Mary Carmichael

Stories by Mary Carmichael

  • wri-invisible-gorilla-tease

    The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us

    Did you see that gorilla just run by? Probably not. Expanding on a psychological experiment that garnered some very surprising results, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons challenge the confidence you have about how well you observe the world around you, and how you see yourself.
  • Should Sex Offenders Be Jailed Indefinitely?

    On Monday, the Supreme Court released two important decisions about the prison system: one ruling that juveniles can’t receive life sentences for crimes other than murder and another that the federal government is allowed to hold sex offenders in custody indefinitely, even after they have completed their sentences.
  • cures

    Why Don't More Medical Discoveries Become Cures?

    From 1996 to 1999, the U.S. food and Drug Administration approved 157 new drugs. In the comparable period a decade later—that is, from 2006 to 2009—the agency approved 74. Not among them were any cures, or even meaningfully effective treatments, for Alzheimer’s disease, lung or pancreatic cancer, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, or a host of other afflictions that destroy lives.
  • Your Genetic Profile, Now Available in Aisle 10: What's the Big Deal About Pathway, the New Take-Home DNA Test?

    Attention, Walgreens shoppers, The Washington Post wants you to know about a new product going on sale:Beginning Friday, shoppers in search of toothpaste, deodorant and laxatives at more than 6,000 drugstores across the nation will be able to pick up something new: a test to scan their genes for a propensity for Alzheimer’s disease, breast cancer, diabetes and other ailments … For those thinking of starting a family, it could alert them to their risk of having a baby with cystic fibrosis, Tay-Sachs and other genetic disorders. The test also promises users insights into how caffeine, cholesterol-lowering drugs and blood thinners might affect them.If this test sounds familiar, it should: It’s little different than a number of others that have been available for years. Direct-to-consumer (DTC) tests for genes linked to common diseases hit the market with fanfare in 2007. Carrier testing, “for those thinking of starting a family,” has an even longer history; doctors have been assessing...
  • wri-science-good-marriage-tease

    For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage

    Tara Parker-Pope, author of The New York Times’s Well blog, has gone beyond the weepy and weary self-help marriage tomes and written a trustworthy guide to fixing (or tweaking) your marriage. And there are lots of sex stats, too
  • A New Reason Not to Teach Evolution to Kids: It's 'Philosophically Unsatisfactory'

    Here is a vignette from a small newspaper  that will sound familiar to Southerners like me who were taught creationism in school:Mark Tangarone, who teaches third, fourth, and fifth grade students in the Talented and Gifted (TAG) program at Weston Intermediate School, said he is retiring at the end of the current school year because of a clash with the school administration over the teaching of evolution . . . In an e-mail to Mr. Tangarone dated Sept. 8, 2008, [the school superintendent] rejected the basic program, citing for the most part the teaching of evolution: "While evolution is a robust scientific theory, it is a philosophically unsatisfactory explanation for the diversity of life. I could anticipate that a number of our parents might object to this topic as part of a TAG project . . . The TAG topics need to be altered this year to eliminate the teaching of Darwin's work and the theory of evolution." And here is something that makes this story a bit less...
  • Most Women Stop Breast-feeding by Six Months. Whose Fault Is That?

     Oh, bouncing baby boy, here comes the next round in the never-ending slugfest over the health benefits of breast-feeding: The lives of nearly 900 babies would be saved each year, along with billions of dollars, if 90 percent of U.S. women breast-fed their babies for the first six months of life, a cost analysis says ... The findings suggest that there are hundreds of deaths and many more costly illnesses each year from health problems that breast-feeding may help prevent. These include stomach viruses, ear infections, asthma, juvenile diabetes, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, and even childhood leukemia. That's according to an AP article, covering a new study just released by the journal Pediatrics. I bet a lot of bottle-feeding mothers are going to read that paragraph, sigh, and think: “Great. Now I’m being blamed for billions of dollars in health-care costs and 900 dead babies.”The AP writer must have anticipated such a reaction, because she goes on to quote not one but two...
  • Genetics Is Good Science, But Is It Good Business?

    There’s been a lot of hoopla lately about the upcoming 10th anniversary of the Human Genome Project. This week, the journal Nature is commemorating the milestone with a special issue. But readers shouldn’t be so distracted by the celebratory essays that they miss the concrete discoveries being published alongside them. These, after all, are the reasons to celebrate—making sense of the genome was the whole point of sequencing it. For instance, Nature’s sister journal, Nature Genetics, has some impressive content of its own this week, including a paper explaining how malaria jumps back and forth between humans and mosquitoes, a strategy for engineering corn to boost its levels of beta carotene, and a study that offers a new way of understanding how and why cancer risk runs in families.The appeal of this last paper is subtle at first. The study reveals a genetic mutation that increases a person’s risk of a slow-growing type of bladder cancer. It’s not the first bladder cancer gene to...
  • Five Things You Should Know About Donald Berwick, the New Medicare/Medicaid Chief

