On never forgetting where you came from, or whether epigenetic differences in iPSCs are really that bad
Note: The video here contains some foul language. It’s about drug-dealers. So gird your loins and all that before you continue!
At the end of season one of The Wire, Bunk and McNulty are interrogating D’Angelo Barksdale after his arrest for trafficking a big-ass bag of drugs through New Jersey. D’Angelo had grown up in the drug game. His uncle, Avon, ran the business, and D’Angelo was brought up as a cog in the dope machine. But despite his family connections, he grew tired of the violence and the death. He asked the detectives to help him reinvent himself and get out of the game.
“All my people . . . it’s just what we do.”
“I wanna start over, I don’t care where . . . I just want to go somewhere where I can breathe like regular folk.”
Unfortunately, D’Angelo didn’t get to start over. His past kept him from beginning anew, and his history caught up to him in the form of a belt around the neck. A new paper published this week in Nature proves that induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) suffer from the same problem. They never quite let go of where they came from.
The history of iPSCs is written in molecular marks that annotate its DNA. These ‘epigenetic’ changes can alter the way a gene behaves even though its underlying DNA sequence is still the same. They are like Post-It notes – you can stick them to a book to point out parts to read or ignore, without editing the underlying text. Epigenetic marks separate different types of cells from one another, influencing which genes are switched on and which are switched off.
Ecker’s team looked for methyl marks across the entire genomes of five lines of iPSCs, each produced by different laboratories around the world. They also compared these to the methyl marks of adult cells and genuine embryonic stem cells. For each cell line, Lister and Pelizzola looked for methyl marks at 1.17 billion sites across the genome, around 250 times more detailed than the search that Kim did.
At first, the iPSCs seemed to have a spread of methyl marks that looked superficially similar to those of embryonic cells. But when Lister and Pelizzola looked more closely, the cracks started to appear in this tidy picture. The duo found plenty of hotspots around the iPSC genomes that were unusually ridden with methyl marks. None of these marks existed in true embryonic stem cells, and some sat in places that could switch off important genes.
Many of these errors were common to all iPSC lines, and some were unique to individual ones. Around half of them were remnants from the iPSCs past lives, but the other half were fresh mistakes, found neither in the adult cells nor the embryonic ones. In either case, the iPSCs could pass these marks to their own daughters. Any cell that’s born from reprogrammed ones will inherit the same legacy of errors.
Where my interpretation differs is whether to call these epigenetic differences “errors”. Whether something is an error depends on what is “right”. If perfectly replicating an embryonic stem (ES) cell is “right”, then I see why you’d say iPSCs are full of “errors”. Let’s take a closer look at the research and decide whether that name is fair.
In the spirit of LabSpaces “Post Your Screw-Up Day”:
Screw-ups are an integral part of the scientific process. Without them, we would not learn as much as we do (although, graduate students would certainly possess much healthier psychology if they could be minimized). If Alexander Fleming hadn’t erred in sterile technique, we wouldn’t have penicillin, and we’d still be slapping leeches on people and chopping limbs of faster than the hospital tent at Gettysburg.
Speaking of penicillin, that reminds me of a legendary screw-up in our lab from a couple of years ago. It was both potentially lethal and potentially preventable, qualifying both major “Epic Screw-Up Criteria“. It didn’t happen to me (my screw-ups are rarely as entertaining), and I have anonymized it to protect the innocent.
For those of you not well versed in modern molecular biology and biochemistry, many experiments involve taking one or more proteins and putting them in tiny tubes and allowing them to do whatever it is that they do, just in a controlled in vitro environment. Well, these proteins have to be made somehow, and we usually employ yeast or E. coli bacteria to do the job for us. You just shoot a little piece of DNA into them, grow them in certain food under certain conditions, and they manufacture gobs of protein for you to isolate by pulling it out of the mix.
