Archives for : science 2

Semper Gestion, First partner of Solar Impulse project

Solar Impulse is a project developed at EPFL. The first prototype just accomplished a continental flight across United States.

After this year’s Across America Mission, the challenge will be to fly around the world in 2015 with a solar airplane. Solar Impulse has already demonstrated during Across America Mission that a solar-powered airplane can fly day and night without fuel.


The project is financed by a number of private companies including Semper Gestion who was the first Official Supporter to involve itself in this programme in favour of renewable energies and sustainable development.

Eric Freymond  was the first to recognise the faith of a certain highly media-friendly Bertrand Piccard, and to follow him in his bold and entirely new vision of the future.

Nurses Who Pontificate

(Author: M. O’Callaghan)

I hate being wrong. I like to think it doesn’t happen that often, but there are times when I am completely and utterly wrong that pain me more than most. When I watched a YouTube video by a woman calling herself The Patriot Nurse, I didn’t believe that the star of the show could possibly be that which she claimed: a registered nurse (RN). My belief proved to be wrong, so this is not the story I thought I’d be writing.

The video – now gone – entitled, Why this nurse WON’T vaccinate, ran for approximately nine and a half minutes – though, watching it, it felt a lot longer. In it, an attractive young lady, with a lovely southern drawl details why she, as an RN, would never vaccinate children under the age of two. Her reasons are not based in science. Her reasons or not based on good logic. Her reasons are an echo of each of the ever evolving and mutating arguments of anti-vaccine websites such as Age of Autism, with a smattering of Natural News nonsense. It’s the toxins. It’s too much for the developing immune system to bear. Vaccines cause autism.

MMR fraudulently linked to causing autism The “toxins” the Patriot Nurse is so concerned about are no such thing. Toxins are made by living organisms. What she refers to are, indeed, poisons such as mercury and aluminium which are present in vaccines (in the case of mercury in a compound called thimerosal) in tiny quantities. This patriotic lady, it seems, had never been acquainted with the adage and truism that it is “the dose that makes the poison.” She states that it is never acceptable to inject a six-pound baby with a poisonous substance. In large enough doses, all medicines and even vitamins are toxic yet, at the correct dose, they are therapeutic. The “immunological overload” the Patriot Nurse fears can occur if the USA’s vaccination schedule is followed is dwarfed by challenges a baby’s immune system faces and overcomes every single day or even on its journey through the birth canal.

And autism is caused by vaccines. No credible study by credible scientists published in a credible journal has ever found a link. Of course there was the infamous 1998 paper by fraudster and abuser of autistic children, Andrew Wakefield that didn’t show any link between the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccination and autism. He certainly proposed that link in the circus that was the press conference heralding the study. No team, except ones in which Wakefield has been closely connected, have ever replicated his findings.

Internet rumours began to fly as the Patriot Nurse’s video went from anti-vaccine group to anti-vaccine group, her errors being applauded and her courage commented on in the most sycophantic of terms. The video was also circulating the interwebs on pro-vaccine sites where the questions were raised: who is this woman and can she really be a nurse?

Rachel Greene AKA the Patriot Nurse
Whois provided a name: Rachel Greene. Google provided a possible work place and a photo resembling the Patriot Nurse: The Lisa Ross Birthing Centre, Knoxville, Tennessee. This vehemently anti-vaccination nurse could be working with new parents and passing on advice that could endanger the health and very lives of those who, I have no doubt, as a hands-on nurse, she cares for.
Although around 94% of American families vaccinate, the numbers choosing not to are concentrated in relatively small areas and demographic groups. Recent research has shown that those least likely to vaccinate are the well to do upper middle classes. Herd immunity relies on high vaccine uptake with an even distribution of non-vaccinated persons. These enclaves of the unvaccinated have opened the flood gates for vaccine preventable infections such as measles and pertussis (whooping cough) to make a comeback. Both diseases can be deadly, especially in those too young to be vaccinated against them.

The Patriot Nurse’s alleged identity was now a quickly spreading internet rumour. Some reported the speculation on blogs while some individuals sought confirmation by posing questions on the birthing centre’s Facebook page. The enquiries were quickly removed as were any comments on the Patriot Nurse’s page alluding to her true identity or not in 100% support of her anti-vaccine lies. In pursuit of the story, I emailed the birthing centre directly and then, things got ugly…“A certain bunch of pro-vaxers have decided to engage in intimidation tactics. My employer was contacted and attempts have been made to effect [sic] the loss of my job,” complained the Patriot Nurse again on Facebook. So much is wrapped up in that statement. She believes there is some great conspiracy against her. What a paranoid patriot nurse! Secondly, she totally misrepresents the content of the letter if she had seen it. But most importantly, she tacitly confirms that she is, indeed, the Rachel Greene of the Lisa Ross Birthing Centre.

