Category Archives: morality

Neurological disease: a complicated beast

Earlier today I was doing a little Googling looking for information that I plan to use for a thesis project when I came across a blog about the science of Parkinson’s Disease. At first I was really excited since I rarely see blogs about the science of specific diseases and I feel those are very much needed in today’s serious state of scientific misinformation. After the initial surprise of its existence, I actually made the mistake of reading the blog. I was not only disappointed, but saddened as well.

My disappointment was less about the apparent state of research and more about how research (and researchers) is presented to patients and their families. How and why biological research is conducted is largely a mystery to the vast majority of even the most educated people. What disappointed and distressed me most was how research was perceived by this patient. It was of the “why aren’t you doing this?” mentality that I find is quite pervasive in online patient communities of all diseases I’ve come across. This idea that we researchers are not really interested in certain questions about disease progression and pathology are partially correct but largely misguided, and often perpetuated by the perceived lack of progress in curing the disease in question.

It is true that scientists often halt seemingly promising lines of research much to the dismay of patients suffering from a debilitating disease, but it is not because we do not care. Instead, we do it because it makes sense scientifically and financially. If it doesn’t seem to be a fruitful endeavor then there is no point to keep wasting very valuable time and money pursuing it. There is also a simple reason we do not let patients dictate our research direction: they do not understand the science behind their disease. This is not an insult, but a simple fact. These are very complicated matters that take years of training in order to just begin to understand, and to expect a patient with little knowledge of biology to truly understand the research is unreasonable. That is why we don’t expect them to understand the underlying pathophysiology of their disease. However, patients oftentimes feel they understand more than they do (a little bit of knowledge…) due to their intimate knowledge of their disease. I cannot blame them, but I do wish they would have a little humility and acknowledge that there are plenty of professionals out there who have studied their disease for years in order to understand and, hopefully one day, conquer it.

Though most of us scientists got into research due to simple human curiosity it does not mean we don’t care about the real world implications of our work. We’re working hard not just for ourselves, but also because we know it makes a difference not only in the lives of patients, but also other scientists, and humanity at large.

Overall, I wish the author of the above blog the best in his/her treatment and that this post may help explain a bit of why we do what we do, but I also wish that some of the opinions of the author are changed for the better.

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Filed under animal research, biology, cancer, disease, evolution, grad school, huntington's, medicine, morality, neurobiology, parkinson's

Curious…

I’m fairly well versed in biology, and what I don’t know I can look up and not be confused by the jargon.  So, I have a question to anyone reading this: any questions you have about anything biology (or general science) related that you would like answered by a scientist?

Something you read in the news or a magazine about recent biological advances sound fishy and want to get the to bottom of it?  Ask me.

Hear your dad spout some craziness about one of his “theories” and wonder if it has a grain of truth?  Ask me.

Ever wonder why you have a blind spot in your eye?  Ask me.  (hint: if there’s a god, he’s retarded)

Wonder why researchers still have to kill tens of thousands of animals a year in order to do necessary research?  Ask me.

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Filed under animal research, medicine, morality

A much needed response

My last post brought about a very important comment from Sarah about some mothers she has met. I was just simply going to comment on what she said, but then I saw the front page of the Chicago Tribune today and saw this and my blood began to boil and I decided that I had to post about vaccines, autism, and pseudoscience.

First, let me say that while I’m somewhat knowledgeable about the subject I am far from an expert. However, there are plenty of excellent resources for science-based autism and vaccine research right here on the interwebz. I’ll give a very quick overview of what lead to all of this craziness.

-Vaccines have effectively eradicated (at least in the first world) smallpox, measles, mumps, rubella, polio, diphtheria, and many other diseases. The development of vaccines is easily one of the greatest medical advances in human history. Seriously, it’s right up there with cleanliness and antibiotics.

-Some vaccines contained a mercury-containing preservative (thermiosal). When autism started getting huge about a decade ago people started blaming vaccines because a few quacks were being very vocal about their hypothesis that it is the mercury in the vaccines that is causing all these cases of autism.

-Looking for any explanation as to why their children were sick, parents all over England and the US began making the false connection between their child’s autism and vaccinations.

-To stem fears the mercury-containing preservative (which is harmless in the dosage received during vaccination) was removed from the majority of vaccines and is now only found in trace amounts in a small number of them such as the flu vaccine. Lo and behold, autism numbers didn’t drop. INSTEAD, THEY HAVE BEEN CLIMBING!

