Videogame reporting meets science reporting

 science, video games  Comments Off on Videogame reporting meets science reporting
Feb 272012

The slow rollout of Vox Games content continued today with Brian Crecente’s article on a recent paper by Douglas Gentile and his group, which I didn’t really care for. While Crecente did some things right, and notably improved on typical science reporting by actually providing a link to the paper (an unacceptably rare practice), I thought the article fell short.

The standard of success in science is whether research is convincing to peers. For this reason it is essential to get an opinion on the research from a scientist in the field not associated with the project. Crecente didn’t do this, even though there are some obvious options: Chris Ferguson, Wai Yen Tang, and Lawrence Kutner would all have been reasonable choices, though Ferguson is probably tired of getting the “contrasting opinion” call every time Gentile publishes. Crecente also could have looked through the citations in the article to find some experts to discuss it with. Fred Zimmerman is one possibility from this list, as he has frequently written on similar topics, but not co-authored any papers with Gentile. The point here is not to dig up any old crackpot who disagrees with Gentile’s conclusions, but to find somebody who can look at the research with a fair and critical eye.

The external perspective is particularly desirable here because Gentile is (perhaps unjustly) perceived as an axe-grinder. That Gentile has written numerous articles and books trying to link videogame violence with real-life violence and aggression, and that he was Research Director at the National Institute on Media and the Family, is something that Crecente might have noted.

In addition, external perspective might have prevented Crecente from both overstating and understating the implications of the research. The lede paragraph mentions a vicious cycle of reinforcement between videogames and attention problems, and also mentions a comparison with television. The former is good, and reflects the key finding. The latter isn’t really addressed by Gentile et al.’s paper. Crecente reports several ideas about how games might cause attention problems, but these come from the paper’s introductory material. Nothing in this research directly addresses any mechanistic hypothesis, but these speculations constitute a significant proportion of Crecente’s article.

The idea that reducing videogame exposure (VGE) could address attention problems seems an optimistic take on the results. A very simplistic analysis of these results indicates that VGE at any given time point explains 1-4% of the variation in current or subsequent attention problems (Table 1). That’s something, but it’s not much. The VGE-attention correlation grows stronger in the third wave of surveys, which may mean that newer games or systems are more likely to cause attention problems, or that the effect on attention grows stronger as a child ages. Or, this could simply reflect intrinsic noise in the data. Here an outside expert’s opinion would be valuable.

The path diagrams in the later part of the article are meant to illustrate possible causal relationships identified through mathematical modeling. They show that attention problems are a better predictor of future VGE than VGE is of future attention problems. However, there is a modest predictive relationship both ways, and Crecente understates the findings by failing to report that a causal effect, rather than just a correlation, was found (notice how some commenters missed this).

While the finding may imply, as Gentile believes, a vicious cycle of reinforcement, it may also signify that he has simply got the causal relationship entirely backwards, and that the power of VGE at wave 2 to predict attention problems at wave 3 is simply bleed-through of the (unmeasured) attention problems at wave 1 causing VGE at wave 2. The results on impulsiveness seem to argue against this, but there the predictive capacity is even lower. Or, there may be a third factor, perhaps related to parenting or genetics, that promotes both. In my opinion Gentile et al. are unjustly dismissive of this possibility, and Crecente does not even mention it.

With or without an external opinion, Crecente’s article doesn’t do a good job of putting the research in perspective. How surprising or novel is this finding? How does it fit with other things we know about children’s use of and reaction to media? Might cultural factors (the research was performed in Singapore) affect the causal relationships found here? What recommendations for parents does the research imply? On these subjects, Crecente’s article gives us less than we would have gotten had he merely reproduced Iowa State’s press release.

My point here is not that Crecente is a bad journalist, or even that this is a terrible article. As far as I can tell, it contains only one minor factual error (journal name), and the errors he did make are ones that happen all the time in science reporting. On the positive side, Crecente reports the research methods and central conclusion clearly and correctly, and he provides a link to the paper. That may sound like damning by faint praise, but in the context of the media’s chronic inability to accurately report science it is actual straight-up praise. However, the absence of an external opinion is a serious problem, and certain omissions in the article can mislead the audience. As science reporting in gaming media goes, it’s not bad (e.g. this), but Vox Games aspires to a higher standard.

