Should you vaccinate your kids?

Love this:

A Simple Flowchart to Help You Decide If You Should Vaccinate Your Child

Photo of the day

From the National Geographic Tumblr:

Young lovers embrace beside the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, 1960.Photograph by Thomas Nebbia, National Geographic Creative

Young lovers embrace beside the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, 1960.PHOTOGRAPH BY THOMAS NEBBIA, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Just a rat in a cage

Really enjoyed this Wired story about the scientific debate on whether rats have empathy (I’m quite persuaded that they do).  First, some of the experimental evidence:

On a table in Mason’s University of Chicago lab sits a plexiglass box about two feet square. Inside is a white Sprague-Dawley rat, a strain bred for laboratory study, and a plexiglass canister holding a black-and-white Long-Evans rat.

The trapped Long-Evans is clearly agitated. The white rat is too. Instinctively, she wants to stay in the corner; rats avoid open spaces, and navigate by touch, which is why you often see them scurrying along walls. Yet she rushes again and again to the canister, sniffing at the rat inside, nosing the glass, nudging the door. Eventually, she opens it, freeing the rat. They rub together.

At a purely descriptive level, you could say one rat helped another. Why that happened is the question. According to Peggy Mason and collaborator Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal, the free rat appears to empathize with her trapped comrade. She recognized the rat’s distress, grew distressed herself and wanted to help. This appears to be a powerful impulse in rats. In tests of whether rats would rather eat than help another rat, the researchers found empathy’s pull to be as strong as their desire for chocolate — and rats do love their chocolate.

The two researchers first claimed rats might feel empathy in a high-profile 2011Science paper describing rats freeing their cagemates, rats they had been cohabitating with. They expand on those findings in the latest study, which describes rats helping strangers. It’s a radical, even controversial, claim. Some scientists recognize that chimpanzees, a few cetaceans and perhaps elephants could be empathic, but few have ascribed that trait to rats. If R. norvegicus can be empathic, that fundamentally “human” trait might in fact be ubiquitous.

Seems like a lot of the objections basically boil down looking for any explanation other than empathy or almost re-defining the word so that’s not what the rats are doing.  But I think the strongest case is actually a very logical one:

Other researchers defended the possibility of rat empathy. “Ants are not rats,”quipped Frans de Waal, an Emory University ethologist who has written extensively about empathy, on Facebook. “It would be totally surprising, from a Darwinian perspective, if humans had empathy and other mammals totally lacked it.” …

Frans de Waal thinks empathy originated with maternal care, with evolution favoring those mothers most attentive to their offspring. Of course it could work in the other direction, too: Evolution favors offspring who pay attention to their elders. Rat mothers, it should be noted, are historically renowned for their devoted affection.

“Given the importance of social learning in rats,” said Emilie Snell-Rood, a biologist at the University of Minnesota, and its usefulness “in a situation where a novel predator like humans are trying to kill you all the time, I would expect increased selection on social learning.”

Anyway, plenty more good stuff in here about how rats can help us understand cognition, etc.  Or as one scientist puts it:

As neurobiologist Peggy Mason, a pioneer in rat empathy research put it, “I’m perfectly happy thinking of myself as a rat with a fancy neocortex.”

Or, in other words… despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage.

Politics at its worst

Okay, maybe it does get worse than what’s going on with attempts to repeal the medical device tax, but it does highlight a lot of what is so wrong with our politics.  Nice NYT Editorial on the matter.

First, there’s the matter that the whole point of this tax is to actually pay for the ACA and make it budget neutral:

In seeking to dismantle the Affordable Care Act piece by piece, congressional Republicans have placed a high priority on repealing a tax on medical devices that would raise some $29 billion over the next 10 years to help ensure that health reform will not increase the deficit…

The health reform law imposes a modest 2.3 percent tax on sales of medical devices, to be paid by the manufacturers or importers. It applies to such products as X-ray machines, M.R.I. scanners, pacemakers and artificial hip and knee joints but not to eyeglasses, contact lenses and hearing aids. The $29 billion to be raised from the device industry is less than the amounts to be raised from insurers and drug companies, all of which will benefit from increased business under the act and should pay their fair shares of the cost. If the lost revenues from a repeal of the device tax are offset by reduced spending on other health care programs, as they might well be, many patients could suffer medical or financial harm.

Okay, it’s a tax of any kind, so no matter how sensible, Republicans are against, but Democrats?  Even the populist Elizabeth Warren?  How could that be.  Well…

Repealing the tax is a terrible idea that has been given a veneer of respectability by support from liberal Democrats in states with large concentrations of device manufacturers. They include Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken of Minnesota and Representative Ron Kind of Wisconsin, among others.

These are solidly liberal Senators.  But when it is companies in their state, we see what happens.  Of course, Congress is designed to put the interests of single states and districts ahead of the national interest.  And, how much will the companies suffer.  Well, they’ll tell you quite a bit:

Trade groups say the tax has already caused a big loss of jobs, has reduced spending on research and will lead to a total loss of 195,000 jobs among manufacturers and suppliers and in the general economy over the next five years. They also say the tax will stifle innovation, drive up health care costs and provide an incentive for manufacturers to locate facilities overseas.

Damn that’s a lot of doom and gloom for 2.3%.  Why do people ever take this kind of stuff seriously?  Someone needs to do a study of how fabulously wrong most doom and gloom predictions from trade groups turns out to be.  Seems that they never say, “there will be a modest reduction in profits that we’d rather not see, but this is no fundamental threat to our industry.”  As for the actual harm, independent analysts suggest:

Independent analysts believe the industry’s dire forecasts are malarkey. The Congressional Research Service estimated that the tax would have “relatively modest” effects on jobs, research and company profits and a “negligible” effect on the price of health care. Some jobs would be lost, but they account for a tiny fraction of 1 percent of the industry’s work force. The C.R.S. said the tax should not affect decisions on where to locate production facilities because domestically produced devices and imported devices are subject to the same tax.

It’s not the end of the ACA if this tax is repealed, but it’s sure a bad precedent and would definitely represent so much of what is wrong with politics winning out.

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