Sunday, September 8, 2013

Is Healthcare a Right? I Still Have No Idea.

Well… I will cut it straight. This talk had nothing to do with healthcare. In fact, it had so little to do with healthcare that I was mildly angered. Bernard Harris started his talk by saying, “I know it says I came here to talk about healthcare, but I know you guys don’t want to hear about that.” … OF COURSE WE DO! That’s why we paid him to come here. Bernard Harris talked about being an astronaut for about a half an hour. He then discussed future technologies of how we can bring down the cost of healthcare. And that was it. I was stunned. I was not engaged in any sort of mental stimulation or deep thought about human rights.

Universal Healthcare is still a topic that I am on the fence about. While people deserve a right to being healthy isn’t there an expectation under a universal plan that a person does what they can to be healthy. We talk in this country all the time about “abusing the system.” Under Universal Healthcare wouldn’t being obese or smoking cigarettes suddenly become an abuse of the system and a voiding of an individual’s right to health. When you are delivered your Miranda rights you are told that you have the right to remain silent, but as soon as you talk you have voided that right. Should we treat healthcare the same way? If you smoke a cigar at graduation that isn’t a big deal, but a two pack-per-day-smoker maybe doesn’t deserve healthcare. When this law goes into place and people see a smoker getting the lung transplant over the non-smoker the proverbial shit will hit the fan.

Another reason I am skeptical of Universal Healthcare is that I have no clue how the system is supposed to suddenly deal with an influx of millions of new patients. Every time I mention this the counterargument typically looks like this: “Well now that these people are insured they are less afraid to go to the doctor for early symptoms and the system actually ends up spending less money in the long run because we have fewer people in the ER with severe illnesses.” I admit this idea seems logical and even very likely, but that still does not answer the question of how our medical infrastructure is supposed to handle millions more people. Do we have enough doctors? If we do, are they in the correct fields? Do we have enough equipment? Do we have enough hospitals and doctors’ offices?

These questions segue nicely into my final concern: rationing. During the afternoon discussion with Harris he talked about rationing. In fact, he said it was inevitable. He stated this as if it was no big deal. To me, rationing is the biggest concern. If I need a heart transplant I do NOT want to be told, “Sorry. You don’t get one.” Rationing is the kind of thing that sounds fine until it affects me. I, for one, do not want to be a part of a healthcare ration. Maybe that’s selfish, but right now I have good enough insurance to get a heart transplant and I don’t want to lose that right. That last word in that sentence is “right.” I (or rather my parents, currently) pay enough so that we deserve good healthcare. Won’t people who are paying for insurance currently, lose their right to good healthcare in the ration system envisioned by Bernard Harris? I think so.

I believe Universal Healthcare can be enacted correctly if we use smart legislation, health incentives, and really good science. I do not want to lose what I have, so any system that is attempting to change the healthcare system better not be changing my healthcare for the worse. Call it selfish. Call in greedy. But at the end of the day are you alright losing your health or your life for the good of a new healthcare system?

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Assignment 10

Why are some people gay or queer or bisexual or questioning or just not heteronormative? We do not have an answer to that question and it is possible we may never know. Or it may be that there simply is no reason, but there are definitely things we know that do not cause deviance from the established heterosexual norm.
In a recent Huffington Post article an elderly Italian researcher was interviewed and quoted saying that vaccines cause homosexuality and this change in sexuality can somehow be handed down from one generation to the next. The inanity of his claim is clear: mercury in vaccines can cause precise genetic shifts which cause this change in sexuality. This  is entirely unfounded in science. But I don't want to write a whole angry post about people's attitudes toward homosexuality in the western world.
No, this article is an extreme example of something that is likely more common than we think: people with advanced degrees plaguing on people's lack of knowledge on a subject. This man is clearly a cracked scientist and he uses his training and commendations to convince others that he has answers. In this case I think it is clear to many (although, not all, unfortunately) that this information is false. But in other cases, people in his position can perpetuate misinformation.
Scientists like him undermine those who are practicing good science. Opponents of science can point at this man as anecdotal evidence that scientists are not to be trusted. The danger people like this pose to the institution of scientific research is quite high. I only wish people could see that the majority of scientists are not like this, but only scientists like this guy are really making headlines. It gives a false perception that this is a big problem.
Honestly, the best way to make people like this guy go away are to stop putting them in the news. Who cares if some wing-nut says vaccines make us gay. I see crazy people in the subway making outlandish claims. The only two differences between this researcher and the people on the subway are their commendations and the amount of press they receive. We have the power to take away one of those things from him. If we stop paying attention to these insane and inflammatory individuals it can do a lot for the credibility of the scientific community.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Assignment 9

