Tag Archives: scicomm

Ahistorical narratives in a time of science.

[Update: someone at The Atlantic confirmed for me that this was not so much their article, as it was run  “as part of our partnership with the site Defense One.” Defense One is a part of the AtlanticMedia group, which owns both publications. As the science editor for Defense One—where the piece was first published—it isn’t totally clear to me who edited Tucker’s work for content, other than… himself? Transparency and accountability, anyone?]

Patrick Tucker has a piece in The Atlantic titled “The Next Manhattan Project.” It concerns the current dual-use gain-of-function saga—now the so-called deliberative process about biosafety. It is, in short, a piece of ahistorical fiction. Here’s why—or, here is one list of reasons why.

1) “In January 2012, a team of researchers from the Netherlands and the University of Wisconsin published a paper in the journal Science about airborne transmission of H5N1 influenza, or bird flu, in ferrets.”

False. It was two papers: one in Nature by University of Wisconsin-Madision researchers; one in Science by Dutch researchers. When a writer for The Atlantic can’t Google something that happened 3 years ago, you can bet the previous century is going to be a challenge.

2) Eschewing the history behind current events: “[the 2012 paper (should be papers)] changed the way the United States and nations around the world approached manmade biological threats.”

False. The 2011 (it started in 2011, not 2012) controversy was a continuation of a, by then, decade-old debate about what is now called dual-use research of concern. This started in 2001, when a team of Australian researchers published work describing the creation of (in VERY simplistic terms) a super-poxvirus.There was a CIA report, and a NAS committee. Oh, and does anyone remember Amerithrax?

3) “it solved the riddle of how H5N1 became airborne in humans.”

False. Hilariously, the standard defense of the 2012 studies (remember, The Atlantic, plural) is that they don’t show how H5N1 can transmit via aerosolized respiratory droplets. Vincent Racaniello commonly refers to this as “ferrets are not people.” There’s a complexity about animal models that doesn’t lend to those kinds of easy conclusions. It wasn’t the end result of these papers (or the papers that followed), and it certainly wasn’t the intent of the researchers.

4) Eschewing the reasons behind the Manhattan Project.

The Manhattan Project has a complex history. A group of independent, politically minded—largely emigre—scientists; a world on the edge of war; a novel and particular scientific discovery with a potentially catastrophic outcome; and a belligerent power (well, powers—the Japanese and Russians had programs, in addition to the Nazis) the scientists had good reason to suspect was pursuing said technology.

The 2012 story has almost no parallel with these contexts—much less has an organizational, clearly defined set of ends, or unilateral mandate with which to achieve those ends. The existential threat in the background of the Manhattan Project is absent here—there is no Nazi power. If we truly considered H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza to be an existential threat, our public health systems and scientific endeavors would look totally different.

5) Misrepresenting the classified complex.

Despite it being the single comparison Tucker draws between the 2012 studies (plural) and the Manhattan Project, Tucker doesn’t discuss the classified complex as any more than a passing comment. He boils the entire conversation down to “but now the Internet makes classifying things hard.”

Never mind that the classified community was remarkably successful at its job, to the point where it invented ways to create information sharing within an environment of total secrecy. The classified community continues to do its work today—just because we don’t pay much attention to Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, or Lawrence Livermore don’t mean they don’t exist.

Tucker also misses some of the human factors that would actually make his claims interesting. Between Fuchs and the Rosenbergs, ye olde security could be compromised in much the same way as it is today: too much trust of the wrong people, and a bit of carelessness inside the confines of a community that thinks itself insulated. If anything, the current debate about dual-use is more about misplaced trust and overconfidence than it is about nukes.

***

These are only five of a variety of problems with Tucker’s article. What bothers me most is that the headline grants a legitimacy to one perspective on the current debate that simply isn’t warranted. These scientists aren’t racing against the clock to avert a catastrophe—and if they are, their methods are questionable at best. The current debate is far more nuanced, and far less certain than the conversation that went down in Long Island in 1939. And that’s saying something, because the debate then was pretty damned nuanced.

What would the Next Manhattan Project really look like? Lock the best minds in biology in a series of laboratories across the country—or world, that’s cool too. Give them at least $26 billion. And give them charge of creating a cheap, easily deployable, universal flu vaccine.

