The Dubious Result of a Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT)

Randomized controlled trials are widely viewed as the “gold standard” of medical evidence. But RCTs can be flawed in a variety of ways. They can have too few participants, they can be improperly randomized for a variety of reasons (not all relevant variables may have been identified or the protocol may not have been properly implemented). Forgive me, but the results of the RCT described below seem highly implausible. I believe that something about the RCT was flawed. Who can believe the result that those who engage in moderate exercise live shorter lives than those who only engage in very modest exercise. Common sense and many observational studies say the opposite, and such evidence should not be cavalierly dismissed.

(p. D6) Scientists have known for some time, . . ., that active people tend also to be long-lived people. According to multiple past studies, regular exercise is strongly associated with greater longevity, even if the exercise amounts to only a few minutes a week.

But almost all of these studies have been observational, meaning they looked at people’s lives at a moment in time, determined how much they moved at that point, and later checked to see whether and when they passed away. Such studies can pinpoint associations between exercise and life spans, but they cannot prove that moving actually causes people to live longer, only that activity and longevity are linked.

To find out if exercise directly affects life spans, researchers would have to enroll volunteers in long-term, randomized controlled trials, with some people exercising, while others work out differently or not at all. The researchers then would have to follow all of these people for years, until a sufficiently large number died to allow for statistical comparisons of the groups.

Such studies, however, are dauntingly complicated and expensive, one reason they are rarely done. They may also be limited, since over the course of a typical experiment, few adults may die. This is providential for those who enroll in the study but problematic for the scientists hoping to study mortality; with scant deaths, they cannot tell if exercise is having a meaningful impact on life spans.

Those obstacles did not deter a group of exercise scientists at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway, however. With colleagues from other institutions, they had been studying the impacts of various types of exercise on heart disease and fitness and felt the obvious next step was to look at longevity. So, almost 10 years ago, they began planning the study that would be published in October [2020] in The BMJ.

. . .

The scientists tested everyone’s current aerobic fitness as well as their subjective feelings about the quality of their lives and then randomly assigned them to one of three groups. The first, as a control, agreed to follow standard activity guidelines and walk or otherwise remain in motion for half an hour most days. (The scientists did not feel they could ethically ask their control group to be sedentary for five years.)

Another group began exercising moderately for longer sessions of 50 minutes twice a week. And the third group started a program of twice-weekly high-intensity interval training, or H.I.I.T., during which they cycled or jogged at a strenuous pace for four minutes, followed by four minutes of rest, with that sequence repeated four times.

. . .

The men and women in the high-intensity-intervals group were about 2 percent less likely to have died than those in the control group, and 3 percent less likely to die than anyone in the longer, moderate-exercise group. People in the moderate group were, in fact, more likely to have passed away than people in the control group.

For the full story see:

Gretchen Reynolds. “Working Out With Intensity.” The New York Times (Tuesday, December 29, 2020 [sic]): D6.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Nov. 10, 2021 [sic–yes 202

    1

], and has the title “The Secret to Longevity? 4-Minute Bursts of Intense Exercise May Help.” Where the wording of the versions slightly differs, the passages quoted above follow the online version.)

The study published in The British Medical Journal (BMJ), and mentioned above, is:

Stensvold, Dorthe, Hallgeir Viken, Sigurd L. Steinshamn, Håvard Dalen, Asbjørn Støylen, Jan P. Loennechen, Line S. Reitlo, Nina Zisko, Fredrik H. Bækkerud, Atefe R. Tari, Silvana B. Sandbakk, Trude Carlsen, Jan E. Ingebrigtsen, Stian Lydersen, Erney Mattsson, Sigmund A. Anderssen, Maria A. Fiatarone Singh, Jeff S. Coombes, Eirik Skogvoll, Lars J. Vatten, Jorunn L. Helbostad, Øivind Rognmo, and Ulrik Wisløff. “Effect of Exercise Training for Five Years on All Cause Mortality in Older Adults—the Generation 100 Study: Randomised Controlled Trial.” BMJ 371 (2020): m3485.

