How To Sell Science

11 12 2010

The above poster was created to promote the Rock Stars of Science campaign!

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One of my favourite shows of all time, the West Wing, had the President discussing the fact that despite solid scientific evidence suggesting that the existing drug policy should be changed to reverse the 2-to-1 funding ratio for narcotics law enforcement to treatment, science simply doesn’t sell, and the public will not buy what science has to say about the issue.  They will simply see a change in policy as the government becoming soft on drugs and crime.

Setting aside my own thoughts on drug law enforcement versus treatment, the salient issue for me today is how do we make science sexier?  How do we make people care?  How do we convince the public that what we have to say is valid and useful and directly applicable to their everyday lives?

I’ve always believed that part of the problem is that as scientists, we are trained to explain the significance of our findings in a reasonable, measured manner, so we cannot simply say that we found an HIV vaccine (just to be clear, we haven’t really found one yet…), for example, without qualifying that it only worked for a small proportion of people and only for a year because that’s how long the study lasted for.  In the fast-paced world of today, the public has no time and no interest, and perhaps not enough scientific education to understand the details of the findings.  The media knows what the public wants, and so it takes advantage of the disconnect between scientist and public to distort findings and create sensationalized news.

Scientists are constantly frustrated with our inability to engage the public, because without public interest and attention, there is less government funding for the research, and our findings make less of an impact in how the world is seen and run.  This frustration can force us to make mistakes in hopes of reaching out to the public, such as the recent NASA gaffe about how finding bacteria grown in arsenic opens the possibility of finding life in parts of the universe that might otherwise be considered uninhabitable.  I think part of the issue is that the findings may not have been as conclusive as it was announced to be, but the other part is the huge leap to the conclusion that this finding greatly increases the possibility that there is life on other planets.

Of course, the scientists aren’t really saying that the findings, if true, would mean that life has been found on another planet, but certainly, NASA would have known that the way in which they presented their findings would lead to the media spinning the story to insinuate to the public that finding these arsenic-resistant organisms means we are one step closer to finding alien life, essentially sensationalizing the story.

As a result of this news, both NASA and the scientists are being attacked by other scientists, questioning the validity of the study and the way in which the news was revealed to the public.

In short, my point is that communicating science accurately to the public and getting the public to care and understand the findings is a huge challenge that we, as scientists, are not very good at, but this is a problem that needs to be tackled, because it affects everyone.

How to communicate science is a topic that is very near and dear to my heart (because I think scientific findings can be so beneficial to progress in the world in all domains of life if politicians and policy makers could understand the findings and take them seriously), so I have blogged about this before, but the point of my post today is that I actually have some examples of how some people are finally tackling this important issue!

The Rock Stars of Science campaign pairs well-known celebrities, like Sheryl Crow, Timbaland, Josh Groban, Bret Michaels, and Keri Hilson, with leading scientists to bring more awareness to the scientists and the research that they do in hopes of engaging the public.  I think this is a great start to building these types of relationships, but my greatest critique about the project is that it’s unclear what the organization does other than make these great posters.  From what I can gather, online donations are collected and donated to research.  It would be great, though, if the stars could be leveraged in other ways, such as with tv ads, concerts, etc., for the same cause.  This may be happening, but it’s just unclear from the website that it has been.

My other critique of the campaign is that it seems to focus on medical research, which is great because their message is on giving back by helping find cures and taking science from bench to bedside.  However, if other similar organizations can focus on the importance of basic research in areas like physics and chemistry, that could really help the public understand that all research builds upon each other, and without basic research in very remote areas of science, there would not be any medical advances at all.

Now if only they got all the stars together and created a nerdy theme song with the scientists…like this one:

The other fantastic initiative related to science communication that I discovered was started by the great Alan Alda, the actor from M*A*S*H, the West Wing, and many other credits.  Essentially, he started a program that trains research scientists in improvisational acting in hopes of improving their skills in communication to the public.  I think this program is exactly the type of thing we need in science, and I can’t decide between wanting to be part of this program and helping organize it!  Probably both!

