TIME technology

Facebook’s Controversial Experiment: Big Tech Is the New Big Pharma

Facebook Privacy Flaw Exposes Private Photos
The Facebook logo is reflected in the eyeglasses of a user in San Francisco on Dec. 7, 2011. Bloomberg/Getty Images

Research in digital media is turning data science into human subjects research.

It seems nearly everyone is angry about Facebook’s already infamous emotional manipulation study—most recently, European regulators. A number of solid objections to both the study itself and to what it reveals about Facebook have been raised, but Facebook and a few others initially defended the study by saying such experiments in user-experience design are something they do all the time, just ordinary industry R&D.

I never thought I’d say this, but Facebook is technically correct. They actually are shaping and manipulating your experiences on the site all the time. Facebook’s very design encourages sharing positive emotions more than negative ones, and its mysterious algorithms pick and choose who gets to see what content. But it’s not just Facebook. Any and every platform on the Web that uses algorithms is also manipulating what you see on their sites (a more generous term might be “automagically curating”), and most platforms aren’t transparent about what they’re doing or how they’re doing it. The truth is that you’ve been a lab rat for at least as long as you’ve used online media. You just didn’t notice before.

But does the mere fact that such practices are commonplace make them right? And to what standards should we hold people who do research on social media? Should research subjects really have fewer rights simply because a corporation has a profit motive?

In truth there’s nothing particularly remarkable about the emotional contagion study, other than the fact a couple of academics were involved and someone decided to call the study “science” by publishing it in the journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences). Yet, we haven’t always given corporate research free rein, especially when it comes to covert manipulation.

By academic research standards, however, the emotional contagion study falls short. Facebook failed to get informed consent from participants in the study, and some have argued it risked pushing emotionally vulnerable users over the edge by making them more sad without debriefing them after the fact. Academic research on human subjects usually has to be approved by the host institution’s institutional review board (IRB), a group of people from various disciplines who evaluate research proposals before studies take place. This is to ensure the safety of the people who participate in the studies, and most prestigious scientific journals will only publish papers about studies that were IRB approved.

It looks now as though the emotional contagion study may not have been evaluated by an IRB. PNAS has said it decided to trust whatever IRB had initially approved the study, but Cornell’s IRB says it ruled the study exempt from its oversight because, while the two Cornell researchers helped to design the experiment and to analyze the results, they were not directly involved in collecting any data. This means all ethical oversight for the experiment goes back to Facebook, which is rather like leaving the proverbial fox to guard the henhouse.

And yet, IRBs aren’t a magic bullet. They can be more interested in avoiding lawsuits than in protecting research subjects. Their evaluation criteria are tailored to medical and biological research, and are therefore poorly suited to research in the social sciences. Even the most ethical of researchers will admit that IRB review can be tedious and time-consuming. Only (some) research that involves human subjects needs IRB approval, and one could argue that digital media platforms’ experiments are data science rather than human subjects research.

The Facebook study therefore spans a few different categories: is it human subjects research or is it data science? Is it scientific/academic research (and therefore potentially subject to IRB oversight) or is it corporate/marketing research (and therefore anything goes)? These distinctions, however, are part of the problem—and perhaps a bigger problem than the study itself.

Corporate research and academic research have been blurring together for some time. Before its regulatory tangle with the FDA, for instance, the direct-to-consumer genetic testing cum social networking company 23andMe was able to publish findings in the academic journal Public Library of Science (though gaining acceptance for publication was an involved process, largely because PLoS was more careful about 23andMe’s IRB review than PNAS was about Facebook’s). 23andMe is now seeking to reenter medical research by collaborating with academic researchers; Twitter is offering “data grants” to research institutions; Facebook is seeking sociologists, though it wants the “digital demography” sort rather than the “critiques of power” sort; Snapchat actually hired a critique-and-theory sociologist. Pharmaceutical companies hire university hospitals to conduct clinical trials, and—as government and foundation funding for research dwindles, especially in the social sciences—universities and their departments increasingly depend on corporate funding to stay afloat.

Nor is the line between “person” and “data” so clear anymore. Digital technologies have become so integrated into how we experience the world that my colleague PJ Rey and I argue the digital social technologies we use count as part of ourselves. This means that, even if the Facebook study is data science, it is also human subjects research—even if Facebook never experimented directly on people’s physical bodies.

