Saturday, January 31, 2009

I see your pain - or do I?

The January 9, 2009 issue of Science has an interesting report on a conference recently held at Stanford University Law School on Neuroimaging, Pain and the Law. The conference dealt with the applicability of neuroimaging methods to the law. Prominent in the discussions is whether functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is capable of providing reliable information about pain. Given that pain is an issue in about half of all tort cases, including personal injury cases, a reliable method of measuring pain would provide highly relevant evidence. People experiencing real pain are generally unable to prove it, or convey how much pain they have. People with natural acting skills are often able to convincingly fake pain.
Science is once again claimed by some to provide probative evidence in our legal system, as it has so often in the past. Perhaps the closest contemporary analogy is the use of DNA analysis for identification of individuals. There, after many years, DNA evidence has become firmly established as reliable and relevant to many legal proceedings. Neuroimaging, however, is not so well established. The idea behind the technique is that cells in the brain that are in active use consume oxygen at an increased rate, and experience greater blood flow. The fMRI method effectively senses a change in the ratio of oxygenated hemoglobin to deoxygenated hemoglobin, which is taken to be a measure of cellular activity. The fMRI signals are eventually displayed as a two-dimensional representation, a cross-section of the brain, in which the active regions are lighted up. There are many open questions about interpretations of the images. One of the more obvious is: which regions of the brain, if any, are uniquely associated with pain sensation? Another has to do with how directly and rapidly the sensation of pain is expressed as increased cellular activity. Still a third is: can a person produce a convincing image of pain merely by conjuring up vivid thoughts of pain? These and other outstanding issues are being addressed on a continuing basis by highly active research programs throughout the world.
Definitive answers to many questions that have arisen in the use and interpretation of fMRI as a general measure of brain activity are lacking. That, however, has not impeded an avalanche of studies using the technique in hopes of finding answers to all sorts of questions in cognitive sciences and medicine. Many of these studies will eventually be advanced as potential evidence in legal proceedings. It will then be up to the judge, usually, to determine whether it should be admitted, using as guidelines the Federal Rules of Evidence and prior court cases. Among these the Daubert ruling of the Supreme Court has been highly influential. The Rules of Evidence and the Daubert ruling place a great deal of responsibility on the judge to understand enough of the science and methodology to determine whether the evidence will be conducive to finding the facts, or whether instead it could be misleading and prejudicial.
When the scientists working in a relatively new area such as fMRI are not in consensual agreement on the interpretations, reliability and details of best practice, science is unable to exercise an effective expert authority. If fMRI is pushed forward in its present state of development as reliable science it could easily come to be seen as pseudoscience, possessing a semblance of rigor that it in fact lacks. Science’s authority in society as a source of reliable knowledge of the natural world depends on many factors, among them the perception that science can attain truthful knowledge. The search for new knowledge, the evaluation of new results and the promulgation of those results within the science community is maintained by processes of internal control within the scientific community, such as peer review of submitted articles for publication, and various mechanisms for identifying the most significant new work. These processes work tolerably well, but they apply only indirectly to the communication of science to the larger society.
Scientists are like everyone else in wishing for recognition of their work by others; it should be no surprise that they sometimes bypass science’s normal review processes in promoting their work to non-scientists. We thus often see reports of studies that suggest new materials, medical treatments, tests and even potential cures when in fact the work is controversial, not fully corroborated or just plain slipshod. At times the science involved carries important public policy implications, touches on sensitive areas from an ethical perspective or may involve applications in the legal area, as with fMRI. Then the public notice it attracts, along with the evident conflicts within science regarding the meaning of the work or its significance, raises doubts in the public mind about science’s epistemic authority. For this reason, the scientific establishment has an interest in minimizing such public conflicts. One method for doing this is to have widely recognized panels of experts study the issues in controversial cases and issue reports of findings. The National Academies are regularly called upon to do this. They perform a unique public service by bringing together committees of experts in all areas of scientific and technological endeavor. These experts serve pro bono to address critical national issues and give advice to the federal government and the public. We can be sure that before long it will be necessary to convene a panel to assess the capacity of fMRI studies to reliably detect and measure the extent to which people experience pain. Until then, and perhaps even after such a report has issued, judges and juries will have to struggle with assimilating yet one more new body of scientific knowledge into our justice system.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Updike passes