That’d be great. Or, at least, it’d be much better than The Atlantic’s piece from yesterday.

#shirtstorm: men hurting science.

Or “why the signs and symbols that create the Leaky Pipeline are unethical, and compromise the integrity of science itself.” This post because Katie Hinde asked, and this is just as important as the other writing I’m doing.

If you float through my sector of the Internet, you’ve probably heard or seen something about #shirtstorm: the clown in the Rosetta project—which just landed a robot on a comet—who decided it’d be the height of taste to be interviewed wearing this:

Yes, that’s Rosetta scientist Matt Taylor in a shirt depicting a range of mostly-naked women. The sexist, completely unprofessional character of this fashion choice is pretty obvious. Taylor also doubled down by saying of the mission “she is sexy, but I never said she is easy.”

Way to represent your field, mate.

Better people than me have talked about why the shirt is sexist, why it marginalizes women, why the response is horrid, and why the shirt—as a sign—is bad news. I’ve also seen a lot of defenders of Taylor responding in ways that can be boiled down to “woah, man [because really, it is always “man”], I just came here for the science.”

But the pointy end of that is that this does hurt science. Taylor, and his defenders, are hurting science—the knowledge base—with their actions.

As a set of claims about the world, science is pretty fabulous for the way that claims can be subjected to the scrutiny of testing, replication, and review. Science advances because cross-checking new findings is a function of the institution of science. It’s a system that has accomplished also sorts of amazing things—including putting a robot on a comet.

Image courtesy Randall Munroe under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License

Yet science advances only as far, and as fast, as its membership. This has actually been a problem for science all the way back to before it was routinely called “science,” when STEM was more or less just “natural philosophy” (“you’re welcome”—Philosophers). When American science—particularly American physics—was getting started in the 19th century, it went through an awful lot of growing pains trying to institutionalize and make sure the technically sweetest ideas made it to the top of the pile. It is the reason the American university research system exists, the American Association for the Advancement of Science exists, and why the American PhD system evolved the way it did (and yes, at the time it was basically about competing with Europe).

Every country has their own history, but the message is clear—you only get science to progress by getting people to ask the right questions, answer those questions, and then subject those questions to a robust critique.

The problem is that without a widely diverse group of practitioners, you aren’t going to get the best set of questions, or the best set of critiques. And asking questions and framing critiques is highly dependent on the context and character of the questioners.

The history of science abounds stories in which the person is a key part of asking the question, even as the theory lives on when they die (or move on to another question). Lise Meitner in the snow, elucidating the liquid drop model of atomic fusion. Léo Szilard crossing the street, enlightened by the progression of traffic lights into the thought of the nuclear chain reaction. Darwin and his finches. Goodall and her chimpanzees. Bose and his famous lecture that led him to his theories of quantum mechanics.

The point is that the ideas of great scientists, and the methods they use, depend on the person. Where they came from; how they experience the world. In order to find the best science, we need to start with the most robust starting sample of scientists we can.

When people are marginalized out of science—women, people of color, LGBQTI people, people with disabilities, people of other religions—the sample size decreases. Possible new perspectives and research projects vanish from science, because a bunch of straight white dudes just can’t think of it. That’s bad science. That’s bad society.

This has real, concrete implications for science and medicine. Susan Dodds, a philosopher and bioethicist at the University of Tasmania, has a wonderful paper called “Inclusion and exclusion in women’s access to health and medicine” (You can find the paper here). Dodds notes that the way our institutions are set up, access to healthcare and medical research is limited by the role of gender. Women’s health issues—again, in care and research—tend to be sidelined unless it has something to do with reproduction. This is to the point that research ostensibly designed to be sensitive to sex and gender often asks questions and uses methodology that limit the validity of experimental results to women, individually or as a group. The scientific community quite literally can’t answer questions properly for lack of diversity, and asks questions badly from an excess of sexism.

You can imagine how that translates across fields, and between different groups that STEM has traditionally marginalized.

So when you defend Matt Taylor, allow people to threaten Rose Eveleth, and tolerate the vitriol that goes on against women—in STEM and out of STEM—you limit the kinds of questions that can be asked of science, and the ways we have of answering those questions.