East 2 degrees 20 minutes 57 seconds

 books, science  Comments Off on East 2 degrees 20 minutes 57 seconds
Sep 062011

Today it is possible to pull out your telephone and know immediately where you are and what time it is, so the prospect of, say, setting one’s watch by Immanuel Kant’s daily walk seems intrinsically absurd. Yet, before the turn of the century, it was not unusual for the time in one town to be very different from the time in the next town down the road, and the only unification of clocks came from the local rail line. Lacking a global idea of time, our knowledge of longitude was uncertain, so much so that cartographers could not pin down even the distance between London and Paris, much less that between the Americas and Europe. Our transit from “here there be dragons” to your iPhone’s GPS function owes much to French mechanist Henri Poincaré and physicist Albert Einstein, contributions Peter Galison examines in his book Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps [Amazon].

Einstein comes first in the title, but it is clear from early on that Galison’s real interest is in Poincaré. Most Americans have an opposite preference, and it’s easy to understand why. Einstein’s peregrinations and iconoclasm speak to certain American sensibilities. Poincaré, by contrast, was French, and fiercely so, a student of the École Polytechnique, a member of many Academies and Societies, and an important member of the Bureau of Longitude.

That last may seem faintly hilarious, now, but at that time the determination of longitude was no small task. One of the first tasks of the mighty transatlantic telegraph cables was to fix the time of events at two distant spots, thus determining the longitudinal difference between them. Following on the international adoption of the metric system, the French hoped to have the Prime Meridian fixed to Paris, where the meter, kilogram, and associated measures lay. Poincaré even became involved in an effort to create a metric system of time. Rather than bothering much with Relativity, Galison devotes most of the book to examining the multiple levels where one if its key insights (the synchronization of clocks) played a role. As he puts it:

In to the precision swing of master clock pendulums, out to the undersea telegraph cables crisscrossing the oceans. In to follow the minutiae of individual train schedulers, jewelers, and astronomers; then back out to the legal recalibration of  national and world-covering time zones. In this process of scrutiny, historical light necessarily plays off the very different scales utilized by technological, scientific, and philosophical activity. Between 1870 and 1910, conventions of space and time scintillated with a critical opalescence.

One can see that Galison is not afraid to engage flights of fancy, and also that he is unusually fond of the word “opalescent”, which I saw more times in this book than in the preceding 30-odd years of my life. Niggling about style aside, the passage does give a feel for the many lenses needed to capture the drama. In Europe, intellectual titans like Poincaré were involved in the struggle to map the world and unify time, while in America, time became the province of businessmen and rail magnates, eventually resulting in the creation of the time zone system we find familiar (albeit not without digressing into some curious permutations along the way).

If you’re wondering how time itself could be so confusing, Poincaré did not. One of the central beliefs of his life was that systems, like time, were just conventions, only to be used until another, more convenient tool came along. If he had been able to follow this belief to its logical end, perhaps it would be he who was remembered as the discoverer of Special Relativity. Certainly his modifications of the Lorentz transformations were essential. Yet he ultimately became too attached to the familiar ether, insisting that there was one “true” time, while Einstein managed to punch through that barrier and recognize that time itself was variable. Galison seems to like Poincaré just a bit too much to judge this failure harshly, but that’s a forgivable flaw in a work that shines a much-needed light on a somewhat-forgotten genius.

Mar 182010

Alert your labmates
if your prep will require all
the lab’s baffled flasks.

Refill or reorder
reagents before you empty
the goddamn bottle.

Touching toxins, gloves
go on. Touching telephones,
take those nasty things off.

Ceiling tiles collapse.
Leaky roof, heavy rainstorm:
farewell, sweet laptop.

Analog  balances
only help if the pans are
level when empty.

Also, you shouldn’t
assume that all tube holders
possess the same mass.

Yes that is why the
ultracentrifuge had an
imbalance error.

Your office is next
to the damn thing, you can do
whatever you want.

Just don’t come crying
when the rotor flies out and
caves in your ribcage.

