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Absolutely Maybe

Evidence and uncertainties about medicine and life
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Absolutely Maybe: A blog that’s probably about evidence and uncertainties

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Photo of me aged 5 and a bit

10% of the age I am now

I’m a child of the ‘60s. That helps explain my fascination with creating Pop Art like this blog’s banner. There’ll be quite a bit of it here, as well as cartooning. I’m also fascinated with epidemiology, bias and how we know things. I’ve guest-blogged a bit about health in the past. But I’m excited to get to discuss knowledge and doubts about other things as well here with you at the SA Blog Network.

Bora Z, the Network’s Editor, says that a blog is “writing with a voice,” and “reading a person, not a conglomerate.” That’s a particularly relevant distinction for me. I work at the National Institutes of Health. But this blog is definitely personal. So I’ll start with telling you my own story.

I didn’t come to a career in science because of a childhood passion for things scientific, or an aptitude for it at school. Ideologies and vested interests in issues I care deeply about drove me to science. It took me decades to reach the place that Richard Feynman describes so beautifully: “A very fundamental part of my soul is to doubt and to ask.” He was right: it is “much more interesting to live not knowing, than to have answers that might be wrong.”

Photo of family on ferry

Blogger-to-be (left), mother, big sister

I was born in Australia in 1960. The Number 1 song the week I was born was Elvis Presley’s “It’s now or never” – this video of it gives you an idea what it was like when the ’50s were ending and big change was on the way. I grew up in Sydney, and I’d rush home after school to watch Zorro and Superman. But my love of comic art came from Brenda StarrWonder Woman and The Archies.

My sister and I are first-generation Australians: German mother, Hungarian father, and one generation above, Germans coupled with eastern European former prisoners-of-war. The War was never really over in our family. All those conflicting views were my introduction to personal and ideological bias.

Photo of me in yellow suit

I was not immune to the decade's fashion faux pas

The ‘70s were quite a time. I had the good luck of being a teenage girl during the Women’s Liberation Movement: confronting at first, then exciting. Australian ex-pat Germaine Greer published The Female Eunuch and came back, causing a major stir and making a big impression on me.

I dropped out of school soon after turning 16. I ended up working as a court reporter. Not the journalist kind: the kind that took shorthand in courtrooms.

That’s where I first learned about evidence. Not the clinical epidemiologist kind, but the kind that had to be “beyond reasonable doubt” when there was a crime, or “the balance of probabilities” in civil cases.

I married when I was 20, had two babies before I was 25 – and became a single parent a few weeks after I turned 30.

Me with typewriter

When cutting and pasting involved scissors and paper glue

Both 0ur sons were born at home. The home birth movement totally absorbed me. That’s when I began writing and editing. And I inherited the task of gathering data from midwives on home births. I discovered that I loved epidemiology. By the end of the decade I was working on the data at the National Perinatal Statistics Unit.

All would have gone well, too, if it weren’t that the data showed a death rate that was too high. A midwife-led faction wanted me to stop data collection and publish no analysis of the deaths. I refused. The conflict escalated into all-out war that lasted for years, even after we published. To some I was a whistle-blowing hero – to others, the worst kind of traitor.

Photo of me

30th birthday: just before the worst of the storm

An even bigger part of the 80s and 90s for me, though, was my broader consumer health activism. That won’t be as obvious an influence on this blog, I guess, as the science and comics, but it will be there.

Photo of meeting

Colloquium founding the Cochrane Collaboration in Oxford (me on left)

My interest in systematic reviews of clinical effectiveness gradually took over. Having been so intimately involved with the costs of personal and ideological bias made me value reliable knowledge greatly. In 1993, a group of us who felt the same way about that started a new international organization called the Cochrane Collaboration, to get more reviews done. I was a very active member for a long time.

My work since then has focused to a large extent on reviewing systematic reviews – yes, that’s a thing! – and communicating clinical effectiveness information online. I’ve migrated twice now: first from Australia to Germany in 2004 (to help start a national agency called IQWiG). And then from Germany to the US two years ago, to work on PubMed Health at the NIH.

Besides work, I like contributing to Wikipedia, PLOS Medicine, and plugging away sporadically at my doctoral dissertation. I enjoy exploring the limitless comedic potential of clinical epidemiology with cartoons at Statistically Funny.

And I still often rush off at the end of the day to watch superheroes.



I like reading people’s comments, and I like to chat – so I hope to hear from you some time. (I will delete comments that make it unpleasant for everyone, though.)

The thoughts Hilda Bastian expresses here are personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Institutes of Health or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Hilda Bastian About the Author: Hilda Bastian likes thinking about bias, uncertainty and how we come to know all sorts of thing. Her day job is making clinical effectiveness research accessible. And she explores the limitless comedic potential of clinical epidemiology at her cartoon blog, Statistically Funny. Follow on Twitter @hildabast.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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  1. 1. DuFarle 5:04 pm 07/17/2013

    How much exploration of extreme events will there be? As humans are poor at risk assessment even before possibility vs probability.

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  2. 2. David Cummings 10:05 pm 07/17/2013

    Very funny cartoons over at Statistically Funny. I love the straight-A’s!

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  3. 3. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 10:56 pm 07/17/2013

    Why thank you, David!

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  4. 4. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 10:59 pm 07/17/2013

    Good point, DuFarle – I’m not sure where this is going to take me. I’m certainly interested in suggestions.

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  5. 5. JJohan 12:53 am 07/18/2013

    Very important subjects — evidence and uncertainties. I’m looking forward to following your thoughts.

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  6. 6. Bora Zivkovic 1:20 pm 07/18/2013

    Welcome to The Family!

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  7. 7. sunspot 6:40 pm 07/18/2013

    Nice Bio; we have much in common. SciFi stories got me into my field too (physics) in the 60s. What gets me in trouble is pointing out biases in science reports. (Ergo: the name sunspot – blemishes hidden in the glare of science.) I am most skeptical of opinions parading as science, especially in SciAm columns, where references to scientific studies often endow said opinions with a measure of legitimacy. Your subtitle (bias and uncertainty) led me to believe that you might help make science writers (and bloggers) more aware of their own confirmation biases. As Feynman might say, “Good luck with that!”.

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  8. 8. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 9:29 pm 07/18/2013

    Thank you, Bora! It’s already a lot of fun – and looking forward to what’s in store. PS: Cue the theme music….

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  9. 9. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 9:41 pm 07/18/2013

    G’day, sunspot! And thanks! It’s interesting the things that stick, and the things that fall away. Yes, confirmation bias is a tough one – people have so many other ways of leaping to the wrong conclusions, too. I learned the hard way that you have to have zero tolerance for it in yourself, because switching it on and switching it off is too risky a way to live. Turns out though it’s more fun being a party pooper than I’d have thought. When I display a blindspot, I’ll be counting on you – and anyone else who sees it – to call me on it.

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  10. 10. Hilda Bastian in reply to Hilda Bastian 11:56 pm 07/18/2013

    Thanks, JJohan – those subjects are important – can’t promise my thoughts always will be, though – but I’ll try!

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  11. 11. irber 11:23 am 07/31/2013

    I am a sucker for a science oriented cartoon. Thanks.

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