We need to create new basic standards for social and behavioral research, and these standards must apply equally to corporations and institutions, to market researchers and academic researchers, to data scientists and social scientists alike. At minimum, these standards should include informed consent the way I learned it in my graduate training as a sociologist, rather than as an aside buried in an undecipherable Terms of Service agreement that few people even attempt to read. (Note the participation-rate success of 23andMe’s research arm, which used to be called “23andWe.” Whatever else one might say about the venture, 23andWe did demonstrate not only that people like to be asked for consent, but that given an opportunity to contribute to “science,” quite a number of folks will opt in and volunteer to share their data.)

We also need to design a new review process that can more readily accommodate both social scientific research methods and the realities of life in the increasingly digitized 21st Century, and this process must be both transparent to the public and not unduly cumbersome to researchers. Facebook has since apologized (sort of) for the emotional contagion study, and has said it will change how it handles research in the future. But if the end result of the blowup over the study is that corporations’ social and behavioral research retreats further into secrecy and away from independent oversight of any kind, then everyone loses.

Whitney Erin Boesel is a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, a Visiting Scholar at the MIT Center for Civic Media, and a PhD student in Sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She’s active on Twitter as @weboesel.

TIME Research

Study: Plants Can ‘Hear’ Their Attackers’ Approach

caterpillar eating a leaf
Close up of a monarch caterpillar, Danaus plexippus, feeding on a milkweed leaf. Darlyne A. Murawski—Getty Images/National Geographic Creative

Some plants can hear and react to enemy caterpillars

Some plants can hear caterpillars eating leaves and respond by emitting caterpillar-repelling chemicals, according to a new study published in the journal Oecologia.

Scientists have known that certain plants respond to sound vibrations—corn roots, for example, lean toward vibrations of a specific frequency—but until now it hasn’t been clear why they’re able to do so. In this experiment, researchers from University of Missouri exposed one set of plants to a recording of caterpillars eating plants and found they emitted more of the anti-caterpillar chemical and did it more quickly than the plants that weren’t exposed to the sound.

The researchers also found that background noise like wind or insects had no impact on the plants, indicating that the plants could distinguish the sound of their attackers.

Now the researchers are looking for the “ears” of the plants that allow them to hear, though they suspect they take the form of proteins known as “mechanoreceptors” found in plants and animals that respond to pressure.

TIME Stem Cells

Blockbuster Stem-Cell Studies Retracted Because of Fraud

Editors of Nature, which published two papers claiming to generate stem cells in a simplified way, are retracting both papers after data was “misrepresented.”

In an editorial published on Wednesday, editors at the scientific journal Nature announced their decision to retract two papers that received wide media attention, including by TIME, for apparently dramatically simplifying the process of creating stem cells. Genetically manipulating older, mature cells are the only confirmed methods for reprogramming them back to their embryonic state, but in the Nature papers, Japanese scientists claimed to have accomplished the feat by physical means, using an acidic bath or physical stress.

Several months after the papers were published, one of the co-authors, from the RIKEN Institute, called for their retraction, saying “I’m no longer sure that the articles are correct.” RIKEN’s own probe determined that the studies’ lead author, Haruko Obokata, was guilty of misconduct.

At the time, Nature launched its own investigation into concerns that some of the figures in the paper contained errors, and that parts of the text were plagiarized. The journal now says that “data that were an essential part of the authors’ claims have been misrepresented. Figures that were described as representing different cells and different embryos were in fact describing the same cells and the same embryos.”

MORE: Stem-Cell Scientist Guilty of Falsifying Data

While scientific journals have peer-review processes to check researchers’ work, they rely on the fact that the scientists are presenting their data in their entirety and without any biases—something that didn’t occur in this case.

Nature’s editors say they are reviewing their review process and intend to improve on the way they select articles to ensure that such mistakes are minimized.

TIME Research

Here’s Why Tibetans Can Live Comfortably At Crazy-High Altitudes

Tibetans Can Live at High Altitudes
The Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. Dave Bartruff—Getty Images

Ancient mating patterns seem to have given these plateau dwellers an odd advantage

When you or I go up to high altitude, we gasp for a while, maybe faint, and then gradually adapt. The way we do it is by furiously generating more red blood cells, to increase the blood’s ability to absorb oxygen, which gets thinner the higher we go. But we pay a price: all of those extra blood cells can make the blood sticky, leading to a risk of high blood pressure, heart attack and, in pregnant women, the delivery of low-birth-weight babies.

