View from the AAAS Conference in Chicago

A couple of weeks ago I attended the American Association for the Advancement of Science Conference in Chicago. It was my first conference of that size, and the first time I have gone as a journalist, and not a participant.

It is cold in Chicago in February, the lake was frozen for as far as you could see, with sheets that had broken off at some point rising out of the flat desert landscape on the water. It looked a bit like there had been a landslide or earthquake, with the plates sliding above each other.

It has been a harsh winter in general here, and Chicago had experienced some of the coldest temperatures in decades, I found this photo below on the Huffington Post site.

 

Chicago Frozen

Chicago Frozen by Scott Olson/Getty Images

In the background we see the Chicago skyline, and the conference was held in one of the giant hotels that looks out over the lake. There are many hotels on the shorefront, and one thing that surprised me is that they are all linked together by a series of underground tunnels.

Tunnels is a bit of a misrepresentation really, they are underground streets, with shops and bars and sign posts, so that on a cold winter’s day guests do not have to step outside. The conference made use of several different hotels and restaurants, and some people told me that although attending different venues they had not in fact been outside, and had not put on a jacket since their arrival.

The system is known as the pedway, see an explanation here, it covers 40 square blocks. The photo below gives an idea of what parts of it look like. Apparently they are not uncommon in North American cities, in Montreal it is known as the underground city.

An Underground World

An Underground World

As I said above the conference was a giant affair as the program demonstrates. I wanted to see a session on responsible innovation and to take part in the launch of the Journal for Responsible Innovation (I am on the Editorial Board and the Bassetti Foundation sponsored the event) but at any one moment there were dozens of panels in session and associated events.

The journal launch clashed with a talk given by Alan Alda the American actor (most famous for his part in MASH). Alda now runs The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science where he addresses issues and trains people in the art of science communication.

Alan Alda in Mash

Alan Alda in Mash

As I said I couldn’t attend but many of my colleagues told me that his talk was great.

I attended a session called Responsible Innovation in a Global Context early on Saturday morning. It was a great session and I learned a lot. Did you know for example that all research that is conducted involving water has to use an internationally accredited water? Yes it is purified water that then has certain amounts of certain minerals added. This means that scientists doing research in Brazil are using identical water to those conducting research in Italy, or Australia or anywhere else for that matter.

Great we might think, but using this type of water also makes some of the research useless. If bacteria lives in a river it interacts with its own type of water, plants life etc and reacts in particular ways. In the official water these reactions are not seen, so the research does not replicate a real life situation, so the results are different to the real experience.

But in order to get funding and to have their research accredited only one type of water is allowed. So money is spent on research that does not represent reality because “that is what the funding bodies want”. A ridiculous situation it would seem.

The influence of politics in research was also addressed from a Brazilian perspective, but one that can be applied throughout the world. When research and innovation is so tied to politics and touted as the saviour of the economic decline or development of a country it sometimes takes on a nationalist hue. This leads to questions about by whom, for whom and with which goals, that involves ethics and responsibility.

One of the most interesting developments though involves collaborations between the hard and social sciences. In several areas social scientists have been placed within science labs to act as a forum that allows scientists to talk about and understand the ethical dilemmas that they face while carrying out their work.

Much of the stuff I write about is related to the problem of scientific development and dual uses, unforeseen effects and changes they bring about in society, and having a social scientist, philosopher or ethicist in the lab seems to open up debate and even effect scientific outcomes. It might even seem to improve productivity is some ways!

As an aside I should add that attending a conference as a journalist has many advantages. As a participant you want people to listen to you, you have to pay to attend and publicize your event. But as a journalist everyone wants to talk to you so that you will write about them.

At every chance organizations try to engage you. There are free cooked breakfasts offered by national research councils, aperitifs form journals and unions, awards, free books and cd’s more alcohol, cakes and coffee, nights out with transport laid on, more food and more alcohol. Many of my colleagues were jealous, they had to pay for everything.

Thousands of people attended the conference and a lot of networking took place. I get the impression that this is really what these large conferences are all about. I am pleased to report that science bloggers (such as myself) are taken seriously and accepted as serious journalists, and there were many of us sitting alongside Reuters and the New York Times. All Kudos to the AAAS for that.

I stayed at the Palmer house hotel in Chicago, a splendid structure and once the largest hotel in the world. Worth a stay or even just a look if you are passing through. Other famous guests include Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Charles dickens and the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz, so I won’t be asking for a plaque to be erected about my visit.

Hereditary Memories?

The BBC has recently been reporting that memories can be carried from one generation to another through genes. We always knew that certain characteristics were passed on, but we had never known if or how memories were transferable.

Well it seems that they are, but what might this actually mean?

On 1 December Nature Neuroscience published a report that you can read the abstract of here although it is extremely technical.

