Science

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Margaret McCartney

Simon Singh goes to the UK courts today (Tuesday 23rd February) in an appeal against a preliminary ruling in a libel action raised by the British Chiropractic Association. I wish him well.

Another libel action is ongoing on in the UK against cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst, who is being sued after comments made about results in connection with research done by US company NMT Medical.

There is an unsettling feeling in the UK about libel law: many scientists and doctors are speaking out about it as a bad way to judge scientific proof and evidence.

The potential cost puts many people off even pursuing debate and many choose to settle before a case knowing they may not be able to afford it.

You can read about Dr Wilmshurst’s case here and he is also interviewed on Radio 4 for a programme Science on Trial.

I would urge you to consider signing the petition if you have not done so already. Sense about science: National petition for libel law reform

Clive Cookson

The American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting – the world’s biggest and most diverse scientific conference – kicks off tonight in San Diego.
The AAAS president this year, Peter Agre, mixes modesty with humour in his opening question-and-answer session with the world’s science journalists, who always flock to the annual meeting.
He expresses sympathy about the decline in their trade, particularly in the US, as newspapers and broadcasters slim down in a desperate attempt to survive in competition with new web-based media. Science is suffering along with most other journalistic specialities.
“Newsrooms across the US are being gutted,” laments Agre, who won the Nobel chemistry prize in 2003 for discovering how water gets through cell walls. “Visiting a newsroom is sometimes like visiting an empty warehouse.”

Margaret McCartney

Miracles and medics are unlikely bedfellows, especially when the mattress is hard, unforgiving and demands a weight of evidence. Doctors witness unlikely things all the time in the normal swing of medical life, and it is usually difficult to seduce them into the opinion that unseen hands were at work.

The Roman Catholic Church itself imposes strict liturgical standards before it declares a miracle. Take, for example, the case of Jack Sullivan, a 71-year-old American deacon who had spinal surgery in 2001, in a bid to stop his vertebrae impinging on his spinal cord. His condition had been deteriorating towards paralysis, but at operation, his case was discovered to be hopeless. The fault in the spine was much worse than thought. Sullivan prayed to Cardinal John Henry Newman, a 19th century convert to Roman Catholicism – and recovered. Sullivan’s surgeon told him: “Jack, there’s no medical explanation for what happened to you: if you want an answer, ask God!”

Continue reading “Magical medicine”

Andrew Jack

Good news for those attempting to extend antiretroviral treatment to the many millions of people with HIV in developing countries who need medicines but do not receive them.

An extensive study over six years in Uganda and Zimbabwe supported by the UK’s Medical Research Council in Africa suggests that up to a third more patients could be offered treatment, even given existing stretched domestic resources, thanks to a simple trade-off.

The Dart study, published in the latest issue of the Lancet, suggests that regular laboratory monitoring for toxic effects is costly and unnecessary, diverting funds that could instead be used to provide more drugs to patients at an earlier point in the development of the disease.

The researchers, led by Diana Gibb, argue CD4 testing, to measure the breakdown of the body’s immune response, should take place after two years’ treatment to determine whether to switch to more expensive “second-line” therapies.

Margaret McCartney

Last Saturday, How To Spend It ran an interview with Professor Susan Greenfield, who is famous as a neuroscientist and a life peer. And she says that one of the “grooming staples I’m never without [is] Boots No 7 Protect and Perfect Intense Beauty Serum (£19.75) – it is, they tell us, clinically proven to reduce wrinkles. And I believe it.”

If Baroness Greenfield is having trouble sorting the science from the spin….oh dear. I wrote about this face cream earlier this year. Since the conclusions of the scientists studying this cream were that the improvement in appearances between the placebo cream and the No 7 cream were “not statistically significant”, I felt it wasn’t the breakthrough it was being touted as.

Margaret McCartney

The UK Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, fired Professor Alan Nutt – former chief drugs advisor – at the end of last week after he criticised the government for reclassifying cannabis for political, rather than science-based reasons. This sacking is a disaster.

Prof Nutt’s government post was unpaid and, by the sounds of things, demanding of time and energy. You can read about some of his university work and research: biography and research interests of proff Nutt. His approach is rooted in evidence. He clearly saw his job as making sure the government understood and were updated, on what is known about the harms of illegal drugs.

Prof Nutt was accused of “lobbying for change in policy” about the classification of cannabis. He felt that there was no evidence to make cannabis a class B drug, and should have been made class C. But the government disagreed and discharged him of his duties.