If you’re interested, please read the article, because I think it does a great job of summarizing why the program was instigated and why it’s important. As Alan Alda, who first realized this communication problem when he interviewed hundreds of the world’s top scientists about their discoveries for Scientific American Frontiers (a show on public television from 1993-2005), puts it, “We need to talk to the public.  This is holding back the country, and it’s holding back the world from making progress on what we now know…The affect, facial expression, body language — these are things that you wouldn’t think are part of a scientific presentation.  Emotion is so important.  In scientific communication, emotion is probably trained out of us, but there’s no reason why it can’t be included.  Science is a great detective story, especially when you’re talking to the public.  You want them to get involved in this interesting, emotional tangle.”

I am now applying to study at the Centre for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University =).

I think a next step should be for governments to hire more scientists (and/or involve them and value them more) so that they can have regular conversations with policy makers and explain the significance of certain findings, both to downplay findings that are overinflated and trumpet the ones that didn’t have great PR.

In essence, I think we need more scientists to help government officials see more clearly the value and objective truths of science.

Of course, scientists are still human, and thus we also have political biases just like everyone else.  The trick, I think, would thus be to select a panel of scientific advisors that as a group have relatively balanced political opinions.  However, as a recent news article from the journal Science brings up, the vast majority of scientists are liberal-minded, so finding conservative scientists to fill these positions may be a challenge.  If there could be more scientists with more conservative political ideologies, the hope is that they could better convince their governmental colleagues of what science brings to the table.

Why most scientists are left-leaning is an interesting question by itself, but I think I will hold that thought for another day…





The Root of All Conflict.

16 10 2010

The awesome comic above is from http://xkcd.com/

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The happenings both in the world and in my local community have forced me to ponder about conflict.

What causes differences in opinions and actions that are so great as to be perceived as irreconcilable?

Conflict makes me extremely uncomfortable, and one of my greatest weaknesses is that I avoid confrontation at almost all costs.  My corollary strength, however, is that I rarely get into conflicts, because I’m so sensitive about them that I can often prevent them from starting (by trying to communicate, clarify, explain my point of view, and attempt to relate to theirs).  All this to say that I spend a lot of my time thinking about what causes conflict and how it can be avoided…

From my perspective, although many factors contribute to conflicts arising, I think that the root of all conflict lies in an insufficiency of empathy – the inability to step in someone else’s shoes, and think and feel from another person’s perspective.

Those responsible for bullying gay teenagers to suicide were unable to and/or too afraid of imagining how they would feel if videos of them having sex were posted for everyone to see against their wishes, or if they were made to feel like their lives are worthless every single day.

In my own community, conflicts arose because viewpoints may have been taken out of context and without attempting to understand any potentially genuine intentions behind the messages.  There seemed to me to be a paucity of empathy and some resistance to looking past what might be well-intended messages wrapped in poor delivery.

I believe that a scarcity in empathy often leads to misunderstanding and miscommunication, which forces each side to take extreme, defensive positions and actions that then preclude any hope for compromise and understanding.  No hope that the pendulum will ever stop swinging.

As with one of the biggest criticisms of partisan politics, the original issue that everyone genuinely and passionately cares about loses its rightful position as the centre of attention.  It becomes about taking sides, being right, and arguing against individuals rather than debating the topic at hand.

On a more personal note, I used to get really upset over the seemingly erratic behaviour of those around me (e.g., my mother would be late to pick me up after school almost all the time – if she loves me, why would she be late?).  My interest in psychiatry really grew from my need to understand people’s behaviours so that I could stop freaking out over unexplained phenomena.  Once I began to understand the motivations and intentions behind individual actions, I realized that what I perceived to be bad behaviours often came as byproducts of all the positive aspects of someone’s personality (in my mother’s case, her consistent tardiness is a byproduct of her spontaneity and her incredible presence and focus on you when she’s with you, both aspects of her amazing personality that I wouldn’t trade for the world).  Thus, whenever I observe what might be considered a bad habit or behaviour in someone, I try to think about and notice what the correlating good has to be, and I almost always succeed.  Unfortunately, the side effect of this approach is that I found that I could no longer get mad at anybody (at least most of the time…).

All of this cryptic talk really just to introduce the following video.

Joel Burns, the mayor of Fort Worth in Texas, bravely told his inspiring and challenging personal story during a city council meeting, in response to the recently publicized suicides of many gay teenagers.