We pay that price, that is, unless we’re natives of the Tibetan plateau, where people live more or less cheerfully at altitudes of 13,000 feet and more. The secret lies in their genes—mostly in a gene known as EPAS1, which allows them to absorb scarce oxygen without creating extra blood cells. But while genetic traits are often created by mutations within a given species, this one evidently came from outside. According to a paper just published in the current Nature, the Tibetans’ ancestors evidently mated with a now extinct human species known as the Denisovans, which went extinct somewhere around 40,000 years ago.

It’s no surprise that matings have happened between modern humans and other human species. We share a fair number of genes with the more familiar Neanderthals, for example, who were the Denisovan’s distant cousins. But it’s not clear (although it’s certainly possible) that Neanderthal genes gave our ancestors any specific evolutionary advantages.

For Tibetans, though, the high-altitude gene allowed them to colonize a region nobody else could survive (some Han Chinese, which make up more than 90% of the population of China, also have the gene, but it’s relatively rare). “We found part of the EPAS1 gene in Tibetans is almost identical to the gene in Denisovans,” said lead author Rasmus Nielsen, of the University of California, Berkeley, in a statement, ” and very different from all other humans.”

What’s perhaps even more surprising is that the scientists had Denisovan genes to work with in the first place. “The only reason we can say that this bit of DNA is Denisovan, said Nielsen, “is is because of this lucky accident of sequencing DNA from a little bone found in a cave in Siberia. We found the Denisovan species at the DNA level, but how many other species are out there that we haven’t sequenced?”

TIME Research

In 2025, Everyone Will Get DNA Mapped At Birth

What will the future hold? REB Images—Getty Images/Blend Images

Scientists have scoured trends in research grants, patents and more to come up with these 10 innovations that will be reality in 10 years (or so they think)

Everybody likes to blue-sky it when it comes to technology. Driverless cars! Fat-burning pills! Telepathic butlers! But the folks at Thomson Reuters Intellectual Property & Science do it for a living—and they do it with data.

By examining who’s investing in what, who’s researching what and who’s patenting what, the group has come up with 10 predictions of innovation for 2025, which they presented at the Aspen Ideas Festival. The list included the first attempts at testing teleportation, the ubiquity of biodegradable packaging and electric air transportation.

Here’s what they say will be commonplace in medicine in a decade:

1. Dementia will be on the decline

While the World Health Organization predicts that more than 70 million people will be affected by dementia, much of it related to Alzheimer’s disease, by 2025, that upward trajectory of cases may be blunted somewhat by advances in genetics that will lead to earlier detection and possible treatment of the degenerative brain disorder.

2. We’ll be able to prevent type 1 diabetes

Unlike type 2 diabetes, which generally develops when the body gradually loses its ability to break down sugar properly, type 1 diabetics can’t produce enough insulin, the hormone that dispatches sugar from the diet. Advances in genetic engineering will lead to a more reliable technique for “fixing” genetic aberrations that contribute to type 1 diabetes as well as other metabolic disorders, making it possible to cure these conditions.

3. We will have less toxic cancer treatments

Building on the promise of targeted cancer therapies, which more precisely hone in on tumor cells while leaving healthy cells alone, researchers will have a deeper knowledge of the Achilles’ heels of cancer cells, which will help them to develop more powerful and precise drugs that can dispatch tumors with fewer side effects.

4. Every baby will get its DNA mapped at birth

It’s already a trendy thing to have your genome sequenced, but today there isn’t much you can do with the information. Having that information, however, may prove useful in the near future, both for predicting your risk of developing diseases as well as your ability to respond (or not) to certain drugs. As knowledge about the genome, and what various genes, or versions of genes do, grows, so will doctors’ ability to predict health outcomes and treat patients based on genetic information. So within a decade, getting a baseline DNA map at birth could be a valuable way of preparing to lead a healthier and possibly longer life.

TIME Research

One in 10 Deaths Due to Excessive Drinking

A group of girls drinking. Lineker's Bar, Playa de las Américas in Tenerife, Canary Islands in 2007.
A group of girls drinking. Lineker's Bar, Playa de las Américas in Tenerife, Canary Islands in 2007. PYMCA/UIG/Getty Images

The CDC says it's probably best to pass on another round

Excessive drinking accounts for one in 10 deaths among adults between ages 20-64 years, according to a recent study.

Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed data on alcohol-related deaths from 2006 to 2010 and found drinking too much is one of the leading causes of preventative death.

Death from alcohol abuse can happen in a variety of ways. Excessive drinking (4 or more drinks on an occasion for women, 5 or more drinks on an occasion for men) can threaten people’s health in the short term, such as by drunk driving or alcohol poisoning, but can also lead to long-term health consequences like heart disease, breast cancer and liver disease.

Excessive drinking led to 88,000 deaths per year from 2006-2010 and shortened the lives of those who died by 30 years. That equates to about 2.5 million years of potential life lost to drinking. Premature deaths due to excessive drinking costs the U.S. about $224 billion a year, or $1.90 a drink, the researchers report in the study published in Preventing Chronic Disease.

About 70% of alcohol-related deaths occurred among men. Discrepancies were also noticed state to state, with New Mexico having the highest rate of death from excessive drinking, and New Jersey the lowest.

“Excessive alcohol use is a leading cause of preventable death that kills many Americans in the prime of their lives,” said Ursula E. Bauer, director of CDC’s National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion in a statement sent to reporters. “We need to redouble our efforts to implement scientifically proven public health approaches to reduce this tragic loss of life and the huge economic costs that result.”

TIME Research

Women More Likely Than Men to Seek Mental Health Help, Study Finds

And women seek help earlier

Women with chronic physical illnesses are 10% more likely to seek support for mental health issues than men with similar illnesses, according to a new study.

The study from St. Michael’s Hospital and the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Science also found that women tend to seek out mental health services months earlier than men. Researchers looked at people diagnosed with at least one of four illnesses: diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Of people diagnosed with these conditions, women were not only more likely than men to seek mental health services, but they also used medical services for mental health treatment six months earlier than men in any three-year period.

For the purposes of the study, “mental health services” were defined as one visit to a physician or specialist for mental health reasons, such as depression, anxiety, smoking addiction or marital difficulties.

“Our results don’t necessarily mean that more focus should be paid to women, however,” study author Flora Matheson, a scientist in the hospital’s Centre for Research on Inner City Health, said. “We still need more research to understand why this gender divide exists.”

The findings, published in the British Medical Journal’s Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, could suggest various conclusions about the way that different sexes use mental health services. It may mean that women feel more comfortable seeking mental health support than men or that men delay seeking support. The study could also imply that symptoms are worse among women, which would encourage more women to seek help and to do so sooner.

“Chronic physical illness can lead to depression,” Matheson said. “We want to better understand who will seek mental health services when diagnosed with a chronic physical illness so we can best help those who need care.”

TIME Research

Parents Are More Worried About Milk and Egg Than Peanut Allergies

Photo by Maren Vestøl—Getty Images/Flickr Select

In surprising findings

Peanut allergies are terrifying for parents, but recent research shows they’re actually even more concerned about milk and egg allergies.

Researchers from the University of Michigan studied 305 caregivers of kids with milk, egg, peanut or tree nuts allergies, and analyzed their understanding of their child’s allergy as well as their quality of life. Parents of kids with milk and egg allergies have increased anxiety and strain over their child’s allergies compared to parents of kids allergic to peanuts, the researchers found.

“It’s assumed peanut and tree allergies are the most severe, and therefore it may be presumed they would cause the most strain for caregivers” allergist and study author Dr. Laura Howe said in a statement. “But because eggs and milk are everywhere, and used to prepare so many dishes, caregivers with children allergic to those two ingredients feel more worried and anxious.”

Peanut allergies affect about 400,000 school-aged children in the United States, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. By comparison, milk allergies affect about 300,000 U.S. kids under age three, and egg allergies effect about about 600,000. But about 70% of people with egg allergies will outgrow it by age 16.

The researchers concluded that milk and eggs are ubiquitous in the American diet. Another study showed 72% of 614 allergic infants had another reaction to their milk or egg allergies within three years—showing that avoidance is difficult.

The study was published in the journal Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

TIME Research

Step Away From the Remote: Too Much TV Increases Risk For Early Death

Watching TV for too long means sitting for too long

New research reports that adults who watch three or more hours of TV a day may double their risk of premature death.

