Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Week in Review

I had to spend most of yesterday travelling around town to interviews, meetings, and finally a bar, so no post. Hey, I don't do this for a living, okay? So let me catch up on various matters.

So what else is new? You no doubt heard something about this piece by Joseph Ross and colleagues in the new JAMA. (JAMA, like NEJM, has felt the awesome power of Stayin' Alive and has started making material of broad public interest available to the public. They'd better not start backsliding or my wrath will know no bounds.) In a nutshell, they went through some internal Merck documents that became public through the Vioxx litigation and they found out that Merck had either written research reports itself, or had them written by consultants, and then paid prominent academic doctors to pretend to be the authors. That probably sounds to you like a major scandal but actually we've known for many years that this goes on all the time. In fact I'm pretty sure I've written about it here more than once but I'm too lazy to search down the previous posts.

So, the crime from the point of view of you, the potential consumer of pills, is that this practice gives a false impression that these supposedly august and supposedly independent researchers have designed, conducted and analyzed the studies that are reported in medical journals, whereas in fact the drug manufacturer conducted the study, analyzed the data, and wrote the report, and obviously the result might just happen to lean slightly in their favor. From my point of view as a struggling scientist, these guys are total scum, because the currency of an academic career is peer reviewed publications, and they're padding their resumes by lying and cheating whereas I have to scuffle for grants and then actually, you know, do the work. But what's really outrageous is that they pay no penalty. Their universities will not discipline, or even reprimand them. I guarantee it. They'll go on drawing their six figure salaries, and it won't even affect their ability to get published in the future. Just you watch.

Poison plastic? News this week that Canada is going to label a chemical called Bisphenol A as hazardous, which could lead to its being regulated or banned. This is a hydrocarbon which is polymerized to form certain plastics, and widely used in food packaging -- specifically as lining for steel cans -- and to make hard plastic bottles, including baby bottles. The problem with it is that it acts like a weak form of estrogen. In animal experiments it causes abnormal sexual development. I agree that it doesn't make a lot of sense to take chances with something like this, since there are readily available alternatives. There's no reason to think it will make you grow female breasts, if you aren't already so endowed, or otherwise cause any problems for adults, but I would certainly be inclined to keep it out of the diets of children.

However, it's curious that there is such a hue and cry over this particular chemical when we are constantly exposed to toxins which are known to be considerably more dangerous, such as the ultrafine hydrocarbon particles from automobile exhaust, organophosphate pesticides, and heavy metals.

What took them so long? department: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has decided to invest a fraction of the money it has put into trying to improve health care quality and access into finding strategies to keep us out of the clutches of doctors in the first place. Go for it.

Everybody's nuts: Here's a good, accessible interview with Charles Barber about how the drug industry has managed to turn the ordinary vicissitudes of existence into "diseases" for which we need to take pills. By the way, I'll have more to say about "happiness" shortly (see post before last), but Barber makes the important point that we've been conditioned to see it as an end in itself. If you're lucky enough to experience it, it's a byproduct. And I'll just add, it's not all it's cracked up to be.

"Debate": I didn't watch the waterboarding of the Democratic candidates last night because of my powers of precognition. I knew it would be unenlightening. Having read some of the reviews, I now thank the Cosmic Watchmaker that I was spared a serious danger of stroke. of course, most of the blame has to go to ABC and its lackeys Gibson and Stephanopolos who are pulling out all the stops to make the execrable John McCain president, presumably because of his position on capital gains taxes, but they couldn't have done this if Hillary wasn't staying in the race, and cooperating with the strategy. Please Senator Clinton, stop it.

Sports Section: You may have heard about the Boston Braves starting rotation of days of yore, "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain." I give you the Boston Red Sox bullpen of 2008, "Okie and Pap and a pile of crap." Theo's going to have to do something, pronto.

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