Well, I have to confess that there is a part of me that hopes so! But my title today is, at least to me, very obviously a spoof.

People need to be careful about spoofs though. Sometimes they take on a life of their own.

Consider Ivan Goldberg, a respected physician who specializes in treating individuals with mood disorders. He fabricated the term “Internet Addiction Disorder” in 1995. It was intended to be satirical, and he patterned his list of diagnostic criteria for the disorder after the entry for pathological gambling in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (“DSM”) — the authoritative work on psychiatric disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association. A copy of Goldberg’s parody can be found here.

Perhaps it was the technical way it was written, or perhaps it was because it struck a nerve among those who sometimes feel widowed as a result of significant Internet use by loved ones, but the parody caught on. Some thought it was real — even a few serious and respected publications were fooled — and many people began to accept that Internet Addiction Disorder was legitimately recognized.

In the fifteen years since Goldberg’s spoof, there has been increasing research on the effect of a variety of modern forms of technology on the human brain. One of the more interesting is the Starcraft study. Starcraft is a military science-fiction strategy game that has received enthusiastic accolades from those in the video-game industry, who have praised it as one of the best video games ever. The multiplayer version of it has gained particular popularity in South Korea.

Because it is so good, a lot of people want to play it. And some of them spend a lot of time playing it. Of the eleven participants in a the study, six had dropped out of school for two months because of the amount of time they were playing Starcraft and two were divorced by their spouses as a direct result of the time they put into the game. Psychiatrists at the Chung Ang University in South Korea tested a treatment of this group by prescribing the antidepressant Bupropion for six weeks, resulting in their playing time decreasing by about a third. MRI studies of their brains by the Brain Institute at the University of Utah showed increased brain activity in three areas that was not present in a control group when shown images from the game.

Many people remain dismissive of the idea that there can be such a disorder as Internet Addiction, and suggest that the treatment with an antidepressant works because those individuals were depressed — under that view, the excessive time playing Starcraft is a sympton of depression, not of a new type of disorder. They perhaps spend so much time playing in an effort to escape from the sadness that their depression causes. Known psychiatric disorders of obsession and compulsion are other likely candidates for disorders that are sometimes manifested by excessive Internet usage and game playing.

The game Lineage II is another multiplayer online game, also extremely popular in South Korea. Instead of the science-fiction theme of Starcraft, though, Lineage II has a fantasy theme. The makers of the game, NCsoft Corporation and NC Interactive, Inc., were sued about a year ago by Craig Smallwood, a 51-year-old resident of Hawaii who claims that he became addicted to the game. His complaint asserts that over the period of 2004-2009, he played the game some 20,000 hours — that comes out to an average of 11 hours a day, every day of the year, for five years. When his access to the game was cut off, he claims to have “suffered extreme and serious emotional distress and depression,… been unable to function independently,… suffered psychological trauma,… was hospitalized, and … requires treatment and therapy three times a week.”

In a decision in August of this year, the judge in the case, Alan C. Kay, dismissed some of the causes of action but declined to dismiss them all. The causes of action that remain, and which Smallwood presumably will now attempt to prove, include defamation, negligence, gross negligence, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. The full opinion (which considers a number of procedural issues at some length) can be read here.

Although some commentators have ridiculed the decision, finding it stretches credibility to allow a cause of action to proceed on the basis of Internet addiction, it is worth noting that this ruling is still at a very early stage of the litigation. This was a ruling on a motion brought by the defendants, meaning that the plaintiff’s assertions were necessarily considered in their most favorable light and assumed to be true. Those claims that were dismissed — misrepresentation, unfair trade practices, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and assessment of punitive damages — were found by the court to have no merit even if all of the assertions were true and construed in that most favorable way.

It is likely to be an arduous and uphill battle now to prove his assertions and to prevail on the surviving causes of action. Currently, Internet addiction is not a disorder recognized by the DSM and this is likely to be an important factor in the remainder of the litigation. It is also true, though, that some serious researchers advocate including Internet addiction in the next edition of the DSM, currently scheduled for release in 2013. This advocacy has been formal, appearing in prestigious peer-reviewed journals such as the American Journal of Psychiatry, but it still appears that those in the psychiatric-research community who advocate including it currently remain in the minority.