In lay terms the research aimed at understanding how experiential and behavioural traits could be passed on. In the case under discussion they used mice to see if traumatic stress experiences could be seen to influence the next generation.

The experiment went something like this. A mouse is put into an environment that has a particular smell, cherry blossom for example. In that environment and accompanied by the smell the mouse is traumatized in order to produce stress.

The post traumatised mice then produce offspring, and they themselves produce a new generation. The grandchild mouse is exposed to the smell (cherry blossom) and their activity is monitored to see if they behave differently as a reaction to that particular smell, and they do.

Passing it all on

Passing it all on

The mice were “extremely sensitive” to cherry blossom and would avoid the scent, despite never having experienced it in their lives, and changes in brain structure were also found related to the smell.

The report concluded that “the experiences of a parent, even before conceiving, markedly influence both structure and function in the nervous system of subsequent generations”.

I wonder if associations are just negative? My children love the smell of Indian food, my father was raised in India and also loved the food, but he died many years ago and my children never knew him. Do they like the smell because my dad passed a liking of the food through my genes to them?

This is a simple example to question, but what are the implications for society after war? If we think about the Vietnam conflict, or more recently Afghanistan or Iraq for our our US veterans, what have they passed on to their children? Could the post war generation be suffering from a form of Post Traumatic Stress disorder thanks to their parents’ experiences?

And could the memory be more complete in a human brain, possibly being better functioning that that of a mouse?

And think about the implications for the theory of evolution.

Journal(s) of Misrepresentation

It is often said that the Internet has democratized the world. Maybe not in terms of governance, as we all know various governmental organizations collect huge amounts of data about our web use, but in terms of information.

When I was a teacher I saw many students relying on Wikipedia for information. I do the same myself of course, but I am at least wary about the accuracy of the information. They were not, and were shocked when I suggested to them that maybe all that is written is not true.

One worrying aspect is that the more critical a person is the more they are likely to distrust newspaper and TV reporting. This leads to more trust being put into Internet communication. The younger the user the more likely they are to get their news and information through digital media, but the more likely they are to trust it too, and this has consequences.

One of the consequences of this belief coupled with Internet freedom of information is the blurring of boundaries between reliable information in science and more fanciful or non- proven claims. Anyone can start an online journal, webpage or blog and for practically nothing set up a fake foundation, center of excellence or anything else they fancy, become the Director and Editor and publish to the world.

And you or I might find their work and not know how to interpret the information offered.

Sorting the truth from the lies

Sorting the truth from the lies

A couple of years ago I wrote an article on the Bassetti Foundation website about cold nuclear fusion. A small group of scientists is working to create nuclear fusion without using heat. A breakthrough would mean clean, practically free energy. I mentioned it here too as part of my Health of the Planet series.

In 2011 the Journal of Nuclear Physics announced such a breakthrough. It was reported in the national press in Italy, on CNN and the BBC. A Journal of this quality reporting such findings! Peer reviewed, high quality articles etc etc….

But as I was saying earlier, we should look beyond the gloss and at the substance, and it turns out that this wonderful journal is in fact produced and edited by the very scientist/entrepreneur that has made the breakthrough that he is telling us about.

It is not really a rigorous scientific journal, it is really a personal blog, and as such contents are possibly a little bit liable to bias (maybe).

Last week saw wide reporting of an experiment conducted by journalist John Bohannon and published through Science, an online and paper and much more reliable source of information.

To cut the story short Bohannon wrote a paper about a kind of miracle drug for cancer treatment. The paper contained many of the same errors that you or I might include, as non scientists. It came from a false research center too. Then it was submitted to just over 300 online journals. Fake results, flawed experiments, fundamental errors of high school biology, all included.

Half of the journals published the article as it was. High quality peer reviewed online journals (supposedly) accepted the article, it passed their stringent review systems and made it to publication.

You can read a much more detailed account of the event here in the original Science article. Tales of China and payments for publication, love letters from editors etc, it is all here.

So the problem becomes noise. With all of this noise, information, reporting and news, how can we pick out the real important stuff? Everybody’s voice becomes equal, the fact that 99% of scientists believe in something no longer means anything. The 1% of scientists (I know it is a big word) who do not believe that humans are contributing to global climate change have the same weight of voice as the others, and here in the US you can see the results.

Free market, free thinking, free Internet, free publication, free speech. Free propaganda and free misreporting too, unfortunately.

Calling While Driving

One of the problems with humanity is that we all believe that we can do things safely even if others tell us that they are not safe. People who drive fast do so because they are good drivers (so they tell us), people claim that they can drive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs when the statistics prove otherwise, and even making a call or texting does not distract some super-drivers.

