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Student_BlogWe live in interesting times. While there have been many gains in the fields of science, medicine, technology, and social issues, American society is currently facing a malignant epidemic: post-truth. Oxford Dictionary defines “post-truth” as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” [1] And before you question the relevance of this term, keep in mind Oxford recently named “post-truth” their international word of 2016. [2]

Our current post-truth climate has indeed been in the making for many years. Take, for example, the case of tobacco: scientific doubt held by a handful of individuals was able to brilliantly obscure to the public, for an astonishingly long time, research and truth produced by a clear majority of the scientific community. [3] From the mid-1950’s, when significant research indicating the harms of tobacco began to be muddled by these scientists, we can see a trend where fact morphs into opinion. It is no longer important whether or not something is true, but whether one believes something to be true.

Tracing this insidious phenomenon brings us to more modern-day scientific cases, such as vaccines and climate change. Of course, by now most of us are aware of the increasingly held belief that vaccinations have the potential to cause autism. What fewer people know is that this belief is based on a single study by Dr. Andrew Blakefield, whose findings have since been deemed “fraudulent” by the British Medical Journal, disproven by dozens of epidemiological studies (and counting), and resulted in the paper being retracted from the journal in which it was published and the loss of Dr. Blakefield’s medical license. [4] Yet despite the discrediting of his work, non-medical exemptions from school vaccination requirements continue to increase. [5] This effect has been bolstered by efforts of celebrities and other high-profile individuals, along with increasing reliance by the public on ad-hoc arguments and anecdotal evidence. But the bottom line is clear: more and more people are choosing what they want to believe, rather than what is.

Fortunately, nearly two decades after Dr. Blakefield’s study, a large portion of the American public has come to accept the fraudulency of his findings. Climate science, however, is still fighting for its own legitimacy. A 2016 poll conducted by Pew Research indicates that less than half of Americans (48%) believe climate change is due to human activity. [6] This figure is at odds with another Pew Research study of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which found that 93% of members with a Ph.D. in Earth sciences (and 87% of members overall) agree that global warming is mostly due to human activity. [6] Not only do Americans opinions differ dramatically with scientific consensus, the awareness of a scientific consensus itself is dramatically low: only 27% of Americans believe that “almost all” climate scientists agree that human behavior is responsible for climate change. [6] The results of the post-truth epidemic are harrowing: politicians and the public alike are able to dismiss scientific findings as matters of belief, for better or for worse, without serious repercussions.

So where has post-truth gotten us? Let’s take stock. Currently, more and more Americans are receiving their news from social media tailored to their specific interests or news websites that already support their own bias, forming a kind of informational vacuum in which we are only exposed to news that we desire to see. We continue to find increasing amounts of evidence that the circulation of fabricated news stories designed to discredit Hillary Clinton played a significant role in the outcome of our most recent election. [7] We have just elected an individual who Michael Lubell, director of public affairs for the American Physical Society in Washington D.C., has described as “the first anti-science president we have ever had.” [8] Our president-elect believes in the false link between autism and vaccines, has aligned himself with “anti-vaxxer” factions around the country, [9] and who defends these claims with anecdotal evidence: “Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn’t feel good and changes – AUTISM. Many such cases!” [10]

Trump’s views on climate change are equally unfounded, having famously declared in 2012 “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” [11] His transition team is rife with climate change skeptics, including Kathleen Hartnett-White, Thomas Pyle, and Myron Ebell, all three of which have publicly doubted climate change and continue to criticize scientific findings by the International Panel of Climate Change. [12] Lastly, Trump’s selection to head the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a position that oversees the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Tom Price, has a less-than-stellar public health record: He has routinely voted to cut spending in public health, consistently opposed embryonic stem cell research, supported various efforts to defund Planned Parenthood (a non-profit reproductive healthcare group), and in 2008, voted against allowing the FDA to regulate tobacco as a drug. [13]

The post-truth era has presented us with a novel ethical conundrum. Now, more than ever, we must fight for the legitimacy of science and ethical dissemination of information, for it is not only science that is at stake: the survival of our democracy depends on it.

