One of my many complaints about science reporting…

In my mind, it’s extremely irresponsible when science writers report that a new potential cure for cancer has been found before any serious research has been done. Science reporting would lead you to believe that a new cure is discovered almost daily, when most of these leads are tenuous at best.

Here is a particularly illustrative example. A group of researchers have identified a toxin produced by at least two species of freshwater algae that is responsible for killing over a million dollars worth of fish.  Knowing the structure of the toxin may provide scientists with the information that they need to neutralize it. Because fish are important economically and are an important protein source in many parts of the world, this is an important finding in its own right.

But instead of focusing on that or other applications of the discovery, the article focuses on the toxin’s cancer cell killing properties. They exposed cancer cells (presumably in a petri dish?) to the toxin and, low and behold, the cells stopped growing and some of them died. How is this surprising?? They exposed cells to a toxin that they know is capable of killing entire organisms in a matter of hours. You probably could have exposed any type of cell to this toxin and would have seen the same effect.

All the researchers have shown is that the toxin is toxic. It’s safe to assume that the use of this toxin as a treatment for cancer would carry serious side-effects (i.e., in addition to killing cancer cells it would kill any other cell that it encountered as well).

To be fair, the fault doesn’t just lie with the science reporters. Surely the scientists pushed their claims about the toxin’s cancer-fighting abilities in the hope of increasing their project’s attractiveness to funding agencies. It’s a lot more exciting to fund research on a cancer-fighting algal toxin than on a fish-killing algal toxin.

Reporting on the toxin’s ability to inhibit cancer cells should not have occurred until more detailed experiments had been done. Advertising such flimsy leads detracts attention away from methods that are more sound and well-researched while giving the public a false understanding of where we are in the fight against cancer.

Plus, it’s dishonest. This toxin will probably never be an important player in the fight against cancer. Both the researchers and the science reporters are probably pushing the link to draw attention because hell, everyone is excited about finding a cure for cancer.

Anyway, I hope I’m wrong and this toxin is a lot more promising than I think it is. Given the measly 4 sentences the article devoted to actually describing the research on cancer cells, I doubt I am.

On a funnier note, here is one of my favorite SMBC comics, which happens to be about science reporting:


My Beef With Bottled Water

Some of the comments on my “Don’t Be a Sucker 101” post accused me of assuming that most people buy bottled water because they wish to avoid the fluoride that is added to tap water. I’m sorry if I was unclear, but I was not making that assumption. I don’t give regular bottled water drinkers THAT much credit.

Here’s the problem.

Old man giardia

1) TAP WATER IS FINE IN MOST CASES. Tap water is regularly tested and local municipalties have to abide by super stringent water quality standards. Lots of research has gone into establishing these standards and confirming that the levels of compounds in the water are safe for human consumption.

According to a 4-year National Resource Defense Council report, bottled water companies frequently are not held to the same standards. For example, bottled water companies are not required to test for waterborne parasites like giardia (a parasite that looks like an old man and will give you a nasty case of diarrhea) while local water municipalaties are required to do so.

In fact, the same NRDC report that I mentioned above identified contamination (bacteria, arsenic and synthetic organic chemicals) in nearly 1/3 of the bottled waters that they tested. I tried to read the rebuttal argument to the NRDC report from Bottled Water Web (the “definitive bottled water site”), but only paying members are allowed to view the document.

2) LOTS OF BOTTLED WATER CAME FROM THE TAP TO BEGIN WITH. Between 25-40% of the bottled water found on shelves didn’t come from pristine mountain springs, but from the local water utility near bottled water production plants. On the plus side, this at least means that the water has met FDA standards…

For example, Coca-Cola’s Dasani and Pepsi’s Aquafina come from local water sources and pass the water through a few additional filters before marking it up 10,000% and sticking it on the shelves.

If you’ve examined the research and have decided that you personally believe the levels of certain compounds should be even lower than recommended, then fine. Go find a bottled water company that filters more of this compound out than local municipalities do. I am going to go out on a limb here and say that probably no more than 10% (I think this is a conservative estimate) of bottled water consumers have looked at the research and made an educated decision about buying their water.

3) BOTTLED WATER IS RIDICULOUSLY EXPENSIVE. I’m not convinced that tap water which is already totally safe for human consumption is worth a huge mark-up after being run through a few more filters. During my days in the food service industry (thank god those are over!) I remember selling bottled water to customers for $2.16. I would always offer to give them a glass of tap water, but many preferred the bottled water instead. I found this particularly amusing as we were selling Dasani, which I’ve already noted is simply refiltered tap water anyway. Anyway, if you consider that they could have gotten tap water for free then they’re essentially paying infinitely more for bottled water.

4) PACKAGING AND PROCESSING CAN INTRODUCE CONTAMINANTS. In the past, processing and packaging the tap water introduced bacteria, resulting in water that was less safe to consume than when it first left the faucet (references here and here). The last study that I read on this topic was published in 1998, so I’ll concede that the industry may have cleaned up its act by now. That doesn’t change the fact that the water has encountered a whole lot more surfaces and has had a lot more time to sit and culture bacteria than would water that came directly from the tap.

BottledWater5) WASTE. This one is pretty obvious, so I won’t harp on it for long. You can probably imagine how much plastic is wasted in packaging bottled water, but lots of water is wasted as well. For example, producing 1 liter of bottled water requires the usage of 3 liters of water in the production process. Here are some other fun facts.

To be fair, there are certainly some cases where it may be smart to drink bottled water. For example, if you have a kidney condition and need to avoid fluoride, then researching which bottled water companies remove fluoride and then purchasing water from that company may be a good idea.

If you’re ever in an area where you know the tap water is contaminated or are outside of the US in countries where the tap water isn’t well regulated, then again it might be a good idea to drink bottled water.

To reiterate, if you live in a town in which the EPA’s yearly water quality report has informed you that you have high, unsafe contaminant levels in your drinking water, then I’m NOT talking about you. But you’re in the minority, so I’m talking about nearly everyone else.

There certainly are times when spending a lot of money on bottled water makes sense, but the majority of bottled water sales are purchased outside of these circumstances. Part of the taxes I pay go to ensuring the quality of the tap water I consume. As I live in a city that boasts no water quality problems, I stay away from bottled water as much as possible.

Don’t Be a Sucker 101

Bottled water sales are a sure sign that there are a lot of suckers out there. The world is full of people who can be talked into buying or believing almost anything, but who would make far better decisions if they had a very basic understanding of subjects like chemistry, logic, and statistics. I would love to see a course entitled “Don’t Be a Sucker 101” taught as an after school program or as a college elective course. The course would cover these topics:

1) Ridiculously basic chemistry.

Concentration matters.

For example, there are currently a lot of people who think that fluoride is dangerous to human health, and there is even a group actively working to get officials to stop adding fluoride to our drinking water. For those who don’t know, fluoride is added to our drinking water because it decreases the rate of tooth decay. In fact, studies have shown that water defluoridation results in an 18-40% decrease in children’s cavities. For poor families who can’t afford good dental care, water fluoridation makes a big difference.

But the critics of fluoride have a point. It CAN be dangerous. The key point, however, is that it is only dangerous in high concentrations. Like many other compounds (e.g., niacin, Vitamin A, and copper), fluoride is beneficial to the human body at low concentrations but is toxic or even fatal at high concentrations. The levels at which we encounter fluoride in our day-to-day lives are typically within the healthy range.

2) Basic logic.

I think that this part is particularly important. Politicians and advertisers are constantly making illogical statements in an attempt to sway public opinion. Here are a few that I think people fall for pretty often:

Ignoratio elenchi. These are arguments that may be true, but are not relevant to the question at hand. For example, I’ve heard people argue that evolution can not be true because, if it were true, then life would have no meaning. The potential ethical implications of evolution are not relevant to the question of whether or not evolution is “true” and thus should not be included in arguments against evolution.

This type of logical fallacy seems particularly popular with politicians, who often avoid directly answering a question by diverting attention to an argument that they feel more comfortable making. If more people were watching out for ignoratio elenchi fallacies then perhaps we could hold more politicians accountable for answering the question they were actually asked.

Ad hominem. An ad hominem attack is when someone attempts to discredit a statement made by an opponent by attacking the person rather than addressing the claim. A good example of this can be found in a previous post, where the author tries to discredit the claims of a group of scientists by noting that these scientists once collaborated with a scientist who now has a bad reputation. They should have attacked the scientist’s methods and claims.

It definitely is important to take into consideration who is making a particular claim. If the person making the claim is an established liar, then you certainly want to take their arguments with a grain of salt. But if you’re arguing about the best way to deal with the financial crisis, for example, then the fact that your opponent smoked pot once in 10th grade probably isn’t relevant.

Appeal to authority. Check out my post on the worst advertisement ever for my favorite example. In essence, this type of argument hinges on the hope that the listener will believe a statement is true simply because it was made by a prominent figure. Lots of money is spent and poor decisions are made because people are more than willing to do what an authority figure directs them to do.

A particularly heinous way in which appeals to authority are used is in commercials with doctors to sell products. A doctor’s opinion on a particular product or procedure means nothing unless that doctor has conducted peer-reviewed research to back his opinion up. Unfortunately, many of us are quick to trust anything that comes out of a doctor’s mouth without carefully scrutinizing her statements.

3) Basic statistics.

People rarely question the statistics that they encounter on a day-to-day basis. For example, when you hear that 50% of people believe X, you should immediately ask yourself 1) What was the sample size on that poll? and 2) What sample population was polled (e.g., a call-in poll would have very different results if the viewers were calling in while watching Bill O’Reilly as opposed to Keith Olbermann)?

Many people also fail to put statistics into perspective. Hearing that 332 peopled died from swine flu sounds impressive, but it means nothing unless you also know how many people were infected total (and did not die) as well as information about the people that did die (e.g., were these 332 people immunocompromised or elderly?). I’m certainly not indicating that the swine flu or other emerging diseases should not attract our attention (or more importantly the attention of epidemiologists), but I do think that the publicity surrounding swine flu caused unnecessary hysteria in the United States.

Here is another good blog post on the misuse of statistics by creationists and AIDS denialists.

4) Home economics.

This course would cover the absolute basics, including what to expect when you get your first credit card, buy your first house, or take out your first loan. Who knows, maybe we could have avoided some of the current housing crisis if people understood what they were getting into.

Don’t Be a Sucker 101 wouldn’t even have to be a particularly long course. If the course met for 2 hour sessions once a week it could probably be done in a month’s time. Anyway, I’m looking forward to hearing about what you think belongs in a Don’t Be a Sucker course.

Should scientists be better public servants?

In an earlier blog I chastised parents for taking advice from celebrities like Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy on important health topics.  In the days since I wrote that blog I’ve been wondering about the scientist’s role as a public servant.  Could the scientific community have done more to counter this misinformation, perhaps preventing the decrease in vaccine use that we’re currently witnessing?

I believe that the answer is yes, we could have done more.  Vaccines aren’t the only area where greater scientist involvement could make a difference.  I’m confident that just about every scientific subdiscipline has something important to offer the public.

So how do we get this information to the public?  It won’t be easy, but I think we need to be proactive.  We could contact newspapers, TV stations and radio stations, for starters.  We could contact local high schools and offer to give special lectures to students during their scheduled science classes. 

But the question remains, “Are we obligated to do anything?”  It likely depends on which scientific position you hold, but the contracts that most of us have signed in no way state that we’re obligated to educate the public.  That being said, I think it’s important to remember that taxpayers pay our bills.  Whether you’re funded by NSF, NIH, the university or college that you work for or some other government agency, it’s likely that state and federal tax monies are going towards funding your projects and paying your bills. 

Despite this, it is the case that what we’re actually being paid to do is to either teach courses or conduct research.  Our bills are also being paid by the students sitting in the courses that we teach.  In fact, in academia at least, too much public service could be detrimental to your career.

Why don’t scientists spend more time engaging the public?

The answer, in my mind, is because it’s often detrimental to our careers.  It’ll probably take a lot of time and effort to really get the public’s attention (especially when we’re going up against celebrities) and many of us are in a system where we can’t afford to offer that kind of a time commitment.

If you’re a professor going up for tenure, then you’re going to be judged on a set of predetermined criteria.  I have yet to go through the tenure process myself (I’m still a graduate student), but I believe I have a pretty good understanding of what the criteria are for achieving tenure.  The tenure committee focuses on how many papers you’ve published and where you published them, how many courses you taught and how well you taught them, how capable you were at establishing your lab, and how much service you provided to the department and the institution as a whole. 


Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan

If you’re going to excel in all of these areas in the space of 7 years, then just about any activity you engage in that isn’t focused on achieving these ends is going to set you back.  I know people who have even put off having the children that they eventually want until after they’ve received tenure because they don’t even feel like they have time any spare time at all.  During the years when you’re really getting into the groove of what kind of a scientist you’re going to be, you’re keenly aware that you don’t have time to spend communicating with the public.  This is critical because, as far as I can tell, not making tenure is devastating to one’s career.


Once tenure has been reached, there is still no incentive to spend one’s time with the public.  Professional scientific societies and the scientific community as a whole primarily praise and award achievements in research, not public education.  So again, time spent communicating with the public is time that you’re taking away from advancing your career. 

So what is the solution?

I don’t think that change is going to come without a push from research institutions and professional societies.  For example, I think it would be absolutely fantastic if universities hired scientists who were paid to spend all of their time finding ways to communicate with the public.  They should be required to stay on top of important public issues (swine flu, vaccines, etc.) and should then disseminate this information through public media as well as more direct avenues (public lectures, etc.).

Alternatively, universities could offer professors limited teaching loads for a semester every couple years in return for time spent educating more publicly.  They would be charged with discussing whatever topics are pertinent in their field and would be required in some way to show that they had made a strong effort to get this information out.

The problem with both of these solutions is that they require even MORE taxpayer money to get them accomplished.  Hiring a scientist whose sole job it is to educate the public wouldn’t be cheap, nor would paying a professor who wasn’t teaching (as college students sitting in a classroom are paying tuition which keeps the university running).


E.O. Wilson

Until we figure out another solution, our hopes rest on the few scientists who really do try to reach out to the public.  There are and have been a few greats.  My personal favorites are Carl Sagan and E.O. Wilson

Many others have good intentions, but end up preaching to the choir.  Some choose channels that have a tendency to reach people who are already science minded.  Others close out those that they need to educate by insulting them for holding different beliefs or for not understanding the concepts that we’re trying to get across.  I guess my point here is that, if you’re a scientist interested in public education, please please please stay patient and don’t fuel the growing stereotype that scientists are assholes.  This makes it difficult for us to get the public to listen when it’s really important.

In conclusion….

I look forward to reading your comments in regard to this post.  I’m sure that there’ll be controversy over whether or not we should feel obligated to spend our time communicating with the public.  I’m not suggesting that all scientists should be obligated to do this, but simply that we could probably make a big difference if we did find ways to spend at least some of our time correcting misunderstandings and spreading new information.  What do you think?