Tag Archives: 2014

Never Judge An Article By Its Headline

I am occasionally reminded that “news” outlets these days are more in the business of drawing viewers than of actually reporting accurate news.  This is especially dangerous in the area of science — journalists are not often trained scientists and it sometimes occurs that a journalist, in reading an article and trying to pull an eye-catching headline out of it, draws an incomplete or erroneous conclusion from the research and then publishes a “news” article about that conclusion.  Thousands of people read the erroneous headline, never look at the source publication, and pick up, however subliminally, the mistaken message.

Today in my Facebook feed I found these two competing headlines:

Your Baby and Your Dog Light Up Similar Parts of the Brain

Neurobiological basis of human-pet relationship: Mothers’ brains respond differently to images of their child and their dog

Image Source: Dee @ www.morguefile.com

Image Source: Dee @ www.morguefile.com

The first headline says that our brains react similarly when we view photos of our pets and our children, implying that the same mechanisms may influence our relationships with both.  The second headline states that our brains react differently when we view photos of our pets and our children, implying that different mechanisms may influence our relationships with both.

I was somewhat appalled to find that both articles refer to the exact same study, which actually supports both conclusions.  Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital examined the brains of 16 women (14 actually completed the entire study) via MRI while they viewed photographs of their children and their dog, as well as photographs of unfamiliar children and dogs, then compared the women’s reactions to each.  The abstract ends with the following sentence: “Although there are similarities in the perceived emotional experience and brain function associated with the mother-child and mother-dog bond, there are also key differences that may reflect variance in the evolutionary course and function of these relationships.”

So, based on this extremely small (only 14 subjects!) and preliminary study (the official press release indicates that the researchers themselves suggest further research with a larger sample), one can conclude that, well, we use the same bits of our brain to evaluate our relationships with both our pets and our children, but these bits respond differently to pets than they do to children.  Both of our headlines could be true.  Who knows?  This tiny study is only “contribut[ing] to answering this complex question“.

The lesson here?  Always read the source material, and never assume that any single “news” headline is telling you the entire story.  (In defense of both journalists in this instance, the accompanying articles were both much more neutral in tone than the headlines, and both provided reference to either the official press release or the original article.)

“Zombie Dog” Research Ongoing

Source: morguefile.com

Source: kconnors, morguefile.com

Today’s radar ping was a throwaway line in an otherwise unrelated article on a comedy web site, mentioning research involving the creation of “zombie dogs“.  The research, which is entirely real, is being carried out scientists at the Safar Center for Resuscitation Research at the University of Pittsburgh, who want to know if reducing the metabolic state of mammals with traumatic injuries can help increase survival of the treatment for those injuriesThe original article, as well as most of the news about it, is from late 2005.  The media briefly got excited about being able to use the phrase zombie dogs in professional conversation, but, since the science was (theoretically) legitimate and (most of) the reanimated dogs were just fine when brought back to life, eventually everyone put the pitchforks away and forgot about the zombie dogs.

Except, of course, the Safar Center.  They are still doing research on taking animals (and humans) to the brink of death and back — almost ten more years of articles with spine-chilling titles like Intravenous hydrogen sulfide does not induce hypothermia or improve survival from hemorrhagic shock in pigs and Magnetic resonance imaging assessment of regional cerebral blood flow after asphyxial cardiac arrest in immature rats.  Reading down their publication list tells you that, when they can, they are doing relevant experiments on humans, but, since no human capable of informed consent is ever going to volunteer to suffer severe brain injury, when the researchers can’t find human models they use rats, mice, dogs, pigs, and monkeys.

On the one hand, I completely understand wanting to find new ways to fix people who have been severely damaged.  Much of this research is, obviously, going to support our troops, a noble goal, and as you can see in the publication archives, a lot of the research is being done to help children.  I have absolutely nothing against these goals, and the scientific part of me completely understands that, in order to help some people who really need it, sometimes we have to do things which seem impossibly horrible.  On the other hand, every single one of these experiments starts, essentially, by whacking a couple dozen (sedated) rats on the head to induce brain injury, or essentially draining all the blood out of several (also sedated) pigs to induce cardiac arrest.  (If you are looking to cure traumatic injury, Step One in your experimental protocols is to create traumatic injury.)

