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Bad science, and really bad reporting

So, of course, everyone in the media has been gushing about the study that proves that even casual pot smoking damages the brain. Of course, that’s not even close to what the study showed, even if you accept the study itself as legitimate.

The people who really know, know better.

Here’s John Gever, Deputy Managing Editor, MedPage Today: Striking a Nerve: Bungling the Cannabis Story

Correlation does not equal causation, and a single exam cannot show a trend over time. Basic stuff, right?

But judging by coverage of a study just out in the Journal of Neuroscience, these are apparently foreign concepts for many folks in the media. […]

Sad to say, the Society for Neuroscience (SfN), which publishes the Journal of Neuroscience, may have driven these dramatic overinterpretations by promoting the study in a press release headlined “Brain changes are associated with casual marijuana use in young adults.”

Also note that the study did not identify any cognitive or behavioral abnormalities in the cannabis users versus controls — it was strictly an MRI study.

That, however, didn’t stop senior author Hans Breiter, MD, of Northwestern from opining in the SfN press release that the study “raises a strong challenge to the idea that casual marijuana use isn’t associated with bad consequences.”

Um, no, it doesn’t — not without before-and-after MRI scans showing brain structure changes in users that differ from nonusers and documentation of functional impairments associated with those changes.

Lior Pachter, a computational biologist, was even harsher about the actual science: Does researching casual marijuana use cause brain abnormalities?

This is quite possibly the worst paper I’ve read all year (as some of my previous blog posts show I am saying something with this statement). […]

First of all, the study has a very small sample size, with only 20 “cases” (marijuana users), a fact that is important to keep in mind in what follows. The title uses the term “recreational users” to describe them, and in the press release accompanying the article Breiter says that “Some of these people only used marijuana to get high once or twice a week. People think a little recreational use shouldn’t cause a problem, if someone is doing OK with work or school. Our data directly says this is not the case.” In fact, the majority of users in the study were smoking more than 10 joints per week. There is even a person in the study smoking more than 30 joints per week (as disclosed above, I’m not an expert on this stuff but if 30 joints per week is “recreation” then it seems to me that person is having a lot of fun). More importantly, Breiter’s statement in the press release is a lie. There is no evidence in the paper whatsoever, not even a tiny shred, that the users who were getting high once or twice a week were having any problems.

Pachter then gets into an analysis of the study’s bad math (which is completely out of my knowledge base and totally over my head, so I can’t really comment on it, but it sounds damning.

And finally:

This issue is one of the oldest in the book. There is even a wikipedia entry about it. Correlation does not imply causation. Yet despite the fact the every result in the paper is directed at testing for association, in the last sentence of the abstract they say “These data suggest that marijuana exposure, even in young recreational users, is associated with exposure-dependent alterations of the neural matrix of core reward structures and is consistent with animal studies of changes in dendritic arborization.” At a minimum, such a result would require doing a longitudinal study. Breiter takes this language to an extreme in the press release accompanying the article. I repeat the statement he made that I quoted above where I boldface the causal claim: “”Some of these people only used marijuana to get high once or twice a week. People think a little recreational use shouldn’t cause a problem, if someone is doing OK with work or school. Our data directly says this is not the case.” I believe that scientists should be sanctioned for making public statements that directly contradict the content of their papers, as appears to be the case here.

Agreed.

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43 comments to Bad science, and really bad reporting

  • Russell Olausen

    Double talk by people of a like mind who accredit each other with no outside independent examination to get in the way of the gravy train. J. Smith described the character type over 200 yrs. ago in a satire named Gulliver’s Travels.

  • thelbert

    that’s odd, a guy named jonathan swift wrote a book with the same title almost 300 years ago.

    • NorCalNative

      “I hate and detest the animal called man.” Jonathan Swift.

      There are times when American corruption and greed make me feel the same way, at least against the class of those who actually embrace ignorance.

