongue [of the glacier] had retreated three times faster over the previous eight years than it had in the twenty years before that. Volume loss, which takes thinning into account, had grown by a factor of seven. More images taken in 1998 showed that the retreat had increased by another factor of three in the intervening five years.

Thompson estimates that the entire Quelccaya ice cap, which thirty years ago covered twenty-seven square miles and was five hundred feet deep at its 18,000-foot summit, will die before he does.

Perhaps Thompson’s most dramatic contribution to the public debate over global warming came in February 2001 when he told a session at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that the snows on the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro would disappear within twenty years and that “little can be done to save them.” That image stuck in people’s minds—it was at least as important as the near-simultaneous release of the IPCC’s next assessment, which was more forthright than ever in its declaration that “most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities” and in its prediction that the planet’s average temperature might increase as much as ten degrees Fahrenheit before the century was out.

But by that point George Bush had been elected president of the United States, and the issue of climate change had disappeared almost entirely—and with it the chance of altering the early trajectory of development in India and particularly China, which are now starting to rival American contributions to the earth’s carbon overload. With his eventual willingness to speak unambiguously, Thompson joined the list of courageous scientists, men like Hansen, or Harvard’s James McCarthy, who several years ago reported the shock of seeing open water at the North Pole. But it’s clear to him, as to most of his colleagues, that our understanding has come very late. “I think we’d better start getting used to the idea of living in a hotter world,” he tells Bowen in a barroom conversation one day in Kenya.

Scientists are by training and nature conservative and…have probably underestimated our impact. Fifty years from now—I hope I’m wrong—I think you may be living in a world where you don’t go outside between one and four in the afternoon.

At this stage, our best hope is simply to keep the warming process from accelerating to such an extent that it gets entirely out of control.

If the dry language of science has sometimes been an impediment to action, the language of emotion has its own dangers, as can be seen from Alanna Mitchell’s Dancing at the Dead Sea, a book thick with sentiment. Mitchell, formerly a reporter with Toronto’s Globe and Mail, was in 2000 “named the best environmental reporter in the world” by the Reuters Foundation. Something has apparently happened in the years since, because her book is filled with clichés (stupid natives in Madagascar, wise natives in the Arctic) and with unlikely events (a lone man sneaking out of a protected forest carrying “a massive old growth tree balanced on his shoulder”). About her own fear of being attacked by tropical fishes, she writes:

It’s clear to me that unless I swim with the piranhas, I will be not only consumed by fear but also untouched by the hope I seek. I will be unable to believe that humans, who I know have given up even such ingrained practices as slavery and cannibalism, will also give up the fable that they can keep harming the earth.

Still, she raises an important question. Every time she corners a scientist —the veteran Oxford environmental researcher Norman Meyers, the great diver and marine biologist Sylvia Earle, the eminent conservationist Russell Mittermeier—she asks, “Are humans a suicidal species?” They mostly dismiss her question with some reassuring words to the effect that we can still make up our minds to do better. But in fact it’s a question that in some way or another needs to be near the center of our public debates. It rose for the first time in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; for a while, many people seemed to expect an Armageddon-like nuclear exchange, and then they seemed to discount the possibility. The attacks on New York and Washington at the beginning of this millennium have raised the question of our being a suicidal species again.

It is also the question raised by our environmental predicament, and Mitchell deserves credit for risking the scorn of reviewers by bringing it into the open. She quotes President Bush, a few weeks after taking office, explaining why he’s opting out of the Kyoto protocols, the only official international attempt to deal with global warming:

I will explain as clearly as I can, today and every other chance I get, that we will not do anything that harms our economy…. That’s my priority. I’m worried about the economy.

It’s not as if Bush is alone in this thought. And it does seem to epitomize the danger that the satisfactions of consumer life and business success have become almost sacred while the physical world now turning to chaos before our eyes is taken for granted, and not seen as the reality that must be faced.[2]

It’s to this question of reality that Gretel Ehrlich turns her formidable talent in The Future of Ice, recently published in paperback.[3] Like Thompson, she is fascinated by ice—her “journey into the cold” takes her from Greenland to Argentina—and she provides what may be a kind of obituary for the planet’s ice regions, and their special forms of life, written while they still exist. It is, she says, a “cry for help—not for me, but for the tern, the ice cap, the polar bear, and the lenga forest; for the river of weather and the ways it chooses to be born.”[4]

It is hard not to approach this year’s oncoming winter in an elegiac mood, with the testimony of Thompson’s ice cores and the Arctic sea ice data and Ehrlich’s account making the season’s natural and lovely darkness seem suddenly somber. We are forced to face the fact that a century’s carelessness is now melting away the world’s storehouses of ice, a melting whose momentum may be nearing the irreversible. It’s as if we were stripping the spectrum of a color, or eradicating one note from every octave. There are almost no words for such a change: it’s no wonder that scientists have to struggle to get across the enormity of what is happening.

Notes

[1] Keeling and Thompson were jointly honored with this year’s prestigious Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement.

[2] This same attitude was on display in early December when the American “negotiating” team at a crucial Kyoto follow-up meeting in Montreal once again tried to block any real plan for controlling emissions.

[3] The Future of Ice: A Journey into Cold (Vintage, 2005).

[4] The lenga is a relative of the American beech tree which grows high in the Andes mountains and is threatened by commercial loggers. Copyright © 1963-2006 NYREV,

Here is the latest on plants and methane,from mongabay.com

A week after announcing their surprising discovery that plants release 10 to 30 percent of the world’s methane—a potent greenhouse gas—researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics warn that plants should not be blamed for recent global warming.

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Don’t blame plants for global warming

mongabay.com

January 18, 2006

EDITOR’S SUMMARY: A week after announcing their surprising discovery that plants release 10 to 30 percent of the world’s methane—a potent greenhouse gas—researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics warn that plants should not be blamed for recent global warming.

The scientists say that because emissions from plants are a natural source, they have existed long before man’s influence started to impact atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. Anthropogenic emissions—especially agricultural cultivation—are responsible for the well-documented increase in atmospheric methane since pre-industrial times. Emissions from plants contribute to the natural greenhouse effect and not to the recent temperature increase usually referred to as “global warming”.

“The potential for reduction of global warming by planting trees is most definitely positive,” said Frank Keppler, a scientist involed in the research. “The fundamental problem still remaining is the global large-scale anthropogenic burning of fossil fuels.”

The new comments are included in the following release from the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics. For reference, the original release announcing the research is also included.

