Tag Archives: policy

That Facebook Study: Update

UPDATE 30 June 2014, 8:00pm ET: Since posting this, Cornell has updated their press release to state that the Army did not fund the Facebook study. Moreover, Cornell has released a statement clarifying that their IRB

concluded that [the authors from Cornell were] not directly engaged in human research and that no review by the Cornell Human Research Protection Program was required.

Where this leaves the study, I’m not sure. But clearly something is amiss: we’re still sans ethical oversight, but now with added misinformation.


So there’s a lot of news flying around at the moment about the study “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks,” also known as That Facebook Study. Questions are being asked about the ethics of the study; while I want to post a bit more on that issue later, a couple of facts for those following along.

Chris Levesque pointed me to a Cornell University press release noting that the study in question received funding from the US Army Research Office. That means the study did receive federal funding; receipt of federal funding comes with a requirement of ethics oversight, and compliance with the Common Rule. It is also worth noting that the US Army Research Office has their own guidelines for research involving human subjects:

Research using human subjects may not begin until  the U.S. Army Surgeon General’s Human Subjects Research Review  Board (HSRRB) approves the protocol [Article 13, Agency Specific Requirements]


Unless otherwise provided for in this grant, the recipient is expressly forbidden to use or subcontract or subgrant for the use of human subjects in any manner whatsoever [Article 30, “General Terms and Conditions for Grant Awards to For-Profit Organizations“]


I’ve also been in touch with Susan Fiske, the editor of the study. Apparently, the Institutional Review Board (IRB) that approved the work is Cornell’s IRB. That IRB found the study to be ethical:

on the grounds that Facebook filters user news feeds all the time, per the user agreement. Thus, it fits everyday experiences for users, even if they do not often consider the nature of Facebook’s systematic interventions. The Cornell IRB considered it a pre-existing dataset because [Facebook] continually creates these interventions, as allowed by the user agreement (Personal Communication, Fiske, 2014).*

So, there’s some clarification.

Still, I can’t buy the Cornell IRB’s justification, at least on Fiske’s recounting. Manipulating a user’s timeline with the express purpose of changing the user’s mental state is, to me, a far cry from business as usual. Moreover, I’m really hesitant to call an updating Facebook feed a “pre-existing dataset.” Finally, better people than I have talked about the lack of justification the Facebook user agreement provides.

This information, I hope, clarifies a couple of outstanding issues in the debate so far. Personally, I’d still like to see a lot more information about the kind of oversight this study received, and more details on the Cornell IRB’s analysis.

* Professor Fiske gave her consent to be quoted in this post.

What Am I Reading? 8 June 2014

One of the things I’m asked most often by non-philosopher, non-bioethics types is “what exactly is that you do during the day?” The answer, by and large, is that I read and write. My reading can be pretty diverse and—at times—obscure. Below are a handful of the things I read this week.

Dewey, John. 1929. Experience and Nature. London: George Allen & Unwin, pp. 1–100

My supervisor-to-be and I were talking about American philosophy late last week, when I revealed to him that I’d not read any of John Dewey’s work. Jonathan, a gung-ho pragmatist, recommended I get stuck in to Experience and Nature. So I did. It is—in Jonathan’s own words—turgid, but there are gems.[1]

Grande, David, Sarah E Gollust, Maximilian Pany, Jane Seymour, Adeline Goss, Austin Kilaru, and Zachary Meisel. 2014. “Translating Research for Health Policy: Researchers’ Perceptions and Use of Social Media.” Health Affairs. doi:10.1377/hlthaff.2014.0300.

A paper about the trends in social media use among health and healthcare researchers. Nothing particularly stunning in the conclusions: apparently, older academics don’t like social media much, and in general the healthcare sector are a bit apprehensive about communicating via Twitter.

There’s an interesting tidbit tucked in the bottom of Table 1, however. There was a drop-off in female use of social media in this sector that appears divergent from male use. There isn’t any mention of gender differences in the study, but it certainly seems to stand out.

Moya-Anegón, Félix, and Víctor Herrero-Solana. 2013. “Worldwide Topology of the Scientific Subject Profile: a Macro Approach in the Country Level.” PLoS One 8 (12). Public Library of Science: e83222. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0083222.

Moya-Anegón and Herrero-Solana present a cluster analysis of publications across different countries. They found three clusters of research and, matching them against country outputs, posited a geographic distribution of research interests.