There is something about this which is, to me, unspeakably twisted, but damned if I know an immediate solution to it.  Using only consenting human subjects as they appear by random chance would set the research back years, and if my child were struck by a car I know I would want all the research going into knowing how to sew my child’s head back on; on the other hand, if I were struck by a car, would I want to know that 2,000 rats died so that they could sew my head back on?  20,000?  Is there a minimum or maximum number of rats(/pigs/dogs/monkeys) that my life is worth?  I know it’s worth a lot of rats to me, but am I the governing authority here?  Cosmically, am I worth more or less than a rat?  Ten rats?  Is my contribution to society worth 2,000 lifetimes spent languishing in a little plastic tub in a research lab?  Would I want to meet those rats?  Explain it to them?  Would I want to explain it to the pigs?  The dogs?

No solutions here, alas — just a note to the world that this stuff is still happening.  No idea how to make it right, but, somewhere, this stuff went seriously wrong.

Second Livestock: The Virtual “Good Life” For Farmed Chickens

Yes, it’s a joke — at this point.  The nonexistent virtual reality “Second Livestock“, designed by ISU assistant professor Austin Stewart, brings up the idea of providing a virtual natural environment for conventionally farmed animals.  Rather than devote money, time, and space to actually giving the animals what they deserve, we can give them a virtual image of what they deserve.  They’ll believe they are running around and interacting with conspecifics, while in reality we can make their enclosures even smaller, since they won’t know they’re using them….

Knowing that it’s not real(yet), it’s actually funny, especially the little chicken headsets.  But take a moment, and imagine what might happen if this became economically feasible, especially compared to actually providing a natural environment for farm animals.  (While that’s honestly unlikely, Stewart has said further development for actual implementation was an option he would consider.)  Picture dairy cows grazing on a virtual pasture, giving birth to virtual “calves” that could hang around for a bit before being “naturally weaned”, while in reality the calves are taken away at birth (and fitted with a headset and given a virtual “mother”).

Would it be ethical?  If the animal truly believed it had a wonderful — or at least a quasi-natural) life, is there a functional difference from it actually having a wonderful life?  Is this a viable replacement for real space, conspecifics, and interaction?  What if every animal had an amazing virtual life, filled with its species’ own version of wine, women, and song?  (Either way, I’m not sure that either option is adequate “payment” for being consumed as food in the end.)  The authors make a point (arguably, the whole point of the site) that some humans are already partially living in an environment like this one…is that a good thing?  A bad thing?  Just a thing?

No answers here, although my gut instinct tends to the “Are you kidding?” side of things.  I just thought this was funny-becoming-interesting and kind of chewy food for thought.

“Weird Al” Yankovic: The Mystery of Meat

This (sort of) reminds me of that precipitous moment when I realized just how much was going into getting me a cheap hamburger.  I knew it was made from dead cow, but I had this mental image of just one cow — you know, that old picture you got in elementary school of one cow, kept at grass, with lots of space and love.  You don’t picture how many cows died, and what they went through beforehand, until someone grabs your head and shows you and you see it.  I’d like to see what would happen if McDonald’s put out that commercial.

Keep it real, Ronald. Keep it real.

Use of Alternative Sources Does Not Solve My Problems with Meat

As an omnivore who has chosen to live without meat because no animal should have to go through our factory farming process just so I can have a sausage, I am constantly on the lookout for alternative options.  Unfortunately, I find tofu about as appealing as Kleenex under most circumstances, and the vegan “replacements” for my formerly favorite foods (hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken strips) don’t so much mimic those foods as taste so completely unlike them as to reinforce how much I miss them.

For example, I can try adding “tofu crumbles” to my spaghetti sauce to remind me of the ground hamburger I used to put in there, but there are three problems: 1) the tofu crumbles cost twice as much as the rest of the ingredients put together; 2) they take time and effort to cook properly; and 3) they do not actually taste like ground beef (or like anything).  I do not need the texture of ground beef in my spaghetti sauce so badly that I must go out and buy tofu crumbles for it.  (Bring on the mushrooms and fresh peppers instead!)

There is a new movement wandering around which is trying to encourage people to eat less beef, poultry and pork by using replacement meat sources instead of removing meat entirely from the diet.  This is supposed to appeal to carnivores because you don’t have to declare yourself a granola-eating vegan (I do not like granola, myself) in order to reduce the amount of beef in your diet: you can remain a dedicated carnivore, and even say you’re doing it for the environment, rather than for the animals, further reducing any appearance of sympathy you might have had.

