Discussions and reflections on science and life

Archive for the ‘History & Politics’ Category

Activists targetting students with violence

leave a comment »

I tend to be wary of activists. To me, an activist is someone who has taken it upon themselves to support a particular opinion, regardless of that opinion’s status as right or wrong opinion (which is to say its truth value). This leads to a turbulent relationship with fact that may involve everything from cherry picking ideas to outright denialism, and generally makes for a very “fair-weather friend” relationship between opinion and (my personal tool of the trade) reason. Now, many activists can and do behave responsibly and rationally and they have my greatest respect (another tip of my hat to the intelligent and thoughtful feminists over at Fishnet Bluestockings, they are on my blogroll for a reason), but I find that it pays to be on my guard against those that don’t. Which is why I employ the following guidelines with activists:

  • You are entitled to your opinion and the expression of that opinion in the appropriate forums and manner. To give you any less than that would be a violation of your rights and my moral code.
  • Do not confuse an opinion with an argument. Don’t expect to persuade without evidence or reason, it will get you ignored.
  • Attempts to persuade through lies & half-truths, the propagation of misinformation, shame or peer pressure, or any other end-run around mutual respect and properly formulated argumentation will get you ridiculed.
  • Resorts to threats and violence will get you watched, reported, arrested, and (in the most regrettable cases) hurt.

I feel the need to bring this up today, since there is a group out to threaten, harass, and possibly attempt to kill me and my fellow students (as if a bisexual, transgendered person doesn’t have enough animosity directed towards her/him already). Negotiation is Over is a hate group directed at researchers in the life sciences. They call themselves animal rights activists, but they seem much more interested in attacking researchers than saving animals. And now they have specifically turned their gaze on students as they announced yesterday:

Every time a vivisector’s car or home — and, eventually, the abuser him/herself — blows up, flames of liberation light up the sky.


When we attack professors, we can only expect limited gains. They are deeply entrenched in the holocaust, have vested financial interests, and enjoy a network of support and protection. Students, however, have no round-the-clock police protection, no access to the FBI, and no access to legislators. The weakest link in the chain is the student body. Vivisectors-in-training can be shut down with relative ease.


Students also need to understand that making the wrong choice will result in a lifetime of grief. Aspiring scientists envision curing cancer at the Mayo Clinic. We need to impart a new vision: car bombs, 24/7 security cameras, embarrassing home demonstrations, threats, injuries, and fear. And, of course, these students need to realize that any personal risk they are willing to assume will also be visited upon their parents, children, and nearest & dearest loved ones. The time to reconsider is now.

It goes on like that for quite some time, with a lovely picture of a firebombed car just to make sure there can be no ambiguity about what they are advocating. As an added bonus their site has links to state by state directories of research universities they consider offenders via their “Animal Abuse Crime Database”. Guess whose uni is on their list?

But I’m not afraid of these creeps, and I urge you not to be either. Stay safe, don’t let them get to you, and promptly report any threats. These people are terrorists, and terrorists like to cause terror. So don’t give them the satisfaction. And if you have a forum for it, I hope you will speak out and let them know that their tactics are impotent. In time they will try to do something stupid and get arrested/shut down, or they will tire of their game. Either way, the wanna-be scary monsters will be stuffed back under the bed and we can get on with the business of saving lives.

Now, my opinions on the morality of animal research are complex, and I will talk about them in a later post and hopefully be able to present a rational basis for them. But my opinions on this issue are stark: this is unacceptable. Even if you personally find animal research reprehensible and feel that making transgenic mice is on par with Tuskegee, realize that this sort of behavior is not the way to go about effecting a change.

Violence remains the last refuge of the deluded and incompetent.

