Facebook Rumored To Be Planning Foray Into the Online Health Space

Reuters broke the story on Friday, citing anonymous sources:

The company is exploring creating online “support communities” that would connect Facebook users suffering from various ailments. . . . Recently, Facebook executives have come to realize that healthcare might work as a tool to increase engagement with the site. One catalyst: the unexpected success of Facebook’s “organ-donor status initiative,” introduced in 2012. The day that Facebook altered profile pages to allow members to specify their organ donor-status, 13,054 people registered to be organ donors online in the United States, a 21 fold increase over the daily average of 616 registrations . . . . Separately, Facebook product teams noticed that people with chronic ailments such as diabetes would search the social networking site for advice, said one former Facebook insider. In addition, the proliferation of patient networks such as PatientsLikeMe demonstrate that people are increasingly comfortable sharing symptoms and treatment experiences online. . . . Facebook may already have a few ideas to alleviate privacy concerns around its health initiatives. The company is considering rolling out its first health application quietly and under a different name, a source said.

I’m quoted in this International Business Times article about Facebook’s rumored plans. After the jump is the full statement I provided to the reporter (links added).  Continue reading

Facebook Announces New Research Policies

6856181503_8d8e73208b_zA WSJ reporter just tipped me off to this news release by Facebook regarding the changes it has made in its research practices in response to public outrage about its emotional contagion experiment, published in PNAS. I had a brief window of time in which to respond with my comments, so these are rushed and a first reaction, but for what they’re worth, here’s what I told her (plus links and less a couple of typos):

There’s a lot to like in this announcement. I’m delighted that, despite the backlash it received, Facebook will continue to publish at least some of their research in peer-reviewed journals and to post reprints of that research on their website, where everyone can benefit from it. It’s also encouraging that the company acknowledges the importance of user trust and that it has expressed a commitment to better communicate its research goals and results.

As for Facebook’s promise to subject future research to more extensive review by a wider and more senior group of people within the company, with an enhanced review process for research that concerns, say, minors or sensitive topics, it’s impossible to assess whether this is ethically good or bad without knowing a lot more about both the people who comprise the panel and their review process (including but not limited to Facebook’s policy on when, if ever, the default requirements of informed consent may be modified or waived). It’s tempting to conclude that more review is always better. But research ethics committees (IRBs) can and do make mistakes in both directions – by approving research that should not have gone forward and by unreasonably thwarting important research. Do Facebook’s law, privacy, and policy people have any training in research ethics? Is there any sort of appeal process for Facebook’s data scientists if the panel arbitrarily rejects their proposal? These are the tip of the iceberg of challenges that the academic IRBs continue to face, and I fear that we are unthinkingly exporting an unhealthy system into the corporate world. Discussion is just beginning among academic scientists, corporate data scientists, and ethicists about the ethics of mass-scale digital experimentation (see, ahem, here and here). It’s theoretically possible, but unlikely, that in its new, but unclear, guidelines and review process Facebook has struck the optimal balance among the competing values and interests that this work involves.  Continue reading

Conference on Digital Experimentation (CODE) at MIT Sloan

Screenshot 2014-09-30 18.19.55Another stop on my fall Facebook/OKCupid tour: on October 10, I’ll be participating on a panel (previewed in the NYT here) on “Experimentation and Ethical Practice,” along with Harvard Law’s Jonathan Zittrain, Google chief economist Hal Varian, my fellow PersonalGenomes.org board member and start-up investor Ester Dyson, and my friend and Maryland Law prof Leslie Meltzer Henry.

The panel will be moderated by Sinan Aral of the MIT Sloan School of Management, who is also one of the organizers of a two-day Conference on Digital Experimentation (CODE), of which the panel is a part. The conference, which brings together academic researchers and data scientists from Google, Microsoft, and, yes, Facebook, may be of interest to some of our social scientist readers. (I’m told registration space is very limited, so “act soon,” as they say.) From the conference website:

The ability to rapidly deploy micro-level randomized experiments at population scale is, in our view, one of the most significant innovations in modern social science. As more and more social interactions, behaviors, decisions, opinions and transactions are digitized and mediated by online platforms, we can quickly answer nuanced causal questions about the role of social behavior in population-level outcomes such as health, voting, political mobilization, consumer demand, information sharing, product rating and opinion aggregation. When appropriately theorized and rigorously applied, randomized experiments are the gold standard of causal inference and a cornerstone of effective policy. But the scale and complexity of these experiments also create scientific and statistical challenges for design and inference. The purpose of the Conference on Digital Experimentation at MIT (CODE) is to bring together leading researchers conducting and analyzing large scale randomized experiments in digitally mediated social and economic environments, in various scientific disciplines including economics, computer science and sociology, in order to lay the foundation for ongoing relationships and to build a lasting multidisciplinary research community.

