Sciencesplaining Won’t Solve All Our Problems

I am as guilty of this as any other scientist: we think that by simply informing people about the scientific facts of something – climate change, evolution, GMOs – we’ll resolve our disagreements. People, currently misinformed, will come around to seeing issues from the proper scientific perspective if we just lay out the evidence.

It generally doesn’t work out that way, because not understanding the evidence on an issue like climate, while common, is almost always not the primary barrier. Public skepticism about the science, about whether evolution happens, whether climate change is real, whether GMO foods as safe as conventional foods, is a manifestation of an unarticulated, deeper concern that has less to do with the science – faith in one’s religion, concerns about regulating business, or the impact of Big Ag.

So if scientists want to clear up misunderstood science, we need to do more than sciencesplain* – we need to clarify what the argument is really about, and engage on the unstated issues that are the real barriers to agreement.

This is long-winded lead-in to my latest column in Pacific Standard, about a weird piece of sciencesplaining published in Genetics. The Genetics pieces describes how rates of cancer and other diseases among survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings and their offspring are not as high as you might expect. It accurately summarizes results of the still-running epidemiological study of the survivors, and indeed, most bomb survivors did not get cancer, and there is no evidence of higher rates of genetic disease among their offspring.

But the weird thing about the piece is the framing: its premise is that the public has a wildly exaggerated view of the harmful effects of radiation. By informing people about the actual data on bomb survivors, we can have a less irrational discussion about, say, the place of nuclear energy in our efforts to cut carbon emissions.

In my Pacific Standard article, I explain why this is misguided – irrational fears about radiation are the least of the nuclear industry’s problems: Economics, security, and the fact that, while accidents are extremely rare, they are enormously consequential, probably play a much bigger role than irrational fears.

* Yes, the whole “X-‘splaining” fad is annoying but sometimes effective.

Five Reasons the Government Should Fund Science

So Trump’s Office of Management and Budget pick, Mick Mulvaney,  apparently doesn’t believe the government should fund science. This is argument I hear with some regularity from certain quarters, and I have written multiple rebuttals over the past couple of years in my space at Pacific Standard. Here are six articles and five reasons why the government should fund science:

  1. It provides the basic understanding of disease mechanisms, without which drug companies can’t make effective drugs.
  2. Philanthropy is not enough to make up for government funding.
  3. Government-funded science has brought huge economic benefits by transforming how we eat, travel, communicate, and care for our health.
  4. Government-funded, curiosity-driven science has a history of huge payoffs.
  5. Government-funded science is how we build a well-trained scientific workforce.

The FDA is not holding back effective drugs

It’s going unnoticed amidst the news of the rolling disaster that is the incoming Trump administration, but our lame duck Congress has just passed a major piece of legislation called the 21st century cures act. Scientists are happy about the extra $5 billion this bill gives to the NIH – sort of. That money has to go to specific programs, like the Precision Medicine Initiative and Biden’s Moonshot program, rather than being put into the general funds of the NIH, meaning that Congress, and not the NIH, is deciding what specific research to fund. That’s generally not a good idea, but more money toward broad research and translational initiatives like cancer and precision medicine is still a net win.

More controversial are the FDA provisions of this bill. The bill pushes the FDA to take into account other, often less rigorous types of clinical studies when it decides whether or not to approve a new drug. Some worry that this means drug companies will have more leeway to push unsafe or ineffective drugs on the market. I’m more ambivalent – there are cases (drugs for rare diseases) when double blind randomized clinical trials may not be right, and the FDA should have the flexibility to demand the best evidence appropriate to each case. If – and this is a big if as we look ahead – we trust that the FDA can stand up to industry pressure, than giving them more flexibility to follow best scientific practices is the way to go.

My bigger problem with the FDA provisions are that the premise is flawed. As I write in Pacific Standard this week, the bill’s sponsors argue that, by cutting regulations and red tape at the FDA, we’ll free new cures that are just waiting to be put into the hands of patients. That’s wrong – the FDA is not the rate limiting step here. There is no backlog of effective new drugs just waiting to be approved.