Global warming – the blame is not with the plants

Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics release

January 18, 2006

In a recent study (Nature, 12 January 2006), scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics, Utrecht University, Netherlands, and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development for Northern Ireland, UK, revealed that plants produce the greenhouse gas methane. First estimates indicated that this could account for a significant proportion of methane in the atmosphere. There has been extended media coverage of this work with unfortunately, in many instances, a misinterpretation of the findings. Furthermore, the discovery led to intense speculations on the potential relevance of the findings for reforestation programs in the framework of the Kyoto protocol. These issues need to be put in the right perspective.

The most frequent misinterpretation we find in the media is that emissions of methane from plants are responsible for global warming. As those emissions from plants are a natural source, they have existed long before man’s influence started to impact upon the composition of the atmosphere. It is the anthropogenic emissions which are responsible for the well-documented increasing atmospheric concentrations of methane since pre-industrial times. Emissions from plants thus contribute to the natural greenhouse effect and not to the recent temperature increase known as “global warming”. Even if land use practices have altered plant methane emissions, which we did not demonstrate, this would also count as an anthropogenic source, and the plants themselves cannot be deemed responsible.

Furthermore, our discovery led to intense speculation that methane emissions by plants could diminish or even outweigh the carbon storage effect of reforestation programs with important implications for the Kyoto protocol, where such programs are to be used in national carbon dioxide (CO2) reduction strategies. We first stress that our findings are preliminary with regard to the methane emission strength. Emissions most certainly depend on plant type and environmental conditions and more experiments are certainly necessary to quantify the process under natural conditions. As a first rough estimate of the order of magnitude we have taken the global average methane emissions as representative to provide a rough estimate of its potential effect on climate. These estimates (for details, see below) show that methane emissions by plants may slightly diminish the effect of reforestation programs. However, the climatic benefits gained through carbon sequestration by reforestation far exceed the relatively small negative effect, which may reduce the carbon uptake effect by up to 4 per cent. Thus, the potential for reduction of global warming by planting trees is most definitely positive. The fundamental problem still remaining is the global large-scale anthropogenic burning of fossil fuels.

Details of calculations used:

In our study, we have linked global methane emission estimates to plant growth, which is generally quantified as net primary productivity (NPP). On a global basis NPP amounts to ~62 x 1015 g of carbon/yr, which corresponds to an uptake of 227 x 1015 g of CO2/yr. On the emission side, our study suggests annual global methane emissions by plants of 62-236 x 1012 g/yr CH4. Thus, for each kg of CO2 assimilated by a plant roughly 0.25 to 1 to 4 g of CH4 is released. During growth of a new forest, up to 50% of plant tissue is lost again in the short term through decomposition of plant litter of leaves and roots. This then doubles the estimate to 0.5 to 2 g methane emitted per kg of CO2 assimilated and stored in plants for longer periods. Over a 100-year horizon, the global warming potential of methane is ~20 times higher than that of carbon dioxide. Thus, for climate, the benefits gained by reforestation programs would be lessened by between 1 and 4 per cent due to methane emissions from the plants themselves. Plants release methane, a potent greenhouse gas, finds study

Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics release

January 11, 2006

In the last few years, more and more research has focused on the biosphere; particularly, on how gases which influence the climate are exchanged between the biosphere and atmosphere. Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics have now carefully analysed which organic gases are emitted from plants. They made the surprising discovery that plants release methane, a greenhouse gas – and this goes against all previous assumptions.

Equally surprising was that methane formation is not hindered by the presence of oxygen. This discovery is important not just for plant researchers but also for understanding the connection between global warming and increased greenhouse gas production (Nature, January 12, 2006).

Methane is the greenhouse gas which has the second greatest effect on climate, after carbon dioxide. The concentration of methane in the atmosphere has almost tripled in the last 150 years. Methane is best known as natural gas, currently an important energy source. Nonetheless, only part of the methane uptake in the atmosphere is due to industrial activities connected to energy production and use. More important for the increase of methane in the atmosphere is the increase in so-called “biogenic” sources, e.g., rice cultivation or domestic ruminants related to the rise in the world’s population. Nowadays, methane in the atmosphere in fact is largely of biogenic origin.

Until now, it has been assumed that biogenic methane is formed anaerobically, that is, via micro-organisms and in the absence of oxygen. In this way, acetate or hydrogen and carbon dioxide are transformed into methane; they themselves are created in the anaerobic decomposition of organic materials. The largest anoxic sources of methane are wetlands and rice fields, as well as the digestion of ruminants and termites, waste disposal sites, and the gas produced by sewage treatment plants. According to previous estimates, these sources make up two-thirds of the 600 million tonnes worldwide annual methane production.

Related articles

Ocean gas hydrates could trigger catastrophic climate change

Global warming will cause gasses trapped beneath the ocean floor to release into the atmosphere according to research presented at the Annual Conference of the Royal Geographical Society. The impact could initiate a catastrophic global greenhouse effect.

Temperate forests may worsen global warming, tropical forests fight higher temperatures

At this week’s climate conference in Montreal there have been a number of proposals to plant trees for the purpose of absorbing carbon emissions and helping mitigate climate change. However, a new study from the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory says that careful consideration should be given as to where these forests are planted. Planting trees in temperate regions could actually contribute to global warming.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels closely correlated with global temperatures

Studying ice cores from Antarctica, scientists of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research extended the record of historic concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere by 250,000 years. The team found a close correlation between atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and global temperatures. Over the past 650,000 years, low greenhouse gas concentrations have been associated with cooler conditions.

Humans impacted climate thousands of years ago

New research suggests humans were influencing the world’s climate long before the Industrial Revolution. Atmospheric levels of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, climbed steadily during the first millennium due to massive fires set by humans clearing land for agriculture.

Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics have now discovered that plants themselves produce methane and emit it into the atmosphere, even in completely normal, oxygen-rich surroundings. The researchers made the surprising discovery during an investigation of which gases are emitted by dead and fresh leaves. Then, in the laboratory and in the wild, the scientists looked at the release of gases from living plants like maize and ryegrass. In this investigation, it turned out that living plants let out some 10 to 1000 times more methane than dead plant material. The researchers then were able to show that the rate of methane production grew drastically when the plants were exposed to the sun.

Although the scientists have some first indications, it is still unclear what processes are responsible for the formation of methane in plants. The researchers from Heidelberg assume that there is an unknown, hidden reaction mechanism, which current knowledge about plants cannot explain – in other words, a new area of research for biochemistry and plant physiology.