Chernow Channels McCloskey’s Index Card Advice

In her wonderful paper on how to research well and write clearly, Deirdre McCloskey suggests that we always carry with us a pack of 4 by 6 cards, so that we have them handy when we are hit by an epiphany or hear a relevant quote. (The suggestion probably also appears in the later book versions of her wonderful paper, but I do not have a copy handy to check.)

(p. C11) Mr. Chernow usually spends about twice as much time researching a book as writing it. He types up his research on a computer, so that he has it backed up, and then prints out the individual entries on paper with perforated edges that he can tear into 4-by-6-inch cards. (He was inspired to use index cards by Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote his novels on them.) He then files the cards chronologically and indexes them. His research on Grant fills some 25,000 cards packed into 22 boxes, all stacked up in the office of his Brooklyn brownstone under a big abstract painting.

For the full interview, see:

Alexandra Wolfe. “WEEKEND CONFIDENTIAL; Ron Chernow.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017 [sic]): C11.

(Note: the online version of the interview has the date Sept. 15, 2017 [sic], and has the title “WEEKEND CONFIDENTIAL; Ron Chernow’s New Chapter: Ulysses S. Grant.”)

The main Chernow book discussed in the interview is:

Chernow, Ron. Grant. New York: The Penguin Press, 2017.

McCloskey’s wonderful paper, mentioned above, is:

McCloskey, Deirdre. “Economical Writing.” Economic Inquiry 23, no. 2 (April 1985): 187-222.

To Reduce the Huge Costs of Randomized Clinical Trials, Groups Are Excluded for Whom the Trials Matter Most

(p. D5) Geriatricians have complained for years that figuring out treatments for their patients becomes dramatically more difficult when older people are excluded from clinical trials and other research.

For an 83-year-old, what are the risks and benefits of a surgical procedure, drug or medical device tested primarily on those in their 50s? When a drug trial excludes those who have several diseases and take other drugs, how do the results pertain to older adults — most of whom have several diseases and take other drugs?

. . .

Critics of age exclusion had reason to celebrate in December, when the National Institutes of Health issued new policy guidelines for the research it funds.

Starting next January, grant applicants will have to explain how they intend to include people of all ages, providing acceptable justifications for any group they leave out. The agency will monitor investigators to make sure they comply.

“It’s the right starting point,” said Dr. Florence Bourgeois, a pediatrician at Harvard Medical School. (Children also wind up taking drugs tested only in adults.)

. . .

How often are old people left out of important medical research? In 2011, it looked like progress when Dr. Donna Zulman and her colleagues at the University of Michigan reviewed 109 clinical trials published in leading journals and found that just 20 percent set upper age limits for participation.

An earlier review of trials published from 1994 to 2006 had found that 39 percent shut out people over age 65.

But, as the University of Michigan team also pointed out, even without age limits, studies may bar participants who have multiple disorders or disabilities, or those with limited life expectancy or cognitive impairment. Some researchers won’t enroll nursing home residents.

Those restrictions, too, effectively push older people out of clinical trials and other studies.

Maddeningly, exclusion rates remain high even for studies of diseases particularly common at older ages. Dr. Bourgeois and her colleagues looked at clinical trials for heart disease medications, for instance — primarily blood thinners, cholesterol and blood pressure drugs.

More than half of the trials had upper age limits, usually 75 or 80, and only about 12 percent of participants were aged 75 or older. Yet nearly 40 percent of people hospitalized with heart attacks are over age 75.

For the full story see:

Paula Span. “The Clinical Trial Is Open. Older People Need Not Apply.” The New York Times (Tuesday, April 17, 2018 [sic]): D5.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 13, 2018 [sic], and has the title “The Clinical Trial Is Open. The Elderly Need Not Apply.”)

Some published academic articles supporting the points made in the passages quoted above are:

Bourgeois, Florence T., Liat Orenstein, Sarita Ballakur, Kenneth D. Mandl, and John P. A. Ioannidis. “Exclusion of Elderly People from Randomized Clinical Trials of Drugs for Ischemic Heart Disease.” Journal of the American Geriatrics Society 65, no. 11 (Nov. 2017): 2354-61.

