Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Fundamentals

Buried in the Guardian web site is an announcement about an upcoming speach by Lord May, President of the Royal Society, where he discusses the problems that society faces in the rise of fundamentalism... both religious fundamentalism and its secular twin, ideological fundamentalism.

In his address to the society, titled Threats to Tomorrow's World, Lord May will criticise groups for putting their own traditions, unsupported beliefs and dogmas above scientific evidence. "Fundamentalism doesn't necessarily derive from sacred texts. It's where a belief trumps a fact and refuses to confront the facts.

"All ideas should be open to questioning, and the merit of ideas should be assessed on the strength of evidence that supports them and not on the credentials or affiliations of the individuals proposing them. It is not a recipe for a comfortable life, but it is demonstrably a powerful engine for understanding how the world actually works and for applying this understanding," he will say.

Several instances of ideology triumphing science are singled out by Lord May, including Global Warming, the anti-nuclear power lobby, the Catholic Church stand on condom use, and of course, creationism. In all of these cases, powerful people would prefer to indulge their personal fantasies rather than deal with the cold hard scientific reality that surrounds them. That would be fine if this were just the tin-foil hat crowd, but these powerful people include world leaders, corporate CEOs, and religious figures with audiences in the millions. What hope does civilization have against the vested interests of an elite who refuse to deal with reality?

One feature of the post-war US that has always impressed me is their ability to set up institutions that were independant of the ideological and religious whims of the nations leaders. Institutions such as the FDA, the CDC, the NIH and NAS.... grounded in science and with a mandate to take the best scientific information available and use it to form policy, educate the populace, and steer research.

The past few decades (but particularly the last 5 years) have seen an erosion of these institutions. The FDA has been holding up approval of the Plan B emergency contraceptive not because its dangerous, but because of the personal religious beliefs of certain politicians. The CDC has had to water down information on its website dealing with contraception and sexually transmitted diseases because of pressure from a small but extreme religous minority. The President himself essentially hamstrung stem cell research in the US, and has consistantly ignored scientific consensus on Global Warming, while giving a boost to the supporters of Intelligent Design, a form of warmed over creationism cobbled together to sneak religion into the schools via the back door.

Its ironic that at a moment in history when we have never had so many scientific advances (and the fruits of those advances, whether in vaccines, antibiotics, drought tolerant crops, space travel, or the internet, to name a few) there are so many powerful people who have no tolerance for the scientific method and no grounding in reality. I hope this is just a passing moment in history, and not the beginning of the end of that intellectual experiment that sparked the enlightenment. With over 6 billion people on an environmentally shaky planet, this is not the time to have fantasists at the helm.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Canadian Government Falls!

Its true, and already rebel forces and Imperial troopers are massing for the coming conflict. No word yet if foreign advisers will be intervening.

Where are these guys when you need them?

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Historical perspectives

The Aftenposten (english edition) recently posted a story on how the Norwegian education minister wants to deemphasize modern history in high-school and focus more on earlier periods:

A key component in the draft national high school curriculum proposes replacing much Norwegian, European, world and modern history with digital presentations of the Viking age, the rise of the Roman Empire and the development of medieval China.

The new program leaves out the world wars, the Russian Revolution, the Cold War, and does not mention the topics of Nazism or Communism.

Its hard to tell from the article why they are doing this, and you have to take the Aftenposten with a grain of salt... their English articles are very tabloid in format and don't have anywhere near the detail of their Norwegian news.

I could be sarcastic and say the reason for this change in the history classes is that Norway doesn't have much history: The popular view is that following the christianization of Norway at the end of the Viking era, Norway went into decline and became a minor province of first the Danes and then the Swedes. Neutral during the first world war, it reappeared on the world stage following the German invasion, where it became a crucial base for German operations in the North Sea. Thus, to the outside world, Norway is Vikings and Quisling, and until the last 30 years not much else. That would be very unfair, however... Norwegian history, while not as colorful as that of Sweden or Denmark, is a big part of the history of whaling, Arctic and Antarctic exploration, the Hanseatic league, the settlement of North America, among other things. Even the Vikings themselves are given short shrift - more than just hairy barbarians, they established continent spanning trade networks that reached to the Byzantine empire and the shores of Newfoundland.