Written by Caudoviral

03/31/2011 at 09:00

Hey, listen!

leave a comment »

Okay, I know that my readership is small and frail and fluctuating (and I think largely non-American), but this was recently pointed out to me along with a very polite request to repost it. Via Isis the Scientist:

Dear Colleague,

For months the new House leadership has been promising to cut billions in federal funding in fiscal year (FY) 2011. Later this week the House will try to make the rhetoric a reality by voting on HR 1, a “continuing resolution” (CR) that would cut NIH funding by $1.6 billion (5.2%) BELOW the current level – reducing the budget for medical research to $29.4 billion!

We must rally everyone – researchers, trainees, lab personnel – in the scientific community to protest these draconian cuts. Please go to [this link] for instructions on how to call your Representative’s Washington, DC office today! Urge him/her to oppose the cuts to NIH and vote against HR 1. Once you’ve made the call, let us know how it went by sending a short email to the address provided in the call instructions and forward the alert link to your colleagues. We must explain to our Representatives how cuts to NIH will have a devastating impact on their constituents!


William T. Talman, MD
FASEB President

I really shouldn’t need to explain why this sort of shit is a very bad thing. Congress is, at the moment, very much like a cornered animal. They are under great pressure to cut spending wherever they can, and a large percentage of the electorate is probably willing to let them get away with hacking at science funding to preserve tax cuts. There are two problems here: (1) research funding is not nearly a big enough portion of the budget to fix any problem by cutting it, so this is more of a symbolic sacrifice rather than a practical one; and (2) if allowed to do it now, it will happen again in the future. We can’t let hacking away at research become (even more of) a fallback plan whenever they want it to look like they are doing something.

This is not a partisan issue. A number of people are trying to make it one, but look beyond that. Yes, Republicans started this, but if Democrats stand idly by they are just as guilty. And the consequences of this will be measurable in a body count. So, if you have any stake at all in the future of biomedical research (and yes, this will extend beyond America, science is a species level issue, especially these days), please raise hell and spread the word.

Thank you.

Written by Caudoviral

02/16/2011 at 11:09

Posted in History & Politics

Blood on their hands

leave a comment »

Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today — but the core of science fiction, its essence, the concept around which it revolves, has become crucial to our salvation if we are to be saved at all.
-Isaac Asimov

The above was written by Isaac Asimov in 1978. Five years later, in 1983 he would undergo a bypass surgery. The older and/or more attentive of you might see where this is going. Asimov died in 1992. It would be ten years before his family would make public that he had died of AIDS. Not only did HIV rob us of one of the greatest writers of the 1900s, but it was ten years before his family felt that they might be safe from the stigma attached to the disease. I find the above quote fascinating and haunting because of how pertinent it seems to the manner of Mr. Asimov’s death. He, and so many many others, quite simply did not have to die. They died because simple minded people could not expand their thinking into areas that they didn’t want to.

Infections from tainted blood supply are an often overlooked subset of HIV infections. Why? Certainly not for any good reason, this information could only help understand the current crisis. I feel that in all likelihood society is so embarrassed by how horribly it handled the early days of the HIV epidemic that they try to pretend it never happened. And almost nothing from those days is more starkly horrific than the way we handled the blood supply.

See, blood is more than just a nutrient delivery system, it’s a very lucrative industry. Put yourself in the shoes of an executive of that industry circa 1983. So there is this “gay cancer” going around and everyone is up in arms about it, well…everyone except the current presidential administration which is just ignoring the problem and hoping it will go away. Who knows how you feel about it? Maybe you think that it is a tragedy, maybe you think that it is God’s judgement. Regardless, you get called into a meeting with some guys down at the CDC in January 1983. All of a sudden you are introduced to a new idea: gay cancer might be transmittable by blood. Moreover the CDC actually wants you and your company to take some minimum of responsibility. The horror.

