The Excitable Scientist

Mostly cheerful, sometimes snarky commentary on life science research and its broader impacts

Bad luck or bad science? An alternative interpretation of findings by Tomasetti and Vogelstein February 6, 2015

Filed under: activism,grad school — excitablescientist @ 10:51 pm

Dr. Carolyn Gotay of the UBC School of Population and Public Health delivered an impressive takedown of the “most cancers are simply bad luck” article published by Tomasetti and Vogelstein in Science early this year (which is among the most irritating examples of basic scientists overstepping their authority that I’ve encountered in recent memory. I’ve accepted that I will forever have a bone to pick with people who think we can completely understand the world by sequencing it.)

The essence is: just because you can prove that an increased probability of acquiring “random” mutations contributes to a higher rate of cancer in tissues that have higher rates of cell division doesn’t mean that these are the ONLY relevant factors, as the authors implied in the article. The phenomenon described in this study doesn’t in any way rule out the contribution of external factors (like pollution, obesity, inflammation, infection, and likely many others that have not yet been described), which would then be amplified in tissues that have more frequently dividing cells. But there is so little funding for research into the environmental causes of cancer, which are not readily elucidated by high-tech ‘omics approaches currently captivating the field, that it’s easy to get the impression they aren’t relevant at all.

One thing I’ve found lacking from nearly all critiques of the original Science article is that they let corporate polluters off the hook (the implication in the original article was that if most mutations are simply “bad luck”, why worry about pollution as a risk factor?) Instead they mostly draw attention to the “lifestyle choices” leading to cancer only Personal Responsibility™ can fix.

The publication and uncritical acceptance of studies like this one brings into focus the need to seriously rethink the overwhelming tendency towards studying cancer as a molecular disease, using molecular approaches, lest we risk missing the forest for the trees (or dots on a sequencing chip). The documentary, Pink Ribbons, Inc., presents some good suggestions on where to start.


Being Caribou December 15, 2013

Filed under: activism,documentary,inspirations,north — excitablescientist @ 1:45 am

Of the documentaries I’ve watched this year, Being Caribou has been the most enlightening, inspirational, informative and unsettling by a wide margin.  The 2004 film chronicles the 5 month, 1500km self-propelled journey of a newly married couple (they couldn’t have come up with a more sublime honeymoon) following the endangered Porcupine caribou herd on their annual migration to their calving grounds on the shores of the Beaufort sea, an area with considerable oil drilling prospects, a pursuit which appears to be absolutely incompatible with the long-term survival of this extraordinary ecosystem, and the well-being of the Gwich’in First Peoples who depend on it for sustenance.


I’ve never met a book or film about the North that I haven’t liked, but this one in particular made so much click into place for me (and as a welcome side effect, refocused my attention away from an extended series of bitter arguments with no conceivable positive outcome, onto issues of incomparably larger magnitude).  The challenge now is to figure out a life and career plan which will allow space for activism centered around problems (like those so well articulated in the film) that don’t fit within the tidy confines of the ivory tower.


But words don’t do it justice- and at 72 minutes, it’s a short watch and can be freely streamed, courtesy of the National Film Board.  If you watch it, I’d love to hear your impressions.

Being Caribou by Leanne Allison & by Diana Wilson, National Film Board of Canada