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Archive for the ‘ethics’ Category

a bit more on cell cultures, cell mortality and patients’ rights

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Human connective tissue in culture, 500x. Image courtesy of Dr. Cecil Fox (photographer)/National Cancer Institute.

Canto: Well, we’ve followed up Meredith Wadman’s The vaccine race with Rebecca Skloot’s The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks, which intersects with Wadman’s book in describing cell cultures and their value in modern medicine and genetics. So are ready to talk about all this again?

Jacinta: Yes, this book tells a compelling history of the Lacks family as well as a story of the ethics around human cell cultures, based on the HeLa cell line taken from the cervix of Henrietta Lacks in 1951, shortly before she died of cervical cancer.

Canto: A very aggressive adenocarcinoma of the cervix, to be precise, though the tumour was misdiagnosed at the time.

Jacinta: Yes, her bodily state and her sufferings make for grim reading. And the cells were taken sans permission, in a pioneering era of almost no regulation and a great deal of dubious practice.

Canto: The wild west of cell and tissue culturology.

Jacinta: George Gey, the guy who ordered these cells to be taken, was a great pioneer in cancer and cell culture research, but he and others found it very difficult to keep human cells alive in vitro, so he was much surprised and delighted at his success with Henrietta’s tumour cells.

Canto: They were the first ever cells to live beyond the Hayflick limit, though that limit wasn’t spelt out by Hayflick until 1961.

Jacinta: And wasn’t accepted for decades after that. And the reason for their apparent immortality, a rare thing in untreated cells, was their cancerous nature. Human cancer cells contain an enzyme known as telomerase, which rebuilds the telomeres at the ends of chromosomes. Normally these telomeres, often described as like the protective caps at the ends of shoelaces, shorten and so become less protective with each cell division.

Canto: So if we could stop cancer cells from producing telomerase, you’d stop all that metastasising…

Jacinta: Sounds easy-peasy. And if we could introduce telomerase into non-cancerous cells we could all live forever.

Canto: Bet they haven’t thought of that one. So if this cell line was cancerous, how could they be of so much value? How could they be of any use at all, since the aim, I thought, was to produce ‘clean’ cells, like the WI-38 cells Hayflick produced ten years later? Remember how they had so many problems with monkey cells, which were full of viruses?

Jacinta: Well, forget viruses for the moment, the exciting thing about the HeLa cells was that they stayed alive and multiplied, which was rare, and so they could be experimented on in a variety of ways.

Canto: But did they use the cells for vaccines? The 1954 Salk polio vaccine was tested using these cells. How can you do this with cancerous cells?

Jacinta: Well it was the suitability of these cells for mass-production that made them ideal for test-driving the Salk vaccine, and of course their prolific nature was tied to their cancerous nature – Henrietta’s cancer seemed to be horribly fast-spreading, it was just about everywhere inside her at her death. Her cancer was caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV) and I’ve read that this may have had something to do with their prolific nature. She also had syphillis, likely contracted from her philandering husband, and this suppresses the immune system, allowing the cancer cells to multiply more rapidly. But even though they were cancer cells they shared many of the properties of normal cells, including the production of proteins and susceptibility to bacterial and especially viral infections. Of course you would never inject HeLa cells into humans, but their malignancy is an advantage in that you get the results of say, viral infection of cells as they reproduce, much more quickly than with normal cells, because of their reproductive rate. It seems old George Gey hit the jackpot with them, though he never made any more money out of them than the Lackses did.

Canto: They initially used rhesus monkey cells to test their antibody levels in response to Salk’s killed polio virus, but they were too hard to get and too expensive, and the HeLa cells were an excellent alternative because they were easily infected by the virus… and they reproduced with unprecedented alacrity.

The malignancy of immortality (or vice versa). A HeLa cell splitting into two new cells. The green spots are chromosomes. Courtesy Paul D. Andrews)

Jacinta: Yes, that’s to say, they readily produced antibodies, and so could be experimented on to produce the level of antibodies to create immunity. But growing cell cultures in vitro and maintaining them in a viable state, that’s been a decades-long learning process. Tissue culture these days is big business, which has led to the murky ethical questions about tissue ownership that Skloot refers to at the end of her book.

Canto: Yes but I for one am quite clear about that issue. I’m more than happy for researchers to use any tissue that comes from, say, a biopsy done on me. Is that tissue mine, when it’s removed from my body?

Jacinta: Well, is it? Think of locks of hair kept from a loved one – something that happens a few times in Skloot’s book. Wouldn’t you be moved by a lock of hair that you knew came from someone you loved but who was no longer around? Wouldn’t you feel you had hold of a part of her? Not just a memory of her?

Canto: Interesting. I think I’d be in two minds about it. I’d think, yes, this is her hair, a small part of her, and that would bring all the emotion of identity with it. But then, what I know about science and cells tells me this is just hair, it’s not what makes her her. It’s nowhere near it. Our hair is discarded all the time.

Jacinta: If you had some of her brain cells? Or heart tissue haha?

Canto: Nothing but ultra-ultra minuscule parts of the whole. And essentially meaningless when disconnected from that whole. But this misses the point that the value of this tissue for research outweighs by far, to me at any rate, the sentimental value that you’re talking about.

Jacinta: But for some people, and some cultures, the intactness of the human entity, after death say, is of deep-rooted significance. Are you not prepared to respect that?

Canto: But we slough off our trillions of cells all the time. Even as a kid I was told we replace our cells every seven years. Of course it’s much more varied and complicated than that, but the general point of constant renewal is true.

Jacinta: Yes but they’re your cells, with your DNA in them, nobody else’s.