  • darkcycle

    They haven’t done anything here. They didn’t show that these people had changed from a former state. They only showed a static difference between the groups. They didn’t establish that this brain architecture was abnormal (it’s not, these subjects were normal, only relative to the controls were they different, in no way were these changes outside of the normal range for anatomical variance). They did not establish any functional changes were associated with these anatomical differences. In fact they didn’t even show that these WERE changes from some earlier state, and not the normal state of these controls.
    They didn’t control for other things that have been shown to cause changes in brain structure, like stress, fear, poverty, physical illness, nutrition. In fact they didn’t “Control” for ANYTHING. They took two snap shots of different groups of people at a single point in time, and then ONLY considered ONE possible explanation for the observable differences. This one is worse than that IQ study they pitched at us a month or so ago. This one has a shelf life measured in minutes.

  • NorCalNative

    Pete, great catch on the Lior Pachter article.

    Hope your talk with Young Americans for Liberty went well.

  • claygooding

    Given that our bodies have evolved subject to the substance we consume and absorb and the cannabis plant was one of man’s first cultivated crops there is no way of estimating how much brain structuring we have that is there because of cannabis.
    If cannabis was harming any of our brain functions how did we ever cover the earth and evolve into the top of the food chain.
    According to fossils so far found and studies mankind suddenly doubled his brain capacity,,somethin in mans diet or environment suddenly increased his brain size and a lot of theorists opine it is when man found a new food source that was psychoactive.
    It could be that prohibiting cannabis is weakening our brain structure instead of users damaging their brains we are making them stronger,,, how will they spin that?

  • Nunavut Tripper

    And why wouldn’t cannabis alter brain structure?
    Your brain is constantly adjusting and adapting even to every insignificant thing that happens on a daily basis.
    Would learning a foreign language change the structure?
    Would building a 30 foot sailboat in your workshop create a large area dedicated to memories and the learning process.
    So would cannabis use cause the creative,artistic and compassionate modes of your brain to increase?
    A lot of hype about nothing.

    • Francis

      Hmm, so you’re suggesting that cannabis use might actually alter one’s brain structure in a positive way? Well, if it doesn’t, it would represent the first failure of Francis’ Law that I’m aware of.

  • NorCalNative

    OT:

    On using full extract cannabis oil for symptoms of opiate withdrawal and detox.

    First, a little about what opiate withdrawal and detox actually is and means. In withdrawal, previously occupied opiate receptors in the brain that have been accustomed to being filled with narcotics are suddenly “naked, empty, and screaming their asses off. These angry receptors respond by sending “PAIN” signals to the brain and body.

    Different types of opiates and other medications are often given for detox during this period because they fill the receptor sites and quiet the distress of angry nerve receptors.

    I’m in day #3 of opiate detox and three-weeks into withdrawal after almost twenty years of morphine use. Based on personal experience as I type this I can throw out a few thoughts.

    First, the full extract cannabis oil MUST BE filling some of my opiate receptors. They must be filling some of my opiate receptors because I’m NOT experiencing the normal symptoms associated with narcotic withdrawal and detox, e.g. nausea, vomiting, diarrhea.

    A second possibility is that the “retrograde signaling” property of cannabis is tamping down “emergency-I’m-freaking-out signals from unhappy opiate receptors.”

    A third possibility, and the one which I favor, is that both things are happening in combination to reduce withdrawal and detox symptoms significantly.

    I believe the correct medical term for cannabis filling my opiate receptors is that it’s acting as a “partial agonist.” The retrograde signaling that cannabis performs is a way for post-synaptic neurons to manage “irregular and harmful” over-firing from “pre-synaptic” neurons. Retrograde signaling is apparently unique to cannabinoids.

    It would have been impossible for me to have minimized the symptoms of opiate withdrawal and detox if cannabis didn’t PROTECT MY BRAIN. I didn’t need a scientist or the corporate media to tell me that cannabis protected my brain. My small sample-size of me, is all the proof I needed.

  • primus

    When these prohibidiots broadcasters and writers speak of changes in the brain with such conviction and authority, it is useful to remember that studies of the brain are in their infancy. It was only about 20 years ago that the entire endocannabinoid system was unknown. It was not known how cannabis makes us high. That is a major system in the brain, and it was only discovered recently. What other important characteristics of the nervous system await discovery? Nobody knows. NOBODY. IOW the prohibidiots are talking out their rectal orifices.