Governments take some action in some form or other to try and stop people doing these things, but it is selective in nature. Let us take texting while driving as an example. In some countries it is illegal to drive and text at the same time. In the USA it is allowed in some states and prohibited in others. In some states you can talk on the phone, in others not you need a hands-free system.

The law though seems to be selective. Last week research published in the Science journal demonstrates that it is not holding the phone to text or speak that is the problem, it is the conversation itself that causes the distraction.

 

A typical sight today

A typical sight today?

The research showed little or no difference between the rate of accidents when people are using a hands-free system and when they are physically holding the phone. The type of conversation does make a difference though, the more the driver has to concentrate on the subject matter or think before replying, the more chance there is of having a crash.

They also found that any type of interaction, even listening to the radio, effects reaction times and attention paid to the road. The radio is the least invasive because it does not require a response, but I wonder if listening to a news show or a discussion that you have to concentrate to follow causes more distraction, a logical line of thought would seem to imply so. Interestingly enough voice to text is the most dangerous type of technological interaction addressed.

So there are laws against texting, and not holding a phone (I must add not everywhere) but why not make speaking hands-free illegal too? And we should bear in mind that cars are ever more designed for connectivity, and that means distraction, maybe this should also be regulated.

Well that would require a change in business practices and take away personal freedom some might say, but we should remember that driving is not a right, it is a privilege that is governed by rules.

This is a serious piece of research that uses eye monitoring technology to measure distraction and driver awareness. The findings are clear and there is plenty of supporting data from other sources, but how would you feel about not being able to make a call at all though while driving?

At least your boss couldn’t call you while you were on your way home.

The end of Anonymity?

Over recent years many people have had their DNA analysed and results posted online. The results have been anonymised, but the vast spread of information on the web calls into doubt the possibility of really making information untraceable.

Last week the Boston Globe ran a story reporting an article published in the journal Science, in which researchers demonstrate how they correctly identified individual identities of the owners of some of this DNA.

DNA

DNA, a personal business

Scientists at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research wanted to identify the owners of anonymous DNA samples that are available for research purposes online. They did not have any high technology, using ancestor tracing websites and freely available public documents.

We are not talking about hackers or expensive programs, we are talking about people with every-day computers and the same understanding of how they work as you or I.

It took a single researcher with an Internet connection about three to seven hours per person, and all in all the identities of more than 50 participants were discovered.

This raises several issues. What about all of those people who gave materials for research who find themselves posted and traceable on the Internet? What obligations do commercial companies such as 23andMe have towards their customers, operating in a more or less unregulated environment? (see here for posts about their organization). Can there be real guarantees of anonymity in modern life? Given the obvious advantages of data gathering how can it better be shared in order to protect individual owners?

The very scientists who conducted the research argue that the privacy problem needs to be completely re-analysed, with some scientists dubious that privacy to any extent can be guaranteed.

Problems related to this are both practical and philosophical. In the US the GINA legislation was set up to protect individuals from the effects of their DNA codes (and analysis of it) falling into the ‘wrong hands’. The wrong hands in this case are those of health insurance companies, that might not want to insure a person (or may want to charge more) because they have one particular gene mutation or another.

There are shortcomings however, the GINA legislation does not allow health insurance companies to discriminate on the basis of DNA testing, but other insurance companies are not legislated against. Life insurance and long term care insurance is not covered under the document, so in theory they would be free to decline cover on the basis of DNA analysis. This is particularly important as long term care is extremely expensive and is not covered through health insurance.

Given that anyone who has given their DNA for research purposes risks being identified, they may also risk discrimination.

Politics and the Environment

Yesterday the official data came out and the year 2012 was the hottest year the US has experienced since records began. Not only that, but it was the hottest by a long way.

The Hurricane Sandy experience, as well as a recent spate of wildfires and drought, has meant that the topic of climate change is firmly on the table, but the dissenting voice still carries political clout.

There are two polar positions here, with a large political lobby arguing that climate change has nothing to do with human actions, that either the Earth is warming naturally or that there is no proof that the world is warming at all. This goes against mainstream European thinking, and we can see many differences in approach between the two continents. In Europe we no longer use plastic bags on mass, they are now almost all biodegradable, and we can only buy low wattage compact fluorescent lamps as old style light bulbs have been fazed out.

Here the government is moving towards the same goal. In Massachusetts an organization called Mass Save subsidizes the cost of replacing old bulbs with new. The money comes from the user who has to pay a supplement on the electric bill to fund the scheme, but all is not without issue.

which do you favour?

A traditional and new style lamp

These bulbs contain mercury, a naturally occurring but poisonous substance. This means that they have to be disposed of properly, as if they are just dumped into the ground they can poison the surrounding water ways, very much in the same way as batteries do. They are also much more complex than old style bulbs, they require assembly and raw materials for their components, and much of this work is carried out in China with the usual questions of human rights and exploitation that are associated with this type of process.

