Saturday, February 24, 2007

Fumento's Folly

Michael Fumento, best known for shoe-horning his right-wing views into factually incorrect "science" articles, just saw his low credibility take another hit.

Fumento claimed in the Feb. 8 issue of the Daily Standard that scientists have been covering up the "fact" that human adult stem cells have been proven as effective as embryonic stem cells into turning to the various specialized cells needed to treat diseases.

. . .Yet it's been virtually a state secret that for over five years researchers, beginning with a team headed by physician Catherine Verfaillie of the University of Minnesota Stem Cell Institute, have been reporting numerous types of adult stem cells (she used those from marrow) that in the lab could form mature cells from three germ layers. Experiments around the world have clearly shown that adult stem cells from one germ layer can be converted into those of another in a living human, such as those that have turned adipose tissue stem cells from the mesoderm germ layer into neuronal cells from the ectoderm germ layer. (It also produced bone; cartilage; skeletal; cardiac muscle; and blood cells among others but these are all mesodermal.). . .

That research has been found to be flawed, calling its conclusions into question
Adult Stem Cell Study Flawed, Panel Says

By JOSHUA FREED, Associated Press Writer
Friday, February 23, 2007

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- A scientific panel says a 2002 study that suggested adult stem cells might be as useful as embryonic ones was flawed and its conclusions may be wrong, a finding that raises questions about the promise of a less controversial source for stem cells.
The research by Catherine Verfaillie at the University of Minnesota concluded that adult stem cells taken from the bone marrow of mice could grow into an array of biological tissues, including brain, heart, lung and liver.
So far only embryonic stem cells, which are commonly retrieved by destroying embryos at an early stage of development, are known to hold such regenerative promise. Many scientists believe they might one day be used to treat certain diseases and other conditions.
Opponents of stem cell research seized on the 2002 findings as evidence that stem cell science could move forward without destroying embryos. But Verfaillie has acknowledged flaws in parts of the study after inquiries from the British magazine New Scientist, which first publicized the questions last week. . .

Even if that research were flawless, it still wouldn't prove that adult stem cells are useful for human therapy. The AP article mentions a significant fact Fumento omitted: Verfaillie's experiments were performed with bone marrow cells from mice. Considering how many times we've cured cancer in mice, only to have the treatments fail in humans, that fact is quite pertinent.

Fumento has for years been painting a fantasy world in which human adult human stem cells are as useful as human embryonic stem cells for treating diseases. This idea pleases Fumento's right-wing audience, much of which is morally opposed to research with embryonic stem cells. I've talked to top stem cell scientists for years, and they tell a different story. The scientific view at this point is that for certain uses, adult stem cells may work okay, but for others you may need embryonic stem cells. That at least is what the top scientists in the field say; Fumento has been busily distorting and cherry-picking to push his own false picture of science.

I have no moral objection to research with human embryonic stem cells. But I'd be extremely happy if adult stem cells were found suitable for treating the diseases embryonic stem cell research is targeting. It would save lives without the political/ethical qualms, and if "cloning" or somatic cell nuclear transfer is not necessary, ethical problems from seeking human eggs would be eradicated.

But it's unethical journalism to falsely portray this field just to please one's audience, as Fumento routinely does. Fumento can only be excused on two grounds: one, he's a political activist and not a journalist, or two, he simply doesn't understand what he's writing about. A reporter doesn't have to be trained as a scientist to be a good science writer. But science writers must study the issues and get an understanding of the principles of science, and go wherever the data leads them. This data-driven mind-set is fundamentally different than that of the political advocacy world Fumento inhabits. And politicized science produces error-strewn work that true scientists and their followers can only mock. Fumento, after all, wrote on page 10 of his book BioEvolution that DNA is a two-stranded molecule of protein.

Conservatives who get their facts from Fumento are setting themselves up for a pratfall. And those looking for cures for their diseases from adult stem cells shouldn't read Fumento for guidance. They'll only wind up with false hope and crushed expectations.


Friday, February 23, 2007

Blog-ignorant reporter in action

Reading stories about the blogosphere by obviously blog-clueless reporters is painful:

Political bloggers fear publicists will infiltrate sites
By Alan Wirzbicki, Globe Correspondent February 23, 2007
WASHINGTON -- Erick Erickson has been running the popular blog long enough to know what his readers' postings sound like: red-meat conservative rhetoric served up with a little dash of populist anger.

So when postings from an unknown writer on the site showed up praising Senator John McCain -- one of the site's least-popular Republicans for his deviations from hard-core conservative orthodoxy -- Erickson thought he smelled a rat.