The new study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association studied 13,284 young and healthy Spanish university graduates and assessed risk of early death from three sedentary behaviors: TV watching, computer time and driving time. They didn’t find any associations with computer time and driving, but they report that the risk for death was two times higher for participants who watched three or more hours at a time, even when the study authors accounted for other factors related to early death.

The findings are still considered preliminary, though this is not the first time researchers have found seriously worrisome effects from watching too much TV (for instance, it can go along with eating too much junk).

The reality is that there’s nothing coming out of the TV that’s going to kill you, but sitting in front of the TV for hours on end means you are not basically not moving at all. We already know that sitting for prolonged periods is really bad for your health, and TV is one of the most common ways to forget about exercise.

The American Heart Association says it recommends people get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or at least 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity each week.

TIME Research

Here’s What You Use to Fight Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria

Researchers say a tough form of fungus may hold the key to battling the bacteria that are resistant to the strongest antibiotics

There’s a war going on, and most of us can’t even see it. Man has been battling microbes for millennia, and despite their microscopic size, the bugs have been winning. But man may finally have a leg up, scientists from Canada and the U.K. say—and it’s all thanks to a humble fungus.

While antibiotics have been a powerful weapon against bacteria that can cause serious and even fatal infections, the microbes have been just as busy as drug makers in finding ways to evade the medications. What’s more, the man-made compounds also appear to pose little challenge to bacteria, which are surrounded by such molecules, made by their neighbors, other microbes or other organisms in their environments. “Bacteria seem to laugh in their face,” says Gerard Wright, director of the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at McMaster University and the new study’s senior author. The result? Most antibiotics, including penicillin and the carbapenems that have been introduced more recently, contain a chemical ring that bacteria have been remarkably adept at breaking. Once compromised, the ring and the antibiotic are neutralized.

MORE: Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria Are Now In Every Part of the World

So most drug companies have tried to develop stronger, or slightly different chemical rings, but Wright and his colleagues decided to tackle the problem from a different tack. Why not disrupt the enzyme that the bacteria were using to disable the antibiotics instead?

It’s an old approach that most pharmaceutical companies have abandoned, since the strategy requires combining an antibiotic with something that disables the bacteria’s ability to resist the drug±two drugs means twice the potential complications and side effects, so most large-scale efforts have focused on building better solo antibiotics.

MORE: Antibiotic Resistant Genes Are Everywhere, Even in Arctic Ice

But aware that nature is a rich resource of organisms that naturally make compounds that can interfere with bacterial enzymes, Andrew King in Wright’s lab screened 500 such molecules and found one, from Aspergillus versicolor, that worked remarkably well in inhibiting New Delhi Metallobeta-Lactamase-1 (NDM-1), an antibiotic resistant gene that the World Health Organization recently called a global public health threat. (He also tested 30,000 synthetic compounds and none inhibited NDM-1.)

“Natural products, and especially natural products that come from microbes like bacteria and fungi, are privileged molecules, in the sense that they are products of evolution themselves, so they are much better at interacting with bacteria,” says Wright, who published his results in the journal Nature. Rather than being relatively simple and flat, like the compounds created in labs, these agents are three-dimensional with structures and functions that are difficult to recreate in a petri dish. “If we want to look for inhibitors of antibiotic resistance on a significant scale, we need to go back to these sources,” he says.

MORE: Why You Need to Worry About NDM-1: Not a ‘Superbug,’ But Still a Threat

The fungus turns out to be one of the most resilient organisms on the planet, able to survive in the harsh climates of the arctic, the salty Dead Sea and even the International Space Station. That hardiness also makes it among the most common molds in damp or water-damaged buildings and moist air ducts.

When Wright and his team tested the fungus in mice infected with lethal doses of K. pneumoniae that carried the NDM-1 resistance to antibiotics, the mice shrugged off the infection. In fact, the fungus allowed the antibiotic to work effectively again, essentially circumventing the bacteria’s attempt at resisting the drug.

“The idea of rescuing our old antibiotics, is something that folks are starting to realize is not only a good idea, but doable,” he says. He and his team hope to find similar inhibitors to neutralize resistance against the other major classes of antibiotics, but as optimistic as Wright is about the strategy, he admits that ultimately the bacteria may find ways to resist even these agents. “Resistance is a natural phenomenon’ it’s just natural selection. There’s no way to get around it.” Except perhaps to stay one step ahead of the microbes and find compounds that can thwart them…again and again.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser