Category Archives: ethics

Plagiarism, peer-review, and protecting the integrity of science

ResearchBlogging.orgI am, (it seems) almost constantly reading, evaluating, and passing judgment on, material written by others: not just when I’m synthesizing material for my own papers or blog essays, but as a peer reviewing manuscripts and grants written by colleagues, or as a teacher grading student papers. Comes with the territory of being a professor, or course. As it happens, its that time of year again when I brace myself for a surge in this activity, because I’m deluged under a variety of student writings, mostly term papers from my majors classes. My students typically have to write essays synthesizing material from the peer-reviewed literature – which often begins with learning what is and isn’t a truly peer-reviewed source! Once the papers come in (hopefully with the appropriate number of peer-reviewed citations), you might still hear me muttering some of the usual complaints us grouchy professors share about poor writing styles, lack of structure, grammatical errors, general incoherence, etc.. But another growing worry now, in these globally networked days, is about plagiarism. And my worries on both counts are heightened right now because of a recent spate (hopefully not a big one) of reports about a variety of problems in the scientific publishing business: from reputable publishing houses putting out fake journals with a veneer of peer-review in exchange for $$ from big pharma to individual scientists faking research to produce a bunch of papers, to apparently widespread plagiarism among papers archived in the Medline database!

Much has already been written in the science blogosphere (including by me) about the still unfolding case of Elsevier publishing those fake biomedical journals for payment from Merck and other unknown clients. As we are still digesting that, this week’s Nature has an article about scientific misconduct, including deliberate fraud, and plagiarism which is apparently quite widespread! That last bit comes from another article published in Science a couple of months ago, based on a promising new approach to plagiarism – so let me start by quoting from that very paper:

The peer-review process is the best mechanism to ensure the high quality of scientific publications. However, recent studies have demonstrated that the lack of well-defined publication standards, compounded by publication process failures (1), has resulted in the inadvertent publication of several duplicated and plagiarized articles.

The increasing availability of scientific literature on the World Wide Web has proven to be a double-edged sword, allowing plagiarism to be more easily committed, while simultaneously enabling its simple detection through the use of automated software. Unsurprisingly, various publishing groups are now taking steps to reinforce their publication policies to counter the fraudulent acts of a few (2). There are now dozens of commercial and free tools available for the detection of plagiarism. Perhaps the most popular programs are iParadigm’s “Ithenticate” (http://ithenticate.com/) and TurnItIn’s originality checking (http://turnitin.com/), which recently partnered with CrossRef (http://www.crossref.org/) to create CrossCheck, a new service for verifying the originality of scholarly content. However, the content searched by this program spans only a small sampling of journals indexed by MEDLINE. Others include EVE2, OrCheck, CopyCheck, and WordCHECK, to name a few.

So what Long and colleagues have done is create a new automated process to search through and find similar citation in all of the Medline database! While mostly automated, it is still a complex process: they use several publicly available computational/database tools (eTBLAST, and Déjà vu, which they created) to search for high levels of citation similarity. Their search algorithm works not just on keywords and references, but entire sentences and larger chunks of words. Once papers are flagged as being highly similar, they are subject to full-text analysis, which includes examination and interpretation by a human observer! And the results:

As of 20 February 2009, there were 9120 entries in Déjà vu with high levels of citation similarity and no overlapping authors. Thus far, full-text analysis has led to the identification of 212 pairs of articles with signs of potential plagiarism. The average text similarity between an original article and its duplicate was 86.2%, and the average number of shared references was 73.1%. However, only 47 (22.2%) duplicates cited the original article as a reference. Further, 71.4% of the manuscript pairs shared at least one highly similar or identical table or figure. Of the 212 duplicates, 42% also contained incorrect calculations, data inconsistencies, and reproduced or manipulated photographs.

Long et al then confronted the authors of the original and the duplicate papers, as well as editors of the journals where they were published, with a questionnaire and catalog a fascinating range of reactions:

Before receiving the questionnaire, 93% of the original authors were not aware of the duplicate’s existence. The majority of these responses were appreciative in nature. The responses from duplicate authors were more varied; of the 60 replies, 28% denied any wrongdoing, 35% admitted to having borrowed previously published material (and were generally apologetic for having done so), and 22% were from coauthors claiming no involvement in the writing of the manuscript. An additional 17% claimed they were unaware that their names appeared on the article in question. The journal editors primarily confirmed receipt and addressed issues involving policies and potential actions.

