rant (WTF?)

THE TIME TO SPEAK UP IS NOW

By | archive, commentary, rant (WTF?)

On Sunday, August 2nd 2008, in Santa Cruz, California, a firebombing destroyed David Feldheim’s car. The smoke from the fire filled the first floor of his house, so he and his wife, along with their 6-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son, had to drop a ladder from the window of a second floor room to escape. Dr. Feldheim has no criminal record. He isn’t affiliated with organized crime, or even a member of some contentious political organization. Instead, the attack on he and his family was instigated because Dr. Feldheim uses mice in his research on how the brain develops. Animal rights extremists are conducting attacks on scientists across North America and, in the process, slowing down the very work that is needed to advance our understanding of how the human body undergoes disease, and what we can do to cure it.

Animals in Research

Each year in the United States, approximately 20 million laboratory animals are used in biomedical sciences research. They are used to study cancer, neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease, metabolic diseases such as diabetes, and even the common cold. Indeed, animal testing forms the crux of biomedical sciences, and virtually every notable landmark in the field over the last hundred years has been characterized by the use of animals. As Dr. Thomas J. Carew, the President of the Society for Neurosciences, attests, “[responsible] animal research has played a vital role in nearly every major medical advance of the last century, from heart disease to polio, and is essential for future advances as well”. Even when animals are not used to research the pathology of disease itself, they form the crux of the regulatory framework that protects humans from adverse reactions to newly found drugs and treatments. In Canada and the United States, even before reaching clinical trials, treatments must first conclusively demonstrate safety on animals first. In fitting irony, veterinary medicine depends on animal testing, too: not only are many treatments developed for humans now used on animals too, but rabies, feline leukemia, and other vaccines were developed through animal testing.

Critics, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), suggest that there are alternatives to the usage of animals in research. In certain cases, this is true. For example, cell culture has proven useful as an alternative in the production of certain kinds of antibodies and in certain skin treatment tests. But in most developed countries, and certainly in the US and Canada, scientists are already obligated to follow a set of guiding principles for the use of animals in research termed the “three R’s”: reduction, refinement, and replacement. In summary, a scientist is obligated to use non-animal methods over animal methods whenever it is possible to achieve the same scientific aim (replacement), must minimize animal pain, suffering, and/or distress (refinement), and must use the least number of animals possible within an experiment (reduction). Every established university in Canada and the US has an animal care committee that oversees the usage of the three R’s in research, and scientists are strictly reprimanded if they fail to live up to them. So while alternatives to animal research can and must continue to develop, the number of animals still used today emphasizes how important they are to biomedical sciences research. This is emphasized by the awarding of the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to the pioneers of gene targeting in mice, which has allowed for the elucidation of the roles of numerous genes in development, physiology, aging, and disease.

Terrorist Attacks on Researchers

The brunt of responsibility for terrorist attacks on biomedical scientists falls on the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), a leaderless resistance that claims itself analogous to the Underground Railroad. In public statements, the group claims responsibility for any direct action to further the cause of animal liberation, where all reasonable precautions are taken to safeguard human and non-human life. Still, there has nevertheless been criticism of ALF activists for either engaging in acts of violence or failing to condemn them. Before the 1990s, the majority of acts committed by ALF activists were termed by the FBI “low-level criminal activity”. In 1977, ALF took two dolphins from the University of Hawaii’s Marine Mammal Laboratory, and released them into the ocean. In 1985, 486 animals were removed from a University of California, Riverside laboratory – causing nearly $700,000 in damage and shutting down eight of the seventeen research projects active at the laboratory. But as author Rachel Monaghan notes, around 1982, there was a shift in the non-violent position of ALF. Death threats, letter bombs, and threats to contaminate food erupted in North America and Europe. In 2001, the director of an animal-testing laboratory, Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), was attacked by men wielding pickaxe handles. Two researchers at the University of California, Dr. Dario Ringach and Dr. David Jentsch, have attested to the terrorism: “we have seen our cars and homes firebombed or flooded, and we have received letters packed with poisoned razors and death threats via e-mail and voicemail. [Our] families and neighbors have been terrorized by angry mobs of masked protesters who throw rocks, break windows, and chant that “you should stop or be stopped” and that they “know where you sleep at night.” Some of the attacks have been cataloged as attempted murder. Adding insult to injury, misguided animal-rights militants openly incite others to violence on the Internet, brag about the resulting crimes, and go as far as to call plots for our assassination “morally justifiable.”