Bourgeois, Florence T., Srinivas Murthy, Catia Pinto, Karen L. Olson, John P.A. Ioannidis, and Kenneth D. Mandl. “Pediatric Versus Adult Drug Trials for Conditions with High Pediatric Disease Burden.” Pediatrics 130, no. 2 (Aug. 2012): 285-92.

Cruz-Jentoft, Alfonso J., Marina Carpena-Ruiz, Beatriz Montero-Errasquín, Carmen Sánchez-Castellano, and Elisabet Sánchez-García. “Exclusion of Older Adults from Ongoing Clinical Trials About Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus.” Journal of the American Geriatrics Society 61, no. 5 (May 2013): 734-38.

Lewis, Joy H., Meredith L. Kilgore, Dana P. Goldman, Edward L. Trimble, Richard Kaplan, Michael J. Montello, Michael G. Housman, and José J. Escarce. “Participation of Patients 65 Years of Age or Older in Cancer Clinical Trials.” Journal of Clinical Oncology 21, no. 7 (April 2003): 1383-89.

McGarvey, Caoimhe, Tara Coughlan, and Desmond O’Neill. “Ageism in Studies on the Management of Osteoporosis.” Journal of the American Geriatrics Society 65, no. 7 (July 2017): 1566-68.

Zulman, Donna M., Jeremy B. Sussman, Xisui Chen, Christine T. Cigolle, Caroline S. Blaum, and Rodney A. Hayward. “Examining the Evidence: A Systematic Review of the Inclusion and Analysis of Older Adults in Randomized Controlled Trials.” Journal of General Internal Medicine 26, no. 7 (July 2011): 783-90.

The Cholera and Bubonic Plague Vaccination Campaigns of Waldemar Haffkine Count as Evidence of “the Benevolence of British Medical Imperialism”

(p. C7) “In the end, all history is natural history,” writes Simon Schama in “Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines and the Health of Nations.” The author, a wide-ranging historian and an engaging television host, reconciles the weight of medical detail with the light-footed pleasures of narrative discovery. His book profiles some of the unsung miracle workers of modern vaccination, and offers a subtle rumination on borders political and biological.

. . .

Inoculation, Mr. Schama writes, became a “serious big business” in commercial England, despite the inoculators’ inability to understand how (p. C8) it worked, and despite Tory suspicions that the procedure meant “new-fangled,” possibly Jewish, interference in the divine plan. In 1764, the Italian medical professor Angelo Gatti published an impassioned defense of inoculation that demolished humoral theory. Mr. Schama calls Gatti an “unsung visionary of the Enlightenment.” His work was a boon to public health, though his findings met resistance in France, where the prerevolutionary medical establishment was more concerned with protecting its authority.

. . .

(p. C8) Mr. Schama alights on the story of Waldemar Haffkine, the Odessa-born Jew who created vaccines against cholera and bubonic plague. In 1892, Haffkine inoculated himself against cholera with the vaccine he had developed at the Institut Pasteur in Paris. He went on to inoculate thousands of Indians, and so effectively that his campaigns served as, in Mr. Schama’s words, “an advertisement for the benevolence of British medical imperialism.”

. . .

The author notes the contrast between the facts of Haffkine’s achievements and the response of the British establishment, with its modern echoes of the medieval fantasy that Jews were “demonic instigators of mass death.” Yet Mr. Schama’s skepticism of authority only extends so far. It would have been instructive to learn why, when Covid-19 appeared, the WHO concurred with Voltaire that the Chinese were “the wisest and best governed people in the world” and advised liberal democracies to emulate China’s lockdowns.

Haffkine’s colleague Ernest Hanbury Hankin once wrote an essay called “The Mental Limitations of the Expert.” Mr. Schama’s conclusion shows the limitations of our expert class, which appears not to understand the breach of public trust caused by the politicization of Covid policy and the suppression of public debate. You do not have to be “far right” to distrust mandatory mRNA vaccination. As Mr. Schama shows, the health of the body politic depends on scientific inquiry.

