The Fault in Our Stars of Science

Much has been made this past week about James Watson’s intention to auction off his Nobel Prize, which he was jointly awarded for his part in the discovery of the structure of DNA. The act of auctioning off a Nobel Prize is normally cause enough to raise a few eyebrows, but in this case the reasons and the person behind it take those eyebrows to another level.

First some context, Watson is a great scientist and his contributions to science helped bring about the field of modern genetics. Watson is also a bit of a jerk. Until recently the most glaring example of this would be first his treatment of fellow scientist Rosalind Franklin (he and his collaborator, Francis Crick, used her data and failed to appropriately credit her at the time), and his description of her in his bestselling 1968 book The Double Helix as a haggy, naggy, old maid caricature. From the book;

By choice she did not emphasize her feminine qualities. Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. This she did not. There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents. So it was quite easy to imagine her the product of an unsatisfied mother who unduly stressed the desirability of professional careers that could save bright girls from marriages to dull men.

This is just one example of Watson spouting some biased and ignorant statements, ideas, and notions. Watson is a bit of a provocateur. He has made remarks to the effect that fat people don’t get hired because they lack ambition, and noting that “Whenever you interview fat people, you feel bad, because you know you’re not going to hire them.” He has also lectured on how sunlight (and darker skin) is the source of the “Latin lover” libido, claiming a biochemical link between exposure to sunlight and sexual urges, and noting “That’s why you have Latin lovers, and you’ve never heard of an English lover. Only an English patient.” Time and time again, Watson has been given a pass on these behaviours because of his impressive scientific resume, and these comments have been chalked up to his penchant to stir the pot. Those close to him wouldn’t call him racist or sexist, merely insensitive. But that changed in 2007, when in an interview with the Times of London, to promote his book, Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science, Watson made some unfounded and racist remarks. Some of the highlights include, “all our social policies [regarding Africa] are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really” and for his hope is that everyone is equal, he counters that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.” The fallout from those comments (and perhaps from the sum total of all those previous comments) led to Watson retiring from his position at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, New York (he still holds the position of chancellor emeritus), and being fired from the boards of many companies. Watson has stated that his being ostracized has led to his income plummeting, and becoming an un-person in the eyes of the scientific community.

Back to the auction, Watson hopes that by auctioning off his Nobel Prize, he will not only get the income he needs, (he intends to donate some of the money to schools, but also to buy a David Hockney painting), but also re-enter public life. It is important to note that Watson did immediately apologize for his remarks, noting in his apology that “I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said,” and has since insisted that he is not racist in a conventional way. Francis Wahlgren, the Christie’s auctioneer who is handling the sale of the medal, has said to the Financial Times that he is confident the medal would fetch the $2.5 million reserve, and does not expect Watson’s previous remarks to affect the sale. He notes that “There are a lot of personalities in history we’d find fault with – but their discoveries transcend human foibles.”

It is that statement that gives me trouble. Does past performance give you a free pass in the present? I have seen this before, where revered scientists take missteps later in their careers. Jane Goodall plagiarizes her latest book;  E.O. Wilson doesn’t think math is important, other Nobel Laureates like Lynn Margulis have drifted away from good science in her late career. In the case of Watson, his behaviours tend to get written off as less being an arrogant bigot, and more of an enthusiastic if misguided old man, who does not quite understand that people won’t always take his provocative remarks as innocently as he intended. Can we excuse bad behaviour/science/thinking from scientific heroes just because they are old and have done great things? Can we separate the legacy of the scientist from the legacy of the person (or that of Dr. Huxtable from Bill Cosby?). It troubles me to think that Watson’s legacy may be more about being racist than about being a great scientist, but I am also troubled by his racist remarks. To help make sense of this dichotomy, I look to Richard Feynman, not for advice, but as an example.

