Monthly Archives: January 2009

Breaking News: Cellist disease a hoax

Cello Scrotum is a hoax! Hypochondriac male musicians inclined toward large stringed instruments will have to find a new problem with which to afflict themselves. Guitar nipple, however, is all too real.

Alert reader Jason brought this L.A. Times article to our attention. It seems that in or around 1975, a mated pair of physicians cooked up the idea of Cello Scrotum despite the fact that a properly operated cello does not, in fact, come in contact with the genetalia. The paper got published anyway. It’s an early example of a parody in the scientific literature being taken literally.

It reminds me of a more recent iteration of this phenomenon: Alan Sokal published a computer generated gibberish paper in Social Text. He tells why he did so in his book, Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture.  Another instance occurred more recently: an MIT student got a conference paper accepted that was pure gibberish. To be fair, conference papers are not held to the same review standards as journal papers. Nonetheless, The Register sums up thusly:

Perhaps because of the atomization of the disciplines in both arts and science, the quality of published academic papers appears to be at rock bottom.

And these days, simply being published means you’re an authority. The MIT pranks illustrates all it takes to be published, is to submit a paper.

Maybe that’s true for Social Text, but it’s another matter for, say, Analytical Chemistry.


We will restore science to its rightful place

I’m “reporting” from Ukraine today. I’m not as well-connected to the ‘net and to the doings of Science, so I don’t have much in the way of news for you.

I said before at some point that I wanted to avoid politics in this project. But I think I will skirt that line again today.

The New York Times wrote up a little thing headlined “Scientists Welcome Obama’s Words.” I think the article quite decently summarized the attitude of the scientific world, at least as I’m familiar with it.

Party loyalty and the scientific world’s liberal lean aside, I think it’s fair to say that the Bush administration was pretty hard on the scientific community. Back a few years ago, when the U.S. had money, they did some good things for the science budget. But when push came to shove, those were not fleshed out, and programs that got a good start had to struggle for the last few years.

It’s a funny thing: when the NIH budget doubles, more then twice as many people show up to ask for money. And even more strange: if they get it, they are hoping for more next year, too!

Obama said in his in his Inaugural Address: “We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.”

Well, that might be rhetoric, but it’s refreshing, anyway.


Caffeine and Hallucinations

According to this little Science Blog post, caffeine has been linked to hallucinations. This was corroborated by (badly spelled) anecdotal evicence at the Lycaeum (only when dealing with “drug culture” does poor spelling adds to authenticity and credibility).  The original article (subscription required):


In diathesis–stress models of psychosis, cortisol released in response to stressors is proposed to play a role in the development of psychotic experiences. Individual differences in cortisol response to stressors are therefore likely to play a role in proneness to psychotic experiences. As caffeine has been found to increase cortisol response to a given stressor, we proposed that, when levels of stress were controlled for, caffeine intake would be related to hallucination-proneness and persecutory ideation. Caffeine intake, stress, hallucination-proneness and persecutory ideation were assessed by self-report questionnaires in a non-clinical sample (N = 219). Caffeine intake was positively related to stress levels and hallucination-proneness, but not persecutory ideation. When stress levels were controlled for, caffeine intake predicted levels of hallucination-proneness but not persecutory ideation. Implications of these findings are discussed and avenues for future research suggested.

Translation: There are chemicals that seem to be related to craziness and also to caffeine. It turns out that, among 200 people, the crazy ones drink a lot more coffee… we don’t think it’s a coincidence.

I took their questionnaire. At the end it referred me to, The International Community for Hearing Voices.


TV makes kids fat, but not the way you think.

I think it will come as no surprise that young couch potatoes tend to be overweight. What I think might come as a surprise is that a few hours per day of sedentary vegetation is not the problem. According to the National Academies, it may well be the advertisements that the kids are watching that’s causing it rather than the actual time of inactivity.

And I get it. If you want to make lots of money, you need to buy low and sell high. That means buying corn syrup (cheap) and effective advertising (kids are the easiest) and selling it for ten times the market price. Now maybe advertising  could convince kids that orange juice was awesome. The problem is that the value added is not all that high. Special name brand orange juice probably can’t be driven up in price by a factor of 10 because nobody will bay $20 for a bottle of OJ (Or so I once thought…). Name brand sugar water, on the other hand, certainly can because the price was so low to start.

Where does that laeve us? Kids want crap because they see crap on TV. Value added foods like cola and flavored tortilla chips (both derived from corn, interestingly) make money.  Kids get fat, somebody gets rich. And who are to say that’s not just fine and dandy?