There was a cascade of comments and I even posted up a link to the full text of the e-mail and though that remained for over half an hour, supporters – some notoriously credulous anti-vaccination propagandists included – continued to cry “conspiracy!” Though Ms. Greene, as we can now safely call her, ensured no dissenting comments remained on her page she wasn’t so diligent in removing direct threats of violence. Someone might wish to, it was suggested, burn down my property just as another’s had been when they had dealings with a different “prepper.” Website Shot of Prevention was inundated with comments from people who, it seems, cannot click on a hyperlink. Dissent came thick and fast with each making up his or her own version of the e-mail (or phone call as they imagined it).

I was now being held up as a slanderer (even though libel would be the appropriate call if there had been any unfounded conjecture or allegation) and when that didn’t stick, a benefit cheat – a parasite blighting society (because I have a severely autistic child and could be entitled to financial help as a result). Not once, among the cries of “free speech” and sickly praise for this nurse who demonstrated nothing but ignorance of essentials of science, did anyone stop to think that, had this turned out to be the story I thought I’d be writing “YouTube Crank Poses as a Nurse to Warn Against Vaccination,” each and every one of her supporters for her anti-vaccine diatribe would look even more foolish. In this conspiracy-theory generating group whose affection for child abuser and fraudster, Andrew Wakefield, who are willing to follow the advice of limited actresses like Jenny McCarthy and Polly Tommey over that of highly trained and experienced paediatricians, I wonder, would it really have mattered?

That Rachel Greene works with neonates and their parents does matter. I have to take issue with many people who, like me, are of the conviction that vaccines are one of the greatest human achievements and have have spared people unquantifiable suffering. There was an instant assumption that Ms. Greene herself wasn’t vaccinated and could, therefore, pose a risk to those with whom she works. I think those suppositions were a secondary issue and such information was never sought. What was important, to me at least, was whether or not this woman was in truth an RN and if the birthing centre was regularly giving out advice that runs counter to public health policy and public health full stop. I doubted it as their links page could take you to the March of Dimes websites in both English and Spanish.

Her employer, who never replied to my enquiry, required that Ms. Greene remove the YouTube video. She complied, much to the chagrin and even disappointment of her fans – some of whom she undoubtedly lost that day for her instant capitulation. She did so only after alerting her followers that she would have to and so it’s still there on other channels besides her own should anyone care to seek it out. She posted another video which was only available for a short time: “What really happened.” It sort of was. In it, she did nothing to dispel the rumours generated by the conspiracy lovers and spent a good portion of it railing against vaccines once more. I doubt that’s quite what her managers at the Lisa Ross Centre had in mind. In one fell swoop she had cast them as bullies depriving her of the right of free expression.So now, the Patriot Nurse is still as patriotic as ever. Her latest release is on smallpox – a disease last recorded in human beings in 1979. She agrees that it has been “eradicated” in air-quotes. That eradication is due, in no small part, to mass vaccination. Fear not though! Should smallpox be used as a bio-weapon just get a good curry inside you – according to the Patriot Nurse, tumeric will sort you out. Why did I ever doubt her credentials?

Huge thanks to Nerditorial editors Matt and Jeff for their support for this article.

What Causes Autism This Week?

Leo Kanner described autism in 1943

(Author: M. O’Callaghan)

What causes autism, the neuropsychiatric disorder that manifests itself in social and communication difficulties? It depends who you ask, and in some instances, when you ask. This week, New York based charity, Autism Speaks, announced the publication in the journal, Paediatrics, of research that suggests, more strongly than ever, the genetic basis for the condition. According to the study, conducted by University of California – Davis, children who have one or more older sibling with an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) are much more likely than previously thought to be diagnosed themselves with an ASD than those who do not. A month or so ago, the same charity was hailing a breakthrough a study, conducted at Stanford University, purporting to show that autism is triggered by environmental factors.

