At journal Cell, a focus on blogs and framing
I'm late to this news feature that appeared two weeks ago at the journal Cell, as others here at ScienceBlogs have already posted on the article. Quoted below is the section of the article that focuses on our Framing Science thesis and its relevance to science blogging:
The concept of scientists reaching out to a lay audience is not new. "Scientists are an opinionated bunch and they have given their thoughts on discoveries or events by speaking with journalists, writing letters to journals, authoring commentaries," says Matthew C. Nisbet, a professor in the School of Communication at American University in Washington DC. "Blogs provide a lot more of that commentary, but delivered almost instantaneously." According to Nisbet, blogs written by scientists provide an authoritative opinion on a topic, often within a richer context than, for example, a news article. "Science blogs are important because they continue to engage the attentive public in scientific topics," he says.
Nisbet--whose blog Framing Science ( http://scienceblogs.com/framing-science) focuses on the intersections between science, media, and politics--believes blogs are an important communication tool for the scientific community. "In the digital age, information is found based on availability rather than accuracy. If different interest groups start blogs that attack peer-reviewed science, and the scientific community does not engage in similar communication mode, they will miss an important opportunity to educate the public," he says.
In a recent article (Science 316, 56, 2007), Nisbet and colleague Chris Mooney, a correspondent for the popular science magazine Seed, wrote that "Without misrepresenting scientific information on highly contested issues, scientists must learn to actively 'frame' information to make it relevant to different audiences." In other words, instead of focusing on explaining the technical details of scientific issues, scientists should define arguments in a way that resonates with the public's "core values and assumptions." Scientist bloggers are debating the implications of this approach. Myers wrote in his blog that if he took Nisbet and Mooney's advice "I'd end up giving fluff talks that play up economic advantages and how evolution contributes to medicine... and I'd never talk about mechanisms and evidence again. That sounds like a formula for disaster to me."
What Is the Impact?
As the debate about the Nisbet-Mooney article exemplifies, blogs allow discussions of scientific issues that do not typically take place in the scientific literature. "A scientific journal is not the right vehicle for debate and discussion," says Larry Moran, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Toronto and author of the popular biochemistry textbook Principles of Biochemistry. As a case in point, Moran used his blog Sandwalk ( http://sandwalk.blogspot.com) to start a debate about evolutionary developmental biology. "There's much to criticize in the field of evolutionary developmental biology or evo-devo," leads off his March 30, 2007 entry. It continues "The thing that bugs me more than anything else is the attempt to create a general theory of evolution based entirely on a subset of living species: namely multicellular animals."
But how significant are these discussions if only a minority of scientists read blogs, or write them? "Blogs are important sources for opinion leaders, activists, and journalists. They help create a lot of the discourse out in the world," explains Nisbet. Indeed, many discussions that grab the attention of bloggers have ended up in the pages of The New York Times or in the news sections of science journals. "Blogs are having an impact because newsmakers read them," says Moran. "To some extent we are writing for science journalists. We are saying 'Here is something getting the wrong kind of coverage' or 'Here is something you should be paying attention to.'"
Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."
- Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
- Patients from low-income neighborhoods are most at risk of negative health impacts.
- Thankfully, health care professionals are not alone. Upstreamism is increasingly part of our cultural consciousness.
A plan to forgive almost a trillion dollars in debt would solve the student loan debt crisis, but can it work?
- Sen. Elizabeth Warren has just proposed a bold education reform plan that would forgive billions in student debt.
- The plan would forgive the debt held by more than 30 million Americans.
- The debt forgiveness program is one part of a larger program to make higher education more accessible.
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.
BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.
An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?
"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."
One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.
The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.
"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.
It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.
Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?
The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
In most states, LGBTQ Americans have no legal protections against discrimination in the workplace.
- The Supreme Court will decide whether the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also applies to gay and transgender people.
- The court, which currently has a probable conservative majority, will likely decide on the cases in 2020.
- Only 21 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws effectively extending the Civil Rights of 1964 to gay and transgender people.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.