I thought their discussion could be a bit more robust, however, and would like to see some more work done on the why of particular research outputs in countries. The Eastern Bloc, for example, lost a lot of its talent in the life sciences during the Lysenko Affair; a murderous head of Russian science killing of advocates of gene theory is going to cramp a country’s style in genetics. Building these complex stories into robust and current data would be an excellent addition to the field.

Glass, Jonathan D, Nicholas M Boulis, Karl Johe, Seward B Rutkove, Thais Federici, Meraida Polak, Crystal Kelly, and Eva L Feldman. 2012. “Lumbar Intraspinal Injection of Neural Stem Cells in Patients with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis: Results of a Phase I Trial in 12 Patients.” Stem Cells 30 (6). Wiley Online Library: 1144–51.

Read as part of a post Kelly and I are putting together. More on that soon.

Resnik, David B. 2013. “H5N1 Avian Flu Research and the Ethics of Knowledge.” Hastings Center Report 43 (2). Wiley Online Library: 22–33. doi:10.1002/hast.143.

I’m writing a paper about—surprise, surprise—dual-use, and in no small part am responding to David’s treatment of the so-called “ethics of knowledge.” This, and a range of other papers that I haven’t listed here, were background to that piece.

Sobel, D. 1994. “Full Information Accounts of Well-Being.” Ethics 104 (4): 784–810.

There’s a lot of philosophy out there, and I’m doing my best to make sure that my own accounts of ethics aren’t just reinventing other people’s concerns. If they are, I’d rather just cite them and save the scholarly space for something that’s more contribution-y. Sobel has some interesting stuff on how we account for our own and other’s wellbeing; it’s particularly pertinent for anyone working in economics or social policy (me).

Mableson, Hayley E, Anna Okello, Kim Picozzi, and Susan Christina Welburn. 2014. “Neglected Zoonotic Diseases—the Long and Winding Road to Advocacy.” PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases 8 (6): e2800. doi:10.1371/journal.pntd.0002800.

Great little article on the action—or lack thereof—of international agencies and government to recognize or address issues surrounding neglected zoonotic diseases. Discussion centers around the need for advocacy, and what that entails at a high level.

Fouchier, Ron A M, Vincent Munster, Anders Wallensten, Theo M Bestebroer, Sander Herfst, Derek Smith, Guus F Rimmelzwaan, Björn Olsen, and Albert D M E Osterhaus. 2005. “Characterization of a Novel Influenza a Virus Hemagglutinin Subtype (H16) Obtained From Black-Headed Gulls.” Journal of Virology 79: 2814–22.

Reading a paper by Ron Fouchier? Not surprising, considering he a frequent subject of my writing (here, here, here) .

Many of these titles are available online, for free. For those who aren’t, I’m happy to provide #canhazpdf assistance.

  1. Dewey really had an optimistic belief about the way science worked. This isn’t surprising for the early 20th century. Still, Dewey writes “physicists did not think for a moment of denying the validity of what was found in that experience [provided by the results of the Michelson-Morely experiments], even though it rendered questionable an elaborate intellectual apparatus and system.” That? Isn’t what happened. In fact, there were a litany of experiments that followed trying to measure the aether flux due to the earth’s motion.  ↩

A World of Trouble: Untangling the Politics and Promise of Nuclear Power

This post was originally meant to appear over at The Curious Wavefunction as part of a debate between myself and Ash about the politics and perils of nuclear power. I was somewhat dismayed when I woke up this morning (timezones, remember) to find my response had been bracketed by editorial and response from Ash without my consent or knowledge. Ash agreed to take the post down, and my response without accompanying editorial is below. It is worth noting that, for me, this cuts to the heart of what I wrote on yesterday, in that when one has a platform—and here, editorial control over subject matter—one has to be exceedingly careful about how their input frames content.

In this specific matter, to take what I as an author consider quite a strong disagreement and begin my entry with a statement saying a) this is only a disagreement of degree rather than kind (as if that made the disagreement lesser), and b) that degree was not substantial, undermines the position I put forward here without giving me adequate room to respond. As such, I present my view here without editorial, and Ash’s response I trust will be in the usual place in due course.

On Tuesday, Ash over at Curious Wavefunction blogged about “Pandora’s Promise,” a new documentary about the intersection between nuclear power and the environmental movement.  I haven’t had a chance to see the documentary because despite the internet, Australia is still very, very far away in movie-miles. But Ash raises a number of interesting points about the state of nuclear power—and the institutions that surround nuclear power—that are worth talking about and investigating a little further.  In the interests of disclosure, I am pro-nuclear in principle, but I think that  a lot has to be done before nuclear becomes more credible as a solution to anything.