    The president has just appointed the person who's going to oversee Medicare and Medicaid for the next few years—a daunting task, given that the programs are bleeding money and may have big changes in store. If you've been following health-care policy (and not just health-care politics), you may already know the new chief's name: Donald Berwick, president of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), the influential Cambridge, Mass., think tank that advocates elegantly simple ways of making medicine better without making it more expensive. (In his spare time, he's also a pediatrician and health-policy professor at Harvard.) Berwick's appointment has a lot of people in the blogosphere excited. Here's why:...
  • Meet Your New Doctor: The Three-Year Medical Student

    Last week it was revealed that for the first time in years, there's been an increase in young doctors going into primary care. That may have a lot to do with new scholarships for students interested in that field. (One of the reasons young doctors tend to shy away from primary care is that four years of medical school can cost an awful lot of money—cash that's hard to pay back if your salary is in the mid-$100,000s, compared with the $400,000-something a doc can make as a specialist.) But, as we noted, scholarships alone won't drive enough students into primary care to prevent a shortage of those doctors in the near future. We need more incentives, and innovative ones....
  • The 'Doc Fix' Memo Is a Hoax! Unless It Isn't!

    Earlier today, Politico posted what looked like a heck of a scoop: a supposedly leaked memo saying that Democrats were planning to try to permanently repeal the massive Medicare payment cut that reliably gets delayed every year, but only after getting health-care reform passed. The idea that Democrats might try to get rid of the pay cut wasn’t all that surprising. Nobody thinks the cut, as currently formulated, is a great idea. What was so incendiary was the language in the memo, which suggested that Dems were effectively trying to sneak a costly provision into health-care reform without anyone noticing: The inclusion of a full SGR repeal would undermine reform’s budget neutrality … As most health staff knows, Leadership and the White House are working with the AMA to rally physicians [sic] support for a full SGR repeal later this spring. However, both health and communications staff should understand we do not want that policy discussion discussed at this time, lest I [sic]...
  • A Perfect Match? No, But for Primary Care, a Promising One

    Today is a big day for young doctors in two ways. It’s Match Day, which means graduating medical students nationwide are finding out where they’ll be doing their residencies. And it’s an encouraging day for family medicine, because 1,169 of this year’s American graduates have chosen to go into that field, a significant increase from last year. This is good news for embattled and over-scheduled primary-care docs, for health-care reformers who promote preventive medicine, and for the rest of us who often find it hard to get an appointment for a checkup: it’s a sign that we’re starting to make some progress—albeit not enough—on the primary-care crisis. ...
  • Honk If You Think This Is a Stupid Idea

    If you work near a congressional district office, you may want to bring earplugs to the office tomorrow, because the health-care debate is about to officially become what some people think it already is: a lot of confusing, loud, and futile noise. Noon tomorrow, according to the lobbying group Americans for Prosperity, "is the time to finish the job of protecting this most personal freedom by stopping the Democrats' Washington takeover of our health care in the U.S. House of Representatives." Apparently, you can accomplish this by "[driving] around honking your horn" outside your representative's local office. Oh, and slapping an anti-reform bumper sticker on your car and visiting your rep afterward, although if you're passionate enough to sign up for the "Honk No" protest, you've probably done both those things already. ...
  • Did Disney Threaten a Children’s Mental-Health Center? Read Between the Lines.

    I tend to think the Baby Einstein enterprise isn’t directly harmful to children if the videos are used in moderation, but in yesterday’s New York Times there was a chilling article about how Baby Einstein’s corporate parent—the Walt Disney Co.—may be indirectly harming some very vulnerable kids. According to the article, Disney seems to have pressured a children’s mental-health center into evicting the advocacy group that has most publicly (and successfully) fought Baby Einstein’s claims of being educationally enriching....
  • Smackdown! Why We Need More Head-to-Head Drug Trials

    As part of its plan for health reform, the Obama administration has lavished attention on a particular type of medical research: “comparative effectiveness” studies, which pit different treatments directly against each other to see which one works better. (They’re like medical cage matches: in this corner there’s Prozac; in the opposing corner there’s Zoloft.) The stimulus package included $1.1 billion for this type of research, which is often the best guideline doctors have for deciding how to treat their patients. You might assume that most pharmaceutical studies would be designed this way, which is why a new paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association is so damning. It turns out that fewer than two thirds of studies fall into the comparative-effectiveness category, and the reason, according to the paper’s authors, is chicanery on the part of drug companies.The authors of the paper—Michael Hochman of the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California...
  • Who Is Prudence? The Powerful Story Obscured By Oscar's Interrupted Speech