The ultimate decision of the American Psychiatric Association will likely have a strong impact on litigation. Courts will take notice of such an expert assessment, whichever way it goes. If the next edition of the DSM includes Internet addiction as a disorder, expect to see many more lawsuits like those brought by Smallwood, and expect them to have a greater chance of success than currently seems likely. Also expect the producers of Internet content to respond and seek ways to avoid any liability.

I’m putting myself out ahead of the curve. You’ve been warned.

Pursuing Nature to Her Hiding Places

“Tomatoes May Be Dangerous to Your Health” was the headline of an opinion piece published on June 1, 1992 by the New York Times.  In it, Sheldon Krimsky criticized the exemption of genetically engineered crops from certain levels of review by the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”).    He was referring to the Flavr Savr’ Tomato, the first genetically engineered food later to be granted a license for human consumption by the FDA.  That species of tomato included engineered genes that were to slow the natural softening process that accompanies ripening.  The idea was that the tomatoes could spend more time on the vine than other tomato species, producing more flavor, but still remaining firm enough to ship. 

In response to Krimsky’s article, Paul Lewis wrote a Letter to the Editor in which he coined the term Frankenfood to refer to food derived from genetically engineered crops: 

Ever since Mary Shelley’s baron rolled his improved human out of the lab, scientists have been bringing just such good things to life.  If they want to sell us Frankenfood, perhaps it’s time to gather the villagers, light some torches and head to the castle. 

The term caught on and many still continue to use it in referring to food produced from genetically engineered crops. 

The reality is that humanity has been engaging in a form of genetic manipulation of crops even since the earliest days of agriculture, but such processes were a result of selective breeding rather than through direct manipulation of genes.  Consider the case of milk production, for example.  As a result of identifying bulls who have highly desirable genes, the number of bulls that are used to sire dairy cows is astonishingly small, resulting in a very narrow range of genetic diversity among cattle in the dairy industry.  At the time of his death in 1997, for example, the Dutch Holstein Friesian bull named Sunny Boy had sired some two million calves.  The impact on the genetic origin of dairy products throughout the world was a direct result of human intervention in natural processes.  Or consider the production of soybeans.  In the 1990’s, the entire soybean crop in the United States — some 60 million tons — was descended from a mere dozen soybean strains that had been collected in northeastern China.  

Since the FDA approved human consumption of the Flavr Savr’ Tomato in 1994, there has been a huge infiltration of genetically modified crops into the food supply, especially in the United States where more than 90% of the soybean, cotton, and canola markets are supplied by genetically modified crops.  Byproducts of those crops — notably soy lecithin — are found in thousands of processed-food products:  chocolate bars, baby foods, margarine, breakfast cereals, and many others. 

This week, the FDA is conducting hearings as part of its consideration whether to allow human consumption of AquAdvantage, a genetically modified species of Atlantic salmon that some are — inevitably — calling a frankenfish.  The application was submitted to the FDA in 1995, but the agency has so far never approved any genetically modified animal for human consumption.  AquAdvantage has been modified so that it grows twice as fast as its natural counterpart.  Critics have expressed two concerns:  that the effect on people who consume the fish is unknown and that if the genetically engineered fish escapes, it may have a negative impact on the natural salmon population.  These concerns are not frivolous ones:  salmon populations are already depleted because of overfishing, and if the genetically modified fish grows at twice the speed as naturally occurring salmon, there is a possibility of disrupting the food supply for natural salmon populations. 

It can be difficult to predict all of the effects of genetic modification of organisms.  For example, there is a known history of genetically modified plants producing substances they hadn’t produced before or of repressing the production of substances they normally produce:  transgenic potatoes that were supposed to make more starch and less sugar did the opposite; transgenic tomatoes that were made to produce excess carotene became unexpectedly smaller; and perhaps most notably, reproduction mechanisms of some plants changed so that inserted genes unexpectedly started appearing in other plant species. 