Canto: Well people are prepared to be operated on, which inevitably kills or removes cells, and in doing so they give themselves up to experts in healing their bodies and often saving their lives, so it would seem to me pretty mean-spirited not to allow those experts to make use of what’s removed, which is of no obvious use to them.

Jacinta: I think you have a good argument there, but what if these mad scientists use your cells for some nefarious purpose?

Canto: Well, call me a trusting soul, but why would they do that? And what nefarious purpose could they use them for?

Jacinta: Well it mightn’t even be nefarious. With the modern commercialisation of cell and gene technology, they might find your tissue perfect for developing something patentable, out of which they make shitloads of money while preventing independent research on the tissue, so using your cells in a way that you might strongly disapprove of. But you wouldn’t have the slightest say, as things stand today. Rebecca Skloot describes examples of this kind in the Afterword to her book. There’s been a raging debate about commercialisation and gene patents and patients’ rights for some time now in the USA, and no doubt elsewhere, with scientists and other stakeholders ranged along the spectrum. In fact, these are the last words of Skloot’s book, published in 2010:

2009: More than 150,000 scientists join the American Civil Liberties Union and breast cancer patients in suing Myriad Genetics over its breast-cancer gene patents. The suit claims that the practice of gene patenting violates patent law and has inhibited scientific research.

Canto: Right. As her investigations reveal, it’s not just about patients wanting a share of the loot from research on their cells, and so using the courts to bog everything down and hinder that research, it’s often about researchers themselves wanting to cash in, and patients joining with other researchers to try to free up the system for the common good. So how’s the Myriad Genetics case going, and how’s the situation regarding patient rights in this field, several years on?References

Jacinta: Well in the case of Myriad, it was all highly complex and litigious, with suits and countersuits, which the company mostly lost, in particular in a landmark (and unanimous) Supreme Court decision of 2013, in which they found that ‘merely isolating genes that are found in nature [in this case the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 genes] does not make them patentable’. But of course this wasn’t so much about patients’ rights in the material that was once part of their bodies. It’s not all about money – though much of it is, and if you don’t want the money landing in lawyers’ pockets, the best thing is to have clear guidelines, disclosure, and fully developed and complex consent procedures. My impression from doing a fairly shallow dive on the issues is that we’re a long way from sorting this out, in an increasingly complex and lucrative field. Our own federal government’s NHMRC has a booklet out, available on PDF, called ‘Ethics and the exchange and commercialisation of products derived from human tissue: background and issues’, which is already six years old, but I don’t see anything in the legislative pipeline.

Canto: Looks like an issue to be followed up, if we have the stomach for it.

Jacinta: It pays to be informed, that’s one obvious take-away from all this.

Rebecca Skloot, The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks, 2010
Meredith Wadman, The vaccine race, 2017

Written by stewart henderson

July 3, 2017 at 12:22 pm

any day now, any way now, they shall be released….

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The New York Times describes the current US Prez as a billionaire, but is he? How can such a bumbling oaf be so super-rich? In the same NYT article, by Alan Rappeport, the Prez was quoted as bragging, when still a candidate, that he understood his country’s tax laws ‘better than anyone who has ever run for President’ – clearly as truthful a remark as everything else he’s ever said. His subsequent remarks on the tax system he promised to fix have been typically vague when not entirely ridiculous. A one-page tax plan of sorts was released in late April, which promised massive tax cuts to businesses and individuals, but it was massively short on details on how such cuts would be targeted and absorbed without a massive blow-out of the deficit. Anyway, it’ll be massive cause the US Prez likes massive. The administration has promised a thoroughly detailed plan by the end of August, but fellow-travellers who’ve been involved in meetings – mostly Republicans – remain thoroughly sceptical.

Meanwhile the Prez hasn’t released his own tax returns in spite of promising to do so. In mid-April some 100,000 citizens demonstrated against this interesting behaviour while high-profile critics such as Sam Harris have wondered why the release hasn’t been forced upon him. Could it be that the Prez is above the law? This is of particular concern because investigative journalists and historians such as Anne Applebaum and Timothy Snyder, people with solid Russian connections, have cast doubt on the Prez’s fortune and raised questions about his indebtedness to Russian money-makers, and possibly Putin’s mafioso government. And of course tax cuts to the rich might just ease the economic burden on the Prez himself, supposing he has one.

Apparently there’s a 40 year tradition of Prezes releasing their tax returns. When I read this in Rappeport’s NYT article I was immediately disheartened, as it became clear that it was only a tradition, which is far from being a law. And the Prez, as we know, is no traditionalist, with respect to such fakeries as the rule of law, a free press, human rights and the like. But I hatched an idea this morning as I heard about the Prez’s tweets on the London knife attacks, taking the opportunity to shore up his base with dog whistles on crazy immigrants, and attempts to mock the London Mayor by deliberately misconstruing his remarks. My idea is for certain high profile critics to take to Twitter (which I never use myself) or other social media platforms, and to address him directly, on a daily basis, with remarks like ‘have you released your tax returns yet, Herr Prez?’, and to get everyone else to do the same – a sort of global crowd-sourcing project. After all, though the Prez isn’t a traditionalist, he is a populist, and imagine how he would respond to hundreds of thousands, growing to millions, of people tweeting the same request every day, flooding social media platforms around the world… You may say I’m a dreamer, but really, imagine….



Written by stewart henderson

June 5, 2017 at 9:26 am

who says women should be modest?

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Does my body look too real in this?

Does my body look too real in this?

The French government is copping lots of flack for its ban on face covering in public, and rightly so, for outright bans are rarely effective, and this one is seen, rightly or wrongly – and probably rightly – as discriminating against Moslem women and the burqas that some of them wear.