Those who have read this blog before would know that these posts tend to turn into essays, but in this case, I am trying to keep it short (I can see now that I semi-failed at that…), because the 13-minute video below speaks louder and more clearly about the power and necessity of empathy than any words I could attempt to put together here.

I challenge you not to cry while watching this (because I certainly lost that challenge…).

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It’s About Hope.

10 10 2010

For the past week, I’ve been in a depressive funk.

There were a lot of contributing factors, but one of the most salient ones was the news that in the last few weeks alone, five gay teenagers committed suicide.  One of the cases was of Tyler Clementi, who jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate allegedly posted a video of him having sex with another man.

My immediate response was disappointment that we are part of a society where youth feel unsupported, unloved, and unaccepted to the point that they feel they have no choice but to take their own lives.  I became frustrated at the fact that we deny equal rights to certain populations, and then wonder where our children learn to treat others as if they are inferior.  I was confused as to where the products of the evolution of empathy were to be found.  I became depressed at the thought that the world is farther back than where I thought we were.

I became so absorbed in my disappointment with the world that I began to only see the negative aspects of every part of my life: from my relationships to what happened in school, and even in the themes of the musical that I’m part of.  My mindset was incredibly dangerous, because focusing on the negative meant that I was no longer the smiley, happy, outspoken person that I usually am.  It meant that I lost confidence in myself, and as I lost my grasp of who I was and of my place in the world, I focused even more on the negative, and I lost more confidence in myself, and the vicious cycle continued…

And then someone slapped me out of it.  It’s ohkay – she used words (not physical violence) =).

It turns out that I was so deep in my depressive cycle that I projected my personal frustrations onto characters in the school musical that I’ve been rehearsing for.  Without going into all the details (I still want people to come see the show!), the lead character dies in the end, and I was disappointed that he felt pressured into committing suicide.  He was manipulated by his best friend and felt that the world no longer supported him or cared for him, and he could no longer escape through his fantasies like he used to.  It was heartbreaking to watch a character I empathize with feel so trapped to the point of seeking death as his only exit.

But as it turns out, I was completely wrong.

My friend, who happens to be the director of the play, explained to me that from her perspective, the musical is about the two people who become best friends by learning from each other throughout the course of the show, and the main protagonist gaining the ability to put full force behind his convictions, which included the strength to sacrifice for love.  It’s a tragic story, yes, but it’s a beautiful story where the characters end up gaining resilience, integrity, and strength.

Likewise, I realized that in real life, I was losing sight of what was important.  I was focusing on the wrong things.  The truth is that the suicides were undoubtedly horrific and preventable, but these tragedies have been happening for many, many years, so the massive response of the media and the public now should really be seen as a ray of hope.

And that should be the story.  Not despair at what we can no longer change, but courage, power, will, and passion to focus on how tomorrow can be made better by the lessons of today.

Many celebrities (including Neil Patrick Harris, Tim Gunn, Chris Colfer, & Modern Family’s Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet) are chiming in to the chorus of voices rising up against these preventable deaths, and many of their stories are personal and touching ones detailing how they were once treated horribly for being different, and how they overcame that to find a better world because of their resilience.  One of my favourite videos (below) is from the cast of the musical Wicked, and I like their message because it incorporates many different experiences of barriers to being able to be themselves, but all of them made it through.  These videos are part of the “It Gets Better” campaign, striving to reach out to youth who are struggling with their identity both internally and externally, and it’s tied to The Trevor Project, a 24-hour suicide hotline in the US for gay and questioning youth.

I think these videos work because they demonstrate to youth that if some of their idols and successful role models made it through some rough years, they can, too.  These videos will also hopefully initiate dialogue, from the House of Commons to the water coolers everywhere in the world, so that actions can start being taken, from changes in public policy to changes in personal opinions of intolerance that led to these suicides in the first place.

Ultimately, I believe these videos work because they turn very unfortunate situations into an opportunity for change.  We need to recognize and mourn those we have lost, but it is equally important to turn the focus onto what can be done so that these incidents will eventually never happen again.

It’s all about generating hope.

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It definitely does get better, and it’s just as important to understand that it could get a little worse before it gets better.  I really appreciated that someone in the video above shared his story about how his mother literally had a heart attack when he came out to her.  It shows that the path to realizing your true and full self may not always be easy (and this doesn’t just apply to being gay, but being different in any way), and it may get worse before it gets better, but it does get better.  We find the people who love and embrace us for who we are.  We find the things we are passionate about, and the ways that we can change the world using our unique gifts.  It just takes time.