Fall Facebook/OKCupid and Future of Research Tour

Sept. 18 Tweet ChatI’m participating in several public events this fall pertaining to research ethics and regulation, most of them arising out of my recent work (in Wired and in Nature and elsewhere) on how to think about corporations conducting behavioral testing (in collaboration with academic researchers or not) on users and their online environments (think the recent Facebook and OKCupid experiments). These issues raise legal and ethical questions at the intersection of research, business, informational privacy, and innovation policy, and the mix of speakers in most of these events reflect that.  Continue reading

My Slate Article on the Importance of Replicating Science

I have a long article in Slate (with Chris Chabris) on the importance of replicating science. We use a recent (and especially bitter) dispute over the failure to replicate a social psychology experiment as an occasion for discussing several things of much broader import, including:

  • The facts that replication, despite being a cornerstone of the scientific method, is rarely practiced (and even less frequently published) not only in psychology but across science, and that when such studies are conducted, they frequently fail to replicate the original findings (let this be a warning to those of you who, like me, cite empirical literature in your scholarship);
  • Why replications are so rarely conducted and published, relative to their importance (tl;dr: it’s the incentives, stupid);
  • Why it’s critical that this aspect of the academic research culture change (because academic science doesn’t only affect academic scientists; the rest of us have a stake in science, too, including those who fund it, those who help researchers produce it (i.e., human subjects), those who consume and build on it (other scholars and policy-makers), and all of us who are subject to myriad laws and policies informed by it); and
  • Some better and worse ways of facilitating that cultural change (among other things, we disagree with Daniel Kahneman’s most recent proposal for conducting replications).

Michelle Meyer: Misjudgements Will Drive Social Trials Underground

Michelle Meyer has a new piece in Nature – an open letter on the Facebook study signed by a group of bioethicists (including PFC’s Executive Director Holly Fernandez Lynch) in which she argues that a Facebook study that manipulated news feeds was not definitively unethical and offered valuable insight into social behavior.

From the piece:

“Some bioethicists have said that Facebook’s recent study of user behavior is “scandalous”, “violates accepted research ethics” and “should never have been performed”. I write with 5 co-authors, on behalf of 27 other ethicists, to disagree with these sweeping condemnations (see go.nature.com/XI7szI).

We are making this stand because the vitriolic criticism of this study could have a chilling effect on valuable research. Worse, it perpetuates the presumption that research is dangerous.”

Read the full article.

How an IRB Could Have Legitimately Approved the Facebook Experiment—and Why that May Be a Good Thing

Image courtest Flickr

Image courtesy Flickr

By now, most of you have probably heard—perhaps via your Facebook feed itself—that for one week in January of 2012, Facebook altered the algorithms it uses to determine which status updates appeared in the News Feed of 689,003 randomly-selected users (about 1 of every 2500 Facebook users). The results of this study—conducted by Adam Kramer of Facebook, Jamie Guillory of the University of California, San Francisco, and Jeffrey Hancock of Cornell—were just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Although some have defended the study, most have criticized it as unethical, primarily because the closest that these 689,003 users came to giving voluntary, informed consent to participate was when they—and the rest of us—created a Facebook account and thereby agreed to Facebook’s Data Use Policy, which in its current iteration warns users that Facebook “may use the information we receive about you . . . for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.”

