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another look at free will, with thanks to Robert Sapolsky

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Ah poor old Aynnie – from guru to laughing stock within a couple of gens

Having recently had a brief conversation about free will, I’ve decided to look at the matter again. Fact is, it’s been playing on my mind. I know this is a very old chestnut in philosophy, renewed somewhat by neurologists recently, and I know that far more informed minds than mine have devoted oodles of time and energy to it, but my conversation was with someone with no philosophical or neurological background who simply found the idea of our having no free will, no autonomy, no ‘say’ whatever in our lives, frankly ludicrous. Free will, after all, was what made our lives worth living. It gives us our dignity, our self-respect, our pride in our achievements, our sense of shame or disappointment at having made bad or unworthy decisions. To deny us our free will would deny us….  far far too much.

My previous piece on the matter might be worth a look (having just reread it, it’s not bad), but it seems to me the conundrum can be made clear by thinking in two intuitively obvious but entirely contradictory ways. First, of course we have free will, which we demonstrate with a thousand voluntary decisions made every day – what to wear, what to eat, what to watch, what to read, whether to disagree or hold our tongue, whether to turn right or left in our daily walk, etc etc. Second, of course we don’t have free will – student A can’t learn English as quickly and effectively as student B, no matter how well you teach her; this student has a natural ability to excel at every sport, that one is eternally clumsy and uncoordinated; this girl is shy and withdrawn, that one’s a noisy show-off, etc etc.

The first way of thinking comes largely from self-observation, the second comes largely from observing others (if only others were as free to be like us as we are). And it seems to me that most relationship breakdowns come from 1) not allowing the other to be ‘free’ to be themselves, or 2) not recognising the other’s lack of freedom to change. Take your pick.

So I’ve just read Robert Sapolsky’s take on free will in his book Behave, and it strengthens me in my ‘free will is a myth’ conviction. Sapolsky somewhat mocks the free will advocates with the notion of an uncaused homunculus inside the brain that does the deciding with more or less good sense. The point is that ‘compatibilism’ can’t possibly make sense. How do you sensibly define ‘free will’ within a determinist framework? Is this compatibilism just a product of the eternal complexity of the human brain? We can’t tease out the chain of causal events, therefore free will? So if at some future date we were able to tease out those connections, free will would evaporate? As Sapolsky points out, we are much further along at understanding the parts of the prefrontal cortex and the neuronal pathways into and out of it, and research increases exponentially. Far enough along to realise how extraordinarily far we have to go. 

One way of thinking of the absurdity of the self-deciding self is to wonder when this decider evolved. Is it in dogs? Is it in mosquitos? The probable response would be that dogs have a partial or diminished free will, mosquitos much less so, if at all. As if free will was an epiphenomen of complexity. But complexity is just complexity, there seems no point in adding free will to it. 

But perhaps we should take a look at the best arguments we can find for compatibilism or any other position that advocates free will. Joachim Krueger presents five arguments on the Psychology Today website, though he’s not convinced by any of them. The second argument relates to consciousness (a fuzzy concept avoided by most neurologists I’ve read) and volition, a tricky concept that Krueger defines as ‘will’ but not free will. Yes, there are decisions we make, which we may weigh up in our minds, to take an overseas holiday or spend a day at the beach, and they are entirely voluntary, not externally coerced – at least to our minds. However, that doesn’t make them free, outside the causal chain. But presumably compatibilists will agree – they are wedded to determinism after all. So they must have to define freedom in a different way. I’ve yet to find any definition that works for the compatibilist.

There’s also a whiff of desperation in trying to connect free will with quantum indeterminacy, as some have done. Having read Life at the edge, by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden, which examines the possibilities of quantum effects at the biological level, I’m certainly open to the science on this, but I can’t see how it would apply at the macro level of human decision-making. And this macro level is generally far more ‘unconscious’ than we have previously believed, which is another way of saying that, with the growth of neurology (and my previous mention of exponential growth in this field is no exaggeration), the mapping of neurological activity, the research into neurotransmission and general brain chemistry, the concept of ‘consciousness’ has largely been ignored, perhaps because it resembles too much the homunculus that Sapolsky mocks. 

As Sapolsky quite urgently points out, this question of free will and individual responsibility is far from being the fun and almost frolicsome philosophical conundrum that some have seemed to suggest. It has major implications for the law, and for crime and punishment. For example, there are legal discussions in the USA, one of the few ‘civilised’ nations that still execute people, as to the IQ level above which you’re smart enough to be executed, and how that IQ is to be measured. This legal and semi-neurological issue affects a significant percentage of those on death row. A significant percentage of the same people have been shown to have damage to the prefrontal cortex. How much damage? How did this affect the commission of the crime? Neurologists may not be able to answer this question today, but future neurologists might. 