  • kaptinemo

    OT: this being a Freaky Friday at work, when I came across this, I couldn’t help myself:

    Blunt Jesus

    Enjoy.

  • kaptinemo

    On topic: it’s interesting to read the various comments at each of the articles. The reactions can be distilled into three different groups.

    The first appear to be actual scientists – who also appear to have little or no association with or enjoy the support of prohibitionists. Their reactions are almost uniform condemnation of the study. Some may be trying to be diplomatic, but even those denounce it.

    The second group is much more obvious: prohibs, both ‘lettereds’ and not. The former, trailing alphabet soup after their surnames, have been silent on their fiscal sources, but their criticisms are invariably the sort made by those profiting from the ‘treatment’ industry. The greater number of that subgroup appear to be less educated, low information citizens who also do not make their fiscal sources transparent, but appear to be the usual ‘water carriers’: police, bureaucrats, ‘concerned citizens’, etc. who also benefit from prohibition.

    The last group are mainly folks like those residing on the Couch. Cannabis-knowledgeable citizens. Enough said.

    It’s a pattern easily discernible once you make it, and on doing so, you also realize how incredibly thin the prohib support is. For, don’t you think that if the prohibs had as much intellectual integrity as they do blind, deliberately ignorant fervor, they’d be massing in vast numbers on the usual Websites? They’re hardly making an appearance. And when they do, they are almost outnumbered a hundred to one. ..as the comments show.

    Must be hard, being a prohib, nowadays…

    • allan

      gosh it’s fun sometimes watching us eviscerate a prohib, but man, those docs commenting on the Pachter article know how to use scalpels!

    • Paul McClancy

      I have to agree with your categorization. Gever’s article has the highest concentration of parasites who are supposedly medical professionals. The vast majority of Pachter’s guests seem to be of sound thinking. Depending on how you’re feeling, there are real gems of comedy found on Gever’s comment thread. Here’s a treat from Dr. Miller’s fantasy: “Dialing back the concept of “Reefer Madness” in American media? Surely, you must be thinking of a different media than the predominantly pro-marijuana journalistic establishment that exists in this country today. The vast majority of headlines have sensationalized the benefits of this recreational drug.”

      It would be funnier if she wasn’t so serious.

  • I posted some of this info a few posts back.

    Well, just for consistency (speaking of enlarged amygdala’s and pot)

    Date: June 3, 2008 :

    “The hippocampus, thought to regulate emotion and memory, and the amygdala, involved with fear and aggression, tended to be smaller in cannabis users than in controls”

    http://tinyurl.com/5vnkk9o

    A larger amygdala is also associated with:

    anxiety in young children
    autism
    PTSD
    childhood adversity
    mesial temporal lobe epilepsy
    internalizing syndrome’s

    – and last of all, people with conservative tendencies are associated with larger amygdala’s. The newspapers loved that one.

    “Lack of hippocampal volume change in long-term heavy cannabis users.”
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15804878
    “These findings are consistent with recent literature suggesting that cannabis use is not associated with structural changes within the brain as a whole…”

    Truth be known, the public has no idea of what this all means or the ramifications of any of it. Neither do the researchers, but they have no problem with adding it all to the reefer madness so thoroughly created and imagined by the US Government. These are not researchers but paid government mercenaries in the war on drugs. They keep marijuana illegal thru the creation of fear in collaboration with members of the press that are lackey enough to follow along.

    Lemmings.

  • […] Pete Guither notes a scathing assessment of Gilman et al.'s study by U.C.-Berkeley computational biologist Lior […]

    • allan

      man… that poor study. Well, not necessarily the study itself, but the bozos busy cooking up another pan of roofer madness by twisting its data are getting their butts kicked.