However having said that, I’m no fan of the burqa, or any form of dress that sharply divides women from men (I love women in suits, and I wish I had the courage to wear skirts in public – I’m still considering buying one of those kilts I saw advertised on Facebook recently). But the burqa seems particularly regressive, and it’s clearly not a coincidence that it’s an outfit favoured by the Taliban and the Islamist Saudi government. Of course there are many variations of Islamic head-wear for women, but according to the women themselves, from what I’m always hearing, they choose to wear these head trappings as a sign of modesty.

It seems to me that modesty is the ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ term for these women, because modesty’s a virtue, and who’d criticise a woman for wanting to be virtuous? However, given that men and women are equal in intelligence and ability, I see no reason whatever for modesty to be a woman-only virtue. So why aren’t men wearing burqas? It isn’t a rhetorical question – I note that there’s a movement in Iran for men to wear hijabs in support of female associates targeted by the government there for being ‘improperly dressed’. Government imposed modesty.

This kind of modesty is of course highly dubious, it’s about not putting yourself forward – for education, for advancement, for leadership. It’s about knowing your circumscribed place. It’s a shame because the term ‘modesty’ has I think a value that has been demeaned by this more recent cultural usage. The modesty I value is where people tend to avoid trumpeting their achievements, however impressive those achievements might be. This kind of modesty is obviously not gender based and surely has nothing to do with head coverings.

However, this modesty-in-women malarky is about more than just trying not to be seen as, or even not to be, a great achiever. It’s about sexual modesty, and that’s what the covering is all about. One of the key features of patriarchy is controlling women’s sexual freedom. It really is about women as objects which need to be hidden from the lusty urges of male subjects, though women themselves are subjects only insofar as they must effectively hide or cover themselves from male appetites, otherwise they’re blameworthy and need to be punished.

So all this stuff about female headcovering is essentially about female sexual control, which is of course most effectively achieved if females internalise the idea and exercise the control themselves, thereby assenting to and bolstering the patriarchy that deprives them of sexual and other freedoms. Banning these head-coverings isn’t the solution,  though it might be necessary in some places for practical purposes. What we need to do is win the intellectual argument against the stifling restrictions of patriarchy, and engage women on the hypocrisy of female sexual modesty where there is a different standard and expectation for males.

men in burqas, not popular in Afghanistan, I wonder why

men in burqas, not popular in Afghanistan, I wonder why

Written by stewart henderson

August 27, 2016 at 1:12 pm

a few words on Donald Trump and democracy

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Phineas T Barnum, a rather more likeable huckster

Phineas T Barnum, a rather more likeable huckster

I’ve never been too much exercised on US domestic politics, but I listened with some interest to an interview on the Point of Inquiry podcast recently with David Cay Johnston, the author of a book on Donald Trump, inter alia, and he effectively explained how such an obviously boorish character functioned, though he didn’t so much explain why he got to where he is today – which would require a different book, one that reads the psyche of a particular type of individual, or ‘mark’.

The term ‘mark’ is used by magicians playing as ‘psychics’ or ‘faith healers’ etc to refer to the easily duped. Johnson, in his book The Making of Donald Trump, describes Trump as a Barnum & Bailey ‘huckster’ type, far more interested in persuasion, usually for the purpose of making money, than truth. What struck Johnston, when he first reported on Trump in relation to his interest in casinos in the late eighties, was his ignorance, even of the business at hand. He tested this himself by asking Trump questions which contained deliberately false information and watching how Trump handled them. And of course got the usual arrogant bluster that we’ve all observed.

So this is the question. Why does anyone takes Trump seriously? I remember my own first experience of Trump, years ago, when he hosted some kind of reality show in which he was interviewing prospective job-seekers. It only took about five minutes to realise that the fellow was a self-important loudmouth and a bullying dirtbag. So it didn’t take long for my feelings of contempt to switch from the oxygen-thief to his ‘victims’. What kind of idiot would put herself in this position? Apparently it had to do with money and the power that it brought…

So the worry I have is not about the huckster Trump, it’s about those who take him seriously, his ‘marks’. And it’s also about the process by which anyone can obtain high political office in a very powerful country – a position of huge responsibility. Arguably, it’s a problem of democracy.

This problem was highlighted some 2,500 years ago, right at the beginning of democracy as a political system, when the sort of populism and demagoguery that Trump utilises so instinctively brought ancient Athens to its knees, and it’s the principle reason why the intellectual elites represented by the likes of Thucydides, Plato and Aristotle were so vehemently opposed to democracy. They’d witnessed the disastrous Sicilian campaign (which precipitated Athenian decline in the region) which they blamed, not entirely fairly, on that system. Certainly they recognised the dangers of such populists as Cleon and Alcibiades, though neither they nor anyone after them were able to come up with a better system. Plato’s Republic, which advocated, perhaps not entirely seriously, rule by an intellectual elite, was hampered by an absurdly static notion of society, a sort of eugenics avant la lettre, as if intellectuals (and warriors, and servants) were born and not made – or, at least, a mixture of both.

Yet if you look at our political system today, you’ll find that we temper the democratic political system with a fair degree of intellectual elitism in the form of our judiciary – the ‘unrepresentative swill’ that preside over our high court and other courts throughout the land, interpreting legislature judiciously and causing grumbling parliamentarians to find new and more thoughtful laws to get round them. And I would advocate another form of ‘elitist’ intervention to ensure more responsible government.

I’ve mentioned this before when I suggested that individuals who want to stand for public office, thus to participate in making laws that influence our citizenry and showcase our nation to the world (and more than this in the case of powerful nations), should have to pass a reasonably stringent scientific literacy test. Of course, such an idea will never get up, so I’m proposing an even broader one.

