Brooke Borel’s strange story about Kevin Folta interviewing himself, among other (mis)adventures


Art from Buzzfeed

Art from Buzzfeed

The Kevin Folta/GMO/Monsanto/Right-to-Know/conflict-of-interest variety show and bazaar — a saga about a food scientist who took $25,000 from Monsanto without disclosing he did so but seems to have thought that was probably more or less okay — just got more bizarre, as Brooke Borel describes in a strange and deftly told story in Buzzfeed.

This is conflict-of-interest as tragicomedy. I love how Borel’s attention to the comedy in this situation a) underlines the weird cluelessness of Folta’s behavior, b) thereby reminds us that cluelessness and seemingly benign self-deception can lead to COIs as readily as greed can, c) establishes Borel as a highly informed and deeply sourced observer who keeps a crucial critical distance, and d) makes the piece a joy to read. Awesome, exemplary work.

I was confused, to say the least.… So I wrote back to Folta: Was he actually Blazek? Did he interview himself?

The email conversation that followed was decidedly odd. Yes, Folta was Blazek. He was using a pseudonym, he said, because it was fun (“I see why Colbert did the Colbert Report”), and so he could “play in this space” without drawing attention to his role in the project.

Yes, he had interviewed himself, but only because some of his listeners had caught on that Blazek might be him, and he wanted to throw them off his trail. And, well, no, he hadn’t considered how all this might look to an outsider.

It only gets weirder.

Seed Money, @Buzzfeed

Ernest Hemingway, Clutterbug

“Like his father, he saved every totem that touched his hand.”

“Hemingway was someone who felt the talismanic power of objects, of things, of the materiality of experience,” Declan Kiely, who is a young and genial Englishman with Irish roots, said when I visited “Between Two Wars.” “If something happened to him, he hung onto it.”

The Morgan Library has an exhibit of the better finds among the neat piles of stuff Hemingway hung onto. Barry Yourgrau takes a look.

“Was he a pack rat?” Susan Wrynn, the then curator of the Hemingway Collection, asked herself in the New York Times, after the materials were made available. “Absolutely, absolutely.” Indeed, Hemingway’s clutter was noted as far back as 1958, when George Plimpton visited the Finca for a Paris Review interview. According to Plimpton, the bedroom where Hemingway wrote “The Old Man and the Sea,” standing up at his work desk in “a square foot of cramped area,” was a hive of clutter, clean but enormously crowded. The room suggested “an owner who is basically neat but cannot bear to throw anything away—especially if sentimental value is attached.” Hemingway’s fourth wife, Mary, once declared that he couldn’t toss “anything but magazine wrappers and three-year-old newspapers.”


Paxil shown unsafe for teens, drugmaker congratulates self for sharing damning data it hid for years

This post got an upgrade: The revised, expanded version is now at The Atlantic. Many thanks to the folks at The Atlantic for picking it up. If you need a teaser:

One night in 2002, Sara Bostock woke in the night thinking she’d heard a bump in her kitchen. When she went to investigate, she found her 25-year-old daughter on the kitchen floor in a pool of blood. Next to her was a large and bloody chef’s knife. In her chest were two knife wounds. One was shallow; the other was fatally deep.

Sara Bostock has always thought that her daughter was killed that night by an antidepressant called Paxil. Cecily, a bright, generally cheerful Stanford graduate, had been taking Paxil for two weeks. Five months before, she had become moderately depressed, and, as Sara would recall it, entered a psychiatric system newly enamored of chemical models of depression and chemical solutions. In search of the drug that would work well, doctors had put her on one after another that worked badly. Of these, Sara says, Paxil was the worst. It made Cecily more and more agitated, increasingly unlike herself. Finally she ended it in what Bostock has called a death “completely unexpected, out of character and violent.”

For more on the cost of hiding data, see “How Many Suicides Happened Because of Paxil’s Misleading Safety Study?“, at

Roberta Payne on the art of schizophrenia

By Roberta Payne, all rights reserved; do not copy without artist persmission. Used here courtesy Roberta Payne.

By Roberta Payne, all rights reserved; do not copy without artist persmission. Used here courtesy Roberta Payne.

Roberta Payne, author of the superb memoir Speaking to My Madness, did the cover art on the current issue of Schizophrenia Bulletin. The issue also runs an essay she wrote about “schizophrenic art.”

