More Jenkins Junk

In which Dr Aust ponders whether Simon Jenkins makes it up as he goes along

The other day I was listening to Simon Jenkins on the weekly Guardian science podcast, discussing his latest predictable tirade against the scientists, and the “Spoofjenks” reaction to it (my own little contribution is below/here).

In the podcast conversation with the Guardian’s Alok Jha (it starts at about 22 min 45 sec in, and goes on until 31:15 or so), Jenkins seemed to be backtracking somewhat on his latest article. As I heard it he was arguing that:

(i) what he had said was all very mild;

(ii) all he really wanted to say was that science could not expect to be shielded from the UK public sector cuts;

(iii) scientists “don’t know how to ask for money properly” (by which I think he means they overstate the importance, and likely benefit, of their work)

Hmm.

I don’t buy it, really.

First, I’m not sure that calling the President of the Royal Society (or things that the latter had said) “shameless” and “two-faced” is all that mild. And Jenkins’ central point (as he tells it) that he was merely commenting on scientists wanting to be protected from the public sector cuts seems rather disingenuous, given the well-worn nature of Jenkins’ theme (“pointy-headed scientific experts and why I distrust them”, if I may shorthand it that way)

Anyway, there were a couple of stand-out moments in the conversation (at least for me).

One was when Alok Jha offered, as an illustration of the way in which science projects can yield unexpected benefits, the example of CERN and the World Wide Web. Computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee was a contractor at CERN, and later a Fellow, when he came up with the ideas that launched the WWW. Now, this is not a justification of CERN, but it certainly is an illustration of what most scientists believe, namely that you can’t really predict with any accuracy where key advances will come from.

As far as I could tell, Jenkins’ response to this was to say that he doesn’t believe it. He did, to be fair,  say some slightly less stupid things too. One was to suggest that the internet was an outgrowth of defence research. There is a fair amount of truth in this, as networking computers in remote locations together was certainly driven forward by projects like ARPANET. This later morphed into network projects involving Univerities and scientific institutions, like the BITNET system I was using to send e-mail in the late 80s and early 90s.

Jenkins’ other gambit was to say:

“Well, if the CERN people hadn’t done it, someone else would have”.

This latter is, of course, likely true of all human discoveries; but to offer that as a reason not to fund science and scientists strikes me as spectacularly stupid. Someone has to discover things. It hardly seems desperately controversial (not to me, anyway) to say that having some of your brightest people work at being “professional discoverers” is a good way to do it. What hard evidence there is available seems to bear this out.

It is also, I think, a good idea to have your professional discoverers work in a system where they talk to one another and disseminate, by publishing, what they have found, so that anyone else can make use of it. Many a human discovery has been made, and then lost or forgotten, and then had to be re-discovered. The scientific literature system now makes this a bit less likely.

What really struck me about this exchange was that Jenkins clearly didn’t know the slightest thing about what Berners-Lee had actually done, or even (slightly more surprising to me) the difference between the earlier computer networks and the WWW. Apart from Berners-Lee’s role being rather well known, anyone – e.g. anyone who writes recurring columns denouncing scientists for being a bunch of smug parasites – can go and read about it on Wikipedia under “History of the Internet”

Come back Homer Simpson – we need you as a well-paid columnist

However, the real “D’oh!” moment came when Jenkins started talking about what he saw as research that justified its costs, and research that didn’t. He contrasted research into Alzheimer’s Disease (which he said he thought led to real tangible advances in understanding the brain) with research into cancer, which he seemed to regard as a bottomless pit into which money was poured for no results.

Rather odd, I thought.

Because research into Alzheimer’s has, as yet, had little impact on the actual disease. That’s little as in “essentially none”. As Wikipedia puts it:

“There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease; available treatments offer relatively small symptomatic benefit but remain palliative in nature.”

We do know a vast amount more about the underlying pathophysiology of Alzheimer’s, and the biology of Amyloid Precursor Protein, then we did a dozen years ago. But so far this greater knowledge has yielded no noticeable improvements in therapy. The cholinesterase inhibitor drugs that are on the market to treat Alzheimer’s are widely regarded as pretty useless, or close to it (pace Terry Pratchett), the experimental drug therapies have so far been a disappointment, and a commenter at the Guardian podcast page made the Pharma in-joke that:

“Alzheimer’s research has been such a failure that Pharma companies are actually cooperating with each other to try to make progress”

Now, personally I wouldn’t call the research a failure, exactly; as I said, we now know much more, but treatment breakthroughs have not been forthcoming. The same is true for Cystic Fibrosis, for instance. It is also true of Huntington’s Disease and many other neurological and neurodegenerative conditions.