In our lab we do this isolation using an apparatus called a Fast-Performance Liquid Chromatography (FPLC) machine. Essentially, you shoot liquid containing ALL E. COLI PROTEINS + YOUR PROTEIN in one end, various binding columns and filters are applied to the sample, and you get YOUR PROTEIN out the other end. Simple right?
Before you can load the sample onto the FPLC machine, you have to take a big bunch of smelly E. coli culture and break open all the bugs into a suspension. If you’re curious what this smells like, go hang out in a truck stop bathroom. Here’s the thing about E. coli to remember: they live in your bowels, and they are not friendly to other environments. Remember the saga of tainted spinach and lettuce? Unless you want to be affixed to a toilet for 2-3 days, keep E. coli confined to one end of your body.
A post-doc in our lab was doing the usual protein isolation thing, had prepared their E. coli lysate suspension and was getting ready to load it on the FPLC. They were probably having a pretty good day, because they are a very nice person and usually have good days (obvious foreshadowing). The genius who invented the FPLC system decided that it would be a good practice to load it using a syringe, so that’s what we do. Whether or not it’s the best way to do this, in our lab we suck up the E. coli juice using a needle, remove the pointy end and shoot it into the machine port. Of course you never re-cap a needle, right?
Except this time, the post-doc re-capped the needle. Or, more accurately, did NOT re-cap the needle, but instead impaled their hand, injecting 0.5-1 mL of straight, unfiltered E. coli stew straight into their hand. You can imagine what happened next, after the freak-out ceased, and appropriate medical attention was sought:
- Hand swells up to the size of a baseball after a day or so. Smells something like rancid almonds.
- Antibiotics are administered in high doses (thank you Fleming). E. coli happen to thrive at exactly 98.6 F, so this was a challenging battle.
- Antibiotics not working. “Blood poisoning” is a term that was thrown around as a possibility.
- Doctors sliced open the hand, leaving the wound open for about a week in order to, I don’t know, dry out the bugs or pus or something. It was gross. It looked something like this:
Eventually, the infection was controlled, the hand and post-doc were saved, and life continues as we know it today. The protein was later isolated, free of incident, and to this day we take what we have learned and use it to avoid accidents like this in the future.
Oh, who am I kidding?! I see people re-cap needles every freaking day around here! We’re gonna have to do in a scientist before they learn.
Yesterday, the British Medical Journal declared that the discredited-so-much-it-hurts study by Andrew Wakefield linking vaccines to autism was not only wrong . . . not only unethical . . . but was outright fraud. This is a daisy cutter of rationality and good science dropped on the head of antivax quacks around the world. Here’s Anderson Cooper laying down the pimp hand on Dr. Wakefield, as only a man with such impeccable hair could:
Big ups go to Brian Deer, who spent upwards of seven years investigating this study and hoisting Wakey by his quack petard, and to every skeptic and rational human being out there who kept calling out this bullshit science over the years. Keep spreading the destruction, and maybe this will be the tipping point in the battle against the anti-vax movement.
“I’m a High School Student Who Doesn’t Do Great on Quizzes” . . . Can you Still be a Scientist? Of Course!
Over on my Tumblr page I was contacted by a high school-aged follower about whether they had what it takes to be a scientist:
Hi, I’m a high school student who wants to become a medical biochemistry researcher one day, but recently I’ve been having lots of doubts about whether I could do it. For example, I seem to make a lot of stupid mistakes on quizzes, and I tend to forget a lot of things after the test/exam is over. Should I be concerned? It’s like I’d be a really bad researcher if I had to look things up every minute and if I make dumb mistakes a lot…
I don’t know, I guess I’d just like an outsider view on whether it’s a viable goal. My marks are satisfactory enough, I guess, but I’m not sure if I have what it takes to make it.
I am amazed by how common this sentiment is among this age group, male and female. My response (here) touched on how our school system isn’t effectively testing people in a way that motivates them or that really lets them know if they have the right interests and skills to pursue science in the future. It’s gotten some responses from scientists and educators on Twitter, and I think it’s a conversation that needs to be had, often and loudly.
