Science Ouroboros: Wheezing or weaseling?

Posted on November 29, 2010


Here we see a medical scientist in the midst of an explanation.

Everyone knows the Worm Ouroboros.

He’s the mythological serpent who runs around with its tail in its mouth. Apparently it’s supposed to be a symbol for Eternity.

I see it more as a symbol for “What the Fuck!?”

That makes it the perfect symbol for those news stories the scientific community is increasingly releasing that head in one direction at the beginning, then turn around and bite themselves on the ass. I mean “tail.”

Take this one, for instance.

It came out Nov. 17, 2010.

Asthma among young kids plunges: StatsCan

All the major Canadian newspapers and news shows reported it. In exactly the same words, of course. (Analysis is no longer considered a viable part of journalism.)

OTTAWA — Asthma cases have dropped among two- to seven-year-olds to their lowest level in more than a decade, Statistics Canada reported Wednesday.

Now that’s good news, right? For the past three decades or more we’ve been watching asthma rates wheeze their way to ever-increasing heights.

So what has brought about this drop?

One factor that may have contributed to the decline is the hand-in-hand drop in smoking rates across the country, along with changes in diagnosis patterns, experts say.

Well, smoking rates have definitely been declining. But they’ve been declining for a hell of a lot longer than a decade, so why should they suddenly be affecting asthma now?

And what’s this bit at the end about “changes in diagnosis patterns”?

Maybe we should hear what these “experts” have to say.

Dr. Allan Becker, a pediatric allergist, said the overall findings don’t surprise him.

“There are two things that I think are probably going on. One is that we may actually be seeing a real plateau in asthma prevalence, and that’s entirely possible,” he said from Winnipeg, where he is head of the section of Allergy and Clinical Immunology in the department of pediatrics and child health at the University of Manitoba.

Oh! A plateau.

And not one of those fake plateaus, either, but a “real” plateau.

The Coca Cola of plateaus.

You see, only a certain number of people at a time can get sick from a particular illness. “There’s no more room at the Asthma Inn,” the rest are told. “Have you tried the Cholera Arms ? Or maybe the Swine Flu Resort? I understand the World Health Organization is desperately trying to host a pandemic there.”

Okay, so I don’t know what an illness plateau is — real or otherwise. But I know what it isn’t — a decrease. If the asthma rates were staying steady then I could see Dr. Becker talking about them as plateaus.

But using the term “plateau” for a decrease? I’m not getting the connection here.

Still, Dr. Becker said there were two things that could be going on. Maybe the second one can shed some light on this.

“And secondly that there is that diagnostic perception now that not all that wheezes is asthma.”

There are 16 words in that sentence, and four of them are “that.”


It’s almost enough to distract us from the fact that Dr. Beck is saying that for years they’ve been over-diagnosing asthma.

I guess this is something nobody noticed before.

“That’s an aphorism that we’ve heard from our professors many, many, many years ago, mostly speaking about adults. But now that’s equally true in terms of children.”

Or, maybe they did.

So — for “many, many, many years” they’ve been told that when it comes to adults, they shouldn’t consider every little wheeze to be asthma.

And “now that’s equally true in terms of children.”

Uh-huh. So, it wasn’t true before, but it is now? Okay. I can see how things can change when it comes to kids. It used to be true that children could learn Latin in grade school, but now we’ve decided they’re not even capable of learning English.

But, where is the promised connection to smoking?

Becker said “there’s no question” that a decline in smoking rates helps.

Ah-ha! Here it comes.

“Children of parents who smoke have a much higher frequency of colds, of respiratory infections, and among those children, the viral illnesses are the major causes of these wheezing illnesses,” he said. “And that would suggest, then, a diagnosis of asthma. So with fewer — especially young parents — smoking, it really does make a difference in the likelihood that these children will have wheezy episodes with their colds.“

But, these “wheezing illnesses” aren’t asthma. They never were. So a decrease in wheezing illnesses doesn’t actually have any effect on the rise or fall of asthma rates.


In other words, what Dr. Becker is saying is this: “We’ve been over-diagnosing asthma for years, and now that we’ve stopped, the rates have gone down. But that’s not because we made a mistake. It’s because there’s less smoking. Which didn’t actually affect asthma, but may have confused us with those blasted ‘wheezing illnesses’ we thought were asthma. But they aren’t. At least, not any more. Trust me. I’m a scientist.”

Much clearer.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, here are some related graphics.


(Fig. 1) These are two charts I've overlapped. One shows the smoking trends in the United States from 1900 to 1995 (roughly the same as Canada's). The smaller one in the lower right-hand corner shows asthma trends in Canada from 1971 to 1995. The overlap begins in 1971. A careful observer might notice that as the smoking rates begin to drop, the asthma rates go up. Interesting, isn't it?


(Fig. 2) This chart shows the rising rates of asthma (the red line) in comparison to the lowering of air pollution. It's from California, but similar relationships have been shown from all over the world.

And this one shows the entire scientific community at work.

Fig. 1: Sources

  • Smoking trends: US Department of Agriculture, Surgeon General’s Report
  • Asthma trends: Public Health Agency of Canada

Fig. 2: Sources:

  • “Asthma in California,” California Department of Health Services. Points of Interest No. 9, May 2003. http//
  • California Air Resources Board. 2003 Air Pollution Data CD: available at