The New York Times today published an obituary for John Updike, the novelist who opened a window on an important segment of American society during the past half century. It was populated with mainly white folk who struggled to accept the lives they led for the good lives they were. It was an important element in his fiction that many of his characters lived in some degree of fear of the Lord. Updike’s obituary contains this quote: ''I am very prone to accept all that the scientists tell us, the truth of it, the authority of the efforts of all the men and woman (sic) spent trying to understand more about atoms and molecules. But I can't quite make the leap of unfaith, as it were, and say, `This is it. Carpe diem (seize the day), and tough luck.'''

These two sentences tell us a lot us about John Updike’s understanding of the relationship between science and religious beliefs. He senses the dichotomy inherent in holding religious convictions of the sort embodied in his variety of American Protestantism while simultaneously accepting the capacity of science to tell us with full authority more and more about the nature of the natural world. We hear from many quarters that science and religion are not in conflict; one can be simultaneously a believer and fully naturalistic. But Updike knew that when one is pressed it is possible to subscribe to only one authority. If you are into scientific rationalism there is precious little space left for traditional religious faith.

I was disappointed by what I take to be Updike’s belief that fully surrendering to the authority of science means that one is thereby free of certain constraints on behavior, that it would be OK to just cut loose. After all, what have you got to lose? The notion that religion, but not naturalistic thought, can act as a brake on our baser instincts strikes me as pretty hackneyed. It’s something that Rabbit Angstrom might have come up with, but I expected better from his creator. John Updike was a fine writer, but in acceding to the conventional story of religion’s role he missed the chance to explore a deeper and more interesting theme in contemporary life: Slowly but surely the authority of science is usurping that of organized religion.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Endangered professoriate?

In a recent New York Times, Stanley Fish wrote a column called “The Last Professor”. It was prompted in part by a new book . “The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities”. The general theme of the book and Fish’s column is that the traditional model of a university populated by a tenured or tenure-track faculty teaching humanities and other subjects that may not connect directly with the economic world outside the campus is –indeed, has been – on the way out, and the trend will continue. Donoghue paints a grim picture of a stark contrast between those who espouse a life of the mind apart from practical, economic considerations and those for whom the humanities are a preoccupation of an effete and largely dispensable group.

But it seems to me that things are more nuanced than Donoghue’s bleak ruminations would suggest. He mentions Andrew Carnegie as an example of someone with no patience for “dead languages” and presumably other forms of learning that stand apart from practical use. Yet in 1902 Carnegie founded the Carnegie Institution, dedicated to scientific discovery “in the broadest and most liberal manner.” The philosophy was and is to devote the institution’s resources to “exceptional” individuals so that they can explore the most intriguing scientific questions in an atmosphere of complete freedom. Yes, it is true that the Institution had no place for humanists. However, that same Andrew Carnegie built more than 2500 libraries around the world, dedicated to self-improvement through learning.

Fish’s interesting post generated 163 comments before further posting was cut off. A good many were from anguished younger scholars pursuing studies in the humanities, sorrowful that their dreams of becoming a professor in some nice academic setting would never be realized. I sympathize with their concerns, but society does not owe anyone a living just because they have a passion for some field of activity. Americans have historically been very practical-minded with respect to institutions of higher education. This was especially true of the public universities that came into existence in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Those institutions were justified by their promise to provide skills that would answer to the needs of society. Basic, long-term research and humanistic scholarship were introduced over many objections, and only gradually took hold. The argument is made that study of the humanities can be rewarding for those who invest in it. However, the benefits of the study of history, philosophy and literature: a capacity for analytic reasoning, the ability to assimilate and organize information, and to express oneself lucidly and with some degree of grace, are too often not made evident to those who study the humanities. As higher education has become an accepted rite of passage for an increasing fraction of the nation’s young, it is perhaps not so surprising that the emphasis should shift more toward the most obvious social returns on society’s investment in that education.

