Ebola is exposing the flaws in science communication

As anyone who actually pays attention to my blog (hi mom!) might have noticed, I’ve found it really difficult to get excited enough about a topic to write a post recently. There have been some neat stories out there, I’ve bookmarked them to come back to later to write on, but when the time comes to actually sit down and do it I’ve felt rather apathetic. At first I blamed it on my research workload, but that’s not really it. The truth is, it all started around the time that people started freaking out about ebola.

At first I thought, I’m not going to write about ebola. I’m not jumping into the fray; it’s been done to death. But then I would read things that would make me angry, and I would think yes, I should write about it! Then I would become apathetic again. The reason for this is best illustrated

If you don't know who this is by now, you haven't been paying attention

If you don’t know who this is by now, you haven’t been paying attention

in an article I recently read on, of all places, forbes.com. The article is a mostly a back and forth between the author and a Facebook friend. The Facebook friend posts an article about natural cures for ebola that doctors are refusing to explore. The author, Larry Husten in his own words “didn’t respond well.”

But I couldn’t disagree more. I think Mr. Husten responded perfectly. When his friend started on about the “irresponsible” behavior of one the Americans infected with ebola, Husten gave a calm and scientific explanation of how ebola is transmitted and the risk to the American population (practically zero). His friends response? “I stand by my statement.”

It seems like this should be the catchphrase for the American public. It seems that no matter what evidence is presented, we all stand by our original statement. We don’t want to believe in climate change, so none of the evidence supporting its existence is conclusive enough. We want (for whatever reason) to believe we are all going to die from ebola, and so no evidence that we are at very little danger of it can convince us otherwise. The only good thing about this particular fear is it means that many different vaccines for ebola are being rushed through human trials, which means we might actually be able to stop the outbreak in West Africa, where people actually are dying from the disease, not just afraid of maybe contracting the disease.

I have been interested in science communication because I have felt like there is a disconnect between what is being done in science and what the public know about science, and I think that is wrong and must be fixed. I think the ebola outbreak shows this to be the case more than anything. We scientists can tell people that a person with ebola isn’t contagious until they show symptoms, but the whole “just trust us we’re scientists” thing isn’t working anymore. Because of the fact that scientists, just like any other people, can make mistakes, it has caused the public to lose faith in us. Which is understandable. As scientists we are trained to not believe something just because someone says it’s true, we are told to look at their methods, make sure the way they got to that conclusion is sound and only then do we believe them. How can we blame the public for holding us to the same standards?

The problem is that even if people don’t want to believe scientists, they are still going to make decisions and act on their beliefs. Slate recently wrote an article about how conservative politicians now respond with “I’m not a scientist” when asked about the effects of climate change. If only there was some way they could have a bunch of scientists to explain to them how climate change works…

Obviously that was sarcastic, because scientists have been screaming about climate change for ages and none of them seem to be listening. But maybe that’s not entirely their fault. Is there some way we can explain our methods to non-scientists that will help them understand why we believe the things we do, or are doomed to forever be in an us vs. them situation? How do we get scientists not just talk about what they found, but how they found it, and how do we get the non-scientists to listen, understand, and form a new, more well informed opinion?


When is a parrot like a seven year old?

One of the hardest things about doing a behavioral experiment on an animal is to not anthropomorphize. Meaning, when an animal is doing something, you can’t assume anything about its behavior is remotely human. Example: say you’re studying squirrels, and squirrel one chases squirrel two off a branch. You cannot then say squirrel one doesn’t like squirrel two, or squirrel one was mad at squirrel two, all you can say is squirrel one chased squirrel two off a branch. Unfortunately, anthropomorphizing is super easy to do, especially without even realizing you’re doing it. I do it all the time with my dog Lou, sometimes for fun (like the ongoing and conflicted relationship saga he has with my friend’s beautiful border collie/aussie mix), but also sometimes completely accidentally. It’s the way some people trick themselves into thinking their pet snake loves them (sorry reptile lovers, but your scaly friend just doesn’t have an “i love you” brain), and it can be a major issue for anyone doing behavioral research.

I know, because I love behavioral research. I think behavior, human and animal alike, is one of the most fascinating topics out there. And I know first hand how easy it can be to want to believe an animal is able to feel something so bad you make yourself believe it’s true. Need an example of how this can affect research? Oh how handy, I just happen to have one in front of me!