-Anti-vaxers (as we call them) refuse to believe the evidence before them and still believe vaccines to be the root cause of the autism epidemic.

So, with that said here’s my take on this whole debacle. It’s human nature to want answers. Unfortunately, science takes a long time and hasn’t come up with an answer to autism yet, so people whose worlds have been turned upside down because of the disorder look to people who say they know the answer and, due to a lack of other options, listen to them and believe what they say (also, because many times the very same people have “cures” for autism)

What makes this problem all the more difficult is autism itself. What we call autism is in fact a sort of catch-all group of early onset developmental delays. Though we don’t like to admit it diagnoses can become “trendy” (remember ADHD?) and it seems now that if a child shows any signs of a developmental delay s/he is automatically labeled as autistic. This is not a new disorder, it is a new label. There have been and always will be kids with such delays, but while they simply may have been called “slow,” “retarded,” “weird,” or whatever back in the day we have an actual medical diagnosis for them now. And just like any other disease, the more people who know about it, the more people will see it.

The most important thing to know is this: autism is not developmental stasis, it is a developmental delay. Unfortunately, these delays become apparent around the time children should be getting their first shots. See the problem here? People have a very very hard time distinguishing between correlation and causation. Just because something two things happen around the same time does not mean one caused the other, but for some reason a lot of people can’t seem to wrap their head around that fact. All they know is that little Jimmy got his vaccines and then developed autism.

What they don’t know is the damage they are doing. First, they are weakening the herd immunity and becoming serious threats to the overall health of our nation by refusing to vaccinate their children and spreading their ridiculous health claims. Second, they are pulling funding away from real autism research by focusing on stuff that has already been studied time and time again and found to be false. Lastly, they are further eroding confidence in our medical system. Our fucking incredible medical system. God I’m pissed.

Oh, and Oprah can go fuck herself for getting Jenny McCarthy a pedestal to spew her ridiculous and dangerous nonsense. Fuck them both.

Alright, now I’m pissed, so I’m going to stop writing.

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Filed under crazy, just sad, medicine, morality, Those Other Sciences

On perspective

For at least the past six years I have always ended my self-pity with the line, “it could be worse, I could be on fire.” It’s kind of a joke, but it does really keep me grounded; no matter how bad my problems seem there are plenty of ways my life could be much worse. The vast reach of the internet has made that line even more applicable. Now, every chance I can I downplay the relative bad stuff that has happened in my life because, well, it is only RELATIVELY bad. No one died, no one was crippled, no one was permanently hurt.

It doesn’t make how I feel about a personal situation hurt any less, but it does put it into the larger world perspective which, in my mind, is a good and grounding feeling. For instance, I recently contacted a sweet girl I went to high school with about a fairly unimportant conversation I had and she mentioned that I was one of the few people to take the time to contact her about anything beyond the general “hey, how’s it goin???” bullshit since her father had died. Her father succumbed to cancer late in our senior year roughly seven years ago and she still feels it everyday. Even with everything that has happened to me in my life I have never felt anything like the hurt that she has felt. I know that feeling such sorrow is part of being human, but knowing how much it has hurt her I hope to never feel it and that is why I put all of my sad life happenings into perspective with, “it could be worse, I could be on fire.”

Her story also struck a chord due to my current situation. I am writing this post sitting in a house with my mother and father quietly sleeping in their second-floor bedroom knowing full well I will see them in the morning, and I take that for granted. I shouldn’t, but I do. Most of us don’t appreciate the little things that a surprising number of people lack: the ability to breath properly, walking, not having to worry about a family member, etc.

Yes, I’m getting divorced and I’m almost broke. However, my wife and I still have a great relationship, I have savings I can use to help the financial troubles, I and my family are still healthy and prosperous, and I’m beginning grad school this August. As bad as things may look from a single perspective, when you take a look from all perspectives many times your life looks much better than you could possibly imagine.

Just remember: it could be worse, you could be on fire.

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Filed under cancer, childhood, home, life, morality, sleep deprived

Baguettes and gay marriage

Well, since I’ve had a lot of free time hanging out at my parents house on an extended mini-vacation I’ve taken to doing a few things I’ve wanted to do for a long time. One of those things is learning how to make a fantastic baguette.

Please note, I am not a baker. Far from it. I don’t bake shit, but I got on my computer, researched the hell out of baguettes, bought some yeast and flour, and went to town. I failed many times, but every time I have learned something from my mistakes. So far I have the flavor I wanted and the crumb structure (the bubbles inside) is ~80% figured out, but the dough consistency and the crust are still far from perfection. So, I got a lot of work ahead of me, but as soon as I figure out where I’ve gone wrong I’ll type up the recipe for all to use and enjoy.