Fish begins his column with this quote: “In previous columns and in a recent book I have argued that higher education, properly understood, is distinguished by the absence of a direct and designed relationship between its activities and measurable effects in the world.” With all due respect, I think this notion leads us in the wrong direction. All humanistic studies implicate the world outside ourselves. It is the task of education to show the student what those implications are, how they bear upon everyday life. This requirement is as true for the sciences as it is for the humanities. A chemistry class that consists mainly in drilling on more or less rote methods for solving problems and memorizing facts and figures, as opposed to emphasizing the methods used in science to learn about the world, and the larger social implications of the current state of knowledge of chemistry, is no more “practical” than a poetry course that fails to dig beneath the poets’ words.

Donoghue provides many facts and figures to support his thesis, and I will not venture to contest them. A related source of information on this subject is the Humanities Indicators, a publication of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. There is a lot to be said on this topic, but this is enough for now.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Perchlorate and bankruptcy

This is a short followup on my post of yesterday on perchlorate in the environment. The polluting site about which I wrote, located in Henderson, Nevada, is operated by Tronox, a spinoff from Kerr-McGee, which operated the site for many years. I was surprised to learn this morning, from an article in the Las Vegas Sun , that just today, January 12, 2009, Tronox has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The article says in part that when Tronox was spun off from Kerr-McGee, it assumed responsibility for cleanup of the perchlorate production site. It further states that "In court filings, attorneys for Tronox said the primary reason for the bankruptcy filing is the company's financial responsibility for environmental cleanup efforts at and around its BMI plant."

I don't know whether bankruptcy protection will have the effect in this case of releasing the company from its cleanup obligations. There is certainly plenty of precedent for corporate dodging of this kind, as evidenced by the investigations that U. S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and others have undertaken. We will have to see what follows from this latest development.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Perchlorate - soluble salt, not so solvable pollutant

Perchlorate is an inorganic ion, analogous to chloride or sulfate, found in perchlorate salts. Perchlorates are used in explosives or as a component of rocket fuels and fireworks, because under the right conditions they are powerful oxidizing agents. They are manufactured mainly for use by the military and NASA. Over many decades of their manufacture, particularly in the Cold War years following World War II, perchlorate salts were dumped into waste ponds or discarded in other ways. Because perchlorates are quite soluble in water, they readily found their way into groundwater systems. In 2007 the General Accounting Office (GAO) reported the results of a national survey of sites identified as having a significant concentration of perchlorate in the water. Of the nearly 400 sites identified, 153 were public drinking water supplies, serving up to about 10 million people.

Is perchlorate dangerous? It appears that the only recognized source of potential risk implicates the thyroid. It turns out that perchlorate ion looks to the thyroid gland a lot like iodide ion, which is essential to its proper functioning. So if the perchlorate level in the body gets high enough, the perchlorate ion could block iodide from the place it needs to be, thus impairing proper thyroid function. However, the levels of perchlorate found in most water supplies do not pose a problem for adults. They could, however, be a health threat to very young children and pregnant women.

At the behest of environmental and public interest health groups, the National Academies of Science (NAS) convened a panel of experts to look at the issues. The committee of experts eventually recommended a reference daily dose, let’s call it REF-d, which they believed could be taken in over a lifetime without appreciable risk of deleterious effects. The experts also indicated that this level of exposure would not cause adverse effects on children or pregnant women.