Yesterday I read an article on Slate titled “A Parrot Passes the Marshmallow Test.” For anyone who isn’t super into behavioral science, that probably sounds like the weirdest clickbait ever. And it kind of is. But it does actually make sense if you know the back story. The marshmallow test was created by Stanford professor (woo Stanford!) Walter Mischel in the 70s and it basically goes like this: put a kid in a room with a marshmallow, tell the kid to wait until you come back and if they haven’t eaten the marshmallow by the time you get back, they get two marshmallows. Pretty simple yeah? Well, it’s apparently pretty hard if you’re seven. I’ve seen video of people doing this experiment (with gummy bears instead of marshmallows) and it’s hilarious. Kids talking themselves down from eating the candy, squirming in the chair, one loophole finder even licked the candy then put it back. Besides enjoying watching kids squirm, it turns out this way of testing self-control is a pretty good indicator of a lot of things down the road, like higher SAT scores. So if you were wondering yes, I will definitely be administering this test to my future children.

Put that SAT prep book down kid, this is all you need

Put that SAT prep book down kid, this is all you need

Anyway, as you can probably now guess from the title, a research team at Harvard University claims to have given this test to a parrot and had it successfully pass the test (they used other treats instead of marshmallows). Now unfortunately these findings haven’t been published as far as I know, but were presented at the Animal Behavior Society Meeting last month. Since I was not at said meeting I cannot speak with as much expertise on the subject as I would like. But going off of what the Slate article says, the researchers gave the parrot a cup of food, told it to wait, and after 10-15 minutes came back with a cup of even better food for the parrot, which he got if he didn’t eat the first cup of food. Now I don’t know about the scientists in charge of the study, but to me this just sounds like they taught the parrot a command and didn’t actually test his impulse control.

Lou knows how to wait. I can put treats on both his paws and tell him to wait, and like a good little doggie he will not eat those treats until I tell him it’s OK. But hold on a second, I say to myself as I type this, me being in the room with him and having him wait a few seconds is so not the same as what that bird did! And I was right, so I decided to do the experiment with him. I put him in the kitchen, put a treat on the floor, told him to wait (admittedly I did not explain he would get two treats if he did wait, so maybe that was unfair) and locked him in there for ten minutes. And when I walked back in what did I find? Treat on floor, Lou in exact same place I left him, a look on his face saying “why do you torture me so!” (Hint: that was anthropomorphizing). Hooray! My dog will get a 1600 on his SATs!

OK, so other than bragging about how well trained my dog is (errr..sometimes) what am I really saying? That it can be incredibly easy to turn your wishful thinking into misinterpreted results. Now, I would be totally jazzed if this does get published and I find out that there was a whole chunk to this story I’m missing, but I really seriously doubt it. How do you explain to a bird that in ten minutes he will get another treat but only if he doesn’t eat the treat you’re giving him now? Unless we have suddenly come up with a universal bird/human language, you can’t. So as fun as it is to read stories about animals doing something amazingly human, take them with a grain of salt (or if you’re patient, two marshmallows).

Your dog probably has your eyes

So apparently today is National Dog Day? Such a concept brings to mind my mother’s response when I found out as a child that they celebrated a Children’s Day in Mexico. When I asked her why we didn’t have a Children’s Day in the U.S., my mother responded with “Because every day is Children’s Day.” I had to admit even then that she had a point, and I can’t help but feel like every day is Lou’s day as well (at least I try to make it that way). But I am certainly not going to be the curmudgeon who tries to take away an excuse to post adorable puppy pictures all over the internet, not like an excuse was ever needed anyway.

So in honor of Dog Day I would like to call everyone’s attention to a study published last December and recently covered by Slate that tackled

Well, I guess we are about the same size

Well, I guess we are about the same size

the age old idea that dogs and owners start to resemble each other over time. Now, I personally have never had anyone tell me that I look like my dog. In fact, I once had a man at Petco tell me my dog was prettier than I was. I figure he was just more into blonds.

But nevertheless this concept does seem somewhat pervasive, and apparently also has scientific merit. This study, conducted by Dr. Sadahiko Nakajima in Japan, not only showed that people can correctly match up pictures of dog owners with their respective dogs, but that they could do so even if all that was visible in the pictures were the eyes of both human and canine. How or what it is about the eyes that allowed the judges to correctly match dog and owner are completely unknown, as is why dog and owner eyes would look alike (incidentally, all the owners had the same color eyes so it had to be some other, ineffable quality).

So celebrate this dog day by staring deeply into the eyes of your beloved canine companion and see if you can find yourself staring back at you.

Only 24hrs to live? Don’t worry, it will feel like a lifetime

The perception of time has got to be one of the hottest go to philosophical questions. What is time really? Is it linear, or do we just perceive it to be linear? Is it actually a loop? Or does it really have no form at all, and could we all magically become “unstuck” from time like Billy Pilgrim?

Well, all questions about the state of our universe aside, it cannot be denied that time has a funny way of behaving. When you’re busy, it tends to speed up. When you’re bored, it slows to a crawl. As you get older the years just seem to go by quicker and quicker.

