COVID infodemic concept illustration.

Why Government Information Isn’t Curing the ‘Infodemic’

By Nancy Fairbank

Coronavirus misinformation is beating truth to the punch – hitting the public more quickly and directly. This “infodemic” anchors readers to its core messages and makes dislodging its falsehoods all the more difficult.

The consequences of misinformation are also heightened in a pandemic context, when accurate information is critical to ensuring cooperation with public health measures and acting on falsehoods can rapidly endanger countless lives. Governments trying to compete are faced with two (non-exclusive) options: (1) attempting to get out accurate information first and (2) employing strategies to evict misinformation that’s already filled the gaps before they could.

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a covid 19 swab test being inserted into a vile

Maintaining Healthy Skepticism About Reported COVID-19 Findings

By Andy Podgurski and Sharona Hoffman

The COVID-19 pandemic presents special challenges to even well-informed and well-intentioned promulgators and consumers of medical research findings, including the legal community.

The stakes in the debate about handling the pandemic are extremely high in terms of lives, jobs, wealth, and political power. In addition, there are tremendous opportunities for researchers to receive attention and notoriety for influencing the debate.

All this means that perverse incentives exist to publicize initial scientific findings that are dubious, poorly vetted, and possibly dangerous to public welfare. The risk of promulgating false or misleading scientific claims is substantial, even when they are made by well-respected scientists affiliated with prestigious institutions. Government authorities must be extremely cautious about basing public policy decisions on inadequately vetted findings, no matter how much hype they get.

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Up close details of a dark soda in ice.

Why soda taxes, an awesome public health policy, are rare

By Daniel Aaron

This post is, in part, a response to a panel discussion on soda taxes and obesity, given by Professors Emily Broad Leib, Steven Gortmaker, and Carmel Shachar on February 14, 2020.

Diet is devastating the public’s health

Diet is the top cause of death and disability in the United States and abroad. Diet-related disease has been rising for forty years, and we cannot seem to control it. Currently 39.8% of Americans are obese. By 2030, this will climb to half of all Americans. Obesity causes numerous health risks, including heart attacks and strokes, and increases the risk of many different types of cancer.

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Several vaping devices on a table

E-Cigarette Laws that Work for Everyone

By Daniel Aaron

The Trump Administration has retreated from proposed tobacco regulations that experts generally agree would benefit public health. The regulations would have included a ban on flavored e-cigarettes, a favorite of children who use e-cigarettes. Currently millions of youth are estimated to be addicted to e-cigarettes.

The rules also could have reduced nicotine in cigarettes to non-addictive levels. Nicotine is the addicting substance largely responsible for continued smoking. If nicotine were “decoupled” from smoking, smokers might turn to other sources of nicotine, rather than continuing to smoke. Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., killing about 500,000 Americans each year, or just about the number of Americans who died in World War I and World War II combined.

Part of the difficulty in regulating e-cigarettes is that, unlike cigarettes, they offer benefits and harms that differ across generations. This concern is called intergenerational equity. How can a solution be crafted that serves all Americans?

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Pregnant woman sitting across desk from doctor wearing scrubs and holding a pen

Opioid Claims for Fetal Opioid Exposure Alarm Pregnancy Advocates

By Alexa Richardson

Lawyers calling themselves the “Opioid Justice Team” are pushing forward in their mission to certify babies exposed to opioids in utero, as well as “all women in the United States capable of becoming pregnant,” as distinct classes in the multi-district opioid litigation now unfolding in federal court in Ohio. Last week, lawyers filed an amended complaint on behalf of the legal guardians of individuals diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), and a list of “experts” with the court. Their claims misrepresent the science regarding fetal exposure to opioids and position fetal rights in opposition to those of pregnant people. National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) has issued a statement and fact sheet denouncing the claims.

In a series of court filings, sweeping claims about the impact of prescription opioid exposure on fetuses are being made. The lawyers falsely claim “[a]nything a pregnant woman ingests or breathes is transmitted to her baby by the placenta” and that “[i]n-utero opioid exposure leaves most children with physical, social, educational disabilities that require constant and regular interventions. Most of these disabilities are considered permanent.” In actuality, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists states that the available data show “no significant differences” in long-term outcomes for individuals exposed to opioids in utero versus those who are not. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) finds there may be early childhood impacts on cognitive or developmental abilities from prenatal opioid exposure. However, available studies struggle to separate the physical effects from environmental and social variables. There is not enough data to conclude whether any long-term consequences of fetal opioid exposure exist, the CDC finds.

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Bird's eye view of a town with identical looking-houses lined up close together

Housing Law and Health Equity: No Bliss in Ignorance

By Katie Moran-McCabe and Scott Burris

Florence Nightingale once said, “The connection between health and the dwellings of the population is one of the most important that exists” — a statement that is as true today as it was at the turn of the 20th century. A decent dwelling and diverse communities, where there is access to transportation, good schools, shops, parks, socioeconomic mixture, social capital and collective efficacy, and economic opportunity are all features necessary for both a high-level and equitable distribution of well-being.