Some of the discussion has reflected quite a bit of misunderstanding about the applicability of federal research regulations and IRB review to various kinds of actors, about when informed consent is and isn’t required under those regulations, and about what the study itself entailed. In this post, after going over the details of the study, I explain (more or less in order):

  • How the federal regulations define “human subjects research” (HSR)
  • Why HSR conducted and funded solely by an entity like Facebook is not subject to the federal regulations
  • Why HSR conducted by academics at some institutions (like Cornell and UCSF) may be subject to IRB review, even when that research is not federally funded
  • Why involvement in the Facebook study by two academics nevertheless probably did not trigger Cornell’s and UCSF’s requirements of IRB review
  • Why an IRB—had one reviewed the study—might plausibly have approved the study with reduced (though not waived) informed consent requirements
  • And why we should think twice before holding academics to a higher standard than corporations

Continue reading

Whose Business Is It If You Want To Induce a Bee To Sting Your Penis?

Photo source: WikiMedia Commons

You might think that the answer to this question is obvious. Clearly, it’s your business, and yours alone, right? I mean, sure, maybe it would be considerate to discuss the potential ramifications of this activity with your partner. And you might want to consider the welfare of the bee. But other than that, whose business could it possibly be?

Well, as academic empiricists know, what others can do freely, they often require permission to do. Journalists, for instance, can ask potentially traumatizing questions to children without having to ask whether the risk to these children of interviewing them is justified by the expected knowledge to be gained; academics, by contrast, have to get permission from their institution’s IRB first (and often that permission never comes).

So, too, with potentially traumatizing yourself — at least if you’re an academic who’s trying to induce a bee to sting your penis in order to produce generalizable knowledge, rather than for some, um, other purpose.

Yesterday, science writer Ed Yong reported a fascinating self-experiment conducted by Michael Smith, a Cornell graduate student in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior who studies the behavior and evolution of honeybees. As Ed explains, when, while doing his other research, a honeybee flew up Smith’s shorts and stung his testicles, Smith was surprised to find that it didn’t hurt as much as he expected. He began to wonder which body parts would really smart if they were stung by a bee and was again surprised to learn that there was a gap in the literature on this point. So he decided to conduct an experiment on himself. (In addition to writing about the science of bee stings to the human penis, Ed is also your go-to guy for bat fellatio and cunnilingus, the spiky penises of beetles and spiders, and coral orgies.)

As Ed notes, Smith explains in his recently published paper reporting the results of his experiment, Honey bee sting pain index by body location, that

Cornell University’s Human Research Protection Program does not have a policy regarding researcher self-experimentation, so this research was not subject to review from their offices. The methods do not conflict with the Helsinki Declaration of 1975, revised in 1983. The author was the only person stung, was aware of all associated risks therein, gave his consent, and is aware that these results will be made public.

As Ed says, Smith’s paper is “deadpan gold.” But on this point, it’s also wrong. Continue reading

Update on Litigation in Looney v. Moore (SUPPORT Trial Class Action)

For those closely following the litigation over this clinical trial, a few updates. On January 22, the district court ruled on defendants’ motions to dismiss plaintiffs’ third amended complaint. That complaint named as defendants the director of the IRB, the chair of the IRB, the other members of the IRB (“the IRB defendants”)—all in their individual capacities; the PI of the trial, in his individual capacity; Masimo Corporation, the manufacturer of the oximeter used in the trial; and fictitious defendants (ABC Health Care Providers #1-100; ABC Individuals #1-100; and XYZ Entities #1-100). The complaint stated seven counts: products liability and negligence against Masimo; negligence, negligence per se, lack of informed consent, and breach of fiduciary duty against the IRB defendants and the PI; and wrongful death against all defendants.

Continue reading

Would Marlise Munoz’s Fetus Have Survived? Should It Have?

This is post is part of The Bioethics Program’s ongoing Online Symposium on the Munoz and McMath cases, which I’ve organized, and is cross-posted from the symposium. To see all symposium contributions, in reverse chronological order, click here.

Had the hospital not relented and removed the ventilator from Marlise Munoz’s body, could the Munoz fetus have been brought to term, or at least to viability? And if so, would the resulting child have experienced any temporary or permanent adverse health outcomes? Despite some overly confident commentary on both “sides” of this case suggesting a clear answer one way or the other—i.e., that there was no point in retaining the ventilator because the fetus could never be viable or was doomed to be born with catastrophic abnormalities; or, on the other hand, that but for the removal of the ventilator, the “unborn baby” was clearly on track to being born healthy—the truth is that we simply don’t know.