I once drew on poster-size paper a gracefully diagonal, writhing black eel. So far, conventional structure that any artist might have planned. But the eel’s mouth was a circle of jagged teeth, out of which poured, in lovely calligraphy, words, phrases, and sentences about the nature of evil. (This was in response to the Aurora theater shootings.) I can’t imagine that this drawing would be anything but abnormally chilling to a consensus-reality viewer, chilling like the hallucinations of huge, neon, electric spiders slithering down walls struck me decades ago, when I experienced delirium tremens from alcohol withdrawal. The (usually anonymous) schizophrenic art I have viewed in books and on the Internet often has unique, otherworldly traits, especially aesthetics that remind the viewer of isolation, of a world made of metal, and bone-rattling electricity. It could be that the avoidance of aesthetic revulsion (a kind of fear) is a tactic that consensus reality uses to maintain its balance.

The most extreme example of creating repulsiveness takes place for me when I’ve been drawing while paranoid. I’m appalled by what I’ve drawn, just as I’m appalled by the paranoia itself, which feels like fear and anger experienced simultaneously. The figures I draw are nasty, sneering, in a world I want to run from: weird bats, black crows with huge wingspans, eerie owls uttering phrases in Latin. I’ve often hid those drawings, afraid of their power over me, and afraid of the startled reactions of others.

How is this different from, say, Diane Arbus’ photographs of the grotesque, of people malformed and the stuff of sideshows, subjects whom she admitted to hating? It would be easy to say that she chose of her own free will to take those particular photographs, that they were not in any way commanded by internal demons. My guess is that she was just as artistically driven to take them as a psychotic artist is to draw or paint her vision. But Arbus in her prime stood out nearly alone in her vision. Producing psychotic art, on the other hand, is quite common among schizophrenics; and I have heard both clinicians, researchers, schizophrenics themselves, as well as members of the general public refer to the rich, creative, artistic bent that seems at times to accompany the illness.

As I am currently writing an article about, among other things, how our culture reacts to schizophrenia by isolating the person suffering it — and how destructive that isolation is — I’m pleased to see that Roberta’s portrait of a happier state of mind and being shows other people, themselves in various states of mood, nestled into the persons’ hair like peas in pods.


What we talk about when we talk about killing Obamacare


We’re actually talking about killing our neighbors.

Late this month the Supreme Court is expected to rule on King v Burwell, a suit financed by the conservative right that seeks to use some trivial inconsistencies in phrasing to gut Obamacare in 37 states and possibly cripple it nationwide. That SCOTUS even agreed to hear the suit is a sign of how thoroughly he right has politicized the legislative branch.

The suit has yet to be decided. But that it has generated so much coverage underlines something that to my mind gets far too little attention: This suit, and the ferocious, endless attack on Obamacare is it part of, advances the right’s cause even if the court rules the subsidies are legal. They’re winning a partial and cruel victory even if they win. For the uncertainty over this decision — along the certainty that the right will continue to launch other legal challenges if they lose, because much of the right seems to live to kill Obamacare — is already destroying one of the ACA’s prime benefits, which is to give US citizens a sense of security, stability, and continuity about their access to healthcare.

Why are we to be denied this? Tens of millions of people in 37 states (those that will be directly affected if SCOTUS scuttles the premium subsidies that the suit claims are unconstitutional) now stand at risk of losing their healthcare or facing increases in premiums. My own family suffered a relatively minor version of this insecurity when we had to cancel a move from Vermont to Maine because Maine will be one of those states if SCOTUS rules against Obamacare.

The right is playing Russian roulette, only they hold their pistol, which they tirelessly reload when their longshot loads don’t fire, to the pulsing temples of their own constituents. They are perfectly willing and even eager to issue death sentences to people who work hard and pay taxes and simply cannot, lacking subsidies, afford healthcare in a system whose costs have run shamelessly out of control. The right is happy to have those people drop dead simply — preferably, it seems, after they’ve given every last cent and then some to a rapacious medical industry that refuses to be effectively regulated.

If you think this wild rhetoric, kindly read the second item below ( all three are from this week’s weekly briefing by the ACA Times), which shows that the right’s refusal to accept Obamacare Medicaid increases in 22 states is already causing 5,200 avoidable deaths each year.

Bill Would Address Impact of Possible ‘King’ Ruling – A Republican Congressman introduced legislation to help individuals who would lose their insurance subsidies if the Supreme Court rules in favor of the plaintiffs in the “King v. Burwell” case. A verdict in the case is expected by the end of

Expanding Medicaid Could Save 5,200 Lives – The decision by 22 states not to expand Medicaid will result in 5,200 avoidable deaths each year, and hundreds of thousands of Americans not receiving needed medical care, says a White House Report.

