Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Autism Study Speaks: The findings aren't even the most curious part

Siblings with autism don't share the same genetic variations according to a new study in Nature Medicine. When researchers looked at about 100 genetic mutations associated with autism, they found that only 30% of the 85 sibling pairs shared the same mutation. Those with the same mutation also shared similar behaviors.

Yes, this research signifies the complexity underlying autism. Yes it shows genetic mapping hasn't turned out any quick answers or cures. Don't forget, those 100 genetic mutations have only been found in a small percentage of autistic children and thus account for only a sliver of cases. Yes, the study shows that sometimes research results are somewhat surprising (contrary to the researcher tendency to call even mundane results surprising).

This research is notable for several others reasons. Like it's benefactors, the money behind the data:

The report is the first major finding from a large-scale collaboration financed by Autism Speaks, an advocacy group, and based at the University of Toronto and the Hospital for Sick Children. The researchers are analyzing genetic material from a registry of more than 2,800 families who have at least one child with a diagnosis. The registry, funded by both the National Institutes of Health and Autism Speaks and managed by Autism Speaks, includes comprehensive medical and behavioral histories and is the largest of its kind. New York Times
Autism Speaks, the org that long championed the link between autism and vaccines, namely the MMR.

It was just in 2009 that Autism Speaks senior executive and board member Alison Singer resigned over the organization's belief that vaccines caused autism and their continued funding of vaccine safety research. And no, the mainstream media didn't mention any of that in reporting the latest study or the fact that by 2010, Autism Speaks spent $18 million on studies (reported in The Daily Beast.) By 2013, an announcement on the AS website reports spending a whole lot more on research:
To date, Autism Speaks has committed more than $195 million for research projects that advance understanding of the causes, prevention and treatment of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The latest round of grants, chosen from 136 proposals, includes the following....(peruse at your own leisure). Autism Speaks
After I performed a simple search on the directory of research grants using the term "vaccines" two researchers popped up. True, the grants totaling $1 million originated in 2008 and 2009 but are they still funded? Given Singer's departure over the continued funding, there must be more money going in that direction. I spent just a few minutes on their website.

Several question arise. 

How much moola goes to further investigating vaccines? Better yet, how do the goals and beliefs of Autism Speaks (i.e. exposing a link between autism and vaccines) influence the direction of research? Do they influence their management of the registry of families with autistic children? Should they be in charge of this large store of knowledge? 

Here's another remarkable part of the study: 

In a first, the study coordinators, working with Google, published the data and analysis tools online, in a cloud-based format available to any user. In previous genetic studies, it has typically taken researchers months or years to make their data available, if they do so at all, Dr. Scherer said. Autism specialists said that the study findings were a welcome confirmation of a common observation. “After you get over the surprise and think about it, we all know that the kids are different in these families,” Dr. Tager-Flusberg said. New York Times
This is good news. Transparency is a welcome development indeed if not as momentous an event as lead researcher portends:
"This is a historic day," says study leader Stephen Scherer, "as it marks the first time whole genome sequences for autism will be available for research on the MSSNG open-science database. This is an exemplar for a future when open-access genomics will lead to personalized treatments for many developmental and medical disorders." In addition to leading Autism Speaks' MSSNG program, Dr. Scherer directs the Centre for Applied Genomics at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children and the McLaughlin Centre at the University of Toronto. Science Daily
Exemplar. Open-acess genomics. Personalized treatments for many developmental and medical disorders. 

Okay, sure, we get it, you're excited (if not still a bit surprised that the results did not pan out as hypothesized). Ignore for the moment that the actual results suggest treatment based on genetic risks appear a long way off. Focus instead on the fact this is the largest-ever autism gene study according to Science Daily and of course Autism Speaks. Largest ever.

Changing the future of autism with open science. 

I wonder if all the Autism Speaks data will be open to the public in the future? Available to any user. Note: "researchers" must request access here. Have at it all you data geeks.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Measles at The Magic Kingdom: Not Magic At All

Measles at Disneyland?

How did this happen? Shocked. In California?

It's not exactly magical how measles ended up at The Magic Kingdom. It's not magic at all but a numbers game.

A new study by health care provider Kaiser Permanente identifies clusters of "underimmunization" in Northern California, areas in which a significant percentage of children haven't received all the recommended vaccines. Prior research suggests up to 10% of vaccinated individuals might not have full immunity, meaning even some who got the MMR will get measles.