So, for me, the central issue in the free will debate is the term ‘free’. Let’s look at how Marvin Edwards describes it in his blog post ‘Free will skepticism: an incoherent notion’. I’ve had a bit of a to-and-fro with Marvin – check out the comments section on my previous post on the topic, referenced below. His definition is very basic. For a will, or perhaps I should say a decision, to be free it has to be void of ‘undue influences’. That’s it. And yet he’s an out and out determinist, agreeing that if we could account for all the ‘influences’, or causal operants, affecting a person’s decision, we could perfectly predict that decision in advance. So it is obvious to Marvin that free will and determinism are perfectly compatible.

That’s it, I say again. That’s the entire substance of the argument. It all hangs on this idea of ‘undue influence’, an idea apparently taken from standard philosophical definitions of free will. Presumably a ‘due influence’ is one that comes from ‘the self’ and so is ‘free’. But this is an incoherent notion, to borrow Marvin’s phrase. Again it runs up against Sapolsky’s homunculus, an uncaused decider living inside the brain, aka ‘the self’. Here’s what Sapolsky has to say about the kind of compatibilism Marvin is advocating for, which he (Sapolsky) calls ‘mitigated free will’, a term taken from his colleague Joshua Greene. It’s a long quote, but well worth transcribing, as it captures my own skepticism as exactly as anything I’ve read:

Here’s how I’ve always pictured mitigated free will:

There’s the brain – neurons, synapses, neurotransmitters, receptors, brain-specific transcription factors, epigenetic effects, gene transpositions during neurogenesis. Aspects of brain function can be influenced by someone’s prenatal environment, genes, and hormones, whether their parents were authoritarian or their culture egalitarian, whether they witnessed violence in childhood, when they had breakfast. It’s the whole shebang, all of this book.

And then, separate from that, in a concrete bunker tucked away in the brain, sits a little man (or woman, or agendered individual), a homunculus at a control panel. The homunculus is made of a mixture of nanochips, old vacuum tubes, crinkly ancient parchment, stalactites of your mother’s admonishing voice, streaks of brimstone, rivets made out of gumption. In other words, not squishy biological brain yuck.

And the homunculus sits there controlling behaviour. There are some things outside its purview – seizures blow the homunculus’s fuses, requiring it to reboot the system and check for damaged files. Same with alcohol, Alzheimer’s disease, a severed spinal cord, hypoglycaemic shock. 

There are domains where the homunculus and that biology stuff have worked out a détente – for example, biology is usually automatically regulating your respiration, unless you must take a deep breath before singing an aria, in which case the homunculus briefly overrides the automatic pilot.

But other than that, the homunculus makes decisions. Sure, it takes careful note of all the inputs and information from the brain, checks your hormone levels, skims the neurobiology journals, takes it all under advisement, and then, after reflecting and deliberating, decides what you do. A homunculus in your brain, but not of it, operating independently of the material rules of the universe that constitute modern science.

This captures perfectly, to me, the dilemma of those sorts of compatibilists who insist on determinism but. They seem more than reluctant to recognise the implications of that determinist commitment. It’s an amusing description – I love the bit about the aria – But it seems to me just right. As to the implications for our cherished sense of freedom, we can at least reflect that it has ever been thus, and it hasn’t stopped us thriving in our selfish, selfless ways. But as to the implications for those of us less fortunate in the forces that have moved us since childhood and before, that’s another story.


R Sapolsky, Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst, Bodley Head 2017. Note especially Chapter 16, ‘Biology, the criminal justice system and free will’.

Written by stewart henderson

October 27, 2018 at 1:25 pm

Brat Cavernaugh, or the Ruling Class at play: part two

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Mitch McConnell, ruthless American conservative


In a speech to his old high school in 2015, Kavanaugh remarked smirkily that ‘what happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown Prep, that’s been a good thing for all of us..’ It’s fascinating how such a seemingly harmless piece of banter can take on much darker tones as information comes to light. For example, considering that Georgetown Prep has always been an all-boys’ school, ‘all of us’ clearly refers to only one gender, and considering that the cloud gathering over Kavanaugh now is all about his and his preppy mates’ treatment of the opposite sex, which may have at times bordered on criminality, this hiding of the truth about goings-on at the school becomes very disturbing. 