On a couple of occasions, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has reported on perchlorate to Congressional Committees. In 2007 the CDC reported that in a national survey of substances found in urine samples, all 2820 participants in the survey were found to have measurable levels of perchlorate. However, only a handful had levels exceeding the REF-d proposed by the NAS panel. So there seems to be little cause for great concern for the general population. However, children showed higher levels of perchlorate than adults. Further, for the 36 percent of women who had relatively low iodine levels in their urine, higher perchlorate levels were associated with lower levels of two key thyroid hormones. This is particularly significant for pregnant women, because low levels of thyroid hormones are associated with neurodevelopmental impairments in the fetus.

Perchlorate is largely a legacy pollutant. The plants that were built to manufacture it in the mid-twentieth century are largely closed, or if they still produce perchlorates operate with much stricter environmental rules than in the past. But there is a lot of perchlorate in the ground. One of the best-known cases concerns a plant in Henderson, Nevada, near Las Vegas, built under a U. S. Navy contract in the 1950s. The navy eventually sold the plant to an industrial firm and it passed some years later into the hands of Kerr-McGee Chemical company. The plant is no longer active but its operations over time left a huge amount of perchlorate salts in the ground around the plant. It’s a long story I needn’t recite here, but suffice to say that there is a continuing flow of perchlorate-laden water from around that plant into Lake Mead just above Hoover Dam, and thence into the Colorado river. All the water in that river system, used to provide drinking water and crop irrigation, from Hoover Dam to the Mexican border, contains varying levels of perchlorate, but generally in the range below about 15 parts per billion. The states that draw their water from the Colorado river at one stage or another have benchmark standards that vary from 1 part per billion for New Mexico to 4 parts per billion for California to 14 parts per billion for Arizona.

So shouldn’t the EPA be involved here? Well, the EPA doesn’t seem to have found this an interesting topic for investigation. In October of 2008 it announced that it would not regulate perchlorate in drinking water, arguing that “there is not a meaningful opportunity for health risk reduction”. The rationale is that perchlorate levels are low in most public drinking-water systems. The decision not to move toward setting a regulatory standard was happily received by governmental agencies such as NASA and Defense, which- in a perfect mimicking of industrial responses - detest having to divert money from new and exciting projects to the tiresome business of cleaning up messes left in the past. But it was not applauded by environmental and public health advocates such as Earthjustice. After much dithering, EPA has issued a new statement that says in effect that perhaps they moved too fast.

But what rhetorical firepower is delivered in dealing with these issues! In the winter 2008 issue of In Brief, Earthustice’s magazine, the article dealing with this topic is headed: “Rocket Fuel in your Drinking Water?” Other potent phraseology includes: “…toxic legacy of the cold water.” “Weapons makers will benefit at the expense of millions of Americans’ drinking water spiked with rocket fuel.” I’m a big fan and supporter of Earthjustice, but all this hyperbole seems a little over the top, in light of the National Academies report, and the work of the GAO and CDC.

Further, the story is more nuanced than Earthjustice’s perspective would suggest. Kerr-McGee began many years ago to clean up the Henderson, Nevada site, and has successfully sued the U. S. Government to pay for some of its share in the costs. In 2005 Tronox, the successor company to Kerr-McGee, received $20.5 million in a settlement with the government. By the end of 2005, Tronox has spent $122 million on the cleanup, and expected to spend considerably more in the following years. However, as reported by Cheryl Hogue in the August 18, 2003 issue of Chemical and Engineering News, the process of cleanup is necessarily slow; you can’t just suck all the contaminated water out of the ground and somehow purge it of perchlorate. The level in the water leaching into Lake Meade will more rapidly decline over time as a result of the cleanup, but there will be some perchlorate in the Colorado River for decades to come. Furthermore, because so much of the water is used in southern California for irrigation of crops, the lettuce, table grapes and other foods grown in the region that we all eat contain some level of perchlorate.

