Science News Digest
This is Sarah Long. And this is Bob Doughty with SCIENCE IN THE NEWS, a VOA Special English program about recent developments in science. Today, we tell about problems in medical reporting. We tell about the use of a drug that makes baseball players stronger. And we tell about powerful ocean storms called hurricanes.
The Journal of the American Medical Association -- JAMA -- is one of the world's leading medical publications. It provides reports on the latest developments in medicine. This month, the magazine examined the way it and other medical publications do their work. It discovered problems in the quality of information produced by the publications.
One JAMA report found that published studies often use numbers that make experimental drugs or treatments look better than they really are. The report said some of the problem is caused by conflicts of interest among scientists.
Medical publications use a system called "peer review." Under this system, scientists write a report about their research and send it to a medical publication. The editor of the publication sends the report to other medical experts for advice. Those experts check for mistakes and make suggestions that the editor uses in deciding to publish the report or reject it. However, there may be conflicts of interest among scientists doing similar research.
Catherine DeAngelis is editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association. She said problems were most likely to happen in research paid for by drug companies. Drug companies are interested in findings that make their products look good.
Editors of medical publications are concerned that drug companies sometimes influence how researchers report study results and may even suppress some findings. Many top medical publications require researchers to tell if they have any ties to drug companies. Editors at these publications depend on researchers to be honest about such ties. But that does not always happen.
In another report in JAMA, the editor of The Lancet studied ten medical research reports published in his magazine. He found that some of the writers did not include critical comments from other people involved in the research. He said disagreements among researchers about a study's findings happened often but were not always included in the reports.
Another report in JAMA criticized medical publications for the information they provide to newspapers and other media. Most publications prepare press releases about studies they publish.
These press releases are written to increase the chance that newspapers will publish stories about the studies. Two American doctors examined more than one-hundred press releases from JAMA and six other medical publications. They found that press releases often lacked important information, such as limitations of the study or that a drug company paid for the study.
JAMA also dealt with the issue of reporting about medical research presented at scientific conferences. It said the media often report about this research even though the research may not be completed. Sometimes the research findings are later found to contain mistakes. The media often present early research results to the public as scientifically correct evidence when this may not be true.
Critics are concerned that findings presented in medical publications and other media are not always correct. Doctor DeAngelis said the special issue of JAMA is an attempt to examine medical publications and to make sure they are as correct and honest as possible.
Drugs called anabolic steroids are back in the news. Anabolic steroids increase the size and strength of muscles. Ken Caminiti, a former baseball player, admitted last month that he used steroids. Caminiti told Sports Illustrated magazine that he took the drugs to improve his performance in nineteen-ninety-six. That is when he was named the Most Valuable Player in North American baseball's National League.
Caminiti and another recently retired player say that steroid use is common among professional baseball players. Their comments have caused much discussion throughout the United States.
Steroids are products of the male hormone testosterone. A normal adult male produces between two and eleven milligrams of testosterone a day. A steroid user takes more than one-hundred milligrams a day.
Side effects of steroid use can include heart and liver damage, stroke, high blood cholesterol levels, aggression and disorders of the reproductive system. In young people, steroids can affect the bones, limiting a person's height.
In the United States, anabolic steroids are illegal, unless a doctor advises their use for health reasons. The National Football League and National Basketball Association ban steroids. They test players to make sure they are not using the drugs. The International Olympic Committee also bans the drugs. Major League Baseball, however, has no policy on steroids and does not test players for the drugs. Yet baseball's top administrator admits that steroids are a problem.
A ban on steroid use in baseball would have to be negotiated as part of an agreement between team owners and the players. Some players say they want testing for steroids. Others say that would be an invasion of their privacy rights.
Ken Caminiti is recovering from problems with alcohol and illegal drugs. He says steroids made him bigger and stronger. Yet he admits that he now suffers side effects from using the drugs.
Early every summer, weather scientists in North America prepare for a new season of powerful ocean storms. These storms are called hurricanes. The word "hurricane" comes from the language of people who lived on islands in the Caribbean Sea before Europeans arrived. They experienced strong ocean storms usually caused by weather movements off the coast of North Africa. These weather events gather force as they move west toward the Caribbean and North America.
A storm is called a hurricane when its wind speed becomes greater than one-hundred-twenty kilometers an hour. Some huge storms cause great loss of life and thousands of millions of dollars in damage.
Understanding the movements of storms and hurricanes is the job of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida. Today, many electronic tools make the job of weather scientists, or meteorologists, easier. Satellites observe weather from space. New radar instruments gain information about weather movements. And, airplanes can drop special instruments into storms that record large amounts of information about air movements.
One computer program, called Hurritrack, permits meteorologists to see all the information about weather that the National Hurricane Center collects.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has estimated the number of hurricanes for each year since nineteen-ninety-eight. This year, NOAA expects six to eight hurricanes and nine to thirteen powerful Atlantic Ocean storms. Hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean lasts from the beginning of June to the end of November.
Also, a weather event called El Nino will affect storms forming in the Atlantic Ocean this year. El Nino is caused by unusual warm currents of water in the eastern Pacific Ocean. It affects weather around the world.
In nineteen-ninety-seven, El Nino caused storms, floods and severe weather that were blamed for more than twenty-thousand deaths. NOAA expects this year's El Nino to be weaker than in past years. Yet, meteorologists warn that this year's hurricane season could be severe.
Mike Black is the field director of the Hurricane Research Division of NOAA. He says that hurricanes remain a mystery to meteorologists even though they have more tools to study them than ever before. He says the complex forces that cause hurricanes to grow in strength are still not well understood. Meteorology still cannot tell us what weather events like hurricanes will do in the future.
This SCIENCE IN THE NEWS program was written by George Grow and Mario Ritter. It was produced by Caty Weaver. This is Sarah Long. And this is Bob Doughty. Join us again next week for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.