So it's not so surprising to hear NBC News reports 52 confirmed measles cases have been linked to the California-based theme park. Commentators have noted that a place like Disneyland, where people travel from far-reaching destinations, could result in a perfect storm of measle outbreaks across the country if not internationally.

Cue Orange County vaccine-hesitant and best-selling celebrity pediatrician, Dr. Bob "Measles? So What? It's Like Chicken Pox" Sears who took to Facebook to reassure parents the disease wasn't so awful and will only kill a few kids or as he put it "the risk of fatality here isn’t zero, but it’s as close to zero as you can get without actually being zero. It’s 1 in many thousands."  How technical. Precise. Would impress a statistician for sure. I might even borrow that for future purposes, maybe to put parents at ease about the relatively small risks of vaccination (hey, they're as close to zero as you can get...). Mind you, Dr. Sears could do the same thing but does not.

Thankfully science blogger Orac focused in on the problem with Dr. Sear's poor communications over at Respectful Insolence:
Overall, the message wasn’t so much that children shouldn’t get the vaccine. Rather, the message was that the vaccine doesn’t matter because measles isn’t so bad. This was an incredibly irresponsible message in the middle of an outbreak, and any pediatrician who makes such an argument is a crappy pediatrician. It’s tempting to throw it back at him and conclude that Dr. Bob is stupid, but I know that he’s not. He’s made his bed, and now he has to lie in it. The reason skeptics and practitioners of science-based medicine view him as antivaccine is because his every public utterance tell us that he is.
Speaking of vaccine messages...

By now the media, parents and mommy bloggers have gotten the news that vaccines (the MMR, the one that prevents measles) do not cause autism. The message has been loud and clear at least for the past few years. Still, doubts and worries plague parents even though vaccination rates hover around 92% in the US. A small percentage of parents delay or forgo their children's immunizations, a cause for concern because if those vaccination numbers dip further then "herd immunity" drops and disease can spread more rapidly. Then a trip to The Magic Kingdom turns out to be not so magic.

How to get parents to follow vaccination recommendations is not easy feat. Public health officials are worried. School officials are worried. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences is worried:
Over the past two decades, a combination of fraudulent scientific studies, irresponsible reporting, and well-meaning but misinformed citizen activists has led to a steady increase in the proportion of parents who have concerns about the recommended childhood vaccine schedule. While overall vaccine uptake rates in the United States remain high, these concerns have resulted in a significant expansion in the number of parents who are delaying, and in extreme cases even refusing, vaccines for their children. 
Harvard's Shorenstein Center
Public health-minded folks must worry about how to persuade parents to vaccinate. There's a real need to understand how parents react and respond to health communications. Obviously just getting the word out does not cut it. Debunking, sadly it is not enough. The word from communications and psychological research does not inspire much confidence in the current health communications or the state of health communications research on the matter.

Consider the 2014 study published in Pediatrics on the effectiveness of vaccine information I wrote about in May. None of the health messages increased parents' expressed intent to vaccinate in the future. Not the factual disease information. Not correct false information. Not the photos or stories of sick kids.

But what about an outbreak at Disneyland?

Could it persuade parents to rush out for an MMR?

Probably not Dr. Sear's crowd. He told them it didn't matter, they didn't need to worry about the measles. The Magic Kingdom outbreak probably won't persuade parents already quite worried about vaccines but it could influence some parents who are on the line. It would be interesting to see if a heavily-covered outbreak in the media, say at Disneyland, could persuade anyone to vaccinate. That would be a cool study.

What if you were hesitant about vaccines and you lived near an outbreak, say one in your school district, would you vaccinate? If you trust Dr. Sears and don't dread measles, then all the more interesting. Expose your child to measles (with a zero or close to zero risk of death according to the doctor) or to the vaccine (even smaller risk of death in reality)? Not ethical but would make a fascinating study.

Check out Tara Haelle's Five Things To Know About the Disneyland Measles Outbreak at Forbes.

BRAINSTORM/CRAMP: How about Disney includes an MMR in the price of admission to the Magic Kingdom? Right next to the swirling tea cups or inside Cinderella's castle?

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Teen Tanning: Do Only Pretty Girls Get Skin Cancer?

