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Tag Archives: ethics

Undisclosed Funding – or – How to Look Like You have Something to Hide

Apparently disclosure of funding sources does not seem to be a important to some researchers. In Paul Offit’s Autism’s False Prophets, Andrew Wakefield’s failure to disclose $800,000 given to him by Richard Barr’s law firm to link MMR vaccine to Autism is a major factor contributing to his decline and fall. In Wakefield’s case, he failed to disclose any conflicts of interest as required by the journal, The Lancet, where he published his work.

The Lancet’s Author Instructions state clearly what may constitute a conflict of interest and that anything giving the impression of a conflict should be reported to the editor.

A conflict of interest exists when professional judgement concerning a primary interest (such as patients’ welfare or validity of research) may be influenced by a secondary interest (such a financial gain). Financial relationships are easily identifiable … A conflict can be actual or potential, and full disclosure to the Editor is the safest course.

At the end of the text, under a subheading “Declaration of interests”, all authors must disclose any financial and personal relationships with other people or organisations that could inappropriately influence (bias) their work.

Wakefield’s failure to report the potential conflict of interest both to the journal and also to his collaborators. Unsurprisingly, both groups were upset when they learned about the money. Eventually, along with alleged ethical violations, Wakefield had his license to practice medicine revoked and his paper retracted.

524990main_FAQ10_fullOne would think that this would serve as a warning to those with similar perceived conflicts, suggesting the best course of action to be one of full disclosure. In the end, it is often easier to defend a potential conflict that the author puts forward him or herself, rather than having to retroactively explain why information was withheld and then try to demonstrate that any conflicts did not impact the quality or findings discovered.

Nevertheless, The New York Times has published an account of a very similar situation in climate science today. In their article, Deeper Ties to Corporate Cash for Doubtful Climate Researcher, the case of Wei-Hock Soon, a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who claims that variations in the sun’s energy can largely explain recent global warming is being investigated for the influence of cash on his findings.

The crux of the times article is that Soon…

… accepted more than $1.2 million in money from the fossil-fuel industry over the last decade while failing to disclose that conflict of interest in most of his scientific papers. At least 11 papers he has published since 2008 omitted such a disclosure, and in at least eight of those cases, he appears to have violated ethical guidelines of the journals that published his work.

The disclosure of Soon’s funding does not mean that his data were influenced by the money, however, keeping it hidden definitely leads to questions. Not the least of his problems comes from using terminology such as ‘deliverables’ to describe his papers and preparations for congressional testimony in communication with his supporters. The term ‘deliverable’ is defined by business dictionary.com as a “Report or item that must be completed and delivered under the terms of an agreement or contract.”

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Although these articles are not within the timeframe of the financial contributions alleged in the Times, these help to clarify Soon’s position on climate science. These publications include:

“Recent Warming is not Historically Unique”.  Callie Baliunas & Willie Soon (2001.04.17)Capitalism Magazine. In which he concludes “The facts are simple. The Little Optimum and Little Ice Age were real. They were also widespread over the globe. The twentieth century is not the least bit climatically unusual. So why the recent media hysteria that the twentieth century is the warmest of the last 1,000 years?”

“Variable solar irradiance as a plausible agent for multidecadal variations in the Arctic-wide surface air temperature record of the past 130 years” Volume 32, Issue 16. August 2005. Geophysical Research Letters. As the title suggests, this article attributes recent climate data to “features that are highly correlated with the Sun’s intrinsic magnetic variability especially on multidecadal time scales.”

 
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Posted by on February 25, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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A Pointer to My Post After Watching GATTACA

ImageToday’s post about the film, GATTACA, is just as much a movie review as it is a discussion of eugenics, so I thought I’d post that on my other blog instead. Go on over and check that out. That and my thoughts on an ungodly number of bad movies that I watch all the time. 

 
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Posted by on April 24, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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What makes the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short?

ImageHuman Nature

Tiling a bathroom floor is a good time to catch up on the long list of podcasts clogging up  my switcher queue.

