Archive for August 2009

Deep Thought…NHS edition

August 18, 2009

I’m staying in London in a relative’s home just a couple of blocks down from the Royal Free Hospital.

I wonder if such proximity to the availability of no-questions asked healthcare will achieve the pre-communist softening of the brain so cunningly avoided when the city fathers of my home town, Berkleley CA, managed in the late ’50s early ’60s to block the addition of fluoride to the municipal water supply.

Image:  Vincent Van Gogh, “Ward in the Hospital in Arles,” 1889

More Newton and the Counterfeiter, Mother Tongue edition

August 18, 2009

A return, gingerly, to the blogging life….

Move complete, and divorce avoided by promising my wife that I will never, ever dream of taking off for a week in London four days after taking up residence in a new home.

But that’s where I am now, here to do what I can to promote the UK launch of Newton and the Counterfeiter (you may recall — that book I’ve mentioned perhaps once or twice here.  What?  More than once or twice?  Dozens of times.  Well…sorry, sort of).  US interested parties can look here:  (AmazonPowellsBarnes and NobleIndiebound).  In the UK, every paper that reviews it offers it through their branded shop, and there are as well the usual suspects…, Borders, John Smith & Son.

I’ll talk about the most recent spate of British reviews, mostly very positive, one rather snarky (I’ll get to you in turn, Mr. Malcolm; wait patiently…) in a post not totally drowned in jet lag.  For now, let me point anyone interested to a q&a Manuela Holterhoff published at Bloomberg Online — and save for slightly more awaketitude the charming sequel to that piece.

All by way of saying hello — it’s nice to be back.

Image:  1961 re-enactment of Conestoga wagon travel on the Oregon trail

Housekeeping and another review or two

August 10, 2009

Dear all:

This week I’m moving from my home of the last fifteen years to the money pit made infamous in this post.  (Though I have to say the honey was the best I’ve ever had…)

It’s a complete madhouse, as I’m sure anyone who’s ever moved with more than a year or two’s accumulation of stuff and inertia knows.  Plus, the sale of our current house is a tale told by an idiot…..

All of which is to say very light blogging this week.

But I wouldn’t be doing my duty as a relentless self-promoter if I didn’t mention the fact that Newton and the Counterfeiter (AmazonPowellsBarnes and NobleIndiebound) is (a) approaching its British publication date (pre-order here) and (b) has garnered a ton of unmentioned but much appreciated notice over the last couple of weeks.

I really, really have something to say about the pain of the transition from a centrally dominated, print based book reviewing world to a diffuse web based one in my next and much promised-and-delayed Diary of a Trade Book entry. And in that next entry or two, I’ll try to capture all of the folks who have had something nice to say about the book.  But for now, let me point to my new blog BFF, Renaissance Mathematicus, who  did me the honor of a very thoughtful two part review, first all praise, second an engaged serious criticism of what RM sees as problematical about my book — and the first two major British newspaper reviews, from The Financial Times and The Sunday Times.

Money quote from the FT:

A vivid portrait of the seamier side of the City three centuries ago, Levenson’s book is a gripping tale of unrelenting revenge and obsession.

And from Murdoch’s entry:

Levenson’s wonderful book has a humbling coda. Newton became rich, established, lauded. He had depicted his God as “a being incorporeal, living and intelligent, who sees the things themselves intimately, and thoroughly perceives them” — a figure not unlike a scientist. But then came old age, and an unprecedented failure of judgment. Tempted into the South Sea investment bubble of the 1720s, Newton lost a small fortune. Even the most radical of thinkers and dogged of rationalists, it seems, could not foresee how greed and deception might lead to the collapse of markets.

More to come, on Newton and everything else, when every pore no longer smells of cardboard and fresh paint — and perhaps (I hope) sooner than that.

Quickie math (arithmetic)/journalism peeve: I don’t think “party lines” means what you think it means/NY Times edition.

August 7, 2009

Update: a couple of changes below to try to make the point I thought I was making.

From today’s NY Times article on the Senate vote to extend the Cash for Clunkers program:

In the end, the bill passed largely along party lines, with 51 Democrats, 2 independents and 7 Republicans voting for it.

What’s wrong with that?

This phrase:  “largely along party lines.”

Let’s do the math, shall we?

7 Republican senators voted with the majority to pass the bill.  4 Democrats joined the minority opposing the bill.  So the Democrats did come close to holding party lines on the bill; only 6.7 % of the Democratic caucus defected.

But 7 Republicans?   That’s 17.5% of the rump opposition party.  That’s a substantial defection, a significant breach in party discipline, especially given the record of GOP monolithic “no-ness” on most major votes this year.  Even more so when you consider that this is in essence a small supplement to the economic stimulus bill, and as such would naturally be a target for a Republican party that has pushed a lot of chips onto the table betting against the success of Obama’s economic policies.