Children's health and well-being made it to the front page of The New York Times! Parents rejoice! Warning: That Tan Could Be Dangerous. Above the fold, front and center in Sunday's paper. Okay, so it involves teen and young adult health, but still, I'll take it. Time to celebrate. Break out the locally-sourced organic apple cider! Such an auspicious occasion I won't linger on the brain dead headline - gee, who knew tanning could be dangerous? In fact it's been so long since parents got this kind of break I can't remember the last time. We can thank this brush with serious attention to the indoor tanning industry and concerned public health authorities. The latter want you to know tanning beds aren't all fun and frying:
For decades, researchers saw indoor tanning as little more than a curiosity. But a review of the scientific evidence published last year estimated that tanning beds account for as many as 400,000 cases of skin cancer in the United States each year, including 6,000 cases of melanoma, the deadliest form. And clinicians are concerned about the incidence rate of melanoma in women under 40, which has risen by a third since the early 1990s, according to data from the National Cancer Institute. (Death rates have not gone up, however, a testament to earlier detection and better treatment.)

Good to know. Tanning beds are linked to skin cancer, lots of skin cancer. Do tanning beds account for a large number of new cases? How many new cases of skin cancer are there each year? How many new cases of melanoma?

The article didn't put these alarming statistics into perspective so I did a quick search. The National Cancer Institutes reports about 68,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with melanoma each year and another 48,000 with an early form of the disease. Around 2 million people are treated for other skin cancers each year (note that includes previously diagnosed patients too). I assume the stats in the article reflect newly diagnosed cases thus it appears tanning beds are linked to less than 10% of new melanoma cases.

How many teens are diagnosed with melanoma each year? How many of those 6,000 new melanoma cases are in teenagers? I don't know.

The good news. There are many other stats and studies cited in the article. We learn melanoma is on the rise in women under 40. While indoor tanning use is declining, a third of white female teens report they have at some point slinked into a tanning bed. About half of elite colleges and universities have tanning beds on campus or campus housing. Absurd.

The most worrisome news in the whole piece? Even a few tanning sessions in youth and young adulthood might cause skin cancer:
Many factors, including genetics, are at play with skin cancer. But exposure to ultraviolet light causes a majority of cases, and scientists have been trying to gauge how big a role indoor tanning plays. A panel of experts convened by the World Health Organization found in 2009 that the use of sun beds before age 30 was associated with a 75 percent increase in the risk of melanoma. A 2012 study found a 15 percent increase in the risk of certain skin cancers with every four sessions in a tanning bed before age 35.
Not good news. Not at all. It would have been better, again, to have these risks put into the context. I'd like to know the overall cancer rates (or incidence) for these age groups. Also, the links between skin cancer at these ages and UV exposure (the old fashioned way, the sun!) plus sunburns.

It's a start.

Next time maybe the vaunted news organization will feature photos that don't involve attractive young women and a lot of skin. Yes, I realize it is a skin cancer piece but still. The first large photo shows a skin cancer survivor who could be a model, good hair and make-up. In two smaller shots we see her sunbathing in a bikini in her youth in the first and the second, pulling up her shorts or bathing suit to reveal a nasty scar on the top of her thigh. Now I can't stop wondering how that photo shoot went down. Do you mind slipping into something you can pull up above your thigh and we can splash across the New York Times? If you're comfortable, no pressure. All for public health awareness. Getting the word out. Preventing cancer. Hey, do you have old bikini shots? Spring break photos? 

The other large photo, if I may belabor the point here, shows a mother holding up a poster or large photo of the daughter she lost to skin cancer, both attractive women.

Skin cancer doesn't happen only in good-looking women but you wouldn't know it from this story. The editors could have replaced the photogenic females with graphs, pie charts or other relevant information that would have put the above statistics into more perspective. Gosh, I wonder why they didn't? What if the story had featured testicular cancer? Just curious, I wonder what Margaret Sullivan, the paper's Public Editor thinks. Wait, tomorrow the paper will do an investigation into the objectification of women. How does it happen? Why do girls still wanna be pretty? The insidious, pervasive nature of gender discrimination.

Next time, dear New York Times, bump the bikini and the babes with some more data please!

If anyone else is slightly bothered by the selected images, or would like to present a good argument for their inclusion, here's your chance.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Best Parenting Books of 2014: Not Necessarily In The Parenting Aisle

Ah, the best parenting books of the year. Anyone can find those on Amazon in two seconds. I'll spare you those important works. Instead what you'll find on the annual Momma Data list aren't necessarily the most popular or well-received parenting tomes of 2014. A few are well-known names or titles and some have garnered critical acclaim but some aren't even parenting book per se or located in the parenting /family section. They all, however have something relevant for parents today whether they address our love affair with the brain, our ambivalent attitudes towards vaccines, existential angst and anxiety or misinformation in the media. Even NPR's Samantha Schoeck, who swore she'd never read another parenting book, might be tempted by these fine offerings.