What this news article has reminded me of is just how much history... particularly European history... I was not taught in school, and how much I have learned since coming here. To take just the second world war as an example, depending upon which country I lived in either the English won the war, the Americans won the war (but the English helped), or the English won the war, but the Canadians did all the really dangerous and important work. I was aware that Norway had been invaded, but never new about the role it played in the German plans for the development of atomic weapons (or the important work of the Norwegian resistance in preventing it). Nor was I aware of the complex politics surrounding the German invasion, which saw almost as many Norwegians joining the Wermacht as joined the resistance. How many people outside of Scandinavia know of how the Danish government, while ostensibly cooperating with the Nazis, secretly smuggled their entire Jewish population to the safety of Sweden, or that neutral Sweden became a highway for the movement of German troops who officially were on vacations? In North America, we would believe that nothing much happened in Europe between the Battle of Britain and the landings on Omaha beach when in fact every European country has its own history of dealing with the German and Russian powers (the WWII history of central and eastern Europe is even more complex than that of Scandinavia).

If anything, students should be taught more history, not less... and covering a broad range of topics rather than just that of ones own country and the "classical" history of Greece and Rome. Local history is fine, but the world is an interconnected place... and only focusing on the local aspects never gives a person an idea of the larger context of events. As a youth I learned about the Vikings discovering North America and their failed attempts at settling here, but as an isolated fact, quickly passed over as we shifted to the later (successful) colonization efforts by the French, Spanish and English. Its only as an adult living in Scandinavia that I have come to see the larger context of trade networks, piracy and raiding, political rivalries and machinations, and changing cultures that resulted in the Viking settlements and their eventual failure. Its that larger context of world events that makes the history of my own country make sense... and turns an item of trivia into an interesting link of a globe-spanning chain of events with repercussions to this day.

Ticket to ride...

I just realized that its been a while since I've posted anything... not because of thanksgiving (a strictly New World holiday, which I would be celebrating in October anyway) but because I've finally received my settlement papers for England and have to put everything in order for my departure from Norway.

I would have liked to have spent another Christmas in Norway... I'll miss the pinnekjott and the Juløl, the 'old world' feel of christmas here, the sight of snow on Mt. Ulriken on Christmas morn... but reality is an expired work visa in the most expensive country in the world and a need for a change of scenery. With any luck, the snow hitting Scotland will dip southwards a bit, and I can look forward to a white Christmas.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Want to work in Norway? Not Norwegian? Forget it!

From the Aftenposten english edition:

Norwegian authorities have said the country needs specialists in a variety of fields, and they set a quota of 5,000 work permits that could be granted this year to foreigners with special skills. The result is disappointing. Newspaper Aftenposten reported Tuesday that only 780 have applied for and received work permits in Norway.

Norway's tradition of egalitarianism also makes the country unattractive to foreign workers with years of often expensive education behind them. Most Norwegian employers don't link pay to university degrees, or the length of a worker's education, putting Norway at a competitive disadvantage. Employers in Germany, France and Portugal, for example, are more likely to tie pay levels to education levels.


Well, thats the official line, anyway...

My wife and I used to follow an ex-pat job website for non-Norwegians living in Norway, and just about every week someone would post how they wanted to follow their sweetheart to Norway, this is what they did for a living, and could they find a job here? And the response from the ex-pats, born of hard experience, was NO. It didn't actually matter what you did - if you weren't Norwegian, didn't speak Norwegian fluently, didn't have a Norwegian education, and were seeking a job with a Norwegian company, you had almost no chance of finding work. (If you had skills that a non-Norwegian company would value, your chances were better, but it was highly advised you get a job offer before you came).