They offer a sampling of the responses in the paper, and more in supplementary material available on the Science website. And I, for once, am glad that that litany of excuses and mea culpas is behind Science’s pay firewall, because I don’t want to add to the list already in use by our students! And speaking of them, let me share my own recent experience:

Last semester, I had my first significant encounter with plagiarism in my evolution class: two of the term papers submitted turned out to be copies of older work. And that happened despite our campus’ use of Turnitin, a commercial and widely used plagiarism detection service, which failed in both cases for different reasons. The way it works is: students submit their papers for a given class/assignment through turnitin.com, where their software runs a similarity analysis based on their own (proprietary, I think) database, and produces an originality report with an overall similarity score (%) and a list of matches with prior sources from their databases. So how did this fail?

In one (more straigtforward) case, Turnitin thought the paper submitted was fine, with a low similarity score (4%) – but the way the paper was written set my sensors off immediately because it was unlike anything this student had turned out in the class until then! Puzzled by the low Turnitin score, and strongly suspicious of the contents of the paper, I turned to Google, with little luck at first – until I decided to copy and paste almost an entire (small) paragraph from the paper into the search box. And lo, the paper turned out to be an almost exact copy of a paper published in a relatively obscure journal in 1975 – a paper apparently missing from Turnitin’s database! I have no idea what the student was thinking when submitting an exact copy of a published paper, but clearly, the online filtering system our campus pays for had failed.

The second case was somewhat more complex, and again, required some vigilance on my own part to catch it without (rather inspite of) Turnitin’s help. This paper was submitted through Turnitin several days before the deadline, and I had allowed the system to let students see their own originality reports. This one lit up the board with a >90% similarity score. The next day (deadline) the paper had been pulled off and another document uploaded – with a new similarity score 90% similarity score. It was when I manually compared the two papers side by side that comprehension slowly dawned, and my jaw dropped: the new paper was essentially the old one cleverly disguised! For instance, all the sentences were different – yet every paragraph had the same content and the entire paper was organized in the same way! So the re-edit had focused on altering almost every sentence to evade, successfully, turnitin’s algorithms – but the broader semantic structure remained identical! Go figure!!

So where does all this leave us? Long et al, again:

While there will always be a need for authoritative oversight, the responsibility for research integrity ultimately lies in the hands of the scientific community. Educators and advisors must ensure that the students they mentor understand the importance of scientific integrity. Authors must all commit to both the novelty and accuracy of the work they report. Volunteers who agree to provide peer review must accept the responsibility of an informed, thorough, and conscientious review. Finally, journal editors, many of whom are distinguished scientists themselves, must not merely trust in, but also verify the originality of the manuscripts they publish.

We try to teach our students (many pre-med types) how to filter peer-reviewed research from stuff that’s not been so reviewed – only to have a major scientific publisher get in bed with a pharma multinational to pull the rug out from under us! The internet has made plagiarism much easier for the lazy – and the lazy wealthy who can pay others to plagiarize on their behalf as reported on NPR recently. At the same time, the growing volume of scientific publications, not to mention student essays and blogs, etc., makes it much harder for us to keep up with all the potential sources of plagiarism. On the positive side, as Errami, Long, and colleagues show, one can turn the other side of that double-edged sword to our advantage: develop good search algorithms which will help us catch plagiarism too. However, their approach is still quite painstaking – as they said, at time they published their analysis, they still had >9000 flagged potentially duplicate papers awaiting human inspection, suggesting the magnitude of the problem was only likely to grow! The onus, indeed, is on all of us in the scientific community. But do I have the time to go through such an intensive process with the next manuscript sent to me for peer-review? Do journals – especially the more trustworthy ones published by scientific societies – have the resources to commit to this high level of scrutiny in-house? Or do we need to explore newer models of publishing science, leveraging some of the newer elements of the Web 2.0 world, e.g., crowdsourcing some of this review process? Can the PLoS One model, perhaps, help us shift some of the onus of detecting plagiarism (and conflicts of interests, ethical concerns, etc.) away from the shoulders of (unpaid) peer-reviewers and editors? While we figure a way out, remember: these are dark, dangerous, and exciting times for scientific publishing (as indeed all publishing). In the meantime we must exercise: Constant Vigilance!!

