i’ve been experiencing this weird phenomena where people who have become aware that i am experiencing tragedy in my life are compelled to contact me to tell me how they too are dealing with something(s) devastating and how cruel and unfair the world is for people like us, people who suffer. the death of my father will not put me into some cruel underworld where life is fundamentally different than it always was. this is my personal heartbreak; the world will continue as it always has, and it never occurred to me to have the idea that i would no longer be living in it. it’s me who will be different. i don’t blame anyone for what’s happening, and i don’t want to join in any spiteful despair.
Alex Tabarrok, Sinister Statistics: Do Left Handed People Die Young?, Marginal Revolution (September 12, 2013) ›
In 1991 Halpern and Coren published a famous study in the New England Journal of Medicine which appears to show that left handed people die at much younger ages than right-handed people. Halpern and Coren had obtained records on 987 deaths in Southern California–we can stipulate that this was a random sample of deaths in that time period–and had then asked family members whether the deceased was right or left-handed. What they found was stunning, left handers in their sample had died at an average age of 66 compared to 75 for right handers. If true, left handedness would be on the same order of deadliness as a lifetime of smoking. Halpern and Coren argued that this was due mostly to unnatural deaths such as industrial and driving accidents caused by left-handers living in a right-handed world. The study was widely reported at the time and continues to be regularly cited in popular accounts of left handedness (e.g. Buzzfeed, Cracked).
What is less well known is that the conclusions of the Halpern-Coren study are almost certainly wrong, left-handedness is not a major cause of death. Rather than dramatically lower life expectancy, a more plausible explanation of the HC findings is a subtle and interesting statistical artifact. The problem was pointed out as early as the letters to the editor in the next issue of the NEJM (see Strang letter) and was also recently pointed out in an article by Hannah Barnes in the BBC News (kudos to the BBC!) but is much less well known.
The statistical issue is that at a given moment in time a random sample of deaths is not necessarily a random sample of people …
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has busted Wall Street insiders and dark web drug dealers. Now he’s setting out to do what Marc Andreessen, the Winklevoss Twins, and cryptocurrency nuts can’t: clean up Bitcoin.
Elizabeth Dzeng, How Academia and Publishing are Destroying Scientific Innovation: A Conversation with Sydney Brenner, King's Review (February 24, 2014)
- Sydney Brenner: Today the Americans have developed a new culture in science based on the slavery of graduate students. Now graduate students of American institutions are afraid. He just performs. He’s got to perform. The post-doc is an indentured labourer. We now have labs that don’t work in the same way as the early labs where people were independent, where they could have their own ideas and could pursue them. The most important thing today is for young people to take responsibility, to actually know how to formulate an idea and how to work on it. Not to buy into the so-called apprenticeship. I think you can only foster that by having sort of deviant studies. That is, you go on and do something really different. Then I think you will be able to foster it. But today there is no way to do this without money. That’s the difficulty. In order to do science you have to have it supported. The supporters now, the bureaucrats of science, do not wish to take any risks. So in order to get it supported, they want to know from the start that it will work. This means you have to have preliminary information, which means that you are bound to follow the straight and narrow. There’s no exploration any more except in a very few places. You know like someone going off to study Neanderthal bones. Can you see this happening anywhere else? No, you see, because he would need to do something that’s important to advance the aims of the people who fund science. I think I’ve often divided people into two classes: Catholics and Methodists. Catholics are people who sit on committees and devise huge schemes in order to try to change things, but nothing’s happened. Nothing happens because the committee is a regression to the mean, and the mean is mediocre. Now what you’ve got to do is good works in your own parish. That’s a Methodist. . . .
- Elizabeth Dzeng: On board is the Wellcome Trust, one of the world’s largest funders of science, who announced last year that they would soon require that researchers ensure that their publications are freely available to the public within six months of publication. There have also been proposals to make grant renewals contingent upon open access publishing, as well as penalties on future grant applications for researchers who do not comply. It is admirable that the Wellcome Trust has taken this stance, but can these sanctions be enforced without harming their researchers’ academic careers? Currently, only 55% of Wellcome funded researchers comply with open access publishing, a testament to the fact that there are stronger motivators at play that trump this moral high ground. For this to be successful, funders and universities will have to demonstrate collective leadership and commitment by judging research quality not by publication counts, but on individual merit. Promotion and grant committees would need to clearly commit both on paper and in practice to these new standards. This is of course not easy. I suspect the reason impact factors and publication counts are the currency of academic achievement is because they are a quick and easy metric. Reading through papers and judging research by its merit would be a much more time and energy intensive process, something I anticipate would be incompatible with a busy academic’s schedule. But a failure to change the system has its consequences. Professor Brenner reflected on the disillusioning impact this reality has on young scientists’ goals and dreams.