 

 

Works Cited

[1] “Post-truth.” Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford Dictionaries, n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2016

https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/post-truth

[2] “Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016 Is…” Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford Dictionaries, n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

https://www.oxforddictionaries.com/press/news/2016/11/17/WOTY-16

[3] Brandt, Allan M. The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America. New York: Basic, 2007. Print.

[4] Haberman, Clyde. “A Discredited Vaccine Study’s Continuing Impact on Public Health.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 01 Feb. 2015. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/02/us/a-discredited-vaccine-studys-continuing-impact-on-public-health.html

[5] Wang, Eileen, Jessica Clymer, Cecilia Davis-Hayes, and Alison Buttenheim. “Nonmedical Exemptions From School Immunization Requirements: A Systematic Review.” American Journal of Public Health. American Public Health Association, Nov. 2014. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4202987/

[6] Funk, Cary, and Brian Kennedy. “1. Public Views on Climate Change and Climate Scientists.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. Pew Research Center, 04 Oct. 2016. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/10/04/public-views-on-climate-change-and-climate-scientists/

[7] Sreenivasan, Hari, and Craig Silverman. “How Online Hoaxes and Fake News Played a Role in the Election.” PBS. PBS, 17 Nov. 2016. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/online-hoaxes-fake-news-played-role-election/

[8] Tollefson, Jeff, Lauren Morello, and Sara Reardon. “Donald Trump’s US Election Win Stuns Scientists.” Nature.com. Macmillan Publishers, 9 Nov. 2016. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

http://www.nature.com/news/donald-trump-s-us-election-win-stuns-scientists-1.20952

[9] Williams, Mary Elizabeth. “Don’t Forget That Trump Is Also an Anti-vaxxer.” Salon. Salon Media Group, Inc., 8 Nov. 2016. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

http://www.salon.com/2016/11/08/dont-forget-that-trump-is-also-an-anti-vaxxer/

[10] Trump, Donald J. “Healthy Young Child Goes to Doctor, Gets Pumped with Massive Shot of Many Vaccines, Doesn’t Feel Good and Changes – AUTISM. Many Such Cases!” Twitter. Twitter, 28 Mar. 2014. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/449525268529815552

[11] Trump, Donald J. “The Concept of Global Warming Was Created by and for the Chinese in Order to Make U.S. Manufacturing Non-competitive.” Twitter. Twitter, 06 Nov. 2012. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/265895292191248385?lang=en

[12] Mufson, Steven. “Trump’s Energy Policy Team Includes Climate Change Skeptic, Free-market Advocate.” The Washington Post. WP Company, 29 Nov. 2016. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/trumps-energy-policy-team-includes-climate-change-skeptic-free-market-advocate/2016/11/29/86e52004-b5a4-11e6-b8df-600bd9d38a02_story.html?utm_term=.358e732c757f

[13]Reardon, Sara. “Trump’s Pick for US Health Secretary Has Pushed to Cut Science Spending.” Nature.com. Macmillan Publishers, 29 Nov. 2016. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

http://www.nature.com/news/trump-s-pick-for-us-health-secretary-has-pushed-to-cut-science-spending-1.21066

 

Additional Reading

Higgins, Kathleen. “Post-truth: A Guide for the Perplexed.” Nature.com. Macmillan Publishers, 28 Nov. 2016. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.

http://www.nature.com/news/post-truth-a-guide-for-the-perplexed-1.21054

 

 