A question I have always struggled with is does a person reflect the news program that they watch or does a news program in some way reflect the individual? In some way, it's both.
I have worked for a widowed octogenarian for about 4 years now just doing her housework and gardening. We are very close and she is a good friend of mine, but she watches Fox News. It is a clear and unspoken rule that we leave political conversation light and agreeable because we know that we won't agree on a single major issue. Sometimes we break this rule and when she starts spouting her opinion I hear Fox News in her words. Clearly, a media outlet like Fox is influencing her ideas just like NPR influences what I say.
But then there is other side of the coin. If I didn't possess many of the same biases as my particular news outlet, then would I listen to what they say? The answer is, "probably not." I try to balance myself out sometimes by mixing conservative talk radio in with my NPR... It's infuriating. I yell and scream and shout at the radio. "HOW? HOW? HOW can you BELIEVE that?" or "WHY? Why on Earth did you treat that caller with such disrespect? That's not fair." or simply "sigh..."
There is a positive feedback loop. The news tries to draw in a niche audience because attempting to appeal to all viewers would be incredibly difficult. If a news outlet creates an image that a certain type of person feels comfortable with then that person will follow that news source. In return the news outlet feeds listeners the biases they want to hear.
So, to pin the blame entirely on the media outlet is unfair. While the expectation of a media outlet is to be unbiased, anyone you ask will tell you that there is no such thing as an unbiased news source. Yes, a media outlet has an agenda: to keep their viewership and increase their influence, but a news outlet's desire to really report on news for increasing knowledge or informing the public is secondary to the reality of increasing profit margins and market share.
The answer to this question, "How might the goals of a media outlet affect their audience's knowledge?" is a complicated one. News media wants to keep its viewers so it must stay true to its perceived code if it wishes to do this. At the same time viewers crave media that they feel most aligns with their ideals. It's a complicated mixture of what the providers and consumers expect to receive from media.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Assignment 8

I think presenting balance in scientific writing can easily be compared to how we present data in science. In science we find results and we create a confidence limit, which means we take a set of random data and we say the 95% of the data closest to the average are accepted and the radical data, or outliers, are left out. Sometimes the outliers may deserve mention, but often times they do not.
The same can be said for writing about science for the public. If 95% of the scientists say that global warming exists (I actually think it's more like 99%, but I am not sure) then is it really worth it to include the 5% that are the outliers? No. This 95% is an overwhelming majority. If there was a 50-50 split in the scientific community or even an 80-20 split, I think it would be important to present the other side. But 5% is such a samll minority.
That is not to say those 95% agree on every aspect of global warming. The mechanics of climate changes is still very much up for debate. We need to accept their predictions on the average. The average says that global warming is real and it is a considerable threat. We can ignore the outliers in this instance, i.e. the doomsday-types that say we will all be dead tomorrow and the deniers that reject the theory of global warming outright.
But the issue that keeps nagging at the back of my head is this: what if they are right? Copernicus was a radical. He was an outlier when he said the Earth revolved around the Sun, but his ideas turned out to be right. What if that's true of the global warming nay-sayers and or the people that say HIV doesn't cause AIDS? What if those folks are correct? My idea is that if they are correct then that will become clear through the continuation of good science. In other words, it's acceptable losses. I will believe the 95% for now. This is why we test and retest and try new experiments. If our theories are wrong then that will become clear with time. If we follow the wrong path for now then the best we can say down the road is that we tried. It's a risk. But not a very big risk. For the handful of times that the outliers have been correct there have been thousands of times that they haven't. Like I said before: acceptable losses.
So when debating if we should present the other side in a story it is important to look at how big that other side is. Is it one wing-nut shouting from a street corner or is a respectably-sized group of independent research teams coming to a similar conclusion? Stick with the 95% when presenting science. If there is no 95% then that is when you present both sides of the argument.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Assignment 7