Suffice it to say, animal rights groups like PETA who operate legally cannot and must not take responsibility for the kinds of attacks that victimize biomedical scientists. Moreover, each and every member of society has a voice in deciding how far biomedical scientists ought to be able to go when it comes to using animals in research. Two examples have recently surfaced where this is especially apparent. First, the field of biomedical sciences is dawning on a new age of technological capability, which begs the question: in what respects should scientists be allowed to introduce human genes or materials into animals? Britain’s Academy of Medical Sciences launched a study on November 3rd, 2009, with the goal of establishing guidelines for scientists around the world on how far society is prepared to see them go in mixing human materials with animals to discover how to combat disease. Second, the use of nonhuman primates in research possesses a unique set of ethical issues because of their cognitive and emotional capabilities. Accordingly, nonhuman primates represent fewer than 1% of all animals used in research, and are in general used only for studies which necessitate their presence, such as in studies on the elaboration of complex brain functions.

Protecting our Scientists

The violent and non-violent acts of ALF and similar direct action animal liberation groups are an affront to the rights of scientists in North America, Europe, and around the world. More needs to be done to protect the well-being and safety of individuals who contribute to biomedical sciences research. The passage of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act in 2006 in the US, which set out to “”provide the Department of Justice the necessary authority to apprehend, prosecute, and convict individuals committing animal enterprise terror”, is a step in the right direction. Similar acts need to be passed in every developed country that conducts biomedical sciences research. But the attacks against researchers points toward a broader trend towards a public discourse on animal testing that is fraught with ambiguity, bias, and downright misperception of science. PETA aims misinformation about animal testing towards children and college students, and the entertainment industry produces movies characterizing scientists as amoral and unconcerned with the welfare of animals. To underscore this point, the Pew Research Center recently published a survey demonstrating that only 52% of the American public views animal research favorably.

Ultimately, scientists themselves must brave the storm of extremists and reach out to the public to explain their work, why it’s important, and how they are sticking to the strictest possible ethical guidelines. Too often, the general public is under the impression that scientists can do whatever they want with however many animals they want as long as they term it ‘research’, but this simply is not true. The current guidelines are born out of the recognition that animals do undergo discomfort, pain, and death, in biomedical sciences research, and that society does have a desire to find suitable treatments for diseases that cannot be found without the use of animal testing. Multiple levels of scrutiny, including grant reviews, university committee approvals, provincial and federal regulator inspections, and accreditation by independent organizations, go into deciding whether or not animal research ought to be conducted. But even if an individual is not directly or indirectly engaged in biomedical science research, the stake he or she has in finding cures for diseases remains the same. Do you want scientists to find cures or better treatment plans for diseases? The time to speak up is now.

About Brett Hilton

Brett Hilton is an undergraduate student in Cell Biology & Genetics and English Literature at the University of British Columbia. Having completed undergraduate research projects on the pathogeneses of neurodegenerative diseases and spinal cord injury, Brett plans on entering graduate school in September 2010 in the field of developmental neurobiology. Outside of the lab, Brett enjoys drinking inordinate amounts of coffee, smoking cigars, and going for runs (but not necessarily in that order).

ON NATUROPATHY, PRESCRIPTION DRUGS, AND THE SANCTITY OF SCIENCE ITSELF

By | archive, rant (WTF?)

Regarding Bill 179 – whereby graduates of Canada’s two naturopathy schools may be given drug prescribing rights by the Ontario legislature. Please read this for further information (Nov 25th, 2009)

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The science-based community is always at a disadvantage in these sorts of outcries, because we’re limited to the evidence, and we can’t just make stuff up. There’s a lot to respond to.

1. With 23,000 doctors in Ontario, and fewer then 1000 naturopaths, the argument that granting naturopaths prescription rights will ease the burden on the healthcare system is a bit silly.