Student_BlogUnraveling mostly unbelievable historical incidences of unethical scientific misconduct has partly enhanced the era of well-drafted practical ethical guidelines in present times; therefore, scientists receive training in scientific ethics in the conduct of scientific researches. As rational human-beings, it falls in place for us to learn from our past mistakes and come out with measures, here being ethical regulations, in a bid to arrest the repetition of such unfortunate past occurrences. Notwithstanding, it’s not uncommon every now and then to hear from the media verified cases of scientific misconduct and fraudulent behaviors implicating typically up until then renowned scientists. Why such incidences still do happen despite the repository of ethical knowledge gleaned from painful past scientific research experiences is kind of mysterious. However, one begins to uncover this mystery in an attempt to understand the difference between just having knowledge and desiring or wanting to appropriately apply the knowledge received. While the former could most likely help explain current happenings in the media, the latter is what I consider to be the proof of truly being educated in an ‘ethics in science’ course. Yes, change in the current state of affairs can be brought about mainly by taking the responsibility as individual scientists to go beyond the boundaries of scientific knowledge in ethics into that of its application.

Again, what possibly stalls our progression into applying what we’ve been taught in scientific ethics in our respective researches? Among many possible culprits, I think our personal intoxicating desire to be highly respected and recognized as accomplished successful scientists in our respective circles normally puts our main purpose as scientists in our blind spots. An example of such prevailing metric of success as a scientist is the number of publications one brings out within the shortest possible time in high-impact journals. At this juncture, taking some few minutes to ponder over the likely purpose of our profession as scientists would probably help in reorienting us towards the true component of gaining respect and recognition in the field. Now, of what relevance would scientific discoveries (knowledge) be if not for having society’s (people) progress as its substrate? Consequently, it’s expedient for people in society to be able to rely on and use scientific findings. Reliance and usage of scientific discoveries is predicated on society’s ability to trust the active players of the game; scientists. Trusting scientists by people in society must be intentionally earned; typically springing from displaying a high sense of integrity, transparency and honesty en route to scientific discovery. Scientists’ display of these qualities culminate into good science; an invaluable constituent of the quality of every scientist. The scales are therefore removed from our eyes and we as scientists begin to see an aspect of the foundation of a true metric for scientific success; society’s reliance and trust in the application of one’s scientific discovery for the advancement of the public. Therefore, we become aware of measuring our impact and worth by the quality of reproducible published papers that are of use to society rather than the quantity of irreproducible same usually resulting from scientific unethical misconduct without any societal relevance.

Moreover, in the jurisdiction of the scientific endeavor as a wonderful privilege to provide service to humanity, our respective self-egoistic aims and aspirations as scientists should be drowned in the river of the common good of the general populace; one way of demonstrating this is by taking scientific ethical matters like informed consent, record keeping, data collection/management, transparency in information dissemination to mention but a few more seriously. I believe true respect for the taxpayer would compel us to effortlessly do this. We will therefore envision ourselves as servants rather than masters with the sole priority of being faithful to people in the public arena by meeting their needs their way to earn their confidence. Consequently, there would be a likely paradigm shift in our sense of what fulfilment as scientists mean; the public’s trust and willingness to eat and digest the food (scientific knowledge) we’ve cooked for their growth.

Conversely, should the populace at large have issues concerning the quality of scientific discoveries partly stemming from scientific unethical behaviors, then our very existence and purpose as scientists would lose its meaning; our intended positive impact on the progress of the public would be next to nothing. There would be a societal tendency not to only lose confidence in unethical scientific works but also those that have painstakingly adhered to all the principles of scientific ethics. As a result, the discoveries will continually sit in the pages of reputable journals without seeing daylight of their application in real life; a sad story hindering our going forward as a people.

In conclusion, it would therefore be in our own interest as scientists to apply the principles of ethics in our work in order to assure society’s confidence; the most likely consequence is that we get to see the fruits of our labor in their lives and in my opinion, the joy that brings is indescribable! Historically, significant lasting impacts have almost always begun as small and been mostly spearheaded by a dispersed select few who were resolute in their convictions and stood their grounds irrespective of the barrage of all sorts of attacks that came from the larger opposition; scientists’ development of a scientific ethical culture as a core component of all scientific endeavors couldn’t be any different. We should therefore not be moved at all should we find ourselves as part of the minority in our respective areas of research willing to be ethical scientifically; the impact would be infective with time. Yes, the night of engaging in unethical scientific misconduct is far spent, now comes the dawn of happily and consciously applying the ethical standards in our respective researches; which to me, is the evidence of truly receiving training in an ‘Ethics in Science’ course!


