Tuesday, March 3, 2009

How to Dig for Truth

I read a recent post here there is some talk about the lack of information on the internet.

There in fact is no lack of very deep scientific information. The major problem is finding it.
General news articles are mostly wrong and usually the articles do not even match the conclusions of the underlying scientific papers.

There are two issues. First, finding real scientific papers, and second, understanding them.

So I'll guide you through an example...

The Initial News Article
Tuesday March 3, 2009 there is an article stating...
This article in on Google's front page news, and the title is

Older people face greater HIV infection risks: study

and it is on the Reuters UK page.

* Doctors failing to screen for HIV in older patients

* HIV progresses faster to AIDS in those aged 50-plus

* Older people more likely to risk unprotected sex

By Laura MacInnis GENEVA (Reuters) - Doctors are failing to diagnose HIV in older patients, who are exposed to greater risk of infection as erectile dysfunction drugs extend their sex lives, a study published by the World Health Organization said on Tuesday.

One Level Down, The source news article.

Ok, lets go find the original study...
Lucky, this one gives us a clue, it is WHO, the World Health Organization. So we google the site.
It's the top hit on Google.
An it is the top blurb on the WHO web site.
3 March 2009 -- HIV prevalence and incidence in people 50 years of age and over seem surprisingly high and the risk factors are largely unexplored. Understanding the epidemiology of HIV infection in older individuals can lead to interventions to make these years safer and more enjoyable, according to articles in the March edition of the WHO Bulletin.
Ah, there is a link to the actual bulletin.

The 'Real' Story and What was the Source of Funding

This has many authors, so now our trust level can go up some. These look like actual scientists.
See those little reference letters next to their names? those tell where they are from .
a. Department of HIV/AIDS, World Health Organization, 20 avenue Appia, 1211 Geneva 27, Switzerland.
b. Independent Consultant, Geneva, Switzerland.
c. St Olaf College, Northfield, MN, United States of America.
Now a. is the HIV/AIDS department. You can guess that they will have an agenda. Given that it is WHO, they will have scientific training, and are funded by, hmmm. lets see who pays their bills...
A google of WHO funding gets about the third hit down as Wikipedia, and the very first line says ...
The World Health Organization (WHO) is a specialized agency of the United Nations (UN) that acts as a coordinating authority on international public health.
Ok, so they are part of the UN, which is a ultra political organization. Just keep that in mind.

b. above is an independent consultant.
That could mean just about anything. So, who is Brian G Williams, back to google.
Wow, lots of hits. Lets try Brian G. Williams Geneva. The sixth hit down is Science magazine with a list of some papers he has co-authored. This guy is definitely for real in the HIV research community. And he has worked a lot with the UN.

Then there are several references with c.
I could search the first one, Chris Miller but that name is so common, I'll search a more unique name, Emily Segar and add in Olaf to get the university hits....
Hmm, she shows up as a student graduating this year, and very big on the golf team.
so I add HIV as a search word, and now I see college news about the research.
In here is the 23rd National Conference on Undergraduate Research where the same authors are showing off their study.

This is the abstract...
Over 22 million individuals in sub-Saharan Africa are infected with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). Recent epidemiological research suggests that an unexpectedly high prevalence of HIV exists among the elderly in South Africa, particularly among females (Schmid et al., 2004). This trend deviates from the norm in most countries, where the prevalence of HIV infection steadily decreases after the age of 25. In the current study, we sought to (1) describe the age specific prevalence of HIV for men and women in Sub-Saharan Africa, (2) identify the risk factors associated with HIV prevalence in elderly populations and (3) compare and contrast risk factors between sub-Saharan African countries. We utilized individual-level data from 16 sub-Saharan African countries in the Demographic Health Surveys (DHS). The DHS surveys were conducted between 2002 and 2006 using a cross-sectional stratified clustered sampling methodology, which, in theory, allows findings to be generalized to each country’s population. The surveys collected data on household and respondent characteristics, socioeconomic status, education, knowledge and beliefs about sexually transmitted disease, health status, nutrition, and HIV status. Due to the nature of the sampling method, we incorporated weighted estimates for each individual (N=100,000+) into the prevalence estimates. Multiple logistic regression analyses were performed to identify potential socioeconomic, demographic, and cultural factors that were associated with HIV prevalence in elderly populations. We hope to identify whether an increased prevalence of HIV in the elderly exists in sub-Saharan African countries, and which factors may mitigate the risk for this population. Implications for future research of the epidemiology of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa are discussed.
Oh, it is a study they did in Africa.
I wonder who the professor at the university doing the study is. Maybe the first name in the list? David Tonyan Olaf gets a hit on the same article.
Ok, so I go to the top level web site for St. Olaf college, then faculty, then departments.
First I went back and read the names of the c. people.
Ok, I got sick of digging out the names. I suppose I could email one of the students and ask who the acedemic advisor is. But...

A Nugget of Facts Not in the News Articles
Did you notice the line in the abstract above...
This trend deviates from the norm in most countries, where the prevalence of HIV infection steadily decreases after the age of 25.
What the heck. When I read the news article I was thinking along the lines of good old USA retirement homes. Why they must be hives of lust! skyrocketing HIV rates for the elderly!
What about dear old Mom!

Nope. Not even the core idea. The core idea of the paper is that African HIV rates are high for the elderly, in contrast to the rest of the world.

What we Didn't Do
We got off lucky on this one and did not have to read the actual scientific paper. Aand no, I did not plan it ahead of time. I wrote this blog as a stream of thought, as I did the research.

The Point
The whole point of this article is that YOU can do the research on any topic. Follow the rabiit down the hole. You never know where it will lead.


P.S. I am NOT going to go back and edit or correct this article like I usualy do. It is a stram of thought, as it is. Typos and everything. :-)

P.P.S. I have to give credit to the WHO thought. They point out that in the developed countries HIV in the elderly is slowly going up. So it is not entirely a wrong news story.
But this begs the question; Is the WHO just trying to get more AIDS funding, and is it the best use of the money for world health issues? Yes, again, the UN is highly political.

P.P.P.S. Not that the WHO article title has the word Unexplored in it. In other words they have not yet explored the issue of the aging and HIV. So the news article is still way off.

P.P.P.P.S. After digging for the truth, wait a day or two and then rethink and reread the information. And dig a little more. On a technical subject it helps to read at least 6 technical papers (not news articles) on the subject to get more balance. And if the subject is climate, try reading some older papers from BAIT (Before An Inconvenient Truth).

P.P.P.P.P.S. the next day, a very good article on the same topic.

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