2. The assertion that the body has the potential to heal itself is not a scientific one. When given “natural” support only, the body will die by the age of 45, probably of infectious diseases. Modern advances in medicine make long-life possible, not herbs and roots from a 2,000 year old playbook.

3. Saying “science” doesn’t make it so. The call of “the healing power of nature at work” to be not magic, but good science, is ridiculous on its face….the human body is really good at succumbing to pathogens and injury, and the “natural” world is really good at killing us.

4. Old and tradition do not a science make. Yes, herbal supplements have been around for centuries. So has prostitution. Old doesn’t mean effective. It means old. I want my medicine to be new, awesome, and if possible, administered by a robot from the future.

5. Regulation does not a science make, even if it was 85 years ago.

6. I wonder, what is the naturopathic remedy for a broken bone? For that matter, how effective is naturopathic birth control?

7. Why the natural fetish? If you’re dying from a disease, do you really care if your treatment is “natural” or not? Why take an herbal supplement that a person tells you *might* work, when you could take the most recent advances in medical technology that we know *will* work?

8. Natural doesn’t mean safe. It doesn’t mean effective. Arsenic, poisonous mushrooms, gravel and bird-crap are also natural and you don’t see me putting them into my body.

9. Lets not forget that many people see a naturopath because they’re dazzled by the word “Naturopathic Doctor, or ND”. Let’s be perfectly clear: Naturopaths are NOT doctors. The Naturopathy Act, 2007 allows them to be called “Naturopaths”, not “doctors.” You need to go to medical school to be called a doctor. Naturopaths just granted themselves that title as a subtle PR stunt.

10. What is the diagnostic method a naturopath uses to test if a body is “in balance”? What laboratory equipment can you use to check for “wellness”?

11. The calls that naturopaths aim to treat the root cause is nonsense, otherwise they wouldn’t be asking to prescribe pain-killers, and anti-inflammatories.

12. If naturopathy is just as effective as medicine, then why don’t these naturopaths just go to med school?

13. The medical community is constantly advocating good health, diet, nutrition and exercise…naturopaths don’t have a monopoly on knowing the merits of preventative health.

14. Naturopathic college of Ontario requires a 4-year Bachelor’s eduction, but does not require for a Bsc or any science pre-requisites. The historical GPA for entry to the CCNM (Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine) is 3.3 (ranging from 2.8-3.7). Compare that to Med school, which is turning away people with 4.0 averages.

15. The length of time for training is meaningless if the education quality is so lackluster. I can study levitation for 20 years but it doesn’t mean that I could fly.

16. “Every review of our record has recognized the safety of the more natural approach of naturopathic care.” Every review? Really? Black Cohosh, anyone?

17. The authors conveniently left out the deaths attributed to naturopathic prescriptions in Washington and Oregon, showing once again their contempt for honest data-gathering and fondness for cherry-picking whatever information suits their pre-conceived narrative.

18. The CCNM is NOT associated with ANY Canadian university, and it’s dishonest to artificially conflate the two together, even if you’re being indirect about it.

19. “The need for NDs to have prescribing authority was accepted by every other regulated health profession” Not even close to accurate! The bill passed the first two readings because the relevant health care communities had approved of their OWN amendments, and was not reflective of the naturopathy amendments.

20. The CCNM also is also teaching homeopathy and colonic irrigation, neither of which do anything beyond a placebo effect….Back from your cherry-picking trip yet?

21. If passed, the committee to decide which drugs would be prescribed would be made up of naturopaths! Unelected naturopaths deciding what they can prescribe!

22. Since naturopaths *are unqualified* to prescribe medication, granting them these powers will create needless risk of drug contra-indications.

23. This is not about freedom of choice for the patient, and it never has been. This is about granting naturopathy legislative and legal legitimacy because it can’t do so under the rules of science and evidence.

The scientific community is crystal clear on medicine, yet these people would have our very modern system degenerate with some very 19th century modalities.

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This list is reprinted with permission from here.

About Steve Thoms

Steve Thoms is the editor of the pan-Canadian skeptic blog, Skeptic North. For more information about Bill 179, please read this.