Student_BlogWith the beginning of Industrial revolution, the early 18th century, marked a major turning point in science and history of mankind. The invention of variety of new machines aided in mechanization of manual tasks. This transition began to influence every possible aspect of human life.  Machines were widely adopted because physical effort was greatly reduced and we humans just had to monitor and supervise the tasks performed by the machines. This made life our easier and simpler.  In addition to that, industrialization also aided in socio-economic upliftment of the general population.

Science has progressed greatly from industrial revolution and has branched out into a variety of sub-fields. A whole new branch of science called robotics, began to bloom in the 20th century which focused on creating machines resembling humans in appearance, behavior, and cognition and occasionally even take the roles of humans during difficult environments. The first such machine, named as “Unimate” was invented in 1954 by George Devol. It was a programmable robot used to lift pieces of hot metal from die casting machines at the Inland Fisher Guide Plant in the West Trenton section of Ewing Township, New Jersey. Sooner, the advancement of robotics has also caused robots to become more widespread across various industries ranging from manufacturing to health care. Over the next decade, the number of robots in the workplace will raise, taking over many tasks that are too dangerous for us to do.

Not only the manual tasks of human beings were simulated by these machines but also the cognitive functions such as learning, problem solving, decision making etc. A new term called “Artificial Intelligence”, was coined in 1956, at a conference at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, New Hampshire. This subfield dealt with the notion of building machines which can do intelligent things.  As machines started to become more autonomous, scientists need to find ways to ensure that they are better equipped to make ethical judgments.

Among the wide range of applications of Artificial Intelligence, one with the biggest potential benefits and social impact is driverless cars. Driverless cars are autonomous vehicles which are capable of navigating in a complex environment by using sensors. They generally do not require human interventions. The first of such cars was built in 1980s. Since then, lots of companies such as Audi, BMW, Ford, Google, General Motors, Volkswagen, and Volvo started developing driverless cars. Legislations have been passed in four U.S. states and Washington, D.C., allowing driverless cars for public. This raises in me multiple arguments about the decision-making ability of such autonomous cars.

Isaac Asimov devised 3 laws of robotics,

  • A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

The following are the questions which come to my mind when I think about these cars. What will be the car’s decision when it faces some unavoidable accident involving the occupants and people on road? Should it be programmed to minimize the loss of life, even if it means sacrificing the occupants, or should it protect the occupants at any costs?  The answers to these questions are of immense importance because this could have a big impact on the future of self-driving cars. The above question leads to an ethical dilemma. If the engineers design a car which will decide to minimize loss of life at any cost, then most people (including me) will not prefer to buy such cars which can potentially reduce traffic, cut pollution etc. However, if the designers program the car to protect the occupants at all cost, it may lead to a catastrophic damage at some point of time.

A recent study about “The social dilemma of autonomous vehicles” was published in the Science journal which demonstrates the same mentality among people. The report indicated that out of 1,928 research participants, most believed that the vehicles should be programmed to crash into something rather than run over pedestrians, even if that meant risking the life of occupants of the vehicle. Yet many of the same study participants were hesitant to own such cars which gave less priority to their own life.

There is no doubt that science and technology has driven mankind’s progress from past. However, with introduction of every new advancement comes few troubles as well. Driverless cars are not an exception to this list. Thus, the future of these cars lie on the moral of the algorithms written for them. In my opinion, the scientist should make an ethical design which may seem right to most of the population. This in turn concludes to the question whether to decide an outcome of life or death situation based on ethics or data. The sooner these ethical questions get resolved, the better it will be for the us to enjoy the fruitful outcome of such autonomous vehicles.