Here’s an excerpt from Marie Claire Shanahan, who is currently writing a paper based on dealing with this sentiment in our schools:
I always remember one Grade 10 student in particular, Kara. She stayed after class one afternoon to help me clean up in the lab. As we were chatting. I complimented her on the great improvement I’d seen in her work in science and the really insightful comments that she had made in a recent discussion. She had good marks overall (~85% overall if I recall correctly), not the top in the class but certainly good, and to me she had shown real scientific curiosity creativity of thought. So I asked her which science courses she was planning to take the following year (in Grade 11 science courses were optional and students could choose between physics, chemistry and biology). Her response really surprised me – she laughed and responded with complete bemusement, “Who me? Oh no miss, you don’t understand. I’m not a science person.” What? Not a science person? Why not?
She’s looking for your story! Have you been on either side of a discussion like this, student or teacher? Head over and let her know. We’ve got to find a way to show these students what science is really about, and that doing well on quizzes, remembering an entire biology textbook word-for-word, etc., aren’t the ultimate tests of a scientist-in-the-making.
We are many, and we are scientists, teachers, parents, friends, students . . . let’s help change this attitude!
NOTE: While writing this post on Monday evening, word is starting to come out that a compromise agreement has been reached between the White House and Republican leaders. I don’t know if that will include what you’re about to read, so please clue me in if you figure that part out. Because I am not re-writing this.
I’ve had dental appointments more exciting than the U.S. Tax Code. Actually, every dental appointment I have ever had is more exciting than reading tax law mumbo-jumbo. Even that one time with three fillings, no gas. Thank goodness there are people willing to be swindled into jobs in tax-related purgatory! Invite them to a party or something!
Still, tax policy is important, as has been amply proven during the battle over letting George W. Bush’s tax cuts expire. Large chunks of the political left support letting the tax cuts expire for those making more than $250K/year while maintaining middle-class tax cuts, and large chunks of the political right maintain that allowing any tax cut to expire would hurt small business and hinder economic stimulation. I’ll leave it to other reliable sources to completely debunk one of those positions.
What has been almost completely overlooked during these veritable economic end-times is a tiny tax exemption called Section 127 of the Internal Revenue Code. Section 127 allows employers to reimburse the tuition costs for undergraduate and/or graduate training of their employees tax-free (up to $5,250 a year). While most of the focus on expanding STEM education is directed at K-12 prep, continuing education can not be ignored. Section 127 is due to expire December 31st if it is not included in any tax-related
disappointment compromise that Congress comes up with.
This is the prototypical example of a critical middle-class tax cut being held hostage to cuts for the rich. If no action is taken, and all tax cuts expire, then Section 127 goes with it. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) introduced S.2851, which specifically extends 127, almost a year ago, with no further action. It’s probably in Cabo as we speak, working on its tan.
The following information comes from a report by the NAICU and the Society of Human Resource Management (who I bet throw a rager of a Christmas fiesta).
As of 2007, nearly 1 million students/employees were taking advantage of this tax break every year. Thirty-six percent of those were pursuing a master’s degree and almost half were graduate students of some kind. The average income of the 127 Club hovered in the low $40K range. They work in for-profit industries and they are of every age and race, plus both sexes. These are the true salt of the middle-class Earth -upwardly mobile, underpaid professionals.
It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to realize that, in a recession, a better educated workforce is essential to innovation and creation of new jobs. Especially in STEM-related fields like green energy and healthcare. To put it simply, employers are giving their employees an incentive to gain skills and move forward in their field. No one with the economic training of my dog could argue that this isn’t a good idea. Just look at what they are attaining:
The real kicker is what these students are studying. Education, business, STEM and health-related fields . . . in that order:
This tax break absolutely can’t be allowed to expire. The (now-dead) House tax bill included an extension of this benefit, and any compromise that Mr. Orange and President Obama come to had better include it too.