Before getting into the limited available data about fetal outcomes in these relatively rare cases, a bit of brush clearing. The New York Times juxtaposed reports about possible abnormalities in the Munoz fetus with the hospital’s stipulation about the fetus’s non-viability in ways that are likely to confuse, rather than clarify:

Lawyers for Ms. Muñoz’s husband, Erick Muñoz, said they were provided with medical records that showed the fetus was “distinctly abnormal” and suffered from hydrocephalus — an accumulation of fluid in the cavities of the brain — as well as a possible heart problem.

The hospital acknowledged in court documents that the fetus was not viable.

Whether intentionally or not, the nation’s newspaper of record implies — wrongly, I think — that the hospital conceded that the fetus would never be viable because of these reported abnormalities. In court, the hospital and Erick Munoz stipulated to a series of facts, including that Marlise was then 22 weeks pregnant and that “[a]t the time of this hearing, the fetus gestating inside Mrs. Munoz is not viable” (emphasis added). The hospital conceded nothing at all about any fetal abnormalities. In short, the Times, and many other commentors, have conflated “non-viability” as a function of gestational age with “non-viability” as a way of characterizing disabilities that are incompatible with life. As I read this stipulation, the hospital was not at all conceding that the fetus would never have been viable, had the ventilator remained in place. Rather, given the constitutional relevance of fetal viability, the hospital was merely conceding the banal scientific fact that the Munoz fetus was, at 22 weeks, not currently viable. There is nothing surprising in the least about the hospital’s “concession” about “viability” in the first sense, above: 22-week fetuses are generally not considered viable. Continue reading

Online Symposium on Munoz and McMath Cases

UPDATE: Following Friday’s court order (discussed below), the hospital today (Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014) removed the ventilator from Marlise Munoz, who has met the criteria for brain death since Nov. 28, 2013.

Two high-profile, rapidly evolving cases involving death by neurological criteria — better known as “brain death” — raise vexing and sometimes novel legal, ethical, and medical questions at the edges of life and death. I’m organizing an online symposium on these cases over at The Bioethics Program Blog, and will be cross-posting my contributions here, beginning with this introduction to the symposium, which brings readers up to date with legal developments through today. Please contact me if you’re interested in participating.

The Marlise Munoz Case

On November 26, 2013, Erick Munoz found his wife, Marlise, unconscious on their kitchen floor. She was then 14 weeks pregnant with their second child. Erick resuscitated her and she was transported, alive, to John Peter Smith Hospital, where she was placed on a ventilator to assist her breathing and given other life-sustaining treatment. Not long thereafter, however, Erick says that the hospital told him that Marlise was brain dead.

Although Marlise did not have a written advance directive, according to Erick, both he and Marlise had

worked as paramedics during their marriage, and thus were knowledgeable of and had personally witnessed injuries that resulted in death, including brain death. Erick and Marlise frequently discussed their requests, beliefs and desires with each other, and expressed clearly to each other, family members and friends, their respective desires not to be resuscitated should either of them become brain dead.

Erick requested, with the “full support” of Marlise’s parents, that the ventilator be removed from her body and that he be given possession of it for burial.

The hospital refused. It argued that § 166.049 of the Texas Advance Directives Act (TADA) — which provides that “a person may not withdraw or withhold life-sustaining treatment under this subchapter from a pregnant patient” — prohibits it from removing the ventilator. It was not entirely clear whether the hospital believed that Marlise was in fact dead or not. The media was reporting as late as December 24 that the hospital had said that Marlise was in “serious condition,” and the hospital had not released Marlise’s medical records, which Erick said would show a diagnosis of brain death, to him.

After the jump, this week’s developments in the Munoz case, the McMath case, and a list of symposium participants.

Continue reading

My Comments on HHS’s Proposed Rule Criminalizing Trade in Blood Stem Cells

Professor Nalini Ambady (1959-2013)

Professor Nalini Ambady (1959-2013)

Bonjour de Toulouse, where I’m visiting this month at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAST), which is hosted by the Université de Toulouse Capitole and physically (and in many senses conceptually) situated inside the Toulouse School of Economics. That setting is a particularly good one for this post on markets in human tissue.