It’s expected that anybody applying for a job involving considerable responsibility should be submitted to considerable scrutiny regarding their plans for the job, their understanding of the job’s requirements, and their knowledge of the fields covered by the job. In the case of becoming the President of a nation, this scrutiny should surely be imperative. So, a rigorous questioning of the candidate’s knowledge and ideas with respect to that nation’s economic situation, its domestic and foreign policies, as well as a basic understanding of science in relation to national and global issues, should be an absolute minimum requirement.

Compare this requirement to what actually exists today. No scrutiny whatsoever. A complete protection against tough questioning on these matters, with no requirement to justify to the people who they serve – as the ultimate public servant – any remark or decision they make. It’s a problem.

Trump won’t become President, because though he knows how to play to and work a particular crowd, that crowd will continue to shrink as his tactics are exposed by the media and especially by those who otherwise would support the conservative side of politics he’s vaguely aligned himself to, but it’s surely a systemic failure that such an inappropriate and ignorant candidate should ever get to where he is today. If that’s how democracy works, then democracy isn’t enough. Democracy has its limits – it has become far too unquestioned as a political system. Its limits are in fact considerable. We shouldn’t decide scientific matters by democratic process (that sounds obvious, but I’ve heard more than one polly say the exact opposite), and we shouldn’t, in my view allow just anyone to stand for political office, especially at the top level. The consequences might be dire. And we should also do our best, though it’s a hard road to hoe, to make every vote count, by making it as generally informed and reasoned as possible. There’s nothing new about that last statement, but it still holds true. Democracy without education, in the broadest sense, isn’t worth much.

Plus ca change...

Plus ca change…

Written by stewart henderson

August 13, 2016 at 9:55 am

The philosophers want more power

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tamsin shaw

tamsin shaw

Canto: Well I suppose the apparent detection of gravitational waves should be capturing our attention more than anything else right now, but it’s very well described in The Economist, and in many other places, and we’re no astrophysicists, and we did promise to focus a bit more on philosophical issues, so…

Jacinta: But we’re no philosophers. But we’re philosophasters at least, so let’s have a go.

Canto: Well I came across an article on Three Quarks Daily which vaguely gave me the irrits, so with your help I want to explore why.

Jacinta: Right. The essay is called ‘The psychologists take power’, the author is Tamsin Shaw and it was originally published in the New York review of books.

Canto: Yes, and on reading it in full I find it an interesting but confused piece, which seems to take the failings of certain individual psychologists as an example of the failings of psychology as a whole, and even of neurology. Shaw seems to be entering the philosophy versus science debate, on the side of philosophy, but I don’t find her arguments convincing.

Jacinta: The essay seems to divide into two parts, first a general critique of psychology and neurology, which can be summed up by the title of a philosophical essay by Selim Berker, which she quotes approvingly, ‘the normative insignificance of neuroscience’. The second part is an account of how certain professional psychologists, practitioners of the ‘positive psychology’ pioneered by the influential Martin Seligman, colluded with the US government in providing dubious evidence for the psychological effectiveness of torture in eliciting valuable information from ‘enemies of the state’. Shaw clearly wants to link these unethical practices to what she might want to call ‘the normative insignificance of psychology’.

Canto: Yes, and it’s a bit of a dangerous game – you might as well label Heidegger’s allegiance to the Nazi party, or Althusser’s murder of his wife, as examples of ‘the normative insignificance of philosophy’.

Jacinta: Ha, well Althusser was declared insane at the time, no doubt by psychologists, who would be examining Althusser to determine whether he was, while strangling his wife, capable of understanding and following the normative rules of his society. Such determinations are hardly normatively insignificant, even though, no doubt, individual psychologists might make different determinations, due to levels of competence, corruption, ideological considerations and so forth.

Canto: Right, but let’s look more closely at Shaw’s essay, and pick it apart.

Jacinta: Okay, but first let’s make a philosophasters’ confession. Shaw mentions eight or so books or sources at the head of her essay, which form the basis of her discussion, but of those we’ve only read one – Pinker’s eloquent tome, The better angels of our nature. And we don’t intend to bone up on those other texts, though no doubt we’ll refer to our own reading in our responses.

Canto: And we are reasonably familiar with Jonathan Haidt’s work and ideas.

Jacinta: So Shaw begins her essay with the overweening ambition of behaviourist extraordinaire B F Skinner, a pretty soft target these days. I have no problems with criticising him, or Freud or any other psychologist whose theories get way out of hand. Shaw’s concerns, though, are specifically about the moral sphere. She feels that a new breed of psychologists, armed with neurological research, are making big claims about moral expertise. Here’s a quote from her essay:

Neuroscience, it is claimed, has revealed that our brains operate with a dual system for moral decision-making.

Canto: I like the ‘it is claimed’ bit. Claimed by who? Someone has put forward that hypothesis I’m sure, along with their reasons, but most neurologists bang on about neurology being a field in its infancy, and most findings are highly contested, it seems to me.

Jacinta: Shaw may be referring to the work of Daniel Kahneman – a psychologist not a neurologist – who distinguished between system 1 thinking (intuitive, less conscious, rough-and ready) and system 2 thinking (reasoned, conscious, more changeable depending on inputs and knowledge). But really there are many dual-process theories going back at least to William James. But Shaw is explicitly referring to the fMRI imaging work of the neurologist Jonathan Cohen, who analysed brain activity when subjects were asked to think about moral hypotheticals.