If you were to actually screen your blood it could cost as much as 5 million (1983) US dollars! And how come if this is true, only expert virologists at the CDC know it? Aren’t all those guys just alarmists elites anyway? And hey, they only have clear evidence that three people have contracted the disease from tainted blood so far. That whole thing about 10% of all haemophiliacs being infected by transfusion is rubbish, isn’t it? And it isn’t like a public outcry is likely. Moreover, what gives big government the right to poke its nose into your business anyway? They’re the bad guys here. The government needs to get the CDC under control. So what if about 5% of diagnosed AIDS sufferers had donated blood within the past year, there just is too much of a financial stake for you to bother listening, to bother believing, or to even bother imagining that these experts might be right.

In the meantime, Isaac Asimov would undergo bypass surgery and be supplied blood from a donor with AIDS. That donor had given that blood in good faith, with the intent of saving a life, but the pathogen hiding within would instead claim another victim. And a host more would follow in the wake.

The status quo is often assumed to be good. The first response to troubling information that would change it is generally disbelief. And we have seen this before and will see it again on a grand scale. Sometimes that disbelief leads to inconvenience, sometimes that disbelief leads to no consequence, this time it led to an ever escalating body count. This time it was just one more step in letting a horrifying pathogen rage out of control. And all but for the sake of a little thinking about what could be. All for the sake of a little open-mindedness, a little evidence based speculation and extrapolation on the future, the blood banks voted to willingly go on acting as a vector for HIV. The irony that these institutions earned their keep by saving lives is not lost on me.

At the end of the meeting, CDC’s Jeffrey Koplan, who was chairing it, began proposing consensus recommendations. Bruce Voeller suggested a resolution opposed to deferral of high-risk donors; the proposal was defeated soundly on a voice vote. Other proposals met similar fates or were modified so extensively that they were rendered meaningless. The meeting adjourned with no recommendation or agreed-upon course of action. Things would simply go on as they were, as if nothing was happening.
-Randy Shilts; “And the Band Played On”

Anyone who seriously has to ask: “How much will it cost me not to kill people? Is it worth it?” Fuck you. I know some of those blood bank execs that attended that meeting are still alive and probably still working today. I just hope they realize the extent of the blood on their hands. And I hope all of you realize just how important the questioning wonder of speculative fiction is if we are to be saved at all.

Sources & Further Reading

Written by Caudoviral

01/31/2011 at 20:46

The Nobel Laureate That Wasn’t

leave a comment »

As much as I take notice of the Nobel prizes from time to time, they are far from any kind of perfect system for delineating and recognising the most important research and researchers in the sciences. This is nowhere more apparent than in the case of Oswald Avery. There were many great contributions to biology over the course of the 1900s, but arguably none more important than the Avery, et al. 1944 paper “Studies on the chemical nature of the substance inducing transformation of pneumococcal types.” Now, the last one hundred years have seen some amazing biological feats, and the Nobel foundation has caught a lot of them: double-helix nature of DNA, PCR, etc. However, without this one 1944 paper those discoveries wouldn’t have been possible, because we wouldn’t have been looking.

As with most things, this needs a little  history to understand. Oswald Avery was born in Canada in 1877. His family moved to America while Avery was still young, and as a youth he displayed a great talent for oratory, music, and art. But he didn’t pursue any of these paths. Instead, he went into biology and medicine. Avery did not have a natural talent for this, at least so it seemed. His career was almost entirely unremarkable, that is until he was picked up by the Rockefeller Institute (and even there his first several publications were complete flops). This trend would continue until the eve of America’s involvement in WWI.

The Rockefeller Institute had essentially become the medical R&D arm of the government as Woodrow Wilson slowly forged America into a (really quite horrifying) war machine. The camps where soldiers lived during training (overcrowded in complete disregard for military hygiene rules) were really the most perfect breeding ground that disease could ask for. And it struck hard. Even before the infamous 1918 flu, the American training camps were hit by an epidemic of measles. Now, measles itself doesn’t kill you, but it does leave you open to secondary infections, most notably pneumococcus and it fell to Oswald Avery, now a private in the US Army (the entire institute had been inducted into the military practically overnight), to deal with the problem. And he did. Avery went after pneumococcus with a passion, studying it, cataloguing it, and working tirelessly to find some kind of vaccine.