Surveys confirm that there is generally a strong desire by people in the United States to have food labeled as arising from genetically modified organisms, something that the FDA has never required.  Industry interests in the United States generally oppose labeling — jurisdictions elsewhere in the world where labeling is required, notably the European Union and Japan, find almost no one willing to buy food derived from genetically modified organisms. 

The FDA has taken the position, however, that federal law, when properly construed, actually prohibits the agency from requiring labeling of food derived from genetically modified plants.  The relevant law that the FDA cites is found in the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (21 U.S.C. §343) and prohibits a variety of food labeling that is “false” or “misleading.”  The FDA has concluded that because it has generally found food derived from genetically modified sources not to be “materially different” than food derived from natural sources, it cannot require labeling, and this position has been upheld in court:  Alliance for Bio-Integrity v. Shalala, 116 F.Supp.2d 166 (D.D.C. 2000).  Producers of genetically modified food are permitted to add labels if they wish, but none do. 

It seems likely that AquAdvantage will be approved for human consumption in due course.  One of the objectives of the hearings is to determine whether the FDA’s position on labeling should be different because this is an animal to be consumed rather than a plant.  Some background material on the labeling issue prepared by the FDA can be read here

It was only three years after the release of the Flavr Savr’ Tomato that its producer Calgene needed to withdraw it from the market.  They were sold under the brand name MacGregor’s in California and a few places in the Midwest of the United States.  But they turned out to be more delicate than expected, bruising easily so that special trucks were needed for transportation.  Delivery of the tomatoes to grocery stores became prohibitively expensive.  Perhaps AquAdvantage will be no more successful in the end.  But whether it is approved soon by the FDA or not, it is clear that consumption of such animals is a genie that will soon be out of the bottle and very unwilling to get back in.

Grousing About Politics and Science

When the United States and France completed the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, it was unclear exactly how much land was being exchanged.  President Thomas Jefferson accordingly commissioned the Corps of Discovery to explore the territory, choosing his friend Meriwether Lewis to lead the expedition.  Over a period of some two and half years, Lewis and his partner William Clark were to conduct the first overland expedition of North America to the Pacific coast and back. 

During their travels, they established relationships with some of the native peoples, notably eliciting the aide of the Shoshone woman Sacagawea to act as a guide and interpreter.  They were to provide a significantly improved understanding of the geography of the northwestern United States and to document 122 previously unknown species of animals and 178 new plants and trees. 

It was at the mouth of the Marias River in what is now Chouteau County, Montana that Lewis and Clark encountered the sage grouse on June 6, 1805.  Their native-american companions told them it was a common bird, and indeed their journals record further encounters throughout much of the region.  Estimates are that sage grouse numbered somewhere around 16 million in population around the time of their documentation by Lewis and Clark.  Today, it has only a fraction of that population — somewhere about 250,000 — and efforts to include it on the Endangered Species List have become emblematic of what many scientists see as political encroachment on scientific independence. 

Earlier this year, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced that the sage grouse “warrants” inclusion on the List but that it was “precluded by the need to address higher priority species first.”  A very different decision was made under the Bush administration in 2005 when Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie MacDonald ruled against its listing.  That decision was one that highlighted some of the most egregious interference with science for political reasons in recent memory.  In Western Watersheds Project v. United States Forest Service, the Idaho District Court described the conduct of the Deputy Assistant Secretary as “inexcusable,” finding that “[h]er tactics included everything from editing scientific conclusions to intimidating [Freedom and Wildlife Service] staffers.”  The court’s ruling, which can be found here, documents repeated and persistent “attempts to improperly alter the ‘best science’ findings” as part of a campaign to achieve “preordained” political objectives.  Similar allegations have been leveled against her by scientists in numerous other cases involving decisions not to list certain species. 

