Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Are terrorists stupid and can you cure the common cold? Wow!--UPDATED

On the morality of publishing and the prevcntion of the cold or smoking dope in Rhode Island--the march of science news is just so exciting, isn't it?
June 29, 2005

Let’s assume that all terrorists are idiots--A paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences raises serious issues for both science and journalism. What do you do with a paper that describes how terrorists could contaminate our milk supply with botulism? The paper had been submitted earlier this spring and then got held up, in part because the government objected to its publication. Now normally I get all crazy when the government tries to prevent the publication of anything, but it this case, they at least raised a valid issue. If terrorists hadn’t thought of this before, here was a great idea to cause a great deal of harm and total terror in the country. The paper even gave enough information on how to go about it. “Analyzing a Bioterror Attack on the Food Supply: The Case of Botulinum Toxin in Milk,” was written by Lawrence W. Wein of Stanford, and a graduate student, Yifan Liu [all graduate students at Stanford have names like that]. What you would do is slip some toxin into a milk tanker. You would kill several hundred thousand Americans and sow total panic. Now, pretend you are a newspaper editor. How much of that do you report? That was an issue because the paper was circulated among science writers beforehand with an embargo, standard procedure in science journalism. An official of the Department of Health and Human Services wrote to the academy asking that it not be published, calling it a “roadmap for terrorists.” The academy held up publication to study the matter. Meanwhile, the New York Times published [$] a bowdlerized version on its op-ed page (eliminating a lot of details). The academy, after considerable thought, went ahead with the publication, which you can read here. The issue of giving ideas to terrorists is interesting and in the end the academy (and I) reject it. The terrorists don’t need business professors from Stanford to tell them what to hit and how. The information is readily available and they have at least as vivid an imagination as normal sane people. I’ve always wondered what would happen if a suicide bomber walked into the food court at the Short Hills Mall some holiday period. You think they haven’t thought of that?

“If the law supposes that...the law is a ass--a idiot”--Dickens never met the U.S. Supreme Court but he’d occasionally love them. Three weeks after the SCOTUS [that’s journalese for the court] ruled that federal authorities could prosecute those who use marijuana for medical purposes even if they don’t sell it, the great state of little Rhode Island [Rhode Island and the Providence Plantations, to be exact] enacted a law that told them to stick it. Rhode Island became the 11th state to pass such a law. Patients, who must be residents, can receive a registration card allowing them or their caregivers to grow up to 12 plants or posses up to 2.5 ounces without being busted. Doctors would be able to prescribe for five patients at a time. The vote, wonderfully, was 33 to 1. The House voted earlier 52-10 to pass the bill.

UPDATE: The governor, Donald L. Carcieri, vetoed the law as he said he would. He said that "This bill's noble goals cannot mask its serious safety flaws." "This bill will increase the availability of marijuana on the streets of our state." That would probably be hard to do. The legislature has the three-fifths needed to override.

[I’d give you the Providence Journal URL for the story but they require registration and I’m getting really pissed off about these registration requirements so screw them! The story wasn’t that good anyhow.]

Linus Pauling turns over in his grave--Does vitamin C really prevent or shorten colds? Probably not, says research published in the wonderful Public Library of Science Medicine [It’s wonderful because it’s peer reviewed and it’s free]. Researchers from Finland and Australia did a meta-analysis of the literature and the conclusion was that vitamin C did nothing to prevent colds and may reduce the length of them under special circumstances only. The studies used in the analsysis required the use of at least 200 mg/day, some as high as 2 g (which Linus Pauling, the leading advocate of the vitamin, took, incidentally]. “The lack of effect of prophylactic vitamin C supplementation on the incidence of common colds in normal populations throws doubt on the utility of this wide practice,” they wrote.
The clinical significance of the minor reduction in duration of common cold episodes experienced during prophylaxis is questionable, although the consistency of these findings points to a genuine biological effect.

In special circumstances, where people used prophylaxis prior to extreme physical exertion and/or exposure to significant cold stress, the collective evidence indicates that vitamin C supplementation may have a considerable beneficial effect; it was the results of one of these six trials, with schoolchildren in a skiing school, that particularly impressed Pauling. However, great caution should be exercised in generalizing from this finding, which is based mainly on marathon runners
Oh well.


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