In early October, I wrote about a rule that the Department of Health and Human Services has proposed that would amend the National Organ Transplant Act (NOTA) to criminalize compensation for providing peripheral blood stem cells (PBSCs) given through apheresis. Compensating those who allow their bone marrow to be aspirated — the other major source of hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) — is already explicitly criminalized under the statute. At the end of the post, I promised to follow up with a second post on why I’m skeptical about this rule, as a matter of policy. This is that post.

But before discussing appropriate policy for addressing the problem of the 3,000 Americans who die each year for want of a bone marrow transplant, and for reasons I’ll explain near the end of my post, I want to say something about one particular person: Professor Nalini Ambady, a Stanford social psychologist who, about one year ago, began an international search for a compatible, willing HSC donor to treat her leukemia.

Because she is South Asian, and because few Asians and other racial and ethnic minorities are listed in the U.S. bone marrow registry — South Asians comprise only 2% of the U.S. registry — she had a difficult time finding a match. She nevertheless found 12 potential matches in the U.S. bone marrow registry, and apparently at one point had scheduled the transplant. In the end, however, half were ruled out as imperfect matches — and each of the remaining six matches declined to donate.

Having exhausted the U.S. registry, Ambady and her supporters sought a match in South Asia registries — but even fewer people are registered in that region than in the U.S. Of India’s 1.2 billion people, for example, only about 45,000 are registered. Nevertheless, a potential thirteenth match was found in an Indian registry. He matched at least 6 of 10 HLA markers; he would need a blood test to determine whether he was a complete match. Unfortunately, after a worrisome week of silence about whether he was indeed a complete match, Ambady and her family learned that the potential donor had backed out.

And then a potential fourteenth match:

Weeks later, it happened with another potential match for Nalini, this time an 8/10 and so an even likelier match. This man wanted to watch someone else donate their bone marrow before making up his mind. A registry chief actually arranged this for him in early May. Somehow, it wasn’t persuasive enough. He, too, decided not to donate.

Professor Ambady died on October 28 after eight compatible or potentially compatible registered donors ultimately declined to donate.

Apparently, declining to donate after agreeing to be listed in a registry and being found to be a match is quite common. According to one registry chief, the attrition rate is 50% in the U.S., Europe, and India. Would a financial incentive have tipped any of these vaccillating prospective donors towards a decision to donate? Although we can’t say, this is an eminently answerable question. Unfortunately, the Department seems uninterested in learning whether a compensation scheme would save lives — or have ill or counterproductive effects — or not.

In its Notice, the Department lists the following policy reasons for expanding NOTA’s list of “organs,” the exchange of which for valuable consideration is prohibited, to include PBSCs: (1) preventing commodification; (2) curbing opportunities for coercion of PBSC providers and (3) exploitation of PBSC recipients; (4) encouraging altruistic donations, and (5) decreasing the likelihood of disease transmission resulting from paid donations. My responses to these arguments are after the jump. I end with some thoughts about alternative policy tools for increasing the supply of PBSCs in the absence of a legal compensation scheme.

Continue reading

In Memoriam: Adrienne Asch

I’m sorry to report that Adrienne Asch, director of the Center for Ethics at Yeshiva University and the Edward and Robin Milstein Professor of Bioethics, died yesterday of cancer. A social psychologist by training (but no relation to Solomon Asch), Professor Asch’s scholarly focus was the ethical, legal, and social implications of human reproduction, especially as it intersects with disability studies. An interdisciplinary scholar (as most bioethicists are), she taught courses at Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Cardozo School of Law, and Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

I didn’t always agree wth Adrienne, but she was an important scholar. As Sam Bagenstos noted, her death is “a huge loss for the disability world.” Among other things, she challenged pro-choice scholars and activists to rethink the implications of some of their policies and theories for people with disabilities in present and future generations. Here is one example of many.