One of many Feynman quotes beautifully illustrated

One of many Feynman quotes beautifully illustrated

Richard Feynman’s legacy, which is quite impressive and full of anecdotes, has been reexamined in the light of his “casual sexism” and disrespectful behaviours towards women. Feynman has a certain celebrity about him in the pop-science community, his quotes frequently show up in Twitter streams and inspirational posters, which are just beautiful, and he is revered as a hero to some. But few heroes can survive scrutiny unscathed. They all have flaws, by virtue of being human. At Galileo’s Pendulum, Matthew Francis points out that hero-worship blurs those flaws, leveling them: truly nasty aspects of a person’s personality or behavior become on par with little quirks and eccentricities. In that way, we justify our worship. Over at Mathematigal, the author makes a great point about examining the legacy of Feynman, which easily applies to many other of our heroes, “Feynman did amazing work, it’s true. Talking openly about the uglier aspects of his life doesn’t diminish that. But glossing over his reprehensible behavior towards women, or trying to explain it away, alienates those of us who have had to struggle with that same behavior from our own friends and colleagues.” Speaking of explaining it away, there is even a Feynman excuses Bingo Card;

Excuses that get thrown about when discussing Feynman's

Excuses that commonly get thrown about when discussing the less savory aspects of Feynman’s legacy

Through all of that, what can I say. I still admire the work of James Watson. I have waited in line for an hour to meet Jane Goodall, and would do so again. I still want to have a drink with E.O. Wilson. I will still be filled with awe when I read a Feynman quote or think about the Challenger investigation. I know that the scientific heroes that I hold in high regard are not perfect, and while that does not diminish their accomplishments, it does make me a bit sad and disappointed, which is all too often part of the price of hero worship.

As I reflect on these scientists, Watson in particular, and their legacies there are a couple of thoughts that I can’t get out of my head;

Get in Line

In my opinion, the enjoyment of music festivals and other large events, can come down to your experiences with lines just as much as with the line-up; you line up to get to the festival grounds, you line up to get your entrance bracelet, then line up to go through security, then line up to get your drink tickets and reusable mug, then line up to get drinks, then line up to get food, then line up to use the porta-potties, and repeat as needed. And at each one of those lining up (or queuing) opportunities, this will invariably happen.

(from Reddit)

I am a staunch believer in sticking with the decision I have made, even when I see other lines moving much more quickly, and it turns out that regardless of which line I choose, those other lines probably are faster. This cruel fact comes from the work of queuing theory. Work in queuing theory has shown that having people line up in a number of separate lines with several different servers (like at the grocery store) is significantly slower than having one long winding line with multiple servers (like at the bank).

But as is often the case, science doesn’t always translate into practice, and in this case the obstacle is ourselves. Given the choice between a slow-moving short line, and a fast moving long one, even if the wait times are identical, we tend to choose the short line. No doubt part of this is that we like to feel that we have a certain level of control and choice over our wait time, and that we can beat the system, we can’t. Also the perception of a long line is often enough to scare us off and discourage us from even participating in the line, a behaviour queue theorists refer to as balking, which has slowed the adoption of single line systems by many businesses.

There are three factors of human behaviour/psychology that trump the science of queuing theory and help explain why we choose the short line: 1) we get bored when we wait in line (fun fact: Americans spend ~37 billion hours each year waiting in line!), 2) we hate it when we expect a short wait and then get a long one, and 3) we really hate it when someone shows up after us but gets served first. These factors can result in “queue rage” which can last for weeks after the incident, (I am still fuming about missing 3/4 of the Arkells show while waiting in line at the Sleeman Centre well over a year ago), and even result in violence. The first factor is overcome in grocery store queues by having impulse items, magazines, and other distractions available, because even though we are still waiting we perceive occupied time as being shorter than unoccupied time, basically, time flies when you are reading tabloid headlines. The second factor can be overcome with posted expected wait times. We tend to be more patient when we are given an idea of how long we will be waiting, however this can backfire if the wait times are longer than advertised (more queue rage). The third factor really should support the widespread adoption of a single line, as it is fair and ensures a first come first served approach. But for as much as we hate it when people in other lines who showed up after us get served first, we also really love it when we show up late and get served first.

Moonlighting

I haven’t posted here in a while, but I did some moonlighting for the blog The Starfish. The article is part of an EcoTox series exploring Toxicants in Consumer Products. So far the topics discussed have included, DDT, phthalates, perflourinated compounds, more phthalates, and my article on flame retardants in furniture. The Starfish is a great place to participate in thought provoking dialogue surrounding the themes of science and the environment, biodiversity and conservation, and making a difference. I encourage you to head over there and check out the articles and leave a comment.

The Blood Moon pre-eclipse, Oct 8 2014.

