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"Using marijuana a few times a week is enough to physically alter critical brain structures," wrote Karen Weintraub wrote on April 15 in USA TODAY.

That might be...

"Using marijuana a few times a week is enough to physically alter critical brain structures," wrote Karen Weintraub wrote on April 15 in USA TODAY.

That might be true. Then again, maybe not. The problem is that Weintraub doesn't know whether it's true, and neither do the authors of the study on which her story was based.

Sadly, the lead author of the study, which appeared in the Journal of Neuroscience, thinks he knows. Hans Breiter of Northwestern University told Weintraub that "just casual use appears to create changes in the brain in areas you don't want to change."

In a blog post at MedPage Today, John Gever had little...

[Editor's note: The following is republished with permission from the Covering Health blog of the Association of Health Care Journalists. This post was written by Brenda Goodman, AHCJ's topic leader on medical studies, who writes blog posts and edits tip...

[Editor's note: The following is republished with permission from the Covering Health blog of the Association of Health Care Journalists. This post was written by Brenda Goodman, AHCJ's topic leader on medical studies, who writes blog posts and edits tip sheets and articles intended to help AHCJ members cover medical research. It appeared on April 22.]

Recently, an editor sent me a study to cover on concussions in teenagers.  At least, that’s what we thought the research was about, based on the title of its press release: “Teenagers who have had a concussion also have higher rates of suicide attempts.”

And I was excited to cover the study. Like gut bacteria and anything to do with chocolate or coffee or stem cells, concussion is a hot topic right now. That’s partly because...

We've all been treated to countless stories about how much Americans do not know about science, so the Associated Press decided not to trample over that ground yet again. Instead, it conducted a poll in which it asked respondents how confident they were about the science that they do ...

We've all been treated to countless stories about how much Americans do not know about science, so the Associated Press decided not to trample over that ground yet again. Instead, it conducted a poll in which it asked respondents how confident they were about the science that they do know.

The results are interesting--and confusing.

"Few Americans question that smoking causes cancer. But they express bigger doubts as concepts that scientists consider to be truths get further from our own experiences and the present time," is how the AP story--by science writer Seth Borenstein and pollster Jennifer Agiesta--began. 

As they dug into the results in the next graf, we saw a glass half empty. "Americans have more skepticism than confidence in global warming, the...

Cómo escribir sobre el alma y los transgénicos en una revista de ciencia
Pere Estupinya
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(English intro to Spanish lang post) Today we comment on a terrific piece about GM corn in Mexico. With 7 print pages and nearly 10 different sources from industry, research centers, NGO’s and sociologists, it’s one of the most documented and balanced stories about GMO we’ve read in...

(English intro to Spanish lang post) Today we comment on a terrific piece about GM corn in Mexico. With 7 print pages and nearly 10 different sources from industry, research centers, NGO’s and sociologists, it’s one of the most documented and balanced stories about GMO we’ve read in the country. The aim of the story is not to give a clear conclusion, but to analyze the reasons for the controversy. It doesn’t even mention unfounded claims about health risks or severe problems for the ecosystems. But it explains that Mexico has hundreds of native varieties of corn varieties, which are part of the culture and identity of the country. Some are afraid that agricultural industrialization might affect this biodiversity, others point out that Mexico needs to import corn from the USA, others explain that GM varieties don’t improve significantly the yields of conventional ones, and local researchers complaint that the controversy is causing funding...

This insect's sex organ sparked a science writing dispute
Faye Flam
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Not long ago I’d get hate mail for merely mentioning the word penis in print. Readers regarded the publication I wrote for as a “family” newspaper, and they seemed to feel that even a biology-based discussion of genitalia would be disruptive to families.

But now, thankfully, this...

Not long ago I’d get hate mail for merely mentioning the word penis in print. Readers regarded the publication I wrote for as a “family” newspaper, and they seemed to feel that even a biology-based discussion of genitalia would be disruptive to families.

But now, thankfully, this week’s genitally-oriented controversy surrounds the best use of language to clearly and accurately communicate science.

The story in question comes from a paper in Current Biology, in which researchers claim that in a cave-dwelling insect called neotrogla, the females have “penises” which they use to penetrate male “vaginas”. The researchers use those terms, though they clarify that the female penis–like thing is really a gynosome.

