Earthquakes and the (non-)science of risk prediction

photo credit: Waifer X via photopin cc

By:  Rebecca Cerio

One of the more scientifically bizarre stories lately has been the conviction of Italian scientists and engineers in the L’Aquila earthquake trial.  To summarize, during a swarm of small earthquakes, a government-sponsored panel told the people of the L’Aquila region that the tremors were nothing to worry about and that they were believed to disperse energy and reduce the chance of a larger earthquake.  (In the past, such swarms preceded only a tiny fraction of large earthquakes.)  Six days later, a large earthquake hit the region, killing over 300 people.  The scientists were tried for the deaths of about 30 of those people, who–reassured by the scientists’ words–stayed in their homes when the quake struck, instead of rushing outside to more open, safer ground.

Scientists, predictably, have shook their heads in dismay at the Italian court’s verdict (convictions of manslaughter and 6-year sentences).  They have, understandably, pointed out that there was no way that the scientists could predict an earthquake and that they should not be punished for giving the best advice they could given the data they had.  The prosecution has pointed out that the defendants were not being charged with incorrectly predicting an earthquake but instead incorrectly communicating the RISK of an earthquake.  In essence, the scientists were charged and found guilty of giving people a false sense of security that convinced the victims to change their behavior in an ultimately lethal way.

Whether the scientists gave people bad advice or whether they gave them good advice that simply turned out to be wrong is still unclear and is perhaps something that only Mother Nature would be able to testify about, but it gets right at the crux of a very pointed issue:  how should scientists convey risk and uncertainty about their data to the public, particularly in life-and-death scenarios?  How much responsibility do scientists have to convey that risk accurately?  And what legal blame do scientists have to accept when people interpret and use that data to justify acting in ways that lead to injury or death? Continue reading

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The Higgs-Boson Explained

A great video explaining what the Higgs-Boson is and why it’s so interesting, done by the same folks that bring us the PhD comics.  Please ignore the cruddy audio in the first part, as it gets much better about a minute in.

I’m not a physics person, but still, finding out new things about the basic structure and properties of matter?  What scientist isn’t fascinated by that?


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Science: It’s an Everyone Thing

So.  This is a thing making its way around the science blogosphere:

…you know, this is like one of those commercials for expensive jewelry or perfumes:  I watch the whole thing and have NO IDEA what it’s trying to sell me.

If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought that this was for some new brand of cosmetics.  (“Erlenmeyer:  The New Science of Beauty!”)  But no!  From the YouTube notes:  This video was published by the European Commission for a campaign designed to attract more women to a career in science. The commission said that the video had to “speak their language to get their attention” and that it was intended to be “fun, catchy” and strike a chord with young people. “I would encourage everyone to have a look at the wider campaign and the many videos already online of female researchers talking about their jobs and lives.”  The original video was taken down after it received so many negative comments.

…well, they definitely got attention, I’ll give them that.  “Speaking their language”, though? Um…speaking as a girl who was into science in middle school and high school and who has become a scientist?  No.

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From “For The Better?” on Tumblr

That is all.  :D

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Make an Appointment…Whenever You Need To?: Are Annual Exams Obsolete?

We have gradually come to realize that the routine physical did little or nothing to improve health outcomes and was largely a waste of time and money. Today the emphasis is on identifying factors that can be altered to improve outcomes. We are even seeing articles in the popular press telling the public that no medical group advises annual checkups for healthy adults. If patients see their doctor only when they have symptoms, the doctor can take advantage of those visits to update vaccinations and any indicated screening tests. – 

Check out the full article for a very interesting read.  I think that Hall hits the nail on the head when she suggests that the real reason the annual physical exam has persisted is doctors’ fear of being sued for NOT diagnosing a problem.  Yet I have to think that there has to be a better way to strike a balance than spending billions of dollars on health exams for healthy people.

Like Hall, I’m in no way saying that anyone should NOT go to the doctor if they have a problem or even stop having annual exams if they don’t want to.  But I can’t help but cringe whenever I, a perfectly healthy adult, get those “this is not a bill”s after my physicals and see how much money is going into telling me that I’m…a perfectly healthy adult.  Still.

I’ve got no problem spending money on things that keep me healthier.  But if annual exams aren’t one of those things, then how much am I spending for a false sense of security?

