Thursday, May 12, 2005

The march of science, the march of ignorance--who knew? 5.12.05


This is what I get for letting you stick your finger up there?--Back in the item "Blogs and Whales and Idiots, Oh My" [click to the right] I touched the issue of prostate cancer and what a man should do if he has it. The dilemma is viciously simple. If it is the low-grade kind, do you have the surgery, or do you just watch it and wait to see what happens on the theory that you are most likely to die of something else before that cancer kills you? You will be reminded that often low-grade prostate cancer can explode into something far direr—or you may die of heart disease 20 years from now taking the cancer with you. No one had enough data to really say anything definitive. Now they do. A 10-year and apparently well-constructed study out of Sweden published in the New England Journal of Medicine says forthrightly that if you are under the age of 65, having the surgery can save your life. If you are older than that, we still don’t know. The only weakness in the study is the number of subjects, 695. Unfortunately, AP got it only partially right in its widely distributed story, exaggerating the death rate improvement. The research found that the surgery—radical prostatectomy—does indeed reduce the death rate from the cancer (and, oddly, everything else) but it is a small demonstrable reduction. The real news is that the surgery definitely makes a difference in reducing the spread and growth of the tumor, which in the end saves lives. It may just take longer than 10 years to prove the saving. Or, in the words of the researchers: "Radical prostatectomy reduces disease-specific mortality, overall mortality and the risks of metastasis and local progression. The absolute reduction in the risk of death after 10 years is small, but the reductions in the risks of metastasis and local tumor progression are substantial." That makes the decision easier for relatively young men and doesn’t help us old farts a bit.


The taxonomists’ revenge: Cute and new and broiled for dinner—It’s always fun when biologists find a new species and even more fun when they discover a new family. Just think, we haven’t eradicated it yet. Meet the kha-nyou, trust me, you’ve never met before. According to John Noble Wilford in the New York Times, the cute little fella is found in the forests and limestone outcrops in Laos. It is not a rat or a squirrel and does have some resemblance to a chinchilla or guinea pig, but it is of its own family entirely. The announcement came from the Wildlife Conservation Society and is to be published in a scintillating journal called Systematics and Biodiversity [which, if it has a webpage, Google can’t find it]. Wilford writes that the last time a new family was discovered might have been 30 years ago. And where did they find this little beastie? In a market. The locals serve it for dinner.


Don't forget his father ran American Motors--Mitt Romney, the governor of Massachusetts, is something of the odd-man out. He is a Republican in a heavily Democratic state. He is a Mormon in a state that is predominantly Roman Catholic. He is a conservative in the bluest of all blue states. Back in February, we reported that his opposition to stem cell research was a major issue in Massachusetts [see "State vs. State, State vs. Church, State vs. Scientists"]. The issue is back again. Romney has now proposed more limits on the research, asking the legislature to amend a bill permitting the research far more restrictive. He has said he will veto it if he does not get his way. He wants to change the definition of when life begins and exclude the kind of research he opposes. Specifically, he wants to ban the creation of embryos for research, an idea the legislature has already rejected. He admits he won’t get much more traction this time, but he has added proposed amendments that still put limits on the research. The legislature has defined the beginning of life as when an embryo is implanted in the uterus, which would permit creation of embryos in the test tube, just a ball of cells 14 days old or less, which is exactly what Harvard intends to produce. Romney wants the definition changed to the moment of fertilization. Interestingly, the Catholic Church agrees with that position but most people, including Catholics, don't, and support the research. The scientific community in the state, one of the world's biggest and best, opposes his moves as well and they have substantial clout. Supporters of the research have enough votes to override his veto. And the business community is watching while California and other states move ahead in what could be a most lucrative field. Why is he still pushing? Two reasons: one, he undoubtedly sincerely believes all this; and two, he is probably going to run for President in 2008. Well, they can’t call him a "Massachusetts liberal."


Hey, they just asked God’s scientific opinion—Anyone puzzled by the refusal of the Food and Drug Administration to approve Plan B, the emergency contraceptive, might have an answer. [See "If Plan A fails and they won't let you have Plan B..." below] According to the Washington Post, “an outspoken evangelical conservative doctor on the panel” reported in a videotaped sermon, he was asked by the FDA commissioner to comment on the 23-4 decision by the scientific panel to permit sale of the pills. Dr. W. David Hager was asked to write a minority report on why they should not be sold. He did and they aren’t. He said he didn’t write the report from an evangelical perspective, mind you, but a scientific one. He said the panel had too little information on the effects on girls under the age of 16, a position few others hold. "I argued from a scientific perspective, and God took that information, and He used it through his minority report to influence the decision. Once again, what Satan meant for evil, God turned into good." Satan, however, seems to be winning elsewhere. The pills are available all over the world to prevent unwanted pregnancies and to reduce abortions. Don't ask me to explain. I'm apparently not plugged in to the right channels.

There is more to the good Dr. Hager. See Wonkette (the funny and totally salacious blog--this time, however, written by a substitute since she's off writing a novel or something).

Those people just don’t know their place—The British have a long history of silent social anti-Semitism. They actually don’t kill anyone—or at least haven’t for several hundred years—but the prejudice is under the surface and never quite goes away. On April 22, the British Association of University Teachers (AUT) voted to boycott two Israeli universities, the University of Haifa and Bar-Ilan. They claimed that Haifa disciplined a professor who disagreed with government policies on the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank (untrue) and that Bar-Ilan had an affiliation with a small college in a West Bank settlement (true). This isn’t unique. One British researcher fired two Israeli scientists from a journal she published a while back. I am not one to accuse people who oppose or criticize Israel of being anti-Semitic since I do it myself regularly. I also oppose the settlements and the occupation. But this is much too stupid to be anything else. It comes as Israel is pulling out of Gaza at great expense in resources and with the threat of internal disruption—perhaps even the risk of civil war—and while a truce with the Palestinian authority has ended the intifada. Picking on Haifa University is particularly weird. The city of Haifa is the most integrated city in Israel, and the university’s student body is about a quarter Arab. As to the college in the West Bank, I have two words “so bloody what!” Fortunately, the Israelis are fighting back in the p.r. war, and there has been enough outrage in the British press and academe to force the AUT to revisit its decision in two weeks time. On Friday, the Jerusalem Post reported that three British Universities--Sussex, Warwick and--drum roll--Oxford, told the AUT to shove it.

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