Canto: Yes and she’s quite straight about describing the two systems apparently highlighted by Cohen’s research and the brain regions associated with them, but becomes scathing in dealing with Joshua Greene, Cohen’s co-researcher, whom she quite deliberately introduces as a mere ‘philosophy graduate student’, whose interpretation of the research she describes thus:

Greene interpreted these results in the light of an unverifiable and unfalsifiable story about evolutionary psychology. Since primitive human beings encountered up-close dangers or threats of personal violence, their brains, he speculated, evolved fast and focused responses for dealing with such perils. The impersonal violence that threatens humans in more sophisticated societies does not trigger the same kind of affective response, so it allows for slower, more cognitive processes of moral deliberation that weigh the relevant consequences of actions. Greene inferred from this that the slower mechanisms we see in the brain are a later development and are superior because morality is properly concerned with impersonal values—for example, justice—to which personal harms and goals such as family loyalty should be irrelevant. He has taken this to be a vindication of a specific, consequentialist philosophical theory of morality: utilitarianism.

Jacinta: Okay, so here’s where psychology – especially evolutionary psychology – first comes under attack. It’s often said to present just so stories, which are necessarily highly speculative, as if they are facts. But I would question whether these speculations, or hypotheses, are unverifiable (forget about falsifiability, a term made popular by Karl Popper but which has come under heavy criticism since, both by scientists and philosophers of science, and I suspect Shaw has simply used it as a ‘double whammy’ to vilify Greene), to me they’re important and useful, and in any case are rarely presented as facts, at least not by the best psychologists.

Canto: So how do you verify this hypothesis, that fast, rough-and-ready responses for dealing with immediate dangers are systematically different from slower, more sophisticated responses that deal with the ‘impersonal violence’, the many restraints, justified or not, on our personal freedoms that we deal with on a daily basis?

Jacinta: Well one obvious way is through neurology, a scientific field still in its infancy as you say. Clearly the system 1 responses would be shared by other complex social mammals, whereas system 2 thinking is much more language-dependent and unique to humans – unless cetaceans have developed complex language, which is far from being out of the question. New techniques for mapping and exploring neural pathways are coming up all the time, as well as non-invasive ways of exploring such pathways in our closest mammalian relatives.

Canto: Good point. So to go to the second part of the above quote, Greene is presented (and I wonder about whether Shaw is fairly or accurately presenting him) as finding system 2 thinking as superior because it deals with more abstract and less personal values, whereas I would prefer to think of this system as a further adaptation, to a human existence that has become more socially complex, systematic and language-based. And in this, I’m apparently in line with the thinking of psychologists Shaw takes aim at:

Many of the psychologists who have taken up the dual-process model claim to be dismissive of philosophical theories, generally. They reject Greene’s inferences about utilitarianism and claim to be restricting themselves to what can be proved scientifically. But in fact all of those I discuss here are making claims about which kinds of moral judgments are good or bad by assessing which are adaptive or maladaptive in relation to a norm of social cooperation. They are thereby relying on an implicit philosophical theory of morality, albeit a much less exacting one than utilitarianism.

Jacinta: But I detect a problem here. You’ve talked about adaptation to the fact of growing social complexity, and the need to co-operate within that complexity. Shaw has written of a ‘norm of social co-operation’, by which she means an ethical norm, because she claims that this is the implicit philosophical theory of morality these psychologists rely on. But that’s not true, they’re not claiming that there’s anything moral about social complexity or social co-operation. We just are more complex, and necessarily more co-operative than our ancestors. So it’s kind of silly to say they’re relying on a less exacting moral philosophy than utilitarianism. It’s not about moral philosophy at all.

Canto: And it gets worse. Shaw claims that this phantom moral ethic of social co-operation is greatly inferior to utilitarianism, so let’s look at that normative theory, which in my view is not so much exacting as impossible. Utilitarianism is basically about the maximising of utility. Act in such a way that your actions maximise utility (act utilitarianism), or create rules that maximise utility (rule utilitarianism). So what’s utility? Nothing that can be measured objectively, or agreed upon. We can replace it with happiness, or pleasure, or well-being, or Aristotle’s eudaemonia, however translated, and the problem is still the same. How do you measure, on a large-scale, social level, things so elusive, intangible and personal?

Jacinta: Yes, and look at how laws change over time, laws for example relating to homosexuality, women’s rights, the protection of minorities, and even business practices, taxation and the like; they’re all about our changing, socially evolving sense of how to co-operate in such a way as to produce the best social outcomes. This can’t be easily bedded down in some fixed normative ethic.

Canto: Yes, Shaw seems to imply that some deep philosophical insight is missing from these psychologists which makes them liable to go off the rails, as the second half of her essay implies, but I’m very doubtful about that. But let’s continue with our analysis:

Rather than adhering to the moral view that we should maximize “utility”—or satisfaction of wants—they are adopting the more minimal, Hobbesian view that our first priority should be to avoid conflict. This minimalist moral worldview is, again, simply presupposed; it is not defended through argument and cannot be substantiated simply by an appeal to scientific facts. And its implications are not altogether appealing.

Jacinta: But surely she’s just assuming that ‘they’ – presumably all the psychologists she doesn’t like, or is it all the psychologists who posit a two-tiered system of decision-making? – take the view that avoidance of conflict is the highest priority.

Canto: Well I must say that Jonathan Haidt seems to take that view, and it’s something I find uncomfortable. So I agree with Shaw that Haidt ‘presupposes that the norm of cooperation should take precedence over the values that divide us’, and that this view is dubious. It’s just that I suspect my own view, that there are values more important than co-operation, is also a ‘presupposition’, though I dislike that word. But more of that later perhaps.

Jacinta: Right, so Shaw refers to the sinister implications of a minimalist Hobbesian worldview, supposedly held by these psychologists. What are they?