Hospital Bad Debt Declines in Expansion States – Unpaid bills declined at non-profit hospitals in states that expanded Medicaid during 2014, according to a study by Moody’s Investors Service. The reduction in bad debt averaged 13%, with some hospitals seeing a 40% decline.

When does this stop? As a country we somehow take this ludicrous state of affairs as a given. Other countries simply cannot understand how we allow this. Neither can I.

The limits of genetics – my essay at Buzzfeed


Illustration by Daniel Fishel for BuzzFeed News

A bit late to my own story here, as a reporting trip intervened, but but a couple weeks ago I wrote an essay for Buzzfeed about the overselling of medical genomics, which goes beyond hype in a way that distorts funding, science, and the public’s ideas about genetics.

We live in an age of hype. But the overselling of the Age of Genomics — the hype about the hope, the silence about the disappointments — gobbles up funding that we might spend better elsewhere, warps the expectations of patients and the incentives of scientists, and has implications even for people who pay genetics scant attention. Many hospitals, for instance, are now collecting genetic information from patients that they may market to “research partners” such as drug companies. Some take more care than others do to secure informed consent. (Had blood drawn lately? Read everything you signed that day?) It’s not just that they’re selling you this stuff. They may well be selling you. And the sale depends on an exaggerated picture of genetic power and destiny.

To be sure, medical genetics has chalked up some sweet victories. Our growing ability to spot rare mutations, for instance, is helping doctors diagnose and sometimes treat nasty rare diseases. Last fall, for instance, doctors in St. Louis sequenced an infant dying of liver failure, saw that he had inherited a rare mutation that both his parents happened to pass to him, devised a way to counter the mutation’s disruption of his immune system, and saved his life.

But when it comes to how genes shape the traits and diseases that matter most to us — from intelligence and temperament to cancer and depression — genetic research overpromises and underdelivers on actionable knowledge. After 110 years of genetics, and 15 years after the $3.8 billion Human Genome Project promised fast cures, after more billions spent and endless hype about results just around the corner, we have few cures. And we basically know diddly-squat.

I know — diddly-squat is rough talk. Yet this is hardly a radical claim. Geneticists and doctors outside of Big Genomics — people studying genetics in songbirds, sea urchins, monkeys, microbes, fruit flies, and roundworms, for instance — often voice it privately. Others are eager to tell us what genes can’t do or warn that “precision medicine” will let us down. One of the world’s most respected geneticists, Britain’s Steve Jones, gives quite an entertaining lecture on our humble state of knowledge.“The more we learn, the less we understand,” he says. “We know almost nothing of genetics.”

This essay merely makes public a discussion (and complaints) that have long aired in conference corridors. Unsurprisingly, I got some grief (as well as some amiable, constructive responses) from some of the parties who felt accused. Some tried to cast the essay as an isolated, misguided complaint, or an attack on science, or, in one case, as pandering to scientists jealous of the funding that flows to Big Genomics. Wrong, wrong, and wrong. Virtually all the criticisms and concerns I voiced in the essay were things I’d heard many times from other geneticists, including geneticists who are well-established and have secure funding. This isn’t an attack on science. It’s a discussion about how to do it well.

You can read the rest at What is Your DNA Worth?

Robin Marantz Henig’s gorgeous story on a woman facing one death to dodge another

Robin Marantz Henig is at her superb best in “The Last Day of Her Life,” a NY Times Magazine feature about a remarkable woman, Sandy Bern, who decides she’ll end her life before she loses her self to Alzheimer’s. At one point, as Bern’s power fades, her daughter, Emily, gives birth to Bern’s first grandchild. Little Felix makes Bern think there might be some things her new self is better at than her former.

She told Emily that her “new brain” might actually make her better suited to being a grandmother than her focused, hyper­analytical “old brain.” She seemed to have found a way of being that she liked, content to sing silly songs and make nonsense sounds for hours on end.

Emily liked her mother this way, too. It had sometimes been difficult to be Sandy’s daughter. As a child, Emily wanted to wear her hair long and take ballet lessons; Sandy, ever vigilant about gender stereotypes, nudged her to cut her hair and play soccer instead. But now Sandy didn’t seem to care about such things. Emily thought that her mother was taking pleasure in life in a way that the old Sandy could not have anticipated — and she found herself hoping that the joy her mother took in Felix might make her reconsider her intention to end her life quite so soon.