References:

Pearce, Jeremy. “George C. Devol, Inventor of Robot Arm, Dies at 99”, The New York Times, August 15, 2011. Retrieved February 7, 2012. “In 1961, General Motors put the first Unimate arm on an assembly line at the company’s plant in Ewing Township, N.J., a suburb of Trenton. The device was used to lift and stack die-cast metal parts taken hot from their molds.”

http://www.livescience.com/49007-history-of-artificial-intelligence.html

Asimov, Isaac (1950). I, Robot.

Bonnefon, Jean-François, Azim Shariff, and Iyad Rahwan. “The social dilemma of autonomous vehicles.” Science 352.6293 (2016): 1573-1576.


Student_BlogThis past summer I got an unbelievable opportunity to study in the Galapagos Islands, one of the places where Charles Darwin famously gathered evidence for his theory of evolution. Understandably, when most people think of visiting the Galapagos, they think of all of the wonderful flora and fauna and the perfect examples of genetic bottlenecking and survival of the fittest flying around before their eyes. However, there is an entire population of Galapaganians living on these islands. The Galapaganians are a strong community, residing on the archipelago for generations, brought by the prospect of tourism. They have struggled for years with the thought that their government values the wildlife on the archipelago more than them. One quote from a galapaganian explains the situation perfectly: “They are trying to destroy our livelihood with all of their rules and regulations” (Rohter, 2000). But at the same time, biodiversity continues to decrease on the islands while humans continue to bring in invasive species and slowly destruct the famous natural history. But this conflict is not just on the Galapagos. The rest of the world has been fighting with or against conservation of species on their own land, as well. This raises an interesting question of ethics. What should we value more, people or other animals? Or can we find a balance? The interesting fact is that every person has different opinions on this matter.

I spoke with my aunt, who happens to be a conservationist working for a large energy company. We talked about activists on both sides of the spectrum: the ones that vehemently denies the existence of global warming and the ones often spotted on the news with their arms linked in front of land they do not want touched. My aunt’s judicious view of the matter is that we need energy and industry, but we also need biodiversity, and that there is a balance that must be sustained. She made an interesting point, and it led to some further insight as to why it’s difficult to give into demands such as continuing with only solar and wind. For instance, the east coast of the US does better with more confined energy sources, such as nuclear, whereas the west has the space for wind. She said, “no one type of energy is going to work, rather you should be conservative with all types of energy and know every changing technology to make them cleaner.”

Despite my aunt’s reassurances that not all industries are liars, adamant on hiding the truth, I could not help remembering Volkswagen’s recent misconduct. VW cars sold in America had a software “in diesel engines that could detect when they were being tested, changing the performance accordingly to improve results” (Hotten, 2015). This resulted in VW cars polluting “40 times above what is allowed in the U.S.” (Hotten, 2015). And this is just one recent example of a company smudging numbers or creating miraculous technology in order to pass tests. So why is environmental science seemingly more of a battleground instead of compromises?

There are a lot of complex answers to this question, among them being lobbying, funding, greed and emotions. But ultimately, perhaps it can all be rooted in the same reason the Galapaganians are upset with the Ecuadorian government. There are people who want to take care of themselves and their families, and do not see protecting their environment as the best way to do so. Perhaps then, we can better understand engineers and scientists, such as the ones that worked for VW, that have overcome tremendous engineering feats in order to make technology that helps the company, yet helps harm the environment.

 

Sources:

Where Darwin Mused, Strife Over Ecosystem, Larry Rohter, The New York Times, 27 Dec. 2000, p. A1

Hotten, Russell. “Volkswagen: The Scandal Explained.” BBC News. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.


Student_BlogThe way science has evolved through the past eons is remarkable. We have moved from elitists that hardly shared their opinions and findings to a whole industry of people trying to come up with novel ideas that have real world impact, while trying to share it as much and as fast as possible. This has as an outcome an augmented sense of competition between research groups that consequently results in an accelerated process of producing scientific knowledge. Of course this is not always helpful. Today’s pressure to produce scientific findings leads the researchers to multiple fallacies that instead of moving science forward, create hinders or leave holes in the continuum of the scientific discovery.

