Archive for July, 2011

Viva Las Vegan

July 30, 2011

I’m back from The Amaz!ng Meeting 9 and Pythagorean Posse meet-up in Vegas and I’m just now catching up on my sleep so excuse me if I’m a little late at getting this post up. I want to start out by thanking some folks, first I want to thank for his amazing generosity J Grothe for his personal generosity and kindness in the midst of being so busy running one heck of a skeptical meeting too. I also want thank Jamie Kilstein of Citizen Radio, who put on on heck of a comedy show.  I also want to thank Dave of Pythagorean Crank for many things including making some pretty cool buttons for us. More thanks go out to Shane P. Brady, Michael Lin, and everyone who came to TAM in general.

The Amaz!ng Meeting 9 was a wonderful success. It attracted over 1,600 people, with over 40% women attendees and a mix of ages. There were so many great presentations but I would have to say my favorite was one given by union organizer and Skeptically Speaking host Desiree Schell titled “Out of the Blog and Onto the Streets: What Skepticism Can Learn from Social Movements.”  The presentation was I’m sure a bit controversial, activism itself is not always seen in a good light. At one point she even dropped the bomb, “Militancy can help the skeptical movement” to the response of scattered but enthusiastic applause, later adding “I’m not saying we should take up arms to take the homeopathic pigs down…though that would be fun.” She gave a nod to the Ten23 Campaign which engaged in public demonstrations, “overdosing” on homeopathic preparations in front of stores that stock such products. She also spoke of how past movements have had successes because they used a “diversity of tactics” tailored to their situations and that often neither the moderates or militants could get the job done without each other. She gave the example of how some suffragettes wrote letters to housewives inspiring them to stand up for their dignity while other women were chaining themselves to the white house fence (and lets not forget the women in England who torched mailboxes and broke windows to be heard). She was very clear that she was not comparing racial segregation or women’s oppression to homeopathy or chiropractic, just saying that movements can learn from each other. Desiree also moderated the diversity panel in which I was glad to see the issue of ethnic background and class brought along with many other good issues. I personally can not do her presentation or the panel justice in such a short description and would not want to misreport what was said, more TAM videos should be online soon from what I’ve read and I will post them when available.*

Other great presentations included one by James Randi about a hoax on parapsychology  researchers called Project Alpha featuring two magicians,  Banachek and Michael Edwards, who posed as psychics. It was really interesting hearing the various ways they were able fool the researchers. Richard Dawkins was also quite interesting, setting aside his popular anti-theist rants for some basic science education, he talked about his upcoming  book The Magic of Reality which looked like a great gift for children. It was also announced that the Richard Dawkins Foundation would be working to provide child care at future skeptic and science meetings which hopefully will help enable more women to attend.  The live recording of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe was also really good, its certainly one of my favorite podcasts.  Bill Nye (The Science Guy!) gave a very entertaining presentation. The “Our Future in Space” panel moderated by Phil Plate featuring Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss, and Pamela Gay was just plain amazing and quite funny, I hope others will get to see the video. Tyson also gave a presentation of his own which was quite good, he is a really engaging speaker. Other presentations and panels included Michael Shermer, Eugenie Scott, Jennifer Michael Hecht, PZ Meyers, Sadie Crabtree, Richard Wiseman, Steven Novella, Sara E. Mayhew, Jennifer Ouellette, Elizabeth Loftus, Susana Martinez-Conde, Stephen Macknik, Harriet Hall, Karen Stollznow, Heidi Anderson, Rachael Dunlop, David Gorski, Jen McCreight, Ben Radford, Jamy Ian Swiss, Ginger Campbell, Elyse Anders, Richard Saunders, Amy Davis Roth, Greta Christina, Joe Nickell, Justin Trottier, Debbie Goddard, Jamila Bey, Sean Faircloth, Mark Crislip, Julia Galef, Hemant Mehta, Carol Tavris, and Maria Walters

I did not  attend any of the numerous workshops but I hope to attend some next year. I did however go to some of the after-events such as the ¡SATIRISTAS! comedy show in which Jamie Kilstein performed and killed it! Billy the Mime was also very funny, the best mime act Ive ever seen. I even attended Penn’s Bacon & Donut party and saw his band play a few songs. Don’t worry I had plenty of Ronald’s donuts to tide me over.

The Pythagorean Posse meet-up was awesome. On Saturday we met at one of the casino bars, the Del Mar, before heading out to Atmoic#7 for some great vegan ice cream. I met some great folks and had some good conversations. While everyone else headed back to the hotel Michael and I headed to Yayo taco and I got a really yummy tofu taco platter to take back to  Max Maven’s magic show Thinking in Person, he blew my mind and was also quite funny.

Vegas itself was deadly hot, I nearly killed myself on a mile walk in 117 degree heat to get a veggie sub. The hotel didn’t have too much to offer vegans but the beer was quite cheap, I highly suggest they add a tofu pup to their hotdog cart. Once I got my bearings and met some folks with cars I didn’t do too bad on food though I think bringing a hot plate might be a good idea for the future.

Overall I had an Amaz!ng time and I don’t know about you but I’ve already started saving up for next year.

*Videos Now Available from TAM 9:
Our Future In Space

Sadie Crabtree on Winning Hearts and Minds

Pain in Crustaceans?