Numeracy matters — and it does so not just at the level in which an understanding of statistics in any kind of deep way might be helpful, but even at this simplest level of fifth grade math.

I’ve written before on the importance of distinguishing between raw numbers and some representation of the data that permits comparisons to be made across different circumstances or events.  See this post for a much sadder example.  But the point keeps getting made by the way journalists handle numbers.  Simply the act of deriving a percentage from the tally sheets is way too often a bridge too far.

Why the failure to count on one’s fingers at such an elevated institution as the Times?

I don’t know for sure, certainly — I wasn’t in Matthew Wald’s head when he wrote the piece, nor the room in which his editors ran their eyes ove rhis copy.  But I do note that the running journalistic line for weeks now, significant especially in the context of the health care debate, has been that the Democrats have failed to meet promises of bipartisanship, and that hence, their legislative agenda and even their (our) legitimacy is in doubt.

If that’s the story line, then clearly each significant vote must be characterized as evidence of the ongoing division between the parties, and the inability of the Democrats to construct legislation attractive to a rumored center and the mostly mythical moderate wing of a party dominated by Limbaugh dead-enders.

And so, even in this case, when Democratic legislation on a high profile economic and environmental* program attracts a significant number of Republican votes, enough to release some Democratic senators to cast what may be either or both politically useful and or principled nay votes, the Times still feels compelled to assert, in essence, that this Democratic — and partly Republican — legislative victory was in fact yet another blow to bipartisanship.

The moral of this story:  this is how destructive tropes get made.  In the construction of myths epithets matter.  Little phrases, rote characterizations —  “the wily Oddysseus,” “loose-tongued Thersites” — they frame the reader’s interpretation of all the action surrounding the thus-labeled person or event.  They serve as received wisdom, a collectively agreed value judgment, to speed the plot.

And here, the phrase approximating an epithet, “party lines,” is the tell that the writer has substituted such prior qualitative interpretation for thought.  The cash for clunkers bill saw close to one fifth of the opposition party break ranks.

But to say so, to recognize that a Democratic policy initiative was sufficiently successful/popular that a significant subset of the GOP senate caucus chose to embrace it would have forced the writer (and editors) of the Times’ story  to break out of that sweet sleep in which there is no need to actually do the simplest bit of arithmetic.

Image:  Jan Breugel the Elder, “A Fantastic cave with Odysseus and Calypso,” c. 1616.

Friday Stuff: Why I Love the English Language, no. 2

August 7, 2009

Second in a very occasional series (first here) on the joy to be taken in this magnificent instrument we call the English language.

I remember long ago reading in Winston Churchill’s memoir of his youth, My Early Life, of his reaction to the familiar curriculum he faced in school. For Latin he had no patience, with its declensions and rote memorization.  Ah, but English, and especially the glorious structure of the English sentence!

From memory of a book read more than three decades ago I recall that Churchill reported reveling in his failure to pass out into the upper forms, thus preserving his access to an English master who instilled in him a sense of the music of his language and of the voice that he would come to possess.

Some years later, in my last year of college, I was looking for a text to use in the annual competition for recitation, and I reached for the first volume of my parents’ set of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.*  I ended up choosing a different passage than the one I half remembered in Gibbon — a bit of the epilogue of Robert Graves’ Goodbye To All That, and I still cringe at the thought of myself as a 22 year old child reaching for the right tone of memory and loss and rejection that it takes years and much loss to earn.

But I’ve not forgot what drew me to the Gibbon passage in the first place, which was the shock of recognition I felt a few months before the competition when I read its first lines and suddenly understood what Churchill had been talking about.   Here they are:

In the second century of the Christian Aera, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence: the Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. During a happy period of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this, and of the two succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire; and after wards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall; a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth.

That’s got rhythm.  That’s music.

*Properly History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but I like many remember it in the shorthand, and universalizing version of the title

Image:  Raphael, “School of Athens,” 1505.

Who Knows What Evil Lurks in the Hearts of Men? The Felines Know/antitdote to a tough week dept.

August 5, 2009

If I tried this on my cat, I’d have no arm below the elbow:

(h/t IG)

Quickie Must-Read Link …

August 5, 2009

This, from The New York Times. (h/t  DougJ at Balloon Juice)

In brief:  court documents reveal that big Pharma co. Wyeth paid a medical communication firm to ghostwrite 28 review articles slanted in support of hormone replacement therapy for menopausal women for seven years between 1998 and 2005.  That effort supported a boom in the sales of Wyeth’s products in that area, up to the point when this happened:

But the seeming consensus fell apart in 2002 when a huge federal study on hormone therapy was stopped after researchers found that menopausal women who took certain hormones had an increased risk of invasive breast cancer, heart disease and stroke. A later study found that hormones increased the risk of dementia in older patients.