Canto: We’ll get there eventually – perhaps. Shaw describes the work of the ‘positive psychology’ movement, stemming from Martin Seligman and practised by Haidt among others, including Steven Pinker, whose book The better angels of our nature was apparently influenced by this movement:

In that extremely influential work Pinker argues that our rational, deliberative modes of evaluation should take precedence over powerful, affective intuitions. But by “rationality” he means specifically “the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games,” rather than any higher-order philosophical theory. He allows that empathy has played a part in promoting altruism, that “humanitarian reforms are driven in part by an enhanced sensitivity to the experiences of living things and a genuine desire to relieve their suffering.” But nevertheless our “ultimate goal should be policies and norms that become second nature and render empathy unnecessary.”

And here’s where I see another problem. Pinker is here criticised for not subscribing to any ‘higher-order philosophical theory’, but Shaw doesn’t attempt to outline or give examples of such higher-order theories, though she does refer to empathy – an important factor, but one that doesn’t obviously emerge from philosophy.

Jacinta: Right, and we’ve already referred to utilitarianism and its problems. This reminds me that years ago  I read a sort of primer on ethics, I think it was called Moral Philosophy, in which the author devoted chapters to utilitarianism, Kantianism, rights theory and other ethical approaches. In the final chapter he presented his own preferred approach, a sort of neo-Aristotelianism. I was intrigued that he felt we hadn’t made much progress in philosophical ethics in almost 2,500 years.

Canto: Well, his may be a minority view, but it’s doubtful that our changing laws derive from philosophical work on normative ethics, though this may have had an influence. I do think, with Haidt, that there’s a great deal of post-hoc rationalisation going on, though I’m reluctant – very reluctant actually – to embrace the relativism of values. And this brings me to the nub of the matter, IMHO. To go back to an old favourite of mine, Hume: ‘reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions’. A fairly notorious pronouncement, but I take the passions here to be something very basic – the fundamental drives and instincts, largely unconscious, that characterise us as humans…

Jacinta: But doesn’t Hume break his own is-ought rule here? He says that our passions rule our reason, which may or may not be true, but does it follow that they ought to?

Canto: Please don’t complicate matters. Hume also wrote this, in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals:

In all determinations of morality, this circumstance of public utility is ever principally in view, and wherever disputes arise, either in philosophy or common life, concerning the bounds of duty, the question cannot, by any means, be decided with greater certainty, than by ascertaining, on any side, the true interests of mankind.

So these true interests of mankind…

Jacinta: Hang on, so there he goes again, gaily bounding over his own is-ought barrier, saying that in order to work out what we ought to do we need – pretty well absolutely – to determine our interests, what in fact makes us human, what we actually are.

Canto: Well, precisely…

Jacinta: Or what we have evolved to become, which might amount to the same thing. So we need to study our evolution, our genes and genetic inheritance, our brain and its inheritance, and adaptive growth, and maybe the physics of our bodies…

our old Scottish mate Davey Hume, doyen of skeptics, whose is-ought distinction has been widely misinterpreted, we suspect

our old Scottish mate Davey Hume, doyen of skeptics, whose is-ought distinction has been widely misinterpreted, we suspect

Canto: So we need neurology, and genetics, and palaeontology, and physics and psychology, all of which contribute to an understanding of what we are. Without them, normative ethics would be empty theorising.

Jacinta: So I suppose you’re going to write a rejoinder to this ‘normative insignificance of neurology’ essay? Something like ‘the insignificance of normative ethics without neurology’?

Canto: Ha, well that would require reading Selim Berker’s essay, which I’m not sure about – so many other things to explore. But I should end this discussion by saying a few words about the second half of Shaw’s article – and I’ll pass over many other points she’s made. This section deals with the collusion of some psychologists, practitioners of the above-mentioned ‘positive psychology’, with the CIA and the US Department of Defence in the commission of torture.

Jacinta: And what exactly is this ‘positive psychology’?

Canto: Well, to explain that would require a large digression. Suffice to say for now that it’s about using psychology to make us more resilient, and in some sense ethically superior, or more benign, humans. Shaw dwells on this at some length, but claims that in spite of much rhetoric, these psychologists can only offer what she calls the bare, Hobbesian ethic of avoidance of strife. However, she herself is unable to point to a more robust, or a deeper, ethic. She presumably believes in one, but she doesn’t enlighten us as to what it might be. And this is very striking because the tale of these psychologists’ collusion with the Bush administration  on torture, and the huge financial gain to them in applying ‘learned helplessness’, a theory of Seligman’s, to the application of torture, is truly shocking.

Jacinta: So it would be a question of what, in their make-up, allowed them to engage in such unethical behaviour, and was it the lack of a deep ethical understanding, beyond ‘bare Hobbesianism’?

Canto: Right, and my answer would be that, although two psychologists took up this lucrative offer to ‘serve the state’, there would have been others who refused, and would any of them, on either side, have made their decision on the basis of some rigorous normative ethic?

Jacinta: I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have colluded with that sort of thing for all the terracotta warriors in China, but I’m also sure it wouldn’t have been for deep philosophical reasons. I just have a kind of visceral revulsion for physical violence and bullying as you know, and I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I’d facilitated the premeditated cruel and unusual punishment of others. I’m not even sure if it’s about empathy, but it’s not a particularly reasoned position.

Canto: Yes, and so the only way to understand why some people are more prone to do unethical things – actions outside of the ever-changing standards of community ethics – might be to look at individual psychology, and neurology, and genetics, which takes us further away from normative ethics than ever.