WHITE COAT, WRONG TIME

By | archive, rant (WTF?)

Imagine you’re at Starbucks. You’re halfway through a co-worker’s order (“half sweet, no foam, saffron-scented, opium-spritzed, …”) when two men wearing coveralls come in. You hear them talking about a car they’re fixing. Their garb has grease on it, various stains of indeterminate origin. They saunter up to the till, place their orders, and get their drinks before you because the trainee taking care of your order is running to the Starbucks across the street to find more panda blood for your co-worker’s beverage. Tapping your foot impatiently, you notice that the two guys in coveralls have parked themselves in what was your favorite spot, but now is a seat that you will avoid like the plague given that there will undoubtedly be oil stains on the cushion.

Okay – now replace this scenario with health care workers wearing their scrubs or lab coats out in public.

What the hell are these people thinking?

I am loath to be the high horse guy because I’ve cut corners too. I can be sloppy as Joe. But this is just so incredibly thoughtless that it just screams to be railed against. God only knows what kind of work these people do. Can you imagine if someone from a level 3 lab was pulling this stunt? I would hope that people working with that level would have more sense – and it’s likely that they do – but we can’t know for sure when we see that white coat out in public, can we? I mentioned that grease stains would make me avoid a befouled seat like the plague. In the case of the public lab coaters who take up residence in my coffee shop, I might be avoiding those seats so I won’t catch the Plague.

“Why would people do this?” I ask myself. (I actually have time to contemplate this while I’m still at Starbucks: even though the trainee did find some panda blood, that Love Potion Number 9 is proving hard to- track down.) My current theory is status. People wear the lab coat out of the lab because it says “I am important”. The whole thing smacks of the fresh new doctor who actually comes to a research lecture with his or her stethoscope draped over their shoulders, as if to say: “Yes, I am a doctor. I have the ability to SAVE LIVES. I have ANSWERS. I have come directly from a patient’s bedside to nod thoughtfully while this person discusses their data.”

Dude, as long you washed your hands and you shut off your pager, we won’t point and snicker.

I wonder if someone would suggest that lab coats are not removed because of time constraints. I will grant you that people might have to zip between two spots – say the clinic and the lab – and maybe there simply isn’t time to switch the coat. Okay. The coat might even be their only lab coat and they need it in two different locations. Fine. I’d even accept that it was really cold outside and the lab coat was kept on simply to stave off the elements while running from building to building.

But on a coffee break? Are you serious?

What ultimately slays me is that the cafeteria area back at the lab or hospital where the offending lab coater comes from almost certainly has a “no lab coats” policy. That means that the lab coater abides by a code that says that white coats may not be worn at the point of snack consumption, but that they may be worn at the point of snack purchase.

Don’t shit where you eat, but feel free to shit at the grocer’s.

What a wonderful piece of non-lunacy.

Anyways, here’s my advice: if you see someone wearing a lab coat or scrubs at a coffee shop and it pisses you off, ask them what kind of work they do. Act really interested. Let them tell you what kind of dreaded disease they are about to cure or what kind of dangerous samples they bravely handle each day.

Then ask them what sort of protection is required to do those experiments or interact with those particular patients.

The ensuing uncomfortableness will help you forget that the trainee spilled your co-worker’s drink on his boss and that it’ll be nightfall before you get back to work.

(Originally published on November 6th, 2005)

About timonbuys

Timon Buys is currently a graduate student at the BC Cancer Research Centre. He draws inspiration from Bill Watterson and Terry Fox. Also, he gets pleasure from palindromes like Bob, kayak, and DNA.

A GIANT LEAP FORWARD: CAREGIVERS OF ADVANCED CANCER PATIENTS BECOME ANXIOUS AND DEPRESSED.

By | archive, rant (WTF?)

(In reference to this paper)

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In a recent issue of Biological Psychology, Ratnakar, et al., sent shock waves through the scientific community when they concluded that “family caregivers of advanced cancer patients undergo anxiety and depression associated with stress.”

Making yet another daring leap, the intrepid authors suggested that “these changes might have health implications, warranting appropriate stress management counseling for them.” Their novel conclusions, which could never have been obviously anticipated, will undoubtedly turn the field on its side. It appears the textbooks need revision, or do they?

