Archive for the ‘breaking news’ Category

Borders can’t contain persistent ignorance.

Yesterday, a creation museum opened in the US. In a few weeks, one will open in Canada. No, really.

The province of Alberta has the distinction of hosting both of the creation museums north of the 49th parallel. There’s the traveling museum of Creation Truth Ministries, and the Big Valley Creation Science Museum which will open this summer. Both of these awful websites pale in comparison to the Creationist 2.0 glory made available by their wealthier American cousin, Answers in Genesis.

This might remind you about the dismay in the scientific community when the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) denied Brian Alters a grant to study Detrimental effects of popularizing anti-evolution’s ‘intelligent design theory’ on Canadian students, teachers, parents, administrators, and policymakers. The stated reasons:

The committee found that the candidates were qualified. However, it judged the proposal did not adequately substantiate the premise that the popularization of Intelligent Design Theory had detrimental effects on Canadian students, teachers, parents and policy makers. Nor did the committee consider that there was adequate justification for the assumption in the proposal that the theory of Evolution, and not Intelligent Design theory, was correct. It was not convinced, therefore, that research based on these assumptions would yield objective results. In addition, the committee found that the research plans were insufficiently elaborated to allow for an informed evaluation of their merit. In view of its reservations the committee recommended that no award be made. [emphasis added]

When this hit the press, SSHRC’s Janet Halliwell characterized this as a “framing” problem, and later was compelled to say “The theory of evolution is not in doubt”. I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, but it should be noted that the members of the SSHRC committee who reviewed the grant proposal were not biologists.

  1. Susan Bennett (Chairperson), English literature professor at the University of Calgary
  2. Lawrence Felt, sociology professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland
  3. Ruby Heap, history professor at University of Ottawa
  4. Gilbert Larochelle, human sciences professor at the Universite du Quebec a Chicoutimi
  5. Ruth Rose, economics professor at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal.

Coverage of the new Alberta museum is rare, and the timing suggests it is about providing a local angle to the news of last weekend’s creationist museum opening. Perhaps Canadians just aren’t interested in this, except as a commentary on how we might be different from Americans.

Given the political context – 3 Republican candidates for the presidential election do not believe in evolution! – the American museum has had more attention in the press. The New York Times treated it with kid gloves in its culture reportage, Adam and Eve in the Land of the Dinosaurs. The Washington Post does a little bit better in its story about A Monument To Creation, but the strongest words come from an LA Times editorial, Yabba-dabba science, which begins:

Note to would-be Creation Museum visitors: the Earth is round.

Thank you, LA Times.

Some of the best and most critical coverage of this comes from the blogosphere. At Pharyngula, PZ Myers has a good round-up at his Creation Museum carnival. See also the posts at the Panda’s Thumb and Boing Boing.

I ask again: Can neurophilosophers out there tell me why people are so susceptible to this sort of nonsense?


After enjoying this comic about beliefs, consider a weekend exploring The Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller. Take more time if you’d like to see more of Dinosaur Provincial Park and the Canadian Badlands.

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What should we make of dinosaur publishers leading the charge against dangerous drugs?

On Monday, GlaxoSmithKline received some bad news about Avandia, its drug for diabetes patients. According to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, Avandia – Rosiglitazone Maleate – increases the risk of heart attack.

Here’s the report, although readers without medical training may find it impenetrable:

For a measure of the confusion that results from this type of disclosure, see Dr. Charles’ coverage at Unanswered Questions About Avandia & More on Avandia. [Update: see also this Washington Post article, presented as a FAQ.]

This may remind readers of the medical, financial and legal panic following indications that Cox-2 Inhibitors prescribed to arthritis sufferers had serious side effects. The most popular of the Cox-2 drugs were Celebrex (sold by Pfizer) and Vioxx (sold by Merck). Responding to panicking patients, doctors, regulators, and investors, the FDA and Health Canada were quick to issue warnings.

