The most powerful 4 minutes of science communication ever

Prepping for my intro class today, we’re wrapping up the unit on basic Mendelian genetics and a little more. The students are now supposed to understand monohybrid and dihybrid crosses, chromosomes, and the principle of gene mapping. So today we’re going to talk about how genetics has been and can be abused, and how we have a long way to go before we fully understand inheritance. Yeah, we’re going to talk about eugenics and modern distortions of genetics. It’ll be depressing.

Then, to make it even more difficult, I’m sending them home with some reading and an assignment to watch this video of an old man with a funny accent just talking.

We’ll be talking about the subject of ethics in science on Thursday. I can’t let students walk away from instruction in elementary genetics thinking it’s simple and that they’ve been handed the keys to absolute certainty and comprehensive knowledge of the human condition. We’ve got enough of those people.

Cancel Culture! Yargleargleblarlgle! Justice!

Y’all know Louis CK was awarded a Grammy the other night, right? Boy, he sure was canceled. He won’t be whipping out his tallywacker in front of unsuspecting women from now on, will he? They might punish him with a Netflix special or something horrible like that.

But here’s something even worse: He Jiankui has been set free. He Jiankui is the guy I called a self-aggrandizing mad scientist for his reckless, selfish experiment in which he modified human embryos with CRISPR/Cas9 and brought them to term. He claimed he was trying to prevent HIV/AIDS by deleting an immune system protein that the virus uses to bind to cells, but we know nothing about potential side effects or new susceptibilities it might confer, nor do we know how safe the procedure is, or even how effective this deletion would be. He charged ahead and ignored all ethical guidelines to make genetically modified babies, and then announced it as a big surprise at a conference. I bet he was surprised when the Chinese police arrested him and put him in prison for a few years.

But that’s all! And now he’s out.

The daring Chinese biophysicist who created the world’s first gene-edited children has been set free after three years in a Chinese prison.

Wait, wait, wait. “Daring”? You went with “daring”? What’s wrong with the editors at the MIT Technology Review? I would have suggested “unethical” or “criminal” or “incompetent”, and “biophysicist” sounds too complementary: “hack” would have been more accurate.

Then it goes on with this tripe:

It’s unclear whether He has plans to return to scientific research in China or another country. People who know him have described the biophysicist, who was trained at Rice University and Stanford, as idealistic, naïve, and ambitious.

Why are they flattering this guy? Why are there any doubts about his return to scientific research? There ought to be no question that He Jiankui should never be permitted to participate in any biomedical research ever again.

Unfortunately, he’s apparently part of a “network” of evil mad scientists who haven’t been hampered by the arrest of just one capo and are set to get back to work.

The researcher spent around three years in China’s prison system, including a period spent in detention as he awaited trial. Since his release, he has been in contact with members of his scientific network in China and abroad.

While responsibility for the experiment fell on He and other Chinese team members, many other scientists knew of the project and encouraged it. These include Michael Deem, a former professor at Rice University who participated in the experiment, and John Zhang, head of a large IVF clinic in New York who had plans to commercialize the technology.

Deem left his post at Rice in 2020, but the university has never released any findings or explanation about its involvement in the creation of the babies. Deem’s LinkedIn profile now lists employment with an energy consulting company he started.

“It is extraordinary and unusual that [He Jiankui] and some of his colleagues were imprisoned for this experiment,” says Eben Kirksey, an associate professor at the Alfred Deakin Institute, in Australia, and the author of The Mutant Project, a book about He’s experiment that includes interviews with some of the participants. “At the same time many of [his] international collaborators—like Michael Deem and John Zhang—were never sanctioned or formally censured for involvement.”

“In many ways justice has not been served,” says Kirksey.

I’m getting a little tired of “justice has not been served” stories, but that seems to be all we get anymore. Hey, how’s Donald Trump’s presidential campaign going?

Nice big experimental animals

Prison populations are hotbeds of COVID-19 infections, and they’re full of surplus people society doesn’t really need, and gosh, a lot of them are black, even, so you know what we should do? An experiment!

An Arkansas doctor under investigation for prescribing an anti-parasite drug called ivermectin to jail detainees with COVID-19, even though federal health officials specifically warn against it, has said that those patients took the drug willingly. But several inmates at the Washington County jail say that is not the case — that they were given the pills with no indication of what they really were.

CBS News spoke with 29-year-old Edrick Floreal-Wooten over a video call from the jail on Friday. After testing positive for COVID-19 in August, he said he and other inmates went to “pill call” and were given several pills with the explanation that it would help them “get better.” He said he and others asked repeatedly what the pills were.

