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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Nature: There is widespread agreement that inhaling from an e-cigarette, where a heating element vapourizes a liquid containing nicotine, is not as harmful as smoking a conventional cigarette, and proponents say that the products could save millions of lives. But some researchers and tobacco-control activists fear that the devices could make tobacco use seem socially acceptable again and may not assist people in actually reducing their addiction. "Advertising suggesting that e-cigarettes are effective for smoking cessation should be prohibited until such claims are supported by scientific evidence," said Pamela Ling, a tobacco researcher at the University of California, San Francisco.

Mehdi Hasan, New Statesman: Is there a better case study in brazen hypocrisy than the ongoing crisis in Crimea? ... "For the powerful," as Noam Chomsky once remarked, "crimes are those that others commit." For instance: it is "illegal and illegitimate" for Russia to try to detach Crimea from Ukraine by means of a dodgy referendum, Hague says. Indeed, it is. But was it any less illegal or illegitimate for the west to detach Kosovo from Serbia in 1999 with a 78-day Nato bombing campaign? Territorial integrity matters -- until it doesn't.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Natalia Antelava, The New Yorker: At first, Rustem Kadyrov could barely make out the mark outside his house, in the Crimean town of Bakhchysarai, but it filled him with terror. It was an X, cut deep into the gray metal of the gate ... When I walked up Chiisty Istochniki Street from the Memetovas' house, I saw similar marks on four other houses, all of them residences of Crimean Tatars, Kadyrov said. The houses of their Russian neighbors, however, had not been touched. Similar markings have been reported in other parts of Bakhchysarai, and in some areas of the regional capital, Simferopol. Kadyrov told me that he called the police, who came out see his gate, but they refused to register a case. He was not surprised. "The police will not help us," he said. "They told me Crimean Tatars are not a priority for them. Of course not -- they are punishing us because we do not want Putin here."


the unfortunate reality is that, now that marijuana legalization is finally on the horizon, we're probably going to be seeing more willingness to overinterpret results, if not gaming of data or worse, to arrive at a predetermined conclusion.

even the groups that properly analyze their data overinterpret the hell out of them all the time. Wow! Gray matter density is higher in this one structure than the other! That statement is almost entirely meaningless without context. Depending on the types of neurons and other cells, "more" could mean a lot of things. Studies like this also usually don't examine subnuclei of these structures, which are very often quite different in function, the composition of cells, etc. At least in the rat, there are a lot of subnuclei of the amygdala, which have very different functions; there's no reason of which I'm aware to believe it's any less complex in our brains.

less benign than simple ineptitude is using one or more of your "researcher degrees of freedom" so as to find significant relations amongst data. gaming your experiment and/or analysis can greatly increase the chance of false-positive findings...but before anyone figures it out, hurry up and publish! this is at the heart of the replicability crisis, and why we need to either move to Bayes method for analysis, or make the rejection criteria a hell of a lot more conservative.

finally, there's also probably a motivation to get a publication out of a big set of imaging data, because let's be honest: everyone loves pretty pictures of brains doing things, and someone probably spent a hell of a lto of time collecting those data, so everyone deserves a publication from it!

some of these results are probably real, but some are also phrenology with a scanner that costs a few hundred $/hr to operate.

"The groups in the study started using marijuana daily between 16 to 17 years of age for about three years...."

wow, so heavy use of marijuana while the brain is still being myelinated (the brain isn't mature until well into the 20s) leads to problems? whodathunkit!? this does not necessarily extrapolate to the adult brain.

another problem I have with studies such as this one and the northwestern schizophrenia study (pdf) is that they rely heavily on self-report instead of measuring metabolites. maybe the pattern of results would be the same, but self report -- let alone self-report based on times when one was stoned -- is notoriously unreliable.

in the Smith cannabis use disorder / WM paper, there are a few things that stick out.

With regard to working memory (WM):

"CON-Clean scored higher than CON-CUD (d=0.53) but did not attain significance (P= .14)."

so, despite all the impressive imaging, their behavioral data didn't deliver. this is all within the framework of frequentist statistics, so if one were to adopt recently suggested standards for statistical evidence this finding -- along with many others -- would become even less compelling.

also, correlations -- even significant ones -- aren't very interesting. these authors know it, too, but need to sound impressive by touting the various "associations" they found. does smoking MJ cause the observed morphological changes, or do preexisting morphological differences in certain areas of the brain predispose individuals to seeking out marijuana?

that's why you've gotta love these cross-sectional studies that try to infer causation. how about a longitudinal study that includes MJ metabolites as a covariate, instead of relying on self-report? those two methodological changes would clear up a lot of things, and might actually allow authors in the future to claim the kinds of results that they're being credited with in the headlines.

read the actual paper; "science journalism" is usually an absolute disgrace.

as was pointed out on another thread on another site, the authors seem to be engaging in deception. check out their figure 1.C: the volume in left Acb in smokers, relative to controls, passes the uncorrected (p < .05) threshhold for statistical significance, but NOT the threshold when corrected for multiple comparisons (p < .0125). the caption indicates as much, but it really seems as if they're reaching here, especially given no difference in right Acb volume.

also, there's no 1:1 correspondence between functioning and gray cell density, dendritic arborization, volume, etc. the fact that the accumbens and amygdala were observed to be morphologically different in smokers than non-smokers doesn't necessarily lend itself to the "drugs are bad mkay?" interpretation.

this brings up the obvious question: what, exactly, is a morphologically "normal" accumbens or amygdala? perhaps cultural conditioning leads to abnormalities in these (and other) structures which marijuana reverses. not saying this is the case; just offering an equally plausible interpretation given the present dearth of evidence.

at least the authors are honest in their own assessment of the study's limitations -- although they did seem to be pulling some shenanigans with some of their figures -- the media would be wise to follow this lead:

This preliminary study has several caveats. First, the sample size does not provide power to examine complex interactions
such as sex differences. Because this is a cross-sectional study,
causation cannot be determined, although marijuana exposure parametrically correlated with structural differences, which sug-
gests the possibility of causation. Longitudinal studies are needed
to determine whether marijuana exposure explicitly leads to the
differences observed in this study. Furthermore, this study did
not include quantifiable marijuana metabolite levels, which
would have provided further information about the amount of
marijuana exposure. This measure could be incorporated into
future studies as a complementary measure to detailed timeline
follow-back measures of drug use. Finally, age of onset was col-
lected for marijuana use only.Early exposure to alcohol may have
also affected brain structure (although no participant met criteria
for past alcohol abuse or dependence).

At least the House of Saud is honest; they still have a coat of arms.

all of our presidents, excepting martin van buren, share common ancestry!

Are you Ready for Shrillary?(TM)

War is a racket.

This is just the latest iteration.

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