The knowing-speaking gap

Last night I went to taping of live Tech podcast that featured non-fiction author Douglas Rushkoff as a guest. (I’ll try to link to it once it get’s published). Overall, I felt the show was funny but in huge need of either fact-checking or authoritative guests, which Rushkoff was not. Unfortunately, it fell into an uncanny valley of edutainment — not accurate enough to be informative but the diversions into Rushkoff’s unreliable opinions stopped it from being funny enough to be entertaining. To be fair, producing a live show is difficult and it’s a new show finding it’s feet.

The show really drove home an issue that was a big difficulty for Science Vs, which I’ll call “the knowing-speaking gap.” When we looked for scientists for the show it was hard to find someone who was a good scientist and good talent — scientists that both knew their research and their field inside-out and were also able and willing to speak about it in an interesting and dynamic way. More broadly it seems like people who actually know things are unwilling or unable to speak about things and garner an audience that listens to them, and people who are great speakers and performers (and I’d count Rushkoff in this camp), often talk about everything, regardless of whether or not they know what they’re talking about.

Techno-pessimist alarmists will repeat and distort the same stories over and over. For the record, no, Target didn’t know a girl was pregnant before she did herself. Pregnancy hormones don’t alter our department store purchases in unconscious ways. As Forbes reported, Target did correctly target ads at a woman they suspected was pregnant because of the way she started conscientiously altered her shopping to prefer for the baby:

Continue reading ‘The “knowing-speaking gap” and the abuse of neuroscientific authority’

Exposure to toxic metals, like lead, have been linked to intellectual disability, and language, and behavioral problems, but the results of studies looking at whether toxic metals influence Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) have been mixed. Other metals like manganese and zinc are essential minerals important for proper development and health. Until now, one of the difficulties has been that levels of metal exposure are often only measured after a child has received an ASD diagnosis, However, Sven Bölte and colleagues realized that after a child receives an ASD diagnosis, they could determine their early exposure to heavy metals by looking at the levels of the metals in the child’s baby teeth, as they describe in a paper published last month in Nature Communications.

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Continue reading ‘Early metal exposure linked to autism using baby teeth’

I’m currently trying to go from working as an MD-PhD student to a science journalist. From thinking about disease and doing hands-on research to writing, thinking, and talking about those same conditions and studies.

I’ve struggled to explain why I’m making this switch. To come up with a single linear narrative that’s both satisfactory and honest for the switch. Like most things, it’s complicated.

One simple version:
I originally left the MD-PhD because of a health crisis. This gave me the time to really consider my path, and also really solidified in me something I intellectually knew but hadn’t felt before that point: that this was my one life, that I know myself better than anyone else does, and that only I can answer the question of what I should do with it.

Another thread:  Continue reading ‘Trying Something New & Neuroscience Clothes’

Today, I listened to a story from Science Friday about sunscreen. It’s an interesting story: sunscreen use is on the rise, but so are cases of melanoma. Why? One idea, called the ‘compensation hypothesis’ is that sunscreen with high UVB but low UVA protection, stops sunburn and enables people to spend more time in the sun. This additional time in the sun, without UVA protection therefore allows the greater accumulation of cancer-causing mutations induced by the UVA light which can lead to melanoma. That’s right, just because you’re not getting a sunburn doesn’t mean you’re not damaging your skin and your skin’s DNA. And so far, so good, this all makes sense, and is important to point out.


It features an interview with senior scientist David Andrews at the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which claims that 73% of sunscreens don’t meet the EWG’s standards because they either:

  1. Are inefficacious products that don’t provide UVA protection or live up to their claims – The EWG’s recommendations for the US: use products with Zinc oxide or Avobenzone that provide UVA protection and SPF 30-50.
  2. They contained ‘concerning ingredients.’ A 2017 article from the EWG states: “the most worrisome is oxybenzone, added to nearly 65 percent of the non-mineral sunscreens in EWG’s 2017 sunscreen database. Oxybenzone can cause allergic skin reactions (Rodriguez 2006). In laboratory studies it is a weak estrogen and has potent anti-androgenic effects (Krause 2012)… In a recent evaluation of CDC-collected exposure data for American children, researchers found that adolescent boys with higher oxybenzone measurements had significantly lower total testosterone levels (Scinicariello 2016). The study did not find a similar effect in younger boys or females. ”

They summarize these and other effects in a table:

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But why should we trust the EWG’s list of ‘concerning ingredients,’ over that of other groups like the FDA or American Association of Dermatology (AAD)?