Some Democrats have vowed to fight any tax cut deal that includes help for Daddy Warbucks, apparently willing to let this educational assistance die. Republicans are willing to let Sen. Grassley’s bill wallow in a file cabinet, only content with wholesale tax cut extensions. It’s just mind-boggling, and yet, not surprising at all, am I right?
So I don’t know . . . write a letter, make a call, for Pete’s sake TELL SOMEBODY! For all the hemming and hawing about economic recovery and unemployment, this seems like a softball of a decision.
Incredulous. That’s the only word I can think of to describe it. House Republican Majority Leader-Elect Wunderkind of the Future Eric Cantor is leading a new project called YouCut, where everyday people get to submit ideas for cutting wasteful spending in Washington, like not printing every bill that Congress votes on (but I thought you complained about not getting to read them? Did you get an iPad or something?). The newest target is the National Science Foundation and their grant review system.
Chris Mooney lays out the basics here, beating me to a blog post yet again (I swear I was working on this last night, I’m a grad student for crying out loud).
This is another example to the time-honored “you know better than those folks in Washington, I’m on your side” faux-populism that has become a major tactic in the modern conservative movement. It’s a natural cycle in both sides American politics, but it’s getting dangerously close to harming science. The NSF peer-review grant system is a cornerstone of American research funding, because it allows for more risky and hard-to-classify pure science than more specific granting agencies like DARPA and NIH. Just like Sarah Palin’s attacks on fruit fly research in “Payyy-ris, France”, when one combines a lack of basic science understanding with folksy comic relief, it’s easy to make a joke out of “computer models to analyze the on-field contributions of soccer players”. What could motivate Americans better than another joke making fun of soccer players?
I’d be hard-pressed to find a single reason that citizen review of NSF grants is a good idea. That’s because it obviously isn’t. That doesn’t really need explaining, and I don’t think the GOP could really defend it if they had to. Focus on this: The current resurgence of anti-intellectualism that Cantor and the GOP extreme are pushing is rearing its head in the climate battle, the stem cell battle, and now grant-review for basic research.
This should motivate every scientist, not just climate researchers and stem cell proponents. It’s approaching an all-out attack on science, a guts and morals vs. brains tactic, and these guys haven’t even officially taken over yet (start penning that sequel, Mr. Mooney). For every challenged research proposal, scientists should be prepared to go to the mat defend American technological advancements, scientific exceptionalism, and global competitiveness of our workforce. Because that’s language that people like Mr. Cantor will understand, and will be forced to support.
The truth is that the whole effort is a big piece of lip-service, a fake community engagement tool designed to make the GOP base feel connected to the decision-making process. Crowdsourced populism, if you will. But if your grandmother gets to vote on cutting NSF funds, then I want a vote on our next defense authorization bill. It’s only fair.
You may have been living under a rock in a toxic lake somewhere in California, but if not, then you’ve probably heard about NASA’s discovery of a bacterium that breaks all the rules (regarding the building blocks of life, that is). Plenty of people are doing well at discussing the science of this finding (especially this one), so you can go elsewhere to get the facts.
There are many, especially those in the science writing community, that are a little miffed at the way this (still monumental) discovery was announced and released to the public. I don’t share (all of) their frustration. From what I gather, the complaints fall into three categories:
1) These things aren’t aliens. WTF? Sorry, can’t help you there. They are, however, very cool little creatures. The fact that they are lowly Earth-beings does not change the fact that they are a paradigm shift for “habitable environments” in the continuing search for ET. Maybe not a major shift for the theoretical-life-form crowd, but certainly for the “this actually exists, on Earth” crowd. If you still feel cheated, might I recommend a strong drink, or a website about puppies.
2) NASA overhyped an embargoed story and didn’t correct speculation: When NASA issued its press release earlier this week, it included this little taste of what was to come:
. . . an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.
On post-mortem review, that’s actually a pretty innocuous statement. But this is the internet, and it contains “astrobiology” and “extraterrestrial life”, so the sequence of later events is predictable. Kottke.org gets ahold of it, they tell two friends, and so on . . . pretty soon everyone is washing their hair in the tingly anticipation of NASA announcing ET life.
An odd observation is that very few (if any?) of the early mentions of the coming release actually mentioned extraterrestrial life. That was tamped out pretty fast by many familiar with the field. But the secondary and tertiary mentions of this impending epiphany were all over the place, as Twitter searches conducted at the time and not saved (and therefore not reprinted here) demonstrated. There were countless folks aflutter with alien expectation.
NASA, and particularly Science, who specifically embargoed the journal article and all associated mentions of its contents until the press conference took place, did NOT make attempts to correct this. They wouldn’t allow anyone to comment on exactly what was in the paper, and theories of flying martian bunghole monkeys persisted. It’s sort of like not lying by not not telling the truth. Technically within the ethical boundaries, but the fire of speculation raged on.
3) Embargoed journal releases are dumb: Ivan Oransky covers the problem with embargo combined with tight lips better than I ever will.
Moral of the story: Embargoes are porous. Deal with it.
“They” didn’t deal with it. And that’s the crux here, I think. Scholars of communication and press ethics can debate this until the sun goes down, and a great many of them will take issue with Science and how they didn’t tamp down speculation. But I say that a little speculation isn’t so bad.
Imagine yourself in a world where the hype around this announcement didn’t build the way it did today. In that world, astrobiologists and a reasonable number of science fans get moderately-to-extremely excited about it, and it tapers away into the science world without much generalized hubbub.
But in this world, the one with all the hype and speculation and tinfoil hats and unchecked alien theorizing that grew from the seed of a press release with carefully vague wording . . . in that world a bacterium in a lake in California with amazing biology was able to be a trending internet topic on a day when two World Cup hosts were unveiled. Friends of mine who would never link to or read a science story were sending me mentions of it. It will be front page news in a majority of newspapers tomorrow.
A huge number of people found out about some great science today, and we should be thankful for that. The ones who held misconceptions have been corrected by a diligent and intelligent community of science writers. People like Nick Denton have built web empires on the careful balance between hype and substance, and that’s not something that science communicators should forget. As usual, the right answer will be somewhere in between regarding what happened this week, but be thankful for the excitement.
Man, those bacteria are cool.
It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without a good ol’ fashioned argument, would it? Chris Mooney and Martin Robbins have gotten into a public turkey-throwing match over their defense and assault, respectively, of the Geoffrey Beene Rock Stars of Science campaign. If you’re reading this, or if you can click that link, you know what the campaign is all about.
So why the animosity? Chris is an official ambassador of the campaign, and he has likely invested a lot of time to its (hopeful) success. Martin is an Englishman who thinks it’s a pile of rubbish, and said so. I don’t know whose side I am closer to being on. There’s lots of problems with the campaign, but I don’t think Robbins gets to what they are at all. Let’s see who gets the drumstick:
1. What the hell is it for? The RSOS website says “Our most brilliant scientific minds are dedicated to finding cures for the diseases that threaten our future, and America’s most celebrated Rock Stars stand behind them.” First of all, the rock stars are standing in the foreground of most of the pictures. That aside, what is the point of this campaign? Chris claims that it puts scientists “on the radar” of the American public. Robbins says it’s like “a puppy trying to hump a leg,” full of effort, but not likely to do much good.
I say it’s really neither. Is this a charity by Geoffrey Beene? Is it a hospital ad? Cancer awareness? Nothing about these pictures gives a GQ reader any idea of what they are looking at. So it’s some Dr. Something they’ve never heard of standing next to a famous person they have heard of. It’s publicity for the scientists, but that assumes that a GQ reader finds the 12-point font, types in the URL on their computer, and takes the time to figure out just what these pictures mean. Not one single thing on those pages really differentiates it from a car or watch ad, which there are 50 pages more of in an issue.
Robbins wins here, in that the promotion of science and scientists is not accomplished by printing pictures of them next to more famous people. RSOS made an ad, and it’s about as sticky as one.