Sometimes, even I forget that profound personal and societal change takes time, but the journey is worth taking.  I try to start my day telling myself that the day will be awesome, and as a result, I find that I focus on the parts of my day that are delightfully and surprisingly rewarding, rather than on the little hiccups in the day that everyone has.

Trust that it will get better, and I promise that it will.

“This is the funny thing about growing up. For years and years, everybody’s desperately afraid to be different in any way.  And then, suddenly, almost over night, everybody wants to be different. And that is where we win.”
— Cam (Modern Family)

This weekend is Thanksgiving.

What am I most thankful for?

That despite all the injustice and inequality in this world, we get to share laughter.  That we come to find people with different perspectives and varied backgrounds, and we can have intelligent, passionate, respectful, and fun conversations that challenge our preconceived notions and change us for the better.

That we love, we live, and we have hope that tomorrow will be even better than today.





Of Autism And Vaccines – How Do We Communicate Science Better?

30 08 2010

There are very few things that I get full-out angry about, but the allegation that vaccinations cause autism is one of those few topics that make me furious.

A BBC article today posted that a mother of a brain-damaged teenager in the UK received a £90,000 payout from the government in response to the complaint that the teenager suffered his first epileptic fit 10 days after getting the MMR (mumps, measles, and rubella) vaccine as an infant.  I am not upset that the mother received the money; in fact, I’m glad that she has some funding to help deal with what must be a difficult illness with her son.  What I am upset with is the fact that this payout is, in my opinion, inaccurately publicized by an international news source, and the money is termed as a “compensation award”.

I have nothing against the BBC reporting what happened.  Unfortunately, my concern is that those who read this article will use it as evidence that vaccinations cause brain damage, because they might think, “Why would the government pay for it otherwise?”  I’ve always believed that scientists do a poor job in translating research findings to the public, and that is our fault.  However, the media doesn’t help when they publish articles like this.  I think I go too far if I try to say that it is irresponsible journalism, because they did put in the clarifications that the “decision reflects the opinion of a tribunal on the specific facts of the case and they were clear that it should not be seen as a precedent for any other case” and that “the ruling had no relevance to the question of a link between the vaccine and autism”.  Unfortunately, none of these explanations happen in the headline or the first six sentences.  I could be wrong, but I don’t think everyone reads to the bottom of every news article, and I’m concerned that society’s diet for sensationalized news and the media’s need to keep up with our appetite means that this article was meant to attract readers who want to use this news to fuel the anti-vaccine campaign.

Maybe I’m completely wrong about this – I hope I am wrong, but with celebrities like Jenny McCarthy strongly supporting organizations that encourage parents to doubt the validity of vaccines, I’m worried that there is a large subpopulation of people who buy the bad PR of vaccinations.  The reason this topic enrages me is because if babies are not vaccinated due to this type of misinformation, not only can the babies get sick and possibly die from those diseases, but herd immunity is lost and it puts entire communities at risk.

Misinformation of this nature is completely irresponsible and it kills, and it simply breaks my heart to know that babies are possibly suffering deaths that could have been prevented, not because of their fault, not because of their caretakers’ fault, but because poor communication between researchers, the media, and the public have led to poor reporting and other irresponsible actions that put all of society at risk.

I put the greatest burden on researchers, because I feel that we, as scientists, have an obligation to properly publicize our findings in order to educate the public on the relevance of our work to their lives.  We should not exaggerate our findings, nor undervalue them.  We are the source of information, so we need to be the most responsible, because if we start off the game of telephone with the wrong words, there is no way that the game can end well for anyone.

To illustrate the power and the necessary responsibility of the researcher, one needs only look at the Wakefield paper published in the Lancet journal in 1998, suggesting a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.  This paper lent great support to the anti-vaccine movement, and even though there were many concerns later on about the study’s tiny sample size, Wakefield’s conflicts of interest, and allegations that he manipulated the data, the damage was done as soon as the press conference occurred.  As with the chaos theory, once the butterfly flaps its wings, it can no longer control the results of its own actions.  Thus, despite the Lancet paper being completely retracted this year and Wakefield being found guilty of professional misconduct through unethical research, the bad seeds have long been sewn, and the anti-vaccine movement continues as a beast of its own.

