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Neuron Culture

David Dobbs on science, nature, and culture.



dobbspic I write on science, medicine, nature, culture and other matters for the New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Slate, National Geographic, Scientific American Mind, and other publications. (Find clips here.) Right now I'm writing my fourth book, The Orchid and the Dandelion, which explores the hypothesis that the genetic roots some of our worst problems and traits — depresison, hyperaggression, violence, antisocial behavior — can also give rise to resilience, cooperation, empathy, and contentment. The book expands on my December 2009 Atlantic article exploring these ideas. I've also written three books, including Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral, which traces the strangest but most forgotten controversy in Darwin's career — an elemental dispute running some 75 years.

If you'd like, you can subscribe to Neuron Culture by email. You might also want to see more of my work at my main website or check out my Tumblr log.

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January 14, 2010

Ezra Klein - America spends way, way, way more on health care

We don't have a government-run system. But our system is so expensive that our government's partial role is pricier than the whole of government-run systems.

Absorb that: Our supposedly efficient supposedly free-market healthcare system costs us more in government spending alone than other countries spend on government-run systems.

Posted via web from David Dobbs's Somatic Marker

NEJM study finds post-event morphine cuts combat PTSD rates in half

This is a pretty big deal if it holds up in future trials. One caveat I've not had time to check out is whether the morphine was often applied as part of an more robust medical response in general, which itself might reduce later PTSD symptoms. I hope the DOD soon follows up with another, larger study, for as Ben Carey notes, the has some substantial implications if indeed it holds up.

In the new study, researchers at the Naval Health Research Center in San Diego reviewed detailed medical records of 696 troops who had been wounded in Iraq between 2004 and 2006, determining whether and when morphine was used in treatment. Military doctors used the drug for most serious injuries -- generally in the first two hours after the injury -- but sometimes administered others, like anti-anxiety medications

January 13, 2010

Rebooting science journalism -mixed-metaphor notes on the upcoming yakfest


Tomorrow I fly to North Carolina for the ScienceOnline 2010 conference, or unconference, where on Saturday I will sit down with Ed Yong, Carl Zimmer, John Timmer, and anyone else who squeezes into the room, to talk about rebooting science journalism. The obvious assumption behind the topic (if I can return to the titular metaphor) is that science journalism is such a mess that it needs not just cleaning up, but a wholesale restart. But "rebooting" is probably too mild a term for what most people think is needed; if we're to stick with digital metaphors, I'd to say the assumption is more that we need an entirely new OS, not a restart of this one.

At this point, frankly, the shape of that discussion is as obscure to us as cloud-covered terrain. We'll be discussing how to navigate terrain we can't yet see, and carrying, with great unease, crappy maps that we know are based on questionable reports and outdated geography. "Here be dragons!" seems the only certain thing on them. And as Jay Rosen likes to point out, the title on the map -- "science journalism" -- is a term that, while it seemed to have a coherent definition five years ago, now seems more vague and inexact and arbitrary with each passing day.*`

So how to think or talk about this coherently?

January 8, 2010

Danny Carlat on the big new antidepressants-don't-work study

The study made news--see, for example, this piece in the New York Times. But do the results really mean that antidepressants are ineffective? I don't think so. In order to understand the implications of the study, you have to understand how clinical trials are conducted, and how radically they differ from usual care.

Posted via web from David Dobbs's Somatic Marker

January 5, 2010

Neuron Culture's top five from December

'Twas the month of orchidness. I had a spotty month posting in December, as book bidness and then the holidays massacred blog production, but got some good traffic despite. The leaders:

1. Are "orchid kids" the same as "gifted children"? was my blog reaction to Lisa Belkin's' blog reaction at the Times to my Atlantic piece, "The Orchid Children." The short answer to the question was No. See the post for why that doesn't quite cover it.

2. Coming sort of soon to a bookstore near you: "The Orchid and the Dandelion" announced my deal to do a book on the orchid or 'sensitivity' hypothesis. But the real interest was clearly in how this hypothesis can change one's approach to parenting.

3. Does the "orchid-dandelion" metaphor work for you? My duel with David Shenk is a smackdown between me and David Shenk over the pros and cons of the orchid-dandelion metaphor. Shenk (and some other readers) worried the metaphor does more than I want it to, to bad effect. Most readers urged me to stay with it. I'm still thinking.

4. Two-year-old Hamlet: A toddler takes on Shakespeare.

In which we get cute and Hamlet in one package. Irresistible. See for yourself:

5. Stress is an old, old companion Which shouldn't be news, but sort of is.

Avatar smackdown!