2. Why GQ? Who knows? You’d have to ask Geoffrey Beene. My guess is something to do with existing advertising contracts with a certain large men’s magazine by a certain men’s fashion company, but that’s a guess. Over at gimpyblog, the demographics are analyzed:
Your average GQ reader is 33.4, with ~1/3 over 34. They have a 55% change of being white, a 71% chance of being college educated and have a median income of $81k, putting them in the wealthiest 18% of the population.
Making science cool to educated, white men with high incomes. Not really a demographic that struggles in an unequal society.
Robbins touches on this by asking where the beardless, perhaps more female, maybe post-doc (ha!) scientist stars are. Wouldn’t they satisfy the GQ readers a bit more? Maybe, but first answer “Why GQ in the first place?”. Neither win this, because gimpyblog takes the rug out.
3. Is science really cool? This is my favorite part of the argument, so far. As an example, Robbins uses a moon exploration photo featuring an Apollo-era rover and lander. He adds:
This is a picture of two spacecraft on the moon at the same time, taken by astronauts who have walked from one to the other. If you don’t understand why this is one of the coolest things you will ever see, then you really aren’t cool, in fact you’re the opposite of cool. You are to cool what Dan Brown is to literature.
. . . to which Mooney responds:
To which the American public responds “!#$@^ you, I liked The Da Vinci Code” and returns to watching Dancing With the Stars.
While most intelligent humans agree that Dan Brown is the McDonalds of literature – easy to consume, simple, and usually immediately regretted upon finishing – guess what? Most Americans do not think science is cool. Go ahead, go outside and ask 10 of them, heck, ask 100. Sure, I don’t imagine that most people would say “science is uncool, I hate it, and I hate your scientist face”. But science is not cool to most people in the same way that making a soufflé isn’t cool to most people.
Think about it. Take someone who has already been bitten by the bug of cooking. For a person who brings an established interest to the table, the magic and delicacy of constructing a delicious, airy castle out of merely eggs, structural support and heat is cool. But to Joe Public? Not interesting. Same goes for Robbins’ example. That picture is cool to someone who regularly analyzes the feats of space travel, who possesses a wondrous respect for the accomplishments of humankind that allowed us to walk and drive on the moon. To my friends outside of science, it’s a picture of an astronaut. That’s it. You don’t get to discount them simply because they don’t bring a Scientist’s Club card to the table.
I think Mooney almost misses it too, though. Because while he is right that most Americans would be more interested in Dancing With The Stars than would get all Bieber-feverish over a picture of two vehicles on the moon, more people would be interested in Dancing With The Stars than would even pause on the RSOS campaign. It is not inherently cool. It, too, requires a certain established interest to be meaningful.
Mooney gets the point here, though, for understanding that cool isn’t a reflex response to science. Robbins had to use a paragraph explain why his photo should be so cool, and he also hates you if you don’t get it off the bat.
4. Does this campaign change any of #3? I have to argue no. If I didn’t read both of their blogs, and I didn’t know this campaign existed, I would flip past it in a magazine. And I am in the demographic and I ooze interest in science! I have read papers by most of the scientists featured! But it doesn’t fail for me because science should be inherently cool. It just doesn’t convey its message, and it doesn’t connect science to anything at all. As my friend JL Vernon points out:
. . . if you want to put scientists with rock stars, perhaps the next stage should be actually putting the science on display rather than unrelated scientists. I’d like to see the actual scientists behind Rock ‘N Roll represented in the ads. What is the science of electric guitar? Who invented the amplifier and what kind of science is necessary to put on a rock show? Who are the scientists behind Bret Michaels’ youthful looks?
That’s where the cool is. Show readers why these scientists relate to something else that they find cool. Relating them visually to a celebrity in a photograph does nothing but confuse them, or worse, make them ignore the effort outright. Sadly, a GQ ad spread isn’t going to be a very good venue for this.