Do not put ether
or chloroform into the
sink, motherfucker!

What’s your damn problem?
Discard organic solvents
to organic waste!

Who the hell is your
lab’s safety officer? I’m
going to end him.

Feb 182010
In 1951, Henrietta Lacks died of an incredibly fast-growing and invasive uterine cancer. She is still alive today, making vital contributions to our understanding of cancer and cellular biology. How a dead, uneducated black woman continues to live and provide valuable scientific insights, and why her children and grandchildren have not benefited from her legacy, is the subject of Rebecca Skloot’s new book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (which you can buy from Amazon here).

Henrietta Lacks’ tumor gave rise to the HeLa cell line, the first cells that could be grown indefinitely in culture. Ordinarily, cells isolated from a living creature divide only a few times in culture and then die out, a consequence of telomere loss. The cells isolated from Mrs. Lacks’ tumor, however, had an active telomerase enzyme and were very robust, besides. They grew happily in culture then, and continue to be cultured in labs around the world to this day. Various obfuscations, some intentional and some not, have hidden the originator of the cells behind pseudonyms such as “Helen Lane” (the name I first learned). Scientists weren’t the only ones who didn’t know where HeLa came from, though.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is about science, but it is not so much about the science. We learn that Mrs. Lacks’ cells contributed to many significant advances, but the book provides little detail as to how. Skloot focuses instead on the Lacks family and the small set of scientists and doctors surrounding her case. She traces Mrs. Lacks’ brief trajectory in life, from Clover, Virginia to Turner Station, Maryland, and then the sad history of her children, who endured poverty and various kinds of abuse. Neither they, nor Henrietta’s husband Day, knew of the cells or their importance until the ’70s, even though scientists took blood from them in an effort to stem HeLa’s invasion of other cell lines.

Skloot also provides some context on the use of human tissue by scientists, a practice which in Lacks’ day did not even require consent, much less “informed” consent. Although the researchers who initially coaxed HeLa to grow in culture gave the cells away for free, the mass production of HeLa has grown into a major industry. The cells themselves, and specialized products derived from them, are routinely sold as reagents at high prices, with no benefit to Henrietta’s descendants.

Skloot describes some similar cases for context, including the case of the Mo cell line, in which a man was subjected to procedures that had little purpose beyond improving a cell line from which he received no benefit, then denied a stake in the resulting commerce by the Supreme Court of California. As our capacity to reap massive quantities of data from tiny amounts of biological material increases, the question of who owns tissue samples and whether patients are due compensation if those samples prove scientifically useful will become ever more relevant. Striking a balance between the rights of the patient and the need for vital research is a question that should be confronted, but the history Skloot recounts suggests that governments would rather ignore the problem than reach a probably unpopular conclusion.

Regardless of the direction bioethics laws take, the genie has firmly escaped the bottle in HeLa’s case. It’s unlikely that the Lacks family will ever directly benefit from the industry that has grown up around the last remains of their matriarch. Maybe that’s a crime, and maybe it’s just bad luck. Either way, if you are one of the many who has benefited from Mrs. Lacks’ involuntary contribution to medical science, you may wish to give back via the Henrietta Lacks Foundation set up by Skloot to provide scholarships and health care for the Lacks family.

Jan 232009
It’s time once again to remind your labmates how to behave, seventeen syllables at a time.

Dust and detritus of past ages brushed away — leave balances clean!

Microbe-encrusted, reeking of death: your uncleaned centrifuge bottles.

If it cannot touch your skin, it must not touch my keyboard. Remove gloves!

Banshee scream boiling precious samples — don’t mess with the sonicator!

Chemicals, hazards, trailing you in the hallways… Lab coats stay in labs.

Although you’re wearing headphones, we can all still hear you singing along.

Unlabeled buffers may sometimes be used to make your morning coffee.

Washing glassware may not be your job, but please rinse that salty crust off!

The bear seeks a lost cub — I find my pipetman on your filthy bench.

Vapor will corrode them — store pipetmen upright, with tips ejected.

It takes five minutes to make destain — replenish the carboy when low.

Hiding that ruined column will not magically make it fix itself.