For the full review, see:

Dominic Green. “Protecting the Body Politic.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023): C7-C8.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date September 22, 2023, and has the title “‘Foreign Bodies’ Review: Migrant Microbes, Human Borders.”)

The book under review is:

Schama, Simon. Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines, and the Health of Nations. New York: Ecco Press, 2023.

Patients Know Their Condition and Should Be Listened to by Physicians

The article quoted below gives evidence that on average the patients of female physicians have slightly better health outcomes than the patients of male physicians, and speculates that the reason is that on average, female physicians are somewhat better at listening than are male physicians. The article does not highlight an important implication of this speculation: that what the patient is saying is worth listening to, i.e., it has merit, often providing true and useful knowledge about their own condition. Patients actually know something. If so, this goes against the popular views that physicians should be paternalistic, and that the only actionable source of health knowledge is a randomized double-blind clinical trial.

(p. D4) Whether your doctor is male or female could be a matter of life or death, a new study suggests. The study, of more than 580,000 heart patients admitted over two decades to emergency rooms in Florida, found that mortality rates for both women and men were lower when the treating physician was female. And women who were treated by male doctors were the least likely to survive.

Earlier research supports the findings. In 2016, a Harvard study of more than 1.5 million hospitalized Medicare patients found that when patients were treated by female physicians, they were less likely to die or be readmitted to the hospital over a 30-day period than those cared for by male doctors. The difference in mortality was slight — about half a percentage point — but when applied to the entire Medicare population, it translates to 32,000 fewer deaths.

Other studies have also found meaningful differences in how women and men practice medicine. Researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health analyzed a number of studies that focused on how doctors communicate. They found that female primary care doctors simply spent more time listening to patients than did their male colleagues. But listening comes with a cost. Doctors who were women spent, on average, two extra minutes, or about 10 percent more time per visit, creating scheduling delays and putting them an hour or more behind their male colleagues by the end of the day.

Dr. Nieca Goldberg, a cardiologist whose book “Women Are Not Small Men” helped start a national conversation about heart disease in women, said the research should not be used to disparage male doctors, but should instead empower patients to find doctors who listen.

. . .

Edna Haber, a retired mortgage company owner who lives in Westchester County in New York, said she has had wonderful male and female doctors, but her worst experiences have all involved male doctors.  . . .

Recently she decided to see Dr. Goldberg to discuss heart palpitations and feeling lightheaded. But a series of medical tests during the office visit found that her heart was normal. “I do believe that had I been with a male doctor, I think he just would have put his arm around me and said, ‘Listen, go home, relax, meditate, maybe take a tranquilizer,’ and that would have been the end of it.”

But Dr. Goldberg knew the patient had been concerned enough to see a doctor, so she suggested that she wear a heart monitor for a few days. Several days later, the technicians monitoring the feed noticed a pattern that ultimately showed Ms. Haber needed a pacemaker.

“She paid attention and treated me as if I was credible,” said Ms. Haber. “I wish all the women I know could understand how important it is to have a doctor who pays attention to them, whatever part of the body they are looking at. I think a lot of women are getting short shrift.”

For the full story see:

Tara Parker-Pope. “Should You Choose a Female Doctor?” The New York Times (Tuesday, August 21, 2018 [sic]): D4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Aug. 14, 2018 [sic], and has the same title as the print version.)

The “new” study mentioned above is:

Greenwood, Brad N., Seth Carnahanb, and Laura Huang. “Patient–Physician Gender Concordance and Increased Mortality among Female Heart Attack Patients.” PNAS 115, no. 34 (Aug. 21, 2018): 8569–74.

Dogs Can Alert Owners to Epileptic or Diabetic Emergencies

(p. B1) Rosebud is a service dog trained at a nonprofit called Canine Partners for Life in Cochraneville, Pa. The dog can detect when Ms. Vible will have a seizure about 15 minutes before it happens. She lets Ms. Vible know with a whine or a bark and then lies down with her owner until the seizure is over.