Unfortunately, they all seemed to take a dark turn yesterday.  I felt hit one time after another with tales of what vicious animals we can be. As I listened I was thinking of the Faustian comic my son and I found as an iPad app / book, Howard Numlek, that tells the tale of Howard, a meek, uncertain, jobless man who is taken into the employ of Red Suit, Inc., the front company of Satan himself. Poor Howard doesn’t want to work for the Prince of Darkness, but he’s unemployed, the pay is good and he doesn’t have to sell his soul just to work there. All he has to do is collect on the contracts.

I started to think… ‘Yes, I would probably sell myself into such an evil position pretty quickly given the chance.’

The first podcast was Ira Glass’, This American Life. It’s always been a favorite of mine since I first started listening almost twenty years ago. The most recent episode is about ‘Good Guys,’ and the men who think of themselves as such. There were several acts, but the one I thought was most amusing was trying to get the ‘Good Guy Discount.’ … “Hey, you’re a good guy, I’m a good guy, how about we take a little off this purchase to ease the pain a little?” Amazingly, this kind of approach actually seems to work with some people under some circumstances. But the question is, ‘What kind of guy goes around saying he’s a good guy and looking for a reward?’

The obvious answer is: not a very good guy.Image

Next up, also on This American Life, was the story of an Afgan War veteran and his memoirs that show how effective the US Infantry is at converting a mild mannered man into someone whose greatest hope is that he will have the opportunity to kill someone.

Is this something that his experiences did to him – or is it simply uncovering the deep, dark truth inside of us all?

Finally, Freakonomics with their story “Fear Thy Nature”.  As if I wasn’t already doing that!

This story brought up the 1971 Stanford Prison experiment in which students were separated into two arbitrary groups, one becoming prisoners and the other becoming guards. The experiment was supposed to last two weeks, but was stopped after six days due to the abuses of power exhibited by the guards.

There is some controversy about whether this experiment went the way it did because that’s the way human nature takes us – or if the study volunteers knew what was happening and made an effort to play to the camera.

While I was listening to this I was reminded of a diversity training video I had seen while employed at a plastics manufacturing plant in Delaware City during college. The video illustrated just how easy it was to invent a stereotype about a group from thin air and make it sting in just fifteen minutes of conditioning.

The most amazing thing about this exercise was that I remember the trainer at our company turning off the video and starting a conversation with the employees only to find that they had picked up on the stereotype and were just as vehement in aggressively applying it as any other brand of prejudice that they had ever felt. They had to be reminded more than once that this was only made up as a lesson.

Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I was able to find this video from the little I remembered about seeing it twenty years ago. It’s still available as Blue Eyed with Jane Elliot from ABC Training. Although I can’t post it here because it is still used, you can follow the link and watch the entire 30 minute video online – it’s astounding.  For a taste of the lesson, watch some footage of Ms. Elliot putting this lesson in action with her 3rd grade classroom in Iowa.

What does this have to do with the low opinion of humanity’s moral character? Watch the video, see how easy it is to sow division between people. It’s a great lesson about the arbitrary nature of bigotry, but it’s also a sad testament to the willingness of people to learn a new stereotype.

 
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Posted by on January 18, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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The ethics of vaccination

ImageI recently came across an interesting article on vaccination. The article, written by Dr. Stemwedel of San Jose State University, addresses the ethics of non-vaccination with respect to the social contract.

Although this aspect of the argument may be mentioned in other articles, it is seldom given such thorough treatment.

What I find most comical is that parents can bypass the social contract and decline to vaccinate their children but still send them into public school (etc.). Apparently (although I may be wrong here), all you have to do is express an ethical opposition to vaccination and that’s acceptable.

Are all obligations of the social contract as easily dispensed with while still keeping the benefits?