It is perhaps no surprise then that the release of a draft policy on scientific integrity by the Interior Department is being viewed with considerable skepticism by scientists.  Those scientists remember well when President Obama issued his Memorandum on Scientific Integrity on March 9, 2009 calling for the development of “recommendations for Presidential action designed to guarantee scientific integrity throughout the executive branch” within 120 days.  A copy of his Memorandum can be found here.  It was still the honeymoon period for the new administration and at the time, the apparent commitment was heralded by many scientists as a welcome change from perceived attempts by the prior administration to suppress scientific knowledge and conclusions for political purposes.  But that enthusiasm has steadily given way to frustration and disappointment as time still continues to pass more than a year after the President’s deadline without any recommendations or plan being developed. 

The release of the Interior Department’s draft policy a couple of weeks ago is the first real manifestation of the executive branch’s implementation of policy directed to scientific integrity.  Most scientists who have read it believe it falls short.  Of particular concern is language that appears still to allow political appointees to alter scientific documents, exactly what was happening in considering additions to the Endangered Species List by the prior administration:  “During the conduct of Departmental business, decision makers may be involved in editing of documents for clarification of major points to aid decision making.”  But more broadly, the policy is seen as having insufficient provisions for preventing other types of political interference in science.  Another provision, for example, warns that “[p]ublic release of a scientific product without the required level of review or without appropriate disclaimers could be considered misconduct.”  There is concern that the normal circulation of material by scientists among their peers for scientific evaluation could be considered misconduct, particularly since little guidance is given by the policy as to when dissemination is “premature.” 

A copy of the draft policy can be read here

To be fair, the policy has been released in draft form as part of the normal rule-making procedure that is followed by Executive agencies so that comments can be collected from the public and considered prior to its actual implementation; the comment period is set to expire on September 20, 2010.  That procedure is an important part of the process, allowing the public at large to identify and articulate deficiencies in proposed policies or rules.  Proposals can sometimes be modified significantly in light of the comments that are provided, and the hope is that that will happen in this instance.  But even if the major concerns are addressed, scientists will still eagerly await the more broadly applicable recommendations promised by the President in the ambitious early days of his tenure.

Rooftop of the World

“Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other part of the world and, if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate. Its total area will likely shrink from the present 500,000 to 100,000 km2 by the year 2035.”

The quotation is from the Fourth Assessment Report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (“IPCC”) in 2007. It’s a sobering statement about the impact and pace of global climate change — an astonishing vanishing of the glaciers of the Himalaya in only 25 years.

It is also wrong.

The categorical nature of the statement has caused much criticism and embarrassment for the IPCC, which has significant impact on the formation of laws to implement climate policies by nations around the world. It does, however, provide a fitting example of the role of scientific peer review and the sweeping impact that errors in that process can potentially have.

The IPCC was formed in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme. Its principal role is to assess the scientific information available about climate change and to issue assessment reports that are used by governments in developing laws and policy. Together with former Vice President Al Gore, it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for “efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.” There is no doubt that when its credibility is tainted by bold statements that turn out to be false that it fails, at least in part, in achieving that goal.

The incorrect statement apparently has its origins in a statement made by Syed Iqbal Hasnain, an Indian scientist, in 1999. He claims he was misquoted in an interview with the science magazine New Scientist: “I had simply told the New Scientist in an interview that the mass of the glaciers will decline in 40 years…. The date (2035) was their invention.” He acknowledges that his statement itself was based on data published in the 1970’s.

When the IPCC was preparing its Assessment Report, it was subject to peer review, which is the process scientists use to evaluate statements before publication. Peer review is always important, but it is especially so when pronouncements are being made by a body with the influence that the IPCC has. That process failed in this case. But what is notable is that the statement about the Himalaya was noted and questioned by at least some of the peer reviewers — one of whom pointed out a glaring inconsistency: “100,000? You just said it will disappear.”

Another of the peer reviewers noted that the statement seemed to be at odds with other research suggesting that glaciers in the Himalaya are actually expanding, pointing out specific references that should be consulted in assessing its validity.