Seizure-alert dogs are part of a growing class of service animals that can detect warning signs of epileptic seizures and diabetic emergencies and identify other medical conditions. Demand has surged, according to trainers and training centers—some of which now have long wait lists—as recent scientific studies have started to confirm the dogs’ efficacy in helping their owners.

. . .

Their acute sense of smell helps the dogs detect low and high blood-sugar levels and epileptic seizures before they happen. Researchers haven’t yet identified the specific compounds that the dogs are smelling. But once the dogs recognize the smell, they are trained to respond with a specific action such as barking or pawing at their owners. Depending on the owner’s state and the animal’s training, some dogs also might alert another adult, bring a juice box or press a button that sends a phone text to a caregiver.

The University of Bristol in England this year produced a study of dogs’ ability to detect hypoglycemia, which occurs when a diabetic’s blood sugar drops dangerously. If left untreated, this can lead to unconsciousness or death. In assessing the effectiveness of 27 glycemia-alert dogs, the Bristol study found that the dogs alerted their owners to 83% of hypoglycemic episodes in more than 4,000 hypo- and hyperglycemic episodes.

The findings of another study released this year showed promise for people suffering from epilepsy. Researchers from the University of Rennes in Normandy, France, presented dogs with samples of breath and sweat odors obtained from epileptic patients having seizures, not having seizures and exercising (to determine whether the dogs were just detecting sweat). All of the dogs succeeded in identifying the epileptic-seizure-odor sample, and the dogs spent about 23 seconds investigating the seizure smell, compared with about five seconds spent on the other samples.

The lead researcher of the study, Amelie Catala, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Rennes, says the research could help in the development of electronic noses, devices that can detect and analyze odors and flavors.

“If there is an organic compound related to these diseases that we can detect and identify, it could help develop electronic noses,” she says.

Medical-alert dogs are being trained by for-profit and nonprofit centers, by individual trainers and at times by individual pet owners themselves. In addition to those skills already mentioned, some have been trained to warn patients about abnormal heart rhythms, and to detect allergens. Dogs also have been trained to help identify certain cancers in laboratory settings.

For the full story, see:

Aili McConnon. “Dogs That Can Read Warning Signs Progress Before Explosion.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, Sept. 16, 2019 [sic]): R9.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Sept. 12, 2019 [sic], and has the title “A Growing Role for Medical-Alert Dogs.” The last four paragraphs quoted above appear in the online, but not in the print, version of the article.)

The University of Bristol academic paper mentioned above is:

Rooney, Nicola J., Claire M. Guest, Lydia C. M. Swanson, and Steve V. Morant. “How Effective Are Trained Dogs at Alerting Their Owners to Changes in Blood Glycaemic Levels?: Variations in Performance of Glycaemia Alert Dogs.” PLOS ONE 14, no. 1 (2019): e0210092.

The University of Rennes academic paper mentioned above is:

Catala, Amélie, Marine Grandgeorge, Jean-Luc Schaff, Hugo Cousillas, Martine Hausberger, and Jennifer Cattet. “Dogs Demonstrate the Existence of an Epileptic Seizure Odour in Humans.” Scientific Reports 9, no. 1 (2019): article #4103.

Edgar Allen Poe Said Intuitive Leaps Should Be Added to Deduction and Induction as Paths to Knowledge

(p. C7) In an 1848 lecture, Edgar Allan Poe—the “Raven” guy, the progenitor of detective stories and spooky science fiction, who married his 13-year-old cousin, and died after being found insensibly drunk and wearing (somehow the most unsettling detail of all) another man’s clothes—this ink-stained wretch described a startling number of what would turn out to be prominent features of modern cosmology, including the big bang, the big crunch and the unity of space-time.

. . .

Where Poe sent audiences winging around the universe (or multiverse, another concept he seems to have anticipated), Mr. Tresch keeps to a steady course. He approaches Poe’s uncanny lecture—and its published version, the prose poem “Eureka”—not as a crazy fever dream, but as an inspired series of leaps from a firm grounding in fact.