      Pachter’s summation is eloquent and deserves repeating, [t]his is quite possibly the worst paper I’ve read all year […]

  • CJ

    let us please not forget the VERY important part of this whole thing. EVEN IF THIS WERE 100% TRUE AND ACCURATE (which it isn’t) SO FREAKING WHAT? We should not over-look the fact that WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO LIFE LIBERTY AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS AND IF WEED DID ALTER THE BRAIN HOWEVER WHICH WAY IT IS OUR RIGHT TO PURSUE THE ALTERING OF OUR BRAINS HOWEVER WE SO PLEASE. I do not want some Greenwich CT wino piece of crap fake blond bimbo materialistic, pretentious, pound cake with her girlfriends while their 50 years older than them rich husbands are at work stupid alcohol drinker like that chick on the Fox show giving any life advice out to me, nor the similar loser John Walters she was talking to. MIND YOUR BUSINESS. STFU, GO AWAY. Nothing lamer than the drinker who drinks to that point where they give you that ridiculous drunk stare with semi wild semi retarded eyes. Nobody that digs alcohol has the right to tell any of us what to do. Im sorry.

  • DdC

    We Need a Law Against “False or Misleading News”

    Media’s Fearmongering on Marijuana Effects on the Brain Is Faulty
    By Paul Armentano / AlterNet April 17, 2014
    Why the Media’s Fearmongering on Marijuana Effects on the Brain Is Faulty

    A neuroimaging study of the brains of marijuana smokers caused unwarranted frenzy.

    Methinks they may have discovered how to breed.

    Bernard Hess?

    4/15/14 New Harvard study: Marijuana causes major brain damage u2b
    Bernard Hess Published on Apr 15, 2014
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L4xLXVMl5bI&list=UUIjJx_p_PsMlBzMy1mQwIFA
    marijuana users may sentence their unborn children to a lifetime of birth defects
    Comments are disabled for this video.

    Bernard Hess Published on Apr 16, 2014
    Just for starters, research shows that marijuana users may sentence their unborn children to a lifetime of birth defects. What’s that say about society when people think they have that right? The DNA damage to the male and female reproductive system is permanent… continue with caution.

    4/16/14 Study: Casual marijuana use can lead to brain abnormities u2b
    Bernard Hess Published on Apr 16, 2014
    marijuana users may sentence their unborn children to a lifetime of birth defects
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1yRu94U2NA
    Comments are disabled for this video.

    4/16/14 Fox & Friends on Harvard study showing pot causes major brain damage
    Bernard Hess Published on Apr 16, 2014
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IEz2BhD3i3I
    marijuana users may sentence their unborn children to a lifetime of birth defects
    Comments are disabled for this video.

  • allan

    Just saw PBS’ coverage… they too used the “damaged” theme. I sent them an email with links to the Gever, Pachter and Sullum articles.

    Scolded them for sloppy reporting.

    • Frank W

      Scolded PBS? Like wagging your finger at a whorehouse, except whores don’t take grants from the Chubb Group.

    • allan

      yeah well, I’m always sending messages – and I would never wag my finger at a whorehouse. I got to go to the best little whorehouse in Texas (the Chicken Ranch) back when I was a sprout in the Air Force.

      When I was shooting the local minor league baseball team (any Cincinnati Reds fans out there?) I always laughed when the stadium played ZZ Top’s La Grange. Playing songs about whorehouses at a family event! What message are we sending the children?

  • […] that the "abnormalities" relative to controls reflected changes from some earlier state. Bad science, and really bad reporting Jacob Sullum calling out the press Study of Pot Smokers' Brains Shows That MRIs Cause Bad Science […]

  • DdC

    No matter how unscrupulous the lab rats are conducting these science fiction papers for the faux news to spread the gossip. They always end with more research is needed. Or more funding for more research is needed. Doesn’t matter which headline they pick to exploit it always ends with more research. 20,000 research papers filed. 1937 until now and they still need more research just in case the past hobgoblins they hurled, that never panned out. Can have a chance to materialize into real harm this time around. But not without research (Grants). The government banned medicinal research in 1974 for its potential threat to Big Pharma and Drug Worrier research funding. Such despicable disgusting vermin should be rotting behind dungeon walls away from the children they pervert.