The end result is that the report failed to account for the criticisms of the peer reviewers and instead retained a statement that was not itself validated by peer review. In the time since the error has been pointed out, there have been numerous allegations whose veracity is hard to assess: that the statement was included deliberately, even knowing it was wrong, to prompt action by governments; that Hasnain is being untruthful when he claims not to have mentioned a date; that those involved with publication of the statement have financial interests that would be enhanced by concerns the Himalayan glaciers are rapidly disappearing; and others. Any of these would be cause for additional concern if substantiated, but my focus today is more narrow: The peer-review system worked up to a point, with peer reviewers identifying the weaknesses in the statements. But it takes attention and diligence on the part of all involved with that process for it truly to function the way it is intended.

Last week, the InterAcademy Council (“IAC”), a multinational organization of scientific academies, issued its Review of the IPCC. While it noted an “essential” need for “some fundamental changes to the process and the management structure,” its tenor was generally positive about the contributions the IPCC has made: “[T]he IPCC assessment process has been successful overall and has served society well. The commitment of many thousands of the world’s leading scientists and other experts to the assessment process and to the communication of the nature of our understanding of the changing climate, its impacts, and possible adaptation and mitigation strategies is a considerable achievement in its own right.” The full report can be read here (a discussion of the Himalayan glaciers statement begins on page 23).

Coincidentally, the U.S. Geological Survey released its image atlas on “The Glaciers of Asia” only about a week before the IAC’s report, providing evidence that the Himalayan glaciers are, in fact, receding, although there is still conflicting data about what is actually going on there. That atlas can be seen here.

There is no question that the credibility of the IPCC has been damaged and deservedly so. Himalayan glaciers are vital. Even Al Gore noted in his movie that the Himalayan ice sheet feeds seven of the world’s major river systems, providing water to some 40% of the world’s population. Statements about its demise should not be made lightly.

But at the same time, it is important not to lose an appropriate sense of context. Global climate change is incredibly complex to understand and the volume of information considered by the IPCC in issuing its assessments is large. Nations very much need a body to aid in the digestion of the scientific information and to provide carefully considered evaluations of the implications of that scientific information.

Mistakes can and do occur during peer-review processes, and it is very much my hope that those who see something more sinister than a simple error are mistaken. Long-time editor of the Applied Journal of Physics Steven J. Rothman, a man I knew and deeply respected, once provided a highly apt assessment of the system of peer review by paraphrasing Winston Churchill’s quip about democracy as a form of government: “It is the worst … except for all the others that have been tried.”

Eppur Si Muove!

The story alluded to by my title is apocryphal, but the full account of Galileo’s trial before the Holy Roman Inquisition is a matter of historical truth. 

Although he is sometimes mistakenly credited with the invention of the telescope, Galileo’s real contribution is to have used telescopes for celestial investigations.  He was about 40 years old when he learned of the Dutch invention and decided to build his own, pointing it at the moon, the stars, and the Sun.  He was the first to observe sunspots and their movement as they revolve with the Sun, conclusive evidence that prior teachings that the Sun was a perfect unchanging sphere were incorrect.  He was the first to see the moons of Jupiter and to witness their revolution around that planet, calling into question prior teachings about the perfection of the planets.  And perhaps most signficantly, he observed the crescent of Venus. 

This was critically important because the fact that Venus has celestial phases when observed from the Earth implies motion about the Sun.  A heliocentric model of the solar system in which the planets revolve about the Sun had been put forth many decades earlier by Nicolaus Copernicus.  Galileo had expressed private support for that theory as early as 1597, but remained hesitant about making his views public because of the consequences Copernicus had faced:  “I have not dared until now to bring my reasons and refutations into the open, being warned by the fortunes of Copernicus himself, our master, who procured for himself immortal fame among a few but stepped down among the great crowd.”  It was Galileo’s observations with the telescope that finally emboldened him to make his views public.  After all, anyone could take a telescope like he did, point it at the sky, and see the same conclusive evidence with their own eyes. 

Galileo’s publications began to assert the heliocentric nature of the solar system openly, notably in his Letters on the Solar Spots, which attracted the first attack from the Church.  Only the Aristotelian model could be correct, the Church asserted, because a heliocentric model was contrary to scripture.  Galileo’s writings were brought to the attention of the Holy Roman Inquisition by members of the clergy.  Things escalated, with more pressure being brought against Galileo to recant as he resolutely maintained that they should simply take a telescope and look for themselves rather than be shackled by doctrinal belief. 