In terms of total amount of production worldwide, the scientists’ first guesses are between 60 and 240 million tonnes of methane per year. That means that about 10 to 30 percent of present annual methane production comes from plants. The largest portion of that – about two-thirds – originates from tropical areas, because that is where the most biomass is located. The evidence of direct methane emissions from plants also explains the unexpectedly high methane concentrations over tropical forests, measured only recently via satellite by a research group from the University of Heidelberg.

But why would such a seemingly obvious discovery only come about now, 20 years after hundreds of scientists around the globe started investigating the global methane cycle? “Methane could not really be created that way,” says Dr. Frank Keppler. “Until now all the textbooks have said that biogenic methane can only be produced in the absence of oxygen. For that simple reason, nobody looked closely at this.”

The fact is that, in order to determine the quantity of emissions, scientists indeed have to make very careful measurements. The researchers from Heidelberg conducted most of their experiments in methane-free air, in order to factor out the high natural background of methane. Furthermore they used isotope analysis to show beyond doubt that this was an undiscovered process of methane production. By “looking closely” – despite established opinion – they made a discovery that will require textbooks to have their passages about methane production rewritten.

Following up on this discovery, the scientists now will continue laboratory work, as well as field and remote sensing studies, to better quantify the strength of these methane emissions. A related exciting question is which role the biosphere has played in methane production in the history of the earth, and what kind of influence rising global temperatures and carbon dioxide concentration have on the production of methane from plants. Answers to these questions are important for understanding the feedback mechanisms between climate change and greenhouse gas production.

mongobay.com

This is a modified new release from Max-Planck-Gesellschaft

William Grimes reviews a book outside his field

January 20th, 2006

Probability is a tricky topic, as Monte Hall showed

We believe we have found a prime example of the sad incompetence of the typical arts graduate when faced with mathematics or science, and the inappropriateness of assigning one to review a book on a mathematical topic, in today’s (Jan 20 Fri) NY Times book review, The Quirky Moments When Lightning Does Strike Twice by William Grimes.

The book is full of coincidences, and Grimes quotes some of them, including one which is a classic.

On the other hand, it is deeply satisfying to know that a Canadian farmer named McDonald has the postal code EIEIO,

The New York Times

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January 20, 2006

Books of The Times | ‘Beyond Coincidence’

The Quirky Moments When Lightning Does Strike Twice

By WILLIAM GRIMES

A woman in Alabama decided to visit her sister. Her sister, unbeknownst to her, decided the same. They hit each other head-on on a rural highway. Both died. And both drove Jeeps. That counts as a rare coincidence, although not as rare, perhaps, as the case of Roy Cleveland Sullivan, a Virginia forest ranger who was struck by lightning seven times, or the existence of an ice dealer named I. C. Shivers.

The laws of chance operate strangely. This is the main point in Martin Plimmer and Brian King’s “Beyond Coincidence,” a collection of stranger-than-fiction anecdotes wrapped loosely in colorful intellectual tissue paper. It is a superior example of the genre known as a toilet read, with a few halfhearted excursions into the psychology and mathematics behind the uncanny coincidences that the writer Arthur Koestler called “puns of destiny.”

Just as nature abhors a vacuum, human beings resist the idea that events occur in random fashion. They are highly receptive to divine messages that suggest otherwise, as in the strange tale of Mrs. Willard Lowell of Berkeley, Calif., who discovered that she had locked herself out of her house when the postman arrived with a letter. In the letter was her spare front-door key, returned by her brother, who had taken it home with him by mistake after a recent visit.

Events like this send a shiver down the spine, but the math behind strange coincidences shows that most people simply have a poor grasp of statistics. The odds against meeting someone else at a party with your birthday are not 365 to 1. In a room with just 23 people, the chances that two of them will share the same birthday are better than even.

A world without a constant barrage of bizarre coincidences would be much more remarkable than the reverse. It is not all that unusual to have a dream that accurately predicts a future event, or for two golfers to achieve a hole in one on the same hole. On average, everyone should have a prophetic dream once every 19 years, and the odds of a double hole-in-one, although apparently staggering at 1.85 billion to 1, ensure that this occurs about once a year.

It is a very safe bet that more such coincidences are on the way, as the world becomes more populated, and the volume of information grows. As the authors put it, “The statistician’s law of large numbers states that if the sample is very large, even extremely unlikely things become likely.” That includes the perfect hand dealt out to the four members of a British whist club in 1998, who each received 13 cards of a single suit.

Something deep in the mind resists the explanations of the statisticians, however. Evolution may be to blame. “We have been so successful as a species precisely because we are good at making connections between events and spotting patterns and regularities in nature,” explains Christopher French, a psychologist. “The price we have paid is a tendency to sometimes detect connections and patterns that are not really there.”

That tendency would account for the discovery that playing the Pink Floyd album “Dark Side of the Moon” while watching “The Wizard of Oz” generates almost as many startling coincidences as the correspondences detailed in “The Bible Code,” a numerological analysis of the Bible that uncovered, among many other things, a prediction of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination.

Mr. Plimmer and Mr. King, who first explored this territory in a series of shows for BBC Radio 4, scramble to fill their allotted pages. They spend far too much time with Richard Wiseman, author of “The Luck Factor,” and his training programs designed to turn miserable, unlucky skeptics into lucky winners.

They stuff the book with several anecdotes that sound too good to be true, and even more that are too true to be good. George Frideric Handel and Jimi Hendrix lived at adjacent addresses in London. Nine women at a British supermarket, all working at the same cash register, became pregnant in a 10-month period. A man trying to console his next-door neighbor after a painful breakup put the former couple’s favorite record on the turntable. Ooooh.

On the other hand, it is deeply satisfying to know that a Canadian farmer named McDonald has the postal code EIEIO, and there is at least half a screenplay in the tale of a bank robber who, hitting the same bank and the same teller a second time, escaped because the bank guard and the managers were in a back office reviewing videotapes of the first robbery.

The award for the most painful coincidence in recorded history must go to the poet Simon Armitage, who chanced upon a used copy of a book of his poems in a trash bin outside a thrift store. On the title page was the following inscription, in his own handwriting: “To Mum and Dad.”

* Copyright 2006The New York Times Company

But is William Grimes the right man for this book? He is an English graduate who became a food critic. He was the restaurant critic for the Times from 1999 until recently.

“Before that, he wrote on food and drink for the newspaper’s dining section, and for many years covered the arts for the Times. He earned a degree in English from Indiana University and a doctorate in comparative literature from the University of Chicago. He is the author of the books Straight Up or on the Rocks: The Story of the American Cocktail and My Fine Feathered Friend, the tale of a mysterious chicken that came to roost in his backyard.”

We are quoting from the site of the New York Public Library, which ran an interview with Grimes in 2002.

The interview includes the following exchange:

How did you start writing about food?

I was working at Esquire and I was drafted into doing a cocktail column. That got me into writing about food history. When I came to the Times, I did a fair amount of writing for the Travel section and the Living section on food-related subjects. The biggest leap came when the Times redesigned the dining section in 1997 and the editor asked me to come over from the Culture section and be the food writer. Instead of writing about food in a scattershot way, I was doing it full time. Then when Ruth Reichl quit the critic’s post to become editor of Gourmet I was asked to be the critic, which became official on April 1, 1999.

It’s all been very haphazard. Your own enthusiasm catches up with you from behind. You were doing it but didn’t realize you were doing it. By sheer accident things fell together in a particular way.”

This is the traditional way in which assignments have reached members of the daily press, where beats can change rapdily and bear no relation to one’s expertise.

So it is not unusual that a food critic is the man that the Times editors assigned to read and review “Beyond Coincidence: Amazing Stories of Coincidence and the Mystery and Mathematics Behind Them” by Martin Plimmer and Brian King (Thomas Dunne Books/St Martins Press).

The general idea is that a book written for the general interest reader can be properly reviewed by one of the non-experts that they are designed for.

Now we don’t know much statistics ourselves, but enough to ask, is this policy wise in the case of statistics? It seems likely that Mr Grimes will probably not appreciate every nuance of this kind of book. It is easy to make a mistake in this field if you are not familiar with it, as countless incorrectly done AIDS studies testify.

Take this paragraph, for instance from the review, which seems plainly wrong:

Events like this send a shiver down the spine, but the math behind strange coincidences shows that most people simply have a poor grasp of statistics. The odds against meeting someone else at a party with your birthday are not 365 to 1. In a room with just 23 people, the chances that two of them will share the same birthday are better than even.

Surely the odds of you meeting someone else with the same birthday at a party of 23 people are 23/365? Of course, the chances of any person present making a match are much higher, as stated. But the chance that it will be you is still pretty low. It is correct as stated, but does seem to imply that he is confused.

It seems that Mr Grimes himself has a poor grasp of statistics. Still, one can never be sure – unless one has training in the field, which is our point.

We are certainly not going to make anything of it. The last time we made something out of a mathematical puzzle, we nearly made fools of ourselves by writing a letter to the Times accusing it of being wrong when it was quite right.

The Monte Hall game show puzzle

The story concerned Monte Hall, the host of a show (Let’s Make A Deal) on TV who presented a contestant with the final choice of three doors. Behind two of the doors was a worthless object like a toy duck and behind the third door was a $1 million prize. The contestant was offered the choice of A, B or C, and chose A.

The host then opened one of the two other doors – say B – to show it had been hiding a duck. He then offered the contestant the choice of the two remaining doors, A or C.

The question posed in the puzzle was this: should the contestant switch doors, from his original door A to the new choice of C? Would he increase his chances of winning by doing so?

The answer, of course, is that he should, since obviously he increases his chances of winning. This is the anwer the Times gave, saying that the most intelligent woman in the world had written so in her column on puzzles.

Needless to say, like many others we immediately drafted a letter to the Times pointing out that this was wrong. Obviously, we wrote, it would make no difference at all whether he stuck to door A or moved to door C. Anyone could see that. The chances were one in three he was right the first time, and choosing C instead would also be a one in three chance of winning.

Luckily we checked with a professional mathematician before sending the letter, and were set straight before risking public ignominy.

On the original show, Monte Hall did not allow switching of doors for that reason. The chances of winning go up from 1 in 3 to 2 in 3, according to the Wikipedia.

We would have guessed they went up to 1 in 2 from 1 in 3, but that is probably exactly why we should never argue about probability. Not without carefully examining the analysis, that is.

One analysis of the Monty Hall problem is at Wikipedia.

The key to the problem is simple enough, though at first it seems counter intuitive. The choice of a door by the host is constrained – he has to choose one with a duck, and not the one you have already chosen. His choice, therefore, reveals information, and makes the choice of the door C rather than door A one which is more informed.

Perhaps the simplest way to look at it is that one’s initial choice could be either a duck, the other duck or the prize. If you choose either duck, switching will win. If you choose the $1 million prize, switching will lose.

So switching stands to win two out of three times.

More chicanery, this time from a Norwegian, no less

January 19th, 2006

Reviewers didn’t catch that hundreds of subjects had the same birth date

It sounds unlikely, but a Norwegian hospital has accused a researcher of inventing 454 patients to confirm the claim of his October Lancet article on how commonly used painkillers reduce oral cancer risk.

The suspect Norwegian, Jon Sudbo, 44, is now on sick leave. Apparently he was caught by a woman who runs the data base from which he said he drew on for his data. Now a Commission will find out what happened, and presumably the Lancet has to explain why the reviewers didn’t catch it.

The data problems in the Lancet report were discovered by Camilla Stoltenberg of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, who is responsible for the Cohort of Norway database from which Dr. Sudbo had said the data were drawn, according to a report in the journal Nature.

The initial problem as always was probably that no reviewer had access to the data or could check it. Now the co-signers are shattered that their trust was betrayed.

“We are still reeling from the shock,” said Dr. Leonard Zwelling, vice president for research at M. D. Anderson. “There is no worse feeling in the world” than for a researcher to learn that he has put his name to a paper with fabricated data, Dr. Zwelling said.

Another factor as Nicholas Wade points out today (Jan 19 Thu) is that a statistical study that large is unlikely to be duplicated, so Sudbo would have not have been caught by any failure of attempts at duplication which is the usual back stop guardian of scientific truth.

A special feature of epidemiological studies like Dr. Sudbo’s is that they involve large numbers of patients and are unlikely to be repeated by other laboratories. Replication is considered the most reliable test of scientific quality.

Still, the reviewers must be reviewed as the great question continues, how can such conmen be prevented from exploiting the basic layer of trust which enables scientific cooperation?

After all, they must have been rather inattentive if they did see the data, since according to an earlier report from Reuters “250 of about 900 supposed patients were listed with the same date of birth.”

The commission, due to report back by April 1, would also examine why none of Sudbo’s co-authors or reviewers spotted the errors before the article went to print.

Reuters’ story yesterday was Norway probes cancer doctor accused of faking data

Norway probes cancer doctor accused of faking data

Wed Jan 18, 2006 5:06 PM GMT173

OSLO (Reuters) – Health authorities opened a probe of a Norwegian cancer researcher on Wednesday after his hospital accused him of falsifying data for an article published in a leading medical journal.

The investigation, ordered by the medical officer for the Oslo region, would cover cancer specialist Jon Sudbo and Oslo’s Radium Hospital where he worked. Sudbo, 44, is on sick leave and has not commented on the charges that he faked data.

“We welcome this decision,” Stein Vaaler, a hospital director, told Reuters of the investigation that will also look at whether patients suffered from Sudbo’s recommendations. “We think this is fair.”

The hospital, known as the Comprehensive Cancer Center, said at the weekend that Sudbo had admitted faking data for a study of mouth cancer published in October in the British journal the Lancet.

Norwegian health authorities can reprimand, sack or bar doctors from practicing medicine for violations that harm patients. In the worst cases, sanctions against institutions can include forced closure or fines.

In the Lancet article, Sudbo and co-authors said that commonly used painkillers can reduce the risks of mouth cancer in smokers but that long-term use could raise the chances of dying from heart disease.

The hospital said that he made up patients for the apparent review of 454 people with oral cancer. Sudbo’s motives for the alleged falsifications are unknown.

Separately, a commission set up by the Radium Hospital and led by Swedish expert Anders Eckbom began meeting on Wednesday to examine Sudbo’s report, his previous work and whether his recommendations had an impact on cancer treatment.

The commission, due to report back by April 1, would also examine why none of Sudbo’s co-authors or reviewers spotted the errors before the article went to print….

“We are still reeling from the shock,” said Dr. Leonard Zwelling, vice president for research at M. D. Anderson. “There is no worse feeling in the world” than for a researcher to learn that he has put his name to a paper with fabricated data, Dr. Zwelling said.

A special feature of epidemiological studies like Dr. Sudbo’s is that they involve large numbers of patients and are unlikely to be repeated by other laboratories. Replication is considered the most reliable test of scientific quality.

The data problems in the Lancet report were discovered by Camilla Stoltenberg of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, who is responsible for the Cohort of Norway database from which Dr. Sudbo had said the data were drawn, according to a report in the journal Nature.

© Reuters 2006. All Rights Reserved.

Nicholas Wade’s story today (Thu Jan 19) is Cancer Study Was made Up

The New York Times

January 19, 2006

Cancer Study Was Made Up, Journal Says

By NICHOLAS WADE

A large study concluding that anti-inflammatory drugs reduce the risk of oral cancer was based on fabricated data, according to The Lancet, the prominent British medical journal that published the report last year.

The principal author was Jon Sudbo, a cancer researcher at the Norwegian Radium Hospital in Oslo. He had four co-authors at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and another at Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York.

In the Lancet paper, Dr. Sudbo said he received financing from the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md. The news agency Agence France-Presse said the amount was $10.5 million.

A spokeswoman for the institute said yesterday that she could not confirm it had provided the financing. She noted that $10 million was a minute slice of the agency’s budget.

Officials at the Norwegian Radium Hospital told The Lancet they had information that the data was manipulated, the journal’s editor, Richard Horton, wrote in its current issue.

Dr. Sudbo is away on sick leave, according to Agence France-Presse. His American co-authors declined to comment, but their institutions both said in statements that they were not involved in the Norwegian hospital’s investigation.

“We are still reeling from the shock,” said Dr. Leonard Zwelling, vice president for research at M. D. Anderson. “There is no worse feeling in the world” than for a researcher to learn that he has put his name to a paper with fabricated data, Dr. Zwelling said.

A special feature of epidemiological studies like Dr. Sudbo’s is that they involve large numbers of patients and are unlikely to be repeated by other laboratories. Replication is considered the most reliable test of scientific quality.

The data problems in the Lancet report were discovered by Camilla Stoltenberg of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, who is responsible for the Cohort of Norway database from which Dr. Sudbo had said the data were drawn, according to a report in the journal Nature.

* Copyright 2006The New York Times Company

One weapon is legislation to make such fraud a criminal offense, and the Norwegian government has promised to speed up such a law which was already on its way in Oslo.

See an earlier (Jan 16 Mon) Reuters filing Oslo promises crackdown after cancer cheat scandal

Reuters

Print this article Close This Window

Oslo promises crackdown after cancer cheat scandal

Mon Jan 16, 2006 5:01 PM GMT

By Alister Doyle

OSLO (Reuters) – Norway promised on Monday to speed up a new law that may bring jail terms for medical cheats after a hospital accused one of its cancer researchers of falsifying data published in a leading journal.

“There must be no doubt about the quality of our research,” Health Minister Sylvia Brustad told Norway’s NTB news agency. “So we are speeding up our draft law.”

The government would present the law to parliament later this year, earlier than planned, after experts have worked on a review since 2003.

The law would propose stricter rules for overseeing research and might make cheats liable to criminal charges that could bring jail terms. Under existing rules, cheats can in the worst case be sacked and banned from practicing medicine.

Officials said at the weekend that 44-year-old Jon Sudbo, a researcher at Oslo’s Radium Hospital, made up patients’ case histories for a study about oral cancer published by the British journal The Lancet in October.

The hospital said an independent commission would probe all his research. Sudbo is on a sick leave and has not been available for comment.

“They will start the work mid-week. Hopefully they will give us answers in one to two months,” said Stein Vaaler, a hospital director.

Among improbabilities in Sudbo’s research, 250 of about 900 supposed patients were listed with the same date of birth.

Last year, South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk was exposed for fabricating two studies claming he had cloned human embryos to provide stem cells.

NOT RETROACTIVE

Any new Norwegian law making it a criminal offence to falsify data could not apply to Sudbo. “A law would not have retroactive effect,” Deputy Health Minister Wegard Harsvik told Reuters.

Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, said the report published in October would be retracted if Oslo supplied confirmation that it had been falsified.

The hospital’s Vaaler said a retraction would be made quickly if the researcher admitted in writing to inventing the data. “So far he has admitted falsifying data verbally,” he said.

“There are huge implications for the entire scientific community to make sure that it has the best safety checks in place to prevent fabrication and falsification of data,” Horton told Reuters.

The panel investigating Sudbo’s research would look at why errors were not spotted by a peer review.

Horton defended the current system of peer review but said the competitive nature of scientific research probably contributed in both the Norwegian and South Korean cases.

(additional reporting by Patricia Reaney in London)

© Reuters 2006. All rights reserved.

Parrot blows cover of cheatin’ girlfriend

January 18th, 2006

A species that may be more accurate than the media

The ability of African grey parrots to imitate almost any sound is legendary. The one in this office can sound exactly like a telephone ringing, which is sometimes useful for driving away unwelcome callers who hang on the line too long. (Brrrrrrrrrng! Brrrrrrrrrng! “Sorry, I have to go…”)

But the African grey named Ziggy who made world news this week (he betrayed an unfaithful girl in Leeds, who was carrying on with a lover behind her boyfriend’s back in their apartment with the bird looking on) was also, we fondly believe, demonstrating the high social intelligence of these birds, which has long been explored by Irene Pepperberg in pioneering research. Clearly Ziggy didn’t like the girl friend, and got his revenge.

As Sarah Lyall told it in the New York Times today (Wed Jan 18),

“Hiya, Gary!” the parrot trilled flirtatiously whenever Chris Taylor’s girlfriend answered her cellphone.

But Mr. Taylor, the owner of the parrot, did not know anyone named Gary. And his girlfriend, Suzy Collins, who had moved into his apartment a year earlier, swore that she didn’t, either. She stuck to her story even after the parrot, Ziggy, began making lovey-dovey, smooching noises when it heard the name Gary on television.

And so it went until the fateful day just before Christmas when, as Mr. Taylor and Ms. Collins snuggled together on the sofa, Ziggy blurted out, “I love you, Gary,” his voice a dead ringer for Ms. Collins’s.

“It sent a chill down my spine,” Mr. Taylor, a 30-year-old computer programmer from Leeds, told British reporters on Monday. “I started laughing, but when I looked at Suzy I could tell something was up. Her face was like beet root and she started to cry.”

The New York Times

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January 18, 2006

Kiss and Tell: She Kisses and the Parrot Tells

By SARAH LYALL

LONDON, Jan. 17 – “Hiya, Gary!” the parrot trilled flirtatiously whenever Chris Taylor’s girlfriend answered her cellphone.

But Mr. Taylor, the owner of the parrot, did not know anyone named Gary. And his girlfriend, Suzy Collins, who had moved into his apartment a year earlier, swore that she didn’t, either. She stuck to her story even after the parrot, Ziggy, began making lovey-dovey, smooching noises when it heard the name Gary on television.

And so it went until the fateful day just before Christmas when, as Mr. Taylor and Ms. Collins snuggled together on the sofa, Ziggy blurted out, “I love you, Gary,” his voice a dead ringer for Ms. Collins’s.

“It sent a chill down my spine,” Mr. Taylor, a 30-year-old computer programmer from Leeds, told British reporters on Monday. “I started laughing, but when I looked at Suzy I could tell something was up. Her face was like beet root and she started to cry.”

Gary, it turned out, was Ms. Collins’s former colleague and current secret lover. And not only had Ms. Collins, a 25-year-old call-center worker, been cheating on Mr. Taylor, but she had been doing it in front of the bird.

“It makes my stomach churn to think about what he might have seen or heard them doing,” Mr. Taylor said of Ziggy, as reported in The Daily Telegraph and other newspapers.

He had owned Ziggy, named after the David Bowie character, since Ziggy was a chick, eight years ago, and looked on with pride as Ziggy began mimicking everything he heard – the television, people’s voices, the vacuum cleaner, the doorbell. But when it became clear that Ziggy could not be taught to stop saying “Gary,” Mr. Taylor found a new home for the bird through a dealer.

“I felt like I’d been stabbed through the heart every time my phone rang or he heard the name on the telly,” he said.

As for Ms. Collins, she and Mr. Taylor split up the evening of the “I love you, Gary” incident.

Tracked down by the newspapers at the home of friends, Ms. Collins (who has since split up with Gary, too) said that while she was not proud of what had happened, she and Mr. Taylor had been having problems and would have broken up anyway. Nor, she said, had she ever taken to the bird, resenting Mr. Taylor for preferring to stay home with Ziggy rather than go out with her.

“I’m surprised to hear he’s got rid of that bloody bird,” Ms. Collins was quoted as saying. “He spent more time talking to it than he did to me.” She added, speaking of Ziggy: “I couldn’t stand him, and it looks now like the feeling was mutual.”

* Copyright 2006The New York Times Company

Grey parrots make an interesting scientific study. Many people think that the red tailed grey’s mimicry is just unthinking playback, but the bird can build quite a network of associations. Our own avian friend can detect when a visitor is thinking of leaving much earlier than the host can, and he will start saying “Goodbye!” “Goodbye!” before the guest made any sign we can detect, let alone has risen to announce departure.

Pepperberg of the University of Arizona and the MIT Media Lab is long celebrated by all parrot owners for having taught Alex, her original subject, all kinds of tricks including how to order breakfast. If Alex is offered a choice of apple or banana, say, he might specify “Apple!” and then, if given banana, he will object, “No banana, apple!”

Ziggy in Leeds is certainly a more accurate verbatim reporter than many of the rewrite men who processed the story across the world yesterday (Jan 18 Wed), it must be said. One of the satisfying lines in the British news story was spoken by the girlfriend when told by a reporter that her unfortunate boyfriend could not bear to keep Ziggy any longer now that it kept saying the name of her lover.

“I’m surprised to hear he’s got rid of that bloody bird,” Ms. Collins was quoted as saying. “He spent more time talking to it than he did to me.” She added, speaking of Ziggy: “I couldn’t stand him, and it looks now like the feeling was mutual.”

What seems like half the papers and news sites in the world excised the word “bloody” from the story, for example, CNN

“I wasn’t sorry to see the back of Suzy after what she did, but it really broke my heart to let Ziggy go,” he said.

“I love him to bits and I really miss having him around, but it was torture hearing him repeat that name over and over again.

“I still can’t believe he’s gone. I know I’ll get over Suzy, but I don’t think I’ll ever get over Ziggy.”

Taylor acquired Ziggy as a chick eight years ago and named him after the David Bowie character Ziggy Stardust.

The bird has now found a new home through the offices of a local parrot dealer. Collins, who admitted the affair, said: “I’m not proud of what I did but I’m sure Chris would be the first to admit we were having problems.

“I am surprised to hear he got rid of that bird,” she added to The Guardian newspaper. “He spent more time talking to it than he did to me.”

though not the New York Times, which we salute for its accuracy. This robust indication of the alienation of the girl from the bird was essential to the piece.