The intense focus on Kavanaugh in recent weeks has revealed someone who knows how to be evasive in a lawyerly way. The end result, before the scandalous claims began mounting up, was that Democrats and moderate Republicans, in Congress and out, had no clear idea of his views on Roe v Wade, presidential power and immunity, or any other key issue that concerned them. It can be argued that this evasiveness was a product of ‘due judiciousness’, the view that a judge can’t answer these general questions, but has to pass judgment on the facts before him in particular instances, but with so much at stake, it’s understandable that those with at least some progressive cells in their body would want a clearer picture. This has in fact been given by examinations of his record of judgements and legal opinions, which don’t provide much hope for progressives.  

More importantly, Kavanaugh’s evasiveness has been very much to the fore as allegations have come to light re his high school and university years. In the case of his most recent appearance before the judiciary committee, this evasiveness has been mixed with, and sometimes masked by, a belligerent and, in my view, self-servingly mawkish tone which I didn’t find conducive to truthfulness. Most importantly, and, I feel, decisively, he managed to avoid answering the question as to whether he would be prepared to submit to an FBI investigation. Not once but on five separate occasions when questioned on the matter. In spite of my squeamishness, I did witness him doing this on one of the cable networks, and to me it was clear what he was doing. As a person who has himself been falsely accused – of a crime even more serious than anything alleged against Kavanaugh – I know how I feel about police investigations – that they should be done as promptly and as thoroughly as humanly possible, and I would certainly have been prepared to testify to the highest authorities under oath many times over to clear my name, and was in fact desperate to do so. And since there were no witnesses to the allegation made against me, I would certainly have been happy to have any and all witnesses to testify to my character in respect of violence, or my accuser’s character in respect of truth-telling. But, being a ‘nobody’, accused by a nobody, I had to sit and by and watch the police do virtually nothing, until forced to do so, after which the case was thrown out. So Kavanaugh’s refusal to answer that question, and his obvious whitewashing of the period in question, can only be explained one way. Innocent people just don’t behave like that, unless there’s something very wrong with them. 

The fact is, Kavanaugh’s obfuscation is incredibly telling, and the majority Republicans, who have now ‘permitted’ an FBI inquiry, ‘limited in scope and time’, are still doing their best to ram through the confirmation ‘no matter what’, according to the dictum of the egregious Mitch McConnell. This is not an investigation which will probe all the facts in the case, because it is limited by a partisan party. Moreover, the recent appearance by Kavanaugh was conducted under oath, and a number of classmates have since come forward to point out that he told lies under that oath, about his drinking habits, which he massively downplayed while also talking, strangely, at length, about the pleasures of beer. He presented himself as a church-going, highly studious, sporty type whose love of beer wasn’t excessive. Classmates have come forward to say that he was very often drunk, that he was a mean drunk, a sloppy drunk and so forth, and that he therefore lied under oath, which should be immediately disqualifying. 

However, having said that, it’s likely that the FBI will not be investigating his drinking habits, they will only concern themselves, as directed, with the alleged assault or assaults. Though it isn’t entirely clear, it seems, what the FBI’s brief is. In fact, as I write, the goalposts keep shifting. The White House and Trump seemed to broaden the investigation, then the media were told, no, it would remain limited, etc, and the FBI itself seemed confused about all the mixed signals. The bureau is supposed to take its orders from the White House in this instance, which is itself a worry. Not surprisingly, Trump is now heaping praise on the FBI – at least until their findings are presented.

But to return to Kavanaugh’s final ‘testimony’. It was belligerent and evasive, but also partisan and Trumpian – blaming the Clintons for a set-up and an ambush. It’s noteworthy that Trump was critical of Kavanaugh’s performance in his first hearing, and it’s well-known that Kavanaugh had been ‘rehearsing’ his performance at the White House, so this time he did his master’s bidding and played the witch-hunt card, thus managing to be offensively belligerent and obsequious at the same time – though why he chose to play to an audience of one, when the confirmation was largely out of Trump’s hands, is anyone’s guess.

The most recent development, which seems to be Trump’s own doing, is that the FBI is being given as wide a scope as it needs. From this, I’m getting the impression that Trump is preparing to wash his hands of Kavanaugh – to throw him under that very destructive bus the Yanks keep talking about – but the GOP is definitely not. Which leaves the FBI as the piggy in the middle, with the White House giving carte blanche, and the Republican Senators, under the whip of the disgusting McConnell, saying it all has to be wrapped up by Friday (October 5). It’s an impossibly ludicrous situation. Apparently the FBI is currently busy turning away an increasing number of people who want to speak to the agency about Kavanaugh’s drunken loutishness during his college days. It’s becoming increasingly clear that Brett was then something of a lout, and is now something of a liar. All in all it’s the behaviour of that class of people I recall from my own university days – students of the moneyed professions, behaving boorishly in the bar, mixing only with their own kind, man-spreading smugly, making a moat of waste and filth around their table as they disgorged food, drink, fag-ends and assorted packaging over the course of a fun evening. The sort of people worth avoiding, for a lifetime. Everything I’ve observed about Kavanaugh recently fits that picture to a t. Having said that, having been a loutish youth over thirty years ago isn’t a crime. Pretending that you never really behaved badly isn’t either. But, on the one hand, we’re not talking about criminality, we’re talking about suitability for a particular job, a job that clearly requires great integrity (as does the job of US President, but that’s another story…). On the other hand, the possibility of a serious crime is in question, and that won’t be properly investigated, because of the determination of McConnell and the GOP. So, if the GOP manage to get him confirmed, it will destroy the credibility of their party for a long time into the future – and I believe Kavanaugh can be impeached. Though he may have to wait in line. 

