Monthly Archives: July 2012

Unhealthful News 215 – Erasing the line between health-related news and entertainment

Chris Snowdon recently (well, fairly recently — I am rather behind on blog reading) wrote a great post about the idiotic coverage of a recent violent attack in Florida (the one that involved a man biting off the face of an innocent bystander, eliciting excited reports about zombie-like behavior, even though everyone knows that zombies eat brains, not faces, to say nothing of the fact that the perpetrator was killed after the attack, not before).  The coverage mostly attributed this to the perpetrator being under the influence of the designer drug, “bath salts”.  To jump to the punchline, the toxicology report eventually found neither this no any other psychoactive drugs in the perpetrator’s body, and the (low-key, probably not noticed by 99% of those who heard the “zombie” and “bath salts” story) coverage of that suggested, “hmm, maybe it has something to do with his history of schizophrenia”.

Just lovely.

But why would a news reporter not want to attribute a bad event to some random new technology?  After all, if one idiot claims “that must be what did it”, it is the job of the press to just blindly report that, right?  I believe that is what Woodward and Bernstein did.

Here is another great example of the same idiocy:

Corrales officials say a fire that burned more than 350 acres of the wooded area along the Rio Grande was most likely sparked by an electronic cigarette.  Village Administrator John Avila says an employee apparently dropped the device while patrolling on June 20. The employee realized the device was gone after ducking under a tree limb. The fire started soon after.

The employee probably urinated in the woods while he was out there too (at least if he was a guy), and that was just about equally likely to be responsible for the fire, as anyone who knows anything about e-cigarettes would realize.  A dropped e-cigarette is no more likely to start a fire than a dropped flashlight, since they are more or less the same thing when lying inertly on the ground (i.e., a battery, in a case, which can be — but was not at the time — connected in circuit with a filament that gets hot).  Indeed, the flashlight would create a greater risk if it were left turned on, which the e-cigarette could not be (unless it was some very strange mod, which seems unlikely).

This would have been obvious to anyone who bothered to talk to anyone who knows anything about e-cigarettes.  Presumably either the employee who used the e-cigarette or the village administrator, whichever one made up this story, did not know anything.  It was fairly stupid of them to make the claim without checking whether it was at all reasonable.  But people make stupid claims sometimes.

A reporter, even one who knows nothing about e-cigarettes (or “bath salts” or zombies) should know that people make stupid claims.  I said that the reporters of these stories were idiots, but that is really letting them off too easy.  What they are is grossly negligent and derelict in their duty, and creating great social harm as a result.

Why do they do this?  Because it makes the news more entertaining to just report rumors and scary stories about technology.  And most reporters today seem to be frustrated entertainers, rather than real journalists.

[Update:  I have explored a few analyses of how some low-quality e-cigarettes could actually fail in a way that would start a fire.  So perhaps it cannot be ruled out.  But “not ruled out” is quite different from “happened” or “is the most likely explanation” or even “is a plausible explanation”.  There is a difference between “assume the fire was caused by an e-cigarette and try to explain how” and “of all the possible causes of a fire, and the rarity of an e-cigarette sitting idle creating ignition temperatures, how reasonable is that explanation?” — that difference is represents how scientists and reporters (real ones) think.  The plausible explanation I liked is that the worker was smoking and thinks that caused it, but was not supposed to be smoking, so make up the a lie that was as close as possible to the truth.]

Unhealthful News 214 – A great table of contents

I suppose this does not really qualify as news, even though it got sent to my inbox (I have a feeling my inbox is not representative of what is generally considered “news”), but I have not written a UN in an while.  It seems that the Journal of Addiction Research & Therapy just published a special issue on Tobacco Addiction.  They were pleased to inform me that the articles are all free online.

But I don’t think I will be taking advantage of that opportunity to read….

The Waterpipe; a New Way of Hooking Youth on Tobacco by Wasim Maziak

“Hooking” seems like such an active verb, one with a clear subject/actor.  (No, not that kind of hooking.  Even the kind they mean implies active intent by someone.)  So who, exactly is setting out to do this “hooking”?  Big Waterpipe?  Large national chains of hookah bars?  And how are they forcing youth to use their product?  I suppose I could learn if I read the article, but it just sounds too scary.

Psychosocial Factors and Health-Risk Behaviors Associated with Hookah use among College Students by Carla J. Berg, Gillian L. Schauer, Omar A. Asfour, Akilah N. Thomas and Jasjit S. Ahluwalia    

At least that one does not involve any black magic.  Let me guess, the methods read:  We noticed there are hookah users around campus, so we gathered up whatever demographic and behavior survey we had on hand and asked them (and some non-users) to take it.  Since we were not exploring any causal hypotheses, and we figure that there really will be nothing made of these results, we would then be free to just publish whatever we came up with.  But we can still add some really cool jargon to the title.

Functional Brain Imaging of Tobacco Exposure in Humans by Steven S Storage and Arthur L Brody

Brain-scan researchers have an expensive toy they need to get grants to justify.  Anti-tobacco research has infinite money but wants to make sure none of it gets spent on anything that might actually be informative.  A match made in heaven. 

Oral Nicotine Self-Administration in Rodents by Sakire Pogun, Allan C Collins, Tanseli Nesil and Lutfiye Kanit

I will admit that I did click on that one — I wanted to see the cute picture of a rat with a snus pouch in.  Turns out, no pictures.  I did learn, though, that studying rat behavior is very useful for understanding tobacco use because… um…???  Hmm, they did not explain that one, but I guess it is because it is so difficult to find any actual human tobacco users whose behavior can be studied.

This is another study that comes with added bonus of paying for and justifying your “equipment” (see previous example).  At least the brain scanner is not gratuitously killed at the end of the study.

Magnesium and Zinc Involvement in Tobacco Addiction by Mihai Nechifor

Conclusion:  Without magnesium and zinc, there would be no tobacco addiction.  Also, no brain scanners.  Or rats.  Or people.  Thank the Creator for magnesium and zinc!

Am I the only one who remembers a sketch comedy movie from c.1980 that included a fake 1960s style grade-school classroom movie about zinc, and how important it is in our lives?  It went through a series of “without zinc, you would not have that….”, and the item disappeared, going from a few trivial items on up to someone’s prosthetic leg.  This kind of reminded me of that.

The Cigarette-Carrying Habit of Occasional Smokers by Shu-Hong Zhu, Quyen B. Nguyen, Martha White, Steven D. Edland and Wael K. Al-Delaimy

Let me guess:  The conclusion is that if you can get someone to never carry cigarettes, he will not smoke.  Unless he can bum one.

And finally, one that seemed like good useful science:

Diurnal Evening Type is Associated with Current Smoking, Nicotine Dependence and Nicotine Intake in the Population Based National FINRISK 2007 Study by Ulla Broms et al.

It sounded interesting from a scientific curiosity perspective, so I gave it a quick read it.  Apparently the result confirms what has been found before.  Too bad that they did not go as far as to say “this research suggests that people with ‘morning person’ behavior and motivations may not benefit from nicotine nearly as much as ‘night people’ do”?  That could actually offer some insight into the benefits of smoking.  But they wrote it as clean straight science, not pathetic anti-tobacco rhetoric, so it can be read and interpreted by anyone who recognizes the value of this observation.

Of course, admitting that a study offered insight into the benefits of nicotine use would immediately put someone in the dangerous “might actually be informative” category noted above.  That would be funding suicide for the authors if they depended on ANTZ funding.  Fortunately for them, they apparently make their money consulting for a branch of the tobacco/nicotine industry (Pfizer), so they might be able to get away with doing some good science.