Ziggy of course would never have bowdlerized the quote in that way. But of course, anyone who knows greys knows that. There is a serious question, in fact, as to whether the species may not often be superior in wit and relevant comment to many humans.

As Marc Hauser of Harvard has commented (on what may be the world’s greatest science read, the Edge site, run by John Brockman, science’s star literary agent and idea catalyst) in an interview with Pepperberg,

In the late 1960s, a flurry of research on the great apes—chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans—began to challenge our uniqueness, especially our capacity for language and abstract conceptual abilities. Everyone soon weighed in on this debate including the linguist Noam Chomsky, the philosophers John Searle and Daniel Dennett, and the psychologist Burrhus Skinner. One corner of this debate focused on the assumption that you need a big primate brain to handle problems of reference, syntax, abstract representations, and so forth. It was to this corner of the debate that Irene Pepperberg first turned. She started with a challenge: do you really need a big primate brain to run these computations? After over 20 years of work with her African Gray parrot Alex, the clear answer is “No!”

Irene’s intellectual journey with Alex is an impressive one because she has sustained a consistent line of research exploring some of the deepest problems concerning the nature of mind, and in particular, the relationship between language and thought. Her work has revealed that Alex can grasp important aspects of number, color concepts, the difference between presence and absence, and physical properties of objects such as their shape and material. These results are not only relevant to the evolution of human cognition, but they are also relevant to the evolution of animal cognition. By understanding what animals such as Alex can do under tightly controlled laboratory conditions, we can apply such knowledge to what parrots do in the wild, the kinds of strategies they might use to negotiate in such a complex social world. How far this work will go is anyone’s guess, but it is clear that Irene, Alex and her new stars will teach us a lot along the way.

In one respect, of course, grey parrots are far ahead. Their mastery of mimicry indicates that their mirror neurons must be a huge part of their tiny but brilliant brains compared to those of the average human.

Probably the only human group that even comes close is the HIV=AIDS crowd, whose ability to ignore the scientific literature and parrot the party line without thought of any kind is now legendary.

Nicholas Wade driven to humor by science fraud

January 17th, 2006

But the fallibility of journal review is now public


The reaction of sophisticated but good men in the scientific arena, who are aware of the way science may be twisted by human nature but find it impossible to understand because they would never do it themselves, is to relieve their embarrassment with humor.

This is probably why we are served up an amusing piece of satire today (Tues Jan 17) by Nicholas Wade in the Tuesday Science section, One Last Question: Who Did the Work?:

The article shown at left from a future issue of the Journal of Imaginary Genomics, annotated in the manner required by Science’s proposed reforms, has been released ahead of its embargo date.

The New York Times

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January 17, 2006

One Last Question: Who Did the Work?

By NICHOLAS WADE

In the wake of the two fraudulent articles on embryonic stem cells published in Science by the South Korean researcher Hwang Woo Suk, Donald Kennedy, the journal’s editor, said last week that he would consider adding new requirements that authors “detail their specific contributions to the research submitted,” and sign statements that they agree with the conclusions of their article.

A statement of authors’ contributions has long been championed by Drummond Rennie, deputy editor of The Journal of the American Medical Association, and is already required by that and other medical journals.

But as innocuous as Science’s proposed procedures may seem, they could seriously subvert some traditional scientific practices, such as honorary authorship. Explicit statements about the conclusions could bring to light many reservations that individual authors would not otherwise think worth mentioning.

The article shown at left from a future issue of the Journal of Imaginary Genomics, annotated in the manner required by Science’s proposed reforms, has been released ahead of its embargo date.

* Copyright 2006The New York Times Company

This is the image referred to, which unfortunately probably cannot be made legible in this blog, as far as we know.

It contains various footnotes on contributions such as “1. I supplied the midwife toad cells used in this experiment, on condition that my name was included as co-author.” and 2. “I was riding in the elevator with Dr. Lysenko one day and gave him an idea about spring wheat; he very graciously said that he would add my name to his next paper.”

This light relief follows a heavier Wade piece on Sunday, tackling the difficult topic of what should be done to guard the virtue of science more effectively, indicated on the front of The Week In Review as “Iffy Science: Journals are the cops. But they’re not well armed”, Crumpled Papers: Lowering Expectations at Science’s Frontier”, which tries to explain that journal articles are fallible.

In this piece, Nicholas Wade, who in person certainly looks like the right mix of gentleman and professor that one imagines all science reporters ideally to be, makes an admission which goes far to explain the great hidden debacle in HIV?AIDS.

There it has been clear for some time that a precipitate claim (that HIV was the cause of AIDS). made even before the papers were published supposedly supporting it, became established as a profitable paradigm before any post publication review was done, and has proved immovable and flourishing, rather like a huge tumor on the body of science, in the face of numerous journal reviews that are so damning that they would normally, like surgery, excise and kill it.

The contrast between the fallibility of Dr. Hwang’s claims and the general solidity of scientific knowledge arises from the existence of two kinds of science – a distinction that is often blurred when new advances are reported first by scientific journals and then by the news media. There is textbook science and frontier science, and the two types carry quite different expiration dates.

Textbook science is material that has stood the test of time and can be largely relied upon. It may include findings made just a few years ago, but which have been reasonably well confirmed by other laboratories.

Science from the frontiers of knowledge, on the other hand, is wild, untamed and often either wrong or irrelevant to future research. A few years after they are published, most scientific papers are never cited again.

This is quite an admission of journal fallibility, but this is the line that is emerging in comments by science editors as they get caught by fraud these days, as Wade reports. He acknowledges very clearly that peer reviewing is really “rough screening” which if tightened up, “could retard the pace of scientific advance.”

Scientific journals try to impose order on the turbulent flow of new claims by having expert reviewers assess their merit. But even at the best journals, reviewers provide only a rough screen. Many papers slip through that later turn out to be innocently wrong. A few, like Dr. Hwang’s, are found to be fraudulent.

This rough screening serves a purpose. Tightening it up, in a vain attempt to produce instant textbook science, could retard the pace of scientific advance.

He goes on to note that since a journal’s imprimatur is no guarantee of truth, and claims can only be confirmed by other labs after a time, which means that it is no longer news, journalists have a problem, since they are quite likely to write up findings which turn out to be flawed.

Perhaps it is time for them to recognize this fact, he suggests.