The most prevalent problem is scientific bias, which stems from both, the hope of discovery as well as the aforementioned publish or perish philosophy. In this case, the scientist that aspires to publish the results of his/her study, has erroneously misinterpreted the results due his personal bias towards publishing. There are tens of cases[1], that include even prestigious research publications, where the notorious p-value leads the authors to believe their results are better than they really were. As a result, multiple researchers relied their work on these findings and tried to follow up with their own findings or even worse, followed similar methodologies to prove their own hypotheses. This of course results in an avalanche of erroneous findings that have to be reexamined and reclaimed. Modern statistical methodologies are partly to blame, because most scientists use standard practices that are not inherently sufficient to fully explain the hypothesis under consideration or buttress their arguments. Another problem is that most research teams do not have a statistician or a data scientist that can assist in the sufficient understanding of a study’s quantitative aspects. Overall however, the most important notion that can reduce the scientific bias is that of objectivity. A scientist needs to be as objective as possible when dealing with a study’s findings.

However, scientific bias is not the only way to produce invalid results. In a most unethical case, researchers modify the results of a study on purpose to increase the possibility of publication. This is a hideous manner of manipulating the reviewer’s opinion using fake results. The most prevalent way of dealing with this, is ensuring that research is as reproducible as possible. Of course this is easier said than done. A study based on a methodology is much easier to reproduce than a study with human subjects. In cases like these, the biggest hinder in the path of transparency is how to ensure the validity of the data presented. Right now reproducibility and replicability of such studies are a very hot topic and there is a heated debate around new methods to ensure it.

The role of ethics in science is not strictly constrained into the ethical implications of the experiments, but also in the ethical obligation between scientists. This means that through the endeavor to publish, the authors must make sure that the findings are valid from every possible perspective first and then proceed with the publication.

[1] http://www.perfendo.org/docs/BayesProbability/twelvePvaluemisconceptions.pdf


Student_BlogScientific endeavors can be described as nothing short of the proverbial term-‘Playing with fire’. Like fire, it is great potential and hazard rolled into one. But the one strong resemblance that leads me to this comparison is how we learn from it. A child would know not to get too close to his birthday candle once he burns himself. True, we get numerous warnings from our ever-watchful parents but nothing teaches us what the flame does like our first burn. It is true that experiences in the lab help us to learn from our mistakes but how do we avoid such ‘mistakes’? Most of the scientific guidelines we have today are a result of experiences (unfortunately most of them unpleasant ones) from the past. As we work presently under what we may think are ethical practices, we may be unbeknownst to us, writing a chapter about what not to do for the future generations to read and learn from. Simply put, we do not notice our pitfalls till the damage is done. So in science where the stakes are high and there is so much to lose, it does not make sense to sit and wait for the next mistake to happen or for someone to give us a slap on the wrist to learn our lessons. I am not implying that we should develop a God like ability to predict everything that can go wrong overnight. But in the grand scheme of things where we work with methods passed down to us from generations of study and practice, it is very easy to lose one’s voice and sense of right and wrong with the only explanation being ‘um, that’s how its always done and it works so…’.