Jacinta: Yes, and didn’t we read, in Sam Kean’s The tale of the duelling neurosurgeons, about a poor fellow in his mid-fifties who suddenly started engaging in paedophile acts, something he had never showed any signs of before? A brain scan revealed a large tumour pressing on parts of the brain responsible for higher-order decision-making (to put it over-simplistically). When the tumour was removed he returned to ‘normal’, until some time later he regressed to paedophile acts. A further scan showed they didn’t remove all the tumour and it had regrown. After another more successful operation he was cured and never diddled again. But the consequences of his actions for his victims when ‘not himself’ would have required him to be punished, on a consequentialist ethical view, wouldn’t they?

Canto: Very good point. And yet, and yet… can it be true that we’ve barely gone further in our ethics than the Golden Rule, or Aristotle’s mean between extremes?

Jacinta: We’re animals, don’t forget. Okay we’re animals that have managed to detect waves from space that are a tiny fraction of the diameter of a proton, but we’re still not that good at being nice to each other. And the extent to which we’re able to be nice to each other, and follow social norms, that’s a matter of our individual psychology, our neurology, our individual and cultural circumstances, our genes and our epigenetic profile, so much particular stuff that philosophical ethics, with its generalities, can’t easily deal with.

Written by stewart henderson

February 26, 2016 at 8:37 am

some thoughts on urbanisation, language and culture

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Australian language families. From west to east:

Mindi (2 areas)
Daly (4 families)
Tiwi (offshore)

Pama–Nyungan (3 areas)

The trend is massively towards urbanisation, though it varies massively between nations. The big urbanising country now is China of course. Citification leads to homogenisation, as everyone strives to be original. Anthropologist Wade Davis says that of the 7,000 or so extant languages, more than half are not being taught to the next generation. Cities are about communication, requiring a common language. It’s unlikely to be Wajarri or Pitjantjatjara. How about English? Language groups, it has been argued, constitute the most natural nations, rather than states with their artificial boundaries. There’s a whole theory based around this but I say, whenever you hear the word natural you should be skeptical. Why did a diversity of languages arise? A very very complex question. Or rather a simple question but the answer…

It presumably wasn’t the case that each language was invented from scratch. My speculation – somewhere, sometime, a human or proto-human population developed a language (a bit like saying ‘here, a miracle happens’, but we know more than that about the earliest abstract sign systems). That population grew, split up and separated to such distances that the languages followed separate developments, just like, say, chimps and bonobos followed separate lines of development after being separated by the Congo River, if that’s what happened. But then it could have been invented from scratch more than once, as is supposed to have been the case with writing.

Surely though the emergence of all these languages is primarily due to migration and isolation. Surely this is neither natural or unnatural. It happens. The loss of many of these languages will be due to their being surplus to requirements, due to a modern process that has reversed the ‘tyranny of distance’. The need to communicate effectively across distances, between nations, has meant that a lingua franca has been a high priority, and the more such a language dominates, economically and culturally, the more small, local languages will die of neglect, or be rendered redundant. Is this tragic? I’m not entirely sure.

Wade Davis is quoted (in issue 63 of Cosmos magazine) as saying:

The central revelation of anthropology is that other peoples of the world are not failed attempts at being you, at being modern. On the contrary they are unique answers to a fundamental question: what does it mean to be human and alive? And when the peoples of the world answer that question they do so in 7000 different voices, and those voices and answers collectively become our human repertoire for dealing with the challenges that will confront us all. When we lose a culture we lose a part of ourselves. And it doesn’t have to happen.

This is all stirring stuff, and it would seem bad form to demur, even slightly. But I would like to reflect a bit more on this. First, note that Davis is equating language with culture, which is fair enough to a degree, but some people may be separated by language but have more cultural similarities than differences. After all, this is part of the raison d’être of the European Union, that the French, the Italians, the English etc have enough in common that they should work together rather than separately. And I would dispute the claim that there are 7000 different voices answering the basic questions of human existence and purpose. Surely there are no less than 7.2 billion? On my street, I know there are at least a couple of people who speak a different first language from me. It’s highly likely, though, that I would share more with them in terms of outlook or interest than with others who share my language. But I wouldn’t share every interest or preoccupation with anyone, and nor would anyone else.

And to look at the first part of the quote: I’ve never seen other cultures, such as Australian Aboriginal cultures, as failed attempts at being modern. I see them as generally quite successful attempts at surviving and multiplying in a fairly inhospitable but obviously not uninhabitable environment, in which they’ve had to adapt to a world of resources, opportunities and threats that has remained relatively static, and certainly far far more static than was the situation in Europe over the same time period. And then, 200-odd years ago, Europeans arrived here, with (always in hindsight!) predictable consequences. The very concept of modernity would not have occurred to humans who had lived in a pretty well completely unchanging environment for more than 40,000 years, whereas for the Europeans who arrived here the concept of modernity was very much a living thing, as they were constantly aware of their changes and development, in technology, in politics, in lifestyle. They naturally believed in the progress which had, after all brought them to this great southern land and enabled them, they felt, to lay claim to it.

So, many of us are well aware of the situation. Just keeping to our Australian circumstances (though I’m actually a Brit, if it comes to strict definitions), one culture or set of cultures was long habituated to stasis, the other set of cultures was long habituated to dynamics, and, as a result of having survived all those dynamic processes, to ‘progress’. So, in an important sense these two different groups aren’t answering the one fundamental question, they’re answering two quite different questions. The Aborigines had answers to ‘what is it like to be a human in a world which for 40,000 years has been unchallenged by other humans, and which has enough resources to survive on if you know how to read the signs, and if you pass knowledge and skills on down the generations’, whereas the Europeans had answers to ‘what is it like to be a human whose ancestors have fought and defeated invaders, conquered other lands and enslaved or exploited their peoples, cultivated soils and experimented with plants and animals to provide a variety of foodstuffs, exploited mineral resources for construction and technological purposes, etc etc’.

