Over at Silicon Alley Insider’s Clusterstock blog, Joe Weisenthal has taken on the science establishment, slapping down the much-bandied conventional wisdom that the solution to society’s ills is to throw money at science education. In his trademark cavalier style, Joe slashes and burns his way through science-related sectors, arguing that more/better scientists are not what we need.
Is the underlying point fair? Absolutely—simply training more scientists in order to “solve” our economic and environmental problems is like ordaining more priests to “solve” the current marriage decline. But Joe’s details get sucked into the quagmire of poor logic, to the point where a few of them border on ludicrous. Take his stance on health care:
Given the spiraling cost of healthcare, and the fact that few people are satisfied with our system, this is obviously one of the most fertile industries for growth. But our problem isn’t a lack of science. Our problem isn’t that engineers haven’t created enough dubious miracle pills. It’s that our conception of the system is wrong. We have antiquated models for healthcare delivery on all kinds of fronts, from how it’s paid for to who patients see when they get ill.
We’ll be the last to say there’s no room for improvement in the health care system. There are countless opportunities for improving treatment effectiveness and efficiency that don’t involve just training more doctors (though we need those too, in a BIG way). Computerization of medical records, while not a simple task, will ultimately save time, money, and lives. But halting funding for drug research—particularly when we’re on the cusp of some pretty remarkable new stuff—is pretty absurd.
Then there’s his take on education (we’re assuming he means the larger education system, and not just scientific courses of study):
Our system is in shambles and has been dysfunctional for a long time. We have a huge problem of matching students up against the type of education that would suit them — more vocational training for many of them would be good — and for many students there’s no upside in being educated. It’s a gaping opportunity, but it’s not a science question. It’s more a matter policy and design than anything else.
Well, actually, there is an upside in properly educating our population: Not doing so leads to a disastrous, dogmatic mess that erodes the integrity of education—not to mention causes expensive and pointless ideology battles that take our attention away from problems like oh, say, the looming financial and environmental apocalypses.
But the main problem with Joe’s central argument is this:
• Do humans have reproductive limits? And if not physical, how about ethical?
• Scientists give a big thumbs up to Obama’s environmental plan.
• A handy list of all the biggest “global cooling” hacks, now in bar graph form.
• Poor Tesla. The bad news just keeps on comin’.
• A universal flu vaccine nears completion—but will we have the cash to distribute it?
• Finally, some sliding profits news to be happy about. Oh no wait, never mind.
• Senate decides (thank goodness) that children and health insurance are two things that should really continue to go together.
So it happened: Barack Obama has officially taken his place as the country’s 44th President (complete with a shout-out to science during the inaugural address!). And, with the country facing enough massive problems to sink a fleet of aircraft carriers, the word is he’ll waste no time getting to work. But what can a new president accomplish in his first few days in office? Plenty, if you count issuing executive orders that reverse policies from the previous administration (which should by all means be counted). And when it comes to science and medicine, there are miles to go before the new POTUS sleeps.
So what are some top science priorities that President Obama can stick on his “ASAP” list? Here’s a few ideas, along with the likelihood that they’ll be addressed in the super/semi/not-so-near future:
From the wires: The FDA has just completed a fresh set of guidelines that will permit pharmaceutical companies to tell doctors about unapproved uses of their medicines—in effect, giving big pharma carte blanche to hawk unapproved drugs.
Specifically, the new regulations allow drug companies to “distribute copies of medical journal articles that describe unapproved uses” of their drugs to all the doctors they want.
Technically this reg isn’t new; it was in place until 2006, then lapsed until industry lobbyists made sure it was proposed again last year, despite heavy criticism from Democrats and drug industry critics. And now, conveniently one week before the Bush administration draws its final, sputtering breath, the rule has made its way back into the final FDA guidelines.
Big pharma spokespeople pooh pooh the reg as nothing more than a formality: “Physicians need timely access to the latest medical information to keep abreast of the best practices in patient care,” said Alan Bennett, an attorney representing the pharmaceutical industry.
How many times do we have to say it? At least once more, apparently: The anti-vaxer movement is wrong, it’s dangerous, and it’s having major effects on public health. Like this one: More than 12,000 cases of measles, around four-fifths of which were in unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated children, surfaced in Europe in the two-year period from 2006 through 2007, with an additional 6,000 infections reported in the first three quarters of 2008.
These results come from a study published in the upcoming issue of The Lancet, and were written up by Mark Muscat of Copenhagen’s Statens Serum Institut. The study includes data from 32 countries, though 85 percent of the cases were in Romania, Germany, the U.K., Switzerland, and Italy—all of which have vaccination rates below 90 percent, well below the World Health Organization’s 95 percent recommendation.
