The Fall

black-box

I always thought that I lived in a good country. Sure, America was never perfect but it was far from a horrible place to live. I thought people, for the most part, were generally decent. We may not always agree on the best course for the country, but respect for each other opinions and an open and honest discussion could always led to a compromise for the greater good. I thought people respected values like wisdom, knowledge, tolerance, decency, civility, inclusion, open-mindedness, desire to learn and improve ourselves and our country,  and a willingness to keep moving forward—hope—even in tough times, a common-belief that things only get better with time, that we are all working together towards a greater goal, a more perfect union.

After last night, I now know that none of those things are true.

It never once occurred to me that a racist, misogynistic, homophobic, bigoted, petulant, arrogant, chauvinistic, narcissistic, ill-tempered monster could even be running for the presidency, never mind have the remotest chance of winning it. How can this have happened? How is it that there are this many desperate, narrow-minded morons in this country? How can the people of this country have completely abandoned truth for racism and vague promises? I understand fear, I understand the sense of a loss of control over the present, I understand the sense of being left behind, but to abandon even the most basic commonsense, the most basic of our core values? That is something I do not understand.

I don’t know what’s going to happen next. No one does because this demagogue, this proto-tyrant, never actually spoke about policy. All we can do now is wait. But I am not hopeful. I am fearful.

Yesterday, I saw America abandon reason for conspiracy theories and emotionalism. Desperation has overcome the American tradition of tolerance and social progression. Independent thought and an embrace of the truth are dead.

Fear has Trumped hope.

It’s raining in DC today, as if the city itself is weeping in anticipation of the coming terror. I weep along with. I weep for the Fall of American Greatness.

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Rapping About Replication

science-scienceLast year, a paper came out in the journal Science that made waves in the scientific community and the public at large (it was even voted the #5 most publicly cited paper of 2015 by Altmetric).

replication-study

So why am I writing about a paper over a year old and one that has already received plenty of public attention? Well, because this paper is a huge deal. Why you may ask? One of the most important words in the entire scientific enterprise: Replication.

In brief, this study was done by the Open Science Collaboration (OSC), a massive consortium of hundreds of researchers. The OSC team attempted to replicate 100 research papers in the experimental psychology field. The scientists decided which studies were to be included in the analysis, shared methods and tools, and agreed on criteria for how they would critically evaluate the studies (in some cases, the original authors provided the original test materials).

Unfortunately, the results were not good. The authors found that 2/3 of the original findings could not be replicated with any degree of statistical confidence. When taken as group, the effect sizes of the 100 replication studies compared to the originals were only about half as a great. In other words, more than half of the 100 papers could not be replicated.

But what does this mean and why is it a big deal?

Science is all about uncovering “how stuff works” but at a far more fundamental level, what science really is, is a method or system to figure out “how stuff works” and “what causes what” and uncovering the underlying principles of nature, etc.

And how does a scientist know that why they discovered about how this or that works is actually real? Well, one way is for other scientists to run the same experiment. If they get the same result, then it’s a pretty good chance then the discovery is “real”.

One of the biggest challenges the scientific research field has been grappling with is this issue of replication and ability to replicate other people’s work. If what people are reporting in papers is real, then why are so many findings so difficult to replicate?

There’s about a million ways to answer that question but the simplest answer is that doing science is really, really hard. Even if you think you designed the perfect experiment, collected the best data you could, and analyzed it the best way you know how, you might have gotten something wrong. You might have forgotten to control for a variable that you never thought of or even more mundanely, you forgot to report some crucial detail that other scientists need to know but you have taken for granted.

The failure to replicate is NOT about making up results (though a few bad apples have done that) is about not having time and money to thoroughly consider the results of the field. Science has a way of weeding out ideas that just don’t hold water but it requires other scientists to delve into the work of their colleagues and try to expand on their initial colleagues.

And just to be clear, there’s plenty of outstanding work being done that has been replicated and is scientifically solid.

Regardless, scientists need to resolve how to solve this problem with replication.