In a small group session at school last week, we discussed whether press releases for scientific research should be peer reviewed the way that scientific journal articles are peer reviewed.  My opinion was and is that there is an even greater need for press releases to be peer reviewed, because scientists may have some existing knowledge background from which to judge the validity of a study’s findings, but many in the general population do not, so it’s extra crucial for the scientific information to be explained to the media and the public in an accurate, concise, clear, and cohesive manner.

I guess my frustration and sensitivity with this issue lies in my inability to think of how we can go about rectifying this huge gap between research findings and public understanding of science.

Any ideas?

P.S. Please read this peer-reviewed article for a review of the hypotheses and evidence (or lack thereof) surrounding the link between vaccinations and autism.

P.P.S. Below is a video news report on how US federal judges this year found that there is clearly no scientific link between vaccinations and autism.





Seeing the World from the Other Side

26 05 2010
          
              

As my month-long journey on the other side of the Pacific comes to an end, I am left to reflect on the things I have seen and thought about and learned.

If I had to declare my relationship status with Hong Kong and China on Facebook (to me, HK and China will always be different), I would choose “It’s complicated”.  The term “love-hate” also comes to mind.

Hong Kong is the home of my parents and where I was born, but it was China and the incident at Tiananmen Square that made my dad cry in front of the tv in 1989, mourning the lost of his trust for his incoming government.  My dad is a Chinese patriot who wants nothing more than for his people to flourish.  It was devastating for my father when he realized that he could not let me be raised in an environment where such violence, oppression, and injustice could prevail.  [Note on May 21st, 2010: I am writing this post in China and found Tiananmen Square on Wikipedia, but then I tried to click on the link to the page about the protests of 1989, at which point the page ceased to exist, the Tiananmen Square page that I had just accessed no longer worked, and I could no longer even access Wikipedia.  My dad told me that it was stupid to try to write a blog post about this sensitive subject here, so I stopped.]

[Note on May 25th, 2010: I am finishing this blog post in Hong Kong with no problems on Wikipedia.  Exhibit A for the difference between Hong Kong and China.]

Even though China seemingly still limits certain freedoms, I realize it’s not as black and white.  Cries of censorship, the one-child policy, and unrest in Tibet, among many other issues, seem to paint China as an oppressive state, but people in China have a different point of view:  “Google’s cry of censorship is just a reaction to its loss against Baidu.”  “The one-child policy was necessary to limit the number of uneducated children that would grow up poor and hungry while giving loopholes for those who can afford to raise and educate to make other arrangements.”  “China does everything in their power to rectify history with Tibetans the way Canada tries with the First Nations people; if Tibet secedes like Quebec wants to, Tibet will not be able to survive as its own entity.”  I do not know for sure what the “truth” is or if there is just one, but it’s refreshing to learn that there are other interpretations of what China is all about.  

This trip to China has allowed me to see citizens enjoying coffee in the sunshine with their family, laughing and playing basketball with their friends while wearing jeans fancier than mine, and working towards sustainable urban planning (for example, municipal governments pay to prevent factory pollution into lakes and to preserve parks and expansive hills so citizens can hike).  The only thing I really disapproved of was them playing basketball in jeans – I mean seriously, guys…  Perhaps I needed to take off my Western-coloured glasses to see China naked with all its flaws and beauty.

Yes, China blocks Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Wikipedia (if you search for sensitive topics), but without proper education, radical knowledge and ideas can be leveraged to manipulate a peaceful citizenry working hard to survive into an angry mob sacrificing everything for a cause they don’t understand or believe.  I am certainly not here to defend (or attack) China, but I understand their point of view and hesitation to simply grant unprecedented freedom immediately.  They currently allow Google, Gmail, BBC News, MySpace, LinkedIn, and Wikipedia (if you don’t search for sensitive topics…), and they are dedicated to slowly relaxing the one-child policy.  In the Western world, we believe freedom is a fundamental right and so we wish that for every citizen on this Earth, and that is admirable, but change cannot happen overnight.  External pressure to change for the better is necessary, but I think blindly accusing the nation of breaches against human rights without consideration of the progressive, though conservative, actions it is already taking, as well as the cultural climate of the times, is irresponsible.  With the recent Facebook crisis meeting on privacy and similar privacy concerns with Google, I sometimes wonder if China was visionary and ahead of its time when it decided to protect its citizens from these issues (via blocking these sites) before they came up =P.