Or maybe a sock puppet, shill, or a troll -- Web slang for bloggers who pretend to be grass-roots political commentators but instead are paid public relations agents. . .

The reporter evidently has never heard these terms before, and got them garbled when hearing them in the course of reporting the story. Sock puppet, shill and troll have completely different meanings.

Here's a primer in these words for Mr. Wirzbicki:

A sock puppet is a false Web identity constructed by a person who also posts under his real name. The false Web identity is used to post material the person doesn't wish to have associated with him or her.

A shill is someone who acts as an agent for someone else, either openly or surreptitiously.

A troll is someone who deliberately posts inflammatory messages for the purpose of causing arguments.


Thursday, February 22, 2007

That much-derided MSM does some good

The Bush Administration has been spurred to action by the WaPo story about decrepit facilities at Walter Reed:

Swift Action Promised at Walter Reed
Investigations Urged as Army Moves to Make Repairs, Improve Staffing

By Dana Priest and Anne Hull
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 21, 2007; Page A08

The White House and congressional leaders called yesterday for swift investigation and repair of the problems plaguing outpatient care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, as veterans groups and members of Congress in both parties expressed outrage over substandard housing and the slow, dysfunctional bureaucracy there.

Top Army officials yesterday visited Building 18, the decrepit former hotel housing more than 80 recovering soldiers, outside the gates of the medical center. Army Secretary Francis Harvey and Vice Chief of Staff Richard Cody toured the building and spoke to soldiers as workers in protective masks stripped mold from the walls and tore up soiled carpets.

At the White House, press secretary Tony Snow said that he spoke with President Bush yesterday about Walter Reed and that the president told him: "Find out what the problem is and fix it."

Snow said Bush "first learned of the troubling allegations regarding Walter Reed from the stories this weekend in The Washington Post. He is deeply concerned and wants any problems identified and fixed." The spokesman said he did not know why the president, who has visited the facility many times in the past five years, had not heard about these problems before. . .

Of course, such repairs cost money. Congress can easily cut the bloated budget to pay for this, however. I suggest Congress starts with the $20 million it has earmarked for an Iraq victory celebration.

P.S. -- Those of you who encounter irritating registration requirements at these links should try, a free service that provides pre-filled IDs and passwords. BugMeNot works only for sites with free registration.

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

Help Jerry Roberts

Former editor of the Santa Barbara News-Press, Jerry Roberts is being sued for $25 million by the paper's eccentric billionaire owner, Wendy McCaw. (She got her money from divorcing cellular telephone pioneer Craig McCaw). What used to be a solid newspaper has been sent into turmoil by McCaw's crusade to install her hand-picked loyalists. The paper's best reporters and editors have left or have been fired, choosing to be loyal to their principles and journalistic ethics, not McCaw's distorted understanding of journalism and craving for servility.

Roberts is not only fighting McCaw's attempt to financially ruin him, he is fighting non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a form of blood cancer. McCaw, who is very much concerned with preventing cruelty to animals, appears rather less compassionate to humans who run afoul of her.

You can help by contributing to Roberts' legal defense fund. (H/T: LA Observed.)

For more news about Santa Barbara and McCaw's latest antics at the Santa Barbara Independent (which McCaw is also suing), BlogaBarbara and Craig Smith's Blog.

McCaw's loopy allegations that the former employees were violating journalistic standards have not convinced the journalistic community. Last year, the Society for Professional Journalists gave an award to nine former News-Press employees for their support of journalistic ethics.

McCaw tried to convince the SPJ not to give the former News-Pressers the award, but there's some things even her money can't buy. Journalistic respectability is one of them.


Ode to a Disgruntled Reporter

Charley Stough, editor of the Burned Out Newspapercreatures Guild, writes the incomparable BONG Bulletin, full of darkly satirical musings about the workaday world of journalism. Here is a sample nugget from Stough, a copy editor, to a disgrunted reporter:

"I wouldn't mess with your stories. Your stories are perfect, just like you. I place your stories on a pedestal and bask in their radiance. I imagine sitting with them in darkened bistros, with soft music of Gypsy violins and eunuchs for waiters, dreaming of ancient wonders and exotic poetry, sipping fine wines and rejoicing in the feel of silk on skin. Why would I change a word of your stories?"


Saturday, February 17, 2007

Welcome to the Dextrosphere!

There's a new conservative blog in San Diego. Red County/San Diego, made its cyber-debut Thursday with contributions from local Republican leaders and discussion of news relating to San Diego County.

Contributors include Rep. Brian Bilbray, Encinitas City Councilman Jerome Stocks, State Senator Mark Wyland (38th District), Assemblyman Martin Garrick (R-74th District), former La Mesa councilman Barry Jantz and Jennifer Jacobs, partner in the public affairs and political consulting firm Coronado Communications.

Friday's postings include a piece by Bilbray on the Iraq war. Bilbray criticized a nonbinding resolution in the House of Representatives opposing President Bush's "surge" plan. Bilbray said the resolution is a waste of time.

Wyland contributed an item on illegal immigration that praised Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney as "the only major Republican candidate who is willing to be tough on this issue."

The blog also includes a news roundup featuring copious links to articles in the North County Times and Union-Tribune.

Sporting the motto, "Politics from the Center Right," RCSD is the third in a series of Red County blogs from Partisan Media Group. The Red County blogs are complemented by a print magazine, Red County.

My favorite headline so far is from Jacobs, "Is Being a Blogger Bad?"

I sure hope not!

(The article is actually a discussion of her parents' views of bloggers, which segues into Bank of America going after the illegal immigrant market with credit cards that don't require Social Security numbers in the application. And there's an advantage to this for everyone -- a relaxation of the widespread use of SSNs for non-governmental purposes. Overuse of these numbers makes identity theft easier).


Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Darwin musical tributes tonight, Saturday

I've been dilatory about writing about one of my favorite groups: Dr. Stephen Baird and the Opossums of Truth. This group performs concerts every year in honor of Charles Darwin's birthday, which is Feb. 12.

I missed one of the concerts, but two are upcoming this week:

Feb. 6, 2007 at 7:30 p.m., the musical marsupials perform at the North Coast Repertory Theater in Solana Beach.
Cost is $20 for adults, $17 for seniors 65 and over, and $12.00 for students with ID. Tickets are available here: .
Feb. 10, the Opossums perform at the UCSD Medical School Liebow Auditorium on the campus of UCSD in La Jolla.
Cost is $10 for students and $20 for adults.
Brownies will be served after the concerts in honor of Darwin. Group leader Stephen Baird, M.D., a Solana Beach resident, is a UCSD Medical Center professor of pathology and chief of staff at the Veterans Administration Medical Center. The Opossums nest on the Web at .
For more information, call Carol Baird at 858-481-8511.


Friday, February 02, 2007

No Credit from The Guardian

The UK-based Guardian newspaper has published a story stating that the American Enterprise Institute offered scientists $10,000 each to write articles critical of the new IPCC report on global warming.

The AEI hasn't denied offering the money, but claims it was for an honest report and didn't want it slanted to be skeptical of global warming. That's simply not credible, considering how the letter was worded. It was obviously aiming to get support for a conclusion it wanted. It asks for papers that: "thoughtfully explore the limitations of climate model outputs".

This kind of "research" by scientists-for-hire is common among think tanks and companies trying to buy support. As a reporter, I constantly see evidence of this financial manipulation of "science" to fool the public. Oil companies (and others) know they are not held in as high regard as ostensibly independent scientists, supposedly engaged in a pure search for truth. So these companies and the think tanks they fund try to downplay their role in favor of these supposedly independent "experts," who often are just shills. The public is not told that these scientists are not really functioning as scientists, but as PR guns. Not that there's anything wrong with PR. Openly conducted PR is honorable. It's the deception that's offensive and unethical. Perhaps the evidence for man-caused global warming is weaker than generally believed. That should be determined in open scientific debate, not by a PR campaign pretending to be scientific. Hint to AEI: Real scientific research isn't limited by preordained findings.

Now here's where the Guardian's journalism becomes suspect. The article didn't include the entire letter, although it is available. A blog called "DeSmogBlog" posted the letter and told pretty much the same story as the Guardian -- in November. Yet the blog is not credited. (DeSmogBlog, which posts an impressive amount of material I haven't yet had a chance to explore, says its goal is "to clear the PR pollution that is clouding the science on climate change.")

Did the Guardian find out about the letter by itself, without using DeSmogBlog as a source? I doubt it. The letter was sent to the same scientist the Guardian just happened to interview. And it was easily findable -- I got it in just 5 minutes of Googling. Any reasonably competent reporter could have done the same in researching the story. I'd certainly check to see if someone else had beaten me to the punch. And if so, I'd credit them.

Whether or not it saw the DeSmogBlog post, the Guardian ought to acknowledge it was not the first to report on this disturbing unethical behavior by the American Enterprise Institute.


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