As bad as it is can be in biology, it’s a whole lot worse for a “soft science” like psychology. Many psychological studies have either been discredited or shown to be outright frauds (one of the more sensational stories involved years of forged data by the psychologist Diederik Stapel).

Thankfully, the field as a whole is trying to acknowledge their past failings and improving the integrity of their discipline. It would be a huge step forward for other fields, such as in the biomedical research field, to also take on such an endeavor.

And in the end, this is why this paper is so ground breaking and worth talking about (again). The field acknowledged they had a problem, did a systematic analysis of all available studies, and tried to replicate which ones are good and which are bad.

But there’s one more layer to this too. There’s also no incentive to replicate findings either. The pressure to publish only “sexy” results and get the big research grant almost prohibits scientists from trying to replicate each others work.

As someone who has spent that last 10+ years in academic research labs, I’ve heard the concerns from friends and colleagues about how quickly they need to publish their results out of fear of being “scooped” by a competing lab working on the same topic. And I and anyone in the academic research knows the the near constant anxiety about how to come up with new exciting ideas for the big grant that your entire livelihood is dependent upon (maybe a little over-dramatic but seriously, only a little).

If a scientist is under pressure to publish a new finding as quickly as possible, sometimes mistakes are made or a critical control was overlooked on accident. One facet of the replication crisis may be this competitive drive between labs. In business, competing tech companies are pressured to release a product that may be cheaper or more appealing to the public. However, competition has the exact opposite effect in scientific research. Increased competition may actually hurt scientists. And of course, the root cause of competition to publish is competition for a limited pool of grant money, without which there would be no basic research at all.

The replication study is an important milestone and idealizes the self-correcting tradition of the scientific enterprise in general. Scientists are supposed to be the most critical of their own work and the community should be able to recognize if an initially exciting finding cannot be replicated.

With increased funding and reduced pressure to publish only “sexy” results in top-tier journals, perhaps the scientific community will turn away from competition and prestige and return to the spirit of openness, sharing, and collaboration. Maybe then the failure to replicate will become unable to be replicated.

Update: Changes to site, Cocaine review article

Good-bye NYC! (Photo © Derek Simon 2015)
Good-bye NYC!
(Photo © Derek Simon 2015)

Change is coming!

After a several month hiatus, I’m happy to be posting again!

I wanted to announce that I recently switched fields from basic neuroscience research to a fellowship position in the LGBTI Office at the US Agency for International Development (USAID)!

This means good-bye NYC and hello Washington DC! It also means that the scope, style, and range of topics I’ll write about will greatly expand beyond just drug addiction. I’m still figuring out those details….

But in the mean time:

Cocaine Addiction Review Article

About two years ago I wrote a review article for a new academic book about addiction. Finally, the book and the article have been published!

The book is Neuropathology of Drug Addictions and Substance Misuse. My article appears in Volume 2.

Feel free to download a pdf of my article for free!

PDF of Cocaine Review Article.

I first present an overview of the pathology and neurobiology of cocaine addiction and then discuss some of the research findings about changes that occur in the brain because of cocaine addiction.

A summary of key points discussed in the article:

  • Cocaine is a widely abused drug that has significant economic, medical, and social costs and no effective pharmacotherapeu­tic treatments.
  • Cocaine addiction progresses from initial use to repetitive cycles of heavy, short-term use (“binge” use), abstinence, and relapse.
  • Unlike other drugs of abuse (which only primarily affect DA release), cocaine’s mechanism of action consists of blocking the reuptake of all monoamine neurotransmitters (DA, 5HT, and NE) by antagonizing the monoamine transporters (DAT, SERT, and NET) thus leading to an accumulation of these neu­rotransmitters in the synapse of the mesolimbic reward path­way and other regions of the brain.
  • Genetic and environmental factors contribute to the suscepti­bility of an individual to becoming addicted to cocaine, and based on twin studies, it has been estimated that genetics may account for 30–60%, and as high as 78% of this susceptibility.
  • Acute cocaine use activates the HPA axis while chronic cocaine use sensitizes the HPA axis and blunts the stress response, which contributes to relapse behavior.
  • Accurate behavioral models used to study cocaine addiction, such as self-administration and the “binge” model, are useful because they attempt to recapitulate the human disease.
  • Cocaine use results in upregulation of dynorphin mRNA and protein and subsequent elevation of KOPR/dynorphin tone in the VTA/CPu/NAc circuit in virtually every behavioral model tested.
  • Modulation of the KOPR/dynorphin system may represent a viable pharmacotherapeutic target for treatment of cocaine addiction.