Which is hardly all the story.

This is gorgeous, deeply reported, deeply felt work — vintage Henig. It increases my pleasure at seeing the Magazine’s revival as a place that embraces such beautiful, brilliant, patient stuff.


A rowdy, harrowing, vital book: My Times review of ‘Galileo’s Middle Finger,’ by Alice Dreger.

Galileo's Finger

Galileo’s middle finger, Florence, Italy

I’ve a review of Alice Dreger’s latest book in this week’s New York Times Sunday Book Review; it just appeared online.


“Galileo’s Middle Finger” is many things: a rant, a manifesto, a treasury of evocative new terms (sissyphobia, autogynephilia, phall-o-meter) and an account of the author’s transformation “from an activist going after establishment scientists into an aide-de-camp to scientists who found themselves the target of activists like me” — and back again.

As its title suggests, the book is also a defiant gesture aimed at those who would deny empiricism. Yet this middle finger (Galileo’s actual middle finger, in fact, which Dreger stumbles across in Italy) is raised in affirmation as well. It points toward the stars that confirmed his cosmology — and toward empiricism’s power to create a fairer, more rational society. For Galileo is famous not just because he saw how the stars move. He’s famous because he insisted we see for ourselves how the world works, share what we see and shape our society accordingly.

Dreger brings a similar mission to ­activism and ethics. She insists that both be based on evidence, so that we respond to problems as they really are, rather than as we’d like to see them.

Dreger is not merely a lively writer but efficient as well — all the more important in a book as stuffed with adventure and information as this one. She brings in Galileo, for instance, early, swiftly, and gracefully, and in two punchy paragraphs tells the core of his tale. In two more she delivers his core wisdom:

Stop thinking that the authorities know what they’re talking about when they’re talking about natural causes and effects. Focus your mind on discoverable evidence. 

I should note that while Dreger (and I, for reviewing the book favorably) will be likely be attacked for being against some particular agenda, her point (and thus mine) is not about ends, but means. She wants people to pursue agendas, especially those concerning ethics, in a way that stays true to the facts.

Her fight in her chapter about transgender politics, for instance, is not with any particular transgender agenda, but with the willingness of one particular group of transgender activists, at one particular time, to pursue its agenda by ignoring credible evidence (and indulging in ad hominem attacks). That is, a small group of activists was not only willing to call her son a womb turd (seriously), but to ignore, and ask others to ignore, the credible evidence on which their target based his work.

Dreger lifts her middle finger (and Galileo’s), in short, not at people advocating for transgender rights and recognition (a cause she had worked for herself), but at anyone asking us let ideology trump facts. Evidence, she asserts, “is … the most important ethical issue in a modern democracy.” For only on empirical evidence — the actual reality of what is happening — can we base ethical action and behavior.

It’s a wildly entertaining book, chock full of amazing stories. And by its nature — and hers, for she is a lively, rowdy, funny, plainspoken writer and advocate —  bound to test almost any reader’s emotions at some point. Most likely you will object at some point to something here. The book’s strength is that it asks, even demands, that you object on the basis of fact.

Photo by Marc Roberts via flickr, some rights reserved.  


The frightening beauty of Sally Mann’s children

L to R: Sally Mann's photo of her daughter, Virginia, on a 1990 cover of Aperture; a Wall Street Journal response; Virginia's response to the Journal.  From the NY Times, copyrights Aperture, WSJ, Sally Mann.

L to R: Sally Mann’s photo of her daughter, Virginia, on a 1990 cover of Aperture; a Wall Street Journal response; Virginia’s response to the Journal. (From the NY Times, copyrights Aperture, WSJ, Sally Mann.)

Sally Mann on the frightening beauty of her children, in the New York Times Magazine. I find this an especially moving reflection.

That’s the critical thing about the family pictures: They were possible only because of the farm, the place. America now hardly has such a thing as privacy, at least not the kind we had at the cabin. How natural was it, in that situation, to allow our children to run naked? Or, put another way, how bizarre would it have been to insist on bathing suits for their river play, which began after breakfast and often continued long after dark, when all three would dive like sleek otters for glow sticks thrown in the pool under the still-­warm cliffs?

They spent their summers in the embrace of those cliffs, protected by distance, time and our belief that the world was a safe place. The pictures I made of them there flowed from that belief and that ignorance, and at the time seemed as natural as the river itself.