Norway is filled with unemployed and underemployed spouses, boyfriends, and girlfriends of Norwegians that have left good jobs in their home countries and cannot find work here. The ugly truth behind this is that deep down Norwegian employers are extremely xenophobic. Unfortunately its an issue that the government can't seem to get their head around. They and the Norwegian industries talk constantly about importing educated talent and the need for it, but when it comes to putting words into action, nothing happens.

Norway is a beautiful country and the people are generally nice, but they haven't really adjusted to the global economy yet (its only the past 30 years that Norway has been a truly first world nation - before the North Sea Oil, Norway was the poorest country in western Europe). They still have a very isolationist attitude when it comes to foreigners. Until they do change their attitudes, the talent they need to compete on the world stage will be heading elsewhere.

In my case, England.

Monday, November 21, 2005

A herd of Zebras

AIDS "dissidents" are the creationists of the medical world.... in the early 80's when there were a host of competing theories on the cause of AIDS swirling about, they had their place, but now that we have mountains of evidence that a little retrovirus called HIV is the cause of AIDS, you would think they would accept that they were incorrect and focus on the real issue of how to deal with this virus. Instead, unable to convince the scientific and medical community, they started a PR campaign designed to convince credulous politicians and desperate patients that HIV was just an innocent virus in the wrong person at the wrong time, and that the real cause of AIDS was AZT, or 'toxins', or 'lifestyle'....

This would all be well and good if usenet discussions and online blogging were all that mattered, but these people convince patients to forgo treatment, and have even convinced governments to hold off on prescribing anti-HIV drugs! Again, actions driven by ideology with very real and painful consequences for real people.

Orac over at respectiful insolence discusses one example of this, where a child died because her mother was adamant that HIV did not cause AIDS, and where those with ideological axes to grind are fighting to relabel what is very clearly death by HIV infection as something else.

Highly recommended reading.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

The Religious Right wants to kill your daughter...

Nothing pisses me off more than people who let political ideology and religious fundamentalism get in the way of public health. Do you remember last year when some Imams in Nigeria announced a ban on polio vaccines because they believed it was a plot by the Western governments to spread AIDS? ...and that there were serious consequences, including a jump in polio cases in northern Nigeria causing paralysis in children? Remember how many here in the West laughed about it as just another example of Third World crazyness? Would never happen here, right?

In the US, for instance, religious groups are gearing up to oppose vaccination, despite a survey showing 80 per cent of parents favour vaccinating their daughters. "Abstinence is the best way to prevent HPV," says Bridget Maher of the Family Research Council, a leading Christian lobby group that has made much of the fact that, because it can spread by skin contact, condoms are not as effective against HPV as they are against other viruses such as HIV.

Giving the HPV vaccine to young women could be potentially harmful, because they may see it as a licence to engage in premarital sex," Maher claims, though it is arguable how many young women have even heard of the virus.


In other words, Bridget Maher of the Family Research Council wants your daughters to die from a horrible preventable illness so that she won't lose her favourite boogeyman to scare kids into abstenance. Its bad enough she and her friends are determined that your daughters should get pregnant at every available opportunity, whether from a moment of carelessness or from a violent rape.

It is estimated that more than 25,000 women become pregnant in the United States each year as a result of rape, according to statistics given by state lawmakers who have proposed the bill.

In Pennsylvania, hospitals are not required to offer the medication [Plan B]. Some do. Others have policies that allow health-care providers to opt out of providing the medication because of personal religious or moral reasons.

I can sort-of, vaguely, and somewhat unsympathetically understand the Imams response in the face of a spiralling AIDS epidemic and the recent Western hostility towards Moslems, but the American Christian Rights' determination to punish women has gone beyond ignorance and into the realm of criminal perversion. I may not know WWJD, but a part of me keeps feeling that if he could see what some of his followers are doing in his name, he would puke.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Why we lost....