The Vioxx scandal was a natural result of a general failure to regulate drug safety, and there were widespread calls for closer and more reliable monitoring – both before and after their approval for sale by government agencies. The targets for regulatory reform don’t tax common-sense:

  1. the merits of post-market surveillance, including provisional licensing.
  2. the dangers of early pre-market licensing, and
  3. the unhealthy demand created for untried prescription medications by direct-to-consumer advertising.

An editorial from the journal of the Canadian Medical Association nicely summed up the problem, and advocated a sweeping regulatory solution:

The FDA and Health Canada have demonstrated their structural inability to do ongoing safety monitoring of new drugs and devices, and industry is far too conflicted to be able to carry out this important task. We need new national agencies to monitor drug safety independently from the approvals process. Only then can physicians and patients be assured an unbiased safety assessment of the drugs they are prescribing and taking.

Two years later, and very little has changed at either agency. Despite tentative forays in the US Congress, and ‘critical path‘ talks at the FDA, no legislation has been passed which would respond to the problem. In Canada, discussions about progressive licensing have yet to assume regulatory force, and there are indications the situation will become worse, not better.

The most significant development has come from member journals of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE), who issued a statement declaring they will only publish trials previously registered with ClinicalTrials.gov, a database hosted by the National Institutes of Health.

Soon after, the ICMJE adopted recommendations of the World Health Organization, in part to counter Big Pharma’s attempts to circumvent their requirements.

This is a story with enough alarm and money involved that it has gained significant attention. But unlike the Vioxx ‘fallout’ story in 2004, this story is made new by an extra twist. Major newspapers are framing it as a triumph for open access to information.

Each of these focus on how Nissen and Wolski used information culled from GlaxoSmithKline’s own public database, the Clinical Trial Register.

This story works. It has a personalized David and Goliath theme that invites schadenfreude when a large drug company is caught by its own data.

I worry, though, that this will create confidence in informal drug monitoring that relies on whistle-blowing by objective and motivated researchers and medical journals.

It’s already happening.

Joe Weisenthal at Techdirt, floats the idea that medical journals could replace the FDA.

Looking down the road, one could envision a system whereby it’s the FDA’s job to ensure that drug companies properly report safety and efficacy data, while third parties (think highly specialized versions of Consumer Reports) make judgments on a drug. Then, instead of having blanket pronouncements on whether a drug can be sold or not, it would be up to doctors to weigh all the risks and decide what’s best for their patients on an individual basis.

This a dangerous and naive view of informed medical choice. Front-line physicians don’t have the time, resources or skill to mount strict, comprehensive and authoritative analysis of drugs. GlaxoSmithKline’s Rosiglitazone Studies are no good to your family doctor. Moreover, doctors are swayed by drug marketing and browbeaten by patient advocating specific treatments.

Even worse, we can’t rely on uncoordinated third-party research specialists to study all of the effects of medicines that go to market, and we can’t rely on peer-reviewed journals to publish only good results.

Open access to the data is a good idea, but it is not enough. Public health cannot take place voluntarily or in a legal vacuum. We need regulation to enforce that open access, we need regulation to uncover harmful effects and screen for snake-oil ‘alternative therapies’, and we need regulation to free doctors and patients from biased sales pitches.

Absent this, informed choice about medical treatment is a myth.

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Quick question: Is colour in your head or on the computer screen?

If you aren’t a philosopher, your first response might be, ‘Does it really matter?’ In this case, it does. A class action lawsuit depends on it.

In the suit the question becomes: is Apple misrepresenting their MacBook and MacBook Pro if they advertise displays capable of millions of colours, when they are really just selling displays that allow the perception of millions of colours?

The plaintiffs in this class action lawsuit, Fred Greaves and Dave Gatley, complain in their filing:

The reality is that notwithstanding Apple’s misrepresentations and suggestions that its MacBook and MacBook Pro display “millions of colors,” the displays are only capable of displaying the illusion of millions of colors through the use of a software technique referred to as “dithering,” which causes nearby pixels on the display to use slightly varying shades of colors that trick the human eye into perceiving the desired color even though it is not truly that color.