Tightening up the reviewing system may remove some faults but will not erase the inescapable gap between textbook science and frontier science. A more effective protection against being surprised by the likes of Dr. Hwang might be for journalists to recognize that journals like Science and Nature do not, and cannot, publish scientific truths. They publish roughly screened scientific claims, which may or may not turn out to be true.

Of course, this is not what most science journalists want to do – write up stories of the news in science with caveats saying that it all might not be true. Why bother their sources or their readers with that deflating fact? Hard to imagine how it could be done to any more meaningful extent than it already is, anyway. Small wonder Wade doesn’t suggest what form this new caution would take, in a world where the Web forces ever shorter deadlines on science news. But we certainly agree they should and can acknowledge the fact that big claims have to be confirmed, as they often do.

In the end, though, the responsibility belongs to the journals, and they should put their house in order as far as possible. Wade points out that JAMA (the Journal of the American Medical Association) has already instigated the reforms that Science is proposing, where individual authors take explicit responsibility for their part in the work and in the conclusion of a paper. This is working well.

But some medical journals, like The Journal of the American Medical Association, already require authors to state who did what. The system works very well, said Drummond Rennie, the journal’s deputy editor and the instigator of the idea. Requiring authors to specify that they agree with the conclusions leads to conservative statements, a result that is also beneficial, in Dr. Rennie’s view.

Anyhow the important thing is that it is finally being publicly admitted and emphasized that the scientific literature is not infallible, and that all claims should be tested and reviewed.

It’s the reviewing part which is the key in HIV?AIDS, of course, and this is not really mentioned yet. Claims which can be tested in repeat experiments will not last long. It is the theoretical claims which amount to a way of interpreting new data, data which are not necessarily challenged in themselves, which are the tricky problem. HIV?AIDS is the prime example.

Most people have no idea of the power and quality of the reviews that have rejected HIV as the cause of AIDS. A new theoretical claim may resist review for a very long time it appears, even if the review is done and done well, and done repeatedly, if the new claim gets established too firmly with political and economic advantages.

Perhaps the newly perceived fallibility of journals will help awaken people to the idea that challenges to existing paradigms should not be too easily dismissed as heresies which challenge the bible of science, as they are in HIV?AIDS. As many Nobel prizes show, the paradigm challenger may be right.

January 15, 2006

IDEAS & TRENDS: Crumpled Papers; Lowering Expectations at Science’s Frontier

By NICHOLAS WADE

THERE is considerable disorder in heaven when stem-cell scientists are chided by the Roman Catholic Church for the folly of pursuing ”miracle cures.” But such are the paradoxes generated by the implosion of a South Korean researcher’s widely believed claims to have created human embryonic stem cells from patients.

Of course, miracles like the Shroud of Turin are also widely believed. But scientific claims are meant to belong to a different category of truth: They are the certified knowledge of a community of scholars who have rigorously tested their ideas through experiment and mutual criticism.

How then can the fraudulent claims by Dr. Hwang Woo Suk have been accepted by Science, a leading journal that rejects most papers submitted to it? How can the community of stem-cell scientists have allowed a very visible claim to have stood unchallenged in their field for 20 months? Little wonder that Richard Doerflinger, an official of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, ridiculed the dreams of therapeutic cloning in a statement last week, scoffing that scientists were chasing miracle cures ”in pursuit of this mirage.”

The contrast between the fallibility of Dr. Hwang’s claims and the general solidity of scientific knowledge arises from the existence of two kinds of science — a distinction that is often blurred when new advances are reported first by scientific journals and then by the news media. There is textbook science and frontier science, and the two types carry quite different expiration dates.

Textbook science is material that has stood the test of time and can be largely relied upon. It may include findings made just a few years ago, but which have been reasonably well confirmed by other laboratories.

Science from the frontiers of knowledge, on the other hand, is wild, untamed and often either wrong or irrelevant to future research. A few years after they are published, most scientific papers are never cited again.

Scientific journals try to impose order on the turbulent flow of new claims by having expert reviewers assess their merit. But even at the best journals, reviewers provide only a rough screen. Many papers slip through that later turn out to be innocently wrong. A few, like Dr. Hwang’s, are found to be fraudulent.

This rough screening serves a purpose. Tightening it up, in a vain attempt to produce instant textbook science, could retard the pace of scientific advance.

But the roughness of the proceedings is not prominently advertised by journal editors, except when cases of blatant fraud are detected, whereupon they proclaim that peer review cannot reasonably be expected to detect fraud. They do not protest so much when newspapers report their journals’ claims as if they were certifiably true. Because of Science’s authority, Dr. Hwang’s claims to have cloned human embryonic cells were prominently reported and presented to the public as if they were important breakthroughs.

But any new advance belongs to frontier science, which is inherently fallible, and a journal’s imprimatur, though worth something, is no guarantee of truth. An advance only becomes solid when other laboratories have confirmed it, by which time it is no longer news. This presents a serious problem for journalists: many scientific claims, including those in leading journals, turn out to be overstated or wrong, and science reporting that presents these journals’ products as gospel is likely to be misleading.

Scientists and journal editors are, of course, well aware of the tentative nature of frontier science. As Donald Kennedy, the editor of Science, observed when the Hwang case first broke, journals often publish work that is innocently wrong. ”The public needs to understand that the journals and peer review are not perfect,” he said.

But last week Dr. Kennedy announced he was considering revising the journal’s publication procedures, though not with any great hope of preventing future cases of fraud. He suggested that authors would be required to state in writing their specific contributions to a report, a reform perhaps aimed at Dr. Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Schatten accepted senior authorship of — and thus responsibility for — one of Dr. Hwang’s papers, even though Dr. Schatten had performed none of the experiments and was not in a position to vouch for them. All the work was done in Seoul.

A second proposed change is to have all authors state that they agree with an article’s conclusions.

Both procedures may seem to include a certain potential for generating strife. Each author could overstate his or her contribution, arousing the wrath of all the others. Some authors may think a conclusion too timid, while others consider it an overstatement.

But some medical journals, like The Journal of the American Medical Association, already require authors to state who did what. The system works very well, said Drummond Rennie, the journal’s deputy editor and the instigator of the idea. Requiring authors to specify that they agree with the conclusions leads to conservative statements, a result that is also beneficial, in Dr. Rennie’s view.

Tightening up the reviewing system may remove some faults but will not erase the inescapable gap between textbook science and frontier science. A more effective protection against being surprised by the likes of Dr. Hwang might be for journalists to recognize that journals like Science and Nature do not, and cannot, publish scientific truths. They publish roughly screened scientific claims, which may or may not turn out to be true.

* Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company


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