Tending Towards Savagery

I am no particular fan of the monarchy, but Prince Charles was given a bad rap in 2003 when he called for the Royal Society to consider the environmental and social risks of nanotechnology.  “My first gentle attempt to draw the subject to wider attention resulted in ‘Prince fears grey goo nightmare’ headlines,” he lamented in 2004.  Indeed, while yet somewhat misguided, the Prince’s efforts to draw attention to these issues were genuine and not far from mainstream perceptions that scientists sometimes become so absorbed with their discoveries that they pursue them without sober regard for the potential consequences.  A copy of his article can be read here, in which he claims never to have used the expression “grey goo,” and in which he makes a reasonable plea to “consider seriously those features that concern non-specialists and not just dismiss those concerns as ill-informed or Luddite.” 

It is unfortunate that the term “grey goo” has becomes as inexorably linked with nanotechnology as the term “frankenfood” has become associated with food derived from genetically modified organisms.  The term has its origins in K. Eric Drexler’s 1986 book Engines of Creation

[A]ssembler-based replicators will therefore be able to do all that life can, and more.  From an evolutionary point of view, this poses an obvious threat to otters, people, cacti, and ferns — to the rich fabric of the biosphere and all that we prize…. 

“Plants” with “leaves” no more efficient than today’s solar cells could out-compete real plants, crowding the biosphere with an inedible foliage.  Tough, omnivorous “bacteria” could out-compete real bacteria:  they could spread like blowing pollen, replicate swiftly, and reduce the biosphere to dust in a matter of days.  Dangerous replicators could easily be too tough, small, and rapidly spreading to stop…. 

Among the congoscenti of nanotechnology, this threat has become known as the “gray goo problem.” 

Even at the time, most scientists largely dismissed Drexler’s description as unrealistic, fanciful, and needlessly alarmist.  The debate most famously culminated in a series of exchanges in 2003 in Chemical and Engineering News between Drexler and Nobel laureate Richard Smalley, whose forceful admonition was applauded by many: 

You and people around you have scared our children.  I don’t expect you to stop, but I hope others in the chemical community will join with me in turning on the light and showing our children that, while our future in the real world will be challenging and there are real risks, there will be no such monster as the self-replicating mechanical nanobot of your dreams.

 Drexler did, in the end, recant, conceding in 2004 that “[t]he popular version of the grey-goo idea seems to be that nanotechnology is dangerous because it means building tiny self-replicating robots that could accidentally run away, multiply, and eat the world.  But there’s no need to build anything remotely resembling a runaway replicator, which would be a pointless and difficult engineering task….  This makes fears of accidental runaway replication … quite obsolete.”  But too many others have failed to take note, as sadly highlighted by this month’s bombing of two Mexican professors who work on nanotechnology research. 

Responsibility for the most recent bombings, as well as other bombings in April and May, has been claimed by “Individualidades tendiendo a lo Salvaje” (roughly translated into English as “Individuals Tending Towards Savagery”), an antitechnology group that candidly claims Unabomber Ted Kaczynski as its inspiration.  The group even has its own manifesto.  It is not as long as the Unabomber’s but is equally contorted in attempting to justify the use of violence as a means of opposing technological progress.  A copy of the original manifesto can be read here and an English translation can be found here

The manifesto references Drexler when it cites the absurd rationale for the group’s violence: 

[Drexler] has mentioned … the possible spread of a grey goo caused by billions of nanoparticles self-replicating themselves voluntarily and uncontrollably throughout the world, destroying the biosphere and completely eliminating all animal, plant, and human life on this planet.  The conclusion of technological advancement will be pathetic, Earth and all those on it will have become a large gray mass, where intelligent nanomachines reign.

