A paper published today in the journal Neuron describes how the mainstream media (specifically the Daily Telegraph, Times, Daily Mail, Sun, Mirror and the Guardian) have tackled the topic of neuroscience over the past decade. The paper is a damning indictment of how the press use neuroscience as a tool with which to “portray themselves as dispassionate” whilst preaching their trademark prejudices. The paper describes how the Telegraph used research to wrongly “assert that productive female participation in both the labor market and family life is neurobiologically impossible”, while the Daily Mail miscellaneously linked “women to irrationality” (amongst countless other crimes) and the Times absurdly squealed “are gays dopamine junkies?”. The paper lists a labyrinth of logical fallacies which the media use to misrepresent neuroscience, repeatedly highlighting a tendency for:
“overextensions of research, with implications drawn far outside the original research context. This overextrapolation of research was not limited to idle speculation but sometimes extended to calls for concrete applications.”
The paper assessed the contents of nearly 3,000 articles involving neuroscience over the past decade to see which topics came up most. It’s not hard to see how the data is skewed by the media’s recent obsessions such as fish oil and narcotics. I’ve tossed the figures in to Manyeyes to make the information a little easier to digest:
Subjects Addressed within Media Coverage of Neuroscience
The paper concludes that the media has used neuroscience research “applied out of context to create dramatic headlines, push thinly disguised ideological arguments, or support particular policy agendas”. Fighting this tidal wave is the precise reason that I started this blog. For regular readers none of this will come as a surprise. I’ve previously described how the media has misrepresented everything from social networking and love to vaccination, drugs, and cognitive enhancement. I must admit that I find this issue so distressing that I have been left with the unfortunate tenancy to generally rant on the topic uncontrollably.
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University libraries have for a long time struggled with the increasingly extortionate fees placed upon them by journal publishers. Many universities can no longer afford to pay journal publishers to access the content their students require. Sadly, until now this has been a closet issue, an issue of “prestige”. In what may prove to be a watershed moment, Harvard University have sent the following memo to all faculty members (emphasis mine), outlining the university’s strategy to deal with this problem which includes gently directing researchers towards open access publishers. This announcement sets a powerful precedent that could prove to be a defining moment in the “Academic Spring”.
Major Periodical Subscriptions Cannot Be Sustained
To: Faculty Members in all Schools, Faculties, and Units
From: The Faculty Advisory Council
Date: April 17, 2012
RE: Periodical Subscriptions
We write to communicate an untenable situation facing the Harvard Library. Many large journal publishers have made the scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive. This situation is exacerbated by efforts of certain publishers (called “providers”) to acquire, bundle, and increase the pricing on journals.
Harvard’s annual cost for journals from these providers now approaches $3.75M. In 2010, the comparable amount accounted for more than 20% of all periodical subscription costs and just under 10% of all collection costs for everything the Library acquires. Some journals cost as much as $40,000 per year, others in the tens of thousands. Prices for online content from two providers have increased by about 145% over the past six years, which far exceeds not only the consumer price index, but also the higher education and the library price indices. These journals therefore claim an ever-increasing share of our overall collection budget. Even though scholarly output continues to grow and publishing can be expensive, profit margins of 35% and more suggest that the prices we must pay do not solely result from an increasing supply of new articles.
The Library has never received anything close to full reimbursement for these expenditures from overhead collected by the University on grant and research funds.
The Faculty Advisory Council to the Library, representing university faculty in all schools and in consultation with the Harvard Library leadership, reached this conclusion: major periodical subscriptions, especially to electronic journals published by historically key providers, cannot be sustained: continuing these subscriptions on their current footing is financially untenable. Doing so would seriously erode collection efforts in many other areas, already compromised.
It is untenable for contracts with at least two major providers to continue on the basis identical with past agreements. Costs are now prohibitive. Moreover, some providers bundle many journals as one subscription, with major, high-use journals bundled in with journals consulted far less frequently. Since the Library now must change its subscriptions and since faculty and graduate students are chief users, please consider the following options open to faculty and students (F) and the Library (L), state other options you think viable, and communicate your views:
1. Make sure that all of your own papers are accessible by submitting them to DASH in accordance with the faculty-initiated open-access policies (F).
2. Consider submitting articles to open-access journals, or to ones that have reasonable, sustainable subscription costs; move prestige to open access (F).
3. If on the editorial board of a journal involved, determine if it can be published as open access material, or independently from publishers that practice pricing described above. If not, consider resigning (F).
4. Contact professional organizations to raise these issues (F).
5. Encourage professional associations to take control of scholarly literature in their field or shift the management of their e-journals to library-friendly organizations (F).
6. Encourage colleagues to consider and to discuss these or other options (F).
7. Sign contracts that unbundle subscriptions and concentrate on higher-use journals (L).
8. Move journals to a sustainable pay per use system, (L).
9. Insist on subscription contracts in which the terms can be made public (L).
The memo coyly avoids specifying exactly who the “major providers” to be abandoned are, but I think we can make an educated guess at one of them.
The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) is so unlimited in scope that all the proposed new powers of censorship that led to SOPA’s mass response are likely to be brought in to law. CISPA simply makes the terms vaguer than SOPA and gives more rights to huge cooperations over individuals. Morover, CISPA throws the net far wider, effectively ending the internet as we know it. The bill is currently being bulldozed through Congress with the final vote on Monday.
- Deactivate your Facebook account immediately: Facebook are supporting the bill. As of today facebook.com/neurobonkers is going dark until further notice. (Followers please swap to other forms of subscription – see the side bar).
- US citizens: Contact your representative in Congress.
- Join over half a million people and sign the Avaas petition.
- Publicly announce that you are withdrawing from business with companies giving expressed support:
CTIA – The Wireless Association
Cyber, Space & Intelligence Association
The Financial Services Roundtable
Independent Telephone & Telecommunications Alliance
Information Technology Industry Council
Internet Security Alliance
National Cable & Telecommunications Association
US Chamber of Commerce
US Telecom – The Broadband Association
A new “study” note the inverted commas, reported by TIME Magazine is making headlines for the claim that recruiters spend an average of “six seconds” on each CV before they decide whether it is worth reading. The researchers suggest that 80% of this time is spent on titles and durations of past jobs and education rather than the actual content of the CV. According to TIME, the researchers give such inspiring tips as “don’t be creative”, “don’t focus on your personal achievements” and “have it professionally made”. That’s funny because that’s precisely the opposite of everything I’ve ever been told, and as TIME notes with no hint of irony:
“The standard thought was that recruiters spent at least several minutes on each CV.”
Before you rush out and start rewriting your CV, you should be aware that this “research” is not published in a journal but is self-published by a company that specialises in writing CV’s. Conveniently, they found that CV’s they’d written had a 60% higher level of “usability”. It’s worth noting that in their day-to-day work the company have been accused of operating a “scam” and being guilty of “fraud“, both over separate issues to this more than a little suspect research. For this reason I wouldn’t take this research the slightest bit seriously but I do think it would be interesting to see this research done properly.
NB: The “researchers” claim this type of study has never been done before. If anyone does know of any such research, give me a shout and I’ll post it here.
The Autism-MMR scandal is the greatest scientific fraud in recent history. Last year the British Medical Journal revealed how Andrew Wakefield secretly worked for a lawyer to build a case to sue the makers of the MMR vaccine. Wakefield falsified a now retracted Lancet report on twelve children that he proposed suffered from autism as result of the MMR vaccine. Three of the children weren’t even ever diagnosed with autism and all of the children were recruited through an anti-MMR campaign funded by anti-MMR litigation. In essence the finding was to be predicted through simple statistics, autism is relatively common and all children are supposed to be vaccinated, so it shouldn’t be difficult to find twelve children with autism that were vaccinated.
The link is a classic case of illusory correlation, there is an increase in autism diagnosis that vaguely coincides with the introduction of the MMR vaccine. You could equally say that the increase in autism is a result of the introduction of the Euro, satellites or tetris. There is obviously no evidence for any of these claims but if you single out enough cases then some people will be convinced. The risk of illusory correlation is real now more than ever with the recent CDC report that 1 in 88 children (1 in 54 boys) have autism. According to the US National Institute of Mental Health (emphasis mine):
“The increase reported by the CDC might mean we are better at detecting children who meet criteria for ASD, but potentially we still are only halfway to the actual prevalence in the general population… Total population epidemiological studies suggest much or all of the increase is due to better and wider detection.”
Worryingly however the US NIMH report goes on to state:
“Studies of administrative and services data suggest that better detection cannot fully explain the profound and continuing increase… Our working assumption is that there are both more children affected and more detected.”
This brings us back to the table regarding possible factors contributing to the possible rise in autism but we are certainly not to back to square one. There is possibly a real increase in autism prevalence, there is still however no evidence that the MMR jab is responsible. I repeat, there is no evidence that the MMR jab is responsible. Just to clarify, twenty separate studies have demonstrated that there is no evidence for a link between vaccines and autism. There is no evidence to the contrary, not a sausage.
Thus far the impact of the misinformation has been mostly limited to Britain, however recently Donald Trump has for some reason taken it upon himself to misinform millions of Americans that vaccines are causing autism:
Trump has of course provided no evidence for his crackpot claims. Concerned followers typing “MMR Autism” in to Google would be likely to click on one of the top results..
Given the demographics that follow a pompous media courting fat-cat like Trump, it seems likely that many of the millions that will have read Trump’s tweets will skip over the BBC and Wikipedia links and land on the Daily Mail’s coverage or worse on to a serious anti-vaxxer crackpot’s site. This risk is heightened by the effect of Google filter bubbles which lead delusional paranoid types to delusional paranoid websites all too keen to profit from their stupidity.
The Daily Mail does not actually cite any published research, as Ben Goldacre has reported, the “research” was in fact “a poster presentation, at a conference yet to occur, on research not yet completed, by a man with a well-documented track record of announcing research that never subsequently appears in an academic journal”. The Daily Mail remains the world’s most popular and most search engine optimised on-line news source. Trump’s claims have also been paroted by the Daily Mail’s US equivalent Fox News, the “most trusted” news source in America (that thud was the sound of my head hitting my desk) and quack heaven Natural News who line their story with “alternative” cures for everything from swine flu to aging to sell to the suckers who are unfortunate enough to land there.
It would be all too easy for us to say that those who listen to the likes of Trump, Fox, the Daily Mail and the quack brigade over the scientific evidence are liable to suffer through natural selection but there are two reasons we should avoid this stance. Firstly, the victims are children whose parents are being led astray. Secondly, the anti-vaxxers threaten the herd immunity of the whole of our species, causing infection, death and preventing eradication of disease.
The MMR scandal resulted in such a downfall in vaccine uptake that it directly led to a mumps epidemic and a measles endemic in the UK. It’s difficult to calculate the impact of Trump’s ramblings on global health. Trump has over a million followers, many of whom appear to be spreading his message with the added platform of Fox News. If over coming years we see US epidemics of diseases that are now well contained we will know who to blame.
Update: Yesterday a Media Matters study found that in 2011 ABC, CBS, NBC & FOX spent twice as much time covering Donald Trump as they spent on climate change.
Chen W, Landau S, Sham P, & Fombonne E (2004). No evidence for links between autism, MMR and measles virus. Psychological medicine, 34 (3), 543-53 PMID: 15259839
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