More Controversy from Sharon Begley, and Other Stuff

A delightful menage melange (where is my mind?) of skeptical newsy things:

First of all, an update to my post yesterday bemoaning the lack of journalistic integrity in science reporting: Remember Newsweek’s Sharon Begley, who was a speaker at TAM 6? While at TAM, we interviewed her on The Skeptics’ Guide, and I very much disagreed with her opinion that journalists as a whole were doing their jobs properly and that it was up to scientists to make better efforts to market their work. I also disagreed with her strongly when she criticized Penn Jillette for something he didn’t even say at the conference, a topic we covered on a later podcast.

Well, now there’s something new to criticize her about, and Orac has done a wonderful job of it. Her most recent column throws nuance out the window in favor of the headline Why Doctors Hate Science, a statement that naturally leaves Orac a bit puzzled, and by “puzzled” I mean he says she’s full of shit. Go read his post for all the dirt.

Begley’s column is yet another example of a journalist oversimplifying an issue to the detriment of the public, and I say that as someone who accepts and appreciates the fact that often we must simplify complex issues in order to create an understandable and enjoyable narrative. By broadly claiming that doctors hate science, she undermines the work of many doctors like Orac or Steve Novella and friends at Science-based Medicine who persistently call for stricter regulations and a stronger focus on science in medicine.


In happier news, Saturday, March 14, is Pi Day (3.14)! To celebrate, I thought it would be fun to have a pie fight on Boston Common. Here’s a Facebook event page if you’re on there and would like to RSVP. Invite your friends – the more, the merrier!

Speaking of Bostonian events, Jeff Cutler visited the most recent Boston Skeptics in the Pub with Tim Farley and recorded some great audio. You can listen over on his blog, Bowl of Cheese. Thanks Jeff, it was very nice to see you. Also: mmm, cheese.

Finally, I received an absolutely amazing and wonderful present yesterday from Ultimate Cupcakes. U.C. is a bakery run by a very cool skeptic named Tony, who was kind enough to send me all the delicious flavors they offer. All were outrageously tasty, and if the pumpkin cupcakes came in a never-ending box, I’d be the happiest diabetic in the world. So thanks, Tony! Ultimate Cupcakes are now the official cupcakes of Skepchick.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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  1. I know there’s important skeptical stuff in your post to comment on, but the cupcake website just blew my mind. I mean…BUH. GIMME.

    Why do we not have these cupcakes in London where I can properly shove my face in them, and why do I hate you for having received a boxful?

  2. First – :D Verio’s got the other site.

    My first response to “why do doctors hate science?” was “my doctor doesn’t.” Overgeneralization like that makes me not read the rest of the article. I didn’t read that one when I first saw it because I felt like I couldn’t trust it, I saw that headline and blew it off. I know sometimes this is the fault of headline-writers, but that’s less often the case with columns. It would be like saying, “Why are there weekly tornados in Oklahoma City?” I know that’s not true, so right away, either the competence or the integrity of the writer is suspect, and my attention goes elsewhere.

  3. “In happier news, Saturday, March 14, is Pi Day (3.14)! To celebrate, I thought it would be fun to have a pie fight on Boston Common.”

    I’m sorry, Rebecca, but you’re not allowed. Logic fallacies are against the skeptic’s code, and this is clearly an equivocation of pi/pie. Additionally, pi is irrational.

  4. Yes, but March 14th is only an approximation of pi day. Just like tomorrow the real pi day never actually gets here.

    We’ll have another approximation on March 14, 2016.

  5. So – -before I stroke here, let me have an aspirin, a swig of scotch, and perhaps a cigar.

    Let me start with a brief background – before I was a physician, I was a scientist working on genetic engineering (back in the 70’s and 80’s ) and went to medical school because my colleagues thought it would be good to have that background to further my own basic science research. My life was research, test tubes, DNA, and simply put – -I spent my life living the scientific method. Published a bunch of papers, and then off to medical school for some reason.