So, it comes to this. We Europeans, sharpened by our historical experience, have come to Australia and transformed it. We – some of us – tried to make peace with the Aborigines while taking the best land to cultivate ourselves. We brought in our sheep and cattle, we took over the rich coastlines, we built our industries, and we made an assumption of ‘Terra nullius’ because it was so obviously in our interest to do so. We had no idea, of course, of the history of the Aborigines – being all ‘young earth creationists’ at the time. The Aborigines had no more chance than, say, a tasty flightless bird would have if feral cats were introduced onto an island that the birds had comfortably and skilfully survived on for a million years. Of course we didn’t eat any Aborigines (as far as I’m aware) but we transformed their environment almost beyond recognition and made a continuation of their habitual way of life well-nigh impossible.

I make that comparison to suggest that humans are nothing special. Cultures, like species, go extinct, or adapt. That’s a harsh reality, but somehow, in our sophistication, we know, at least some of us do, that diversity, of species and cultures, is a good thing, not just intrinsically but for our own selfish benefit. It’s a balance maybe – we strive to preserve, but also encourage to adapt.

Written by stewart henderson

July 18, 2015 at 3:44 pm

it’s all about evidence, part 2: acupuncture and cupping

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a picture of health

a picture of health

Okay, having been sick myself with my usual bronchial issues, I haven’t made much progress on researching the ‘alternative’ treatments offered by Wesley Smith and his colleagues at the Wellness Centre. I must admit, too, that I’ve found it a bit depressing focusing on these negatives, so I’ve been working a bit on my Solutions OK blog (a few posts still in preparation) which focuses on being positive about global issues.

So before briefly dealing with acupuncture, I’ve discovered accidentally through looking up Mr Smith that ‘wellness centres’ or ‘total wellness centres’ are everywhere around the western world, including at least one more in Canberra itself. It seems that this is a moniker agreed on by practitioners of holistic medical pseudoscience world-wide, to create a sense of medical practice while avoiding the thorny issue of medicine and what it actually means. But maybe it does partially mean treating people kindly? I’m all for that. Laughter is often quite good medicine, especially for chronic rather than acute ailments.

It’s an interesting point – ‘alternative’ medicine is on the rise in the west, and the WHO informs us that by 2020, due to its own great work and that of other science-based medical institutions, the proportion of chronic ailments to acute ones will have risen to over 3 to 1. It’s in the area of chronic conditions that naturopathy comes into its own, because psychology plays a much greater part, and vague ‘toxins’ and dubious ‘balance’ assume greater significance. That’s why education and evidence is so important. There are a lot of people out there wanting to smile and seduce you out of your money.


There’s no reason to suppose acupuncture is anything other than pure placebo. It’s similar to homeopathy in that it proposes a treatment involving physical forces that, when tapped, can produce miraculous cures, and it’s also similar in that these forces have never been isolated or measured or even much researched. In the case of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann, its inventor, conducted ‘research’, but with no apparent rigour. See this excellent examination of his approach.

Acupuncture posits Qi (pronounced ‘chee’) as an energy force – apparently invisible and undetectable by mere science – which operates under the skin and is ‘strongest’ at certain nodes where experts insert needles to stimulate it. There’s not much agreement as to where exactly these nodes are, how many there are, or how deep under the skin they’re to be found. Is everybody’s Qi the same? Is the Qi of other mammals identical? If you haven’t enough Qi, can you have a Qi transfusion, or will you be contaminated by the wrong Qi and suffer a horrible death? Amazingly, acupuncture practitioners have no interest whatever in these life and death questions. Why has nobody thought to operate on a patient and withdraw a sample of her Qi, considering that the stuff has been known about since ancient times? It’s a puzzlement. And with that I’ll say no more about acupuncture.


Cupping, or cupping therapy, is fairly new to me – I mean I’ve heard about it over the years but I’ve never bothered to research it. It was apparently used in Egypt 3,000 years ago, and it’s considered a part of TCM (traditional Chinese medicine). How it got from Egypt to China is anyone’s guess, but when used there, it’s associated with our old friend, the non-existent Qi. Yes, according to TCM, much disease is due to blocked Qi, and cupping is one way to fix it.

Briefly, there are two kinds of cupping, wet and dry, with wet cupping being the more ‘invasive’ and used for more acute treatments. The idea is to create a vacuum which draws the skin up in the cup and increases the blood flow. The cup, or the air inside it, is heated, and when the cup is applied to the skin and allowed to cool, the air contracts, ‘sucking up’ the skin. With wet cupping the skin is actually punctured, so that those nasty but never-quite-indentifial ‘toxins’ can ooze out. By the way, next time you go to your naturopath to get your toxins removed, ask them for a sample, and don’t forget to ask them to name those toxins. Perhaps you could look at them under a microscope together.

There’s very little in the way in the way of evidence to support the effectiveness of cupping, and as you might expect, the best ‘evidence’ comes from the most poorly controlled trials. Serious and obviously dangerous claims have been made that cupping can cure cancer. Here’s the American Cancer Society’s response:

“There is no scientific evidence that cupping leads to any health benefits….No research or clinical studies have been done on cupping. Any reports of successful treatment with cupping are anecdotal. There is no scientific evidence that cupping can cure cancer or any other disease.” 

If cupping was effective, this would be easily provable. No proof has been offered in thousands of years, and there’s no credible scientific mechanism associated with the treatment. You’ve been warned. It’s your money. Why hand it over to these parasites?