. . .

In his lecture on the universe, Poe turned this method upside down: Here he used fiction in the service of science. He began by citing a letter, purportedly written in 2848, that mocked the primitive methods of 1848, when overconfident scientists believed that deduction and induction were the only paths to knowledge. Intuitive leaps, Poe insisted, could yield insights of their own. One such “soul-reverie” led him to argue that the universe began when “a primordial Particle” erupted outward in every direction. Everything that has happened since then is the result of the interplay of “the two Principles Proper, Attraction and Repulsion.” So far, so reasonable, by the lights of 21st-century cosmology. Still, plenty of what Poe went on to assert is either flatly wrong, ludicrously wrong, or outside the realm of cosmology properly defined, e.g., his suggestion that if there are multiple universes, each might have its own god.

“The Raven,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Pit and the Pendulum”: As far as Poe was concerned, these gloomy triumphs of his imagination—all the poems and short stories that have made him immortal—counted for less than his cosmic speculations, which he considered the pinnacle of his career. “I could accomplish nothing more since I have written Eureka,” he told his mother-in-law/aunt. So imagine his dismay when, after requesting a print run of 50,000 copies, his publisher granted him only 500, and even these didn’t sell. A year later, Poe would spend a calamitous day and night in Baltimore, drinking himself to oblivion. He died at 40.

Had he lived, he would have found it ever more difficult to “revolutionize the world of Physical & Metaphysical Science.” Mr. Tresch, who teaches at the Warburg Institute at the University of London and has previously written about Romanticism and science in 19th-century France, shows that the last years of Poe’s life coincided with increased regimentation in American thought. New organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science began applying rigorous standards to scientific discourse. “Eureka” was “precisely the kind of publicly oriented, freewheeling, generalizing, idiosyncratic, and unlicensed speculation that the AAAS was created to exclude,” he writes.

For the full review, see:

Jeremy McCarter. “Mystery, Science, Theater.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, June 12, 2021 [sic]): C7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review was updated June 11, 2021 [sic], and has the title “‘The Reason for the Darkness of the Night’ Review: Poe’s Eureka Moment.” In the online and print versions, the words “Attraction,” “Repulsion,” and “Eureka” in Poe quotes appear in italics.)

The book under review is:

Tresch, John. The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021.

Isaacson Reprises His Themes of “Science, Genius, Experiment, Code, Thinking Different” in Book on CRISPR

(p. 12) The landmark research that brought Doudna and Charpentier to the pinnacle of global acclaim has the potential to control future pandemics — either by outwitting the next viral plague through better screening and treatment or by engineering human beings with better disease resistance programmed into their cells. The technique of gene editing that they patented, which goes by the unwieldy acronym of CRISPR-Cas9, makes it possible to selectively snip and alter bits of DNA as though they were so many hems to take up or waistbands to let out. The method is based on defenses pioneered by bacteria in their ages-old battle against viruses.

. . .

The CRISPR history holds obvious appeal for Walter Isaacson, a biographer of Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs and Leonardo da Vinci. In “The Code Breaker” he reprises several of his previous themes — science, genius, experiment, code, thinking different — and devotes a full length book to a female subject for the first time.

. . .

Isaacson keeps a firm, experienced hand on the scientific explanations, which he mastered through extensive readings and interviews, all of which are footnoted.

For the full review, see:

Dava Sobel. “Deus Ex Machina.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, March 21, 2021 [sic]): 12.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 8, 2021 [sic], and has the title “A Biography of the Woman Who Will Re-Engineer Humans.”)

The book under review is:

Isaacson, Walter. The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021.

Citizen Archeologists “Are Increasingly Making Important Discoveries”

(p. 11) The long, thin piece of metal looked like a scaffolding pole when Trevor Penny saw it on the banks of an English river last November [2023].

. . .

But his find that day was much more dramatic: a rusty Viking sword that had been there for more than 1,000 years.

. . .

When Mr. Penny, 52, realized what he had found, he contacted a local official responsible for identifying the public’s archaeological finds.