Continue reading ‘What’s the Deal with Sunscreen and How to Assess Scientific Authority’

Today’s horrific tragedy will undoubtedly spawn another round of news stories saying that this is the “Nth mass shooting,” or “it’s been N days since the last mass shooting in the U.S.” But many of them will give completely different numbers.

When it comes to mass shootings, it can be hard to find good data—in part because in 1996 congress essentially defunded the Center for Disease Control’s research into gun violence, and in part because there is no standard definition of a mass shooting. But that doesn’t stop people from keeping count—at least five organizations track mass shootings, and this attack would not qualify as a mass shooting according to Mother Jones, or USA Today’s records of Mass Shootings.

How is this possible? How can a doctor walking into a hospital with an AR-15 and shooting seven people then shooting himself not be counted as a “mass shooting?” In part, because it took place in a hospital.

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See, many of the organizations that track shootings only count shootings where 3-4 died from the shooting. So as the NY Times noted, “Some believed that the death toll would have been far higher had the shooting occurred anywhere but where it did — a hospital filled with state-of-the-art medical equipment, and with doctors and nurses who rushed to victims and performed triage where they fell, in staircases and hallways, even as the gunman was still at large.”

While deaths are clearly the most tragic outcome of a shooting, whether or not a shot was deadly does not change the motivation for the incident. In determining a mass shooting sn’t the number we care about the number that were shot at, not the number injured or dead? Why is it important shooter hit or missed their target when classifying a shooting as a mass shooting? In fact, some researchers suggest that improved treatment of gunshot wounds and the use of gun deaths as a metric has decreased our attention to the fact that gun violence appears to be rising.

But expedient medical care isn’t the only reason this shooting won’t be classified as a mass shooting according to some lists. For example it probably wouldn’t make the FBI Active Shooter Report, which only count shootings that occurred in public areas, since the victims were doctors and medical students it may be counted as a workplace dispute  as opposed to a mass shooting that occurred in a public space.

In fact the only two organizations I could find that would definitely count this incident as a mass shooting are both crowd-sourced projects that operate online: the Mass Shooting Tracker and Gun Violence Archive.

If one is concerned with general gun violence, the Mass Shooting Tracker, Gun Violence Archive, or USA Today’s mass shootings, which ignore location and motivation, may provide the most comprehensive data. However, many of the incidents they count such as gang fights or familial murder-suicides aren’t what we are typically referring to when we say ‘mass shooting.’ So if one is concerned with the seemingly random, public mass shootings other sources may be better better.

And how we classify these events is extremely important if we want to study them and figure out how to stop them.

Today’s story stands out more than normal to me, probably because the friends I entered medical school with just finished their first year of residency, and maybe a bit more because I’m living in New York.

Any shooting, mass shooting or not is tragic, and it’s important to remember that while guns are a major public health problem in America — particularly because of their use to commit suicide — mass shootings remain a rare cause of injury or death. How rare? Well, it all depends who you ask.

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James L. Madara, MD, CEO of the American Medical Association (AMA), began his letter to the United States Senate poetically:

“Medicine has long operated under the precept of Primum non nocere, or ‘first, do no harm.’ The draft legislation violates that standard on many levels.”

The letter concludes more concretely:

“We believe that Congress should be working to increase the number of Americans with access to quality, affordable health insurance instead of pursuing policies that have the opposite effect…”

Much of the debate over the ‘Trumpcare bill,’ also known as the American Health Care Act (AHCA), has come down to money: Republicans want the new bill to remove a tax on high-income individuals, and to raise prices of premiums and deductibles such that the Congressional Budget Office estimates would make 15 million more people uninsured next year compared with current law.

