Thursday, June 18, 2009

Strange Policy from Bad Science - Part One

I despise the misuse of statistics. I'm a firm believer in the axiom, "statistics don't lie, but liars use statistics."

It is unequivocally true that you can use statistics, bent, folded, spindled, and manipulated, to prove nearly anything. Time was, however, that most people knew when a statistical abuse was at hand, and dutifully ignored. These days, however, where mathematical education and critical thinking take a clear back seat to whatever politically correct curriculum is in vogue, the ability to recognize and refute such abuses is diminishing daily.

A classic case in point arose just this week, when our beloved Government rode to our rescue and told the masses to stop using Zicam Nasal Gel, because it was "linked" to incidents of loss of smell.

Now that, on the surface, sounds pretty serious. If something out there is causing people to lose their smell, we ought to know about it. But a review of the data beyond the hysterical news headline reveals a much less hysterical reality.

The FDA based its admonition the basis of 199 cases of lost smell, or anosmia tied to the use of Zicam over a ten-year period. Although I could not find hard statistics on the number of actual Zicam users in that period, one news site reported the number to be in the "millions."

Let's say that, for the sake of argument, that establishes at least a minimum number of Zicam users at 2 million. And the FDA is suspending sales of the product based on 199 of those users. Assuming a 100% causal relationship, that means the chances of a Zycam user experiencing anosmia as a result is, at best about 1:10,000.

What the FDA, nor the media, didn't bother to tell us is how many cases of anosmia are found in the general population from all causes. What if we were to discover that the general incidence rate for anosmia was no more than 1:10,000? Or significantly lower? Or significantly higher?

The point is we don't know. Maybe Zicam really is causing a problem. Maybe it isn't. I'm not here to debate the efficacy or risks of Zicam, but to take our media and our government to task for failing to report the entire story, one with the information necessary for the reader to draw their own conclusions - conclusions based on fact and data, not hysteria and innuendo. The omissions are conspicuous, driven by a variety of motivations - some financial, some political.

We're going to explore this topic further next week, with a discussion on how pharmacetical companies (and political pundits) neglect to explain the difference between changes in absolute risk versus relative risk, and leverage that ignorance into a multibillion dollar industry that plays no small part of our current health care problem....

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Pixar magic lifting us Up, Up, and Away in new film

It has been said that those who observe literary times claim there has never been a "Great American Novel." While I would not presume to debate such topics, I would offer that, to the extent a film narrative can be equated to a literary excursion, that the "Great American Movie" has been made - and from an entirely unexpected source - the Disney/Pixar Studios in its wonderful new film, "Up."

"Up" tells the tale of Carl Fredricksen, and it is in that tale that Pixar immerses us an astonishingly introspective and unyieldingly human story of youth, age, love, hope, loss, and adventure. The first ten minutes of "Up," which ironically holds the least dialog, carry us through a diorama of Fredricksen's life, from an adventure-seeking youngster, to a hope-filled married man, to a widowed and seemingly curmudgeonly elderly man.

Accompanying him on his elder-stage life is young Russell, an overly eager Wilderness Scout desperate to claim one final achievement badge by offering assistance to a senior citizen. Wasting no characters, Up gives us a glimpse into Russell's young life as a child of divorce, providing a common bond of loss that ultimately unites him with Fredricksen in their adventure.

Few films that aspire to comment on the human condition can claim to have drawn on so many elements that will resonate with so many people, which is precisely why "Up" is destined to become one of Pixar's classics. We see Fredricksen's crossed-heart promise to take his love Elly to South America, yet see the dream slip away unwittingly as time and life intervene. We share their pain as hopeful images of babies in the clouds turn to disheartening medical realities. We feel Carl's sadness as we see Elly's health slip away before he is able to make good on his South American promise, and understand that the external curmudgeon is facade for the guilt of a promise unkept, for adventures unexperienced. And we wish Elly's "Adventure Book" did not stop at the page entitled, "Things I'm Going To Do;" fortunately, as Carl's adventure nears its end, we find those pages not so empty afterall, with a gentle reminder that life's greatest adventures are often realized in the unplanned mundane rather than the orchestrated spectacular.

But make no mistake - "Up" is no turgid tale of sadness or melancholy. Mixed with the human tale is a delightful fantasy of Carl's life as a balloon salesman, with his cache of unsold floaters serving as the engine to launch his home skyward, on a course to South America, with Russell as his unwitting stowaway, along with a irresistable canine buddy they encounter along the way that younger children (and many adults) will want to take home instantly.

UP is another creative masterpiece from the artists at Pixar, once again demonstrative of the decided superiority in animated storytelling they hold. Pixar's hardly secret advantage is not in the astonishingly credible electronic realities they create, but in the wonderful characters that inhabit them, and in the ways those characters resonate with each of us. Who else could mix an old man, a little boy, and a house propelled around the world by helium-filled balloons, yet make it an introspective, touching, and still humorous adventure? Certainly, only Pixar.

And that is the grand gift we all enjoy.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Who flipped the pop-culture snow-globe??

I think someone has seriously messed with my head. Because what I'm seeing in this early summer wave of pop culture makes me think someone has moved me to an alternate universe.

Why? Well, I just left, which just advised me that the #1 movie in the United States for 2009 to date is....the J.J. Abrams reboot of Star Trek. To the tune of $210 million, thank you very much.


I grew up as a big fan of Trek, but as more movies came out, had to be solaced by the fact that Trek just wasn't "mainstream." For a Star Trek movie to reach "blockbuster" status was pretty darned rare. And given the relatively abysmal, but still somehow underrated "Nemesis" as he unintentional sendoff of the previous "Next Generation" crew, the last thing that seemed in the offing was more Trek; and, yet, Paramount threw $160 million at Abrams, told him to go for it, and he did. And what he did is simply dynamite, with Trek still playing beyond its fourth week in over 3,500 theaters. Somehow, J.J. Abrams has actually managed to make Star Trek cool.

America's entertainment industry is in a bit of a creative void, and as a result, dips into the pool of the known have made franchise reboots such as Dark Night, James Bond, and re-hashed music popular, with mixed results. I must admit, however, that this particular reboot is a delightful treat. In a world where "reality" TV offers us neurotic, self-absorbed psychoparents, hostile cake-bakers, and tattoo artist documentaries, this respite into TV's simpler time translated anew onto the big screen is welcome.

Live Long and Prosper, indeed.