Adrienne was also a lovely person. Some years ago, I picked her up from Wellesley (where she then taught) and drove her to Dartmouth (where I was a college senior) for a brief visit. It was, from start to finish, an epic fail on my part. In my defense, her assistant gave me terrible directions, I was then unfamiliar with the joy that is Boston rush “hour” traffic (including the fact that it begins at 3pm and lasts until 7pm), and this was before either cell phones or GPS. Nevertheless, what was supposed to be a three-hour drive that left time for her to change clothes at the hotel before her first talk became a four-hour tour during which I grew increasingly anxious about the prospects of getting her to the church on time, as it were. Adrienne was blind (hence my driving her), and this raised the additional issue of what to tell her, and when, about our travels. Ever the intellectual and mentor, as soon as she got into the car, she wanted to hear about the honors thesis I was writing. Alas, I turned out to be utterly incapable of navigating Boston’s traffic and discussing French existentialism at the same time, and soon we were hopelessly lost. I stopped at a gas station for directions (remember when you had to do that?), but by then we had hit rush hour traffic. We finally reached the highway and I managed to make up some time. As we discussed all manner of topics bioethical, I did the math and figured that if I, ahem, flirted with the speed limit, I could just have her to her talk on time.

The New Hampshire state police were not accommodating of this plan, however. Mere yards from our final exit I saw flashing lights in my rearview mirror. Feeling the car slowing down as I pulled over, Adrienne asked brightly, “Oh, are we there?” Mortified, I told her that no, in fact, I was being pulled over for speeding and that we would now certainly be at least a few minutes late for her talk. She would have been well within her rights to be furious with me, but was instead remarkably understanding. (The administrative director of Dartmouth’s Ethics Institute, by contrast, chided me for acting unethically by speeding.) Here‘s a great interview with Adrienne that captures some of her personality, as well as her views about disability and her experiences living with a disability.

Yeshiva University’s notice of Adrienne’s death, along with funeral and shiva details, is here. Tributes are being collected here. She will be missed.

[Cross-posted at The Faculty Lounge]

Twitter Round-Up 11/5

The Affordable Care Act continues to be a popular topic of discussion amongst Bill of Health contributors, who also recently touched on issues of drug approval, vaccine improvements, and provider decision making.

Frank Pasquale tweeted an article about the extremely low-cost health insurance policies that will be available to some people under the Affordable Care Act. Millions of people will be eligible for free-premium plans, but an associated risk is that people will opt for these at the expense of plans that cover necessary care. (11/4)

Art Caplan tweeted his agreement with Robert Kuttner’s blog post about the Affordable Care Act. Building on private insurance was a mistake, according to Kuttner, whereas simply extending Medicare would have been a more favorable approach. (11/4)

Art Caplan also tweeted the results of a new study from Costa Rica suggesting that just one dose of the HPV vaccine might be enough to protect women from the virus. In his tweet, Caplan suggests that such a change might make the vaccine, which is currently taken in three doses, more widely accessible around the world. (11/4)

Michelle Meyer posted an article about the difficult balance between the FDA approval process and patient needs. The author describes his experience as part of a promising trial for a treatment for polycystic kidney disease, only to be let down by the Administration’s decision not to approve the drug. (11/2)

Frank Pasquale tweeted the results of a study revealing that half of clinical decision support (CDS) alerts are inappropriately overridden by providers. CDS alerts highlight things like patient allergies, drug interactions, etc., and can be potentially dangerous when erroneously ignored. (11/3)

Amitabh Chandra posted an article comparing the rollout of the Affordable Care Act to that of Massachusetts’s healthcare program in 2006. The author highlights, among other things, differences in the laws themselves, the websites designed to implement them, and the political context of the time. (10/30)

Twitter Round-Up 10/9

By Sara Providence

This round-up features our bloggers’ key tweets from the past two weeks, ranging from the Affordable Care Act to issues of life and death:

Frank Pasquale tweeted the article, “40 Percent of Doctor Practices Unsure About Obamacare Exchanges.” According to the author, more than 80% of doctors participating in a study were unsure about how they would be paid by the exchange plans, and 40% don’t know if they’ll accept the plans at all. (10/8)

Art Caplan posted the article “Euthanasia for emotional pain: Mercy or a ‘culture of death’?” The harrowing piece continues the conversation about the ethics of assisted suicide, this time through the lens of a transgender man’s story. (10/7)

Frank Pasquale tweeted the article “When the Machine That Goes Ping Causes Harm: Default Torts Rules and Technologically-Mediated Health Care Injuries.” In the piece, author Nicolas Terry discusses the liability questions brought to light by the increased use of technology in healthcare delivery. (10/7)

