Christmas Tuesday’s ScienceTimes had one unusual gem and it played inside. Abigail Zuger MD, a NY internist and regular Times essayist, provides a rave review of a new book on placebos. Reading the book may be the proper way to get its message, but the review itself (as do most such for most books) is likely to be enough for most readers. The upshot: just because charlatans often exploit the placebo effect to peddle nonsense is no reason to discourage or scoff at the patients who say they feel a lot better now.
The ecological treasures of Cuba, many of them preserved by the island’s combination of poverty (not much development) and tightly regimented political system, are the stars of Cornelia Dean‘s lead piece for the section. She explores not only the rare level of Caribbean biodiversity on Cuba, but fretting by conservationists that the islands eventual return to normal nationhood will bring a catch-up development frenzy. Sudden, poorly regulated tourism, industrial, timber, and other development could be a biological tragedy, it says here.
Speaking of societies in transition, George Johnson recounts, in a decidedly loopy, looping arc, his attendance at a meeting of Jared Diamond skeptics. Diamond’s big books, analyzing the environmnetal factors in why societies conquer, or collapse, are touchstones for learned conversation among the chattering classes. Johnson doesn’t quite say so but one gets the impression these academic throwers of cold water are more than a wee jealous of Diamond’s big royalties. Plus, George tells readers about “The Thing,” a tourist attraction in an oddly-named Arizona town.
Claudia Dreifus has, for partisans of coral reefs as things to admire and maintain, good news in the context of tragedy. She provides a Q & A with a US researcher born in Sri Lanka, and now an authority on wave dynamics. The man suggests that fear of unrestrained tsunamis ought to encourage coastal nations to stop dynamiting or otherwise flattening coral reefs. It is hard to believe what Sri Lankans say is the main reason people blow the coral into bits.
The whole section, with lots more, is HERE.
In the NYTimes today, looks like the sci-med writing staff is doing its part to get the paper through the holiday news drought. Two hefty medical pieces make p. A1, and another in Biz:
Genetically-altered corn and its politics in Europe get close treatment by Elizabeth Rosenthal in this morning’s Business section. The European Union’s environmental minister recently declared Bt corn – containing a bacterial gene that makes it toxic to some pests but other insects as well – forbidden in European soil. The bureaucrat, a lawyer, set aside the preponderance of technical advice to make his call. Seems like an odd, enviro mirror-image version of how the industry-friendly Bush White House treats scientific consensus in its energy and environmental policies.
Top right on the front page: Andrew Pollack on a “nuclear arms race” among US hospitals to build monster accelerators to provide proton therapy for cancer. He doesn’t bother with any physics — no Bragg peak or other technical arcana — but says proton beams are more precise. But their immense cost is a problem. He gets a quote that may vie to a two-faced prize. A Harvard doc says he’s horrified by the rush to build these costly things while data on their superiority remain scant – but on the other hand, his hospital already has one. The piece would have benefited from historic context. Similar “medical arms race” outrage greeted big investment in the first CAT scan, NMRI, PET-scan, and other high-ticket hospital gear going back decades. Their wide use now seems sensible.
Top center on the front page: Denise Grady reports on a drive by some US Alzheimer’s disease specialists and by people with a history of it in their families to find reliable ways to spot the ailment’s onset as early as possible. As a person of the occasional mental lapse, stories like this — that Alzheimer’s often starts slow and early — are disturbing to The Tracker. Probably also to many readers.
And yesterday’s Business Sec. featured a big Claudia H. Deutsch education-science-industry story on university-based, cross-disciplinary programs devoted to the practicalities of sustainability. Which is to say, global warming is forcing members of different disciplines to put their heads together with unusual alacrity. Is this a business story? Maybe not, but among the more startling bits of evidence yes is that it quotes a Dow Chemical exec up high. The man’s job title is vice president for sustainability. Now, there is a sign of the times.