Perfectly edible even without the "scraps" of mouse meat.  (Source: Vice.com)

Perfectly edible even without the “scraps” of mouse meat. (Source: Vice.com)

Along these lines, a journalist from Vice decided to eat live food from a pet store for a week, one meal a day, to see what replacing traditional meat sources with something less environmentally intensive to raise might do to her diet.  Her actions, including grinding crickets into a replacement pancake flour and the creation of what is essentially a mashed potato casserole with mice in it, remind me strongly of my trying to find alternative meat sources for my spaghetti sauce.  The recipes take additional work and time; the unusual additives don’t add much pleasure to the meal; and in every case there’s a cheaper, faster, vegetarian option available — simply don’t add the alternative meat source.  Hey, look, it’s a perfectly serviceable potato casserole with no mice in it!

….those little guys were raised in a sterile lab, which is more than you can say for your average chicken nugget.”

Plus, well, the mice are often being raised in the same kind of factory farming conditions to which I object with beef, poultry and pigs.  It doesn’t have the same impact on the environment, because mice don’t need the same kind of space or materials that the larger animals do, but it certainly has a similar impact on the mice, which was kind of my problem with meat in the first place.

toilet-fish-tankThe author’s problems with killing the live minnows (You do not euthanize fish by adding salt to their water.  You do not euthanize fish by adding salt to their water.  You do not euthanize fish by adding salt to their water!)reminds me that even — and especially — these tiny animals are “slaughtered” for consumption in terrible ways, mostly because they’re too tiny to scream audibly and therefore any method is “painless”.  Mice are generally gassed with CO2, which can be a terrible way to go if performed badly (which it usually is).  This also fails to solve the issues with factory farming that led me to give up carnivory.

Whether they have a smaller impact on the environment or not (they probably do), and whether their handling of them is in some way “better” than our treatment of pigs, cows and chickens (it probably isn’t), I don’t need crickets (or minnows, or mice!) so badly as a source of protein (peanuts! almonds! peas! quinoa! spinach! sunflower seeds! beans!) that I need to kill 50 of them to add texture (and, apparently, an almond or shrimp flavor) to my plate of spaghetti.  I had enough problems using 1/50 of a cow to get the flavor I actually wanted!

How about an option that’s plentiful, cheap, lives naturally in crowded conditions and is easy to obtain?

Meat Is Hiding Inside My Cold Medicine

I have this season’s Martian Death Flu; my brain feels like it is bouncing gently against the ceiling, tethered to earth only by the flimsiest of strings.  I am not in the right frame of mind to be reading ingredients lists, but I happen to glance at the back of the box containing the little white pills which are the only thing that stops my brain pouring out of my nose, and see:

Inactive Ingredients: acesulfame potassium, artificial flavors, carnauba wax, colloidal silicon dioxide, corn starch, croscarmellose sodium, glycerin, glyceryl behenate [likely from the Ben-oil tree], hypromellose, lactic acid, lecithin [probably, but not 100% definitely, vegetable-derived] maltodextrin, medium-chain triglycerides [from palm oil, the harvesting of which threatens orangutan habitat], microcrystalline cellulose [“refined wood pulp” — yum!], pharmaceutical ink [which may contain shellac!], polydextrose [reportedly made from corn], polyvinyl alcohol, pregelatinized starch, propyl gallate [which one study sort of claims is a carcinogen — in male rats and mice], silicon dioxide [sand!], sucralose, synthetic iron oxide, talc, titanium dioxide, triacetin [made of glycerin/glycerol and acetic acid, and therefore possibly not vegan], xanthan gum.

(As for the active ingredients, it’s hard to tell, but ibuprofen itself appears to be non-animal-sourced.  Chlorpheniramine maleate may or may not be made with bone oil, which contains pyridine, from which chlorpheniramine maleate is made, and, frankly, I haven’t the foggiest idea about phenylephrine hydrochloride.)

Glycerin pings my radar as being possible to make from vegetables, but much easier to get from animals.  (Later, doing research on every item on this list, I also find triacetin, which is made from glycerin, and therefore equally suspect — and, what the hey, pharmaceutical ink, which apparently can contain shellac, made from bugs.  Also, as you can see above, it eventually occurred to me to ask if the active ingredients themselves were also vegan.)  Oh.  Well.  Off to research….

Unfortunately, Google is not a big help here.  I found a site which tells me on two pages (here’s one, dated 3/3/14, Pfizer reference number 214905A; here’s the other, using the same reference) that my currently preferred little white pill, “Advil Allergy and Congestion“, is completely animal-product free, and on another page (dated 11/4/13, Pfizer reference number 188656A), tells me the glycerin in that product is derived from either beef or pork fat.  (This article about gluten-free medications tells me glycerin is mostly derived from petroleum these days…and the Vegetarian Resource Group tells me glycerin is the same as glycerol, and that glycerol is “typically vegan”, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the glycerin in Advil is — and on another page, the Vegetarian Resource Group tells me that glycerin is typically non-vegetarian, so what do I know?)