“They said they were vitamins, steroids and antibiotics,” Floreal-Wooten told CBS News. “We were running fevers, throwing up, diarrhea … and so we figured that they were here to help us. … We never knew that they were running experiments on us, giving us ivermectin. We never knew that.”

Except it wasn’t even an experiment. The doctor, Rob Karas, took it upon himself to dose the patients, despite the fact that every credible medical organization says it is dangerous and not recommended.

Karas, who has treated people at the jail for six years, confirmed prescribing the drug to CBS News on Friday, saying that vaccines are a “tremendous asset in the fight against COVID,” but that their availability “does not change the day-to-day reality of caring for sick patients.”

Karas said in an email he obtained ivermectin from a licensed pharmacist “in dosages and compounds formulated for humans” to give to COVID patients.

“I do not have the luxury of conducting my own clinical trial or study and am not attempting to do so. I am on the front line of trying to prevent death and serious illness,” he told CBS News. “I am proud of our track record in both of my clinics and at the jail in particular.”

Karas is now under investigation by the Arkansas State Medical Board. That’s weak sauce — he’s been poisoning his patients, and needs a rather more severe and immediate punishment.

But what the hey, they’re just prison inmates, they probably deserve some mild poisoning.

Ethics in Journalism

It’s getting hard to find, and apparently you won’t find it at the NY Post. They ran a sensationalist, titillating story about a NY paramedic who also opened an OnlyFans account to try and make ends meet, sneering at her “racy” content (curiously, also including a few “racy” photos for those who read the NY Post), and ending with a quote from a veteran paramedic who “blasted” her for her choice of a side job, and a quote from the website of her employer that forbids “inappropriate conduct”. The story is clearly trying to stoke Puritanical outrage and get her fired.

Well, Lauren Caitlyn Kwei has fired back at the “journalist”.

Lauren Caitlyn Kwei
December 14 at 7:35 PM ·
Over the past 3 days, my life and the intimate details of it have been made public for millions of strangers to read and judge. There are many people telling me what they think I should do and giving me advice I did not ask for. Let me be very clear: I did not want the NY Post to run this article, much less use my name. When Dean Balsamini first “interviewed” me, he did not tell me what this was about until after I disclosed most of my background. He did not include in his article that I started crying on the phone when he finally did tell me what he was inquiring about. He did not include that he played this “friendly guy” reporter who just wanted to get MY side of the story, since ya know, they were gonna run it anyway, with or without my input. I know my actions have consequences and I know some of you think I was naive. I truly believe whoever “tipped” the post does not know me personally because anyone who knows me knows the kind of person I am. Let me tell you who I am. This is me.
I’m twenty-three years old and from a small town in West Virginia. My mother’s family is from northern West Virginia and my father’s parents were immigrants from China. I am the eldest of 4 children and our family was one of the only mixed race families in my predominately white town. I graduated from Winfield High School in a class of 200, the largest at the time. During high school, I was active in show choir, GSA, NHS, and dance classes. I moved to NYC when I was 18 to pursue my lifelong dream of being on broadway. I completed AMDA, started auditioning, and then decided it wasn’t for me anymore. So I became an EMT. I worked as an EMT for a year then I quit because I couldn’t put myself through paramedic school on minimum wage. I went back to hosting at a restaurant to make ends meet while I worked a year through paramedic school, which was one of the most challenging things I have ever done. I graduated paramedic school in February of 2020 and have been working ever since. I struggled a lot during the height of the pandemic. I was suicidal a lot of this year. I had panic attacks at work and even had a supervisor tell me I should consider another profession if I didn’t grow a thicker skin. I am a damn good paramedic. I LOVE my job and I love taking care of people. I don’t want to quit my day job and get my bag on OnlyFans — I want to serve the city of New York. That’s all I have ever wanted to do. I have always believed in using my voice to speak for those who many not be heard I was raised to ALWAYS show kindness and compassion. The NY Post gave me a voice. So here I am, showing myself to the world. I’m here to tell you all that my First Responder brothers and sisters are suffering. We need your help. We have been exhausted for months, reusing months old PPE, being refused hazard pay, and watching our fellow healthcare workers die in front of our eyes, in our ambulances. At least three NYC EMS workers died by suicide this year and there has been very little action about the lack of mental health care accessibility for first responders. EMS are the lowest paid first responders in NYC which leads to 50+ hour weeks and sometimes three jobs. My brothers and sisters DESERVE CHANGE! Visit emspac.org for a Mission Statement and to see how you can help. How’s that for a story, NY Post?!
Thank you all, from the bottom of my heart for your donations, support, and love. I am so thankful and plan on using this platform to voice the needs of my NYC EMS family. This is just the beginning, folks.
Lauren Caitlyn Kwei

The real story is that young people all across the country are struggling to make a living and are particularly hard hit by this pandemic, even as the rich prosper even more. It is especially tragic that health care workers are made to suffer most even as we need them most. You don’t get to decry individuals making choices about how to earn an income while simultaneously supporting a system that demeans and diminishes their choices, while also setting irrational priorities that harm society. Who hurts us most, a woman taking her clothes off on camera or a billionaire sucking out all the wealth of a nation?

