Thursday, March 4, 2010

Decently written article on Migranes

Sometimes distilling the information from scientific study can be a real headache (no pun intended here!) But it can be done. This article on a possible migrane cure includes a number of important points that need disseminating when talking about studies like these.

  • Sample size - it mentions that the sample is fairly small - a couple of hundred people
  • Succes rate - it mentions that around 40% of people were migraine free after two hours
  • It mentions that the success rate was distinctly different from the placebo (though doesn't say what success the placebo had)
  • It gives a decent outline of the problem and the solution.

It's nice to see articles like this. This particular one is well outside my field, but I can see that important points are included. One of the big problems with reporting I find is that things are often touted as cures or solved problems, when there may still be a significant degree of uncertainty, which is not put across well. Top marks for this article.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Media and the Bloom Box

The Bloom Box is being touted as the next big thing. But what is it?

While the company Bloom Energy are being quiet about the particular details of the chemicals in the box, the basic principle is that of a fuel cell. A decent enough explanation can be found on wikipedia. It's a pretty interesting looking technology, and while I do have some questions and concerns, I'll leave that until the thing becomes more available, and to the experts to decide.

So what's my gripe? Well the media are going somewhat too far in their descriptions:

On Wednesday, a Silcon Valley company called Bloom Energy will hold a press conference to reveal the Bloom Box: a fuel-cell which, the company claims, will one day be capable of replacing the traditional grid to supply power to homes and businesses cheaply and without emissions.
wow... without emissions.. so you put fuel and air in and nothing comes out? If that sounds too good to be true, well that's because it is. Bloom Energy themselves don't make this mistake, in fact they freely admit that it produces Carbon Dioxide... here's the reaction:

On the left we have methane and oxygen, on the right we have carbon dioxide, water, an electron and heat. It is the electron and heat that are important to the function of the box, but we can clearly see that there are emissions.

Here's Bloom Energy's data sheet which shows the emissions from the box:

come on BBC, get it right....

Another great one I have seen is the idea of "wireless energy"... This time it is CBS News:

You'll generate your own electricity with the box and it'll be wireless. The idea is to one day replace the big power plants and transmission line grid, the way the laptop moved in on the desktop and cell phones supplanted landlines.
Wireless... well if we go back to our chemical reaction

It takes in oxygen - there's plenty of that around in the atmosphere, so we'll say that is ok, but the methane... that is going to need pumping in. I suppose you could have your own personal pile of rotting vegetables or chicken poop, but most people who might have one of these installed will have that piped in. Pipes aren't wires, so they might argue a win on a semantic issue, but my laptop and cell phone are remarkably pipe-free. Then there's getting the electricity out of it, which will use.... wires.

Terrible Terrible Science Reporting

A huge amount of science reporting is just terrible - This can vary from the misrepresentative, to the blatantly wrong. There is often a bizarre disconnect between the actual published articles, and what the media say the articles say, and sadly it is the media representation that often gets spread, and people believe it. When the "information" the people have is found to be wrong, it is the scientists and not the media that get the blame - even though it was the media that got it wrong in the first place!

Ok, so that's a bit of a rant, and the best thing is to show you, so I will be keeping my eye on some of the rubbish representation of science that is spread around to the general public, and reporting on it here.