(I don’t mean to be dinging on Advil.  For all I know, they are vegan, they just aren’t labeled that way.  They don’t make it easy to find out, which leads me to suspect that they aren’t.  If they aren’t vegan, then they’re certainly not alone.)

Since my place of business dings me for calling in sick, not taking something (at least on work days) is unthinkable — I must be able to see and interact with other humans, whatever my immune system feels it ought to be doing instead.  A search for “vegan cold medicine” turns up nothing I’d consider scientifically tested, or remotely functional.  You’d think someone would be working on getting this “niche market” filled by now — it’s not like glycerin, lecithin and food-grade ink can’t be plant-based, and you’d just have to stamp the end result “vegan” for me to come rushing in to buy it preferentially.

Alas, this may have to be filed under the “99.9% vegan” category, like Cheerios, at least for the moment, with an eye out for swapping brands at the first available opportunity.  At least I know to avoid the “gel-caps”, which are outright made of gelatin.  In any case, all medications, by US law, have been tested on animals, so by taking any medication whatsoever I am directly contributing to that part of the machine.

Somehow, that makes me feel worse than the flu.  Fortunately, staying in bed with the covers over my head is vegan….

“Iron Maiden” Hog Farm In The News


Photo by Kamuelaboy on Morguefile.

An article about a hog farm in Owensboro, Kentucky crossed my radar today, and pinged it for all the wrong reasons.  The farm, which is attempting to curb the spread of a rather horrible-sounding disease called porcine epidemic diarrhea, or PED, is in the news because its effort to protect its animals involves grinding up the intestines of dead piglets which have died from the disease and feeding the resulting “smoothie” to the adult sows.

The procedure, called “controlled exposure“, is actually standard practice.  It attempts to establish “herd immunity” in an infected farm by exposing all adult animals on the farm to the disease as quickly as possible.  (The virus has a mortality rate approaching 100% in suckling piglets, but most adult animals recover without incident.)  Since PED is an intestinal pathogen, adult animals are most easily infected by exposure to the “intestinal tract” of “infected neonatal piglets”, which should be “sacrificed” within the first six hours of clinical signs for “maximum viral content”.  Once they recover, the now-immune adult sows will pass on antibodies against the infection in their milk to future litters of piglets, keeping those piglets protected from the virus and giving the farm time to perform some serious hygienic measures and actually eradicate the virus.

Okay, so there might theoretically be a point to the farm’s actions.  (And note that the swine industry is not the only one that feeds dead animal parts to live ones, either as a medical treatment or as a standard feed additive.)  I do, however, note that this paper, from the site of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, recommends that adult pigs simply be exposed to the feces of that poor doomed first wave of sick piglets, as the feces of live piglets contains up to 10,000 times the viral load of the viscera of dead piglets and is therefore a much more effective infectious agent.  It is therefore not necessary to grind up the piglets or feed them to their own mothers.  And besides, in the words of the above paper, “Collecting viscera is time-consuming and provides unnecessary fodder for the scrutiny of public perceptions.”

photo via HSUS and Wikimedia Commons

Gestation crates.  Photo from HSUS, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Humane Society of the United States, which broke the original story, points out that keeping pigs in natural conditions is a more ideal way to prevent the spread of diseases such as PED than feeding dead animals to live ones.  (It also notes that feeding dead animals to live ones is against state law in any case, although I cannot find that reference online at the moment.)  The farm in question is a large factory farm and its sows are maintained in industry-standard gestation and/or farrowing crates, which are noted for providing just as much room as a pig needs to exist (not turn around, not move, just exist) and not an inch more, on the grounds of “protection” for the sows from each other, and for piglets from the vast and frightening bulk of their mother.  The sows spend their lives crammed shoulder to shoulder in steel frame boxes the exact length and width of their bodies, churning out litters of piglets.  This kind of atmosphere does not promote healthy, happy animals.

Which brings me to what pinged my radar: the name of the farm in question is Iron Maiden Hog FarmIron Maiden Hog Farm!  I am at a loss to think of a more classless name for a pig breeding operation.  I somehow cannot bring myself to believe the facility is named after the band, can you?