Not long after reading this post over at Pandagon, I came across this news article:

One Arabic linguist was discharged from the military for violating its "don't ask, don't tell" sexual orientation policy in fiscal year 2004, according to records obtained by an advocacy group. In the first 10 years of "don't ask, don't tell," the military discharged 54 Arabic and nine Farsi speakers for violating the policy, according to the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military. In fiscal year 2004, however, there was just one Arabic and no Farsi speakers discharged, the center said Wednesday. That compares to at least three enlisted personnel discharged the previous year.


Apparently its more important to win hearts and minds in Alabama than in Baghdad.

When did ignorance become a virtue?

The irritating thing about the dustup between Dilberts Scott Adams and Pharyngulas PZ Meyers is the attitude of Scott Adams and some of his fans that being ignorant about something and being too lazy to look stuff up are virtues, while actually investing the effort to educate yourself means that you are biased and 'compromised'.

I ran into this attitude occasionally when I used to teach intro biology back in Kansas... there would invariably be someone in the class who was extremely opinionated (usually on evolution), but didn't know a thing about the subject, were too lazy to learn, and were damn proud of the fact. One young woman in particular stands out in my mind... bottom of the class, spent most of her in-class time surfing the net or chatting with friends, couldn't explain what evolution was if her life depended on it, yet adamant that evolution was wrong. The truly frightening thing? She was planning on becoming a teacher.

Monday, November 14, 2005

I should be too old for this...

Its been a particularly crappy past three weeks for me... what started as just a bad cold has turned out to be pertussis - and while I'm not burning through a box of tissues a day anymore, I could do without the coughing and that cracked rib I got as a result.

Like most people in the western world, I had always assumed pertussis (better known as whooping cough) was one of those childhood diseases our grandmothers used to worry about, but which had been efficiently dealt with through the miracle of vaccination. Unfortunately, pertussis likes to throw curveballs... over time vaccinated and previously infected people lose their immunity, creating a population of adults that are fully susceptible to the disease. The one saving grace is that usually these later infections are less severe than what is seen in children.

Whooping cough is caused by a nasty little bacterium called Bordetella pertussis, which glues itself to the ciliated cells of your respiratory tract and releases a cocktail of toxins to disable your immune system and damage your respiratory cells. Patients with pertussis go through a two week period of sneezing and runny noses, followed by 4 to 6 weeks of violent coughing. During this period they are highly contagious, but once they recover they can enjoy years of aquired immunity to the disease. B. pertussis evolved from the bacterium Bordetella bronchiseptica, a closely related bacteria that causes a mild but chronic respiratory infection in animals. We can also be infected by B. bronchiseptica, but it doesn’t happen often… B. bronchiseptica isn’t very contagious to begin with, and the immunity most of us have to B. pertussis confers immunity to B. bronchiseptica. In a small number of cases, whooping cough is caused by B. parapertussis… another descendant of B. bronchiseptica. The symptoms are the same (although milder), but significantly immunity to B. pertussis does not make you immune to B. parapertussis.

The evolution of this group of bacteria appears to be tied to the changes in human culture that led us out of the fields and into the cities, and may even be a result of the high density urbanization of the last half millennium. Genetic comparisons among the three bacteria place the divergence of B. pertussis within the past few thousand years, while the first records of the distinctive ‘whoop’ of whooping cough go back only 400 years.

Why is the emergence of whooping cough tied to human cities? The highly infectious nature of B. pertussis means that this disease needs a minimum population size in order to continuously have a supply of new hosts. If the population is too small (e.g., in a medieval town or rural village) the entire population would be infected and subsequently immune in a matter of months. In large cities, however, there are enough hosts present and a constant influx of new hosts (births and immigration) to keep B. pertussis circulating indefinitely. The ancestral bacterium B. bronchiseptica, in contrast, has to survive in animal populations that are at low density, dispersed, and seasonal in reproduction. Instead of trying to infect as many new hosts as possible in a short period of time, it lays low in the hosts nasal passages causing only a mild disease, waiting for the rare opportunities when uninfected hosts are encountered or it can infect its current hosts offspring.