 No clear-thinking person supports the group’s use of violence.  But at the same time, there are many nonscientists who are suspicious of the motivations that underlie much of scientific research.  One need only look at the recent news to understand the source of that distrust:  just this week, the Presidential Panel for the Study of Bioethical Issues released a report detailing atrocities commited by American scientists in the 1940’s that involved the nonconsensual infection of some 1300 Guatemalans with syphilis, gonorrhea, or chancroid.  There are many other examples where scientists have engaged in questionable practices with a secrecy that is counter to the very precepts of scientific investigation. 

“Nanotechnology” is a wonderful set of technologies that have already found their way into more than 1000 commercial products being sold in the electronic, medical, cosmetics, and other markets.  But even though the use of nanotechnology is spreading, many remain concerned that it is unwise to allow it, even if they would not go so far as to bomb the scientists working on the technology.  Here I find myself sympathetic with the real message that Prince Charles was attempting to spread — namely, that the concerns of the nonscientist public need to be addressed, even if those concerns seem to be ill-conceived.

The Most Noble Ends

“I’ve noticed that everybody that is for abortion has already been born.”

                                                                                           Ronald Reagan, 1980


It is no secret that Ronald Reagan took positions that were strongly opposed to abortion, at least at the time of his Presidency.  After he won the 1980 election, the first thing he said at his first press conference was that he would “make abortion illegal,” and he maintained a strong anti-abortion stance during his years as President.  He consistently opposed not only efforts to maintain the legality of abortion procedures in the United States, but also implemented peripheral policies that sought to advance the objectives of the so-called “pro-life” movement:  school authorities were required to notify parents if their children sought contraceptives at school clinics and workers at family-planning clinics who received federal funds were forbidden to present abortion as a medical option to pregnant women.  And, of course, he was opposed to stem-cell research. 

It is thus a particular irony that since her husband’s death, the most poignant of Nancy Reagan’s few comments on policy have been to advocate support for stem-cell research.  It was in 2004, just months after Ronald Reagan’s death, that she publicly responded to President Bush’s decision to limit funding for such research, criticizing his decision and expressing her opinion that too much time had already been wasted discussing the issue.  In 2009, she publicly praised President Obama for his reversal of the Bush policy. 

But Obama’s decision to lift restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research has not been without consequences.  I commented several months ago about the case of Sherley v. Sebelius here in which District Court Judge Royce Lamberth held that the Dickey-Wicker Amendment prohibited federal support of such research, a decision that would have had even more impact on the federal funding of stem-cell research than even the Bush restrictions.  In light of the report in Nature last week that induced pluripotent stem cells — which, unlike embryonic stem cells, can be created without the destruction of embryos — might be rejected by a patient’s own immune system, it seems valuable to review what has happened with Sherley since last August.  A copy of the Nature paper can be found here (subscription required). 

The Dickey-Wicker Amendment is one that no Congress or Administration —Democrat or Republican —can credibly criticize since it has been passed by all as part of the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations acts every year since 1995.  It has been passed not only with the signature of Republican President Bush, but also with the signatures of Democrat Presidents Clinton and Obama, after being enacted by both Democrat- and Republican-controlled legislatures.  After the District Court found that funding of embryonic stem-cell research violated the Act and refused to issue a stay until the appellate court reviewed the decision, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia itself stayed the action pending its review.  On April 29, the appellate court issued its ruling, vacating the preliminary injunction and allowing federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research to continue. 

In my earlier post, I commented that as “much as I personally support investigations into the use of embryonic stem cells because of their tremendous potential in the treatment of disease, I have difficulty faulting the Court’s decision.”  I found the language of the Dickey-Wicker Amendment unambiguous and dismissed attempts to parse it differently as “contrived.”  Two of the three judges on the Court of Appeals disagreed. 

The Dickey-Wicker Amendment states that “[n]one of the funds made available in this Act may be used for … (2) research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death greater than that allowed for research on fetuses in utero ….”  The reasoning of the two-judge majority is one that had been rejected in the lower court, namely to parse what the statute means by “research.”  Essentially, investigations into embryonic stem cells require two phases:  a first phase in which embryos are destroyed and the stem cells are derived; and a second phase in which experiments are performed on the already derived stem cells.  The argument accepted by the appellate court is that federal funding of the first phase is prohibited but not federal funding of the second phase since only the first phase constitutes “research in which a human embryo [is] destroyed.” 