When we thumb through cases of scientific exploitations or disasters, we often come across people who initially recognized ethical misgivings but failed to bring about changes till it was too late. So what is it that drives the ability to detect AND correct potential ethical issues? I can almost hear everyone that works in a lab go “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” collectively after having read this (At least that’s what I said to myself). Coming back to my question, what is it that is stopping us from going that extra mile to make sure what we are doing is ethically sound and safe? The answer according to me is-Apathy.
Apathy not only distances us away from the cause we are trying to contribute to but also from the ethical foundation from which we started building our study. When names become numbers and subjects become nothing but data points on a graph, ethical issues fade into a dusty old manual nobody looks at anymore. Because numbers are incapable of feelings, right? For example, we are aware of many heart-wrenching problems that we read about in the news, where ‘n’ number of people were left homeless, we sympathize with them and continue on with our morning coffee. But if something similar happens to just one person we personally interact with say a roommate or sibling, we act on the sympathy we feel. A man who has known hunger will be more willing to share his meal. It is an undeniable fact that we act more readily towards causes that are closer to home. Most of us, especially people who work in life sciences are trained to be desensitized to emotional aspects of our study, say pain or distress of our subjects in order to properly carry out our study. It may range from obtaining samples, performing surgery, subjecting them to stress etc. In fact this kind of distancing one’s self from such emotional properties makes sense because I wouldn’t want to get operated on by a sobbing and shaking surgeon.
So where do we stop? Where do we draw the line? What should we question and what should we simply accept? The line between being strong and being completely apathetic is very thin and is a tightrope that scientists constantly attempt to walk on. It is important to keep in mind that being immune to emotional triggers does not necessarily mean being blind to them. We have to be able to relate and feel every emotion that our research may involve. Yes, feel the pain that the mouse or rat or cat or monkey or human in your study is feeling. But do not let that pain make you weak and balk from scientific endeavors. In turn, let that pain make you strong enough to make sure that participation in science is not in vain. Let the pain drive you to do everything that you can to contribute to the cause you work on. Let that pain leave no room for careless mistakes. Let the pain give you courage to stand up and take the lead if you so much as even feel that some may be unethical. Let the pain be the catalyst that takes you from thought to action.

Easy to write about but very hard to practice right? It is the idea that one person cannot bring about change or solve ‘big problems’ that often discourages us from even attempting to even think about bringing about a change in an established system. But like all things that matter, action starts at home. The only way to at least make a dent in solving these monster problems is to start with, what may seem to you, a small effort. “We know only too well that what we are doing is nothing more than a drop in the ocean. But if the drop were not there, the ocean would be missing something” said Mother Teresa. If we believe that apathy causes lack of action then can we not believe that our action can maybe stir empathy in someone else? All great reforms were a chain reaction that at some point of time were just one voice saying ‘this is not right’. So always remember that no action of ours ever goes unanswered (good or bad). Once we lose sight of why we do what we do, it doesn’t matter how good we are or what we do anymore. Keeping this in mind, we learn, we listen, we write, we skip lunches, we speculate, we imagine, we overdose on caffeine, we treat failure as the wisest friend, we feast on every significant p value, we burn the midnight oil and wake up again the next day and gladly do it all over again because we love what we do! Not only shall we try to walk that tightrope but we shall waltz across it my friend!


Student_BlogMariam-Webster dictionary defines ‘cognition’ as ‘conscious mental activities: the activities of thinking, understanding, learning, and remembering’. So, we can say that it is related to memory and attention. Most of us take tea, coffee to keep ourselves active and working. Coffee is regarded as one of the most consumed drinks all over the world and the most popular reason is that it keeps you alert as it contains caffeine which is a stimulant. What if there was something which was better in keeping you alert and increasing your cognition? To what extent would you compromise to get it? Do you think that you should be allowed to enhance your cognition by taking that “something”? Should everybody else be allowed? These are not simple questions to answer.

Few months back I came to know about these ‘cognition enhancing drugs’ through an article. I quickly read about them and came to know that nowadays there are several drug companies that manufacture these drugs and many people take these drugs in a regular basis as a part of supplements in their diet. I read all the reviews people had written about these drugs and was quiet curious to feel the effects on myself, so I could not resist from ordering the free trial from one of the companies. I started using the pills last week and now I’ve started to feel the change as well. Did I do a right thing by using those ‘cognition enhancing drugs’?

People having attention problems like attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), memory problems like Alzheimer’s and others having similar problems are the original targets for these drugs but because of unclear and lenient law for drugs like these normal people also take these drugs to enhance their cognitive ability. These drugs act on the nerves and the neuro-transmitters. Based on the type of drug, can increase memory, increase attention or keep alert. Some of the commonly used pharmacological cognitive enhancers are: Donepegil, Provigil (modafinil), Ritalin (methylphenidate) etc.