Vaccination for pertussis began in the 1940's and in the western world at least, rapidly transformed whooping cough from a mothers nightmare into one of those 'old tyme' diseases your grandparents would tell you about. In a matter of years, the pool of young children which the pertussis bacterium depended on for its survival virtually disappeared. This could have spelt the end for B. pertussis, save for one factor: unlike many other diseases, immunity to pertussis isn't life-long. Instead, it starts to fade after a few years, and most adults who had been immunized or infected as children become susceptible again to the disease (albeit in a milder form). Adults have always been a reservoir for the disease to hide in when it ran out of children to infect, but the milder symptoms meant that adults were not as good at transmitting the disease. Without children, however, it appears pertussis may not have much of a choice. The last few years have seen a re-emergence in adults and older children and an increase in the severity of the infections. Pertussis, it appears, is evolving to become a significant disease of adults as well.

Something I found out the hard way, three weeks ago.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Eleventh hour of the eleventh day...

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.


We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

I've never been very comfortable with the poem 'In Flanders Fields'. In my childhood we would recite it each November 11th, and go over in class the meaning of the verses. Like many war poems from that period, Flanders Fields is both a memorial and an exhortation. It speaks of the dead, touches upon what they have sacrificed, and ultimately urges the living to take up the cause and join the fight. Its final stanza is an exhortation to continue the war, lest the sacrifices of the dead be in vain.

I've come to dislike this poem over the years. As a youth, I had attended remembrance day assemblies at school, where officers who had in their lives never fired a shot in anger would stress that third stanza and speak of the importance of carrying on the good fight and the sacrifices for freedom... odd, considering that the Great War had little or nothing to do with freedom and high ideals, and far more to do with the byzantine diplomacy of the early 20th century.

There have been wars that have been necessary and unavoidable, but far too many have been fought over greed and stupidity... John McCrae's call to 'take up the quarrel with the foe' and 'to you from failing hands we throw the torch' sound similar to the excuses of Vietnam and Iraq, to fight on in a pointless cause so that the dead shall not die in vain. That second stanza, where the dead recount what they have lost: "felt dawn, saw sunset glow, loved and were loved", is too often conveniantly forgotten.

I'll end with the sentiments of another First World War soldier, Wilfred Owen... and a poem that could almost be a reply to John McCrae.

Dulce et Decorum est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep.
Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod.
All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!-An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,-
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

One way tickets...

Sometime in the late summer of 1916, in a field in northern France, my grandfathers luck ran out. I don't know how it happened... I suppose no one alive today knows... except that by the standards of the Great War, it was a quiet day on the Line. He was what they call 'trench wastage'... killed not in one of the famous battles but as part of the day-to-day attrition of that horrible war. There are a hundred ways to die on a battlefield - an incoming shell, a stray bullet, a landmine, carbon monoxide from the crude stoves, dysentary from the filthy water, trench fever from the ever-present lice, bottomless wallows of mud that will drown the unwary soldier...

Not much has changed from my grandfathers time.... rich men are quick to send their countries youth to war, and death comes all too easy. In the constant numbers and statistics - 20 dead here, 5 wounded there, only 95 this month, 200 killed or captured - its important to remember the individual stories. To quote Terry Pratchet:

"Sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That's what sin is."

"It's a lot more complicated than that—"

"No. It ain't. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they're getting worried that they won't like the truth. People as things, that's where it starts."

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Scientific ethics begins with leadership

After reading a few of the posts at Dr. FreeRides site I've been thinking a bit about the topic of ethics in science. In one of his posts, Dr. FreeRide asks his readers what they would put in a course on ethics... I posted a short comment in response, but the more I've thought about it, the more I've felt that a more detailed answer is deserved.