To reach this conclusion, the majority notes the use of the present tense in the statute (“are destroyed” instead of “were destroyed”) and consults some online dictionaries for definitions of the word “research.”  I am always wary of these kinds of analysis, which can give the impression of constructing a post-facto rationale for a decision improperly made for other reasons.  Such analysis is too much like relying on the exploitation of loopholes and technicalities instead of principled application of the law as it was written.  I therefore find myself sympathetic with the dissent’s criticism that the judges in the majority have performed “linguistic jujitsu” and “taken a straightforward case of statutory construction and produced a result that would make Rube Goldberg tip his hat.”  A copy of the full opinion and dissent can be read here

Researchers are generally pleased with the ruling, but in many ways that represents a short-sighted view.  The problem with the Dickey-Wicker Amendment is especially apparent when the procedural posture of Sherley as it now stands is considered.  So far, the only issue that has been resolved is whether experiments involving embryonic stem cells are “research in which a human embryo is destroyed.”  The case now returns to the District Court for consideration whether such experiments are “research in which a human embryo … is knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death greater than that allowed for research on fetuses in utero,” a question that potentially raises a host of different arguments.  While it is possible to take other procedural actions at this point — request a rehearing en banc by the full Court of Appeals or petition the Supreme Court to hear the case — those other actions almost certainly represent too much risk to stem-cell researchers. 

As difficult as it may be to do politically, it strikes me as much easier to find a way to avoid the annual ritual of having the Dickey-Wicker Amendment added as a rider to funding bills.

A Mere Heart of Stone

The fictional legal trials I watched on television as a boy were gripping drama.  It was almost a given that there would be some irregularity in procedure — a last-minute witness would be called out of order, perhaps, and give testimony that would give a completely new perspective on everything that had happened before.  Or a juror might be called to the witness stand and compelled to testify over the objections of the defendant’s attorneys.  Or maybe one of the attorneys himself might be called to the stand.  These events would always be accompanied by a sober judge intoning that it was highly irregular but that in the interests of justice — always in the interests of justice — he “would allow it.” 

Those sorts of things never happen in real-life trials.  At least not very often. 

One of the most dramatic events in a trial was surely when Clarence Darrow called prosecuting counsel William Jennings Bryan to the witness stand in the famous trial of State of Tennessee v. Scopes.  It was to be a battle of wits between two of the most famous of American attorneys as Darrow quizzed Bryan about his interpretation of the Bible and whether everything in it should be interpreted literally — they covered Jonah being swallowed by the whale (while disagreeing over whether it was a whale or a big fish), Joshua causing the sun to stand still at Jericho, and the date of the great flood.  Darrow pressed Bryan on the inconsistency between what is taught in the bible and the scientific discoveries of humanity.  It was truly gripping stuff and reports exist of people from miles around Dayton, Tennessee pressing into the courtroom to witness the drama. 

In the end, Judge John T. Raulston ordered the whole session — which had taken place outside the view of the jury — expunged from the record.  The result of the Scopes Monkey Trial is well known.  Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution to schoolchildren in violation of the Butler Act and fined $100.  His conviction would ultimately be reversed and dismissed by the Tennessee Supreme Court on technical grounds — rather than constitutional grounds — with the weary comment that “Nothing is to be gained by prolonging the life of this bizarre case.”  The Butler Act, forbidding the teaching that Man evolved from “lower orders of animals,” would remain valid law in Tennessee until it was repealed in 1967. 

It is interesting that Tennessee has again become a sort of battleground over the teaching of evolution to schoolchildren. It is being watched by those who take an interest in the teaching of evolution and creationism because of bills that are currently pending in that state’s legislature.  Those bills are similar to bills that have been defeated in other states like Oklahoma and New Mexico, and represent a new strategy by those who wish to have creationism taught as science to American schoolchildren.  Other tactics, such as directly challenging the exclusion of creationism from scientific curricula or couching creationism as “creation science” or “intelligent design” have failed. 