Ash is definitely onto something when he talks about how risk in nuclear science misunderstood, and what actually happens to people exposed to radiation beyond what we experience every day. He notes the complexity of assessing the impact of radiation: dosage, chemical variation, method of contact, decay products, and decay paths all create different results. Radiation physics is a menagerie of causes and effects, and it is too quick to make comparisons simply in terms of the quantity activity one is exposed to.

The problem is, this cuts both ways. The reason there is little—but not noevidence that low levels of radiation increase cancer risk is that safety standards have been kept high. But the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and that uncertainty, not to mention the costs of finding out, has to be factored into our assessment of nuclear power.  Moreover, to claim that radiation is all about context, and then give examples of contexts where radiation is safe, is somewhat problematic.

That lead us into the next problem—new reactor designs, even those that show promise are still a ways off, and have some serious hurdles to contend with.  Liquid salt plants and so-called “breeder” reactors have been plagued with problems from their inception; they are not new ideas at all, but rather old ideas long in wait of feasible and successful engineering. Liquid salts run at exceedingly high temperatures, and may utilise highly reactive metals like sodium as cooling systems. The corrosive and highly flammable sodium is difficult to contain and can wear away containment vessels at a surprising speed.  The Monju reactor in Japan, for example, has been plagued by controversy and safety concerns for almost 50 years. This isn’t simply technological lock-in; making breeders cost effective, safe, and efficient enough to go into widespread use is and continues to be an immense technical challenge.

Most Gen-IV reactors will rely heavily on plutonium, as it is a far more efficient method of causing fission, and arises from the byproducts of irradiating uranium. But this introduces a new, unstated element of risk—In addition to being radioactive plutonium is incredibly toxic. It binds in calcium sites around the body such as bone marrow, and has long decay chains comprising of varied intensities of radioactivity. Storage of plutonium for civilian fuel projects presents a proliferation risk, a health and safety risk, and an environmental risk.

Now, I use “risk” here because the obvious reply from Ash, or anyone else, is that compared to the costs of not  pursuing nuclear power, the above dangers are deemed more than acceptable. In “Pandora’s Promise,” and Ash’s post, the costs take the form of anthropogenic climate change, and the costs of that clearly outweigh any costs of nuclear power.

Again, I want to make it clear that I believe that climate change is happening, it is human-influenced, and the costs of not acting are likely to be severe. It is just that in using such an—admittedly very real and scary—extreme cost without qualification as the reason to pursue nuclear power skews our risk assessment somewhat.  It is the same type of cost that motivates arguments for geoengineering on a large scale or human enhancement so that our bodies are better adapted to survive the pernicious effects of climate change. With a big enough catastrophe, anything is fair game.

But nuclear power isn’t simply a scientific or engineering puzzle. Its main drivers, in the end, have not been public fear—plenty of nuclear weapons have been built despite opposition. Part of what stymies nuclear power is that the science and technology have been tightly controlled from the outset. This has led to a dearth of skills in the right areas: many scientists who might have otherwise contributed to the nuclear sciences in civilian matters were either snatched up by the weapons industry, or denied clearance to work with fissile materials.

Further, the strict nature of nuclear secrecy, among other regulatory levers, creates an environment in which—even once civilian nuclear energy became a plausible pursuit—vested interests had the ability to control the market in all sorts of problematic ways.  According to one source, today 10 utilities own 70% of the total nuclear capacity of the USA.

Changing these institutions, allowing innovation to happen securely, and introducing competition into the nuclear marketplace are as much social and political changes as they are technical.  These are some of the very real challenges to wider adoption of nuclear power, and these changes, I fear, are where we the industry may falter.

This shouldn’t be a deterrent, but it outlines the challenges associated with the nuclear power industry. The clicks heard by Szilard and Fermi on that fateful day in 1942 in Chicago had potential, and still do.  Everything after, I contend, has been as much hindrance as help. The truth about nuclear energy, if there is any, is that it is as much a complex political case as it is a scientific one. Ash does, to his credit, note this, but I think he downplays precisely the type of gap we are talking about. It would be a shame to let the promise of nuclear power pass untapped. Yet one only has to look at the state of the nuclear energy industry today to know that the current system needs a radical overhaul, and that will require a significant amount of capital and civic participation. When we consider the cost-benefit analysis of a project, political costs have to figure in somewhere.  And right now in the world of nuclear energy, those costs are exceedingly high.