Ethics courses on scientific misconduct have never impressed me much. After a certain point in life, we either have a well developed idea of what is right or wrong, or we don't. By graduate school its a bit too late to change that... sure, we can instill the fear of God and the Dean by outlining the long list of punishments that will be dealt out to cheaters, but as any school teacher or police officer will tell you, the people most affected by those sort of speeches are the ones least likely to break the rules anyway.

Fortunately, I think that most of those who enter graduate school have a determination to seek the truth... that is the job of a scientist, after all. Unlike most other fields, science is constantly cross-checking itself and publicising for all to see both the results and the methods. This creates an environment where cheating is difficult to sustain... eventually someone will try to repeat what you do, and if they can't replicate the experiment, questions will be raised.

There are a few high flyers who thumb their nose at the system... people like Luke Van Parijs, John Darsee, and Hendrik Schön. These 'scientists' blatantly fake data, draw graphs from scratch, change labels at a whim, and do so for no other apparent reason then self-promotion. They can do quite a bit of damage in their careers, as people waste time using or trying to repeat their results, but on the good side, they are often so obvious that it doesn't take that long until they are discovered.

For some reason, people like these tend to get a lot of attention from scientific ethicists... I guess they have the same sort of attraction that serial killers have to criminal psychologists. Who would you rather profile... Charlie Manson, mass murderer, or Joe Schmoe, robber of liquor stores? Unfortunately, its the Joe Schmoes knocking over corner stores rather than the Mansons of the world that do more damage in the long run. Similarly, I would bet that its the small scale examples of scientific misconduct rather than the high flyers that waste the most time and resources. But are we really dealing with the low level scientific misconduct, or are we acting like 'Officer Friendly', telling the kids at school exactly what happens at a PMITA prison and hoping they will 'just say no'?

Creating data out of whole cloth is difficult, as van Parijs, Darsee, and Schon found out much to their chagrin... on the other hand, massaging data is disturbingly easy. Outlying data points can be dropped. Unsatisfactory experiments can be 'replicated' until desired results are obtained. Graphs can be 'cleaned up' to produce smoother curves. Judgement calls can be made that bias results one way or another. Experiments in molecular biology are rarely 'double blind' (how many researchers ask their lab mate to load their gel for them, just to be safe?), again allowing observer bias. Areas in photographs can be digitally enhanced to turn background into signal (or to remove unwanted signals).

The real question for scientific ethics isn't what makes a van Parijs or a Schon do what they do, but why an ordinary researcher working on an ordinary project feels it is acceptable to alter the data in order to produce better results. This is where we step away from the black and white examples taught in ethics class into the muddy world of real lab-bench science. There are going to be some researchers who are going to alter data.... even if only slightly or in the grey area of judgement calls... for no better reason than the advancement of careers. But there are also researchers, particularly at the bottom ranks (grad students, post docs) who are going to see data massaging as a matter of self-preservation in the 'will I still have a job tomorrow' sense of the word.

The field of science creates a uniquely perverse working environment in which low level researchers, particularly grad students, are completely dependant upon their immediate supervisors and often have no recourse should unusual or extreme demands be placed on them. This is particularly true for foreign researchers, who face the additional demands of restrictive immigration laws, who are unable to claim unemployment benefits, and who often have to support family members who are unable to work. At one university I attended, it was said (only half-jokingly) that you could tell the personality and quality of a supervisor by the nationality of his graduate students... native citizens, after all, had the freedom to leave an undesirable supervisor.

More than most fields, science should be tolerant of failure... failure eliminates fruitless lines of enquiry allowing us to focus our research, while the freedom to fail encourages the sort of risk-taking and experimentation that leads to great breakthroughs. Realistically, however, failure means that grants are not renewed, contracts are ended, and degrees go ungranted. Fourty years ago, a freshly graduated PhD. could look forward to his own laboratory and research program in a university. Now, you generally need several low paying post-docs before you have even a chance at a permanent position... and if those degrees and post-docs aren't at the right universities, and don't produce enough papers, you may as well quit while your still young enough to retrain.