There is a rich literature on the philosophy of colour. Somehow, I doubt any of it will be used in court.

The blogosphere’s Cult of Mac is ripe with commentary. Hat-tip to Ars Technica via Apple 2.0 via Slashdot. See also Engadget and Apple Insider.

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One sided journalism isn’t something I normally associate with Canada’s national newspaper. However, the Globe & Mail’s story on Warner Brothers’ decision to abandon advance screenings in Canadian theaters doesn’t even bother to get its facts straight.

(Update: Michael Geist and Rob Hyndman notice this too.)

Apart from the nature of the coverage, what I found astonishing was this quote from Brian Masse. He is an NDP Member of Parliament who sits on the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology.

We have a serious problem with [camcording in theatres] not being in the Criminal Code; that’s a no-brainer to fix.

Just a moment… The NDP Industry Critic says this is a no-brainer?

With such a broad consensus among political parties, I must be oblivious to something so obvious that it trumps the spectrum of political motivations.

The NDP is known to be a party of anti-corporate idealists, and relies on the support of hyper-aware young people who know this piracy issue is being overblown by industry. They also like being seen as the party holding the ruling Conservatives to account. Why, then, don’t they make this an issue of political debate where they can take advantage of having the facts on their side?

Quite apart from the politics, does a specific prohibition on camcorders in movie theaters really belong in the Criminal Code of Canada? Is this a pressing and substantial concern that isn’t already dealt with by the s.42 of the Copyright Act? Can someone please make a cogent argument for this, so I know what I’m missing?

Even more frustrating is how the committee seems to have made up its mind, and are not even pretending they were informed by Geist’s presentation to them last week.

On the basis of his opening remarks, I wonder if it is a bad idea to enter the debate by stressing that more research needs to be done. Academics and scientists do this all of the time, and other academics and scientists know what this means. But politicians aren’t known for their nuance in matters of epistemology. Anything opening the door to uncertainty lets policy makers be led by political interests, bad evidence and rhetorical appeals to a sweeping sort of precautionary principle which mandates “any law is better than no law”.

We have enough data to make a policy decision about this. Why don’t we just frame it nicely, send it to our elected representatives, and give them a multiple-choice test afterwards so we know they are aware of the issues.

Postscript links:

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The Encyclopedia of Life (www.eol.org) has a beautiful front page. Once you enter, though, you’re going to be disappointed. For now, the website is a glorified press release with no useful content – unless you’re desperate for information that happens to be covered in one of the 6 demo pages.

It’s Wikipedia page was also created today, and is similarly light on content.

When will the site live up to its name? From their FAQ:

Development of Encyclopedia web pages will begin later this year… we believe that we can produce the full encyclopedia in about 10 years… We expect to have actual, authenticated species pages available by mid 2008.

The number of species threatened with extinction should speed that up a bit. However, the project plans to eventually include extinct species in its coverage. According to the project’s executive director, James Edwards, the Encyclopedia of Life will also include creatures that have been dead for millions of years. His reasoning is simple.

If we don’t include dinosaurs, we’ll have lost 6-year-old boys.

Why is the project getting so much press and reaction in the blogosphere? Apart from the audacious scale of the project, which will make its results publicly available to everyone, it will have a higher degree of authority than sources like Wikipedia. Here is the project’s description of their methodology, also from their FAQ:

Unlike conventional encyclopedias, where an editorial team sits down and writes the entries, the Encyclopedia will be developed by bringing together (“mashing up”) content from a wide variety of sources. This material will then be authenticated by scientists, so that users will have authoritative information.

It is unfortunate that the list of potential contributors to the EOL does not include science publishers. Here is an opportunity for their journals to contribute to a large human enterprise, and they should be encouraged to take part. Perhaps the Public Library of Science can spearhead the effort.

In the meantime, we can refer to another encyclopedia for a philosophical discussion of the concept of species.

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