Drawings of scientists
My Drawing
Gender: Male
Age: 60s
Facial expression: poker faced
Clothing: Lab coat over button down shirt and dress pants
Grooming: Silver hair slicked to the side like a stone-cold silver fox. Clean shaven.
Height: Medium stature
Skin color: White
Eye color: Brown
Build: Thin, but not scrawny

My Friend's Drawing
Gender: Male
Age: 60s
Facial expression: sinister or frustrated?
Clothing: Lab coat buttoned up
Grooming: Bald. Moustache.
Height: Medium stature
Skin color: White
Eye color: N/A
Build: Scrawny

When I look at these drawings and think about the scientists I interact with daily I find them to be quite similar. First, and most strikingly obvious, is their skin color. In the chemistry department every professor is white with one exception of a Latina professor. My experience in the biology department has been with all white professors although I have only had a few bio classes. My two math teachers have been white.The list goes on like that. Not just in the sciences, but in all of higher education. We are used to being taught by white people, especially men (although the gender trend is shifting, I believe, more quickly then the racial trend).
Both my friend's drawing and mine were of males. I thought about drawing a woman when I first got the assignment to draw a scientist, but I thought that would be odd for me to do that as a male. I am not sure why that is. Maybe I somehow expect that as a male I should aspire to follow male scientists as role models, which may speak to a deep-rooted expectation of gender roles in my life.
Age was another striking thing. I am used to looking up to older white, males as my science teachers. In high school my two favorite science teachers were older white men and the same can be said for my two favorite science teachers here, as well.
Neither my friend and I drew the "wacky scientist" though. This makes sense since we are both science people. While I know many eccentric scientists I do not know many with the Einstein hair and badly-matched clothing. My friend's drawing did have a sinister expression, but I think he was trying to make him appear as if he was thinking hard. Neither he or I are particularly good artists.
Finally, the lab coat is important. I have only seen one professor on campus in a lab coat so I don't know where this idea really comes from. I guess it is more of an identifier for the person viewing the drawing. Once you see a lab coat it becomes obvious what the artist is trying to convey about the identity and role of that person even if many scientists don't actually wear a lab coat.

As a science writer, the stereotypes represented by these drawings can make our view of interviewees more narrow then it should be. When seeking out experts we are looking for someone who looks like an expert. I expect a sagacious, aged man in a lab coat to sit me down and tell me all I need to know about some complex subject. But this is a prejudice I (and other people) need to rid myself of. Scientists come in all colors, genders, and ages. Some of the brightest professors on this campus are extremely young (only 10 or 15 years older than me). One of our most qualified chemistry professors (she graduated from Oxford) is a young woman. Why I assume intelligence comes with age is an old idea that must be thrown out. I cannot carry a bias when listening to an expert opinion just because a person is in their 30's rather than their 50's, or is a woman rather than a man.

I think an notable prejudice that people carry when considering what scientists are like cannot be easily conveyed in a drawing. Scientists are typically thought of as eccentric, impersonal people with few friends and an obsession for their work. While science certainly attracts a good deal of eccentrics and socially-awkward people there are many great scientists who are just normal people. Scientists are thought to only advance their work without considerations of the ethical implications, but the scientists I know are people with families and homes and lives. They are people who put family and community first. They constantly question the ethical dilemmas that science brings with it and encourage their students to do the same. I hope that as a science writer I can come to recognize every person as a potential science expert because physical characteristics do not make the expert; it's about what they know that counts.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Assignment 6

