19 January 2011

Sometimes I feel...

like this world prides itself on anti-intellectualism. Not knowing is the new fad and ignorance, their new creed. That's why it's so crucial to adhere to a sense of conduct and not get carried away with words. 

Of course I'm going to comment on science journalism, because I don't know* enough to comment on anything else. I'm not comfortable

Let's look an article from Slate.com - in the Science section, from this morning. Which, as you know, the way science works, with data and prose and conclusions and statistics and references - these methods are much more systematic than an opinion piece. Or a general news story. 

"How did Steve Jobs get his liver?" 

Being in the field, I'm already beginning to ask questions about the byline - "Should it [his liver] have gone to somebody else?" Maybe it should have. I want to see some data. Not an unreasonable request from an article in the Science section.

So then you start reading, and you notice all the links point to news stories. OK, that's fine. Except for... (commentary in italics)

  • Different parts of the country have different waiting lists, and the wait in Northern California was three times longer than the wait in Tennessee. Linking to AMA-ASSN.org (and not UNOS).
  • One expert notes that the kind of cancer Jobs had in 2004 commonly spreads to another organ. Linking to WSJ. What the hell does 'commonly' mean? I did a quick google scholar search on islet cell neuroendocrine tumors of the pancreas. Took me 15 seconds. Results (http://www.joplink.net/prev/200601/200601_41.pdf and http://annonc.oxfordjournals.org/content/19/10/1727.full.pdf). No need to cite an expert when you can get peer-reviewed data. Data > one opinion. 
  • And doctors sometimes try a liver transplant when the cancer has migrated there. Again, find a case study. Actually, there is a good amount of data concerning liver transplants in metastasized neuroendocrine tumors. 
  • Half the time, the cancer comes backAgain. Same problem. Stop fucking quoting news stories and get a pubmed abstract/citation to look at. Really, this is the link that got me going. How can you even think about linking the blue to something besides a paper?

Mr. Saletan does quote a Dr. Caplan - a professor of bioethics at UPenn (Ph.D in history/philosophy of science**) who raises the question - "Is this the best use of a liver?" Our illustrious author sprinkles in some more speculation about Jobs' unexplained medical leave and hypothesizes (because he's ever so qualified to do so) that it's probably cancer recurrence. 

Perhaps the most egregious statement is in his last paragraph - that the liver "wasn't his" and Jobs "owes us some answers". What is this, a fucking opinion piece? Even the professor of bioethics didn't dare throw down the gauntlet and make a judgement call on who that liver should have gone to. 

Maybe you agree, maybe you don't. Maybe you think Saletan can make commentary on various things. Of course he can postulate on Jobs' current diagnosis (without citing proper sources). Of course he can throw his own opinions into an article (and with highly charged words, might I add). But keep that drivel out of the Science column. 

For the record, Jobs doesn't owe anyone an explanation, unless you're approaching it from a shareholder perspective, which this article does not. UNOS made that call and you're free to question the system, but assuming you can make a better decision is reckless and foolish. 

It really feels like all of this violates responsible scientific reporting. 

I feel responsible scientific writers - 

1) Cite their sources appropriately (wsj/business week/reuters is not a scientific source)
2) Refrain from using emotionally loaded language
3) Don't believe they can make better decisions than the experts

(among other things)

If you're going to violate any one of these (I'm sure there are more), you can leave your writings in the circlejerk that is the opinion section and away from the Science section. 

I read another article - much better, well cited sources, same website. http://www.slate.com/id/2281280/pagenum/all/#p2

*: Sort of ironic.
**: I haven't the slightest clue what this entails. 

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