New dad Ryan Gosling prepares to read 
I now present an expertly curated (ahem), extensively researched (ahem), entirely subjective and not in any way exhaustive collection of reading material worth perusing at your leisure (i.e. between travel sports, buying canned goods for school community service requirement and finding a summer camp that isn't a pit of frothing bacterial infections or a 5-star luxury retreat).

Happy reading or skimming.

Great Myths of the Brain, Christian Jarrett. 

Run, find this refreshing read about that super computer in your head, on second thought, trash that tired metaphor. Rethink what you know about the brain. Let Jarrett, neuroscience PhD and Brain Watch columnist at Wired, help you. He challenges myths from old timer notions about the brain and mental health (e.g., drilling holes into the cranium releases evil spirits) to perennial faves (e.g., the female brain, the pregnancy brain, the creative brain, the lefty brain, the aging brain, the sleeping brain, the vacant 10% used brain) to current Brainapalooza hits including the pernicious effects of social media, concussions, traumatic brain injury and last but not least how brain imaging (e.g., fMRIs) can solve mental illness, crime, poverty, in short, save the world.

In a single chapter (#6) Jarrett takes on brain scans, brain training, fatty acids in brain development, glucose and will power, sugar and hyperactivity, the health benefits of chocolate, the Internet, Facebook, Google, video games, vegetative patients, lie detection, mind-reading -  and be still my empirical evidence-loving heart -  the media's misinterpretation and exaggeration of neuroscience and the research community's role in both producing and calling out botched neuroscience. If talk of hemispheres and neurotransmitters turns you off, rest assured, the brain doesn't have to be so unpleasant. As Jarrett shows, it's almost but not quite as fascinating as the lore and hoopla around it.

Age of Opportunity: Lesson from the New Age of Adolescence, Laurence Steinberg 

Forget babies and toddlers. You can put them to bed early and throw them into the back of the car.  Plus there are enough books and websites about the stroller set anyhow. Now their older, acned, cranky siblings are equally complex and fascinating, no less challenging and yet receive less far less attention in print. Where's the love for them?

Enter noted psychologist and adolescence researcher Laurence Steinberg and his latest entry into the adolescent genre, Age of Opportunity. Some might remember I briefly wrote about the book after he penned an op-ed on CNN.com. In the book, Steinberg argues adolescence is not only longer than in the past (starting earlier, ending later, I still am not totally on board there but he makes a good case for both) but more perilous and given new insights from neuroscience, especially the malleability of the teenage brain, adults need to re-think this critical time period. And get prepared for a long haul.

Essentially a teen is a risk-taking man-child (or woman-child) with an intense emotional life, often intense social life with an underdeveloped cerebral cortex making him or her vulnerable/open to a wealth of new experiences and opportunities for growth/harm. 

Your teenager is probably as smart as you (maybe even smarter and could outscore you on the SAT) but not quite as rational when it comes to estimating say, the risk of jumping off the beach house roof (kid next door) or making a left turn into heavy traffic (hand raised). Oh and this curious situation lasts until the mid-twenties, possibly even later on average for the males of the species. So you still have some time to study up and possibly even influence your man-child or woman-child.

Also, Steinberg serves up the latest science on the teenage brain, be sure to read the chapter on brain plasticity. It's a great explanation of the phenomenon. Of course you already will have read Jarrett's brain myths book first so will be well versed in the latest neuro-scientific lingo. As for any concerns about the value of neuroscience, for instance, the exaggerated importance of brain research or its failure to add to existing knowledge about human behavior and development - rest assured Steinberg often agrees! Nor does he think a teen is merely an immature brain.

My intention in grounding this book in the science of adolescent brain development is not to reduce adolescence to little more than a network of neurons, to suggest that everything that adolescents do is dictated by biology alone, or to imply that that adolescents' behavior is fixed and not shaped by external forces. In fact, I argue just the opposite -that the main lesson we are learning from the study of adolescent brain development is that is it possible to influence young people's lives for the better. It was once said that advances in the study of genetics taught us just how important the environment is. What we're learning about the adolescent brain offers a similar message. 