In 1623, Galileo had six private audiences with the Pope, resulting in a compromise:  Galileo would write a book, presenting both views — hauntingly familiar to the demands we see today to present “both sides” of an issue even when there is no real scientific controversy.  His book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, would be fateful.  Written as a dialogue among three people, Galileo cast Simplicio, a pompous fool, in the role of defending the Aristotelian model and presenting the view of the Pope. 

He was arrested and tried for heresy by the Inquisition.  Under threat of execution, he recanted the Copernican theory so that he could live the remainer of his life under house arrest.  But he is said to have uttered “Eppur si muove!” when he was sentenced — “And yet it moves!”  There is no real historical evidence that he said it, and the reality is that he was very probably broken by the experience.  Nonetheless, we romantically admire the defiance of a man with such conviction in the conclusions of his observations that he would maintain them against action so strong that it took his persecutors almost four hundred years to finally acknowledge his mistreatment, still centuries after his ideas became commonplace. 

While of course not rising to the level of the Galileo affair, the Commonwealth of Virginia has recently been engaging in activity that raises far too many questions about its motivation.  The Attorney General of Virginia, Kenneth Cuccinelli, was unsuccessful this week in his attempt to subpoena records from the University of Virginia as part of a fraud investigation into a grant supporting the research of Michael Mann.  Mann is a climate researcher who has — for reasons that can only be characterized as bizarre — become a focal point of efforts to discredit research that suggests human activity is causing global climate change.  I previously wrote about Mann and his exoneration in the “Climategate” allegations here.

The principal reason that the actions of Virginia are concerning is that the Attorney General has such little basis to support his actions, raising significant questions about his true objectives.  In April, he issued a civil subpoena demanding that the University of Virginia produce a swath of documents relating to Mann’s receipt of funds to support his research, including ten years of correspondence involving Mann and more than 40 other climate scientists.  The University resisted, noting the chilling effect that can result on academic freedom when private correspondence is baselessly subject to government review. 

There is controversy over Mann’s conclusions.  A small amount of this controversy is scientific, questioning his methodology, and deserves to be explored.  Unfortunately, most of the controversy surrounding Mann’s work has been generated by nonscientific interests who appear simply to dislike his conclusions and who are willing to intrude on the scientific process in a way that can inhibit scientists from publicizing their ideas. The proper avenues for resolution of the scientific controversy are the time-honored approaches that scientists have developed — publication, peer review, and debate.  Academics expect their research to be subjected to that scrutiny — and that scrutiny is ideally intense — but they also need to be able to interact with others in exploring initial thoughts, suspicions, and hypotheses without fear that every incomplete idea may be demanded by the government and examined out of context.  

In the abstract, scientific misconduct is a legitimate concern, but there still needs to be something that can be identified to justify an investigation beyond the fact that some research is controversial.  Otherwise, and as amici who filed briefs in the case correctly noted, “[s]eeking to avoid the stigma (not to mention legal costs) involved in a fraud investigation, professors would hesitate to research, publish, or even teach on potentially controversial subjects.”  And controversy is, in many ways, what drives scientific innovation fastest. 

Monday’s ruling by Judge Paul Peatross notes that “[w]hat the Attorney General suspects that Dr. Mann did that was false or fraudulent in obtaining funds from the Commonwealth is simply not stated….  [I]t is not clear what he did that was misleading, false or fraudulent in obtaining funds from the Commonwealth of Virginia.”  The complete ruling can be read here.   The Attorney General now has the opportunity to reframe his subpoena and articulate specific allegations if they exist. 

It is often noted that Galileo died the same year that Isaac Newton was born.  Newton, of course, would go on to invent a considerably better telescope design and to develop the theory of gravitation, which decisively confirmed the Copernican model of the solar system that Galileo espoused.  How our understanding of global climate change will develop in the years to come remains unclear.  But one thing is certain:  it will not advance at all if scientists are intimidated into suppressing their conclusions.