There are studies (Teter CJ et al, McCabSE et al) which show that more than 8.5% of all the US population has at least tried these drugs once in their lifetime and among the students the figure rises to more than 25%. Not only students, studies have shown that large number people from other areas also take these drugs to keep themselves going. The number of people taking these drugs is only going to increase in the days to come when competition will be tougher than what it is now. Some people support the availability of these drugs to the normal people and some oppose. Both of these kinds of people have their own arguments. The people who oppose the use of these drugs believe that it is against the law of the nature. They consider this as a cheating and argue that one should always respect other’s talent and ability and try not to level off everyone’s cognition which they describe as devaluation of knowledge. But, the people who

support the use of these drugs have different opinions. They argue that discovering new things and implementing them for our own benefit can’t be against nature. Moving forward, making discoveries and using them for some more discoveries to make lives easier are in fact nature’s law. They believe that professionals like doctors, engineers and militants would work more efficiently and effectively and would we not want that? The opposing group mentions that treatment is different than enhancement and we should only limit the usage of these drugs to treatment and not as enhancers. But, the supporters of these drugs have a different opinion; they compare these drugs with the vaccines which are also not used as a part of treatment but are a type of enhancer.

Having said that, what we should know is that these enhancers are drugs and like all the other drugs they also have side-effects. These drugs also require favorable conditions to work. We should think about the dose, age of the person using the drug and long term consequences as well. These drugs have different pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics than caffeine, so we cannot directly compare these with coffee sipping. Well, this is my thought. You may have a different opinion.

No doubt, there are benefits of using these drugs but there are still no any proofs that these drugs are very safe and can be made available to all the people. Jonsen et al have formed a model to analyze the factors that a physician must consider while prescribing these drugs to the normal. The model is known as the “four box model” and the four factors considered are: medical indications, quality of life / beneficence, patient preferences, and contextual factors. The balanced view according to most of the intellectuals is that these drugs should be made available to people with some restrictions for now. There are studies (Sahakian & Morein-Zamir, 2010) that have shown that the cognition can even worsen because of these drugs, so until and unless these drugs are declared safe they should only be made available for the needy and not for all the general public. There should be a separate regulating body to overview the issues related to these drugs, be it FDA or some other organizations. Later on, when we know enough about the effects, side-effects, long term effects and everything else about these drugs then I think we should leave the decision to individuals whether to take the drugs or not.

 

References:

Substance abuse and mental health services administration (SAMHSA), Results from the 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings (HHS Publication No. SMA 09-4434), 2009.

Teter CJ, McCabe SE, LaGrange K, et al. (2006) Illicit use of specific prescription stimulants among college students: prevalence, motives, and routes of administration. Pharmacotherapy 26: 1501-1510.

Rose, S.P.R. (2002). “Smart Drugs”: do they work? Are they ethical? Will they be legal? Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 3, 975-979.

Hall, S. S. (2003). The quest for a smart pill. Scientific American, 289(3), 54-65.

Greely H, Sahakian B, Harris J, et al. (2008) Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy. Nature 456: 702-705.

DeSantis AD, Webb EM, Noar SM (2008) Illicit use of prescription ADHD medications on a college campus: a multimethodological approach. J Am Coll Health 57: 315-24.

Jonsen A, Siegler M, Winslade W (2010) Clinical Ethics: a practical approach to ethical decisions in clinical medicine, 7th eds. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002.

Wilens TE, Adler LA, Adams J, et al. (2008) Misuse and Diversion of Stimulants Prescribed for ADHD : A Systematic Review of the Literature. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 47: 21-31.

Thomas LM, Mccabe SE, Cranford JA, et al. (2011) Misuse of Prescribed Stimulant Medication for ADHD and Associated Patterns of Substance Use : Preliminary Analysis Among College Students. J Pharm Pract 24: 551-560.