Oh, and fuck the NY Post.

Bioethics has teeth

I told you that He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist who had been carrying out gene editing on human subjects, was doing bad science and violating lots of ethical restrictions. I was right, obviously, because he was immediately repudiated and arrested by the Chinese government. You might be wondering what happens if you break the rules of bioethics — isn’t it all just an agreement between peers not to meddle in experiments that might cause trouble for each other? Well, now we know: He Jiankui has been tried and sentenced. He’s being fined over $400,000, and is going to prison for three years. Two of his colleagues are also going to jail. They’re also going to get a lifelong ban on doing scientific research with human subjects.

This isn’t just Chinese totalitarianism at work, either. It’s the same in most places.

Robin Lovell-Badge at the Francis Crick Institute in London told the UK Science Media Centre that a prison sentence and fine would also have been the likely penalties if someone had conducted similar work in the UK.

Maybe not everywhere, though. The people who carried out the Tuskegee syphilis study were not punished; the doctors who were paid to tell the public that smoking was safe were not punished; Andrew Wakefield is still roaming free, and is even making movies to spread disinformation; you can lie all you want about climate change. Jiankui seems to have picked the wrong victims, or lacked the corporate backing, to make his violations of human rights ignorable.

P.S. I think a hefty fine and a few years in prison would be the minimal punishment for Wakefield, who is responsible for the deaths of who knows how many children.

A Puzzle for Humanism

I should start by saying: unlikely my previous posts, this isn’t properly a book review. The major ideas in the discussion spring out of Kate Manne’s book Down Girl: The Logic of Mysogyny. I do give a general review of the book over on Goodreads; TL;DR: The book is excellent, timely, and thoughtful; people should read it. Manne illustrates a particular problem that I think is worth raising on this blog, given the discussions of ethical positions around humanism, feminism, Atheism+, etc.

Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” is one of the most widely cited phrases in public ethics and social justice, but it is often egregiously misused. Somewhat famously, Chelsea Clinton cited it in discussion of a man casually committing a horrific act of violence; political scientist Corey Robin was quick to point out that this is not the way Arendt was using the phrase. Documentarian Ada Ushpiz has similarly pointed this out in criticizing Eva Illouz. To gloss over these longer responses there, the dialectic goes like this.

Many folks think that “the banality of evil” refers to the attitude of indifference towards humans by the person causing harm; the idea that evil can be regarded as banal by the person committing the evil act because they have dehumanized the victim. This is the wikipedia gloss on Arendt’s view, butthe focus on dehumanization actually gets the point entirely (and dangerously) wrong.

Manne points out, as Arendt did as well, that many callous and casual acts of violence are not the result of dehumanization of the person against whom one directs the violence, but rather the result of paranoid or vindictiveness. The effort to dehumanize Jews holds far less prominence in Nazi thought than the thought that Jews were manipulating the political state of affairs, exploiting gentile Germans, and the like. It was not regarding them as inhuman, though there are tropes that track dehumanization, but rather the paranoia around “the Jewish Question.”

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Academic failures in elementary humanity

Here’s the deal: I am paid to teach, which means I have a professional relationship with my students, and it’s an ongoing relationship that typically extends over four years. My job is to educate them in those domains of biology I specialize in. The administrators here have an expectation that I will show up, be prepared, behave professionally, and engage with students at a level beyond lecturing at them: I advise them on professional opportunities, I write recommendations, I try to help with small crises that might derail their progress.

I do not have sex with them or beat them up. This should be obvious, right? Those kinds of behaviors would be antithetical to my university’s mission and my obligations.

This seems to be a poorly understood concept at the University of Sussex. Dr Lee Salter was a lecturer there. He was convicted of viciously beating his girlfriend (warning: graphic photos of a battered, bloody woman at that link), a woman he met as a student.

This is where it gets into some difficult boundaries. She was a former student, she is an adult, and this was a consensual relationship. That part, you can’t prohibit…but it’s a bit skeevy, and says that you should be keeping an eye on the guy to make sure he is not preying on students.