You corrupt science. You maim it. You warp it.

I realize this shouldn’t be a deciding factor—Matt Taylor’s actions are blameworthy even if he wasn’t engaged in a practice that contributes to the maiming of science. But for those who can’t be convinced by that, who “just want to be about the science,” take a good, long hard look at yourself.  If the litany of women scientists who never got credit for their efforts wasn’t bad enough, there are generations of women scientists—Curies, Meitners, Lovelaces, and Bourkes—that never were. We’re all poorer for that.

So next time you want to be “just about the science,” tell Matt Taylor to stick to the black polo.

Bad Bioethics Headline: 1918-like flu edition

Terrence McCoy has an article in the Washington Post‘s “Morning Mix” on the 1918-like flu virus gain-of-function study. It provides a bit of extra information beyond the coverage at the Guardian, and is worth a read.

The article, unfortunately, has a terrible headline. A “we need an award for Bad Bioethics Headlines” headline.

The headline reads “Was it ‘crazy’ for this scientist to re-create a bird flu virus that killed 50 million people?” There are some glaring errors, or misinformation, embedded in this headline; errors that, unfortunately, aren’t explicitly dealt with in the content of the article. And the errors, to a certain extent, undercut the seriousness of the work done.

1) First, nothing was “re-created.” The 1918 strain of H1N1 influenza has already been recreated using reverse genetics—in 2005. This work is also widely considered dual-use research of concern.

The work performed by Kawaoka and his team, however, is not a recreation in the traditional sense—the sense we mean when we talk about piecing together a poliovirus, or synthesizing Spanish flu. Rather, this new research involved piecing together a “1918-like” virus—one whose proteins differ by a few amino acids from the one that emerged almost a century ago—using segments of avian influenza. This wasn’t a recreation; it was just creation pure and simple.

2) The influenza pandemic in 1918 isn’t really “bird flu” in the conventional sense. Sure, it is likely that the strain of flu in 1918 emerged from an avian (and swine) reservoir at some point, but that’s because of the 18 different types of hemagglutinin (the “H” in H1N1), and 11 types of neuraminidase (the “N” in H1N1) that we know of, all of them can survive in birds. So all flu has something to do with birds.

We tend to label viruses as "bird" or "pig" viruses when we're talking about the most common host.

We tend to label viruses as “bird” or “pig” viruses when we’re talking about the most common host.

But that’s definitely not what we typically mean when we talk about “bird flu.” Avian influenza is used to describe influenza viruses that arise predominantly or exclusively in birds. What makes H5N1, or H7N9 scary is that they are viruses that predominantly occur in birds, that are crossing over to humans. Fortunately, H5N1 hasn’t been terribly successful at this, and H7N9—while more successful—is not at pandemic levels. Yet.

The “recreated” virus isn’t an avian influenza virus in the same way. The influenza that served as its template is ostensibly “human” or at least “mammalian” flu, that to the best of our knowledge came about from both avian and swine viruses that combined to make a human-transmissible superbug. The parts from which this novel strain was stitched together are bits of bird flu.

The point Kawaoka has been trying to sell the world on is that he wanted to find out—for the good of us all, he has claimed—if something like 1918-influenza could emerge from H5N1. Apparently, the answer is yes.

These all matter because they bear heavily on the “why?!” of this story. This virus didn’t come out of nature, but rather was made in a lab. And it hasn’t been recreated, but outright engineered. As with other gain of function studies, proponents of this story like to say that this will raise awareness about the pandemic preparedness, disease surveillance, and so on. I’ve voiced my skepticism about this before.

It also matters because—as the study notes—the virus created isn’t as harmful as 1918 influenza, but more harmful. Kawaoka’s paper notes that the virus his team created is more pathogenic than an authentic avian influenza virus, or the 1918 influenza pandemic strain. We’re not dealing with Spanish influenza: this is a human created, mammalian transmissible strain of flu that outperforms the “Mother of All Pandemics” in trials. That’s scary. And, while they were only testing the strains on three ferrets at a time, which isn’t enough to give us an idea of how this would affect humans in an outbreak, it is certainly enough to give us pause.

There is power in the platform. The Washington post, by its own numbers, has a readership of 24 million people. It should probably work a little on its headlines.