References

Dove, A. (2009). Regulators confront blind spots in research oversight Nature Medicine, 15 (5), 469-469 DOI: 10.1038/nm0509-469a

Errami, M., Sun, Z., Long, T., George, A., & Garner, H. (2009). Deja vu: a database of highly similar citations in the scientific literature Nucleic Acids Research, 37 (Database) DOI: 10.1093/nar/gkn546

Long, T., Errami, M., George, A., Sun, Z., & Garner, H. (2009). SCIENTIFIC INTEGRITY: Responding to Possible Plagiarism Science, 323 (5919), 1293-1294 DOI: 10.1126/science.1167408

Unpaid environmental bills and languishing lives in the rising India

There really is no holding multinational corporations to account anymore – not that there ever really was, was there? Just a couple of weeks ago the US Supreme court let the Exxon Mobil corporation off the hook by drastically reducing how much it had to pay for the damage from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. Instead of the $5 billion that an Alaska jury had asked them to pay initially, Exxon Mobil now gets to settle its environmental account for a mere $500 million – less than pocket-change for the giant oil company raking in record profits (>$40 billion) last year.

Meanwhile, back in the rapidly rising India, racing along towards its goal of US-like prosperity (for a US population sized chunk of its citizens), for those trampled underfoot by the multinational corporate engines of this economic boom, there isn’t even the recourse to a US style jury trial, which might at least give them some temporary victories. And so yet another giant corporation, the Dow Chemical company, even as its revenues are growing in India (and other emerging Asia countries, @ 6% last quarter), gets to wash its hands off of the environmental liabilities it acquired when it bought Union Carbide 7 years ago. Yes, that same Union Carbide which caused the deadly Bhopal gas leak 24 years ago, and which left behind cesspools of untreated chemical waste that continues to contaminate the ground water to this day. Why can’t the world’s largest democracy with its much touted emerging massive middle-class market force the multinational to pay for remediation of the toxic waste site still festering in Bhopal? Not even when faced with an ongoing campaign of hunger strikes to bring attention to the continuing tragedy? It is simple blackmail / economic hostage-taking, apparently – here’s a choice excerpt from Somini Sengupta’s report in today’s New York Times:

Dow, based in Michigan, says it bears no responsibility to clean up a mess it did not make. “As there was never any ownership, there is no responsibility and no liability — for the Bhopal tragedy or its aftermath,” Scot Wheeler, a company spokesman, said in an e-mail message.

Mr. Wheeler pointed out that the former factory property, along with the waste it contained, had been turned over to the Madhya Pradesh State government in June 1998, and that “for whatever reason most of us do not know or fully understand, the site remains unremediated.”

He went on to say that Dow could not finance remediation efforts, even if it wanted to, because it could potentially open up the company to further liabilities.

In a letter to the Indian ambassador to the United States in 2006, the Dow chairman, Andrew N. Liveris, sought assurance from the government that it would not be held liable for the mess on the old factory site, “in your efforts to ensure that we have the appropriate investment climate.”

The claims have divided the government itself. It is now in the throes of a debate over who will pay — a debate that might have taken place behind closed doors were it not for a series of public information requests by advocates for Bhopal residents that turned up revealing government correspondence.

It showed that one arm of the government, the Chemicals and Petrochemicals Ministry, entrusted with the cleanup of the site, has wanted Dow to put down a $25 million deposit toward the cost of remediation, while other senior officials warned that forcing Dow’s hand could endanger future investments in the country.

A senior government official, prohibited from speaking publicly on such a contentious issue, described the quandary. “Do you want $1 billion in investment, or do you want this sticky situation to continue?” the official said, calling it a stalemate.

Perhaps it is true that money can’t buy you happiness – I don’t know. But it sure can buy you a whole lot of get-out-of-jail-free cards, not to mention entire government bureaucracies (whether in a democracy or a dictatorship), judiciary systems, middle-class consumers, and whatever other pathetic institutions of collective governance you fancy – especially if you are a multinational corporation… er, I mean Corporate Citizen!