The new approach is to use scientists’ love of critical thinking as a wedge to insist that teachers not be prohibited from “helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.”  This is to be done to further the “purpose of science education … to inform students about scientific evidence and to help students develop critical thinking skills necessary to become intelligent, productive, and scientifically informed citizens.”  All good stuff.  A copy of the house bill can be read here; the senate version is essentially identical.

Critics of the bill point to the fact that the examples of controversies given in the bill — namely “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning” — are not, in fact, subject to significant scientific controversy.  This is certainly true at the level at which such subjects might be addressed to childen.  The bill is seen as dangerous to the integrity of scientific education because it may provide a license to creationist teachers to proselytize contrived and misleading criticisms of dominant scientific theories under the guise of science.  This is a legitimate concern. 

But is such a bill really so troublesome?  It includes provisions intended to appease scientists, such as by insisting that it “shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or non-beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or non-religion.” 

It is possible that I am naïve, but I don’t particularly fear this type of legislation, even as I recognize the strategic and tactical motivations pressing for it.  It is clearly another attempt by creationists to infiltrate scientific teaching to children in accordance with the Discovery Institute’s infamous “wedge strategy.”  A copy of the leaked 1999 document describing that strategy is available here.  But it is not a deceptive “equal time” provision as has been attempted in the past to compel the teaching of nonscientific ideas in a science class.  And teachers already have a great deal of discretion and influence in classrooms.  Even with those parts of a curriculum they are mandated to teach, they undoubtedly affect students’ perceptions by their own demeanor and subtle expressions of opinion and skepticism.  It is unrealistic even to attempt to regulate every nuance of a teacher’s presentation. 

Doesn’t there come a point when scientists are ready to say “Bring it on”?  I have confidence in the scientific method and confidence that views developed using that method will prevail.  And part of the scientific method is to allow criticism so that it can be exposed and defeated when it is wrong.  There is no doubt that past strategies by creationists were antithetical to science; I just have trouble seeing exactly how this one is.

Just Plain Nuts

Perhaps you have seen the movie.  You know, the one where someone decides to eat only food served over the counter at McDonald’s for a period of time, with a requirement that every item on the McDonald’s menu be tried at least once.  The result was astonishing and you may well remember the shock you felt when you saw what happened.  Eighteen pounds lost and a drop in cholesterol level of 40 points, as well as reports of feeling “excellent” and “energized” as a result. 

What’s that?  That’s not how you remember the movie turning out? 

Oh.  I know.  You’re thinking of that other movie. 

When Morgan Spurlock released his film Super Size Me in 2004, it followed less than two years after Surgeon General David Satcher issued a warning that obesity was a major threat to life in the United States and called for a “national attack” on obesity.  Spurlock’s film recounted an experiment in which he decided to eat only food served by McDonald’s for a period of thirty days.  The results shown in the film were dramatic.  Spurlock went from a healthy weight of 184 pounds for his 6’2″ frame to a heavy 210 pounds in the thirty days.  His total cholesterol increased from a healthy 168 to 230, and he experienced mood swings, lethargy, depression, and sexual dysfunction. 

The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Documentary feature and as a result was widely seen, grossing some $20 million.  But there was also considerable criticism of the film that was less widely publicized.  Critics contend that the exercise was unfair because of the quantity of McDonald’s food consumed by Spurlock.  It is estimated that his average consumption during the thirty-day period was about 5000 calories.  In addition, he limited his physical activity during the period.  He explained that he was attempting to imitate the average diet for a regular McDonald’s eater.  But neither he nor anyone else ever identified a person who regularly consumes that much food from McDonald’s. 