    Roger Ross Williams reacted the classiest way he could to being Kanye’d at the Oscars after his win for the documentary Music By Prudence. As his producer, Elinor Burkett, held forth on “my role models and my heroes—marvelous and energy,” he tried to put the focus back on the subject of his film. “Prudence is here tonight,” he said, half-interrupting Burkett and pointing at a smiling young woman in the audience. Williams has since appeared on Larry King to give what would have been his speech, but he still didn’t say much about Prudence Mahbena, except that she overcame being “born in a country that despises the disabled.” That’s an understatement if there ever was one. Mahbena had the bad luck to be born with arthrogryposis—a genetic condition that warps the joints in utero, causing them to form improperly—and the worse luck to be born in Zimbabwe, where disabled children are apparently thought to be cursed by witchcraft. According to the film’s Web site, “in their culture, you...
  • Rats! Science Has a Weight Problem.

    Pity the experimental subjects in a new paper out of Johns Hopkins: they're "sedentary, obese, glucose intolerant, and on a trajectory to premature death." They very rarely exercise. They eat near constantly, snacking throughout the day with food always at the ready. In short, they sound like victims of the obesity epidemic. But you won't find them chowing down at the local McDonald's or sheepishly buying ever-bigger pants at the mall: they're lab rats. Think about it: if you were in a cage all the time with almost nothing to do except eat, and you could do that whenever you wanted, wouldn't you be a bit chubby too?...
  • Congress Cuts Medicare Payouts; Medicare Says 'Oh, No You Don't'

    Let's say an order comes down from the CEO of your company ordering that your salary be drastically cut. You tell your boss you'll have to quit because you can't survive on your meager new paycheck. Your boss says he thinks the pay cut is an atrocity and vows to fight it, but he has done nothing by the time your last full-size check gets written. You're starting to pack up your family photos when suddenly, a miracle: a guy from payroll swoops into your boss's office. "Sir," he says, "don't you want to reconsider this?" Your boss looks thoughtful. "Yeah," he says, "give me 10 more days."...
  • The House Puts Off the Medicare Pay Cut—Again

    OK, maybe the health-care summit was "a gabfest . . . with no tangible results," but Congress did do something concrete about health care yesterday: it started the process of blocking the pending 21.2 percent Medicare pay cut to doctors. Unsurprisingly, it did so by doing what it's done every single year that the pay cut has come up: it asked for more time. Last night the House gave the cut, along with several other expiring Medicare and health-related policies, a 30-day reprieve....
  • Why Medicare's 'Sustainable Growth Rate' Isn't

    It's pretty clear that today's health-care summit is going to revolve around the big, obvious issues: how to increase the number of people with insurance, how to tamp down costs. But I'm hoping another, more immediately pressing issue will also be on the table: an enormous cut in Medicare payments to doctors that's scheduled to go into effect on Monday. Congress has been stalling on this issue for years, deferring the cut whenever it comes time to make it. It now has three options: defer the cut again, decide to never make it, or do nothing and watch as the cut gets made—in which case there are going to be a lot of angry doctors and, once those docs start refusing to see Medicare patients, a lot of angry seniors as well....
  • Cord-Blood Banks Called 'Wrong'─But Who's Right?

    When I wrote this piece on umbilical-cord stem-cell banks back in December 2008, I was six months pregnant. I hoped that by analyzing the banks’ promises as a journalist, I’d be better able to decide what to do about them as an expectant mom. By then I’d already been bombarded with propaganda for private cord blood banks. There were ads in every pregnancy magazine, on every parenting Web site, on the side of my Facebook page: “Cutting edge stem cell technology!” “May potentially save a life!” But after several days of reporting at Cord Blood Registry’s hypermodern headquarters in Tucson, I wasn’t convinced that the science behind the banks was anywhere near solid enough to justify the multi-thousand-dollar cost of private stem-cell storage. Most of the outside researchers I spoke with were skeptical that children would benefit later in life from their parents’ saving their umbilical stem cells at birth. On the other hand, the scientists used very cautious language─they weren’t cond...
  • The Congressman and the Killer

    Conspiracy theorists, listen up: on Friday, Harvard-educated biologist Amy Bishop allegedly opened fire and killed three of her colleagues at the University of Alabama, Huntsville. The next day, the Boston Globe reported that local Democratic Rep. Bill Delahunt might not run for reelection, ending a political career that spans almost four decades. What's the connection between Bishop and Delahunt? It turns out that in 1986, a 19-year-old Bishop shot her brother Seth dead in Braintree, Mass., a Norfolk County suburb─but she was released to the custody of her mother, who was on a town personnel board, and never prosecuted. Almost all the records of the case are now missing. The Norfolk County district attorney at the time that the district attorney's office issued the report clearing the young Bishop of any crime? That was Delahunt. ...