Conventional wisdom tells us that caregivers of advanced cancer patients often undergo bouts of intermittent lock-jaw, foaming at the mouth, erections lasting longer than 48 hours, a heightened sense of smell, and an overall disposition of “feel[ing] good” as “[they] knew that [they] would now.” A classic vignette in “Hematology and Oncology Pearls” recommends that physicians get a “twofer” by preventively treating caregivers with Haldol at 20 micrograms/liter during palliative care decision-making to reduce the likelihood of both “intractable hiccups” and “acute psychotic euphoria.” Moreover, “Pearls” strongly encourages the use of charades, if not LOLCATS, to describe hospice care.

Prior to Ratnakar, et al., there was but a single controlling study on the subject of caregivers of advanced cancer patients. That famous familial study asked 3000 new patients and their caregivers to complete a twelve page self-administered questionnaire on their emotional state. The study revealed that 86.7% of first-degree relatives felt “a little blue” but also insisted that it was “no biggie.” Likewise, 92.3% of all second-degree relatives felt that providing care for an advanced cancer patient “ain’t no thing but a chicken wing” and ranked their shock over their loved one’s prognosis slightly below the top-24 cut of Josiah Leming on American Idol. The prevalence of anxiety was again extremely low with 89.1% of first-degree relatives reporting that they would not let their loved one’s cancer “ruin their sexy.” Most notably, caregivers of all degrees experienced an increased desire to quote the movie “Anchorman” and run through clinic halls declaring themselves “Frank the Tank.”

Depressed? Caregivers of advanced cancer patients? How now?

Thanks to this publication, we now know that these caregivers experience a phenomenon known as “stress” and this “stress” often leads to “psychological changes” including anxiety and depression. But where do we go from here? If caregivers experience anxiety and depression, as the authors contend, then perhaps they may indeed require stress management counseling rather than simply “tell[ing] them you’ve got ‘a thing’ and get[ting] the hell out of there,” as Harrison’s currently advises.

While certainly detractors exist, one advantage these authors possess is a lack of competing financial interests. Indeed, the authors completed the research for this study thanks in part to a prestigious MacArthur “Genius Prize” Grant. The award cited their previous landmark paper: “A Little Knowledge Goes a Long Way.”

About Jason Silverstein

Jason Silverstein's writing has recently appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency and the British Journal of Haematology. In recognition of Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, he'd like to forgo the customary humorous blurb and ask that you, kind reader, consider supporting the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network at www.pancan.org.

THE GREAT FAIR MARKET VALUE DEBATE

By | archive, impressions, rant (WTF?)

So the question gets asked about fair market values of assets, and why we don’t record all our fixed assets on the balance sheet at their market values (we use their original cost if you’re really interested in knowing). It’s a good question, and it strikes right to the heart of the relevance versus reliability dichotomy.

On the one hand, we want information to be relevant. Relevant information is decision useful information.

On the other hand, we want information to be reliable. Wild guesses aren’t so good, even if the thing you’re guessing about is the financial equivalent to “life, the universe and everything.”

We accountants, being a conservative sort (really, we are!), tend to prefer reliability over relevance. Not to the point that we would put (say) CEO shoe size into financial statements (highly reliable, not-so-relevant), but we’re certainly not going to stick our necks out.

So let’s take, for example, the fair market value of a fixed asset. Namely, my house in Indiana. We purchased the house for $115,500 back in 1998, and when we were ready to sell the house in July of 2004, we put it on the market for $142,900. I personally thought that we were reaching a little high, but our real estate agent assured us we were “competitively priced for the neighborhood.” This is code for “I want a higher commission so let’s roll the dice.” I know that now, I didn’t know that then.

Now, time passes, and as we head into the fall, we start to lower our price, bit by bit. Then December comes, and we learn that the refrigerator’s water pipe burst, and flooded our first floor. D’oh. The carpet guys have to come and replace all the padding and dry out the floors.

A little more time passes, and we get our gas bill. It appears that some lovely person decided to leave our door open after showing the house. You know all that stuff you’ve heard about global warming? Yah, that was us. Middle of winter, heat turned up, door wide open. D’oh.