But what about for animals that don’t live as long as we do? Or for animals that live longer? It’s common to joke about how long a day must feel to a fly (the assumption being flies only live 24 hours, which is actually incorrect. They live about 15-25 days), but how does the passage of time actually feel to a fly? Is it slower? Well, as it turns out, yes.

A recent article published by Scientific American talked about a study in the journal Animal Behavior in which scientists collected data on the brain responses of over 30 different species to light flashing frequencies. If you imagine our perception of time being like the frame rate of a camera, the idea here is that animals with a higher frame rate (who would perceive time as moving more slowly) would be able to see a light flashing at a higher frequency. To the animals with a slower frame rate, those fast blinking lights would blend together and look like a constant light. Again using the camera analogy, if you have a camera with an exposure time of one second, and a light blinking 10 times a second, you’re going to get a picture of a light. What does this have to do with time? Well just think about all those awesome high speed videos that let you watch random things happen in slow motion.

Photo by Donald Hobern

Good luck with that flyswatter human, I perceive time four times faster than you. Photo by Donald Hobern

The study concluded that animals with faster metabolisms (and therefore shorter lifespans) had higher “frame rates” than those with slower metabolisms (longer lifespans). In fact, they found that humans clocked in at around 60 hertz, dogs at 80 hertz, and flies at a whopping 250 hertz (rats for some reason got the short end of the stick at 39 hertz). So yes, time does seem to pass slower when you’re a fly.

But can we take this a step further? How does this theory apply to reports that in life or death situations time seems to slow down? I remember vividly an occasion some time ago when I was SCUBA diving and found myself in a situation that could very quickly and easily resulted in, well let’s just say with me having never had the opportunity to write this blog. Without telling the whole long story, the take home is that I had only a few seconds to make some pretty consequential decisions, but when it was happening it felt as though I had all the time in the world to figure out what was going on. The number of thoughts that were able to go through my head during those few seconds was extraordinary.

So what happened there? Did my brain go into hyper drive and I suddenly got a faster capture rate? For those few seconds, was I able to, dare I say it, be the fly? Well luckily for all of us, I heard an episode of Radiolab (is anyone sensing a theme here? Can anyone tell I’m minorly obsessed with this show?) about an experiment conducted by David Eagleman where he and a group of volunteers fell 150ft while looking at a specially designed wristwatch that flashed numbers just a little too fast for a person to read. The idea was that is time really slows down when you are afraid for your life, he and the other volunteers would suddenly be able to read the watch.

What he found was that while when asked how long they were falling the volunteers overestimated the time frame, they were still unable to read the watch. They felt like time slowed down, but it didn’t really. So no, your ability to experience time doesn’t speed up when in a near-death experience. Instead what is happening is your brain figures out that this is kind of a big deal situation, and so it starts making new memories like crazy so that if you survive you remember what the hell happened and never do this again you crazy person! See, while we like to believe our brain is like a roll of film and what we see just gets recorded there, the truth is there is so much going on around us the brain has to pick and choose what information to store as memories and what information to ignore entirely. And your brain is crazy good at it. If you want to see just how good, this is a pretty good example. So when your brain thinks something really important is happening, like you know, almost dying, it’s going to take in and memorize as much information as possible so that you can remember what you did right (or wrong) in the future. Good job brain!


What are you strange blue creature?

Last weekend I was walking my dog along the beach, an almost daily ritual for me and my very energetic canine. While he runs around sniffing (and attempts snarfling) everything he can find and trying to engage every dog (and sometimes human) he can find in a rousing game of chase, I

What are you and why are you so pretty/strange looking?! Photo by yours truly

What are you and why are you so pretty/strange looking?! Photo by yours truly

usually occupy my time looking for squid eggs along the water line or chiton plates by the tide pools. This time though, I didn’t have to look very hard for something interesting to look at. Mixed in with the kelp and debris usually found on the beach were tons of these weird 3-4 inch long blue squishy things with what seemed like a piece of plastic jammed in the top. I had never seen anything like it. Immediately the phone came out, pictures were taken and sent to fellow marine biologists, squishy things were poked, and guesses were made. Egg sac? Weirdly deformed limpet? Finally a friend responded that they were some type of cnidarian but she couldn’t remember the name. Hmmm…cnidarian did you say?

For those of you who may not know, cnidaria is the group that jellyfish and sea anemones belong to. But my brilliant blue friends were neither jellyfish nor anemone. They belong to another group within cnidaria called hydrozoa. Many of you have heard of a hydrozoan before, but you might have always thought it was a jellyfish. The Portuguese man o’ war known for its extremely painful sting (and is coincidentally, also blue) is not a jellyfish but is in fact a hydrozoan. What’s the difference you ask? A jellyfish is one animal, while a hydrozoan is a colony of lots of little individuals.