- Sydney Brenner: I think that this has now just become ridiculous and its one of the contaminating things that young people in particular have to actually now contend with. I know of many places in which they say they need this paper in Nature, or I need my paper in Science because I’ve got to get a post doc. But there is no judgment of its contribution as it is.
- Elizabeth Dzeng: Professor Brenner hit upon several hot topics amongst academics in all disciplines. When Randy Scheckman won his Nobel Prize this year in the Physiology or Medicine, he announced his boycott of “luxury” journals such as Nature, Science, and Cell, declaring that their distorting incentives “encouraged researchers to cut corners and pursue trendy fields of science instead of doing more important work.” Because publications have become a proxy for research quality, publications in high impact factor journals are the metric used by grant and promotion committees to assess individual researchers. The problem is that impact factor, which is based on the number of times papers are cited, does not necessarily correlate with good science. To maximize impact factor, journal editors seek out sensational papers, which boldly challenge norms or explore trendy topics, and ignore less spectacular, but equally important things like replication studies or negative results. As a consequence, academics are incentivised to produce research that caters to these demands. Academics are slowly awakening to the fact that this dogged drive to publish rubbish has serious consequences on the quality of the science that they produce, which have far reaching consequences for public policy, costs, and human lives. One study found that only six out of 53 landmark studies in cancer research were replicable. In another study, researchers were only able to repeat a quarter of 67 influential papers in their field. Only the most successful academics can afford to challenge these norms by boycotting high impact journals. Until we win our Nobel Prizes, or grant and promotion structures change, we are shackled to this “publish or perish” culture. But together with leaders in science and academia such as Professor Brenner, we can start to change the structure of academic research and the language we use to judge quality. As Brenner emphasised, it was the culture of the LMB and the scientific environment at the time that permitted him and his colleagues to uncover the genetic basis of life. His belief that scientists like Professor Sanger would not have survived today are cautionary words, providing new urgency to the grievances we have against the unintended consequences of the demands required to achieve academic success.
Decca Aitkenhead, Peter Higgs: I wouldn't be productive enough for today's academic system, The Guardian (December 6, 2013) ›
Peter Higgs, the British physicist who gave his name to the Higgs boson, believes no university would employ him in today’s academic system because he would not be considered “productive” enough.
The emeritus professor at Edinburgh University, who says he has never sent an email, browsed the internet or even made a mobile phone call, published fewer than 10 papers after his groundbreaking work, which identified the mechanism by which subatomic material acquires mass, was published in 1964.
He doubts a similar breakthrough could be achieved in today’s academic culture, because of the expectations on academics to collaborate and keep churning out papers. He said: “It’s difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964.”
Analysis of Diverse Perversities, 1922
It is because Didion does not believe that human beings can modify or transform the world that she is obliged to call attention — in a series of verbal snapshots, like a Diane Arbus of prose — only to the freaks of the 1960s: In Slouching she writes trenchantly about one Comrade Laski, a self-styled freelance revolutionary with no discernible goals: ‘I am comfortable with the Michael Laskis of this world, with those who live outside rather than in, those in whom the sense of dread is so acute that they turn to extreme and doomed commitments; I know something about dread myself, and appreciate the elaborate systems with which some people manage to fill the void, appreciate all the opiates of the people, whether they are as accessible as alcohol and heroin and promiscuity or as hard to come by as faith in God or History…. You see what the world of Michael Laski is: a minor but perilous triumph of being over nothingness.’ For Didion, all ‘pain-killers’ — heroin, God, the march on Selma, the gin and hot water and Dexedrine she guzzles to write her deflating essays — are alike. They are, she tells us, alike, but clearly she finds — and we are meant to find — her own pain, and her own methods of alleviating her own pain, far more consequential and lovable than those of others.
Kirsten Bell and Amy Salmon, Pain, physical dependence and pseudoaddiction: Redefining addiction for ‘nice’ people?, 20 Int. J. Drug Pol. 170 (2009) ›
The undertreatment of pain has increasingly been framed as both a public health problem and a human rights issue. The application of rights-based discourses to the field of pain management has provided an important means of critiquing “opiophobia” amongst healthcare professionals and challenging current criminal–legal and regulatory sanctions on the distribution of opiate medications. This movement would therefore appear to align with harm reduction advocacy and longstanding criticisms of international drug policies. However, discourses on pain management rest on moral as well as medical assumptions about who has pain and who needs drugs. In this paper, we critically examine discourses on pain management and addiction exemplified in academic and clinical literature produced by and for physicians providing guidance on the provision of opiates for the relief of chronic pain. Our analysis reveals that discourses on pain management and the right to pain relief reify distinctions between the ‘deserving pain patient’ and the ‘undeserving addict’, serving both to further stigmatise people labelled as ‘addicts’ and delegitimise claims to pain they might voice. Present efforts to secure access to pain relief as a human right are likely to undermine, rather than advance, the rights of so-called ‘drug addicts’.