So here it is, a highly-contagious and also highly-preventable disease making its way into children because their parents saw some study or read some pamphlet filled with inaccurate and scientifically disproved information.
To make matters worse, there’s also the class problem that anti-vaxers are causing:
Steve Jobs looks terrible. He has for months. After losing a reported 30 pounds last year, the Apple CEO has been the subject of constant scrutiny concerning his health, sparking media coverage that’s bordered on the morbid—including a mistaken obituary and a false report that he’d had a heart attack
The speculation reached a frenzy when Jobs announced he wouldn’t give the keynote speech at this month’s Macworld Expo. While Apple originally denied that the cancellation was due to their CEO’s poor health, they later conceded that Jobs had pulled out because he was ill. Exactly what this illness could be, however, remains the subject of mass conjecture.
In August 2004, Jobs announced he had had surgery to remove an islet cell tumor in his pancreas—a form of cancer that’s far rarer and less deadly than regular pancreatic cancer. It was later reported that he’d delayed the surgery 9 months after his diagnosis in order to pursue holistic treatments—a dangerous move that likely gave his doctors, and Apple’s board members, at least one ulcer apiece.
According to the New York Times, Jobs underwent another surgical procedure in 2008, the “details of which remain unclear.” Off the record, Jobs told Times reporter Joe Nocera that the CEO’s health problems “weren’t life-threatening, and he doesn’t have a recurrence of cancer.”
Still, Jobs’s current illness has reached a point where no one—not even the notoriously secretive Apple and its even more secretive CEO—can deny it.
We’re back from a brief holiday hiatus, just in time for some heartening news to kick off 2009: As of Jan. 1, the Big Pharma companies have all agreed to stop producing and issuing the gobs of free loot—everything from pens to mugs to flashlights to T-shirts—they’ve been passing out to doctors for years.
Critics poo poo the measure as little more than lip service, a PR move that doesn’t address the far bigger issue: that the drug industry and medicine are hopelessly financially intertwined. (Want proof? Exhibits A, B, and C.) Doctors, meanwhile, brush off the idea that logo-ed pens and Post-Its could alter their prescribing habits.
Still, there’s plenty to be said for the influence of everyday objects, not to mention the power of advertising. Surround yourself with enough Burger King merchandise, and you’d be amazed at how often you start craving Whoppers. Wouldn’t the same principle apply when it comes to physicians and drugs?
(Full disclosure: RB is the child of two doctors, and our childhood desk was filled to overflowing with pens, paperweights, magnets, notepads, and countless other booty emblazoned with words like Diflucan, Avandia, and Provigil. We never went to med school, but we’d probably prescribe Lipitor simply because of their awesome mousepads.)
Welcome to today’s heaping dose of cynicism, to start off the weekend right: Scandal has hit none other than the Nobel Prize, after it was revealed that a member of the Nobel selection committee also sat on the board of AstraZeneca, a pharmaceuticals juggernaut that will benefit from this year’s award for medicine.
The 2008 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine went to three people this year, Luc Montagnier and his (ahem, female) partner Françoise Barre-Sinoussi for discovering HIV, and Harald zur Hausen for his work on the human papilloma virus (HPV) and its link to cervical cancer.
Wouldn’t you know it, AstraZeneca just happens to have a big fat stake in two lucrative HPV vaccines.
• Don’t have ADD, or any conceivable medical need for prescription drugs like Ritalin? Take ‘em anyway, says a group of experts. Granted, whether the people who do need them really need them is still up for discussion.
• Next in this week’s “just what the health care system needs” news: Special guns for the elderly may be classified as medical tools.
• Ask Obama! The transition team launches a new site to take your questions for the president-elect.
• Christmas, green-style: solar gingerbread houses!
• And finally, the best global warming protest we’ve seen yet.
It’s been a rough few weeks for anything male. According to a study released this week, males of just about every species are being feminized—or even wiped out of existence—by the slew of unregulated chemicals in our water and environment.
And for those already locked in male adulthood, there’s more bad news: Men in New York City are reportedly losing their desire for sex because of the financial crisis. According to a (highly non-scientific, but not unbelievable) trend piece in the New York Post, many former masters of the universe are shunning coitus due to anxiety over job losses, lost wealth, and other monetary realities of 2008.
While a host of psycho-social factors are likely behind this reported mass libido-loss (assuming that it’s true), it’s possible that a growing disinterest in sex during an economic crisis is linked to physiology, and perhaps even evolution. In other words, hard economic times may translate into a built-in desire for less procreation.