Some sections of the political world (the Tea Party for example) offer this as proof that the environmentalists are poisoning the Earth and that their arguments are based upon false suppositions. Statistics are produced that seemingly show that a few lamps may do a lot of damage, but they do cut down electricity consumption enormously, and here in the US a lot of electricity is still produced by burning coal, and that is an extremely dirty and polluting affair.

The amount of mercury is also disputed, bringing poison into the house, light that burns skill, all kinds of terrifying scenarios, and I am certain that these lamps do present a real issue of environmental threat, but it is not through such scaremongering that progress will be made.

For the lamps to be efficient and effective they must be disposed of properly. For this to happen the public must be informed and take action. These bulbs must be correctly packaged when they fail and taken to recycling hubs where skilled operators know how to dismantle them.

As many readers might know, the environment and all issues surrounding its protection are extremely politicized in the US. Research data is difficult to come by, and large sums of money are involved, particularly on the side of the sceptics. But cuts in electricity use must be a good thing, but only if the collateral effects of such a mass introduction of ever cheaper technology that purports to be wholly good are properly investigated and managed.

Low mercury lights are available too, but I would like to say that the amount of mercury present in even a non low mercury version is extremely small. You have a lot more in the fillings in your teeth for example, but you should still go to the dentist for a check up every now and again.

In practical terms, I recently changed 12 bulbs in my house and my monthly electricity bill dropped by about 20%, good for me, good for the planet, but let’s not see it out of context. The keys are nothing more than management however, good research that is available to all, education on the pros and cons of different possible solutions, and less political manipulation.

Here are two takes on the story. A critique of the way these problems arise through big business funding of the sceptic argument and a critique of from the other side.

Both politically loaded as you will see.

Hurricanes, Natural Disasters and Science

EDITOR NOTE: Congratulations to Jonny, this is his 50th post on Technology Bloggers! Feel free to thank him for his fantastic contribution to the blog with a comment :-)note by Christopher

This is my 50th post and I am very pleased, so once again I would like to try to propose something a little different.

This week I have experienced my second hurricane, Sandy passed through Boston where I currently reside, tearing up trees, bringing down power lines and bucketing tons of water upon us. The disaster seen in New York was not replicated here, but we are still in a state of emergency with millions of people without power.

One interesting aspect about the whole affair was watching the state prepare for something that it could not really fully understand. The authorities did not know where the hurricane would hit land, or how much damage it would do. They had to rely on scientists’ models and experience to make plans and try to save lives and limit damage.

Car crushed outside

A car crushed by a fallen tree on our street

Which all brings me on to the topic for today’s post, scientific advice.

Another disaster is in the news this week from my other home country, Italy. 6 of Italy’s leading scientists and one ex government official have received prison terms for offering falsely reassuring advice immediately before the 2009 Aquila earthquake. They were each found guilty on multiple counts of manslaughter after more than 300 people died in the catastrophe. The BBC has a short article on the proceedings and sentence here.

All members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, they were accused of having provided “inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory” information about the danger of the tremors felt ahead of the quake. There had been a series of smaller tremors in the weeks and months preceding the larger one on 6th April, but the Commission had suggested that this did not mean that a larger quake was on its way.

They were wrong however, but many members of the scientific community have come to their defense, stating that earthquakes are inherently unpredictable, technology does not allow accurate prediction, and that a series of tremors such as those seen in Aquila only lead to a major quake on about 1% of occasions.

The Scientists found guilty are amongst the most respected geologists and seismologists in Italy, and this leads me to ask several questions. Who can we ask for advice in order to prepare for disasters if the best scientists are not able to provide the answers? What effect will this ruling have upon the scientific community and their willingness to give advice on such matters? Can we hold scientists responsible for such events? What effect does politics have on their decision making and advice to the public?

Here during hurricane Sandy several local government officials were criticized for not implementing evacuation procedures that were called for by central government upon advice given by scientists, and I would ask if the fact that there was loss of life might have been avoided. We all knew it was coming!

These points above could also be made about other problems, the obvious one being climate change. There are several articles on this website that address this issue including my own ‘Health of the Planet‘ series, but once more the entire subject is bogged down with political versus scientific arguments.

We are talking about risk here, and risk is not an easy thing to assess or to communicate. The Aquila scientists may argue that the 1% risk is minimal after a series of smaller shocks, but the risk may also be greatly magnified from a starting point of no shocks. A great deal is in the phrasing, and phrasing may be political.

Last year, here in Cambridge Massachusetts, I interviewed our local Congressman, Michael Capuano on the problems of making political decisions regarding science, and you can see a transcription here if you like. It makes for interesting reading.