EDIT:  Aaand, there’s a wise follow-up piece by the same author:  When To See A Doctor

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23 and 1/2 hours: What is the single best thing we can do for our health?

“A Doctor-Professor answers the old question “What is the single best thing we can do for our health” in a completely new way.  Dr. Mike Evans is founder of the Health Design Lab at the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, an Associate Professor of Family Medicine and Public Health at the University of Toronto, and a staff physician at St. Michael’s Hospital.”

This video’s entertaining to watch for the visuals alone (as far as I can tell, it WAS all hand-drawn), but the points he makes are excellent.  Exercise has so many benefits, can help us in so many ways, that it IS the single best thing we can do for our health.  No matter your situation, no matter your vices or your predispositions, if you can exercise safely, it will signifcantly reduce your chances of developing some of our biggest health problems.

By extension, perhaps one of the best health policies around is to encourage exercise.  I don’t mean your doctor’s steady litany of “–and you should get more exercise, too.  See me in six months.”  I’m talking about actively making it easier for people to exercise.  Including gym membership benefits in Medicare and other health plans.  Making cities pedestrian and bike-friendly.  Supporting strong public transportation systems so that people are more likely to do without a car.  Funding parks and other safe places where people can get out and about, play sports, or just walk.

As anyone who’s tried to get on an exercise plan and failed can attest, new habits can be hard to develop.  However, making it easier, safer, and cheaper to exercise can go a long way in overcoming the “activation energy” of getting into the fitness habit.

(Cross-posted at Science Policy for All)

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HPV Vaccination: Not Just For Girls Anymore

Image used with permission from alvimann,

By: Rebecca Cerio

Vaccines are one of the great triumphs of modern medicine.  The ability to give someone an injection and protect them from  diseases that used to claim millions of lives each year at low cost is a huge step forward in public health.  They have helped us to turn polio, tuberculosis, measles, smallpox, and dozens of other diseases from major killers into preventable hurdles, easily overstepped by a visit to the doctor.

HPV:  A Vaccine Success Story
The human papillomavirus vaccines (either Gardasil from Merck or Cervarix from GlaxoSmithKline) are some of the newest vaccine successes.  Both are safe, with nearly all adverse events reported being minor and no serious complications causally lined to the vaccines.  Gardasil, the most widely-used of the two, protects against infection with HPV 6, 11, 16, and 18, which are responsible for most types of cervical cancer, some vulvar, vaginal, head and neck, and anal cancers.  Gardasil also protects against genital warts caused by HPV 6 and 11.  In one of the major clinical trials, Gardasil’s ability to protect against cervical cancer was so overwhelmingly evident that the trial was stopped early on ethical grounds…so that women in the control group could also be given the vaccine.

Gardasil is a preventative vaccine and thus cannot prevent against any disease if it is given after initial HPV infection.  Since HPVs are ubiquitous and extremely common sexually transmitted viruses, Gardasil and Cervarix are both most effective if given before sexual activity begins.  Gardasil has been approved for use in adolescent girls for several years, but uptake has been sluggish.

Cervical Cancer Vaccine:  Not Just For Girls Anymore
HPV vaccination is remarkably effective at preventing new HPV 6, 11, 16, and 18 infections, and the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices has recommended these vaccinations as a public health measure for girls age 11 and up.  Most recently, they have also recommended vaccination for boys.  The rationale for giving boys a vaccine against cervical cancer is severalfold.

  • Vaccination will protect boys from anal and possibly head and neck cancers.
  • Gardasil can prevent genital warts in males as well as females.
  • Prevention of HPV16 and 18 infection in men will prevent those men from infecting others and thus protect their  unvaccinated male and female sexual partners from a possibly cancer-causing HPV infection.

The Choice Is Ours
Whether the CDC’s recommendation will cause a significant uptake of the HPV vaccines among adolescent boys is unclear.  There are several concrete benefits to males being vaccinated, but the vaccination price and scheduling may hinder vaccination efforts.   The recommended vaccination course costs almost $400 and requires three separate injections over 6 months (though recent studies have suggested that two doses give the same level of protection and even one dose gives some protection).  There has also been some pushback from parents and social groups who are uncomfortable with vaccinating pre-teens for a sexually transmitted disease.  There has been some use of the vaccine among college-age women, but depending on when sexual activity starts, this may be too late to prevent infection.  Additionally, convincing young people of the dangers of cervical cancer, which usually only affects women decades after HPV infection, presents its own challenges.