Michelle Meyer tweeted a blog post by Josiah Neeley, called “How to Avoid Defaultmageddon: Randomize Obamacare.” Written before the government shutdown, it discusses the potential utility of allowing the Affordable Care Act to continue as planned in some states but not in others, in order to observe its effects. (10/3)

Richard Epstein tweeted his piece, “Government overreach threatens lives.” In light of an appeal of the 2012 decision in Regenerative Sciences LLC v. United States, he expresses the opinion that the FDA’s decision to review each individual stem cell procedure performed is bad policy. (10/2)

Stephen Latham tweeted about his appearance on the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC. He was featured as a discussant in a conversation about the book “Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Life” by Katie Butler, which addresses the idea that a longer life is not necessarily a better one. (9/28)

HHS Proposes Rule to Amend NOTA, Nullify Flynn v. Holder

On October 2, in the midst of the government shutdown—either HHS somehow managed to convince itself that the rule was “necessary for the protection of life” or, more likely, it had already been scheduled for printing—HHS quietly published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. The proposed rule would effectively moot the recent Ninth Circuit case of Flynn v. Holder by criminalizing the compensation of bone marrow donors, even when the life-saving stem cells are extracted through a newer, minimal risk procedure. In this post, I’ll explain the medicine, the Ninth Circuit’s decision, and what HHS proposes to do in response. In my next post, I’ll have some reaction to HHS’s policy arguments, about which I’m skeptical, and perhaps a few thoughts about where plaintiffs might go from here.

Section 301 of the National Organ Transplant Act (NOTA) of 1984 criminalizes the transfer of “human organs” for “valuable consideration.” Reimbursement of reasonable out-of-pocket expenses associated with travel and lost wages are okay—as are, since the 2008 amendment of NOTA, paired living donor chains—but any other “valuable consideration” that might incentivize sources of organs is not. Under NOTA, as amended,

‘human organ’ means the human (including fetal) kidney, liver, heart, lung, pancreas, bone marrow, cornea, eye, bone, and skin or any subpart thereof and any other human organ (or any subpart thereof, including that derived from a fetus) specified by the Secretary of Health and Human Services by regulation

(emphases added). HHS has since added to this list “intestine, including the esophagus, stomach, small and/or large intestine, or any portion of the gastrointestinal tract.”

So-called “bone marrow transplants”—in reality, infusions of hematopoietic (blood) stem cells (HSCs)—are often life-saving procedures for those with, for example, leukemia or aplastic anemia. (See these sobering statistics compiled by the Institute for Justice, which represented the plaintiffs in Flynn.) When NOTA was passed, the only way to obtain HSCs was through bone marrow aspiration using a long needle thick enough to suck liquid marrow directly from the donor’s pelvic bone. HSCs are then harvested from the marrow. The procedure is done under general anesthesia and so the donor is subject to the usual risks of anesthesia. Although the donor can return to usual activities in two to seven days, discomfort may linger for up to two weeks. Continue reading

The Troubled Peer Review System, the Open Access Wars, & the Blurry Line Between Human Subjects Research & Investigative Journalism

Legal academics who work across disciplines sometimes find themselves in the uncomfortable position of explaining to their stunned colleagues the process by which second- and third-year law students, armed with author c.v.s, decide what gets published and where.

Well, get ready to get your schadenfreude on. For the past 10 months, John Bohannon, a contributing correspondent for Science magazine, has been conducting a sting of (other) science journals and their peer review processes. Much like the famed Sokal hoax, Science submitted to 304 journals a bogus paper written by a fictitious researcher from a nonexistent institution. The paper described “the anticancer properties of a chemical that [the fictitious researcher] had extracted from a lichen,” and according to Bohannon, “[a]ny reviewer with more than a high-school knowledge of chemistry and the ability to understand a basic data plot should have spotted the paper’s short-comings immediately” and rejected it promptly. And yet, over half of the journals accepted the paper. Recall that the bogus paper purports to report on the discovery of the anticancer properties of lichen. Let the prospect of bogus cancer research published in peer reviewed medical journals sink in.  Continue reading

(Taboo) Science, Policy & the Importance of Good Science Communication: Redux

In late May, I wrote the following:

