25 July 2005

Recalling Sir Richard Doll

Sir Richard Doll died July 24 at John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, England. Doll was the British epidemiologist who, with Austin Bradford Hill, ran the “British Doctors Study”, which established the link between smoking and lung cancer.

The study was begun in 1951, and was one of the earliest prospective epidemiological studies. Doll and Hill wrote to every registered physician in the United Kingdom, and tracked the responding two-thirds (more than 34,000!) for 50 years. (Thanks to Wikipedia for providing the citation for the final report: Doll R, Peto R, Boreham J, Sutherland I. Mortality in relation to smoking: 50 years' observation on male British doctors. BMJ (2004) 328:1519-33.) But because they had so many respondents, they were able to draw nearly immediate conclusions about the association of smoking with several serious diseases.

It is interesting to recall how the tobacco industry responded to studies like the British Doctors Study. They disputed the scientific significance of the link, often by deploying friendly (i.e., paid) consultants. Action on Smoking and Health cites a variety of fascinating industry documents documenting this – for example, Project Whitecoat, in which Philip Morris paid a group of scientific witnesses to obfuscate the second-hand smoke issue. They also argued that regulations on smoking would devastate the economy.

Does that sound familiar? The parallels between the smoking-and-health “controversy” and the climate change “controversy” are striking. And, in that they illustrate our continuing failure to learn from history, downright scary.

22 July 2005

At the NMNH, Old Information is Disinformation

In an op-ed piece for the Sunday LA Times, David Rains Wallace draws attention to the sad fact that the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History is, to his surprise, not providing the public with an up-to-date view of evolution.

Wallace recalls the exhibit on the Burgess Shale that he saw in 1985. At the time, Stephen Jay Gould had proposed that the Burgess Shale showed an explosion of diversity during the Cambrian, with a wild variety of bizarre creatures exploring novel body designs. (This was the subject of Gould’s book Wonderful Life.)

Alas, later studies showed that many of the weird critters of the Burgess Shale were not so weird at all. Hallucigenia, which seemed so strange as to require a psychedelic name, turns out to be related to velvet worms still common today.

But Wallace finds that the Smithsonian’s Burgess Shale exhibit has had a surprising fate: it has remained frozen in time, left behind by advances in the science it was meant to exemplify:

“… I was disturbed when visiting the museum this year to find that the Burgess Shale exhibit presents the same "oddball" message it did in 1985. And it's not the only outdated information in the museum. Another exhibit informs visitors that fish crawled onto land with their fins and only later evolved legs, although recent fossil discoveries show that fish evolved legs while still living in the water. In other words, the nation's flagship natural history museum has it wrong.”

Museum officials told Wallace that the situation was due to reductions in Congressional funding that have limited their ability to update the displays. While he accepts that, Wallace also blames the scientific community, who seem unable to proselytize as prolifically as their counterparts at the Discovery Institute. I think that that is an unfair criticism, if only because scientists have to take the time to get things right, even works for popular consumption.

What I think has been missed, though, is an opportunity for the scientific community to “reframe the debate”, if I may use the Lakoffian expression so popular in current politics. Instead of focusing on the negative, reacting to thrusts from the ID community, we should be making a push for a positive change: getting the Congress to fund NMNH at the level needed to bring its displays up to date. Wouldn’t it be fun to be the ones charging the barricades for a change?

19 July 2005

Why a Blog?

I have never been a diarist. I have tried from time to time, and never persisted for more than a week. I’m also not much of a correspondent. The last time I made a serious effort to write a series of letters was when my kids were away at summer camp. I figured that they would enjoy getting mail, and might send a card or two in reply. It didn’t work.

I don’t have an agenda, either. I’m political, of course. (Otherwise, Aristotle wouldn’t think I was human.) But I don’t need to set up a forum for a specific political or social activity; I just join the ones that already exist.

What I do have, though, are peculiar interests. Interests significantly different from those of my family, my friends, my coworkers. The list of topics I’m now banned from raising at the dinner table is too long to give here. When I try to engage my colleagues, they remember important meetings. So I’ve been working through things on my own, never really sure whether I’m making a sensible argument or a spittle-flecked sidewalk rant.

I’ve been surfing the blog world for a while now, and have found people who share some of my peculiar interests. Some are sensible. Some are, well, not. Apparently, I’m not alone, just disconnected. From which group time will tell.

My hope, then, is for a blog that is in the form of a chat, and that might connect with other blog people who could give me a better sense of my own sensibility. It seems like a format that is right for sorting things out.