Attachment ‘therapy’

Debate over the aetiology of this condition has raged since it was first recognised in the 1940s. The dominant hypothesis that persisted until the mid 60′s was that of the “refrigerator mother.” Espoused by Bruno Bettelheim, the idea came from Leo Kanner, who was first in describing autism, separating it from mental retardation and childhood schizophrenia. In 1949, he wrote that autism is caused by “genuine lack of maternal warmth.” Bettelheim, Kanner and proponents of “refrigerator mother” nonsense failed, in their hypothesis, to account for the fact that many of the children they studied had non-autistic siblings. In truth, their chain of causality was rather awry. They observed that mothers of the autistic subjects did not interact with their children with gregarious, physical affection. This made the child retreat into “autistic aloneness.” However, one of the first signals that may indicate to a parent or professional that a child is likely to have autism is that the infant cannot bear to be held. Being the case, naturally, a mother, not wishing to cause her child anxiety or suffering restrains her physical demonstrations of love. Kanner described some parents as “cold, bookish … detached and highly – even excessively – rational and objective.” Obviously, he didn’t realise it, but these observations are the first hints of a genetic basis for autism. He may have even been describing individuals who, these days, might be diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a high functioning ASD. At the very least, these parents displayed the broader autistic phenotype (BAP).

Work carried out by psychologist and father to an autistic child, Bernard Rimland, all but destroyed Kanner’s causation theory. In one last ditch attempt to rescue the hypothesis he’d built his reputation and career on, Bettelheim penned the book, The Empty Fortress. In it, he likens autistic children to inmates of a concentration camp with their parents as the guards. Sadly, for some children abandonment of the “refrigerator mother” idea came too late. A “therapy” based on the notion that autistic children could be “thawed” came into being and has never entirely gone away. Holding/attachment therapy, as the name suggests, has children held very tightly by parents or therapists, restraining them however hard they struggle. There have been numerous cases of holder and holdee being badly injured during therapy. Worse, children have died of suffocation. Advocates for Children in Therapy holds the tragic details of recent cases.

Kathryn Bjornstad

The next big controversy came when autism was fallaciously linked to vaccines. First the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (MMR) was the culprit, along with vaccines with mercury containing preservative thimerosal in their ingredient list. Despite the fact that the MMR link was shown to be fraudulent and thimerosal has been removed from all but a very few vaccines, the debate thunders on. In my article on the new measles outbreak, there is much more detail about the effects of the anti-vaccination movement on public health and the perception of individuals with autism. No one, however, has, I believe, described the pernicious influence of the anti-vaccination movement better than Kathryn Bjornstad of Illinois. She is autistic and her frustration with the anti-vaccination agenda spilled out on the Jenny McCarthy Body Count Facebook page. She fiercely objects to the use of autism, her condition, by McCarthy and the like to “frighten people out of their health and into buying [their] craptastic books.” More damning yet, she asserts, the movement has “made the world a worse place to be autistic.”

Another recent twist to the “what causes autism?” debate came not from a disgraced doctor, not from anti-vaccination propagandists or alternative medicine practitioners with supplements to sell but from the high priestess of neuroscience herself, Baroness Susan Greenfield. Her insinuations that Internet use may be linked to the increased incidence of ASDs naturally sparked controversy. They also sparked an eloquent repost from Oxford colleague, professor of developmental neuropsychology, Dorothy Bishop. Her open letter to the Baroness, whose particular field of expertise is neurodegenerative disease, begins gently enough and progresses into a scathing and brilliant critique of Greenfield’s abuse of her public profile in pontificating on matters of which she is not expert. Bishop bemoans the fact that “in recent years your speculations have wandered onto my turf and it’s starting to get irritating.” Her assertions, says Bishop, are “illogical garbage.” In response, Greenfield has claimed her comments have been misrepresented, going on to contradict herself almost instantly that, “I point to the increase in autism and I point to internet use. That’s all.” The number of people diagnosed with an ASD began to rise in the 1990s. I point to the increase in autism and I point to the Teletubbies.

The proliferation of studies seeking the cause of autism leads to inevitable confusion. Good studies and plausible hypotheses often receive far less attention than the more “out there” notions. Often the most grounded ideas can be the ones most difficult to explain to non-scientists, such as the role of genes in the condition. What makes the Davis sibling study so compelling is its methodology. The subjects, second, third, even fourth of children within families with a child already diagnosed with an ASD were followed beyond their own diagnosis. Their subsequent younger siblings were also included in the data. However, when very powerful charities like Autism Speaks and the National Autistic Society fund research into hypotheses that have been systematically debunked, they help keep the old debates alive and derprive funding from people who could really add to the understanding of this fascinating condition and services that could improve the quality of life for all those touched by autism.