Given an opportunity, and a context that rings true to their own lives, laypeople can find science cool on even the smallest scale. Context could be some other interest they have, some demographic they relate to, visual appeal, art, even sex. But RSOS will probably not succeed because it doesn’t create that context. Celebrity is not automatic context unless you are selling something, and there’s nothing for sale here. Except ad space for Geoffrey Beene.
Final score? It’s a tie. Mooney is right that Robbins can’t claim science’s divine right to cool. Robbins is right that the message is lost, and could have been done in a better way. But since he called Chris names, and doesn’t even celebrate Thanksgiving, Mooney gets the drumstick!
Final thought: I sincerely hope that any impact assessments of the campaign prove me wrong, but I am not holding my breath. And I don’t know what the right campaign would look like, but this isn’t it. Hopefully this can be used as a learning experience for all.
Let’s take a chill pill, folks.
Legendary TV science personality Bill Nye gave us all a bit of a scare when he collapsed during a presentation to a few hundred people at USC on Tuesday night. Apparently, Nye was weak due to exhaustion and a busy day’s schedule of various media appearances. According to Twitter accounts, he was (ironically) discussing gravity at the time of his fall.
When this news broke last night on the LA Times’ “LA Now” rapid news blog, included was a quote from an audience member named Alastair Fairbanks:
Nobody went to his aid at the very beginning when he first collapsed — that just perplexed me beyond reason. Instead, I saw students texting and updating their Twitter statuses. It was just all a very bizarre evening.
Because this is news on the internet, this story was picked up this morning by various other news outlets in order to fill their content streams while finishing coffee, and this quote made into a vast majority of those secondary reports. Again, because this is news on the internet (with comment submission forms!), people pounced upon this quote as a sign of the slow demise of our culture and humanity. People texting and tweeting instead of helping this man . . . how could they? Some choice reactions, just from the LA Times comment section (other news outlets showed similar reactions):
-If that report is true that students were more preocupied to text their buddies about the incident than offer a hand of help. My goodness, how far have we digress as a society. speechless
-Our society is failing miserably….
-That’s what America has come to, it is more important to update twitter and facebook about something than to actually get in there and help… truly sad
-No one went to his aid? What’s wrong with you people out there in California? Are your minds numb to compassion?
Now there may be plenty wrong with people “out there in California” , but this has little to do with it. Even today, tweets were tweeted that focused not on the fallen Nye, but on the reaction of the audience. (I had an exchange with @PMJaniszewski about that message there, so he gets what I am about to explain).
Twitter and Facebook seem to be increasingly convenient targets for some who feel our social interactions have become cheapened and disconnected thanks to social networking. What we witnessed in the case of Nye, though, is not the fault of social media. Rather, it is a well-documented phenomenon termed The Bystander Effect.
Anyone who has taken emergency preparedness classes or CPR training will be familiar with this aspect of human behavior. In my Eagle Scout training, we were taught that in case of emergency where medical help is required, never say into a crowd “Hey, someone call 911!” You point a person out, ask their name, and direct them to call 911. A trained responder is educated to not only take the initiative to give aid, but also to break through what social psychologists call “the bystander effect”.
First demonstrated in the late 1960′s, the bystander effect is based on two underlying tendencies of humans in crowds. First, people observe the reaction of those around them to see if others are taking action. Next, based on another behavioral model called diffusion of responsibility (this might seem familiar if you’ve ever been assigned to work with a group of 20+ people on a project without direction) , an individual assumes that someone else has already done something. You may have even done something similar if you ever witnessed a car accident, assuming those involved would call the police. Tweeting and texting had nothing to do with their inaction, other than to give their idle hands something to do to pass the time. Or maybe they were making “Nye-agara Falls” jokes on Facebook.
These behaviors aren’t conscious choices, they are just herd mentality manifesting itself at very inopportune times. I am no social psychologist, but I would argue that someone sending a Facebook update when something like this happens is actually proof that social media are a blessing in this situation. Imagine an audience frozen in fright as an armed gunman walks in the auditorium. A tweet or two could go a long way in an emergency.