Anyway, the sad reality is that we can do little currently in terms of preventing or slowing Alzheimer’s, and we certainly cannot cure it. The best advice seems to be to take a daily brisk walk, watch your blood pressure and lipid profile, and play chess or Sudoku to keep your brain active.

In contrast, if we talk about cancer, Jenkins’ other example, things are a bit different. You could have a look, for instance, at this.

Or this.

Now, this improvement in cancer survival rates may not be mostly the result of what you think of as lab-based basic research. It may be more about painstaking clinical research to optimize drug regimes, or to refine procedures for surgery or bone-marrow transplant. It may be to do with better diagnostic techniques, like MRI and CT scanning, that allow earlier diagnosis and treatment and hence better outcomes. But of course, all those processes stand on the shoulders of basic research at some stage – and typically at multiple stages.

More importantly for the current discussion, the statistics - the real numbers – show that there are incremental year-on-year improvements in cancer survival. And if you cast the timescale back further, the gains are even more apparent, as you can see for childhood cancer here, from where I took this Figure:

UK survival stats for childhood cancer

Five year survival statistics for children diagnosed with the indicated cancers in the years 1962   to 1996.

So contrast:

Alzheimer’s – no improvement in treatment.

Cancer – year on year improvements. Slow but steady.

But Jenkins likes the first, where he thinks he sees recognisable benefits of research, and not the second.

Now, one can make a more complex argument about “value for the amount of money spent”, of course, and there is certainly a lot more money devoted to cancer research than to dementia research. But still, Jenkins’ comments seem completely… well… uninformed.

[Update: 12th July - Cancer Research UK have just released new figures showing that long term survival after a number of hitherto very deadly cancers has doubled since the 70s. Of course there are still some cancers where survival has not improved, like pancreatic cancer. But I doubt anyone would believe that less research is going to make that better. The figures are here.]

So  – what would you conclude from Jenkins’ use of these examples?

Well, I am left concluding that what he thinks matters is whether scientists talk in terms that “speak”, personally, to Simon Jenkins. Or, one could say, terms which speak to his prejudices.

And I am also left concluding that he pretty much makes this stuff up as he goes along.

(Not his basic boilerplate article railing against science, of course – he seems to recycle that one with gusto. Indeed, if I were really going to spoof him with conviction I guess I should reprint my piece from last week every six weeks or so, with only minor cosmetic alterations).

Be afraid – be very afraid…

Now this “making it up as you go along” is, of course, a long-standing tradition in Britain, both in certain social circles and in comment journalism. So perhaps we should expect nothing else.

The nagging worry is that there might be some people out there who take Jenkins’ views on science, and scientists, seriously. Just last week I heard one worried senior scientist refer not just to Jenkins’ article, but to Jenkins “influential readership”.

The obvious implication was that politicians, top mandarins, the media and other members of the Great and the Good, are where one finds Jenkins’ readers.

And in an era when the Tories have just put an Evangelical Christian with a tendency to invent her own statistics and facts, and a man who believes astrology can help surgeons get better operating results, onto the House of Commons Health Select Committee… …that thought really does worry me.

It worries me quite a bit.

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30 Responses to “More Jenkins Junk”

  1. Tweets that mention More Jenkins Junk « Dr Aust’s Spleen -- Topsy.com Says:

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Alan Henness. Alan Henness said: RT @Dr_Aust_PhD: More Jenkins Junk: http://wp.me/p7r3S-iO [...]

  2. Cybertugger Says:

    Tweet, tweet, tweet … just trying to increase your commentary count, Herr Draust. Nobody’s drifted in to see Draust for a couple of days. Aah! Only Frau Draust loves you … or does she? And what about the little drausts? I see you’ve been wibbling about Jenkins again – not that I could be bothered to read your junk science about Jenkins. Tweet, tweet, tweet, twit …

  3. draust Says:

    If you couldn’t be bothered to read it, why are you here, Shabby? Did you get bored with wagging your weenie at DeeTee over at the Guardian autism “Threadzilla”?