Reviewers Reviewed

When a study is submitted to a scientific journal, it goes through a number of stages, at any of which, its publication could be rejected. The editorial team check the paper. They ensure it fits within the scope of their publication, that it is complete, free of obvious error, and would interest the journal’s readership. As many as 80% of submissions fail to pass this hurdle in the most widely read titles such as Nature. Should the paper survive this stage, it is sent to at least two, but often more, external reviewers to be examined more closely. Ideally, these “peers” are published scientists with expertise in the field that the submission concerns. They assess the quality of the study, its methodology, whether the results justify the conclusions, and as important, that it adds something new to the accumulated knowledge of the topic which it examines. The reviewers will then either recommend the study for publication or not. Generally, a consensus of the “peers” is required, but the final decision on publication lies solely with the journal’s editor.
The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s report, Peer Review in Scientific Publications, was released on 28th July. It focused on peer review to “see whether [the system] is operating effectively.” The report found the peer review system wanting, highlighting the MMR vaccine scare engineered by Andrew Wakefield at the behest of a law firm paying him to find a link between autism and vaccines.

In 1998, Dr Wakefield, then a gastroenterologist at the Royal Free Hospital, London, and twelve colleagues submitted a paper to the hitherto well respected medical journal, The Lancet. They published it. At the press conference held on publication, Wakefield announced his belief that the MMR vaccine may cause autism (much to the surprise of many of his collaborators as the study found no such thing). He advised that the safest course of action was for children to receive separate shots against measles, mumps and rubella. Coincidentally, of course, the affable doctor had recently patented his own measles vaccine. MMR uptake fell sharply. Measles, once declared eradicated in the USA, returned as did its complications along with its triple jab siblings mumps and rubella. The tragedy was compounded by America’s home-grown vaccine scare over so-called toxins. Measles epidemics broke out in Europe. Children have suffered, been injured, and some have died. (more on the current epidemic here)

In January, The Lancet finally retracted Wakefield’s paper. By then, most of his collaborators had asked for their names to be withdrawn from the study and more than a dozen subsequent investigations had proved its findings impossible to reproduce. Wakefield, himself, had been struck off by the General Medical Council (GMC) who found against him on (among many others) 12 counts of abuse of developmentally impaired children and four of dishonesty – one of which related the statement that “investigations were approved by the Ethical Practices Committee of the Royal Free Hospital …” – A blatant lie. Much of the evidence against Wakefield as a huckster and abuser of vulnerable children was uncovered by journalist Brian Deer. Writing for the Times, his tenacity and ingenuity made the outcome of the duplicitous doctor’s GMC hearing wonderfully predictable. Deer should, rightly, be lauded for his work. He is correct: scientists are only human and some do succumb to the temptation to embellish, cherry-pick, re-order or even make up their data. Disappointingly, the Wakefield incident is not unique. Nevertheless, Deer’s calls for a regulatory body overseeing scientific research, as the Science and Technology Committee’s report recommends, raises many objections.

Firstly, science is, essentially, if not self-policing then self-correcting. Fraud does not long go undetected because studies are falsifiable. This is intrinsic to the scientific method. If findings cannot be reproduced, a hypothesis fails to become a theory – as close to a fact as science allows. Science dogma does not stand or fall on the basis of a single study. Even the MMR-autism case substantiates this. An idea was proposed with assumed honest data to support it, but further and better conducted research around the world failed to find that which Wakefield’s group reported. This leads to the second objection: scientific research is an international pursuit. Safeguards and oversight in one country do not apply globally. One only has to look at the laws and conventions governing the use of animals in medical research to see the disparity from nation to nation. Imposing the requirement for monitoring could make international collaborations more bureaucratic, expensive and, potentially, infeasible. Science, among few human endeavours, has the ability to transcend geographical borders, culture and ideology. Falsifying a hypothesis is not reliant on a single institution in a single country, so the Select Committee’s implications of cronyism fall at this hurdle. Look again at the Wakefield paper. Groups in Poland, Denmark, USA and more conducted research destroying that very hypothesis. Finding reviewers with the requisite level of very specialist knowledge often means drawing from a very small pool indeed. Finding overseers with multi-disciplinary skills and experience to monitor researchers would prove equally challenging.