So what sort of hydrozoan are these little guys? In times like these I say thank goodness for the internet. They are Velella velella, also known as by-the-wind sailors, because they use that plastic headpiece as a sail and must, quite literally, go where the wind takes them. So while no one is certain why so many of these guys are washing up right now, it is probably due to the way the wind blows. And if you see these little critters on the beach not to worry, they don’t sting humans. They prefer delicious little plankton. So feel free to give them a poke!

Experience auditory hallucinations for yourself and get as creeped out as I did

Today, while hard at work and not procrastinating in the slightest, I found an incredible if somewhat disturbing way to get a glimpse into the world of a schizophrenic with auditory hallucinations. An article on buzzfeed recounted a segment on Anderson Cooper in which he donned a pair of ear buds recreating auditory hallucinations experienced by some schizophrenics and tried to accomplish different tasks. He is seriously impaired and disturbed by the voices coming from the headphones. When you watch the clip, it’s easy to feel like he’s playing it up for effect, and that perhaps the sounds aren’t quite as distracting as he lets on. Very kindly though, the people at buzzfeed gave an example of the auditory hallucinations for any readers who wanted to experience them for themselves. I couldn’t not click it. As soon as the voices started, I got an incredible sense of foreboding, like when you watch a scary movie and you know something bad is about to happen. As I sat there eating my lunch, listening to the voices, to me it really felt like I was going insane. Even after the voices stopped and I got up to do some work, I found myself still distracted, thinking about those voices. It almost felt like at any minute I might start hearing them again.

But don’t take my, or Anderson’s, word for it. Try it out for yourself.

Autistic or anorexic, what’s the difference?

I read a fascinating article today that brought to mind a lot of questions about the nature of mental illness. The article’s title, “What it’s like to have anorexia and autism” featured on slate.com was so bewildering to me I just had to click on it. It is presented in an interview format, and features a woman named Sharon DaVanport who was diagnosed with anorexia when she was 17. At 42, she was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, which is a higher-functioning type of autism. This made sense to Davanport, since her weight was not due to body-image, but rather to an aversion to food on a sensory level. She would be repulsed by the way some foods smelled or felt, to the point where she could not eat. This might not even be that uncommon of a case, as the slate article cites an article exploring a possible genetic link between autism and anorexia.

But when I first read this article, my initial thought was, but is this really still anorexia? Isn’t this more of a side effect of an entirely different disorder? The way DaVanport’s anorexia is described in the interview does fit in at all with the image I have of anorexia in my head. Anorexia has always been portrayed as an obsession to be thin that results in the individual being unable to view themselves as they truly are. For example, and woman with all her rib bones visible still believing she has love handles. But since DaVanport’s weight had nothing to do with a desire to be thin, how does it fit in? It does not compute into the box I had built around the idea of anorexia.

According to allianceforeatingdisorders.com the DSM-V (the go-to guide for diagnosing all mental diseases. Helpful tip: if you happen across a copy do not try to diagnose yourself. This will only end badly for you and ironically, your mental health) criteria for diagnosing anorexia nervosa include restriction of energy intake relative to requirements leading to a significantly low body weight in the context of age, sex, developmental trajectory, and physical health. Intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, even though underweight.

I've got your spectrum right here. Photo credit F.RdeC

I’ve got your spectrum right here. Photo credit F.RdeC

Disturbance in the way in which one’s body weight or shape is experienced, undue influence of body weight or shape on self-evaluation, or denial of the seriousness of the current low body weight.

In this case, Davanport would seem to only fit the first criteria. So it would seem in this case that Davanport was misdiagnosed as a teenager, which sadly probably happens all too much since so little is understood about mental illness.

That being said, the study done on looking at the relationship between anorexia and autism (which,  as far as I could tell, is the only one of its kind), stated that teenage girls who had anorexia exhibited more autistic traits than those without anorexia. The researchers hypothesized that this might be due to the obsessive nature that autism tends to produce could get directed towards calorie counting and limiting food intake. So then, is this anorexia due to body image, or is simply the result of obsessing about the food itself? Then again, the mayo clinic states in its description of anorexia that it isn’t really about food at all, but is instead an “unhealthy way to try to cope with emotional problems.”

So I ask again, if you have autism and an extremely low body weight due to limited food intake, are you still anorexic? I ask these questions not because I want to undermine what these women go through, nor do I wish to express outrage at the physicians for not better diagnosing their patients. I ask because I’m curious, and because I’m not sure if these questions even have answers. Because mental health is unbelievably complicated, and it can be so tempting to put people into neat little groups because it’s easier. But that doesn’t mean it’s right. I think it’s also important to note that the women in the anorexia study weren’t even necessarily autistic, they just had traits on the autism spectrum. Does that make them autistic? I don’t know, I’m not a psychiatrist, but my guess is not necessarily. In mental health it seems like nothing is certain, which is one of the reasons I could never do it, and I commend those who do.