July 6, 2011

Do a Google news search for “lobster” and “pain” and you will come up with a list of conflicting news articles such as “Lobsters and Crabs Feel Pain, Study Shows” and “Scientists Say Lobsters Feel No Pain”. Its a hot debate, the research and reporting on crustacean nociception and pain is mixed and complex, there just is no simple scientific consensus on the issue. While researching the subject I stumbled across this blog post in which the author rightly debunks the myth that lobsters scream when boiled, the sound is actually hot air escaping through their carapace. But the author then asserts that lobsters and other crustaceans also simply do not have the necessary “nerve pathways and brain regions” to feel pain. The author goes on to say that “…they don’t have a real brain at all, for that matter. In other words, no brain, no pain”. While there is legitimate contention about the degree to which crustaceans are sentient or can feel pain, the idea that lobsters (and other crustaceans) do not posses a brain or endogenous opioid receptors is simply false. I’m not sure where the author was getting their information, perhaps it was this 2005 CNN article, which uses the “No brain, no pain” phrasing, about a report on lobsters in which scientists at the University of Oslo state “it is unlikely that they can feel pain.” But it was far from conclusive, the scientists themselves wrote near the end of their report,

“Still, it is not clear if the lobster can feel pain…we may be mistaken in assuming that invertebrates have a reduced capacity to experience suffering. Suffering is a private experience, or a negative mental state that cannot be measured directly. The responses of invertebrates to noxious conditions are often strikingly similar to those of vertebrates. Several experimental studies have shown that invertebrates such as cockroaches, flies and slugs have short and long-term memory, have ability of spatial and social learning, perform appropriately on preference tests, and may exhibit behavioural and physiological responses indicative of pain. The similarity of these responses to those of vertebrates may indicate a level of consciousness or suffering that is normally not attributed to invertebrates.” and added “there is apparently a paucity of exact knowledge on sentience in crustaceans, and more research is needed”

In commenting on the 2005 CNN article and the “No brain, no pain” meme, one Associate Professor of Biology who specializes in crustacean neurobiology at The University of Texas-Pan American wrote, “I won’t comment on the pain portion, but as to the claim that a lobster has no brain? It is wrong. It is false. It is incorrect. It is untrue. I don’t know how much more flatly I can say it. Lobsters have brains. So do crabs and crayfish and other crustaceans”

There have been numerous studies relevant to crustacean nociception, pain, and sentience but they have had mixed results, some of the positive studies made conclusions such as “We conclude that there is considerable similarity of function, although different systems are used, and thus there might be a similar experience in terms of suffering.“, “The results are consistent with the idea of pain in these animals.“, andThese findings are consistent with the idea of a pain experience rather than a nociceptive reflex.” A 2009 review of the published evidence lead one researcher to write

“A number of studies, although not specifically directed to the issue of pain, shows the ability of crustacean decapods to display such a rich behavioural repertoire that, if exhibited by vertebrates, would have been considered to be indicative of higher mental faculties. Again, the underlying rationale is that animals that possess such behaviours are sentient and may experience pain. Understandably, complexity in behaviour does not indicate consciousness but it may set out the basis for it”.

One  study published in Animal Behavior in 2008, showed that when acetic acid was applied to the antenna of prawns that they would groom the afflicted antenna and rub it on the side of the tank. Benzocaine, a local anesthetic, was found to inhibit this grooming and rubbing response without altering their general swimming activity. The researchers concluded, “The inhibition by a local anaesthetic is similar to observations on vertebrates and is consistent with the idea that these crustaceans can experience pain.”

On the other hand a similar study from 2010, looking at different species than the 2008 study, found “no change in behaviour… compared to controls“, concluding that,  “previously reported responses to extreme pH are either not consistently evoked across species or were mischaracterized as nociception. There was no behavioural or physiological evidence that the antennae contained specialized nociceptors that responded to pH.”  Unfortunately the nuance was lost on many and the author felt the need to clarify by pointing out on their blog a critical point from the paper, “we are not claiming that crustaceans do not have nociceptors. We are not claiming that crustaceans do not feel pain. Indeed, as we have emphasized, there are many reasons to expect that they could, making the results presented here all the more surprising.”

Similarly, experiments looking at changes in defensive behavior after administering injections of morphine and naloxone to crabs has yielded mixed results (1, 2, 3). Other evidence seems to demonstrates that crustaceans also may not be merely mindless automatons but rather posses some degree of agency, i.e. the ability to act outside of unconscious reaction & instinct. All that being said, pain is only one aspect of sentience and we should also be aware that different species cant develop widely different capacities and ways of interacting with the world. We also must be wary of being anthropocentric or vertebracentric (as some have called it) by only making direct comparisons to vertebrate physiology which are not always appropriate since nerves and brain regions can be co-opted for different purposes among different species.

So what does this all mean? We are left in the position of making an educated guess. We have to weigh the evidence and consider the potential ethical ramifications. Most of all we must learn to become comfortable with a degree of uncertainty. But even without perfect evidence we eventually need to make the decision of whether we will eat lobster and crab or not. To me, evidence of the possibility of some form of sentience in crustaceans and the potential costs of imposing suffering and ending an experience of life are just too great to ignore. I think Peter Singer had it right when he wrote,

“If crustacea can suffer, there must be a great deal of suffering involved, not only in the method by which they are killed, but also in the ways in which they are transported and kept alive at markets. To keep them fresh they are frequently simply packed, alive, on top of each other. So even if there is some room for doubt about the capacity of these animals to feel pain, the fact that they may be suffering a great deal, combined with the absence of any need to eat them on our part, makes the verdict plain: they should receive the benefit of the doubt.

Update 1/21/13: A new study titled, Shock avoidance by discrimination learning in the shore crab (Carcinus maenas) is consistent with a key criterion for pain adds another data point and concludes,

These data, and those of other recent experiments, are consistent with key criteria for pain experience and are broadly similar to those from vertebrate studies.


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