Much of the criticism directed at Super Size Me has appeared in other, less-well-known films.  The one referred to at the beginning of this post is Me and Mickey D, which recounts the experience of Soso Whaley, who ate only food from McDonald’s for a period of sixty days — twice as long as Spurlock.  By limiting her total caloric intake to somewhere between 1800 and 3000 calories per day and by continuing with an “occasional” exercise regimen, she lost significant weight and reduced her total cholesterol substantially. 

The point made by Whaley in her film is that what we ingest as individuals is a matter of personal responsibility and that it is too easy to point the finger at producers of certain types of food for the consequences when we choose to eat them.  Similar points have been made in other films like Portion Size Me by James Painter, which tracked two individuals who ate only fast food for a month but at consumption levels appropriate for their body types.  The prevailing view among nutritionists reflects the conclusions of nutrition science — namely that most fast food is too high in salt, sugar, and saturated fat for it to be a major part of a healthy diet but that it is not unduly harmful to include such food occasionally. 

Although they have received considerable notoriety, there have, in fact, been relatively few cases brought against fast-food companies seeking compensation for obesity.  The most publicized is certainly Pelman v. McDonald’s Corp., which has persisted in litigation for years since it was first filed on August 22, 2002, with the plaintiffs asserting that consumption of McDonald’s products caused them to become overweight and to develop diabetes, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, and elevated cholesterol.  While the complaint filed in 2002 asserted a full palette of legal theories for liability, hoping that at least one of them would stick and result in a legally actionable wrong, the only theories that remain viable are those based on the Consumer Protection Act of New York.  The plaintiffs assert that McDonald’s engaged in a number of deceptive practices that misled the plaintiffs into thinking its foods could form part of a healthy and nutritionally beneficial diet.  The history of the case is perhaps best summarized in the most recent ruling denying class certification, which can be read here.  

To me, it strains credulity to think anyone could really believe that McDonald’s products are particularly healthy, and to be so naive as to be deceived by the kinds of assertions that McDonald’s has admittedly made to present its products in the best light possible.  “Puffery” — the exaggeration about products made by salesmen — is as old as the concept of sales itself and is not actionable; we are expected to have some basic understanding of the give and take that occurs in sales.  Indeed, the phrase caveat emptor has been used for centuries in British and American jurisprudence. 

Last week, though, a new case was filed involving the Nutella® hazelnut spread.  The allegations are essentially familiar.  The case is filed as a class action with a class representative who asserts that she was searching for healthy foods to serve her family for breakfast, and relied on advertisements for Nutella® in making her selection.  Nutella®, of course, is not a particularly nutritious food, and people can decide for themselves whether having a small amount of it with breakfast is consistent with how they choose to structure their own diets.  But the class representative was apparently “shocked to learn that Nutella® was in fact not a ‘healthy’ ‘nutritious’ food but instead was the next best thing to a candy bar” after friends told her what it contained.  The lawsuit attacks such things as images of mother feeding the spread to “happy, healthy children” and words suggesting that Nutella® can be part of a “tasty yet balanced breakfast” when eaten with whole wheat bread, orange juice, and a glass of skim milk.  A copy of the complaint can be read here 

To the End of Reckoning

It is not a shining moment for science or for law. 

Indeed, the story reads more like a gripping thriller — one that the reader finally sets down by the side of the bed at 3 AM thinking that it was an exciting enough tale to forgo sleep even if it was totally unbelievable.  Imagine the plot summary.  A physician, receiving handsome payments from an attorney who wants to bring a class-action suit against a vaccine manufacturer, invents a fictional disorder and fabricates data to establish a fraudulent link with the vaccine.  The stuff of Ian Fleming or John Le Carre. 

