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Has your doctor taken money from drug companies?

Mine hasn't. At least, he hasn't taken money from any of the 15 companies that have been forced to disclose information about gifts and cash they give to doctors. Pro Publica has put that information into an easily searchable database. It's not total transparency — the drug companies whose payouts are included here only represent 47% of the total market — but it's a good place to start if you want to know whether your doctor has any conflicts of interest that could affect your health. Maggie

5 steps to not being bamboozled by bad science reporting

Can you trust the headlines in your newspaper? What can you actually learn from reading message boards and random Facebook forwards? If you aren't sure what to believe, this guide by Gabrielle Rabinowitz and Emily Dennis can help. It describes how to track "digested" information back to an original, scientific source, the questions to ask, and the red flags to for — all of which will help you sort bunk from stuff that's actually worth talking to your friends about. The problem, of course, is that this can be a lot of work. Essentially, they're describing a lot of what journalists do when we're writing a story about a scientific topic. Maggie

In which Santa helps remind us all of the importance of metadata

Metadata is one of those things that is so important, it becomes easy to forget about. We often collect metadata without thinking about it. When we don't collect it — or if we collect it in a sloppy manner — we notice very quickly that something has gone wrong. But when someone says the word "metadata", a large number of us go, "the what now?" And start trying to remember what that word means before we make ourselves sound dumb in conversation.

Metadata is really just information about information — it helps us organize, find, and standardize the things we know and want to know. At the Information Culture blog Bonnie Swoger offers some Christmas-themed examples that will help you remember what metadata is, help you understand why it's such a big deal, and improve your ability to do metadata right.

If you stumbled across this list on the web you might be able to guess what it was, but you couldn’t be sure. It would also be difficult to find this list again if you were looking for it. The list creator might find this pretty useful, but if he or she shared it with others, we would want some added information to help the new user understand what he or she was looking at: this is metadata.

Metadata for this data file:

Who created the data: Santa Claus, North Pole. An email address would be nice. This way we have some contact information in case we need clarification.
Title: “My List” isn’t a title that is conducive to finding the file again. While it might be tempting to just call this “Santa’s list” that won’t help other folks who see this file. The title should be descriptive of what the data file contains, and “Santa’s List” could be many things: Santa’s list of Reindeer? Santa’s list of toys that need to be made? A more descriptive title might be “Santa’s list of naughty and nice children.”
Date created: We don’t want to confuse this year’s list (2012) with last year’s list (2011). This could lead to all sorts of unfortunate events where nice kids get coal, naughty kids get presents, or infants (who weren’t around in 2011) get nothing at all.
Who created the data file: Perhaps Santa created the data, but then used an elf to input the data into a computer file. Many computer programs automatically record this information, although you may not realize this. How the list was created: Behavioral scans? Parental surveys? Elf on the Shelf reports? All of the above? In order to reuse this data in future research projects, we need to know how it was collected, including collection instruments and methodologies.
Definitions of terms used: What is “naughty” what is “nice”? How did Santa place a child into one category or another?
File type: What kind of file is it? The data here are pretty simple, but Santa has lots of different file formats to choose from: excel, .csv, xml, etc. Knowing the file type helps end users determine if they can use the data.

Read the full story and get more great examples

If you put all the water on Earth in one place

Put all the water on this planet into a single sphere and it would have a diameter of about 860 miles, says the United States Geological Survey. For reference, that's roughly the distance between Salt Lake City, Utah, and Topeka, Kansas.

About 70 percent of the Earth's surface is water-covered, and the oceans hold about 96.5 percent of all Earth's water. But water also exists in the air as water vapor, in rivers and lakes, in icecaps and glaciers, in the ground as soil moisture and earthgwaquifer.html, and even in you and your dog. Still, all that water would fit into that "tiny" ball. The ball is actually much larger than it looks like on your computer monitor or printed page because we're talking about volume, a 3-dimensional shape, but trying to show it on a flat, 2-dimensional screen or piece of paper. That tiny water bubble has a diameter of about 860 miles, meaning the height (towards your vision) would be 860 miles high, too! That is a lot of water.

I really like this illustration because it shows off an important concept: Whether a number represents "a lot" of something or "a little" is pretty damn relative. As the USGS says, that is, in fact, a lot of water. But it also makes for a surprisingly little ball.

Read more about this graphic and the water cycle on the USGS website.

The history of timelines

The earliest timelines, published in the 1500s and 1600s, were difficult-to-follow mashups that attempted to place all of human history into a list of numbers or an elaborate graphical metaphor. (I imagine the people who made these being somewhat stoned ... "So the fourth millennium before the birth of Christ was totally like a dragon! Here, let me show you ...")

By the 19th century, though, the art of the timeline had progressed significantly, and people like French engineer Charles Joseph Minard were creating infographics that look recognizably like infographics. This one, from 1869, traces the routes taken by Hannibal on his march through the Alps and Napoleon on his march into Russia, showing, through the thickness of the bars, how both armies dwindled during the journey.

This is from a great collection of historic timelines published on The Morning News website. Definitely worth flipping through the entire slideshow!

Via Philip Bump

National Cancer Institute help line provides unbiased, useful information

If you or a loved one has recently been diagnosed with cancer, consider calling the National Cancer Institute's Cancer Information Service at 1-800-422-6237. You'll find The operators can tell you about their personal cancer stories, answer your questions, help you find financial help for medical bills, put you in touch with medical specialists and local support groups, direct you toward clinical trials, and more. It's a valuable, but underutilized service that everyone should be aware of. (Side note: Yes, this is actually useful medical information that appeared on the Huffington Post. Written by an actual medical scientist. It's a Festivus miracle!) Via Mark Kleiman on Submitterator. Maggie