  4. Cybertiger Says:

    The “Threadzilla” has now been closed. And I was just getting going. The ‘weenie wagging’ was obviously getting a bit hot for Dr Peter ‘Deetee’ Flegg, infectious disease expert in the parish of Blackpool. Tweet, tweet, twat!

  5. Cybertiger Says:

    Sadly the Guardian ‘threadzilla has closed. I feel sure Herr Draust will be happy to host a threadzilla continuation on the genetics of autism and possible genetic vulnerability to environmental – including vaccinatory -onslaught.

    What about it, Herr Drippy?

    I was intending to question the blatant sophistry of Dr. Mike, the arch-sophist, who said,

    “Now there has been a hugely disproportionately large research focus on a link to vaccination, with essentially nothing in the way of anything positive to show for it.”

    “Hugely disproportionately large research focus”? “Nothing in the way of anything positive to show for it.” These statements are odd.

    The head honcho at the Department of Health has been operating an “if we don’t look, we won’t see” policy on vaccine safety for many, many years. Despite incontrovertible ‘scientific’ evidence to the contrary, Professor David Salisbury, has persistently maintained that the MMR vaccine has an “exemplary safety record”.

    The head honcho at the vaccinating unit of the Department of Health has also ensured that ANY research focus, let alone a “hugely disproportionately large” one, that could possibly link vaccination with autism is completely annihilated. What do you think the atrocity (sponsored by the medical profession) committed against Dr Andrew Wakefield and Professor John Walker-Smith was all about?

    Bring it on, Dr. Mike. Bring on the sophistry, Herr Droopy.

  6. draust Says:

    I will not be opening a thread on the genetics of autism – the Guardian “Threadzilla” shows yet again just what an utter waste of time it is “debating” with your anti-vaccine pals. I notice all the other scientists that commented there – except for Mike Stephens and DeeTee – gave up after a while when they were variously shouted over, insulted, hectored, or called shills for Pharma / the Medical Establishment / the Scientific Establishment.

    I thought Mike Stephens’ comment that you quoted from summarised the actual scientific state of play on autism causation pretty well. I invite readers to go and judge for themselves.

    (If the link doesn’t work the comment is towards the end of the thread, timed at 6.19 pm yesterday, the 9th of July).

    And as for “sophistry”, it was your friends “CliffStone” who were the ones providing that, IMHO.

    PS And a couple of the Bad Science types explain why they gave up.

  7. Cybertiger Says:

    Herr Draust shares ‘the faith’ with bad science types …

    http://www.badscience.net/forum/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=16796&start=550#p391704

    … who apparently under use the ‘c’ word.

    May I humbly suggest that hanging around with such creatures cannot do your pro-vaccine credibility much good? May I also suggest that such ‘foul-mouthed scientists’ as Becky ‘kind regards’ Wisseaux are likely to send a pro-safety vaccineer, such as myself, into the anti-vaccine camp of your endless fantasy. I think you will find that JDS &CGM are as up to date with their vaccinations as I am. How can any of us be credibly tarred with the anti-vaccine brush? You become ever more absurd as time goes on, Herr Droopy.

  8. draust Says:

    People’s language is their own choice, Shabby. Like all the commenters at Age of Autism who call Professor Paul Offit a baby killer.

    If JDS and CGM are not “anti-vaccine” by any and all normal definitions, then I am the King of Denmark.

  9. Cybertiger Says:

    The King is dead: Long live the King. Twit!

  10. Cybertiger Says:

    Of course, Herr Draust is the true King of Denmark and there is something rotten about the state he’s in. Twat!

  11. draust Says:

    I am often left wondering whether your computer has Tourette’s Syndrome, Shabby.

  12. Michael Kingsford Gray Says:

    I could not bear to listen to that podcast in its entirety.
    I had to ‘fast forward’ past the increasingly nauseating Jenkins-jerk and his startlingly ignorant contrarian bilge, lest I become physically ill.
    As a palliative, at least I remember him dissing obscene opera subsidies as well, something which which I had been led to believe he had supported.

    A severe case of a confluence of factors, I expect, such as:
    * Profound ‘science envy’
    * Exhausted intellectual laziness
    * Perceived Tenure
    * Studied Ignorance
    * You know the others…

  13. davidp Says:

    “It hardly seems desperately controversial (not to me, anyway) to say that having some of your brightest people work at being “professional discoverers” is a good way to do it. What hard evidence there is available seems to bear this out.”