It is difficult for me to believe that Avery did not first come across the transforming principle in his work, since we do know that he tried mixing live pneumococcus and heat-killed pneumococcus in his attempts to create a vaccine. But perhaps not. Or perhaps in the midst of war he failed to realise the significance of what he had done. But almost around ten years later, Frederick Griffith didn’t. Frederick Griffith was a British researcher trying to solve the same problem Avery had been: How to inoculate people against pneumoccocus. Once again he tried mixing live strains and dead strains of the bacteria. But something strange happened when he did that, and he took note. If he took a non-lethal strain and injected a rat with it, the rat was fine. If he took a heat-killed lethal strain and injected a rat with it, the rat was fine. However, if he took a non-lethal strain and a heat-killed lethal strain and injected a rat with both at the same time, the rat would die. Moreover live, lethal strain pneumoccocus could be isolated from the corpse. He happened upon the idea that the non-lethal strain could somehow be made into the lethal strain merely by being put in close contact. Something passed between them. This became known as “the transforming principle”.

No one really knew what to make of this. Although of course, the main theory was that it was due to genetic material being taken up by the living bacteria. Y’know, genetic material a.k.a. nuclear proteins. Because, after all, proteins are large and dynamic. That nucleic acid junk floating around in there was obviously just extraneous trash. Everyone believed this. Probably even Avery. When he returned to research on pneumococcus in the 1930s in an attempt to isolate the transforming principle, he most likely thought he was going in search of a protein. But bias has never been a friend to bleeding edge research, and fortunately Avery was able to look past that. He, Colin MacLeod, and Maclyn McCarty performed a series of experiment spanning more than a decade and published their findings in 1944: DNA was the transforming principle. Therefore, DNA was the most likely candidate for the genetic material.

This was it. This was the big one. We lost a century of scientific progress to phlogiston theory, how much time would molecular biology have remained stymied without Avery? Indeed, the understanding that DNA is the hereditary material laid the foundation for every advance that came afterwards. This is the lynchpin of modern biology, and every one of us who work in the field are personally indebted to him and his fellows. However, the initial reaction to Avery’s publication was very negative. Many scientists had a lot invested in this whole nuclear protein theory and some of Avery’s fellows at the Rockefeller Institute took the opportunity to slander him and his research at every turn. This included to the Nobel Foundation. Of course, once it became generally recognised (around 1950) that Avery was correct, the Nobel Foundation couldn’t just swallow its pride and admit error. So they staunchly continued denying Avery the award until his death in 1955 at which point he became ineligible.

Fortunately, by all accounts Avery really didn’t care about recognition (or really much besides his work), so we can hope he didn’t take offence. Of course, given the recent behaviour of some Nobel recipients perhaps we should be glad.

Further Reading

Written by Caudoviral

01/20/2011 at 18:56

Posted in Biology, History & Politics

Tagged with

Sanitizing Yesterday for a More Dangerous Tomorrow

leave a comment »

Abraham Lincoln probably had syphilis. Mary Todd Lincoln certainly had it (leading to her dementia and institutionalisation) and most likely contracted it from her husband. Accounts from Lincoln’s friend, law partner, and biographer, William Hearndon, indicate that Lincoln claimed to have contracted it sometime in 1835-36. It is a matter of record that Lincoln was medicated with “blue mass” (a mercury salt pill) which was the treatment of the day (which in and of itself is a little bit horrifying). Lincoln’s personal medical history is no concern of mine, but what I do find troubling is the way people react to the suggestion (Just look at some of the negative response that Deborah Hayden and Gore Vidal received when they expressed this possibility in a public forum) and a general lack of knowledge or curiosity about the subject.

