August 12, 2007

Stupid User Error?

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:43 am by nevavegan

S.U.E. Anyone?

A co-worker introduced me to this term after a very frustrating day when someone dominated actually several hours of my time because a database wasn’t working for them. Turns out they never read the instructions, never tried the initial solutions I sent them, and just kept insisting “it’s broken!” I had given them all the obvious fixes, I’d gone in back end to see if I could spot a problem, but then I went for back up. I went to someone with more technical skills than I have and asked her to take a look. “I’ll look at it,” she said, “but from what you describe you’ve probably got an S.U.E. going on here.” “Huh?” I responded. “Stupid User Error.”

Ah, how correct it was. Some while later we were going over the basics again, like if you’re creating a new document, hit the “create new document” button, don’t open and revise and save an old document then ask why your old documents keep going away. If you’re having a problem and I tell you what to try, don’t just tell me you tried and it didn’t work, you have to actually try it. On defined fields, don’t try to type in unallowable values. Hi, that’s why we gave you a pick list.

Sorry, a little on edge lately.

Anyway, I was wondering if S.U.E. applies to other areas of life, not just databases.

As I contemplate what it means to be abolitionist with regard to animal rights, I find my obsessive tendencies getting in the way. I don’t want to just say that certain things are wrong, inherently wrong, I also want to point out how they’re stupid and useless too. I don’t think it detracts from the moral argument to say “Oh, and another thing…” For example, when it comes to animal agriculture I see terrible ethical problems with using other living beings for our own ends. At the same time I’m distressed by the environmental damage from intensive animal farming. And I think it’s not healthy for us to eat all those animals and their excretions anyway.

That’s sort of how I approach vivisection too. I think it’s wrong to inflict suffering on a living, feeling, sentient creature in the name of science. I’m also upset by how stupid a lot of vivisection is and how wasteful. Maybe it’s why I also delight in stupid crook stories. Sure it’s inherently wrong to rob a bank, but to rob a bank and then drive the get away car straight into a police cruiser because you’re counting the money instead of watching the road… It’s just a whole different thing.

It’s stupid user error (I have the equipment, the brain, the eyes, the ability to read, I just neglected to use any of those things). So today I’m going to talk about the silliness of some experiments trying to create a model of mental illness in mice.

I read about how experimenters genetically modified mice with a human gene tied to schizophrenia to create “the world’s first schizophrenic mouse.” Aside from the obvious fact that this is unethical and cruel to the mice, there are other problems 1) we have no way to determine if this mouse has schizophrenia because all the tests for it are designed for humans and require spoken language and some self awareness to answer questions, 2) we don’t know if any mice naturally develop mental illness apart from us splicing their genes because (see 1) we have no tests to diagnose mental illness in mice (or other non-human animals). In humans, even with interviews and such, there is a fairly high misdiagnosis rate. So this is not a schizophrenic mouse, this is a mouse that has a human gene implanted which may be tied to schizophrenia. Then 3) even if this mouse is schizophrenic and even if drugs were developed to treat the schizophrenic mouse, it’s likely those drugs wouldn’t work in people. In fact we’d really have no way of knowing if they’re working in the mice either. You can’t ask the mouse if the “squeaking” in his head is better now and even if he seems calmer you can’t really know if his thinking is still scrambled or if the hallucinations have gone away completely.

As someone who has seen friends and family members torn apart by mental illness I want good treatments and available treatments. But I don’t want schizophrenic mice. Not just because if I don’t want to be mentally ill myself I can’t justify purposeful making an animal mentally ill. But also because the vast majority of research on schizophrenia in humans (which involves large cross-sections of patients, not just one family in Scotland) shows that while there are genetic factors involved in the development of schizophrenia, it is not purely a genetic disease.

Identical twins are more likely to have schizophrenia if their twin also has it, but it’s not 100%. So far in all genes identified as associated with the disease there are some patients found to not have those genes, and thus no known genetic cause is present in a subset of schizophrenics.

The consensus at this time is that there is a genetic tendency toward schizophrenia (often compared to a light switch which may be on or off) and then there are triggers that can flip that switch. Suggested triggers include prenatal exposure to viruses, chemical exposures, nutritional deficiencies, a traumatic episode, and many other theorized influences, even social factors. There is no trigger that is present in the history of all patients.

When we talk about all mental illness, not just schizophrenia, some of the most of the promising research and advances have come from brain scans/mris and blood tests of actual patients. Things that were once considered some personal failing (“you should pull yourself up by your bootstraps!”) are now being shown to have physical, identifiable aspects. If the mental illness is indeed the result of a chemical imbalance then that can be identified and treated in this way.

Sadly, for most mentally ill patients, diagnosis isn’t the biggest issue. Medications that work aren’t the biggest issue. The side effects of those medications aren’t the biggest issue either. Instead the main thing that keeps these people disabled by mental illness is access to treatment and care. It is not unusual to observe clearly mentally ill homeless people in urban areas–many are homeless chiefly because of mental illness, not the other way around. When you see this you are seeing the failings of our health care system at work.

Also we are beginning to understand that treating illnesses, especially mental illnesses, isn’t as easy as handing someone a bottle of pills, no matter how good those pills are. Most mentally ill patients need therapy and continuing support even when they are on medication. Therapy helps patients re-integrate with society and supports them through problems relating to their illness that friends and family often cannot understand or advise on. Therapists can also observe subtle changes in behavior and either prescribe adjustments in medication or refer the patient to a doctor who can prescribe. Because the mentally ill are vulnerable, many patients are not just dealing with a chemical condition but also trauma or other co-morbid conditions and therapy can assist with this. Without ongoing therapy many patients will not successfully reintegrate into society and may stop taking medication.

As someone deeply concerned about mental illness in our society, I’m also appalled by the thought of spending millions on genetically altering mice, while generations of our citizens are felled by mental illness just because they have no access to care, and more never even get a decent diagnosis.

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1 Comment »

  1. Anonymous said,

    Very good blog post. As someone who suffers from mental illness–and it’s tough, though obviously not so much as that of those who live on the streets–I would never want to gain relief at the cost of mice. Not just because I feel it would be fundamentally wrong to do so, but because, well, they’re MICE, not PEOPLE, and we’re different in many crucial ways. I’d be concerned that something would go wrong in the long run.


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