Francis Bacon believed that the senses deceived us in two distinct ways. They either alter our perception of what is actually occurring or they completely fail us. When he wrote the New Organon, which is the foundation of modern science, he wanted us to abandon our dependency on the senses and instead use experimentation to acquire knowledge. Basically, he started the argument between trusting our instincts and disregarding them.
A lot of conventional wisdom revolves around going with our gut feeling. It is said that on a multiple-choice test the first answer you circle is typically the right one. And when it comes to taking a risk we are supposed to "not think about it; just do it." But is all this gut-trusting really something we should welcome into the scientific community? Yes and no. Basing an experiment on a hunch is what science is all about. We think that maybe X is true so we test it, but instinct should never make it into the laboratory. When we are in the lab and a suddenly gas Y is seen evaporating off the reaction we should not just assume it is hydrogen and move on. Maybe it's nitrogen and that could change everything.
Instinct also has a place after we perform the experiment. That's basically what a theory is. We have all this data and our gut says, "This data seems to insinuate that X causes Y." Granted, we have something to back up our gut with, i.e. scientific data, but even with numbers our idea may not be true. Just because one guy figured something out does not mean it is correct.
Which brings me to the science writer. Is it their place to use their gut when writing a story? No. Not at all. First of all, as a journalist they should not be reporting on anything except what is factual or what is stated in interviews. Secondly, to include educated guesses or gut feelings from you, the writer, is not accurate. You are not an expert and have no place to be making such an assessment.
Things become a little less clear when we are quoting our sources. If a doctor lays out three possible theories for why X causes Y then all three should be included. Even though all three possibilities are based on the gut feeling of a scientist, they are educated proposals.
What if the whole subject matter is based on a gut-feeling, though? Is it fair to write about it? Is it fair to call it science journalism? To talk about something that we are not sure is true is to propagate falsehoods and animosity towards science. Take the bees for instance. It seems there are millions of different reasons why people seem to think that the bees are disappearing from their hives. It's global warming, pesticides, diseases, parasites, loss of habitat, genetically modified pollen, cell phone towers, industrialization of the bee industry, and so on and so on. Some of these allegations seem to have more merit than others, but every time we see an article about the bees it is hard to tell if this is an article based on a hunch or research.
As discussed in my last post, the propagation of misinformation is awful for the public. It is damaging to our perception of truth and science. It is possible that a hunch is correct, but a science writer should never state a hunch as fact. If they do want to include an expert's speculation the comment should be labelled as such.
And it is easy to understand why a science writer wants to write a sensationalist piece about a hunch. For one, if it is a really juicy story then that means they can get their name out there. Also, it is understandable that maybe we feel obligated to publish a gut-feeling before the research has moved forward because if people believe it and the gut-feeling turns out to be correct then you saved a lot of people from a lot of trouble.
But it is still important to wait for the data and to only report on data. It is also important to label all speculation as such. When writing about science it feels right to stay grounded in research because you are being honest with the reader. So when writing an article, just go with your gut: stick to the facts.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Assignment 5

People like patterns. This is a simple part of our cognitive process that made living as hunter-gatherers easier. We eat a mushroom. We have an upset stomach. We throw-up. That means the mushroom caused our stomach problems so we should avoided it in the future. Learning through correlation is what makes living possible, but unfortunately, correlation- as the saying goes- does not mean causation. Maybe there was a bacteria on the fungus that made us sick. The mushroom may be perfectly edible if we just wash it. In order to find causation science takes our impulse to jump to conclusions and throws it out the window.
We have a very particular method in science that aims to remove as much human bias as possible, but unfortunately some methods designed by scientists are inadequate and fail to do this. In 1998, Wakefield et al famously published a paper that was ethically and methodologically flawed. They determined vaccines may cause autism in toddlers. Their conclusions were unfounded and the paper was retracted 12 years later. But the damage was done. There is a large portion of our population that still believes vaccines cause autism.
Does this mean that these people are scientifically illiterate? Yes. Just as people who refuse to acknowledge climate change ignore the majority of evidence supporting its existence, people believing in the autism-vaccine link latch on to one or two pieces of evidence contrary to the overwhelming majority of research findings. Science is based on consensus. If one study says A and twenty thousand studies say B it is typically the case that B is correct. Now this is not always so. Copernicus said the earth revolved around the sun and he was outnumbered. But people tested his theory and found he was correct. Reproducibility of results is key to science's claim to being declared as truth. Denial of the majority of evidence directly contradicts science's foundations.
That is not to say it is unacceptable to question results. We must always double check findings in science because verification is also important to the scientific process.
So what does the above information mean for the writer of science. First of all, basing your writing on one study is a mistake. Always check to see if others agree with the results of the particular paper you are studying. Also, the previous information tells us that debunking theories (whether true or false) is very difficult. People like to take what makes sense because of correlation and accept it as true. In fact, we do more than accept these correlations. We become married to ideas and emotionally invested in what we believe is true. Challenging peoples perceptions of truth can often be an construed as an attack on them, personally. When writing for science it is important to carefully lay out why one theory is incorrect and why another is true. Instead, of bulldozing someone's perception of reality, it is better to deconstruct it carefully and then rebuild it.
Correlation and causation are at the heart of this argument  As scientists and science writers we must be very careful to differentiate between the two and base our research on the latter, because basing it on the former can be devastating for the public's perception of truth.