Prof Nutt’s sacking is a disaster because it implies, firstly, that debate is unhealthy. If you look in any medical journal, or attend any lecture at a conference, you will find people noisily going on about what the degrees of certainty are and what isn’t known.  This is good: this is what can cause progress.

Second, it means that independent experts may only be appointed in future if it is felt they will keep quiet where there is disagreement between evidence and politicians, or will only interpret evidence to suit political masters.

Ultimately, this leads to a loss of confidence in the “independent” evidence government is exposed to. And lastly, it is a disaster for science. There will be incidences where government does not wish to take up the advice of experts for various reasons, and sometimes this might be warranted.

But that gulf should be visible to us, the electorate, as a means to judge our elected representatives. This debacle, frankly, does not do the Labour government any favours.

Margaret McCartney

My eldest and I have been giggling at a book “F in Exams: The Funniest Test Paper Blunders”, which includes such gems as:

Q: Name two religions.

A: The Force (Jedi) and Football.

This amused us greatly.

What’s the difference with this next multiple choice one?.

Q: Which of the following explain(s) the physiological relationships between qi and blood/xue. 

A: Qi is the source of all material in the body and blood carries the energy

B: Blood is the source of all material in the body including Qi

C: Qi drives blood moving and blood carries Qi

D: Qi flows in the channels and blood is stored in organs

E: Qi produce blood and blood is the mother of Qi

Well, this is a real exam paper, and it isn’t funny. It is an exam paper from Salford University’s Traditional Chinese Medicine course. The wonderful David Colquhoun gives access to the full paper plus the story behind the Pittilo report

This report would, if implemented, create lots more nonsense exam papers funded by a lot more public money  – and would produce practitioners without the absolutely crucial skill of how to assess evidence and reject or use it appropriatly. 

As a GP, this makes me very concerned – after all, if someone has a degree, and is “regulated” by the government, surely you’d think the “treatment” on offer works? Sadly, and worryingly, no.

The public may now respond to the Pittilo report.  Please do.

Margaret McCartney

I’m taking a couple of weeks off the blog to hide from the heat, the lack of which I usually complain about. In the meantime, two thought-provoking treats: an excellent article on cancer screening – It is not wrong to say no – from Dr Iona Heath, who is the new president of the Royal College of General Practitioners. I understand it is a mainly ceremonial role, but hope that her philosophy of what medicine can, can’t and shouldn’t do is heard in Whitehall and beyond. And another of my heroines, Hazel Thornton, writes passionately about medical statistics and the disservices they can be put to: Statistical illiteracy is damaging our health. Doctors and patients need to understand numbers if meaningful dialogues are to occur

Joe Stirt , my favourite blogging anaesthetist, has put up a nice post about the effects of proprofol, the anasthetic drug: Diprivan (Propofol) and Michael Jackson and has also alerted me to an article in the Wall Street Journal about virtual doctoring: The doctor will text you now. Emailing could be a very time-efficient way to deal with quick-ish queries from patients you know pretty well, but is it the future for more consultations? We don’t know it’s any better than phone calls or if it’s unsafe – can we discriminate what can wait in an email queue or what needs to be dealt with urgently (medics get this wrong, too.) 

Otherwise, I am going to try and get to Bristol before too long: having heard great things about the Banksy exhibition at Bristol Museum. And if you haven’t yet signed up to Keep the Libel Laws out of Science, please consider doing so.

By Rebecca Knight

What makes us good at putting a name to a face?

A new study by researchers at Vanderbilt University has found that our brains process faces differently from other objects because of our tendency to see people and faces as individuals, which may explain why we are so good at recognising them in the first place.

Scientists have long debated whether we are better able to recognise faces because our brains have evolved a system dedicated to this task, or simply because we have a lot of practice in doing so. Researchers agree that we distinguish faces holistically – which is generally not how we recognise other objects. For instance, we find it nearly impossible to focus on only a person’s nose or mouth and ignore the rest, while we can identify a particular car by its branding, taillights, or grill.

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About our regular bloggers

Margaret McCartney is a Glasgow-based GP and FT Weekend columnist. She started writing for the Life and Arts section in 2005 and moved to the magazine in 2008. She also has her own blog: www.margaretmccartney.com/blog

Clive Cookson has been a science journalist for the whole of his working life. He joined the FT in 1987. Clive, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education.

Andrew Jack is pharmaceuticals correspondent, covering the industry and public health issues. He has been a journalist with the FT for 19 years, based in London, Paris and Moscow

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