The Blood Moon pre-eclipse, Oct 8 2014.

Left-Handed Leftovers

August 13th is the 22nd Annual Left Handers Day, and as a proud lefty I thought I would share a collection of lefty related links.

First up, an article on the Origins of Handedness, which informs us that only 15% of humans are left handed, oddly enough two-thirds of lefties are born to right handed couples. The proportion of lefties is even lower in China, where less than 1% of students are lefties, and even lower behind home plate.

Obligatory Leftorium photo in any post about left-handedness.

Obligatory Leftorium photo in any post about left-handedness.

So why are there so few lefties? One study suggests that the reason lefties are in the minority is that humans cooperate more than we compete. But the question still stands, Why Does Handedness Even Exist? The most common answer is that handedness is determined by the structure of our brains, specifically brain lateralization, referring to the fact that the two halves of our brain are not exactly alike, each with its own functional specialization. Joe Hanson of It’s OK to Be Smart made a great video explaining why some people are left handed.

Handedness is a bit more straightforward in marsupials, if you are male, you are right-handed, and if you are a girl, you are left-handed. Most of the time in humans, left handedness is a naturally occurring, normal genetic variant, and only slightly sex dependent (with men more likely to be left-handed). However, left handedness is disadvantageous and may reflect a genetic defect or early developmental disturbance, and may be considered a form of cognitive impairment (but probably not). Indeed left handedness appears to occur more frequently in groups of neurologically disordered individuals, such as those with epilepsy, Down’s Syndrome, autism, and dyslexia.

Being left-handed has its drawbacks, and there are no shortage listicles espousing those drawbacks for example, 5 Reasons Being Left-Handed Screws You for Life, 7 Downsides to Being Left-Handed, 14 Reasons School is Basically Torture for Left-Handed People, The 18 Worst Things for left-Handed People, 21 Surprising Facts About Lefties, 23 Soul-Crushing Problems Only Left-Handed People Understand, and a Reddit thread devoted to the worst products for lefties. Some of the keys points, Lefties

  • Are more likely to die sooner
  • More likely to go insane
  • More easily scared
  • Are left (pun intended) out of studies
  • May get paid less
  • Get angrier faster
  • They drink more
  • More likely to die in an accident
  • More likely to stutter
  • Are less confident
  • Have better hearing
  • Are better at competitive sports

Despite all of the numerous drawbacks, I am happy to be a lefty, just like these powerful lefties, and if you are lucky enough to have a partner who is a lefty, you might be pretty happy too.

Round Up Ready: Gluten Edition

Gluten, or rather gluten intolerance, has been making a lot of headlines the past couple of years, and thanks to a recent article there is the suggestion that non-celiac gluten intolerance in bunk. So here is a round-up of some of the information about this recent gluten controversy (not to be confused with “articles” which blame Roundup® for all the ails of the human body, including celiac disease and gluten intolerance, note: reading these articles are a great opportunity to test your critical reading skills).

First up some background information, mainly, what is gluten? Jimmy Kimmel recently asked a bunch of fitness enthusiasts, many of whom practice gluten free diets, that very question.

ASAPScience took a bit more of a scientific approach in answering that question.

Both of these videos rightfully note that there is a significant portion of the population (~ 2 million, or 1 in every 141 Americans) that has celiac disease, for which eating gluten has very serious and unpleasant effects. The latter video also notes that there is a portion of the population that has non-celiac gluten intolerance. This discovery stemmed from a 2011 paper which, based on a double-blind randomized placebo-controlled trial (pretty much a gold standard), concluded that a non-celiac gluten intolerance may exist, but they weren’t able to determine a mechanism by which to support this conclusion. This paper helped usher in an era of awareness about gluten intolerance as well as a boom in the availability of gluten-free products.