In which Alan Rabinowitz made Stephen Colbert cry (and me too)

As an elitist and a conservationist, I was excited to learn that Stephen Colbert, in keeping with his record of interviewing some of the most interesting guests on late night talk TV had Alan Rabinowitz on last night. Rabinowitz, also known as the Indiana Jones of wildlife protection, is a hero to many conservationists (myself included) for his lifetime of fieldwork on conserving big cats, most notably in Burma – the basis of his new book: “Life in the Valley of Death: The Fight to Save Tigers in a Land of Guns, Gold, and Greed” which brought him to the Colbert Report. The interview hit a great high note with Colbert, most unusually, being almost completely disarmed and brought to tears by Alan’s early life story (and I do know and have worked a bit with him, hence the first name…). Pretty rare to see Colbert’s face get so emotional… but then, within minutes, Colbert found his composure and asked another question eliciting a different kind of elitist answer which makes me cry!

Did you guess what part of that makes me cry? Read on…


Why is it that dictatorships hold so much appeal to conservationists? Rabinowitz is by no means alone in expressing this preference for working with dictators to achieve conservation goals rather than messy democracies where “everybody’s got an opinion”! And notice how earnest he was in expressing this, and apparently even missing Colbert’s irony on this. To be fair to him, though, one mustn’t make too much of a soundbite from a 5-min interview on a comedy show, so let me first offer another interview by Time:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fi-PVPdfXu0&hl=en]

Seems more nuanced, right? So I’ll wait to read the book before saying anything further about Alan’s views on this. And I definitely don’t intend to belittle his considerable achievements in tiger conservation while working with the military junta in Burma.

That said, I do wonder about the larger question: must wildlife conservation be anti-democratic to be effective? Why do so many wildlife conservationists believe this is the case? As someone who deeply believes in both democracy and nature conservation, I find this very disturbing, if not downright dissonant to my cognition. And its a debate I often find myself getting sucked into (on both sides), especially whenever I’m back in India where the issues are somehow far more pressing and the passions stronger on the people-vs.-wildlife issues (check out the archives of Nathistory-India for a mild taste of this raging debate).

On the one hand, as someone driven by concern for endangered species, I can certainly see the appeal to having on my side someone who can strong-arm everybody else into enforcing some strong conservation measures (not just ones I think are best, but ones informed by a scientific consensus). I am not, however, prepared to go so far as to say I’ll “do anything to save the animals” when there are clear human costs involved! Even Ullas Karanth, Alan’s brother-in-arms for tiger conservation (in more ways than one) surprised me in his NYT interview about tiger conservation a couple of months ago where he placed considerably more emphasis on the quality of life of forest-dwelling people than I’ve heard him do in the past And in that Time interview above, Alan himself talked about the necessary shift in mindset from conservation in “hard boundary protected areas to large human landscapes“. Yet, astonishingly, the appeal of a dictatorship remains strong as the best means to bring that vision, and that shift in mindset, about! Why? Can’t we get past fantasies of benign dictatorships who heed our advice and do what’s best for conservation, and engage with the real messy world with humans as part of nature along with all that biodiversity we want to save?

And why does this disturb me? Apart from the obvious human rights reasons, let me offer some thoughts on why I think relying on dictatorships is short-sighted:

  • Most dictatorships are themselves short-lived; their policies even more so, being subject to the whims of individuals. How many auto-/pluto-cracies (however benign) have ever outlived ecological time-frames, let alone get into evolutionary ones?
  • Dictatorships are far more efficient at destroying habitats and wildlife than democracies. John Terborgh, another stalwart among conservationists, in lamenting the state of nature, made an analogous point (if memory serves me right): he argued in favor of public-lands conservation rather than private-lands approaches at least in part because govt./public bureaucracies are notoriously inefficient in implementing anything; therefore it is easier to stall them if they set about trying to destroy habitats – not so if the land is owned privately! Cynical, perhaps, but I hope you see my point.
  • Democracies have done better wildlife conservation than dictatorships even in the face of growing populations in the past century! In last night’s interview, I was astonished to hear Alan claim that conservation is more effective in countries run by communists and dictators. He can’t really be serious about that, can he? I haven’t scoured the literature on this specific question, but I would be very surprised if this were borne out by data. The Soviet Union and China are hardly models for conservation, are they? Not to mention any of the many autocratic dictatorships people have had to endure elsewhere in the world.
  • Further, while it is great that the Burmese junta were persuaded by Alan’s arguments and tenacity to create a huge tiger reserve, which country still harbors most of the remaining tigers of the world? That’s right – the messy democracy that is India! I know Ullas credits Indira Gandhi at the peak of her autocracy with creating tiger reserves and giving momentum to Project Tiger, and I’m not denying the enormous role such an individual can play. But haven’t tigers outlasted her short-lived autocracy by several decades? Even in the wake of the recent political fragmentations of Indian democracy?
  • And let me connect that last point back to the first thought above by suggesting that long-term conservation is only possible if an entire society agrees to it, and democracy with all its flaws is the best thing we’ve come up with thus far for collective governance of our societies!