Famous examples exist where idle bystanders have led to great injury. The New York subway system had to invest in an entire campaign to urge riders “If you see something, say something!” It’s unfortunate that no one jumped right on stage and fully triaged Mr. Nye, carting him off on a litter fashioned from auditorium chairs lashed with shoelaces. But that’s what crowds do in emergencies, they freeze. Twitter, Facebook and text messages had nothing to do with it.
At least tomorrow there will be something else to complain about on the internet, right news commenters?!
Like many Americans who tend to vote more blue than red (okay, I can’t remember when I ever supported a GOP candidate, but that’s beside the point, at least in this case), I was disappointed by Tuesday’s election results. I certainly wasn’t as disappointed as I could have been (had there been a GOP Senate takeover), but it was as frustrating a shitshow of economic angst as I’ve ever seen. Moreover, the GOP was able to extend that wave of voter anger to gubernatorial and state lege elections, and they now hold 24 governorships and 54 state legislative chambers around the country.
This wasn’t exactly a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to polls for the past few months, and I certainly wasn’t shocked when I read those numbers Wednesday. In regard to science education, though, something that happened in Texas did shock me. Two moderate and well-qualified educators (Judy Jennings and Rebecca Bell-Metereau) were soundly defeated in State Board of Education races by conservative candidates (they also happen to be Democrats). After
months years of shenanigans rarely found outside of a gypsy carnival, apparently Texans felt it appropriate to reward the conservative bloc of the SBOE by electing Republican candidates.
The circus antics and ideological battles of the Texas SBOE are well documented over the past few years, and they were certainly highlighted with the recent battle over the teaching of evolution in science classes. Having sat in on those hearings, and as a scientist, it was abundantly clear how little regard was paid to the opinions of educators and experts when it came to deciding how our children would be taught. Certainly, when fallen chairman/dentist/non-teacher Don McLeroy was defeated by a primary challenger this year, it seemed that a moderate tone could shape the next incarnation of the board.
Now, full disclosure – I met defeated Democratic candidate Rebecca Bell-Metereau, and I have publicly stated that she is not only intelligent and respectful of science, she is a super nice person. So I am biased. But her wonderful persona is not why she should have been elected (trust me, nice people have no place in a SBOE hearing). Her experience as an educator and her defense of evidence-based science curricula is, however. It is now unlikely that there will be a serious challenge or re-analysis of either the social studies or science standards in Texas. This means that students in Texas will likely have to continue discussing the “strengths and weaknesses of evolution” an idea that, in addition to being absolutely meaningless, has been refuted to the nth degree by expert scientists and educators.
Some have said that this SBOE election sent a message that Texans don’t want Dunbars and McLeroys deciding their children’s education. I disagree. In a race where most people are simply ignorant (sorry, but most people just don’t follow this level of elections) of who they are voting for, they will choose the party they are most comfortable with. It’s nothing new in SBOE races, and this year was subject to the double-curse where being a Democrat in Texas was on par with having three heads and a Communist party membership card.
Now we have a GOP trifecta controlling Texas politics (Governor, House and Senate) and redistricting is right around the corner. All 15 SBOE seats will be up for election in 2012, and something tells me that the lines aren’t going to be drawn in a more friendly manner the next time around. I don’t mean to say that a GOP SBOE member can’t be a sensible defender of evidence-based science education, but when the most extreme elements of a party become its most powerful ones, the calculated moderate is the first casualty. Any additional anti-science energy directed at Washington (ahem, climate science hearings, anyone?) will certainly make the problem worse here at home. So you’ll pardon me if I don’t do cartwheels for the immediate outlook for science in Texas schools.
It’s going to be a long battle in the next couple of years to ensure that qualified educators and science supporters continue to have a place on the board, that the opinions and recommendations of scientists actually make it into education standards (shocking concept, no?) and maybe even that being a Democrat in Texas becomes something less than a diagnosis of political leprosy. It’s your kids’ future . . . just once try to put the right people in charge of it.