Sunday, July 20, 2008

McCartney - Scary Bacteria - Internet vs. Science?

I have railed before on rock stars for being idiots, and Sir Paul McCartney has definitely done that in the past - only 2 years ago joining his then-wife Heather Mills in a damning crusade against the Canadian seal hunt. Now he's playing a free show for the 400th anniversary of Quebec city and some Parti Qu├ębecois members are protesting that a performance by a Brit on the Plains of Abraham (where Wolfe and Montcalm fought in 1759 and Britain conquered the forces of France) is a dreadful insult. Which I guess is sort of understandable, and if nothing else predictable.

The following from Sir Paul in response to the criticisms from the PQ was neither: "They won," he said, apparently referring to the war. "What are they moaning about? They won... I wouldn't have minded if they lost. It's me that should be moaning, right?" He pauses for several seconds. "I'm only kidding you know."

Wow. Kidding about what, exactly? Kidding that you're that ignorant about the history of this country (and a significant battle in the history of Britain)? Or kidding around about an event that essentially represents the instant the Qu├ębecois came under British rule, which is a bit of a sensitive issue. Even significantly more so than the seal hunt.

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Science has an excellent piece this week on antibiotic resistant bacteria. Some infections (C. difficile, for example) are just impossible to fight with most of the antibiotics we've invented so far. The bacteria have evolved to resist the drugs we have, and as a result are extremely difficult to kill. And we don't seem to have any blockbuster antibiotic drugs on the horizon, which is actually quite frightening - about the only things in biology scarier than these things are prions. Which I won't get into here.

But it does bring me to a personal pet peeve - I have a big problem with antibacterial soaps. First of all, some bacteria are quite useful, for example, mice raised in a sterile environment have seriously compromised immune systems. Secondly, you are a human-bacteria hybrid - bacterial cells in our bodies outnumber our own human cells by a factor of 10 to one. Accepting that evolution exists (and failing that, antibiotic-resistant bacteria indeed exist), using antibacterial soaps is just going help you grow resistant strains of bacteria in your house, which may or may not be good for your immune system - or your own bacterial cells...

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This Wired blog brought an interesting article from Science to my attention - surely it's changed science for the better, but has the Internet changed scientists for the better? The author of the article has some interesting data that as Internet resources have risen in size and accessibility, authors are citing more recent and more high-impact journals, and less journals overall. This implies that their breadth of scholarship is declining somehow, and allegedly relates to the fact that scientists no longer browse through paper-based journals.

I don't think this is the right interpretation of the data. I would say that this means that the pace of science is quickening. We're doing things quicker and better than ever before: 15 and 20 years ago, some of today's fairly major fields simply didn't exist. For example, stem cells weren't an issue in biology 20 years ago. Now, there are thousands (possibly tens of thousands) of people working in the field. What literature from 20 years ago are they going to cite, exactly?

Personally, I think the Internet can be of great benefit to the breadth of a science education. But it's a bit of a double-edged sword. You can be an academic viking, pillaging the literature to get support for the assertions and/or hypothesis you want to make (and trust me, you can find stuff to support almost any argument). But you can also use it to make other fields more accessible, to browse journals and sometimes doctoral theses, and have search tools email you articles from backwater journals you've never even heard of.

Is that a bad thing? Nobel-winner Eric Kandel is reviving a comparitively ancient (1970s) animal model of safety, and investigating possible antidepressant targets based on differences in gene expression in safe, happy rats compared to anxious, shocked rats. Those at the forefront of science right now still remember the old days, and some of those scientists were much more inventive than you might give them credit for. However, I remain convinced that scientists will continue to be clever in the future, and we probably shouldn't worry about whether the Internet is good or not. Science seems to be doing just fine on it's own...


Sam said...

The flippant use of antibacterials in household products drives me nuts. It takes some careful shopping to find dish soaps that are antibacterial-free these days.

I'd suggest that the blame for these products' ubiquity falls on the marketers of cleaning products (as well as on unconscientious consumers, of course). Consumers assume that "antibacterial" makes the product better, and anyone trying to sell soap has to jump on the bandwagon to stay in the game. Kind of a natural selection process, I think.

People that buy these products probably assume (if they think about it at all) that we'll "just invent something new" to kill the drug-resistant strains of microbes they've cultivated in their sinks, or carpets, or asses, or wherever.

Ian Vitro said...

I hear you, Sam. I don't think that consumers do think about it in any particular depth. I think the "logic" stems from having heard that bacteria have something to do with infections and disease, so therefore antibacterial must be good. An example perhaps of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing.