Thursday, January 13, 2005

The bell curve sometimes rings false

Consider the 4 men on Mount Rushmore. Now let's average up their accomplishments (don't ask me how, just do it). At least one of them and possibly as many as 3 could have accomplishments which were less than the average for the group. Ergo, according to some people's logic, those guys must really suck.

Well yeah, that's exaggerated a bit, but it's what's behind expressions like "50% the (doctors, lawyers, engineers,...) are from the bottom half of their class". Strictly speaking it's true, and in some contexts might even be clever. But mathematically it's thoroughly asinine - it conveys no information that's meaningful about the performance of the affected individuals. Similar logic would lead you to conclusions like 50% of the decathlon finalists in the Olympics are inferior athletes, or that 50% of the serial killers are better than average citizens, or maybe that the winners of corresponding events at the Olympics and the Special Olympics had comparable performances. The obvious error in all of the above cases is that the populations being considered were from very narrow classes.

This article from The New Yorker by Atul Gawande has been widely discussed lately. In it the author discusses how not all doctors and clinics perform equally well by various yardsticks, using cystic fibrosis treatment as an example.

I don't have time to write any more about it right now, but it's worth a read. More later.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

A taste of medicine

Around the 70's there was a bestselling book about an English country doctor. The title eludes me at the moment, but I seem to remember that at one point the doctor smelled a patient's breath, noticed a hint of rotten apples, and from this correctly concluded that the patient had appendicitis.

A father noticed that his little girl always had really salty skin, to the point of calling her "my little potato chip". Then as she got older and "failed to thrive", he found out why she was so salty. Her body did not handle chlorine properly - she had cystic fibrosis. I'll link the article later when I'll have a lot more to say about it.

Lately a medblogger wrote of a patient that had been eating a lot of ice. Of all things, this often indicates an iron deficiency.

Incidentally, how do you think doctors discovered that the urine of diabetes mellitus patients was sweet?

Instrumentation and diagnostic equipment are terrific. But I have to wonder what is lost by using these artificial senses if they are used to the exclusion of the original 5.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Low standards

Glenn Reynolds is too easily impressed here. All Derbyshire did was express his faith in science, which is of no value in evaluating Intelligent Design.

We might do well to consider how blind science is and always must be. For instance, can anyone prove that gravity will behave the same way tomorrow? Of course you can't - science is based on observation, and you can't observe the future. You just have faith that gravity will be the same, but it probably hasn't even occurred to you that you're making an assumption.

But the hubris really shows when we hear prattle about a "god of the gaps". Right. We have this tiny little light on in the vastness of the universe, and we miss most of what's going on there, and someone speaks of our *scientific ignorance* as a "gap"?

Is there anything to Intelligent Design? Here's the correct, scientific answer - we don't know.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Boys will be boys but.... girl of Joe Kennedy's had better act like her male relatives.

Kathleen Kennedy was Joe Kennedy's oldest daughter. Legend has it that she was mentally disabled, so Daddy had her lobotomized when she was 23. She died this past week at 86.

Was she mentally disabled? Perhaps no more so than any of her siblings.
she was able to attend school and travel Europe without a chaperone. But she was sneaking out at night and returning to her convent school disheveled and drunk, the nuns feared she was picking up men and more, and she threw temper tantrums
. Heavens, Joe Kennedy couldn't let anyone disgrace the family! If that meant that Rosemary would wind up in an infantlike state, mumbling words and sitting for hours staring at walls, well....I won't accuse even Joe Kennedy of expecting that outcome, but it was an awfully heavy-handed way to respond in any case.

Her troubles are over now finally, and she lives on as the inspiration for the Special Olympics.

Torture test

Yep, I'm ripping off Greyhawk's title too. Because it, like the corresponding post linked here about Abu Ghraib, is excellent. It's not just a blog post, it's an essential part of the history of the Iraq war.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Spinal cords repaired with adult stem cells

You can have your broken spinal cord repaired, but you'll pay through the nose.
Russian surgeons claim a world first after repairing broken spinal cords using stem cells taken from the patient's nose.

The Moscow team claim it is the first time anyone has been able to treat such severe spinal injuries by reconnecting spinal cord neural tissue.
As has always been true of stem cell miracles to date, the heroes were adult stem cells.

Perhaps if the late Christopher Reeve had lent his name and reputation to adult stem cell research, this type of progress might have been made soon enough to do him some good, while helping to prevent the further commoditization of human life.

Wish I'd said that

How is it that something so utterly appropriate can be considered unprofessional?