Does this make me an idealist or a utopian? So be it – at least I prefer my fantasies to include the well-being of humans along with all other species!

Is the Central Valley of California worse than Alabama?

I go away for a conference and stay off the blog for a couple of weeks, and so much happens! I’ll be catching up with some of the events over the next few posts, and also posting a number of last-minute submissions from students during the dying days of the semester, so I hope the students are still visiting this blog even though the class is over!

But let me start by noting a rather unpleasant incident that occurred on campus on the last day of the finals week: Ryan Earley, my faculty colleague who regaled us with tales of Machiavellian fish a couple of days ago, had his tires punctured for having one of those Darwin Fish stickers on the back of his car. With a crude note stuck to his windshield telling him “Fuck you Darwinist. Take your car to heaven.” Subtle response that, to a mere bumper sticker, don’t you think? Not a model of behavior I should emulate or I’ll be really busy with all the other stickers that abound in this town…

I’d learnt of this incident just a couple of days before I left for Germany, and so didn’t get around to sharing it here. I did happen to mention it to Diwata Fonte of the Valley Notebook blog, who followed up with a blog post of her own, generating quite a few heated comments. The story got bigger (well… within the blogosphere) when PZ Myers picked up on it, and another longer discussion ensued there (as is wont to happen with the Pharyngula crowd).

Let me say that this is the first such incident I’ve come to know personally, although I have read of such things happening elsewhere. I have a Darwin fish on the back of my car as well, but it hasn’t attracted any such ire so far. I’d also like to clear the air on one point that has come up in some of the comments on the other blogs: the absurd suggestion that Ryan may have done this to his own car to attract attention to himself or some Darwinist cause!! This is really absurd, if for no other reason than the fact that Ryan did absolutely nothing to seek attention to this incident. He simply took his car to the dealer to get fixed under warranty, told a few of us here, and shrugged it off. That the story even got into the blogosphere is actually my fault!

That said, I am still puzzled that someone would feel so aggrieved by a mere bumper sticker as to act in this way. Was it just the stress of finals week getting to some student? Or the heat wave we had seeping through here that week? Or maybe it was a valediction for Dr. Earley since he is leaving this great Central Valley of California for a faculty position in the University of Alabama this fall!

In the end, what does it say of the valley, and of our campus, if we lose promising dynamic young biologists like Ryan – to Alabama??!!

A more substantial discussion about biology and theology on campus today

At least I expect it to be more substantial than the other stuff that’s been going on around here lately. The last lecture of the Ethics Center’s spring seminar series will be by Ted Peters, a theologian who has published extensively on the connections between science and religion and ethics.

In today’s lecture “The Stem Cell Controversy: Who is Fighting Whom About What?” Peters will discuss religious and ethical issues that arise in the context of debates about stem cell research and biotechnology. This talk will be based in part on Peters’ recent book, The Stem Cell Debate.

The lecture will be at noon in the Alice Peters Auditorium at the University Business Center.

Ted Peters is Professor of Systematic Theology at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. His recent books include: Science, Theology, and Ethics, Playing God? Genetic Determinism and Human Freedom and the forthcoming Sacred Cells?: Why Christians Should Support Stem Cell Research. Peters also serves on the Scientific and Medical Accountability Standards Working Group for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).

Andrew Fiala reminds me to add that Peters will also be meeting with students in the philosophy club from 2-3 in USU 311, where he will lead an informal and general discussion of religious studies, theology, science, free will and determinism, and whatever else students want to talk about. Faculty and students are welcome to attend.

And students, if you attend, consider submitting your impressions/reflections on the talk and the general topic of stem cell ethics for this class blog.

Another young girl victim of dumb-and-blind faith

And this time, it was fatal and it happened in America – in the supposedly more “progressive” state of Wisconsin, not in some rural corner of the developing world! Here’s an excerpt from this appalling news story:

An 11-year-old girl died after her parents prayed for healing rather than seek medical help for a treatable form of diabetes, police said Tuesday.