My dad told me an interesting observation: the current population is really the first generation of car users in China, so they, accustomed to biking, drive cars exactly the same way they use bikes (i.e., driving casually into oncoming traffic, not following lights or lanes, biking and walking in the middle of a busy six-lane road – I’ve seen all of this firsthand).  Thus, when cars are introduced in a city, the number of deaths and casualties increase dramatically.  It’s a disaster because proper education did not precede the introduction of a new freedom.

Understanding the ramifications of making a decision based on context, and ensuring the proper infrastructure is in place to support these changes before they happen, makes all the difference.

Eastwood‘s comment on my last post is absolutely correct.  Poor mental health in China is a symptom of underlying stress, anxiety, and frustration due to a corrupt system, inequality, disparity, etc.  However, this inner turmoil is also the cause of violence within and without.  It is more like a signaling cascade where the effect (i.e., murder and suicide) has a chain of causes.  No nation is perfect.  Every country’s government will always struggle with controversial issues that affect the mental health of the people involved.  One example is the recent finding that more members of the lesbian, gay, and bisexual community suffer from psychiatric disorders in US states that banned gay marriage.  Efforts are being made to overturn these bans, but in the meanwhile, it doesn’t mean that this community should not be offered psychiatric help.  In the same way, as China cautiously makes changes in its limiting policies and improper practices, it doesn’t mean that it is not important to offer mental health support and spread awareness in this great country.

I am so thankful for this trip to Hong Kong/China – the friends, the family, the experiences.  I think the value of traveling is in opening up new perspectives of the world based on firsthand experience rather than preconceived notions and beliefs.  It’s odd to me that it has taken me 23 years to finally realize the beauty of my home country and fall in love it.  

This time, I don’t just mean Hong Kong.

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P.S. This blog post is dedicated to one Ms. Courtney Kohnen, my beautiful fiancee.  Before I discourage potential suitors, though, let me say that she is not actually my fiancee, but I love her just the same =). 

We are doing “The Rush” to raise money for the BC Lung Association so please let us know if you would like to help out an amazing cause.  My grandfather passed away from lung cancer and it not only ended a brilliant life prematurely, but it left my dad fatherless at age 10, changing his life forever.





Why China has a murderous epidemic…

25 05 2010

I always say that when someone loses a leg, it is not the physical loss of that limb, but the mental repercussions that devastate the patient.  My counselor told me that it is not what happens to us, but what our reaction is, that makes all the difference.  When we have a physical health issue (like an ear infection), we go see a doctor to help us feel better.  Why is it that we cannot do the same to help us deal with the death of a family member or relationship trouble or bullying?  Why do we have this notion that when it comes to these issues, we should be able to deal with them ourselves?  Why do we think that relying on others to deal with these personal problems makes us weak?  It is pure strength and courage to know when to ask for help and act on it in the face of all the stigmatization.

Since March, a murderous epidemic (five fatal attacks on school children) has erupted all over China and factory workers have been taking their own lives ceaselessly (the tenth one this year, at just one company, died yesterday).  It takes my breath away to know that mental health is still stigmatized in so many Asian countries.  Even in Hong Kong, going to see a psychiatrist means you must be crazy.  It forces individuals to repress their negative thoughts and their uncontrollable feelings of prejudice or anger or injustice or grief until it’s too late and those individuals behead their neighbours on a Greyhound bus, murder innocent children, or commit suicide.  

My dad is a businessman and thus describes the situation as China being a gigantic market for mental health treatment waiting to be tapped.  With the limited amount of entertainment families can afford, a general lack of understanding of how and why to value parent-child relationships, an overabundance of corrupt and/or abusive authority figures, and the public secret that every married man will have at least one mistress, there is a lot of tension and stress that builds up within every family and every individual.  Without the proper outlet for release, without a framework of education in terms of why every single person wrestles with mental health issues, no one will notice or dare to point out any signs and symptoms of mental health problems in others or themselves until lives are lost and it is much too late.  How can we afford to wait until then?

We need to do better.  This situation needs to change, in China and everywhere else.