The discovery was “one further puzzle piece that can cast light on our shared heritage,” said that official, Edward Caswell, who documents Oxfordshire finds for the Portable Antiquities Scheme run by the British Museum.  . . .

“We do find Viking weapons, including swords, deposited in rivers in England,” said Jane Kershaw, an associate professor of archaeology at the University of Oxford.

Many such weapons have been found in the north and east of the country, Dr. Kershaw said. She called the sword a “rare example” of viking activity in the area.

“It is outside the normal find zone for these weapons,” she said. “But the Vikings, they were active in that area. There is a lot that we don’t know about their activities.”

Hobbyists are increasingly making important discoveries, and Dr. Kershaw said it was critical that they report their finds. “It’s hugely valuable information,” she said. “As long as they are recording it, this is having archaeology that otherwise would be lost.”

For the full story, see:

Isabella Kwai. “Treasure Hunter Finds Viking Sword.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, March 17, 2024): 11.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date March 15, 2024, and has the title “This Treasure Hunter’s Latest Find? A 1,000-Year-Old Viking Sword.”)

Good Scientific Questions Can Be Answered With Empirical Experiments: “In Science, Reality Rules”

(p. A17) . . . I hit it off with the legendary Columbia University physics professor and Nobel Prize winner I.I. Rabi, who discovered the basis for magnetic resonance imaging, among other techniques through which we access and harness the quantum world.

. . .

Naturally, our conversations often wandered across physics. I was full of theoretical ideas and quasi-philosophical speculations. Rabi pressed me—gently, with a twinkle in his eye, yet relentlessly—to describe their concrete meaning. In the process we often discovered that there wasn’t any!

But not always—and the questions that survived those dialogues were leaner and stronger. I internalized this experience, and since then my inner Rabi (he died in 1988) has been a wise, inspiring companion.

. . .

Fully worked-out answers to good scientific questions should include solid experimental prospects.

That is a surprisingly controversial view today, as some prominent philosophers of science promote a “post-empirical physics” that doesn’t require proof, or evidence. And there’s no doubt that physically inspired mathematics, or for that matter pure mathematics, can bring people great joy. But I lean toward Rabi’s attitude: In science, reality rules.

. . .

Another characteristic of most good questions is that the answer is just a little bit out of reach. It should not be too obvious, but it should not be utterly inaccessible either.

. . .

The foolproof way to find good questions is to come up with a lot of them and then throw out the ones that are too vague, too easy, too hard or too inconsequential.

For the full commentary, see:

Frank Wilczek. “WILCZEK’S UNIVERSE; Sifting for the Right Questions in Science.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, July 29, 2023): C4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date July 28, 2023, and has the same title as the print version.)

All Conclusions in Science Are Open to Further Inquiry

(p. C3) Victory is often temporary. In December 2014, a nurse named Nina Pham contracted Ebola from a patient in Dallas. She was transferred to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., and treated by a team led by Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

When Ms. Pham was discharged, the cameras captured an indelible moment: Together with NIH Director Francis Collins, Dr. Fauci, dressed in a crisp white lab coat, walked her out with his arm draped over her shoulder. This conveyed a critical message at a time when public fear about the disease was widespread. “We would not be releasing Ms. Pham if we were not completely confident in the knowledge that she has fully recovered, is virus free and poses no public health threat,” an NIH statement read.

But scientific certainty often carries an asterisk. Six months later, doctors in Atlanta discovered that in some patients who survive, the Ebola virus could still be found hidden away in parts of the body. This did not indicate that they could transmit the disease, but it meant that they could no longer be declared “virus-free” with certainty. This episode demonstrated how quickly our knowledge about public health threats can alter. What we once thought was true for the Ebola virus had changed, and no doubt will continue to evolve.

For the full commentary, see:

Jeremy Brown. “What Past Crises Tell Us About the Coronavirus.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020 [sic]): C3.

(Note: the online version of the commentary was updated Jan. 31, 2020 [sic], and has the same title as the print version. In both the online and print versions, the first sentence quoted above is in bold font.)