Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Bad Science

Before I get to the enormously important subject of today's post, I'll let the title do double duty by letting you know that I showed up today for my first official day as a new faculty member at a prestiggeeous university and somehow they hadn't entered the fact of my existence into the right computer. As a result, I can't get a badge, including access to my own office; a computer account; or a parking space. Without a computer account, I can't actually do anything. (I'm using my wireless modem and my own portable computer to do this post.) I have articles people have sent me that I need to read, but I can't print them. I can't upload my files from my old job to the network here, and I don't have access to any software. I could do some writing, but what I really need to do at this point is edit some documents and I can't do that.

In the old days, if I needed to read something I would have gone to the library - you know, an actual physical building with books and magazines and shit. No more. I would have written on yellow legal pads and had my secretary type it. There wasn't any software so if I wanted to analyze data I would have shuffled index cards around or done calculations with a pencil. Then it wouldn't matter if I existed in 'the system' or not. They're working on it, but in this modern world, until about 4:00 this afternoon, I'll be a nonperson.

Oh well. A commenter (anonymous -- now don't be shy) wonders what other experiments American mad scientists did on vulnerable or despised people. Actually there have been quite a few. This blog post tells much of the story. After the Nazi scientists who had used concentration camp prisoners as experimental animals were properly tried and convicted, pretty similar outrages continued in the U.S. for a long time. Prisoners were available and easy to recruit. They would be offered points for good behavior in exchange for being infected, poisoned, having their testicles irradiated (yes) or otherwise put at serious risk. Perhaps the most astonishing case is that of the Fernald "School" in Massachusetts, an institution for people with retardation, where children were fed radioactive cornflakes.

In 1977, legislation put an end to these practices and no, they don't continue as far as I know. Every institution that does federally funded research on human subjects must have an Institutional Review Board that assures that research is done ethically. In my experience they are if anything overzealous at times. But, drug companies often use for-profit IRBs and it is questionable how careful they are, since they don't want to annoy their customers. They can't get away with anything too blatant, but informed consent forms often read as though they were written by lawyers concerned with covering the asses of the experimenters and are not really comprehensible to the subjects. There are semi-professional guinea pigs who "volunteer" for research projects continually in order to receive stipends. The stipends are supposed to be compensation for time and trouble, not an incentive, but they are real money and could override desperate people's other considerations. So yes, there are still problems, the point of my previous post is that nevertheless, things have at least gotten somewhat better.

It's okay to think that sometimes, about some things.


kathy a. said...

what, nobody could get you into the system the same day? well, i guess that is consistent with something always not working right on the same day...

that link about experimentation is stomach-churning. and i know this is not the most important point, but i had no idea about diet sodas. didn't drink huge amounts of them, but i was trying hard during my pregnancies to be on top of everything, not take risks with my babies. so i drank uncaffienated diet soda. son was 2 weeks ahead of due date; i first went into labor with daughter 5 weeks ahead of due date, but lots-o-meds held that off for another week. both healthy, close enough to full term. i thought perhaps i'd inherited my mother's tendency to deliver early. it's 20-some years too late to sort that out, if it could be sorted, but wow.

kathy a. said...

* in the 1st para, i meant, "something always not working right on the first day."