And Dr. Madara is worried about money as well, particularly per-capita-caps that would cut Federal Medicaid payments to states by 26% by 2026 :

“Per-capita-caps fail to take into account unanticipated costs of new medical innovations or the fiscal impact of public health epidemics, such as the crisis of opioid abuse currently ravaging our nation. The Senate proposal to artificially limit the growth of Medicaid expenditures below even the rate of medical inflation threatens to limit states’ ability to address the health care needs of their most vulnerable citizens.”

The AMA is a professional organization and lobbying group, which has historically looked out for the financial interests in doctors. In this case that interest aligns with that of patients: more health care for patients means more jobs and money for doctors.

But the AMA isn’t the only group of doctors to oppose the bill. The Americans College of Physicians, America’s second largest physician organization, which consists of internal medicine doctors, also opposes the bill. They released a statement in May, when the house passed the bill, saying the organization was “extremely disappointed” in the bill because it makes:

“… Coverage unaffordable for people with pre-existing conditions, allows insurers to opt-out of covering essential benefits like cancer screening, mental health, and maternity care, and cuts and caps the federal contribution to Medicaid while sunsetting Medicaid expansion. As a result, an estimated 24 million Americans will lose their coverage… we urge Congress to start over and seek agreement need a better source on bipartisan ways to make health care better, more accessible, and more affordable for patients rather than imposing great harm on them as the AHCA would do.”

Despite these groups opposition to the new bill, there is no denying the American healthcare system is in need of an overhaul. According to the OECD, the United States topped the list of healthcare spending in 2015, with 16.9% of the GDP spent in healthcare. Canada, with it’s single-payer system, on the other hand spent only 10.1%. And what are we getting for spending more than one and a half times as much on healthcare? Three years fewer life expectancy, according to the World Bank, with Canadians living to an average age of 82 compared to 79 in the US.

This February, A survey, published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed only half of Primary Care Physicians had a favorable viewed the Affordable Care Act (ACA), but 95.1% stated that regulations protecting the coverage of patients with pre-existing conditions were “very important” or “somewhat important” for improving the health of the U.S. population, a provision slated to be removed according to the house’s bill. Only 15% of those surveyed wanted the ACA repealed, but 73.8% favored making changes to the law.

So, yes, we need to reform healthcare in the United States, but if you ask doctors in the US, the AHCA is not the reform we need.

Loan words sometimes take on whole new meanings: for example the word ‘parka’ in Japan refers to a ‘hooded sweatshirt’ or ‘hoodie’ as opposed to the jacket commonly called a ‘parka’ in English:


I’d be really curious to dig into the etymology of these kinds of words, and it’s probably fairly easy to trace their emergence because they came into use so recently. Perhaps parka entered Japanese not from english but from another language where the term already had this different meaning? Or, perhaps it was originally used as a brandname for a hooded sweatshirt?

Or, perhaps it’s illustrative of the nature of loan words themselves, where their lack of history makes them especially malleable and prone to mistaken meanings shortly after they’re introduced.

Regardless, here is a list of ‘loan words gone wrong,’ which sound as if they’ve come from english, but who’s meaning may not be immediately apparent to english-speakers, and words that sound like loan words but are in fact neologisms:

  • Paper driver – Peipaa doraibaa – ペーパー ドライバー – someone who has their driver’s license but doesn’t actually drive or know how to drive well. 

Continue reading ‘Japanese English – Loan words gone wrong (with audio) – 和製英語 / 日本語英語’

The strong and simultaneous activation of both branches the autonomic nervous system, sympathetic and parasympathetic, is known as ‘autonomic conflict.’ In the cartoonish intro-biology view of the body, the sympathetic system fight or flight is an accelerator, the parasympathetic is pumping the breaks. (I always used to think parasympathetic = paramedics = ’rest and recover’.)

So you might think, that these effects would just cancel each other out, but slamming on the accelerator and breaks in the car at the same time, isn’t the same as letting your car cruise.

The specific effects of activating the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems depend on the tissue, and the why is really gonna come down to the details, but let’s look at a couple examples first.

  1. Blood vessels are going to constrict. Because most blood vessels in the body receive sympathetic but not parasympathetic innervation. They’ve got an accelerator but no breaks.
  2. The heart. Alone, the sympathetic nervous system makes the heart beat faster and stronger. The parasympathetic nervous system while slow it’s rate and slightly decrease the strength of it’s contractions. But if you have high levels of both, things can get tricky: Paton et al. (2005) shows this can cause generate cardiac arrhythmias which have even rarely lead to sudden death in animals. This can also be studied in isolated hearts, shown in this figure:

a. Shows an isolated heart receiving adrenergic neurotransmitters. B-F different strange patterns of activity (arrhythmias) observed after adding parasympathetic neurotransmitters on top of sympathetic. From Shattock and Tipton, 2012.

Why is this? We have to look at what the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system are doing mechanistically. The parasympathetic post-ganglionic neurons (that are signaling to effector tissues) release acetylcholine. That acetylcholine can signal nicotinic and change ion concentrations, or stimulate muscarinic receptors and set of G-couple protein receptor cascades. Meanwhile, sympathetic is mostly adrenergic, though some tissues such as sweat glands are also activated using acetylcholine.

How those neurotransmitters affect the effector tissues on the specific receptors are on the effector tissues, and how the downstream pathways of those receptors interact. And because receptors activation is influenced by the concentration of neurotransmitter, ‘low equal’ levels of sympathetic and parasympathetic activation may not be the same as ‘high levels’ of parasympathetic activation.

This autonomic conflict occurs physiologically for example when you jump into cold water, which can activate both the ‘cold shock response’ and the ‘diving response’. An interesting article I found explores whether or not this response can generate the above-mentioned arrhythmias in people and may cause sudden cardiac arrest and death in vulnerable individuals (and which may be the true cause of deaths which are currently labeled as deaths due drowning or hypothermia).

One nuance of language that I hadn’t considered before spending a year in Japan is how words for expressing categories sometimes don’t quite line up. For example, in Japanese ‘juusu’ or juice refers not just to fruit and vegetable juices, but also soft-drinks. But what’s more, the line between fruits and vegetables itself is different, and, yes, melons are considered vegetables in Japanese.

To listen to a discussion about this, skip to minute 23:40.

In English the line is blurry (is a tomato a fruit)? And there are different definitions used commonly in ordinary language, by botanists, and even the supreme court. And while we’re here, is corn a vegetable or a grain? You can imagine that it must be quite confusing to learn the borders between these words. Somehow these objects and concepts are sorted and clustered based on various characteristics: are they sweet, are they seed-bearing, how closely do they resemble some prototypical fruit…

Colors in American English and Japanese

But, what is considered a cluster, and where the lines are drawn varies from language to language. Another classic example of this is colors. Colors lie on a spectrum of infinite minute variations, but linguistically we chop them up: yellow, green, blue, purple. But exactly where these lines are drawn, and how many basic categories there are varies between languages. For example, midori or green is a relatively late linguistic addition to Japanese and to this day fresh vegetables and traffic lights are describe as aoi which now means blue, but used to–and in these contexts, it still does–describe a set of clusters that encompassed both blue and green.

Clusters of ‘chromatic color categories in color space’ Kuriki et al., 2017

And while it’s easy to say, ‘wow, that’s so strange,’ are you bothered by the fact that we don’t really have a commonly used word for sky blue/light blue/cyan ? According to Kuriki et al., 2017, this color is now often described using the word ‘mizu’ (full text article) which literally means water. And here, I’d like to switch gears and dig into this study.

Continue reading ‘Watermelon isn’t a fruit in Japanese? And colors across languages.’

When Chris Ferguson, a professor at Stetson University, was trying to choose a textbook for his introductory psychology course, he realized his own field of study, video game violence was being misportrayed in some textbooks.

“The data isn’t consistent or clear,” said Fergusen, but textbooks were picking sides and trying to portray it like it was.

Lilienfeld is the only introductory psychology textbook that Ferguson recommends as accurate that is also used by a top psychology program.

Intrigued, Ferguson decided to systematically research and publish a paper on textbook accuracy.

What he found, was shocking. Errors went beyond over-simplifications that glossed over murky data. Sometimes textbooks including examples that were flat-out wrong:

Continue reading ‘Psychology Textbooks Are Spreading Lies. What are the best intro psych textbooks and how to get them cheap?’

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