The promise of healthy housing and communities, however, falls short in the United States. Much of the housing in the U.S. is expensive, unsafe, and inadequate in supply. Read More

a pile of vaccine vials and a needle

Long Overdue: Check Out the Vaccine Resources Library for Expert Witnesses

By Dorit Reiss, Stanley A. Plotkin, Paul A. Offit

A new tactic has emerged in a few recent family law vaccination cases: using arguments created by the anti-vaccine movement.

Lack of familiarity with anti-vaccine claims can trip up even the most qualified expert. But a new resource library at the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia aims to combat anti-vaccine rhetoric and by giving experts the information they need to respond.

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Bill of Health Blog Symposium: Research Integrity and Trustworthy Science: Challenges & Solutions

We are pleased to host this symposium featuring commentary from participants in the University of Minnesota’s Consortium on Law and Values in Health, Environment & the Life Sciences event, “Research Integrity and Trustworthy Science: Challenges and Solutions.”  Below, Susan M. Wolf tees up the issues.  All posts in the series will be available here.

By Susan M. Wolf, JD (Chair, Consortium on Law and Values in Health, Environment & the Life Sciences; McKnight Presidential Professor of Law, Medicine & Public Policy; Faegre Baker Daniels Professor of Law; Professor of Medicine, University of Minnesota)

Trustworthy science is crucial to progress in scientific understanding, patient care, and product development. Yet threats to the integrity of science and to public confidence loom large. Researcher misconduct, inadequate education of new researchers, concerns over the reproducibility and rigor of scientific research, predatory journals that fail to perform thorough peer review, and oversight lapses all constitute significant threats to sound science and public trust.

A 2017 report from the National Academies on Fostering Integrity in Research carefully analyzed “detrimental research practices.” The report called for significant changes in the policies and practices of journals, research institutions, and researchers. Among the proposals was creation of a Research Integrity Advisory Board (RIAB) as an independent nonprofit. Further recommendations called for changes to allow researchers to reproduce results, including archiving datasets and code.

In March 2018, the University of Minnesota responded to the emerging research challenges and solutions by sponsoring a conference on “Research Integrity and Trustworthy Science: Challenges and Solutions.” We invited leading analysts to address the challenges for researchers, journals, and research institutions. In this blog symposium, plenary speakers from the conference examine three foundational elements of credible research:

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Challenges for Investigators—Generating Reproducible Research Results

This post is part of a series on emerging research challenges and solutions. The introduction to the series is available here, and all posts in the series are available here.

By John P.A. Ioannidis, MD, DSc, C.F. Rehnborg Chair in Disease Prevention, Professor of Medicine, of Health Research and Policy, of Biomedical Data Science, and of Statistics, and Co-Director, Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford (METRICS), Stanford University

Generating reproducible research results is not an easy task. As discussions about a reproducibility crisis become more common and occasionally heated, investigators may feel intimidated or even threatened, caught in the middle of the reproducibility wars. Some feel that the mounting pressure to deliver (both quantity and quality) may be threatening the joy of doing science and even the momentum to explore bold ideas. However, this is a gross misunderstanding. The effort to understand the shortcomings of reproducibility in our work and to find ways to improve our research standards is not some sort of externally imposed police auditing. It is a grassroots movement that stems from scientists themselves who want to improve their work, including its validity, relevance, and utility.

As it has been clarified before, reproducibility of results is just one of many aspects of reproducibility. It is difficult to deal with it in isolation, without also considering reproducibility of methods and reproducibility of inferences. Reproducibility of methods is usually impossible to assess, because unfortunately the triplet of software, script/code, and complete raw data is hardly ever available in a complete functional form. Lack of reproducibility of inferences leads to debates, even when the evidence seems strong and well-rounded. Reproducibility of results, when considered in the context of these other two reproducibility components, is unevenly pursued across disciplines. Some fields like genetic epidemiology have long understood the importance of routinely incorporating replication as a sine qua non in their efforts. Others still consider replication as second-class, “me too” research. Nevertheless, it can be shown (see Ioannidis, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, in press), that in most circumstances replication has at least the same value—and often more value—than original discovery. However, this leads to the question: how do we reward and incentivize investigators to follow a reproducible research path?

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Challenges for Journals—Encouraging Sound Science

This post is part of a series on emerging research challenges and solutions. The introduction to the series is available here, and all posts in the series are available here.

By Barbara A. Spellman, Professor of Law and Professor of Psychology, University of Virginia School of Law

Journals and scientists should be BFFs. But currently they are frenemies. Or, in adult-speak:

Journals play an important role in ensuring that the scientific enterprise is sound. Their most obvious function is to publish science—good science, science that has been peer-reviewed by experts and is of interest to a journal’s readership. But in fulfilling that mission, journals may provide incentives to scientists that undermine the quality of published science and distort the scientific record.

Journal policies certainly contributed to the replication crisis. As businesses, publishers (appropriately) want to make money; to do so they need people to buy, read, and cite their journals. To make that happen, editors seek articles that are novel, that confirm some new hypothesis, and that have clear results. Scientists know that editors want articles with these qualities. Accordingly, scientists may (knowingly or not) bias the scientific process to produce that type of result.

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