This is a generally observable response to the subject of sexually transmitted infections in the 19th and 20th centuries. Take as an example a few more instances that American history has conveniently tried to forget regarding “social diseases”: (1) in 1890, one in every 7 marriages was sterile due to venereal infection; (2) in 1910 Army hospital admissions figures show that the rate of venereal disease among troops was ~20%, and epidemiologists noted that admissions figures would only show the worst cases and hypothesise that many more minor infections went entirely unreported; (3) in 1918 the Commission on Training Camp Activities in conjunction with the Law Enforcement Division started wide scale programs to inter any woman “reasonably suspected” of carrying a venereal disease or of being a prostitute or “charity girl” in detention centres as an attempt to stop venereal infection “at its source”; (4) the very first PSA film the government would ever make was “Fit to Fight”, an announcement on the evils of prostitution and the importance of combating venereal disease for achieving victory in WWI. It would later be re-imagined as “Fit to Win” and intended for general release, but theatres at the time declared it morally licentious and obscene, destroying many copies.

Do note that these are just a smattering of examples of the extraordinary impact that a single type of disease had over a relatively short span of years (for a meticulously detailed account of all the ways that venereal disease has shaped American society from 1880 on, I cannot recommend enough Allan M. Brandt’s No Magic Bullet, it is the source for the above examples and manages to pack worlds of exhaustive research all into a relatively slender book that remains quite accessible). Yet due to the nature of these illnesses, and shame over certain responses to them, prudishness balks at presenting the history accurately.

And the reason is pretty straightforward: how many people really want a bunch of syphilitics clogging up romantic fantasies about the past? How many historians really want to admit that the actions of nations and the victories in wartime might be more influenced by our biology than any amount of zeitgeist or any number of charismatic and skilled leaders? It doesn’t fit into our preferred narrative and as a result we scrub the very consideration out of history.

Only that doesn’t always work out so well. I really hate how trite and overused the aphorism “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” has become, but at times I have to accept that it might be appropriate. In a number of ways, the HIV epidemic in America mirrors our struggle with syphilis. And while the two pathogens were nothing alike, it turns out that humanity remained exactly the same and made a number of the same mistakes (silence due to prudery, the unwillingness of leaders to directly address the problem, scapegoating, scaremongering, misinformation, capitalising on tragedy for religious/political power, we even talked about internment camps again for a while there but thankfully that never became a reality). How many times had we made those mistakes before, and how many times will we make them again in the future? This isn’t some abstract question, the behaviour of society at large in these two instances can be directly tied to a body count. One that I would really not like to see get any higher.

Note: In this particular case I have used venereal disease as an example because I believe that an immature/prudish strain in society is particularly reticent to discussing it. However, you can see some measure of the same reticence to discussing any past disease provided it has not become remote enough from the present day. For instance, much more is said about the bubonic plague than is said about the 1918 flu or polio, possibly because the plague seems so remote in time and thus safer (despite the people that still die from it each year >_< I have actually had people argue with me when I tell them that bubonic plague still kills people today because they swear up and down that it went extinct in “like the 1300s or something”). I vividly remember reading an account in Nancy Tomes’ The Gospel of Germs (a discussion of the social impacts of germ theory in the Progressive era) that in the aftermath of the 1918 flu a sort of collective amnesia fell upon society after the disease was over and no one seemed to want to acknowledge it. It is a shame she didn’t develop that point more.

Further Note: This article speaks from an American point of view because that is what I have to work with and against on a day to day basis. If any of my (unfortunately still very small) pool of readers have noticed similar or contradictory cases in their country of origin, I would love to hear about them in the comments.

Sources & Further Reading

  • AIDS Science and Society Fan, et al.
  • And the Band Played On: Politics People and the AIDS Epidemic Randy Shilts
  • No Magic Bullet: A Social History of Venereal Disease in the United States Since 1880 Allan M. Brandt
  • Pox: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis Deborah Hayden

Written by Caudoviral

01/18/2011 at 16:31

Posted in Health, History & Politics

Tagged with