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PLOS BLOGS Absolutely Maybe

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

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.

Photo of me aged 5 and a bit
10% of the age I am now

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.

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