    I became a surgeon -and whatever. So, now I read this column from a unique perspective. So as a physician, I was horrified to read Begley’s column – it is not only over simplistic, it is incorrect. First, physicians are scientists — every diagnosis is a hypothesis that we test. That doesn’t mean there are not physicians who do things by wrote, or physicians who have cognitive errors – but our discipline is rooted in science.

    Let us talk about her first assertion – that old line diuretics are as effective as treating blood pressure as some of the newer drugs — well, yes and no. It is partially based on the type of hypertension, and whether you have diabetes or not, and whether you have a renal artery stenosis or not, and a few other factors. One doesn’t simply prescribe a drug because it is new – there is some reason we do prescribe medications (at least most of us).
    Second — let us examine her theory about “CER – Comparison effective Research.” – it sounds like someone is testing one treatment against another and finding something cost effective, and that we should all use – -right? Well, not exactly – the odds are stacked in this statistical analysis, and this is not the same as “EBM — evidence based medicine” – where we see if something works. She asks why there is more back operations in one area than another – ignoring demographics of a white collar population vs. blue collar population. Let me give an example of EBM – -that for breast cancer there is an equal result with lumpectomy and radiation as well as a modified radical mastectomy. When I worked for the Public Health Service (the government) we offered our patient one thing- mastectomy – -it was less expensive than that pesky radiation, and worked as well. Do you really want the choice of radiation instead of mastectomy? They didn’t have it – and CER would say the mastectomy is clearly less expensive.

    She makes broad sweeps at medicine “one study showed spinal fusion doesn’t help back pain,” — well, again – -that isn’t exactly what the “study” showed. It did some very specific instances, and well — depends if you are “disabled” or not, and many other conditions which in later articles are addressed.

    Let’s make one thing clear: medicine cannot make sweeping claims, we don’t know all the answers and our treatments evolve over time (Darwin would have loved this). So setting up a clinical standard for treatment is not possible in every case, or in most cases. In general surgery it use to be that “nasal-gastric suction” was the guideline set down by the American College of Surgeons (then we studied what happens if we don’t use it and patients did better).

    So, yes, we have ideas, we study them, we change our thinking — and it is not as simple as – one disease – one treatment.

    So – sorry — she is off, way off — and God help us if someone reads her and really believes her diatribe.

  6. I would probably marry someone if it meant a steady stream of tasty cupcakes.

    And lest anyone think this is sexist, I assure you that, for sufficiently tasty cupcakes, the importance of my spouse’s gender trends towards zero.

  7. I also disagreed with her strongly when she criticized Penn Jillette for something he didn’t even say at the conference, a topic we covered on a later podcast.

    Man, that was a weird incident. I mean, I was there: I was in the room during Penn and Teller’s Q&A. I thought it was unworthy of a skeptic and a little ironic that Penn’s “bullshit detector” (or whatever his exact phrase was) went off for Al Gore. I mean, Al Gore is not a climate scientist. Whatever your personal feelings about the man, they should be irrelevant to your understanding of climate science — that is, if you are at all serious about skepticism and critical thought. Gore is just what Penn and Teller are: cheerleaders for science. Would we be justified in accepting creationism just because we don’t like how Penn and Teller show nekkid women in their TV show?

    But, to his credit, Penn didn’t stop there, and he went on to be significantly more reasonable. Rising above one’s own emotional biases: maybe that even counts as setting a good example.

  8. Well I’m single and on a strict diet, and can’t even look at cupcakes. That’s right, no reason to even get out of bed in the morning.

    But tkingdoll, I remember some of those desserts I had in Yorkshire, and it seems to me you’ve got nothing to complain about. They were beyond almost anything I’ve had here.

  9. Duct tape is like the Force: It has a light side, a dark side and binds the Universe together.

    My theory is that dark matter is all the duct tape ever used and discarded by Humanity since its invention… :-D

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