    This is a good point, and our system makes bright young people at their most innovative able to research, rather than struggle to feed themselves. Previous centuries restricted this to a) children of the rich and b) people old enough to have made plenty of money. Innovation was much slower.

  14. Dr. Michael Says:

    Nice summary and repost, DrAust. I don’t have to bother listening now and can focus on rhyming couplets instead.

    I suspect it was a different Dr. Mike that the Cybertoddler takes offence with – although my brain almost melted when reading the utter pish that passed for debate from Stone & Smithy at the Grauniad, so it could have been me.

    Perhaps I’ll use my Sunday name here to avoid confusion: Dr. Michael it is.

  15. Dr. Michael Says:

    That should of course say Stone & Miller. Direct, recorded evidence of brain melt.

  16. draust Says:

    Thanks all for the comments.

    Of course, apart from the cultural benefits from the increases in knowledge, and the health benefits in medicine, there are the economic benefits from science. It is perfectly possible to argue that funding scientific discovery via funding basic science research, and scientific “literacy” via University science teaching, constitutes just about the most productive of all bits of Government spending.

    Jenkins’ grouchings sometimes remind me of the late 19th century opposition in Oxford to having a Professor of Physiology. Though the reaction then was ostensibly anti-vivisection driven, underlying it was a fairly evident strand of distrust of science for being perceived as materialistic / naturalistic / “ungodly”, and also people simply fearing and mistrusting what they didn’t understand.

    davidp is correct that the profession of being a scientist is a pretty recent one, at least for those other than amateur gentlemen of wealth and breeding. It only became something the educated middle class could aspire to in the last couple of decades of the 19th century.

    Dr Michael – you are right, I think about it being a different Dr Mike that Shabby was griping about – I’m sure it was Mike Stephens on the Guardian mega-thread he was insulting.

    Careful with that mis-naming of Clifford G Miller, by the way – it’s just the sort of nit-picking thing he likes to hold up to disparage his targets with. Any inaccuracy, however trivial, in his opponents’ posts is routinely offered as evidence of their incompetence, duplicity or corruption – all while his own mind-bogglingly vast untruths and evasions carry on spewing out like an uncapped undersea oil well.

  17. eveningperson Says:

    My brother and sister died of cystic fibrosis. What was different between them and earlier generations of sufferers is that they survived into adulthood (24 and 31).

    There is as yet no ‘cure’ (which I guess is what Jenkins would expect) but understanding of the genetic and molecular basis of the condition, improved and earlier diagnosis and better treatment and management are all enormous improvements.

    I’ve used this example in other contexts because it is such a clear demonstration of the resutls of scientific understanding.

  18. Cybertiger Says:

    Cybertiger said,

    “Herr Draust shares ‘the faith’ with bad science types … who apparently under use the ‘c’ word. May I humbly suggest that hanging around with such creatures [as Becky 'foul mouth' Fisseaux] cannot do your pro-vaccine credibility much good?”

    To which Herr draust wimpishly wittered,

    “People’s language is their own choice, Shabby.”

    If you must lie down with flea-bitten dogs, you’ll end up with crab lice. Stop scratching your weenie, draust!

  19. draust Says:

    Shabby, for you to be striking attitudes about other peoples’ use of expletives really is the proverbial pot calling the kettle black – as a perusal of your “contributions” to this and other blogs will easily show.

  20. Cybertiger Says:

    Would you have tolerated my “contributions” if they had been liberally sprinkled with the ‘f’ word, let alone the ‘c’ word that Becky ‘the dog’ Fisseaux is so liberal with? And no weasel words in your answer, please, Herr Draust.

  21. draust Says:

    Yawn. I don’t really see your point, Tiddles. Is you own preferred “t” word (used twice back up the comments thread) notably less offensive?

    I suspect that I might edit out repeated use of any f/c word here, regardless of who it came from, mainly because I find the over-use of such language rather dull. As I once explained before, it is my carpet here (figuratively) so I reserve the right not to let people piss on it. Especially if they have nothing to say beyond the four-letter words.

    However, what language people use on their own blogs, and on other forums, is, I repeat, their business.

  22. Dr. Michael Says:

    As well as suffering from tourette’s, Cybertwiddler apparently also suffers from another of the internet cranks’ common maladies: the belief that all others should do as I say, not as I do.