Everest Metro Police Chief Dan Vergin said Madeline Neumann died Sunday.

“She got sicker and sicker until she was dead,” he said.

Vergin said an autopsy determined the girl died from diabetic ketoacidosis, an ailment that left her with too little insulin in her body, and she had probably been ill for about 30 days, suffering symptoms like nausea, vomiting, excessive thirst, loss of appetite and weakness.

The girl’s parents, Dale and Leilani Neumann, attributed the death to “apparently they didn’t have enough faith,” the police chief said.

They believed the key to healing “was it was better to keep praying. Call more people to help pray,” he said.

The mother believes the girl could still be resurrected, the police chief said.

What century are they living in, again? And in what backward “leader-of-the-free-world” country?

But that’s not all – here’s what local law enforcement did:

Officers went to the home after one of the girl’s relatives in California called police to check on her, Vergin said. She was taken to a hospital where she was pronounced dead.

The relative was fearful the girl was “extremely ill, dire,” Vergin said.

The girl has three siblings, ranging in age from 13 to 16, the police chief said.

“They are still in the home,” he said. “There is no reason to remove them. There is no abuse or signs of abuse that we can see.”

If you are now even more appalled and wondering how and why death is not apparently a sign of abuse, it turns out that such parental neglect, even if fatal, is not considered so bad as long as it is faith-based! Here’s a quote from someone who commented on the above story after looking into the Wisconsin state law:

Unfortunately Wisconsin law won’t hold the parents accountable:

State statute 948.03(6) provides an exemption from the law against failing to act to protect children from bodily harm for what is referred to as ‘Treatment through prayer.’ The statute says: ‘A person is not guilty of an offense under this section solely because he or she provides a child with treatment by spiritual means through prayer alone for healing in accordance with the religious method of healing … in lieu of medical or surgical treatment.

And another reader posted this follow-up:

Regarding statute 948.03(6), I have just done the research to confirm this for myself. That, together with 48.981(3)(c) and or 448.03(6), explicitly state that it is not considered child abuse nor neglect to rely solely on prayer or cultural practices (The first two) or ‘Christian Science’ (The final one) for healing a child, even to the exclusion of medical means. So, this is probably perfectly legal.

I suggest this would be a very good time to campaign for the state legislature to pass an act removing these exceptions – parents who refuse to provide available medical care for their very ill children should not be trusted with the safety of more, even if they honestly believe their rituals had healing power.

Why do I get the feeling that that police chief’s reaction might have been somewhat different had the parents been conducting “vedic” or “tantric” prayers and chants for the poor child, or holding a havan for her?

Meanwhile, in Oregon, another faithful family killed their 15-month old toddler by denying her the chance of getting antibiotics. At least in that case, prosecutors are reviewing it for legal action because the Oregon legislature threw out laws similar to Wisconsin’s offering the faith-based get-out-of-jail-free card to neglectful parents.

How can a country where people kill their own children through such ignorant barbaric faith in some god feel morally superior to other fundamentalists from other countries with slightly different but equally barbaric faiths?

Is stem cell therapy ok if it comes from the East?

Here’s something to ponder in the wake of Jason Bush’s talk, as we await the next lecture (on April 23rd) in the Ethics Center Seminar series where theologian Ted Peters (author of The Stem Cell Debate) will take up some of the more sticky moral controversies that Jason punted on last week! While a lot of the opposition to stem cell research in the US comes from the religious right, especially over the issue of embryonic stem cell research, there is opposition from the left as well – especially the “alternative medicine” left which sees everything in western medicine as being somehow tainted and unnatural. And then, by (illogical) extension, that any other “alternative” to western medicine is therefore much better for you, even if practitioners of said alternative don’t have a clue about how their medicine works, if it works at all! But what if “eastern” medicine starts offering therapies based on stem cell research (and other products of “western” science)? And start doing so when such therapies are not available here in the west? Skeptico raises this question in an interesting commentary on an NPR story about how some Americans are heading to China seeking stem cell therapies not available in the US. In addition to the welcome and enjoyable bashing of irrational “skeptics” like Bill Maher, Skeptico makes this important point:

The truth is, ancient people, who did not understand how the body works or what really made people ill, just made stuff up about these things. The ancient Chinese made up stuff about meridians and chi. Ancient Indians made up stuff about chakras. Ancient Europeans made up stuff about humors. We now know better, and so have abandoned humors and bloodletting. The only mystery is why people still insist that chi and chakras are real. But whatever you believe is real, the distinction clearly is not between “western” and “eastern” (fill in your preferred country) therapies. The distinction is between therapies that work and those that don’t. Scientists in China are researching real medicine, and trying to find out what works and what doesn’t, just like scientists in the west. Maybe some have oversold their results, but scientific procedures, not ancient myth, will ultimately decide what works and what doesn’t.