The part where he batters her bloody was not consensual. That part immediately moves the relationship from slightly creepy (but maybe it was “true love”!) into flagrant criminality. That’s where you’ve revealed that this wasn’t a healthy relationship between two adults, but an abusive relationship with a man who thinks he’s the boss.

Gail Gray, chief executive of RISE, Brighton and Hove’s specialist domestic abuse service, said: “This is not a romantic ‘Educating Rita’ scenario. This is about a man who has abused and exploited his position of power and authority to perpetrate domestic abuse.”

So far, so tawdry. But what is appalling is that the administrators at this university were completely aware of his behavior, and continued to allow him to teach students, despite the clear violation of university policies.

During the 10 month period between his arrest and conviction, Salter continued to teach, the university has admitted, while Ms Smith said she remained so traumatised she was afraid to leave the house.

This is despite regulations laid out on the university’s own website which say “staff and students are subject to disciplinary procedures that, amongst other things, proscribe violent behaviour”.

The policy reads: “The University will take disciplinary action in accordance with its procedures against anyone who behaves in a violent manner including, should it be necessary, the immediate exclusion of the perpetrator from the campus.”

“The University may also seek injunctions to exclude the perpetrators of violence form University premises in order to protect staff and students from further violent incidents.”

These problems will continue to arise as long as the awareness that domestic violence is unacceptable fails to be understood at all levels. Too often, having something written in a policy handbook is a cover-your-ass move to forestall actually doing something about it.

What should have happened is that the university administration should have said, “You’re going on a trial for beating up a former student? You’re not going into a classroom until this is resolved, and are on academic leave.”

His colleagues should have said, “Nope, we’re not working with you until this is cleared up.”

And the students at the university should have been made aware of the charges, so that they wouldn’t sign up for a course and then discover it’s being taught by an accused violent abuser. There’s an element of coercion there — students must take certain courses at certain times to graduate on schedule, so the entire university has to take responsibility for the professoriate, for their safety.

We also discover that this wasn’t unusual for Salter.

Described by Ms Smith as a manipulative and cruel man”, Salter alluded to her of having previous relationships with former students. She said he attended his court sentencing accompanied by another young student from the University of Brighton.

The court heard that Salter’s relationship with that student would be “closely monitored” as part of his sentencing.

Jebus. This is a guy with a thing for young students. He’s a predator. He should not be employed by any educational institution, because he brings disrepute to the entire profession.

Yet the University of Sussex kept him on the job until only recently? I didn’t know that lecturers in media and film were such a rare commodity that they had to be retained at all cost (I know science professors aren’t; if I were tossed out for good cause there’d be a long line of applicants ready to step right into my shoes.)

A small step forward for patients’ rights

Dan Markingson was a schizophrenia patient who was enlisted in a University of Minnesota trial of an experimental drug — and he killed himself horrifically while in the experiment. The university has just now made a policy change that excludes people from research trials who are restrained under a 72-hour emergency hold.

That’s nice.

Markingson killed himself in 2004, and it’s taken 11 years to get this minor, and honestly, rather obvious change in policy. Why has it taken so long? Perhaps this attitude by Brian Herman, vice president for research, explains some of the problem.

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Gender Workshop: How to think like you’re not

Redundant posts are redundant

Except when they aren’t.

Here your gender-workshop-taskmistress Crip Dyke encourages you to revisit the douchegabbery of the Minnesota Child Protection League. PZ did an excellent job of illuminating just that in “Two steps forward, one step back” in December of last year, and the discussion on that thread when it was current included a great many useful comments.

I want, however, not to merely rehash criticisms of MCPL (criticisms well-deserved and well-made the first time around) but to use that example to talk a bit about what “centering” and “marginalized” really mean. In the post on the need for transfeminist critiques of other feminisms, I focussed on Katha Pollit and identified places where, quite frankly, I think she employed some bad thinking to construct some bad feminism. I suggested that marginalization had something to do with this bad thinking on Pollit’s part. Here you can learn more about exactly what marginalization has to do with it …and the extent of my criticism of Pollit, rather than merely Pollit’s column.

I didn’t pick Pollit because her work is low hanging fruit. She has written excellently on many topics. She clearly has the writing chops to be clear about the distinctions between political theorizing and political rhetoric. Yet the only reasonable inference is that she was, in fact, talking about rhetoric when she was using the phrase “political analysis”. She also has the analytical skills to make the distinction between gendered terms like the French pronouns ils and elles, and gender neutral words like people. Yet here, too, she fell down.

So what is the problem with this Katha Pollit person anyway? The problem is the same as one in our community: the inability to think like you’re not.  [Read more…]