    But there is a cure! Simply unplug your internet connection, Cybertiresome, thus saving yourself much consternation and RSI, and saving others the associated chronic fatigue from reading your tedious pish.

    Most intelligent people can see past coarse language if there is a relevant point behind it. In your case, there is nothing but the childish language.

  23. Cybertiger Says:

    @Dr. Michael

    Tosser!

  24. draust Says:

    Hmmm. Quod erat demonstrandum, I think.

  25. Cybertiger Says:

    Ummm, draust. More tossing sophistry, I see. Tweet. Twit. Twat.

  26. Becky Says:

    How’s the appeal going, Mark? By the tone of the newspaper article, you’re more thoroughly fucked than a tuppenny-ha’penny whore on a busy Saturday night when the navy’s in town.

    Kind regards,

    Becky

  27. Cybertiger Says:

    “a tuppenny-ha’penny whore”

    Hello Becky

  28. Julie Says:

    Funding for cancer; £289 per head per sufferer; Alzheimers, the p** poor £11 per head per sufferer. That says it all.

  29. Dr Aust Says:

    Interesting numbers (and certainly depressing ones for Alzheimer’s sufferers), Julie. Where did they come from, can I ask? Are you talking research funding, or “what the NHS spends?” I would guess the latter.

    Research spending on diseases is always very unequal, and subject to all kinds of things. On a global scale, developing world diseases like malaria are grossly “under-researched”, though the Gates Foundation is trying to do something about that. And diseases of the white wealthy are “over-researched” relative to the number of sufferers worldwide. Cystic fibrosis, which Eveningperson mentioned up above, often gets quoted as an example of this. The US CF Foundation is undoubtedly a very rich charity and so there is a lot of CF research, especially in the States.

    I guess one characteristic of things that get a lot of research funding (a lot of which actually will be charity-, rather than tax-, derived) is that they are perceived as major causes of premature death. Cancer and cardiovascular/heart disease come into this group. Genetic things that afflict significant numbers of children, like CF, or Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy , also tend to attract a lot of charitable donations. Of course Alzheimer’s Disease (AD for short) does not strike the very young – though equally it isn’t confined to the very old, as some people seem to think. My grandmother got AD in her late 60s, and some people get it far younger, especially in the rarer familial variants of the disease.

    Getting back to figures, I would be curious to know what the breakdown of cancer and Alzheimer’s research spend was between “tax funded” (NHS and Research Councils) and “charity-funded”. Incidentally the Wellcome Trust, who are the biggest of the UK research charities, have a specific bar on funding cancer research.

    Historically all the diseases of the elderly, and especially those that get badged or mis-badged as “natural consequences of aging and wear and tear”, are neglected from a research funding point of view. It is hard to tell whether AD has suffered from sometimes being seen as merely a fast version of the “typical” neurodegenerative process.

    The impression in the trade has been that the PharmaCos have been putting a lot of money into AD (and more general neurodegeneratiion) research over the last decade and a half. money which may not have shown up in the “public” record of research spending. They were keen because with the ageing population it is an growing and untapped market. But the gossip was that they were all rather disappointed by their inability to get anything to market, and that with the recession they were cutting these programmes hard. On the bright side for AD research, “ageing” is clearly identified as a “Strategic Priority Area” by the UK Research Councils. So there may be more targeting of funding into things like AD in the next 5-10 yrs. Though of course obesity is a competing priority.

  30. Julie Says:

    I’m getting old, Dr A; I wrote on this two years ago and didn’t realise it was so long, so the figures are for 2008. I’ll have a wee look and see if they’ve improved at all. It was the figure for government spending ie the NHS. Here’s an article on it;

    http://www.express.co.uk/posts/view/31708/Arthritis-drug-may-help-with-Alzheimers

    The trouble with dementia is that there’s so many different forms of it and so many different causes. It’s as complicated as cancer and to tackle it is going to need similar funding. Those getting dementia are getting younger as well; here in Glasgow they have already set up a nursing home for younger sufferers. They really need to start getting serious about it. The Scottish Government did recently announce the start of a dementia strategy, but it needs resources.

    http://health.caledonianmercury.com/2010/06/01/scotlands-first-dementia-strategy-unveiled-amid-concerns-over-resources/00704

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