Change A Teen Girl’s Life: Mentor

SEEKING WRITERS, EDITORS, DESIGNERS AS VIRTUAL MENTORS:

Do you have a gift for communicating science and math to the public? Our teens need you.

In our first year, we learned first-hand what any teacher or parent can tell you: teens need a LOT of help with their writing. It took an entire semester to get our first group to write an article they could be proud of. The second semester we still only had one of our students actually produce work she felt was worthy of publication. With close mentoring, Hannah produced a riveting article on the controversy around sugar “addiction,” which you can read, here.

Hannah needed what every good writer needs: a good editor. She needed someone to ask the right questions, nurture her confidence as a writer and help her find her voice. It was well worth it; once Huffington Post ran this piece, Hannah’s passion for science reporting was set in stone. We are looking for writing mentors that can help us provide each of our students with a similar sense of pride – and a similar leg-up, academically. Do you remember who mentored you, and how it impacted your life and career trajectory? Become a catalyst for an inner-city girl and help her realize her full potential. Click here to volunteer.

Why Joshua Volunteers on our Board

I can recall biology lectures during college where the information presented was never questioned. And why would it be? The theories and facts came down almost as if from on high, from our wise professors and dense textbooks. There was no discussion of the context of scientific history, only the highlights—this is how we learned DNA forms the basis of life, that is how we learned to cure a disease. The participants mattered only in the sense of having a name to chisel onto the Nobel Prize. But that isn’t how science works in the real world. Reducing science to its highlights prevents many of us from understanding that science is as fractious and colorful as the rest of life. Moreover, it prevents us from realizing that we still have the opportunity to play a part in modern science. We make implicit value judgments when we buy smartphones, video game consoles, and organic food, and this in turn helps determine what fields deserve more research money. BetterBio exists to make those connections clearer, and to provide all of us a chance to more consciously contribute to the course of scientific progress. What exactly do I mean by that? Just look around you!

The fruits of our collective human struggle to make the world more hospitable to our leisure time lay in literally every object in our homes. The fruits in your refrigerator have a specific shape and flavor crafted by human hands for ease of collection and heightened enjoyment. The ink on the pages of the books on your shelves was decided to have the right balance of readability, cost and longevity of use. The clock on your wall has a history stretching back to the beginnings of human experience. The very way we carve up life into days and seconds may seem like a fundamental fact about life, but the system was crafted through thousands of years of use and muddled through alternate versions that could very well have become the standard themselves. In short, science is our struggle to understand our lives. In that sense science is more than a history of dusty knowledge—science is a reflection upon how well we desire to know ourselves.

These examples also point out how even the things we sometimes think of as unchangeable are human-created, and so always subject to change. They are actually our relatively recent attempts to better accommodate the world as it actually is, with our vision of how we would like it to be. Not understanding the very human reasoning behind our modern world can lead one to ask what would at first appear to be reasonable questions: will the aspartame in my diet soda cause cancer? Will the vaccination the state requires my child to get put her health at risk? Does my birth control lead to breast cancer? Without the scientific literacy to parse which sources of information are likely to provide valid answers to these questions can lead to unfortunate and incorrect “answers.” A very understandable plea for information can instead lead to forgoing some of the pinnacles of human achievement. For my own part, I worry about a blossoming anti-intellectualism that threatens to discredit advances before they would otherwise be rightly trumpeted. So how can BetterBio help craft your ability to sift through competing sources of information?

Our system of education teaches children more than mere facts. At its best, our schools help children construct a system of how to think, and inspire a lifelong commitment to learning about and interacting with the wider world. But the same curiosity we reward in children is often derided in adults. It is not wrong to ask questions about the world—the failure comes not in asking the question, but in deciding on an inappropriate answer. Simply put, no one person can know everything. Historians have argued that a few individuals could lay claim to the title of “the last person to know everything” but I will tell you that all candidates died in the early 1800s. No one today could claim to be that well-read, and certainly not in terms of science. And while the internet provides the raw tools necessary for truly democratic access to understanding our modern world, the internet has also leveled the intellectual field—every kernel of information, no matter how poorly researched or illogical in fact, is a click away. It has never been more important to understand how information is created, how science corrects itself even as it expands what we know about the universe and ourselves, and the sometimes faulty ways in which we attempt to come to terms with that knowledge. These reasons are why BetterBio was started. At every single moment, the internet provides us access to more and more information. Without the proper search tools on the internet and between our own two ears, that repository of knowledge would remain as uninviting to the lay reader as the average graduate-level science textbook.

Why Matt Volunteers as an Editor

As someone who basically grew up in concert with the Internet, I’ve witnessed how much the world can change – mostly for the better – when people are given the means and motive to work together. And as biotechnology has grown from its first stirrings in the 1970s (a decade or so before I was born) to pervading every aspect of our lives in 2011, I’m also extremely optimistic about where it will ultimately lead.

That’s not to say that I don’t see the potential problems. In fact, many problems with biotech are strewn across the news every day. Farmers and seed companies are battling each other in the courts over intellectual property. Patients whose tissues are used in medical research are unable to realize the benefits of breakthroughs they helped to produce. Many, or most, of the wonderful medicines that have been produced over the last couple decades remain out of reach for people in need all over the world. And so on…

The three examples I listed all follow a similar pattern: the technologies themselves have (mostly) been successful, but not everyone who stands to benefit from them has done so. That’s why I believe that BetterBio is so important, and why I’m optimistic about the future of biotech as a whole.

We are quickly approaching the day when all of us can shape the effects of biotech on our own lives. You can think of it much like computers and the Internet, just offset by a couple of decades. (Indeed, none of this would be possible in a world where the Internet didn’t exist!) As we at BetterBio hope to show you over the next few months, people are using what we have learned about the living world to find their own solutions to the problems that ail us. Farmers will use genetics to engineer their own crops best suited to the local environment. We’ll all have a catalog of our own DNA, and be able to read this blueprint to understand the best ways to keep ourselves healthy. We can monitor our own backyards, and the wild worlds beyond, for the effects of pollution, without being forced to place our trust in industry or government.

And in a world where these developments are just around the corner–a few years to a few decades away–we will all become biotechnologists in one way or another. Of course, new innovations come with their own new dilemmas, making it especially important for as many people as possible to help shape their impact. Let’s make sure that this time, we all participate in making biotech work for us, and reap the rewards that have too often been denied.

Why Michael Volunteers His Statistical Power

THERE IS SOMETHING IN YOUR MEDICINE CABINET RIGHT NOW THAT COULD BE KILLING YOU!!!!!

As the only statistician that anyone I know seems to know, I get a lot of questions from family and friends about research studies that they’ve seen on the news, or have heard about. I’m sometimes able to give advice on the spot, but often I like to look at the studies and see whether they make sense or not.  They often don’t.  Or at least the bottom line that is reported on the news is not what the study actually says.  AT ALL!

A couple of years ago, Ms. Britton and I were getting brunch when she turned to me:

“I know you use Listerine, you really shouldn’t.  I just read that using Listerine increases the risk of oral cancer.”

Yes, I use Listerine, and no, I’m not worried about oral cancer.  I replied: “What did the study actually say, because it sounds like [words that aren’t appropriate for a blog post]”.

I asked her to direct me to the article that she read so I could take a look at the study it was based on.  She directed me to this article: Mouthwash linked to cancer

Which then led me to this article:

The role of alcohol in oral carcinogenesis with particular reference to alcohol-containing mouthwashes

This article is very clear in their conclusions as they state: “There is now sufficient evidence to accept the proposition that developing oral cancer is increased or contributed to by the use of alcohol-containing mouthwashes.”

Pretty clear?  Right?  Well not so much. If we look further to the studies that this one references, the two main ones were: Alcohol-containing mouthwashes and oral cancer. Critical analysis of literature

And

Oral Health and Risk of Squamous Cell Carcinoma of the Head and Neck and Esophagus: Results of Two Multicentric Case-Control Studies

These two articles were essentially the linchpins for mouthwash as a cancer risk.”  Pretty Damning, I mean two peer-reviewed published journal articles.  One concludes: With the data we have, it has been impossible to establish a causative relation between mouthwash use and the development of oral cancer.”  The other concludes: “Our mouthwash results should be interpreted with caution, as they are limited by our recording only the frequency of use.”

WAIT!!! So how does the main article conclude, fairly emphatically, that: “There is now sufficient evidence to accept the proposition that developing oral cancer is increased or contributed to by the use of alcohol-containing mouthwashes”

It doesn’t. There might be some evidence, but even the researchers who first reported on it back away from the results quite a bit as they’re not anywhere near conclusive.

It’s like a jury convicting an alleged murderer based on an eye witness who said: “Yeah, I saw that guy there. He could have done it. He was looking shifty. There were a lot people standing around looking shifty, though. Maybe he didn’t have anything to do with it. I mean it could have been anyone. Ok, I actually didn’t really see anything.  Can I go home now?”

So what’s the problem here and how does it relate to Better Bio? Well in 5 minutes I just went from a news article, with a peer-reviewed scientific study backing it up, which concluded that mouthwash causes cancer, to the peer-reviewed scientific study saying the same thing, to the primary research sources, which contradict the strong claims of the former.