Tragedy in Orlando: A Call to End Gun Violence, Terror, and Homophobia.

Orlando imagePulse

Once again an American citizen (not an immigrant or refugee of any kind) has mass murdered other American citizens using a legally purchased weapon, a weapon that exists for no other reason than to be used to kill as many people as possible. The attack in Orlando is a confluence of so many problems in the US and world today: gun violence, homophobia, racism, religious extremism and Islamist terrorism. Sadly, there will be a portion of this country that won’t really care about these attacks because 1) they specifically targeted gay people and 2) minority men were primarily killed in the attacks. Narcissistic demagogues like Donald Trump will use the attacks to expand his racist rhetoric and hate speech in order to galvanize the furor of his supporters—he’ll profiteer from the loss of human life to boost his poll numbers (by the way, Trump was endorsed by the NRA so don’t expect any comments on gun control).

I could spend my time talking about how attacks like these are only possible because of the ease in which guns can be purchased in the United States but why? Supporters of stricter gun control already know these arguments while the people that need to hear them never will. But there’s another issue here.

The massacre in Orlando brought to national attention something that is common but unknown by many. Gay people are the victims of violence, hate and terror all over the world. Terrorist groups such as ISIS specifically target gay people and murder them in horrific ways. But it’s not just the Islamist philosophy that promotes homophobia. The silent victimization of gay people is promoted by religious extremism in all its forms. I’ll even go one step further and make the claim that homophobia’s ONLY proponent is archaic religious beliefs. All adult humans beings have a capacity for love and all adult human beings should be allowed to express their love however way they want without fear of reprisal or intimidation from bigots.

In this Pride month is important to remember the progress that has been made but the shadows of the past follow us no matter how far forward we march. The Nazi’s used the pink triangle to mark gay men in the same way the Star of David was used to mark Jews. That symbol has been reclaimed as reminder of how the horror of the past can motivate strength in the present.

Stay united in support for the victims of the Orlando attacks. Mourn their loss and celebrate their lives. But be angry too. Use that anger to fight for an end to gun violence, an end to Islamist and religious extremism, an end to homophobia and persecution of LGBT people around the world.

 

Is a Lack of Bonding the Cause of Addiction?

A well-written criticism of Johann Hari’s popular yet woefully inaccurate book “Chasing the Scream”. The piece is written by fellow addiction blogger Katie Mac Bride for addiction.com. Thanks to Katie for quoting me in the piece!

katie macbride

for addiction.com

In which I examine the important but fatally flawed book, “Chasing the Scream,” by Johann Hari [continuedhere].

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The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous

Interesting article in the Atlantic dealing with another example of how addiction treatment does not use an evidence-based approach.

All Things Chronic

http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2015/03/the-irrationality-of-alcoholics-anonymous/386255/?src=longreads

Nowhere in the field of medicine is treatment less grounded in modern science. A 2012 report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University compared the current state of addiction medicine to general medicine in the early 1900s, when quacks worked alongside graduates of leading medical schools. The American Medical Association estimates that out of nearly 1 million doctors in the United States, only 582 identify themselves as addiction specialists. (The Columbia report notes that there may be additional doctors who have a subspecialty in addiction.) Most treatment providers carry the credential of addiction counselor or substance-abuse counselor, for which many states require little more than a high-school diploma or a GED. Many counselors are in recovery themselves. The report stated: “The vast majority of people in need of addiction treatment do not receive anything that approximates evidence-based care.”

This begs the question:  Dr. Kolodny, are…

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