It doesn't take a series of post-docs at Harvard to see that this creates an unhealthy environment that would promote low level cheating... the sort that doesn't try to stand out, but which may mean the difference between an unproductive year and a mid-level publication. How much falsification actually takes place, I don't know, but I've seen some numbers floating around for biomedical science that suggest the amount is low, but not insignificant. (I suspect that more cheating occurs in biomedical science than other fields, simply because results are often fuzzier... small differences in blood serum components, or qualitative patient assessments of well-being. Its hard for an astronomer to fake the existance of a new star or a taxonomist to fake a new species, although in the latter case I have seen some really bad judgement calls that created new species where none really existed).

So what does this have to do with teaching ethics? Whether a person crosses the line from ethical scientist to fraudulant science depends on whether they feel the benefits of cheating balance out their own internal moral compass. Undue pressure to produce positive results, confirm a supervisors hypothesis, or support a funding agencies preferred conclusion acts like a massive thumb on the ethical scale, pushing the researcher across that line. Ethics courses that I have run across only deal with one side of the scales... the moral compass. They rarely deal with the larger picture of the work environment, and how to cope with the pressures to alter results that a researcher may face. Instead, the ethicist comes off as 'Officer Friendly' - strictly crime and punishment.

In addition to the basics of right and wrong, young researchers need to know how to deal with the pressure to produce in order to avoid the temptation to cheat - this includes learning about university expectations for supervisors, grievance procedures, university standards for handling corporate funding of research, and even transferring academic skills from the university environment into the general workforce ('leaving academia'). It also means that universities have to have expectations of supervisor mentorship, effective ombudsmen to aid grad students and post docs, clearly stated guidelines for accepting outside funding, and a view of the world that goes beyond the ivory tower. It also means that ethics classes have to be for professors, not just students. Good ethical behavior is learned not from lectures but from observation of those in leadership positions. Its one thing for a supervisor to tell a student that pruning data is wrong. Its another to have a supervisor suggest that an unfavorable experiment be rerun until a desired result is obtained.

I hope that the level of fabrication is low (after all, I depend on other peoples results for my own research), but I'm not naive, and I've seen and heard some things that have made me wonder. It would be good to see some solid data on why researchers fabricate their results, although that may be hard to obtain. I suspect most small scale cheating that is discovered is quietly buried... after all, more than one reputation is on the line. Ultimately, a response to the problem that deals with only one side of the problem will be ineffective. We have seen how well the law-and-order approach has worked on the War against Drugs, War against Poverty, and War against Terror.... without a two pronged approach that not only deals with the symptoms but also the underlying problems all of these 'wars' have stagnated. The last thing we need is a similarly effective War against Fabrication. Its not like Nancy Reagan needs the work.

Weapons of Mass Destruction found in Iraq

..except, it was us that was using them. In a report in the Independent, US forces are accused of using white phosphorus shells as a weapon.

Powerful new evidence emerged yesterday that the United States dropped massive quantities of white phosphorus on the Iraqi city of Fallujah during the attack on the city in November 2004, killing insurgents and civilians with the appalling burns that are the signature of this weapon.

But now new information has surfaced, including hideous photographs and videos and interviews with American soldiers who took part in the Fallujah attack, which provides graphic proof that phosphorus shells were widely deployed in the city as a weapon.


Is there any low the Bush administration won't sink to? Torture, abductions, secret trials, chemical weapons... I don't recognize the U.S.A. anymore.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Tangled Bank 40

Tangled Bank #40 is up... with lots of interesting articles. Give it a look.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

We salute our tentacled overlords!

Off to Miskatonicon for the weekend, to enjoy some affordable beer, Swedish hospitality, and gibbering horrors. I'll post a bit about it when I get back, as well as the much anticipated 'what is an Oikopleura and why are they more fun than sea monkeys' article.

Until then, have a good weekend, and to my Swedish readers (I know there is at least one), hope to see you there!

For a laugh, check out Howard Hallis's classic tract: Who Will Be Eaten First?