Clearly, we need more knowledge of the health effects of perchlorate in drinking water and the food supply. Here is a case where science can exercise an expert authority on an issue of broad public concern. Not easy to do when the issue is clouded with controversy and conflicting special interests. It’s also not easy to do when the funds for carrying out needed studies are not available. More urgently, all the agencies that can play a role, governmental and otherwise, should make sure that women who contemplate becoming pregnant or are pregnant understand the need to maintain a healthy level of thyroid activity. Public education is also one of science’s roles. We can inform people who are drinking water that has a relatively high level of perchlorate, to assuage needless fears and advise on what they should do to maintain good health.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Praying and poker

Do religious people stand to be better poker players than non-religious?

I've been thinking of late on the question of how science can uphold standards in presenting the results of scientific work in the larger public domain. Here's something I picked up on from the New York Times a day or so ago. Michael McCullough and a fellow psychologist at the University of Miami have in press a paper in an upcoming issue of the Psychological Bulletin, entitled "Religion, Self-Regulation, and Self-Control: Associations, Explanations and Implications". The authors ask whether the available data permit conclusions about whether religion's influences on health, well-being and social behavior can be ascribed to its influences on self-control and self-regulation. This is a big paper, reviewing a large body of data from various sources. The Times piece about the paper appears in John Tierney's column. Tierney offers readers a chance to weigh in on the issues in TierneyLab.

I can't point to egregious faults in the paper itself or Tierney's report on it, but there is a looseness of language throughout that bothers me. It is not easy to establish scientifically valid conclusions on questions that revolve around human behavior and thought. Much of the evidence is in the form of data from surveys. But it can be difficult to trace through seemingly sound survey data to something that can reliably be proposed as a cause and effect relationship. There simply doesn't seem to be a way to test the question of whether religion, or religious observation, is causally related to particular attitudes and behaviors. To cite just one bit of non-survey evidence adduced, there is a bit in the paper about whether religious or spiritual behaviors promote self-regulation. One of the studies cited had "experienced meditators or "pray-ers" engage in meditation during functional imaging brain scans." It is a bit unclear from the paper just what is being compared with what, but in any event, I wonder what the results have to do with religion. I think of myself as moderately meditative, and I think I'm also highly self-regulated and self-controlled. But I don't think of my meditative activity as religious in nature.

The complexity of human social interactions and situations makes for tough going in moving from correlations to causal implications. Many people are religious because they were brought up that way, and they continue in those traditions. Many others may have been brought up in a religious tradition, but have rejected it in whole or part in adulthood. If these latter turn out to be well-balanced people with high levels of self-control, empathy, generosity and many other good characteristics, are all those virtues ascribable to their religious upbringing? When we look at people generally how do we factor in the powerful roles of socio-economic environment on parenting and other cultural forces that make for whether one is exposed to a religious influence, or to examples of altruism, kindness, generosity in other contexts? And what about the fact that religion seems to come in a wide range of colors and flavors? In short, is this paper really testing scientifically interesting questions? Tierney doesn’t allude to these kinds of difficulties in his column.

Scientists are by no means of one mind on the question of what constitutes valid scientific evidence. Science prides itself on having internal mechanisms of quality control, such as peer review. Even that mechanism, however, is only as good as the intellectual standards that prevail within each particular science community. Thus, “scientific opinions” on topics of societal concern (climate change, stem cell research, religion and emotional health) are not of uniform quality. Physical and natural scientists tend to dismiss much social science work as being “soft”: not based on replicable experimentation, often presenting conclusions that seem to rest on rather sketchy distinctions or slim statistical margins. But it is all too easy for physical and natural scientists who normally deal with highly controlled laboratory situations, to find fault with empirical social science research. At the same time, because so much work in the human sciences finds a receptive audience with non-scientists, sometimes too much attention is paid to work that is not really very good, or is over-interpreted by the media. Here is yet another challenge for science in its relations with the larger society: How to ensure that the science that makes it into the public sphere meets high standards of significance and reliability.