Yesterday, the Social Science Genetic Association Consortium, an international consortium that pools and conducts social science research on existing genome-wide association study (GWAS) data, and on whose Advisory Board I sit, published (online ahead of print) the results of its first study in Science. That paper — “GWAS of 126,559 Individuals Identifies Genetic Variants Associated with Educational Attainment” — like much human genetics research, has the potential to be misinterpreted in the lay, policy, and even science worlds. That’s why, in addition to taking care to accurately describe the results in the paper itself, including announcing the small effect sizes of the replicated SNPs in the abstract, being willing to talk to the media (many scientists are not), and engaging in increasingly important “post-publication peer review” conversations on Twitter (yes, really) and elsewhere — we put together this FAQ of what the study does — and, just as important, does not — show. So far, our efforts have been rewarded with responsible journalism that helps keep the study’s limits in the foreground.

I had no role in the GWAS itself; that credit goes to SSGAC’s extraordinarily meticulous scientists. I did, however, have a strong hand in the FAQs. And so I am really pleased that in a new editorial, the editors of Nature (not for nothing, Science’s main competitor) highlighted our FAQ as an example of best practices in behavioral genetics research and science communication. They write:

For clarity, scientists would do well to follow the example of the Social Science Genetic Association Consortium. In June, this group published a paper on genetic variants associated with educational attainment (C. A. Rietveld et al. Science 340, 1467–1471; 2013). Accompanying this was a nine-page Frequently Asked Questions document that, in plain, easy-to-understand language, addressed such questions as why the researchers did the study, what they found and what the implications of the work are — and are not (see go.nature.com/7mov2j). The document spelled out that the consortium had not found ‘the gene’ for educational attainment, that each genetic marker found has only a very small effect on length of schooling, and that any policy response based on that single study would be premature.

Scientists cannot be held responsible every time someone misinterprets their work. But simple steps such as these could help to prevent and address some of the potential distortions of behavioural genetics — and could help to ensure that society continues to support the work.

For more on taboo science—including IQ, race, violence, and sexuality—see Erika Check Hayden’s accompanying article, which discusses our Science GWAS in the IQ category and (elsewhere in the article) quotes Duke lawprof (and new Conspirator!) Nita Farahany and Bill of Health guest contributor Yaniv Erlich. Now if we could only get popularizers of science to understand that their lay audience will rarely know that they are “oversimplifying” that science.

[Cross-posted at The Faculty Lounge]

My L.A. Times Op-Ed: In Defense of the Evidence-Based Nudge

The op-ed, which will appear in tomorrow’s print edition, is online here. It’s co-authored with Christopher Chabris (who happens to be my husband). Here—where I’m writing only for myself—I thought I’d say a bit about what motivated us and elaborate on a few points whose force may have been blunted by the process of condensing our thougts into our allottted 1,000 words.

The news hook for the article was an August memo leaked to Fox News in which the Obama administration announced that it is looking to hire behavioral scientists to help shape policy. Notwithstanding that the explicit model for this initiative is the U.K.’s “Behavioral Insights Team,” formed in 2010 by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, in the U.S., some on the right went completely off the rails about the Obama announcement.

A typical reaction was from Fox News’s Monica Crowley, who described the initiative as “really frightening,” “insane,” “outrageous,” “unconstitutional,” “an Orwellian horror show”—and all of the aforementioned mostly because, so far as I can tell, she believes that nudges constitute a form of “psychological warfare” akin to “what our military does to our enemies.” There are certainly legitimate criticisms of nudges to be made by both the right and the left, but that they are a form of Communist mind control is not among them. (For starters, even if nudges did rely on something like subliminal messages, those messages have been shown to have no effect on consumer behavior, much to the chagrin of marketers.)

The impetus for our piece, then, was to disabuse the Crowleys of the world (or at least that portion of them who are open to persuasion on this matter) of that notion, and then to offer some affirmative reasons why conservatives and libertarians should embrace the nudge (its preservation of all options in the choice set; its ability to incentivize personal responsibility; its efficiency), especially relative to its often perfectly viable alternative: the shove. (To that end, the piece was originally intended for a periodical with a right-of-center audience but wound up in the L.A. Times, where some of it may admittedly amount to preaching to the choir.)

In making our case…

Continue reading