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Scientists: How do ethics and culture shape your work?

Recoding Innovation is a National Science Foundation-funded documentary that's basically about the anthropology of science and engineering.

If you're a scientist or an engineer, you can participate. How does your culture, values, and beliefs make your work happen? The idea here is that ethics aren't something that hold science back. Instead, applying ethics helps scientists and engineers be innovative. It's a cool idea, and I'm looking forward to watching the finished documentary. The video above includes a short example of the kind of stories the editors are looking for.

Submit your story by January 1.

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Neil DeGrasse Tyson interviewed by out-of-character Stephen Colbert

The Kimberley Academy in Montclair, New Jersey hosted a fascinating, one-hour chat between Neil DeGrasse Tyson -- Hayden Planetarium director, TV science host, and all-round good guy -- with Stephen Colbert in a rare, out-of-character appearance.

Stephen Colbert Interview - Montclair Kimberley Academy (via Kottke)

Representative from Burzynski Clinic sends aggressive legal threats to skeptics who question "antineoplaston" cancer therapy

Houston's Burzynski Clinic is a cancer-treatment facility specializing in "antineoplaston therapy," a treatment involving urine developed 34 years ago by the clinic's founder, Stanislaw Burzynski. Mr Burzynski characterizes his treatments as "clinical trials." After 34 years' worth of these trials, I can find no record of randomized double-blind studies demonstrating this treatment's efficacy being published.

Many people are skeptical of "antineoplaston therapy," which has led to several skeptical posts about the clinic, and the ethics of offering an unproven treatment (which can cost £200,000, a fact that came to light when a UK family ran a fundraiser to get their child treated there) to families who fear for their loved ones' lives. An apparent representative of the clinic calling himself Marc Stephens has written to several of these skeptics threatening them with libel claims. In one case, he apparently sent a letter to the father of a newborn, threatening not just the critic, but his critic's family.

The people who've received missives from Mr Stephens can't locate any indications of his being admitted to the bar in Texas, though he implies that he is a lawyer ("So, when I present to the juror that my client and his cancer treatment has went up against 5 Grand Juries which involved the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Cancer Institute (NCI), Aetna Life Insurance, Emprise, Inc., Texas State Medical Board, and the United States Government, and was found not guilty in all 5 cases, you will wish you never wrote your article").

Whether or not Mr Stephens is a lawyer, his responses to several skeptics who questioned his "client"'s science are not, in my opinion, in keeping with good science or good public policy. The world of science has no room for angry threats when a claim is put forward. The scientific method demands that skepticism be rebutted with proof, not threats. On seeing this, I am led to the opinion that these threats are being offered because the proof isn't there.

I also stand with the scientists and skeptics who find themselves facing aggressive, hyperbolic legal threats for doing what we should all do: carefully research and debate matters relating to life-or-death health issues. No doctor should respond to critics in this way. No lawyer should address potential litigants this way. In my opinion, these are serious ethical breaches, and in my opinion, "antineoplaston therapy" is almost certainly without merit. I urge anyone considering spending their money at the Burzynski Clinic to carefully read the notes attributed to the clinic's representative and ask yourself why a clinic with a sound scientific footing would respond to critics with threats, not proof.

All articles and videos posted from your little network are being forwarded to local authorities, as well as local counsel. It is your responsibility to understand when you brake[sic] the law. I am only obligated to show you in court. I am giving you final warning to shut the article down. The days of no one pursuing you is over. Quackwatch, Ratbags, and the rest of you Skeptics days are numbered...

If you had no history of lying, and if you were not apart of a fraud network I would take the time to explain your article word for word, but you already know what defamation is. I've already recorded all of your articles from previous years as well as legal notice sent by other attorneys for different matters. As I mentioned, I am not playing games with you. You have a history of being stubborn which will play right into my hands. Be smart and considerate for your family and new child, and shut the article down..Immediately. FINAL WARNING.

From Ratbags: Although many citizens do not yet realize it, comments made to chat boards, newsgroups and even mailing lists are all forms of publication. Criticisms of companies or their goods can be a basis for libel charges if the poster misrepresents facts, or fails to qualify his or her post as opinion. [ed: this is incorrect. In the USA, the Communications Decency Act immunizes people from libel claims arising from message boards and similar]...

Ratman.....SIGN THE AGREEMENT. I've been asking you for WEEKS now. If you are so sure my client is a quack, fraud, and a criminal sign. I also reduced the legal language so you would not put your rat tale between your cowardly skinny legs, and hide behind your mouse by clicking on the X to close my email request.

My agreement is posted on your website you forgot?? Instead of signing a burzynski petition sign my agreement to disclose all Burzynski information to you, which by the way is already available to the public and you know it. That is why you are not signing. Skeptics are afraid of the truth, which is why you are a skeptic in the first place. A Skeptic is someone who habitually doubts accepted beliefs. Your network even had to create your own dictionary to hide from the true meaning..hilarious. The FDA, NCI all agreed my client and his treatment works, and is non-toxic. Sign the agreement and I will show you this in writing. Hint: Just look in court orders and you will find the answer.

From Anaximperator: View the MEDICAL RECORDS of the patients on the website. I am not politically you will not receive a sugar coated response from me. You are disrespectful and ignorant. DO THE RESEARCH. How about talking to the little kids that had brain cancer. How about looking at the news that followed them from initial diagnosis to being CANCER FREE.