The problem is that no one in the chain of people who ok’d this story took the 5-minutes to go back and see what was really going on. That’s not reporting.  It’s sensationalizing.  The alternative isn’t sexy.  It’s not interesting to say, “There is a possibility that mouthwash causes cancer, but we really don’t know.”

We have a breakdown of our idea of what is Science. Science is not the study of facts. Science is the study of questions.  It’s the study of plausible explanations. When one explanation seems more reasonable than another we accept that explanation as “True.” If we collect more evidence or data, and find out that our explanation is no longer the most reasonable one, then we must change what we think is “True.”

We, meaning humans, used to think that the sun revolved around the earth.  This was a very reasonable hypothesis.  If one looks outside everyday, the way the sun rises and falls, it’s a more sensible explanation to say that the sun revolves around the earth, than the alternative. Humans have charted the movements of the stars (and visible planets) since the beginning of time. The geocentric system was created because it fit our observation.  The problem arises when data contradict theory. And they do. So the more we looked at the sky, the less plausible geocentrism became. Eventually it became more plausible to accept the heliocentric view of the solar system.

The thing is, it doesn’t mean that it’s true. As far as we can see, that is how the solar system works. If our observation started showing us information that contradicted our theory, then we must abandon our current theory in favor a more plausible one!

Health science seems to be afraid of this. We saw, earlier, that a little study with a small claim became a huge headline.  The truth is that we want theories and explanations so bad that we’re too willing to make claims that the data don’t necessarily support.

We must always ask: Is there something more going on here? Is there another way of explaining these results?

I ask my self these questions whenever I read science articles because I’m conditioned to.  I’ve noticed that headlines do either of two things: Scare the heck out of you or tell you that if you do X then you can live forever. Always the extremes, never nuance.

Why Better Bio? Well, we’re inundated with health news everyday, and fear sells. There is so much information and so many claims being made and sifting through the…the…[again, another word that’s not appropriate for a blog] is hard work.

With a little more knowledge on how to ask the simple questions we can all do the sifting. We can all find the snake oil salesmen. And, best of all, we can all relax a little more because we’ll be more skeptical of claims like:

THERE IS SOMETHING IN YOUR MEDICINE CABINET RIGHT NOW THAT COULD BE KILLING YOU!!!!!

Why Justin Donates His Time Teaching Video

I’m tired of science being the villain.

Science hasn’t changed, our expectations have – in more ways than one. Science is merely a method for objectively observing and categorizing the world around us. The problem is that somewhere along the line, the decision was made that it could be bought and owned just like anything else. And why not? The land is ours to mine (and bomb), the sky is ours to soar, the sea is ours to pollute, and life is ours to poach. We want what we can’t have, and we’re willing to delude ourselves in order to get it.

Today, roughly two-thirds of the funding for scientific research in the U.S. comes from private sector companies. Government funds, representing the majority of the remaining third (charities and NGO’s being only a tiny portion), are mostly spent on military research and development. And many of the government agencies that control grant money are run by people who represent corporate interests. This creates problems because with money comes the illusion of ownership. When the powers that be feel entitled to their expected outcomes, it results in studies being ignored or, worse yet, deliberately altered. This is how we end up with fiascoes like the infamous Bush EPA climate change report, laden with so much red pen that it could have been mistaken for a hastily graded homework assignment. This is not science.

Worse yet, the problem isn’t exclusively top-down. The tendency toward sensationalism and hyperbole in our 24-hour news cycle has dramatically reduced our attention spans. We expect science to give us immediate answers and we expect those answers to be AWESOME. But nine times out of ten the results of a study are complicated and based on a number of assumptions, something that doesn’t make for much of a story. Instead of preparing us for reality, journalists would rather cheat by exaggerating and obscuring the truth. Ridiculous headlines like Sleeping on your right side ‘could put your unborn baby at risk’ (which, by the way, was not supported by the actual evidence) aren’t informative. They’re insulting.

These problems have already become systemic, but we can’t afford to be complacent. We are all entitled to pursue knowledge about the world and we are all impacted by policy decisions made as a result of quackery pretending to be science. Our first step is to become informed and, more importantly, fix our expectations. Money can’t buy facts, and science is about discovery – not super-sexy action news stories.

So why BetterBio? Because science is the victim, not the villain, and it’s time for it to make a comeback. There is still plenty of good, honest research being done, but it needs to be talked about and celebrated for what it is. The more we can learn from the legitimate science out there, the better equipped we will be to identify the riff-raff. Fortunately, we’re far smarter than the mainstream media would like to give us credit for. So while they’re off crying wolf about the dangers of sleeping on the wrong side, we’ll just go ahead and do their jobs for them.