Translation: the environment matters, experiences matter, people matter...e.g., friends, parents, school, proximity of alcohol, exposure to different cultures, great literature, music, an assortment of varied job, doing one's own laundry, cooking dinner, interacting with difficult teachers, coaches, classmates.

Steinberg labels adolescence the "new zero to three." Parents, prepare yourselves, because your kids will undergo a second stage of highly malleable brain development (plasticity) in adolescence - and it holds great potential for your teen's future unless of course you or they, and they and you probably will screw it up at least some of the time but hopefully not in a major way (drugs, arrest, teen pregnancy). At least this time around you won't have to endure any Mommy and Me classes or Baby Mozart.

On Immunity: An Inoculation, Eula Biss

This is an unusual book, don't miss it. Biss, a much lauded non-fiction writer, weaves together her personal experience, facts about disease plus insights on the militaristic or violent jargon associated with vaccination (shots) and the immune system (viruses as invaders attacking the body) and the preference for natural parenting (i.e. no vaccinations, no childbirth drugs, no formula). Also many literary references because this is an English major's take on immunity and illness (a non-fiction writing major to be specific). So no surprise it reads in parts like a literary dissertation, at other times, a health or science article.

It also happens to be a perfectly reasonable examination of why people, including the author, fear shooting up their kids with potential toxins despite the risk of some pretty terrible diseases. And Biss did, by the way, vaccinate. On Immunity garnered high praise (landing on the New York Times Book Review's 10 Best Books of 2014). The work is unusual as I said. The writing is beautiful, lyrical to my non-lyrical self. It is reassuring to read an intelligent, seemingly objective examination of a hotly debated topic. It's not an extremist view one way or the other and for that I am grateful.

It's taken some time but this book has grown on me. I'm not accustomed to the juxtaposition of poetics and science, especially on the topic of immunizations and Biss is right, this was an inoculation of sorts! In addition to its striking nature, I also highlight the work here because it illustrates the challenges of writing about complex science, especially with an author coming from the humanities wing. Thought it might not be entirely fair, I can't help but judge the work as a piece of science writing, and thus in terms of its scientific accuracy, well, I wish it had been a bit tighter particularly the parts dealing with the now debunked link between autism and vaccines. 

Take the discussion of Andrew Wakefield and the infamous 1998 Lancet article. Biss refers to Wakefield's "inconclusive work" as if further research into the MMR and vaccines is needed though she does mention there has been plentiful research refuting it, she doesn't use language that precise - I'll get to that in a minute. Later on she calls the botched study "one small, inconclusive study" and "the now-retracted case study." Those descriptions doesn't fully capture the extent of the situation. It was a very small, flawed, perhaps fraudulent if you believe some accounts, set of data lacking in scientific rigor that should never have been published, especially not in a premier journal and that later, was retracted, a very rare event. Anyhow, an inconclusive study is not necessary poor or flawed, it is just that, inconclusive.

I wish Biss could have been more precise in her discussion of why science can never prove something doesn't exist (the null hypothesis, no difference, no link between vaccines and autism). If I weren't familiar with research methods and statistics I'm not sure what I'd surmise from this explanation of why scientists can't prove vaccines don't cause autism:

What vaccines do not cause, the [2012 Institute of Medicine] report explained, is significantly harder to establish than what they do cause. While a substantial amount of evidence is acceptable as proof that an event does and can happen, there is never enough evidence to prove that an event cannot happen. Even so, the evidence reviewed by the [IOM] committee "favors rejection" of the theory that the MMR causes autism. 

This sounds like science just can't make any strong conclusions when it comes to a potential link between autism and the MMR and that the scientific community has lingering uncertainty over the issue. It  leaves room for doubt, an opening.

In part Biss writes about the Wakefield study to make a good point about why people still support the de-frocked doctor and his lame study -  people cling to the theory (and "weak science") because they affirm what they want to believe (e.g., autism is caused by vaccines, pharmaceutical companies are evil, etc.). Maybe she's taking her argument to heart, and feels it unnecessary or counter-productive to write about science in a precise manner, especially highly relevant concepts and facts, when many people are not persuaded by science.

Does Biss not fully believe the science debunking the link between vaccines and autism? It's hard to tell if the language is imprecise due to a non-scientist writing about science or an ambivalence about a link. In any event, if I'm interested in knowing how a non-scientist thinks of immunity and vaccines, these passages, this account could be helpful. So is this what most people think about vaccines and disease? Possibly to some degree but most people don’t associate Dracula, Karl Marx and Freud with getting their baby inoculated. 

Biss addresses the mass of scientific information and studies in the news and laments the media's sensationalized portrayal of findings and thirst for anxiety-producing stories - all good, right - and even uses the word "misinformation." She then segues into how studies shouldn't be taken out of context and need to be replicated to gain more validity, the full measure of a study is only as good as the next ones that come out...bravo. Even mentions John Ionnidis 2007 study "Most Published Research Findings Are False."  Just when I started to get excited, in the next breath, she launches into a several page discussion of Dracula. I wasn't an English major, mea culpa, and sort of zoned out in those more literary passages, for better or worse.

My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread and The Search For Peace of Mind, Scott Stossel

Stossel, an editor of the The Atlantic magazine chronicles his personal experience with chronic anxiety including panic attacks and an astonishing array of phobias including but not limited to heights, enclosed/tight places, fainting, flying, public speak and cheese. One of his oldest and most intense fears? Emetophobia. Vomiting, though he hasn't vomited in almost 40 years. He also fears vomiting while flying (great, now maybe I will develop this one too). In between stories from his life that would make for excellent sitcom material (including an unforgettable toilet incident at the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port), Stossel opines on the nature of anxiety, it's socio-cultural and history context, and of course, a few statistics:

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, some forty million Americans, nearly one in seven of us, are suffering from some kind of anxiety disorder at any given time, accounting for 31 percent of the expenditures on mental health care in the United States. According to recent epidemiological data, the “lifetime incidence” of anxiety disorder is more than 25 percent — which, if true, means that one in four of us can expect to be stricken by debilitating anxiety at some point in our lifetimes. And it is debilitating: Recent academic papers have argued that the psychic and physical impairment tied to living with an anxiety disorder is equivalent to living with diabetes — usually manageable, sometimes fatal, and always a pain to deal with.

So chances are you will know someone who suffers from anxiety. As Stossels points out, there is genetic component to anxiety disorders, they tend to run in families including his own, on both his paternal and maternal sides. His daughter and son both have encountered anxiety disorders and he suspects his mother struggled with anxiety too but didn't know how to deal with it personally or in her child. Heartbreaking to learn because there are some rather effective treatments, cognitive behavioral therapy chief among them with an increasing pile of empirical evidence supporting its effectiveness in treating anxiety, even phobias. Of course he's tried just about treatment out there including self-medicating.

According to any number of commentators, authors and psychologists, parents are stressed out in today's fast-paced, 24/7 global marketplace of ideas, tutors and Mandarin-speaking socially-conscious and creative scholars competing for their kids' future. Who knows, I don't think my grandmother, saddled with 7 kids, a teacher's salary and no dishwasher had it easy. I'm not sure the challenges I face are more intense or plentiful, but sure, I have anxieties and I know a lot of tense adults and children, who doesn't, so I enjoyed this book on many levels.

For teaser, read his article in The Atlantic from last January, Surviving Anxiety. Sure it's long, it might seem like he's covered everything but the book is chock full. It won't disappoint.

Guilt-free Bottle Feeding, Madeleine Morris and Sasha Howard

An award-winning former BBC reporter and friend of Momma Data, Morris and her co-author, paediatrician Dr. Sasha Howard, joined forces to challenge the Breast Is Best ideology and offer ample evidence children who are bottle-fed (even with formula!) can grow up happy, health and smart too. The duo also provide practical advice for bottle-feeding but make no mistake, this book offers valuable knowledge for all parents such as infant feeding research, the culture of parenting and yes, the media. I’m a big fan of the book and should also note Madeleine Morris interviewed me for the book. Check out my Q and A with Madeleine about her book and her answers to the Momma Data Experteze Interview.


The News: A User's Manual, Alain De Botton

A look at the news, including an all too short bit on health stories from the man who brought us How Proust Can Change Your Life.  I kept waiting for the parenting/children's health section but maybe that's in the next addition. Anyhow, if you want to know what's wrong with the media, have at it.

The Meaning of Human Existence, E.O. Wilson 

Daily life might seem a challenge but at least no one's asking most of us to solve the mysteries of human life, now there's a hard one. The famed biologist and naturalist pleas for the sciences and the humanities to get along and join forces to figure out the human race. If only he could help me figure out why 14-year olds are so unpredictable. Here's your chance for a post-collegiate interdisciplinary challenge. Pack it for that weekend get-away. Yeah, as if.


Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined. The Truth about Talent, Practice and Creativity and The Many Paths to Greatness, Scott Barry Kaufman

Everything you wanted to know about talent, practice, creativity, greatness, intelligence, genius and more from a Yale Ph.D. who spent the first part of his life trapped in special education, a remarkable personal story behind a remarkable career (he's still young) and riveting book. 

The Sports Gene, David Epstein

It's about sports yes but an engaging portrait of the interplay between genes and environment. Bought it for hubby, read it myself. If you think your kid is a future Olympian, read this and get back to me. I'm waiting for the parent version of this book to come out. Surely Mr. Epstein has something to say to soccer moms and hockey dads, or travel team coaches. I already have a title in mind - The Sports Gene: Your Child Is Not A Future Olympian. 

Or a gentler tone: 

Why your kid doesn't need to play travel soccer/hockey/lacrosse etc. all year from age 10 on even if they are future Olympians.


Transformed by Postpartum Depression: Women's Stories of Trauma and Growth, Walker Karraa

A book from the Founder of Stigmata.com, friend of Momma Data and courageous maternal mental health advocate and activist. Karraa, a provocative thought leader, tells why the current medical model of understanding and treating - heck, even thinking, writing and talking about - postpartum depression is broken and offers a more positive model of postpartum transformation and growth. 

Look for my Q and A with Walker next week.

So what did I miss? What books do you recommend?

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The iPhone Effect: Read, Weep and Wrap That Smart Device

Happy holidays from The Momma Data Institute Center for Distressing Social Media Research. Stop filling your Amazon shopping cart and texting your belated apologies for your absence at the neighbor's annual holiday open house. Yes, I know, you're really not feeling well and you're about to feel worst as there's now one less good reason to gift that smart phone this holiday season. 

It's an official phenomenon now - The iPhone Effect has entered the social science literature so that technological wonder is no longer simply a very generous and fragile present. It's much more, the subject of serious academic inquiry and a disruptor of social interaction. Researchers at Virginia Tech wondered whether the presence of a smart phone might impact human interaction and apparently weren't too distracted to find an answer. Brace yourselves, their findings do not provide a glowing, merry portrait. 

Somehow researchers convinced 100 pairs of people to participate in a study instead of casually enjoying a latte and chit-chat in a café. The duos had known each other prior to walking in to the café. These agreeable pairs were randomly assigned to discuss either a trivial topic or serious one for 10 minutes. Then the research assistant stood out of view and took notes. Here's how it went down:

Out of 100 pairs, 29 had mobile phones present during their conversations, while 71 did not. Overall, conversations without phones present were rated significantly better than those with phones present, controlling for age, gender, ethnicity, and mood. Those who conversed without a mobile phone present reported a higher level of connectedness. Those who conversed in the absence of a mobile device felt a greater level of empathy for their partner. Additionally, those pairs with a close relationship reported lower levels of empathy with a mobile device present as compared to pairs with a more casual relationship. The study did not find any significant effect of mobile phones during more meaningful conversations, as compared to more casual encounters.
Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy
Now this sounds like bad news for those of us in near proximity to a device let alone wrapping one up for our loved ones. The good news, the smart phone didn't seem to effect serious conversations. I say seem to effect because the researchers didn't manipulate the presence of a smart phone, they manipulated the seriousness of the chat. And I could question whether they really and truly manipulated that too as the researchers simply asked participants to discuss something serious or trivial. Actually controlling the subject matter would have been truly amazing and accomplished only by having another research assistant planted in the conversation. In any event, this is some interesting but speculative naturalistic evidence. 

Read the Shorenstein' report on the iPhone research. Also note that as noxious as the smart phone might prove, it might prevent people from self-harm. According to a recent University of Virginia study people of all ages including senior citizens (or at least research subjects) would rather receive electrical shocks than sit and do nothing, left to think, daydream or ponder the future of social media and the human race. So think of the smartphone, the tablets, the hand-held gaming devices as prevention for self-injury and the pernicious effects of thinking. 

Stick a bow on that. Cheers.

 The study: Misra, Shalini; Cheng, Lulu; Genevie, Jamie; Yuan, Miao. “The iPhone Effect: The Quality of In-Person Social Interactions in the Presence of Mobile Devices.” Environment and Behavior, July 2014. doi: 10.1177/0013916514539755.