The slow uptake of the HPV vaccines is disheartening, considering its effectiveness.  However, with over 40 million doses of Gardasil alone administered, we are already on our way to making the vast majority of cervical cancers a thing of the past.  With the success of HPV vaccination, we have taken a huge scientific step.  As Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine points out, “This is cancer, for Pete’s sake.  A vaccine against cancer was the dream of our youth.”

(Cross-posted at Science Policy for All)

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Vaccines and Preventable Diseases website.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Reports of Health Concerns Following HPV Vaccination webpage.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HPV Vaccination webpage.

Harris, Gardener.  ”Panel Endorses HPV Vaccine for Boys of 11″  New York Times online edition, October 25, 2011. Accessed 12/7/11 at

“NIH study finds two doses of HPV vaccine may be as protective as full course”.  National Institutes of Health press release, September 9, 2011.

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Synthetic Biology and Biodefense: Regulating the Unknown

By Rebecca Cerio

The field of synthetic biology–most broadly described as the design and construction of new biological functions and systems not found in nature–has been quietly advancing ever since the discovery of restriction enzymes in the 197os.  Being able to cut-and-paste together DNA segments in combinations different than those created by nature opened the door to molecular biology and the burgeoning biotechnology field.  Such technologies, as well as our understanding of DNA functional and regulatory elements, now allow us to genetically engineer organisms to produce needed medicines, to bioengineer pest- and chemical-resistant food crops, and to sequence and study the genome of any organism for useful and harmful mutations.

Recently, the J. Craig Venter Institute’s announcement that they canchemically synthesize an entire, functional genome in the lab has led to new public awareness of the potential power, benefits, and dangers of synthetic biology.  One question raised is:  just because we can, does that mean that we should?

Or, from a regulatory standpoint, just because it is possible, should it be allowed?  Synthetic biology technology can be used for purposes both for legitimate scientific purposes (i.e., producing vaccines) and to threaten public safety  (i.e., producing deadly pathogens).  But what are the actual, plausible risks and benefits of synthetic biology, beyond movie-plot scenarios and inflammatory rhetoric about “playing God”? Continue reading

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Slime Molds: Pretty, Smart, and Hungry


Ancient, mysterious, and sometimes strangely beautiful:  slime molds are a kind of soil-dwelling amoeba that spend part of their lives as plain old single-celled organisms.  However, they can also band together to form fantastically alien-looking forms like those here.  Some can crawl.  Some have beautiful colors.  And they are all excellent at finding their way to the food.  Case in point:

In 2000, Japanese researchers placed Physarum polycephalum — the name means “many-headed slime mold” — in a maze, along with two blocks of food. It extended its tendrils down the corridors of the maze, bending around curves, reaching dead ends and then backing out of them. After four hours, the slime mold was feasting on both blocks of food.

Another researcher takes a slightly more whimsical approach:

 … a favorite hobby is challenging them to build highway systems. In 2010 he and his colleagues placed a slime mold in the middle of a map of Spain and Portugal, with pieces of food on the largest cities. The slime mold grew a network of tentacles that was nearly identical to the actual highway system on the Iberian Peninsula.

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What Science Says About Some Common Food Myths

A recent post on Lifehacker made my little scientist heart go pitter-patter.  The authors take on 10 common food myths and then give actual scientific explanations of why they're not true.  For instance?  

  • Eating after a certain time in the evening does not make the food turn directly to fat.
  • Adding salt to water doesn't make boiling foods cook faster.
  • Aluminum (from cookware, cans, deodorant) does not cause Alzheimer's disease.
  • Wooden vs. plastic cutting boards for meat:  one won't harbor more bacteria than the other.

What I loved about this article was that it was obviously written by scientifically-minded folks.  They properly referenced everything, they even (mostly) linked to some primary sources (ie, actual experiments that had been done to test the hypothesis about wooden vs. plastic cutting boards).  

Even better?  They gave an awesome plug at the end for doing your own research about diet claims. They also gave an excellent link to a Cleveland Clinic page about common sense ways to judge the soundness of nutritional advice.  The questions listed there are good to keep in mind for any health/scientific advice you might hear, on or off the internet..

(10 Stubborn Food Myths That Just Won’t Die, Debunked by Science – via Lifehacker)

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