In 1998, Andrew Wakefield and twelve other others published a paper in Lancet, a prestigious medical journal, implying a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (“MMR”) vaccine and a new syndrome of autism and bowel disease.  Many scientists were skeptical, pointing to any number of scientific weaknesses in what was reported.  But large segments of the public relied on the paper when its findings were reported in the general press.  Vaccination rates plummeted as parents determined that the risk of autism in their children was too great.  The inoculation rate dropped most dramatically in Britain, from about 92% to below 80%, but many children in other parts of the world also failed to receive the MMR vaccine as a direct consequence of the Wakefield paper.  From having been declared “under control” in the mid 1990’s in Britain, measles was declared “endemic” in Britain only ten years after publication.  The U.S. Centers for Disease Control notes that more cases of measles were reported in the United States in 2008 than in any year since before publication, with more that 90% of those having not been vaccinated (or having a vaccination status that was unknown). 

A series of articles being published in the British Medical Journal  began last week, exposing a fraud surrounding the paper that author Brian Deer likens to the Piltdown Man scandal, an elaborate hoax that disrupted the natural course of paleontology research and that took decades to uncover.  I briefly discussed Piltdown man some months ago here.   Deer describes how Wakefield was retained by attorney Richard Barr two years before the paper was published, and paid more than £435,000, six times his annual salary as a physician.  The children in the “study” that he conducted on MMR were targeted and preselected to have desired symptoms, he reinterpreted clinical records to suit his contrived syndrome, and “chiseled” histories to reach unsupported clinical diagnoses.  While admonishing many who failed to exercise sufficient diligence — coauthors, fellow scientists, hospital managers, journal editors — Deer reports that the evidence shows it was Wakefield alone who perpetrated the scandal and that not even the attorney who paid him knew what he was doing. 

When Deer first reported on irregularities surrounding the study in 2004, ten of Wakefield’s coauthors retracted the interpretation.  In January 2010, a five-member tribunal of the British General Medical Council found dozens of allegations of misconduct proved, including four counts of dishonesty and twelve involving the abuse of developmentally challenged children.  A copy of the results of the Fitness to Practise Hearing, which was the longest ever conducted by the Council, can be found here.  

The consequences of the misconduct are truly staggering.  Epidemiological studies were conducted at great public expense, unable to confirm any link between autism and the MMR vaccine.  Research funds and personnel were diverted from more legitimate avenues to understand the actual causes of autism and to help those affected by it.  Many children who might otherwise have been vaccinated suffered an illness that we have the technology to prevent and may be among the small number who died as a result of having contracted measles.  At the moment, the effect on mumps contraction remains unclear because its peak prevalence is in older adolescents. 

In its editorial, the British Medical Journal pulls no punches.  It asks whether it is possible that Wakefield was wrong but not dishonest.  After all, scientists are allowed to be wrong.  Indeed, it is a strength of the scientific method that all honest ideas should be considered so that they can be scrutinized and dismissed if they are incorrect. 

The answer it gives is a simple one:  “No.” 

Not a single one of the case studies was reported accurately.  The pattern of the misreporting shows an intent to mislead.  Already actions are being taken to examine Wakefield’s other publications, mindful of the experience that misconduct is rarely an isolated event. 

When I write about various issues on this blog, one of the things that I am reminded of repeatedly are the similar ethical requirements that attorneys and scientists are expected to adhere to.  Those ethical requirements exist because of the importance of the work that they do, and the trust that is necessarily placed in them by the public. 

Attorneys suffer a great deal from distrust by the public, and I have always thought that that is one of the prices to be paid for the system.  Attorneys deal with controversies between parties that have opposing interests and operate in a system that requires that the best arguments be put forward on behalf of their clients, most especially for those clients who seem unlikeable and potentially subject to victimization if the state or other opposing party is not held to the strictest standards of proof. 

Scientists have generally enjoyed a more favorable reputation by the public, but misconduct of this scale has repercussions that extend far beyond even vaccines and autism.  Such acts of misconduct erode public confidence in the legitimate conclusions of science, putting members of the public in a circumstance where they do not know who or what to believe.  They are inconsistent with the openness that is the very bedrock of science, which seeks to communicate not only what we do know but also what we don’t.  Because if people are to make decisions in their lives based on the results that science achieves, they deserve to know both.