The news led to a number of headlines such as this one in the UK’s Mirror:

...

  A long trapping expedition through our galactic neighborhood just snared one of its prime quarry: a planet about the size of the Earth in a stable and regular orbit at a distance from its star that makes liquid water plausible on its surface. That means just right, and thus smack in the Goldilocks zone....

  A long trapping expedition through our galactic neighborhood just snared one of its prime quarry: a planet about the size of the Earth in a stable and regular orbit at a distance from its star that makes liquid water plausible on its surface. That means just right, and thus smack in the Goldilocks zone. World press is perking up at the news from NASA and its scientific cadre, published in Science magazine.  Thus we meet Kepler-186f. That f means fantastic and more exactly that it is the fifth planet out from a star named Kepler-186. Star names gain a b to designate their first known planets, c for a second, and so on. At least half a dozen press releases and a streamed press teleconference helped spur reporters along (see Grist below).

   It is notable that Science, a journal usually faithful to reporting data and compelling conclusions, chose as cover art a made-up artist's impression of imaginary surface detail.  Highlands incised with...

Faye Flam
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Former BBC science editor Susan Watts made some thought-provoking points a Nature piece headlined, Society Needs More than Wonder to Respect Science.

The piece starts with an...

Former BBC science editor Susan Watts made some thought-provoking points a Nature piece headlined, Society Needs More than Wonder to Respect Science.

The piece starts with an observation that television stations, at least in Britain, are using scientists for “expert” commentary on science stories, whether or not the news in question has anything to do with these scientists’ fields. Such science communicators are great for generating excitement and wonder, she argues, but they aren’t journalists, and therefore don’t do much to expose what she calls “the murky underbelly of science.”

There is a fundamental difference between science communication and science journalism. At the science communication end of the spectrum sit the stories that show people how exciting science can be, the discovery...

    We're on our way to a greener Earth, day by day and year by year, oh boy. At least, that is how I read this post's prime selection.  Many of those who are paying close to attention to climate change these days are getting more and more worried. For those nearing despair, along comes...

    We're on our way to a greener Earth, day by day and year by year, oh boy. At least, that is how I read this post's prime selection.  Many of those who are paying close to attention to climate change these days are getting more and more worried. For those nearing despair, along comes a new offering from a somewhat contrary Brit science + enviro journalist and essayist.  I do not recall meeting the man, but he is easily envisioned as a little bit cranky and possessed of quick wit. That is, a pretty good companion over a drink or two.

   The hopeful analysis:

Science books by scientists often win the Pulitzer for non-fiction, but this year’s winner, Tom’s River, is a work of science journalism, and showcases just how much a great journalist can accomplish. The book details a long, complicated investigation into what appeared to be an unusual “...

Science books by scientists often win the Pulitzer for non-fiction, but this year’s winner, Tom’s River, is a work of science journalism, and showcases just how much a great journalist can accomplish. The book details a long, complicated investigation into what appeared to be an unusual “cluster” of childhood cancer in a New Jersey shore town with a history of chemical pollution.

There’s a nice excerpt here in Salon, which gives a sense of how unwieldy the subject was and the impossibility of a neat, clear-cut conclusion. The author, Dan Fagin, confronts the complexity of the situation, making it comprehensible by digging deep into the history of the region as well as the history of epidemiology and statistics.

According to his bio, Dan Fagin spent 14 years as an environment reporter for Newsday. He is now the director of...

   And the (climate) beat goes on. And on. And on. 

   After seven years of preparation the latest assessment team from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is now done with the heavy lifting. It released over the weekend the third and last major section of this assessment...

   And the (climate) beat goes on. And on. And on. 

   After seven years of preparation the latest assessment team from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is now done with the heavy lifting. It released over the weekend the third and last major section of this assessment - the fifth since 1990. Earlier this year it said that global warming is still a clear, serious, and worsening peril we have brought upon ourselves; just last month its second part said that climate change impacts on humanity are already measurable and that far more misery is on the way. The topic for IPCC Working Group III. which just met in Berlin, concerns mitigation, what it will take to slow and eventually stop humanity's persistent nudges upward on the planet's thermostat. The hope is to start reducing CO2 levels in the air before global calamity strikes. Nuclear power and geoengineering that please some conservative industrial sectors, on top of renewables...