Can I send my son to school with a pack of Marlboros because we don’t agree about the dangers of secondhand smoke? After all, it’s just my one son who will be smoking in class. -I know this is an absurd argument, but don’t we forbid smoking in class for the same reason we insist on vaccination? And I would be pretty disappointed if my son started smoking – he is only 8.

What other elements of the social contract can be ethically declined?

Must I pay taxes even when the guy I voted for lost?

Can I be the one guy who declines to be burdened by speeding laws?

 

By the way, last year saw an outbreak of Measles in Wales that has been attributed to declining vaccination rates over recent years.

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Posted by on July 7, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Science Denialism – continued

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Human glial chimeric mice are faster learners across a range of behavioral tests

Although this entry is not really science denialism, I did think it serendipitous when I heard Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air interviewing Emily Anthes  about her book, Frankenstein’s Cat. The connection is that both journalists spoke about the intersection of science and society. Mr. Specter spoke more about how important it is for our politicians to heed the advice of scientists (among other things), while Ms. Anthes appeared to be more skeptical of accepting science without seriously questioning the morals and ethics of each advance.

As I write this, I know that I am much more in line with the views of Mr. Specter and believe that science offers society hope for the future, but I can’t help but notice that it appears that I am counseling against ethical consideration. This is not the case, however I sometimes wonder if people give fair consideration to values of society as a whole in these issues, or if they just get caught up in a knee-jerk reaction.

Let me see if I can provide one quick example of what I mean when I say this: I also heard a recent report of human –> mouse glial cell transplant resulting in the animals showing substantial gains in the rapidity in which they could solve mazes. At the end of this report, the journalist questioned whether this raised ethical challenges because these mice were now ‘superior’ to other mice. This implied that these animals were more intelligent and this made them more human-like . Although I understand the basis for this question, there are much more human-like animals that are subject to scientific investigation than mice. The question of whether a pretty smart mouse exceeded the consideration given to the health and welfare of dogs or non-human primates is probably a long way off.

 
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Posted by on March 13, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Son of HeLa to speak at JCCC Feb 21

Last week in Microbiology, we mentioned the use of HeLa cells in the context of informed consent. This week, I found out that the son of Henrietta Lacks is appearing to speak at JCCC this month.

From the JCCC website:

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What is it like to know that cells from your mother were taken without her consent to create a global strain of cells used the world over?

David “Sonny” Lacks will answer that question and more when he visits Johnson County Community College.

In an Actor’s Studio-like conversation at 11 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 21, in Polsky Theater in the Carlsen Center, he’ll discuss his mother, Henrietta Lacks, a poor tobacco farmer and the title character of the non-fiction bookThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

The event is free, and the public is invited to attend.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the 2012-2013 Common Read selection at JCCC. Students from Composition I classes were assigned the book, as were students from the dental hygiene and practical nursing programs.

Sonny Lacks’ appearance is a capstone to months of reading, writing, studying and discussing Henrietta Lacks, the originator of the famous HeLa cells.

HeLa cells are instrumental in medical research, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization and more, yet the woman behind these cells was all but forgotten until Skloot discovered Lacks’ name and history.

Skloot learned that in 1951, Henrietta Lacks unknowingly “donated” cells – both cancerous and cancer-free cells – that had an amazing propensity for growth. The cells were known as the “HeLa” strain, so named after the first two letters of Lacks’ first and last name.

In his appearance, Sonny Lacks will share what it meant to find out – decades after the fact – that his mother’s cells were being used in laboratories around the world, bought and sold by the billions. His visit puts a personal face to big issues such as the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics and the legal battles over “informed consent.”

Lorie Paldino, adjunct instructor, English, and chairperson of the Common Read program, said she thought Sonny Lacks’ visit was the perfect way to personalize those issues.

“It’s a great way of getting the family’s perspective,” she said.

The JCCC Common Read Program is in its fourth year. Common read programs have grown in popularity in communities across the nation. Colleges and universities have used such programs to infuse fresh academic and social experiences, promote critical thinking and reflection, and bolster reading beyond the classroom.