However, the authors weren’t quite satisfied with their results and wanted to explore the issue further. They designed a more rigorous study, aiming to control some of the factors they weren’t able to in their 2011 study, involving 37 non-celiac subjects who self reported as feeling better on a gluten-free diet. In this new study (published in August 2013 to little fanfare until Real Clear Science brought it to light on May 14th), subjects were provided with all of their meals which allowed the researchers to removed any other dietary triggers which might confound their results, such as lactose, benzoates, propionate, sulfites, nitrites, and what would turn out to be most import, fermentable, poorly absorbed short-chain carbohydrates or FODMAPs (the short hand coming from fermentable, oligo-, di-, mono–saccharides and polyols). In the study the subjects were fed a diet low in FODMAPs for two weeks to establish a baseline, then they were randomly and blindly assigned to one of three diets (low gluten, high gluten, or placebo, which was whey protein) for a week. Over the course of the study each subject was exposed to each diet, allowing them to act as their own control. The results are a bit confusing, but in each treatment, whether it included gluten or not, subjects reported a worsening of gastrointestinal symptoms. A secondary experiment, where the placebo was the exact same as the baseline diet, still saw subjects reporting a worsening of symptoms! The short of it was, that subjects were reporting gastrointestinal distress without any apparent physical cause, this is not a placebo, but rather a nocebo effect, which New York Magazine writes about quite nicely. This suggests that gluten’s horrible image, which is perpetuated by some best selling books and questionable TV personalities, is enough to set off a very real negative physical response (e.g., bloating, general gastro discomfort) in some people after they have eaten it.

In addition to somewhat exonerating gluten in its role in gastro distress, this paper casts light onto a new food villain, FODMAPs. The results demonstrate that a reduction of FODMAPs in the subjects diets uniformly reduced gastrointestinal symptoms and fatigue. Some of the largest dietary sources of FODMAPs are bread products, so by going gluten-free, you also reduce your FODMAPs intake (and possibly even increase your calorie and fat content as many gluten-free foods, such as gluten-free pizza crust, need to add extra calories and fat to make a crust that tastes good and holds itself together, but that is another issue). While this study does have some very interesting conclusions, it is just one study, with a very small and unique population, and as always, more research is needed.

So for the millions of people who have felt better after going gluten free, consider that it might not have been the gluten that was the culprit, but FODMAPs, or a nocebo. Eating food should be fun, and should only ever be complicated or restrictive when there are valid scientific and medical reasons, and not because of a fad or TV personality claims.

A local Guelph barbershop. I think I will hold out for the FODMAPs free cuts.

A local Guelph barbershop was quick to jump on the gluten free bandwagon. I think I will hold out for the FODMAPs free cuts.

 

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Of Lab Mice and Men

Stressed out mouse.

Stressed out mouse.

The past few weeks there have been several interesting studies to come out about lab mice and gender. First up, a study published in Nature Methods found that male researchers induce stress in lab rodents (mice and rats), that may dampen the pain response. The researchers found that the presence of a male researcher, or even the t-shirt he wore the day before, would cause the rodents to have elevated blood levels of the stress hormone corticosterone. They noted that this temporary increase in stress hormone levels caused the mice to have a 40% decrease in pain response, as measured by the mouse grimace scale. While the results of this study may seem trivial, they throw a curveball into many of the past rodent studies performed, and has some implications for future rodent studies. The authors suggest that a male researcher sit in the room with the rodents for 30 to 60 minutes before conducting experiments to lessen this confounding effect, as the stress response eases over time, but they note that this is an unlikely outcome. The authors also call for more transparency in the studies, listing not only the gender of rodents, but also the researchers handling the rodents.

Mickey and Minnie react differently to diseases and drugs, and they should be equally represented in pre-clinical trials.

Mickey and Minnie react differently to diseases and drugs, and they should be equally represented in pre-clinical trials.

Speaking of the gender of rodents, the National Institute of Health recently announced policy that aims to correct the gender imbalance in cell and animal studies (Scicurious has a great summary and discussion of the NIH mandate). The NIH notes that while over half of all NIH funded clinical research participants are women, animal and cell studies have not kept pace. It turns out that many researchers avoid using female animals out of fear that reproductive cycles and hormone fluctuations would confound the results of carefully controlled studies. Researchers (and many 80’s comedians) have long known about differences between women and men, including the way they react to various drugs and develop diseases. For example, women are more susceptible to multiple sclerosis than men, and some drugs, such as Ambien, need to be prescribed in lower doses for women. Despite these fundamental differences, preclinical research continues to include a majority (if not entirety) of male animals and tissues, which might explain the higher rate of adverse drug reactions seen in women today.

