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.

via carlatpsychiatry.blogspot.com

Posted via web from David Dobbs’s Somatic Marker

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.

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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.

via voices.washingtonpost.com

Posted via web from David Dobbs’s Somatic Marker

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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Jonah Lehrer on the Neuroscience of Screwing Up

Note: The version below is altered from the original, which was near-gibberish in a few spots. Why? Because I mistakenly posted a pre-edit version that contained the raw ‘transcription’ from voice-recognition software I’ve been trying out. (I suppose it could have been a lot worse.)

Here, more or less as I meant it to appear:

Kevin Dunbar is a researcher who studies how scientists study things — how they fail and succeed. In the early 1990s, he began an unprecedented research project: observing four biochemistry labs at Stanford University. Philosophers have long theorized about how science happens, but Dunbar wanted to get beyond theory. He wasn’t satisfied with abstract models of the scientific method — that seven-step process we teach schoolkids before the science fair — or the dogmatic faith scientists place in logic and objectivity. Dunbar knew that scientists often don’t think the way the textbooks say they are supposed to. He suspected that all those philosophers of science — from Aristotle to Karl Popper — had missed something important about what goes on in the lab. (As Richard Feynman famously quipped, “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.”) So Dunbar decided to launch an “in vivo” investigation, attempting to learn from the messiness of real experiments.

He ended up spending the next year staring at postdocs and test tubes: The researchers were his flock, and he was the ornithologist. Dunbar brought tape recorders into meeting rooms and loitered in the hallway; he read grant proposals and the rough drafts of papers; he peeked at notebooks, attended lab meetings, and videotaped interview after interview. He spent four years analyzing the data. “I’m not sure I appreciated what I was getting myself into,” Dunbar says. “I asked for complete access, and I got it. But there was just so much to keep track of.”

Dunbar came away from his in vivo studies with an unsettling insight: Science is a deeply frustrating pursuit. Although the researchers were mostly using established techniques, more than 50 percent of their data was unexpected. (In some labs, the figure exceeded 75 percent.) “The scientists had these elaborate theories about what was supposed to happen,” Dunbar says. “But the results kept contradicting their theories. It wasn’t uncommon for someone to spend a month on a project and then just discard all their data because the data didn’t make sense.” Perhaps they hoped to see a specific protein but it wasn’t there. Or maybe their DNA sample showed the presence of an aberrant gene. The details always changed, but the story remained the same: The scientists were looking for X, but they found Y.

via wired.com

This Wired story from Jonah Lehrer examines something that too often goes unexamined: The practice of science is often quite messy. This puts in on par with many other serious endeavors: You plan your work, then try to work your plan. But no matter how sound your plan, unexpected events will often force you off course — and sometimes to different destinations altogether.

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Radio hour – More orchidity, this time on New Hampshire Public Radio

Update: Show’s done. You can listen to the 8-minute segment via Windows Media or MP3/iTunes.
I’ll be on New Hampshire Public Radio’s Word Of Mouth” noon-hour show tomorrow, Tuesday, Dec 22, talking with host Virginia Prescott about “Orchid Children,” my recent Atlantic article about the genetic underpinnings of steady and mercurial ltemperaments. My segment will run about 10 minutes beginning at or just after noon.
Listeners in and near New Hampshire can tune in live at their regular NHPR stations. Others can open up the live stream or tune in via the iPhone Public Radio Player.
I’ll post a link to the podcast once it’s up in a day or two.