Most science journals employ single-blind peer review, whereby the reviewer knows who made the submission, but the writers do not know who is reviewing it. This contrasts with the double-blind method favoured by social sciences publishers. Simply put, that group which is conducting a particular study or studies would likely already be known to reviewers who work in that area, too. In certain strands of the sciences, there are only a limited number labs (sometimes only one) from which the research could have emanated, be that because of equipment, the effects of a geographical variable being studied, etc. Double-blinding, therefore, becomes impractical and redundant. For these reasons, there are journals who impose no blinding whatsoever, giving researchers the potential to seek redress if they feel a particular reviewer has displayed bias towards them. The Committee on Public Ethics affirms, “it is probably impossible to eliminate all bias … but good editors endeavour to minimize it.”That the cost to public health resulting from the publication Wakefield’s fabricated work was, and continues to be, so very high, is naturally worrisome. The fault for this, however, is not due to the scientific method or the peer review process. The reason this paper caused uproar and, ultimately, deaths is two-fold. That The Lancet, with so fine an international reputation, should ever have published it is contentious and the edition being heralded with a press conference by Wakefield et al was, undeniably, the spark that ignited the powder keg. Professor Thomas T. MacDonald is a gastroimmunologist working at Bart’s hospital in London. His testimony at the Omnibus Autism Proceedings in the US Vaccine Courts was unambiguous. He called the1998 study “probably the worst paper that’s ever been published in the history of [the Lancet].” Professor MacDonald has over 400 publications behind him. This is not a casual assertion. He questions Wakefield’s qualifications to conduct such a study and accurately interpret the results. “He is a surgeon,” MacDonald says. “He’s not a paediatrician. He’s not an immunologist. He’s not a histopathologist.”Wakefield’s charisma has been commented on ad nauseum. He certainly seemed to have had The Lancet’s editor, Richard Horton, rapt. The 1998 study was not the first seriously flawed investigation of Wakefield’s to appear in the journal. Holding press conferences to hold measles (and subsequently, vaccine strain measles) responsible for inflammatory bowel disease was his M.O. Here was a debonair researcher with a penchant for controversy, an appealing combination to an editor like Horton, who clearly saw the role of editor as more journalistic than academic. Horton’s 2004 book, MMR: Science and Fiction – Exploring a Vaccine Crisis, is less the apologia it should be, given the consequences of that single editorial decision, but page after page of excuses for letting a substandard study be published in what is (was?) arguably Britain’s premiere medical journal. Probably correctly, Horton assumes that the study may well have been published elsewhere had he not done so. There is a hierarchy of journals, at the top of which, in the UK at least, was The Lancet. Publication in its hallowed pages lends any study an air of validity. This unofficial ranking of journals is a criticism the Science and Technology committee levels at the peer review system. That this is understood, accepted and utilised by the scientific community is entirely lost on them. The press love a good scare story and study after study that refuted Wakefield’s hypothesis barely caused a ripple after the tsunami of that initial study. It took Brian Deer’s muckraking and decrying of Wakefield to finally get the fact that MMR does not cause autism on to the front pages. In this context, muckraking is no slight on Deer, for he uncovered lie after filthy lie, abuse and despicable conduct as he investigated Wakefield’s methods and motives. The science may be difficult to comprehend, but Deer turned this into a human, thriller-like story.

Had this travesty of a study not appeared in such a well respected journal, had it not been accompanied by a huge press conference laid on by Wakefield’s institution, the Royal Free, then the hypothesised MMR-autism link, that eventually met the fate of so many other poor and fraudulent pieces of work and drowned in its own irreproducability, would have long since faded into history. Too many commentators and politicians blame the press for the furore surrounding Wakefield’s study. Although partially culpable, this is a drastic oversimplification. Journalists, too few with science training or the ability to comprehend a scientific report, were spoon-fed this story by Wakefield and the Royal Free, who produced a video and a press pack to accompany the now infamous press conference.
The MMR-autism farrago was not facilitated by flaws in the peer review system, though they do exist. In fact, four of the six reviewers of the study rejected it. Were it not for an editor with the longing to be a sensationalist journalist, the lead researcher’s vested interest in clearing the way for his patented vaccine, and the publicity required by a law firm hoping to win huge amounts of compensation for its clients, thus guaranteeing a big payday for themselves, the study would most likely have failed to reach such a wide audience. A poor editorial decision was made. Groups trying to reproduce the work failed. The hypothesis failed. With the link now disproved, hopefully, more fruitful leads can be followed in looking at the causes of autism. This is what the scientific method does so well and has for centuries. That there are still people out there who, as if on an article of faith, believe that vaccines cause autism is the fault of media outlets and shady journals who make, at best, halfhearted attempts at peer review. Science is self-correcting; journalism and editorial egotism, unfortunately, are not.