    ☛☛☛☛☛Possibly the most-studied substance on the planet☚☚☚☚☚

    Should it be legalized?
    “soon we will know”

    Part of a larger issue on Marijuana
    in Life magazine Oct 31, 1969. 25-35

    Why I changed my mind on weed
    By Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN Chief Medical Correspondent

    On August 14, 1970, the Assistant Secretary of Health, Dr. Roger O. Egeberg wrote a letter recommending the plant, marijuana, be classified as a schedule 1 substance, and it has remained that way for nearly 45 years. My research started with a careful reading of that decades old letter. What I found was unsettling. Egeberg had carefully chosen his words:

    “Since there is still a considerable void in our knowledge of the plant and effects of the active drug contained in it, our recommendation is that marijuana be retained within schedule 1 at least until the completion of certain studies now underway to resolve the issue.”

    Not because of sound science, but because of its absence, marijuana was classified as a schedule 1 substance. Again, the year was 1970. Egeberg mentions studies that are underway, but many were never completed. As my investigation continued, however, I realized Egeberg did in fact have important research already available to him, some of it from more than 25 years earlier.

    The ‘Virtues’ of Ganja
    The Politics of Pot

    The Media Should Stop Pretending Marijuana’s Risks Are a Mystery
    — The Science is Clear

  • claygooding

    Tomorrow being Easter and the Christians stealing it from the Pagans is getting a rowdy discussion aside,,whether you follow the Christian ideology or not tomorrow will be a good day to do what Jesus did,,,beat a banker.

    Happy Easter all whether you pray your way through it like a Christian or screw your way through it like a Pagan,,,wonder how many of those prayers are for something to screw?

    • skootercat

      Clay- have you watched the recent Bill Maher episode with two members from Pussy Riot? The last guest is Matt Taibbi. He was promoting his new book called “The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap.” Jumped right in talking about those that go directly to jail and those we have come to expect never go to jail. Think you might like it.

      Best holiday wishes to all.

  • darkcycle

    HEY! Happy Bicycle Day everyone!!! Anybody up for a ride w/ Albert??

  • Duncan20903

    .
    .

    Well who the heck would have thought it possible? Why in the world would a TV station be able to get a search warrant?

    Man took pain meds, pot before shooting wife, police say

    DENVER – Court documents confirm the Denver man accused of shooting and killing his wife took prescription pain medication and ate a marijuana candy, hours before the shooting.

    A search warrant obtained by 9NEWS reveals Richard Kirk purchased two marijuana items at a store the night he allegedly killed his wife, Kris.

    Richard’s blood will be tested to see if narcotics/medications/marijuana were in his system.
    /snip/

    Police officers responding on scene said Richard was “rambling to himself” in the back of the patrol car. He told the officer “he was the strongest in the Church of the Latter Day Saints, and he had killed his wife.”

    A detective, trained in effects of marijuana and prescription pills, documented Richard “appeared to be under the influence of some type of controlled substance and/or prescription pills based upon his speech patterns, his inability to focus and his pupils.”

    Court documents detail where Richard bought marijuana, how much he spent and what he purchased. Investigators found a receipt and a package for the candy in the basement of the family home. Richard bought the items less than three hours before his wife called 911.
    /snip/

    • B. Snow

      Surely – you’re kidding, they just got a copy of the warrant… although you can’t necessarily tell that just by reading the story – as printed.

      • Duncan20903

        .
        .

        Hmmm, I thought everyone here was aware of my being a fan of comedic exercises in stupidity.

        Yes Shirley, I was kidding.

  • DdC

    This year Easter falls on a Holiday.

    This Sunday is April 20!
    Check out the list of 4/20 rallies around the world
    Jeremiah Vandermeer ‏@JFromTheLake

    Guide To 420 Friendly Events 2014

    CJ Johnson of @eConcertLiveLLC says, We were set up,’‘ about Crowe Plaza Phoenix’s decision to cancel AZ 420 Fest

    Bummer: Arizona 420 Festival Canceled

    JEFF EDELSTEIN: Want to (illegally) smoke marijuana on the New Jersey State House steps? Your chance comes Sunday at 4:20 p.m.

    @NJweedman Good Luck. But don’t assume because the law is wrong that the people enforcing it have the integrity to do what’s right. c.y.a. man

  • […] Pete Guither notes a scathing assessment of Gilman et al.’s study by U.C.-Berkeley computational biologist Lior […]