This gender bias in animal studies actually extends further than just the medical field. Ed Yong recently asked “Where’s All The Animal Vagina Research?” In the article, he discusses a paper that examined 364 studies in the last 25 years that dealt with genital evolution. That paper found that 49% only looked at male genitals, 8% only looked at female genitals, and 44% looked at both. Interestingly the gender of the researcher was not a factor, as male and female scientists each seemed to skew equally towards male genital research. The authors of the paper believe the bias towards male genital research stems from longstanding gender stereotypes that have seeped into evolutionary biology, mainly that males play a dominant role in sex, and females are passive, a stereotype that has been proven many times to be false.

And one last bit of rodent research that is on a bit of a lighter note, it turns out that wild mice like to run on wheels. This finding is important for several reasons, but mainly it gives me an excuse to post this video.

 

23andMe and Grams

Last year for my grandmother’s 97th birthday, I got her a 23andMe genetic testing kit. Granted it may have been an unusual gift, but I thought it would provide some interesting information about our ancestry, a subject close to my grandma’s heart, as well as some insight into her health and maybe even my own. When I gave her the kit, my Grams (as well as most of my family) was a bit confused by what it was. I learned that she wasn’t even sure what DNA was, let alone what I would want with it. Grams was a bit hesitant to give a spit sample, but agreed to it, as long as she could do it in private without people watching her. With the sample collected I sent it off to the lab, where it was processed as below, and then waited for the results.

Once the results were in, the fun part began and I was able to start exploring. The first results I looked at dealt with her health (this service has since been discontinued due to a ruling by the FDA, more on that here, and here).

Grams' health risks of note.

Grams’ health risks of note.

Thankfully there weren’t too many surprises or causes for worry in the results, although slightly higher odds of macular degeneration and Alzheimers are worth taking note of. In addition to the health risks, there was also a results section on how Grams would be expected to react to certain drugs. Again not too many surprises, for most drugs she would have a normal response, however the results reveal that she is likely a fast metabolizer of proton pump inhibitors and caffeine, and that she has increased odds of responding to beta interferon therapy. The test also reported on any inherited conditions that my grandmother might have, and fortunately of all the conditions scanned (e.g., phenylketonuria, usher syndrome, Tay-sachs disease, and maple syrup urine disease) she does not carry the required genetic variant. The only variant that was present was for hemochromatosis, but the results suggested that Grams is not at risk of having higher levels of iron in the body, but may pass on the mutation to her children. This was the first result that I read that hit a bit close to home, whenever I donate blood, I always have very high iron levels, and now I believe I have a bit of an understanding as to where some of that comes from, thanks Grams!

Some of Grams' predicted traits.

Some of Grams’ predicted traits.

The health results also includes a section on certain inherited traits that you might expect to have. Some of the surprising results were that my Grams’ would be expected to have the muscle performance of a sprinter, which is something quite fun to imagine.  23andMe also has some fun with the results, and they are able to turn your DNA into a musical melody. The melody is created by using 4 musical elements, key, rhythm, pitch, and timbre. The key of the melody is determined by the maternal haplogroup, rhythm is derived by eye color and height, pitch by ear wax type and photic sneeze response, while timbre is chosen by the user. You can listen to the sound of my Grams’ DNA here.

The kit also provides some interesting information about my Grams’ ancestry and possible relatives. So far, 23andMe has found 995 DNA Relatives (17 of whom are 2nd-3rd Cousins, 573 are 4th cousins, and 405 are 5th cousins or distant relatives). We have always known she is Scottish and the results confirm her Northern European ancestry.

Percent of my Grams' DNA that comes from Northern Europe, (FYI her maiden name is McPhee)

Percent of my Grams’ DNA that comes from Northern Europe, (FYI her maiden name is McPhee)

While the Northern European bit was as expected, the percent Neanderthal came as a bit of a surprise. Turns out 3% of my Grams’ DNA is from Neanderthals, which is pretty high, and pretty cool!

My Grams' DNA is 3% Neanderthal

My Grams’ DNA is 3% Neanderthal

This weekend my Grams turns 98, when she was born DNA research was in its infancy and it would still be another 40 years before the structure of DNA would be uncovered. I think it is amazing that she has lived through so much. She is a wonderful mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and all around amazing person. Happy Birthday Grams!

Me and my Grams

Me and my Grams

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