Sonny Lack’s appearance is also part of the college’s Scholar-in-Residence program, designed to bring visiting scholars to students, faculty and the public. It is co-sponsored by the English and Journalism division.

 
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Posted by on February 18, 2013 in Education

 

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Making Better Babies – A pragmatic solution to a problem and the ethical firestorm it provokes

Let’s say you are a young person thinking about having a baby, but you know there is a genetic disease in your family that worries you. It’s a reasonable concern that people have recognized for some time. There have always been diseases to concern parents, but technology is changing how we think about and face these concerns.

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A Downs Syndrome Karyotype

Once upon a time these was little more to do but cross your fingers and hope for a good result. Then chromosomal testing (Karyotyping) of a developing fetus became possible allowing parents to know what is happening inside the womb. Getting this information was not without risk, and even with the results in hand, would-be parents are faced with terrible choices. The way we dealt with this test in our family was to not have it done. We really wanted a baby and thought that  that having test results would not change our behavior. So we chose not to be put in a position of having to make that choice. It was what worked for us, but we also didn’t have specific concerns other than the fact that we were getting older.

Following the advent of chromosomal tests, it became possible to test the DNA of a fetus for specific, known problems. For example, If caner runs in the family, you could check to see if the baby’s p53 gene was normal. Having one or more bad copy of this gene dramatically raises the probability of developing cancer relatively early in life. Today, this is something we can know for certain.

But there are several sources of DNA in us. We typically think of the vast amount of DNA carried in the form of linear chromosomes that are packaged inside the nucleus of our cells. This is definitely the lion’s share of the DNA passed from one generation to the next, but there is another source as well: The Mitochondria. You may have learned about these organelles (little organs) as the ‘Powerhouse of the Cell’ for its role in generating much of the energy (ATP) your cells need to do their jobs. These organelles have a strange history in us. It is thought that many eons ago those things that are now mitochondria inside our cells were once free living organisms (possibly parasites, possibly a bigger cell’s dinner). However it happened these microbes were taken inside of our cells, but not digested as food or harmful enough to kill the host either.

Powerhouse

Why am I talking about this? Because those organelles still carry remnants of their former selves. They still have their own protein-making machinery and even their own DNA. This DNA isn’t large, but it does carry genes coding for vital proteins. And this is how we get back to our original story, because sometimes these mitochondrial genes are no good. If these genes aren’t right, they can’t make healthy, functional proteins. If they can’t make good proteins, then the host cell and the while organism can die.

Interestingly, all the mitochondria in every cell of your body came from your mother. This is one place where dad makes no contribution. Even though sperm have mitochondria, they don’t get incorporated into the new zygote, only those from the egg will remain.

Enter The Future of Fertility Medicine

Recent developments have shown that it is possible to replace the unhealthy mitochondria with healthy versions from a donor cell to make good eggs that can be fertilized and result in a healthy child. This was the subject of an excellent review in Nature and also discussed on the Nature Podcast this week. So how many parents is that? One mom, one dad and one mitochondria donor (I guess this could conceivably come from dad, but I just don’t know). This procedure has been done successfully with non-human primates, but so far not with humans.

So, pursuing a simple line of work aimed at helping parents make healthy babies is suddenly possible and suddenly a great ethical question. Have you ever seen Gattaca? If not, go out and watch it. I was sure this film was going to be miserable and be a poor representation of science, but I was totally wrong. They ask the same questions in that film that we are beginning to face in real life:

This isn’t the first time people have thought about this

When does Medicine become tampering with life? And does it matter? Don’t we want healthier, more able bodied people? Is it wrong to replace bad genes? What constitutes ‘bad’?

Personally, I don’t believe that there are universally right and wrong answers to these questions. Even if we decide that there are some less desirable consequences for mankind, that doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t do it. Much of plastic surgery isn’t really necessary and some might call it a perversion of medicine, but that doesn’t stop tons of people from getting it.

 
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Posted by on October 24, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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