A little more time passes, and suddenly TORNADO!!!! What the…? We had this gorgeous pear tree in our front yard. Everyone else had these maple trees that looked horrible because the development was relatively new and the trees were still small. Our little pear tree, however, was tall and full and grew these beautiful flowers every spring. And the damn tornado just knocked it right over. So we have to pay someone to come out and haul away our pear tree and grind down the stump. Because of course if we left the stump there, and someone tripped on it, we’d be in for some shit, and that’s not worth it for a piece of crap house.

A little more time passes, and oh no! another fucking pipe goes. How do we find out about this? Well first we get a little letter from the water company telling us that we may want to prepare ourselves for the water bill that will be arriving shortly. “Huh,” I remember thinking to myself. That’s something of an odd letter. Then we get the water bill. $500. “What the…?” Well, what the… was that we managed to use over the past month, in a vacant house, two hundred SIX THOUSAND GALLONS OF WATER. I called up the water company and asked about it, saying “surely that is a misread meter.” And the friendly telephone woman said “oh yah, we thought so too and so we sent someone out to check. That’s the actual usage. It appears you’ve got a leak somewhere.” You don’t say. So I asked her if they at least turned the water off for us. “………….um….no?” Sigh. “How ’bout you send someone on over there for us to shut that puppy down.” And of course, the sewer is tied in to the water, so we got a nice sewer bill as well. 7 bucks, 7 bucks, 6 bucks, 400 bucks!!! As it happens the water company agreed to cut us a deal if we proved that it was a leak and we had fixed it, so my wife calls the town to ask if we can get the same deal for the sewer bill. *clickaclickaclicka* goes the person on the other end, and then she hears, no lie, the person do that low whistle “wow” sound and then he says, “my, that is a rather large bill, isn’t it?”

Somewhere along the way, and this isn’t really relevant to the point, but makes a great story, is that we get an email from our agent saying that another agent told her that there was “something” in one of the toilets. So she goes to look, and sure enough, someone took a great big honkin’ dump in one of our toilets, and left it there. Now I remember back in high school when “The Mad Shitter What Shits at Midnight” would strike and leave these monster turds in the toilets, and truth be told, that was pretty damn funny. We’re all grown up now. Go ahead and flush the damn toilet. We’re using a couple hundred thousand gallons of water already, we can spot you another three.

Finally, in August of 05, we find ourselves a buyer (bastard). The appraisal for the mortgage comes in at $131,000 (huh, I wonder why no one bought our house for $143,000). After the buyer (bastard) nickel and dimes us until we were ready to tell them to bugger off and find another house, the final selling price was $122,900. Oh, and we had to

a) Replace the Dishwasher
b) Hire a licensed electrician to screw in a faceplate
c) Hire a licensed HVAC technician to inform us that “the further away you get from the compressor, the less powerful the air will be.” Oh, so THAT’S why that room didn’t quite cool as well as the rest of the house.
d) Replace the downstairs carpet (to be fair, we knew we were going to have to do this).

Oh, and we repainted the entire first floor too, to make the house look a little less lived in before they even got there.

Oh, and of course, we were paying the damn mortgage every month. We had some absolutely wonderful mortgage interest deductions on our taxes that year.

So, of course, the moral of the story is that while the fair market value of our house is indeed a very relevant piece of information (to us, that is), any estimate we could get would be pretty unreliable. We had one real estate professional tell us the house was worth $142,900. We had another real estate professional tell us the house was worth $131,000. And of course, the true test of “fair market value,” the amount at which the asset would sell, turned out to be $122,900. Were we to report financial statements between July 2004 and July 2005, what number should we have used?

That’s why we use historical cost for the valuation of most long-term assets.

Oh, and I’m in no way bitter that I’m the only person in the United States to have lived in a house for 7 years and still manage to take a loss on it.

Sigh.

About Dave Barrett

Dave Barrett is an accounting lecturer at the University of Maine and former auditor for Arthur Andersen. He takes perverse glee in the knowledge that no matter how sucky an auditor he was, at least he didn't suck as much as the Enron auditors.