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Archive for February, 2012

My youngest is crazy about the computer. He literally won’t leave it alone. We lock it with a password but he still tried to play with it (I give him another 6 months to figure out the password. And if he doesn’t, my eldest certainly will. And what will we do then? Ahhh, the problems of raising intelligent children ūüėõ you have to really run just to keep one step ahead…)

Unfortunately, if he tries to play with it too much he ends up shutting down the computer by mistake. And then we don’t turn it on until he’s asleep or even the next day, so he’ll learn.¬†And that presented me with a problem: I wanted to make muffins. The computer was closed. My laptop was at work. My husband (who also has a laptop) wasn’t home. How do I get a muffin recipe?

And then I remembered my large collection of cookbooks. Since I discovered the joy of recipes via the internet, with reviews and stars and all, I don’t use my collection much. But surely I have there somewhere a recipe for muffins?

In the end I took a carrot cake recipe and tweaked it a bit for carrot chocolate-chip muffins. The results were so good that I’ve already made them again since, and my kids love them. There’s something to be said for cookbooks after all…

Ingredients (based on the Carrot Cake recipe from “Sweet Dreams” of Ronnie Venezia)

1 cup spelt flour (originally all purpose flour)
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt (I put a pinch)
2 eggs
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup oil
1 tbsp vanilla essence
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1 1/2 cups shredded carrot (about 2-3 large carrots)
1/2 cup chocolate chips or chopped walnuts
water if necessary

Preheat oven to 180¬įC.¬† The original recipe begins by specifying “beat the eggs and oil until pale yellow and frothy…” but I basically ignored that and used the basic muffin method: mix all wet ingredients together; mix the dry ones in a separate bowl; mix the two bowls until just combined. If too dry than add some water. Spoon into muffin tins or cupcakes. Bake for 20 minutes or until a toothpick in the center comes out clean. Bon Apetit!

Carrot Muffins. There were 14 here a minute ago...?

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I think that science is getting more and more of a bad name lately. You tell someone that it was proved in research and they’ll lift their eyebrows and state archly,”Sure, and in a few weeks it the opposite will be proved in research”.

Why is this?

Part of the problem is that the average layperson does not have access¬†to¬†scientific articles. Not only do many journals require a fee, the articles themselves are unreadable. I¬†remember¬†when I started my Master’s, I hated reading articles. I didn’t understand a word. It took me a few years to get to the point where I can read an article and get the point (usually) within 15 minutes. Articles usually assume you have some background. So articles are usually peppered with things like: “it is known that¬†mitochondrial¬†breakdown can be¬†caused¬†by…”, “As noted by Fienup[12] on phase retrieval”, ” As Wakefield et al [43] have noted…” And you’re wondering what is mitochondrial breakdown and how in the world is it connected to autism? What is phase retrieval, and what is it doing in an article on 3D imaging? Who is Wakefield and what did they note – in words of one syllable?

You can attempt to calm down and try to track down the references (12, and 43 above) but they usually aren’t clearer. You can try to read an article with an¬†encyclopaedia¬†open, but that doesn’t always help. For example, from¬†Wikipedia: “phase retrieval consists in finding the phase that for a measured amplitude satisfies a set of constraints”. Yes, and that is connected to 3D imaging how exactly?¬†Also, it really matters which journal¬†published said article. There are tabloids of¬†the¬†scientific world too, that publish the scientific version of “Women gives birth to alien baby”. So the¬†average person just counts on the media to let him know if there is anything he should be aware of.

Which brings us to the second problem: The media isn’t in business to supply information. The media is in business to sell. So you get screaming headlines like “Doing ultrasound? You may be¬†damaging¬†your baby!” which is guaranteed to send scores of pregnant women pale faced to¬†their doctor – and sell tons of newspapers (or clicks). And only if you bother to actually read the paper, you find that the tests were¬†on¬†mice, and that¬†the¬†extreme test was 35 minutes of ultrasound every four hours, repeated twelve times, and even the “middle” group was 15 minutes every 12 hours. What human undergoes this? Why is this even relevant to the¬†ultrasound¬†regimen recommended by gynecologists? Why are you scaring countless women?

A third problem is misunderstanding statistics in general. If Wakefield performed a check (not even a test) on 12 children and found that 8 had autism after receiving the MMR vaccine, it means nothing. 12 children is statistically insignificant.

A fourth unfortunate problem is conflict of interest. Scientists are not always honest. Wakefield admitted that he was paid by the parents of the autistic children to write this article. He admitted it only after the article was in print. Thousands of people ignored his admission and the anti vaccine movement is strong ever since.

A fifth and most serious problem is the actual scientific method when researching humans. The fact is, that mice are not men, and will never be. On the other hand, you can’t perform experiments on large bunches of humans. For example, the¬†obvious¬†solution to the vaccine-autism¬†question would be: take one million children, don’t¬†vaccinate¬†them. Take another one million children and vaccinate them. See the number of¬†autistic¬†children after three years. However, that would mean a large number of unvaccinated children. Polio, mumps, whooping cough would abound and children would die or be¬†paralysed¬†for life. Not going to happen.

And even if this was attempted – what if the vaccinated million lived closer to pollution centers and that is the¬†cause¬†of autism? What if¬†the¬†unvaccinated children also ate larger amounts of vitamin K and that prevented autism? How can you tell? Which brings us to the sixth problem – too many parameters.¬†Especially¬†with¬†somthing like autism where people don’t really have any idea where to start, except “environmental factor that changed from the 80s on”. It¬†could¬†be vaccines. It could also be air pollution, sound¬†pollution, TV time for parents or kids, computers, magnetic radiation, less exercise of parents, more processed food, stress in the parents, thousands of things. ¬†You cannot expect someone to write everything they saw, ate, or breathed for the 9 months of pregnancy up to the child’s first year accurately and truthfully, and even if you did you would have so much information it would take ages to make sense of it all. And that brings us also to the seventh problem – information gathering.

There are no experiments done directly on humans (at least not for gathering information Рonly for testing cures, and that only at the approval of a lot of bureaucracy). Most experiments are done by calling a bunch of people and asking them quesitons, or even more flimsy methods*. You assume that everone asked is truthful and remembers accurately.

Yeah, right.

However, the actual scientific method is sound. You suggest a theory; you suggest a method to prove or¬†disprove¬†it; ¬†you perform the experiment; you analyze the data. And each article is a small building stone that is important. But people need¬†to¬†stop believing that¬†science¬†has all the answers. In the end, as always, you’re down to making your own decisions. Science just gives you some more ideas on how.

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*A method that astounded me, in an article that suggested TV causes autism: The hours of cable watching goes up as the weather gets worse. So the researchers checked the states with the worst weather and checked the number of autistic children in these states and found that in rainy states there are more¬†autistic¬†children. Very conclusive, isn’t it?

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