I rarely take direct exception to anything my friend Jonah Lehrer writes, and I fully recognize he's just quick-riffing on a Hollywood movie. But if I understand his Avatar post correctly, my good man Jonah is arguing, at least in a minddump-at-the-bar sort of way, that James Cameron's latest movie is a pretty full neuro-aesthetico-art-critico realization of film's medium. His is a fun post, and worthwhile just to see Cameron crammed onto the same page, with appropriate apologies, with Clement Greenburg, Clint Eastwood, and Jorge Luis Borges. But I must differ. In Avatar, which I saw last night, Cameron has not deftly realized the potential of his medium; he has deftly exploited its crudest powers of visual seduction while leaving its full potential untapped.

Every art [writes Jonah, channeling Clement Greenberg] is defined by its medium. ... And I think Cameron has deftly realized the potential of his medium, which is film.

But what's the essence of the filmic medium? (Film geeks, commence to argue. The of you, read on.) The crudest aspect of a medium is not necessarily its most important or elemental. Film gives a rich sense of visual reality; add a bit of story (no one would have sat through a random 150-minute tour of that planet), and you can get people to sit back and unthinkingly go with the story. The visual immersion is unique to film, perhaps, but the shutting down of the prefrontal cortex surely isn't -- you'd surely get the same thing if you scanned people who were listening with eyes closed to a good yarn.

December 24, 2009

Winning ugly, but winning

The last time a president won with 60 percent of the vote, for instance, was when Lyndon Johnson trounced Barry Goldwater in 1964. Health-care reform passed the House with only 50.5 percent of the body voting for it. And the senators making up this morning's 60 votes actually represent closer to 65 percent of the population. Harry Reid has much to be proud of today.

Posted via web from David Dobbs's Somatic Marker

December 22, 2009

Is this where Gladwell wanders astray?

Amid the various recent whacks at considerations of Gladwell lately, I find this one, by Razib Khan, particularly helpful in defining what sometimes goes amiss with Gladwell — and the danger that waits every science writer:

[Gladwell's problem is that] out of the possible set of ideas and models, only a subset can be turned into an interesting piece of prose, and only a subset are actually non-trivially true (that is, they stand the test of the time, not just falling below the p-value for the purposes of getting published once, and, add something which isn't a mathematically fluffing up of something we already knew verbally or intuitively). The intersection between the two subsets is rather small proportion of the peer-reviewed literature at any given time.

There's a parallel in science, of course. It's the tension between explaining a phenomenon (say, coral reef formation) in the most parsimonious, conservative way possible and explaining it in the most imaginative way that can be squared with the facts. That tension drives science. Science writers best heed it as well, and watch their steps lest they tread too far afield.

Sell the drugs, they pay you. Criticize the drugs, they sue you.

via Wall Street Journal Health Blog:

GavelFor a while now, the FDA and other regulators have been looking at safety risks associated with a few drugs patients sometimes take before getting MRI scans.

While it's common for new risks to crop up with established drugs, the Times of London this weekend highlighted an interesting twist in this case: GE has filed a libel suit in Britain against a Danish radiologist who gave a talk about the risks associated with Omniscan, a GE drug that's one of the medicines regulators have been looking at.

The doctor, Henrik Thomsen, gave a presentation to about 30 people two years ago in Oxford, the article says. He described a cluster of cases at his hospital in Copenhagen where kidney patients who received Omniscan developed a rare disorder called nephrogenic systemic fibrosis. One of the patients died.

GE Healthcare told the Times that the presentation was defamatory because it accused the company of suppressing information and marketing the drug when it was aware of possible problems, according to the article. Thomsen told the Times: "I believe that the lawsuit is an attempt to silence me."

So a company, angry at being accused of trying to suppress information, responds by ... sueing the guy who released the information.

Posted via web from David Dobbs's Somatic Marker

Rebooting science journalism, redux

My post of a few days ago on rebooting science journalism stirred more (and more interesting) discussion than I anticipated. After writing a very long response, I decided to just write a short response in the comments section. But once I'd done that, I thought, Well, maybe this should just be its own post. So here it is.

Vaughan Bell rightly complains about the journalistic convention of the obligatory quote. I'm with you on this, Vaughan. Good quotes can enrich a story, leaven its texture to provide some variety for the reader, articulate contrasting views, or give insight into a person's character and thinking via her language (sometimes providing the rope with which the quoted hangs himself). But they're often used de riguer, even though writing without quotes (or with few) can (but doesn't always) adds richness of its own. One of the pleasures of writing my first piece for Slate was being told I could not use quotes (though I was expected to do all necessary research and reporting), precisely because I was to vest my authority (that of informed opinion rather than final-say expertise) in my argument rather than in quoted experts. The judicious writer best serves the reader when he (the writer) uses quotes not because they lend authority or provide a pro forma Proof of Diligent Reporting, but because they truly add something.


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