So can we now please abandon this pretence that doctors in the west practice something called “western medicine”, while the Chinese have access to some secret knowledge that “western science” still hasn’t yet caught up with? There is only medicine that works – or at least, is backed by reliable evidence that it does – and pre-scientific superstitious quackery that doesn’t. The East/West labels mean nothing. And the next time some twit like Maher intones gravely against “western medicine”, just say, “yeah, I don’t fancy bloodletting either” – and advise him to go visit Doctor Hu in Hangzhou. Preferably on a one-way ticket.

I’ve always thought that the main criterion in medicine is whether it works. Even if we don’t fully understand underlying mechanisms! Any good medicine should aim to cure the afflicted, without getting caught up in its own dogmas about how the human body is supposed to work. Figuring out the “how” and “why” of any successful medicine – well that’s the job of science. That’s why you can have many “alternative” medicines, but only one science – for there is no western or eastern science once we understand how any particular disease and its cure works, is there? And on the flip side (and this may raise some of your hackles), that’s why medicine (even in the west) isn’t always necessarily a science either!

Bush to speak on the ethics of stem cell culture – Mar 12 noon @ Fresno State


No… not that Bush / Shrub! Rather, its our own department’s Jason Bush, who actually knows a little something about stem cell research as a scientist, and who happens to be from north of the border – the northern border of the US, that is. Our Bush will be speaking as part of the CSU-Fresno Center For Ethics spring lecture series:

March 12
Jason A. Bush: “The Art, Mystery, and Controversy of Stem Cell Culture”

As stem cell research has exploded in the past 5 years, fundamental concepts have changed and we have made technical advancements. Scientists see the potential and opponents see the slippery slope. This lecture will discuss the complex issues that engulf stem cell research.

Jason Bush has a Ph.D. in Experimental Medicine from the University of British Columbia. He did post-doc work in Cancer Biology at The Burnham Institute. He is Assistant Professor in the Biology Department at Fresno State.
[From Upcoming Ethics Center Events and Lectures]

The lecture will be in the Alice Peters Auditorium at 12:00 PM on March 12, 2008. Should be fun, so try to be there!

What is this I’m eating?

frankenfood_large.jpgIf you ever pause to wonder about what exactly is in the (likely highly processed) sandwich you are eating for lunch, and if whatever’s in there is really good for you, you might want to swing by this noon to listen to my colleague Jim Prince’s take as part of the Ethics Center’s Spring Lecture series:

Jim Prince: “What is this I’m eating?”

Biologist Jim Prince will lead a discussion of the science and ethics of genetically modified food. What are the risks? What are the benefits? Can we afford to tinker with our food sources? Can we afford not to?

Jim Prince is Professor of Molecular Genetics at Fresno State. He received his Ph.D. in plant molecular biology from Cornell University. He did postdoctoral work at the USDA and Cornell University.

While you wait for the talk, or if you can’t make it, here’s a few thoughts to chew on.

Molecular biology, genetics, and biotech seem to be particularly good, among all technologies, in raising our hackles about opening Pandora’s box, perhaps because they have the potential to hit us directly in our bodies – where it hurts! And perhaps as a result, breakthroughs and developments in this area seem to always stir up shrill rhetoric from both sides: those who tout the technology as almost magical solutions to world hunger and disease, and those who would raise the specter of Frankenfoods to scare the pants off of us. Take the recent green light given by the FDA for food produced from cloned animals. James McWilliams argues, as you may have seen on the Op-Ed page of the NY Times yesterday, for a more moderate, rational middle ground exploring this frontier of the precautionary principle, and I agree with his perspective. A friend of mine wrote last week to ask me what I thought about the FDA decision, and my immediate email response was that it was hard to imagine serious health issues for humans from cloned meat or other animal products. After all, we’ve been eating cloned plants for centuries without anyone worrying too much about it. Why do we draw a different line when it comes to cloned animals?

What do you think?

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