I demand an apology from you on this matter. As well as reposting your answer after you do your research. The people you claim are DEAD are ALIVE and that is called DEFAMATION OF CHARACTER. The patients of Dr. Burzynski are in the public eye as well as your comment about them, and you could be held liable for your “MEDICAL ADVISE”, and defamation of character. I recorded the screen with your comment as well as conducted research to, if necessary, file a legal suit if your comment is not corrected immediately. These people have families and you are causing great emotional distress to them by your uneducated comments and medical advise. Thank you. Marc Stephens

I would also like to take this opportunity to remind Mr Stephens that we have a long, honorable tradition of vigorously defending ourselves against legal threats and winning substantial costs from those who bring them.

Further, I would remind Mr Stephens of the principle that recipients of legal threats can and do ask courts to rule on those threats, and that it isn't uncommon for the court to award costs to recipients of threats in the event that the threats are found to be without merit.

Finally, I believe Mr Stephens should take note of the Streisand Effect.

Threats from The Burzynski Clinic (Thanks, Box!)

Animals in space

Once upon a time, people sent monkeys and dogs into the stratosphere as test subjects aboard rockets we weren't yet willing to put a human being on top of. We also used mice to gauge how microgravity was likely to affect humans, as seen in the old video clip above.

Today, animals still go into space, but for very different reasons. And NASA's top veterinarians have developed far more stringent guidelines governing how research animals in space can be treated. The rules are aimed at finding a good balance between the desire to be humane, the need to dissect most of the creatures that do go into space, and the constraints of working in a cramped environment.

NASA's use of animal astronauts has changed along with the culture, according to Dunlap. "We've become more compassionate with time, more aware of seeing and making sure that animals get humanely treated." The agency is unlikely ever to return to the days of flying monkeys and chimpanzees. Other than humans, mice are the highest-order animal currently being sent into space. They provide the best balance of sample size (more tissue and bone structure to study) and cage logistics: their small cages are easier to store in a cramped cabin and to provide with ample air circulation.

The mice brought back this summer on Atlantis were part of a medical study by pharmaceutical company Amgen that uses weightlessness to look at bone loss, which is worsened by the absence of gravitational stress on the skeleton. Most animal research in space is geared toward using analogous animal physiology to extrapolate the effects of microgravity on astronaut health. Amgen also hopes to use the mouse study to improve its osteoporosis drugs used on Earth.

Animals can spend months living in space before returning to Earth for analysis. Most are tucked away in experiment racks that are stowed like drawers. The crew only has to check on the animals once a day to make sure they're healthy. But if the animals become sick in orbit, there's little the crew members can do. "We have looked into trying to fly veterinary kits to treat animals," says Dunlap. "But it just becomes problematic, because if you have syringes and needles that you would use to treat an animal, then the safety folks get concerned. They don't want a crew member getting stuck or bitten."

(Via Heather Gross)

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The science and ethics of digital war

From the Department of Terrible Ideas: The Washington Post has a must-read story up reporting on research that promises to someday make military drones fully automated. Yes, that's right, drones that kill based on software such as facial recognition, rather than any direct human command.

I know the obvious thing to do here is make Skynet jokes. But, frankly, there are plenty of problems with this without welcoming our robotic overlords. Say, for instance, this issue, which the Post broaches with a note of wry eyebrow-raising:

The prospect of machines able to perceive, reason and act in unscripted environments presents a challenge to the current understanding of international humanitarian law.

To say the least.

But here's the really interesting thing about this story: Arms control ethicists are trying to deal with it before it exists, rather than after-the-fact.

In Berlin last year, a group of robotic engineers, philosophers and human rights activists formed the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC) and said such technologies might tempt policymakers to think war can be less bloody.

Some experts also worry that hostile states or terrorist organizations could hack robotic systems and redirect them. Malfunctions also are a problem: In South Africa in 2007, a semiautonomous cannon fatally shot nine friendly soldiers.

The ICRAC would like to see an international treaty, such as the one banning antipersonnel mines, that would outlaw some autonomous lethal machines. Such an agreement could still allow automated antimissile systems.

“The question is whether systems are capable of discrimination,” said Peter Asaro, a founder of the ICRAC and a professor at the New School in New York who teaches a course on digital war. “The good technology is far off, but technology that doesn’t work well is already out there. The worry is that these systems are going to be pushed out too soon, and they make a lot of mistakes, and those mistakes are going to be atrocities.”


Also: If you're confused about the choice of photo, look to the right of the guy's head, about the middle of the image.

Image: Droning, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from oddwick's photostream

Project Nim: heartbreaking film on animal ethics, and academic arrogance

[Video Link] I went to see the documentary Project Nim last night at the advice of a friend, and would like to recommend it to all who read Boing Boing. James Marsh (Man on Wire) directed. Be prepared to cry or require hugs afterwards. Above, the trailer. It's in theaters throughout the USA now.

I was talking about it with Google+ followers last night, and one shared this review which squares with my own reaction. You can watch the first 6 minutes of the film here. The film is based on Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human, by Elizabeth Hess, who consulted on the film.

Without spoiling too much, I'd just like to share that the most upbeat takeaways for me were: Deadheads really can be awesome people. And, chimps like weed.