NASA Graphic Explains Lunar Eclipse
Faye Flam
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Naked eye astronomical phenomena often make for great opportunities to write about science, and while lunar eclipses are rather common, the one coming tonight/early tomorrow morning is interesting because it’s the first of a “tetrad” of four total eclipses spaced six months apart.

Most news...

Naked eye astronomical phenomena often make for great opportunities to write about science, and while lunar eclipses are rather common, the one coming tonight/early tomorrow morning is interesting because it’s the first of a “tetrad” of four total eclipses spaced six months apart.

Most news stories noted that the moon will turn the color of blood, or sunsets, but some of us who have watched lunar eclipses have occasionally been disappointed that even total ones can look grey. Sky and Telescope can be counted on to explain this color variability. Here’s Alan McRobert:

Two factors affect an eclipse's color and brightness. The first is simply how deeply the Moon goes into the umbra — because the umbra's center is much darker than its outer edge. The second is the state of Earth's atmosphere all...

Doctors and medical groups who say the public can't understand the newly released Medicare data because it's "out of context" should look at the latest edition of On Science...

Doctors and medical groups who say the public can't understand the newly released Medicare data because it's "out of context" should look at the latest edition of On Science Blogs by Tabitha M. Powledge.

There they will find the context. Plenty of reporters and news organizations are doing a good job of providing the context that Americans need to understand the data.

Here's a case in point, recounted by Powledge:

A Business Day post by Denise Grady and Sheri Fink shows how the data can mislead. One example: a family medicine physician at the University of Michigan Health Services got $7.58 million in 2012 for more than 207,000 patients. Unbelievable, right?

Except, as it turns out, the doc directs a Medicare project...

El Niño is a universal solvent in popular discussion of weather. Before global warming came along, and if an El Niño was on the prowl, the latter was always blamed by weathercasters and the great unwashed (eg reporters) for almost any meteorological oddity that came along. In 1997 I wrote a half-...

El Niño is a universal solvent in popular discussion of weather. Before global warming came along, and if an El Niño was on the prowl, the latter was always blamed by weathercasters and the great unwashed (eg reporters) for almost any meteorological oddity that came along. In 1997 I wrote a half-satirical newspaper story on this telling readers "Shanked a golf shot? Blame El Niño." This year for awhile, looks like, we'll have two fall-guys to choose between and blame for all heat waves, floods, droughts, fish die-offs, strange marine animals in unexpected places, monsoons, atmospheric rivers, and cyclones across most of the world.

  This week at its official site the Nat'l Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Nat'l Weather Service and its Climate Prediction Center posted its latest diagnostic discussion on ENSO (El Niño-Southern Oscillation, a reference to the whole cycle). It says, some 17 years after the last...

Governments around the world have spent $9 billion stockpiling a flu drug that's probably no better than aspirin and possibly harmful.

So writes Julia Belluz at Maclean's magazine...

Governments around the world have spent $9 billion stockpiling a flu drug that's probably no better than aspirin and possibly harmful.

So writes Julia Belluz at Maclean's magazine in Canada. The story was prompted by a study and a new release from the Cochrane Collaboration, a non-profit research group that produces broad reviews of the evidence for and against such things as drugs, medical procedures, and healthcare policies.

In a new review, Cochrane reports that "Tamiflu (the antiviral drug oseltamivir) shortens symptoms of influenza by half a day, but there is no good evidence to support claims that it reduces admissions to hospital or complications of influenza." It reports that the...

The news website of MIT's School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences--known around the campus as SHASS--asked me to say something briefly about the Tracker and its mission. Here is how I answered SHASS's...

The news website of MIT's School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences--known around the campus as SHASS--asked me to say something briefly about the Tracker and its mission. Here is how I answered SHASS's "3 Questions" for the Tracker.

This also gave me an occasion to bring up--yet again!--the story of the "immortal" jellyfish.

Enjoy.

-Paul Raeburn

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