Saturday, April 30, 2005

Killing Any That Display Human-like Behavior;
More Pointless Complaining About Science Journalism

I often have been critical of journalists who write badly about science.  Perhaps I've been too harsh at times.  After all, it must be difficult to write a good story about a topic that is both complex and unfamiliar, whilst facing a deadline.  Some deficiency is to be expected.  Even so, it should be possible to anticipate certain kinds of problems that are especially likely in science writing.  Once the problems are anticipated, it should be possible to avoid them. 

One problem that is fairly common occurs when the journalist writes a sentence that only leaves the reader wondering what was meant by the sentence, yet is not followed by any explanation. Of course, the writer cannot explain everything, otherwise all such articles would turn into textbooks.  Some things, though, either should be explained more thoroughly, or should be left out entirely.  Here is one example:
Genetic Mingling Mixes Human, Animal Cells
By PAUL ELIAS, AP Biotechnology Writer
Fri Apr 29, 8:44 PM ET

[...] In the past two years, scientists have created pigs with human blood, fused rabbit eggs with human DNA and injected human stem cells to make paralyzed mice walk.

Particularly worrisome to some scientists are the nightmare scenarios that could arise from the mixing of brain cells: What if a human mind somehow got trapped inside a sheep's head?

The "idea that human neuronal cells might participate in 'higher order' brain functions in a nonhuman animal, however unlikely that may be, raises concerns that need to be considered," the academies report warned.

In January, an informal ethics committee at Stanford University endorsed a proposal to create mice with brains nearly completely made of human brain cells. Stem cell scientist Irving Weissman said his experiment could provide unparalleled insight into how the human brain develops and how degenerative brain diseases like Parkinson's progress.

Stanford law professor Hank Greely, who chaired the ethics committee, said the board was satisfied that the size and shape of the mouse brain would prevent the human cells from creating any traits of humanity. Just in case, Greely said, the committee recommended closely monitoring the mice's behavior and immediately killing any that display human-like behavior. [...]

Personally, I think that the typical media outlets like to publish stories about chimeras because they think people will be shocked by the idea of mixing human and animal cells.  The fact that nobody seems to care, is lost on them. 

The article quoted here describes some recent experiments involving such chimeras, with the point being that various organizations are establishing ethical guidelines for such experiments.  That all makes sense.  But the last sentence in the blockquote leaves the reader wondering: exactly what "human-like" behavior" might occur, that would warrant euthanasia?

Imagine the shock of the lowly post-doc who goes into the lab in the morning, only to find lab mice chatting on their cell phones, playing Nintendo, eating mouse chow with silverware, or applying nail polish to their little claws.  Or, since the committee included some lawyers, perhaps we could imagine lab mice filing lawsuits against the scientists.  I mean, really, what exactly would the mice be doing that would constitute "human-like" behavior?