Go check out my piece for the details. The rate limiting step is the science. Medical science is hard, and diseases are understood imperfectly. If you want more effective drugs faster, we need to invest more in research.

The Legacy of Slavery in African American DNA

This week at Pacific Standard,  I discuss a recent study that examines the influence of slavery and its discriminatory aftermath in the genetic diversity in over 4,000 African American genomes. One of the most striking results of the study is probably the most obvious: On average, about 15% of the DNA of African Americans is of European origin – and, according the researchers’ best statistical model, that European DNA largely dates back to before the Civil War. That was a time when interracial sexual relations overwhelmingly took the form of whites raping black slaves. After the Civil War, according to the model, admixture between blacks and whites dropped off sharply.

Like I said, it’s not particularly surprising, but the breadth of the genetic legacy of slavery is striking.

The study makes some other intriguing suggestions about African American genetic history, especially regarding the enormous demographic shift of the Great Migration (~1915-1970), when 6 million African Americans left the South and settled in other parts of the country. The big takeaway from this study is that African American genetic history is one of coercion: coerced migration and coerced sex over a relatively short period of time, which left strong signals in the genetic diversity of present day African Americans.

Aside from the historical aspect, studies like this matter if African Americans are going to participate in the ongoing development of personalized genomic medicine. Because the genetic structure of the African American population differs from that of whites, African Americans have different genetic risk factors for disease – and even different risk variants for the same diseases. Studies like this lay the groundwork for an inclusive practice of genomic medicine.

Sunday Science Poem: Darwin and Happy Endings

Wisława Szymborska’s “Consolation” (2002)
henri_rousseau_-_fight_between_a_tiger_and_a_buffaloEvolution has always been more controversial socially than scientifically. After Darwin published the Origin, the idea that all species descended from common ancestors was quickly accepted by most biologists (though his proposed mechanism of evolution, natural selection, remained controversial until the 20th century). Socially, however, evolution was and remains difficult for many people to swallow. The literalist beliefs of religious fundamentalists of course conflict with evolution. But even among those who don’t have a particular religious axe to grind, discomfort is not uncommon. Evolution in practice is brutal: we posses our unique adaptations – our brains, our opposable thumbs, our ability to talk, to socialize, to feel, see, and touch – thanks to the selective death of billions of organism over eons.

In her hilarious poem “Consolation”, the late Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska ironically contrasts the brutality of the real world in which evolution plays out, with the romantic world we construct for ourselves. She portrays Darwin, the great thinker who first grasped the harsh reality of evolution, as someone who escapes by reading novels with only happy endings.

Supposedly for relaxation he read novels.
But he had a requirement:
they couldn't end sadly.
If he happened on one,
he flung it furiously in the fire.

True or not –
I gladly believe it.

Roaming in his mind over so many times and places
looking back on all the extinct species,
such triumphs of strong over weak,
so many tests of survival,
sooner or later all in vain,
that at least in fiction
and its micro-scale
he had a right to expect a happy ending.

And so necessarily: sunrays behind a cloud,
lovers together again, kin reconciled,
doubts dissolved, faith rewarded,
fortunes recovered, treasures dug up,
neighbors regret their mulishness,
good names restored, greed put to shame,
old maids married to respectable ministers,
schemers expelled to the other hemisphere,
forgers of documents cast down the stairs,
seducers of virgins hurrying to altars
orphans taken in, widows embraced,
pride humbled, wounds mended,
prodigal sons invited to the table,
the cup of bitterness poured into the sea,
tissues wet with tears of reconciliation,
universal singing and music-making,
and the puppy Fido,
lost already in the first chapter,
let him run home again
and bark joyfully.

Translation from the Polish by Michael A. White (2016)
Image: “Fight Between a Tiger and a Buffalo”, Henri Rousseau (1908), via Wikimedia Commons.