Read the article as a whole.  It is important as a public policy issue, and it is perhaps even more so as a deep challenge to science as a civic enterprise.

A couple of thoughts there, very quickly, as this is a big area and I actually want to think and research a bit before charging in.

Mostly, I’d agree with one comment, I think from the Balloon Juice thread, that this is the science community’s answer to the steroid scandal in baseball.

It makes it almost impossible not to question any result published in even the most seemingly prestigious journal; certainly any research report and especially any review article on an area in which major financial interests are at play has to be read with a “who benefits” filter on high.

There’s no way to pretend that the myth of science as a disinterested truth community is an accurate description of the world we live in any more.  (If ever it was).  Of course, individual by individual and lab by lab — and lots of people I know personally — would not countenance the kind of deception in which Wyeth and its enablers indulged.  But science is a big country, and the amount of cash flowing through some of its provinces is enough to compel not just the ordinary skepticism that is part of the scientist’s toolkit, but that worldly reality check that tells us to follow the money.

The other thought, and its really half a thought, bears on an argument I’ve had running with Bora over at PLoS — one of the parties whose legal action brought this scandal to light — about the question of story telling and science communication.  He’s written repeatedly of his view that the construction of a story structure around a body of information distorts and even can smother the actual scientific result that should be what is being communicated.

I’ve told Bora that this is, to me, nonsense.  Information without context and data presented without some vector to carry it into the mind of its intended audience will simply disappear.

Part of our dispute lies in the very different sense of audiences we have.  Bora is concerned both with communication between researchers and the communication of research to a broader audience.  I’m interested in the former, but am really concerned with the latter.

In communication between scientists working within fields, the data really is the key.  I was speaking to a friend recently who works in a senior position at a major drug company, directing one of the major areas in which basic science and medical applications ram right into each other.  That researcher/manager told me that all that matters to the decision making process is the data.  The discussion, the interpretation, the “spin” a scientist might put on their data is secondary, or even worse, special pleading. What matters is the pure info about what was done, with what methods and instruments, to produce what measurements.

But in communicating to lay audiences — and even, as the Wyeth story suggests to somewhat more broadly constructed scientific ones — that doesn’t seem to me to be a plausible approach.  You have to tell a tale that a reader not necessarily either interested or informed about the context of the work will be able to follow, and that will hold her or his interest sufficiently to keep them reading graf to graf, until the story’s end.

But as I understand him, for Bora the problem — and it’s a real one  — is that it’s terribly easy to construct of essentially false narratives that distort the meaning of the science from the start.  See, e.g. all the writing that has floated the autism-vaccine woo for so long.  For me the issue lies with finding a way to express as narrative the key ideas to be communicated without distorting them — and thereby hangs a much longer tale than I’m going to write here.  Doing that is, in essence, what we try to teach our students at the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT, and I deeply believe that this is an essential civic-society endeavor.

That’s all by-the-by to what made my ears perk up in this story of Wyeth’s and their tame “authors” misdeeds .  Apparently, most of the astroturfed articles were review articles — summaries-and-interpretations of the state of research in hormone replacement therapy.  Review articles are, of course, a genre of  scientific literature wrapped up in storytelling.  By its nature, it demands the collation of a range of incidents — individual research reports — into a sequence logically and narratively designed to lead the reader to the interpretation of the state of the field that its author wants to advance.

There is nothing wrong with such a genre; quite the reverse.  It exists in part to provide gateways into bodies of work and ideas, and it is all the more necessary in fields in which sub specialties throw up information useful to practitioners within the field but beyond the speciality…which pretty much describes all of molecular biology, for one.

But as the Wyeth story reconfirms, the writing of review articles is prone to precisely the kind of abuse that Bora and many others have decried in popular writing about science: distortion based on constrained or disputed points of view, misinterpretation or misunderstanding (ignorance of the subtleties) of works under discussion, mis-emphasis on one point or another … and outright corruption, as above.

I’m not trying to defend popular science writing and its discontents here by saying that similar problems exist within the scientific literature.  What I am saying is that the Wyeth case is an extreme version, a morally bankrupt one, of two facts of life.

One is that money talks.  The other is that the way human beings tell each other important things contains within it real vulnerabilities.  But any response that says don’t communicate in that way doesn’t make sense; the issue is not how to stop humans from organizing their knowledge into stories; it is how to build institutional and personal bullshit detectors that sniff out the crap amongst the good stuff.

As I said — only half thoughts for now.  And rather meta at that.  The real story is, of course, that drug companies really, always, do have our best interests at heart.  Right!?  (And I won’t link to the latest Megan McArdle foolishness on this score, noting only that she has qualified another of my favorite real fitness reports for British military officers:  “Since my last report, (s)he has hit bottom and started to dig.”

Image:  Sir William Fettes Douglas, The Alchemist, before 1891