Much like my baguette battle, gay marriage in this country is making progress as well. Four states now allow for same sex marriage!!! Fuck yes, score one for the good guys! I can honestly say that if you have a problem with the equality of allowing homosexuals to marry then you and I are probably not going to get along (my last boss had to travel back to England to marry his boyfriend; he should have been able to do it here).

Progress is being made not only on the baguette front, but also on the civil rights front. Both of those things make me a very happy man.

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Filed under christianity, food, home, marriage, morality, religion

Random musings on what evolution is and isn’t

It isn’t a drive towards complexity.  Plenty of species actually become simpler due to evolution.  The easiest examples of this is secondary eye loss among many cave dwelling species.

Evolution isn’t set in stone.  As with all science it is provisional and incomplete.  However, because it is a science it is also self-correcting (can’t say that about intelligent design creationism because that isn’t science).

It doesn’t mean a chimpanzee turned into a human at any point in the past.  However, we are very distantly related cousins.  Repeat: not mother/father, but distant cousin.

We shouldn’t find a cat/bird or fish/snake hybrid in the fossil record since evolution doesn’t work that way.

DNA allows for evolution to occur and it IS NOT analogous to computer code except in the most basic (and nearly meaningless) sense, so stop using it as one.  Can’t stress this one enough.

Positive natural selection isn’t the only mode for evolution to take place.  Remember about neutral selection, drift, and flow.

EVOLUTION HAS NO BEARING ON MORALITY!  Let me put it more bluntly: you can be a hard atheist who accepts evolution to be true and still be a very moral human being.  It’s logical and I know plenty of them.

In a similar vein, evolution doesn’t disprove the existence of a god or gods.  It doesn’t help those arguments either.

Evolution isn’t abiogenesis.  It doesn’t concern the big bang either.

I could go on and on, but I think I’ll end here.  Any questions?

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Filed under Biology and Evolution, morality, Those Other Sciences

Morality – the grey areas

Morality is a philosophical issue, and being that, I have a gripe with it that I have with most philosophical issues: grey areas caused by reality.  Don’t get me wrong, I love philosophy and believe it is necessary for people to think deeply about all subjects, but when someone gets too far into philosophy (and philosophy alone) they tend to forget that at some point their hypothetical philosophical world will have to run into the cold, hard wall of reality.

Essentially, I see reality as a check on philosophical issues.  The philosophical arguments for communism and socialism (and for that matter the different types of anarchy depending on your views) actually look very reasonable on paper.  Communism and socialism failed because reality took a bat to their heads, and moral issues are no different in that regard.

I bring up moral issues because there was a case recently that shows issues that many people believe to be a black and white issue is, go figure, very grey.

Abortion has always been a hot topic and I assume will continue to be one for a long time to come.  As with most moral issues you can imagine the views on abortion as a spectrum, but this post isn’t meant to deal with any of the nuanced and well thought out views from either side.  This post is dealing with a very select group on the pro-life side of things: those who oppose abortion for any reason.

What brought this to mind was a headline I saw in the past few days that I found both horrifying and unsurprising.  A 9 year-old Brazilian girl is pregnant with twins because she was raped by her stepfather and had an abortion because without one she would have died (her body simply wasn’t developed enough to deal with carrying and birthing twins).  Situations don’t get much worse than that and abortion morality doesn’t get much greyer.  Still, the Catholic Church derided the decision and actually excommunicated those who were involved (I’m with PZ Myers on this one) showing just how far they will go in their stance against all abortion.  (not all that surprising considering their stance on other issues…)

If this case doesn’t show you just how grey these moral areas can get then I believe you to be a lost cause.  In fact, there is only one black and white issue I can think of: rape.  It’s always bad, end of story.  But for everything else I can think off of the top of my head there exists a no-man’s land in the middle of the extremes where philosophy and reality clash; this causes grey areas of morality where no one is “correct,” but due to logic and the examination of real cases some arguments can be more correct than others.  What terrifies me is how involved someone can be in a moral issue and still have not thought about it beyond a very superficial level.  It would be comical if it weren’t so damn distressing.

I shouldn’t even have to state this, but based on what I see every day I feel as though I should spell out a simple bottom line for everyone reading this post: dig deep into the issues you feel strongly about and don’t be afraid to change your mind given new information.  Change isn’t scary.

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Filed under morality, pet peeve, religion