Written by stewart henderson

October 3, 2018 at 2:07 pm

the battle for justice – feeling impotent

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not in Australia

So while I await the DCSI’s long-delayed decision on my clearance, I’m a little too nerve-frayed to focus on something completely other than myself, and Trump’s downfall – always an easy topic. So, until that time, I can do little more than diarise, my neologism. So I might be drifting from my case to that of the Trump, and back. On my case, I’ve spoken to a criminal lawyer, a friend of a friend, who’s agreed to help me, and as he’s also a friend of my former lawyer in the original court proceedings, he may be able to access further documentation, the stuff I’ve been trying to get hold of.

What was of more interest to me, though, was his insight into the way this state government has weighted legislation, over time, to favour the accuser over the defendant in cases of alleged sexual abuse. Some would argue this is a good thing, because it’s surely fair to say that in the past, allegations of rape for example, have not been given the full treatment they deserve, in our patriarchal society. We’re at last much more prepared to believe the women, and I agree that women very rarely lie about such things. But very rarely doesn’t mean never, and I would stick my neck out to say that children are more likely to lie about such things than adults, though again such lies are still rare. In my case, the liar was a fourteen-fifteen year old boy, whose motives I made clear to the police and to my lawyer at the time. But of course I never had my day in court, to examine the matter, such as it was.

The problem, as the lawyer put it, is that there are some zealots within the Screening Unit of DCSI, and they may be the ultimate decision makers, rather than the coal-face workers who interviewed me back in early December. That interview went well, and I came out of it feeling confident. For the first time I had something equivalent to my ‘day in court’, and I foolishly fantasised that it would all be wrapped up within a week or two, in my favour. We’re now in the twentieth week since my review lodgement, and I’m beginning to share the pessimistic views of this lawyer and of a teacher colleague – ‘these bureaucrats really hate admitting they were wrong’. Not to mention the jeopardy they’ve placed themselves in, in terms of the suffering they’ve put myself and others through, and the resentment and the desire for compensation and damages they’ve stirred up.

All of which makes me think this could become a much bigger issue, even a scandal of sorts, if only it was possible to determine how many people are involved. If there are few – and I must bear in mind that false accusations are rare – then nothing may come of it. After all, these ‘complex cases’ mentioned in the Ombudsman email may be more like borderline infractions, where the level of seriousness is in question, not whether something actually happened or not. Even so, they may have enough in common with those falsely accused for us to make common cause, in some kind of class action. Teachers, care workers and others are having their careers and reputations destroyed for questionable infractions and false allegations that happened to make it into the court system, with no recourse, because the screening unit has decided to ‘err’ on the side of caution. And considering the truly vast numbers of people being screened nowadays, even a small fraction of innocent people being done down, because of this decision that it’s acceptable to commit errors, may amount to a substantial number.

Innocent people, people who know they’re innocent, are likely to fight very very hard against a system that treats them as guilty. Especially in a case such as mine, when they have reason to feel proud of their role as a foster carer, a teacher or whatever. If there is some way I can connect with other innocent workers who are being destroyed by a systematic approach of ‘erring on the side of caution’, in a screening system with increasingly wide application in the workforce, we may be able to persuade authorities of the justice of our cause.

Interestingly, I’ve been partly inspired in this more active approach by one of the most currently prominent Trump scandals. Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for pornstar Stormy Daniels, is preparing for a major fight to permit his client to tell the truth. He’s facing the full weight of a political machine that is determined to suppress this truth, and it’s his commitment to having his client tell her story and to be judged, not only by the canaille, to speak pejoratively, but by the discerning public, that encourages me. I’ve told my story to a very few ‘strangers’, including a couple of lawyers and a panel of two employees of DCSI’s screening unit, who are clearly not the decision-makers in my case. The principal decision-makers appear to be higher-ups who are more interested in the thinnest of documents with ‘nolle prosequi’ at their head. I would dearly love to have my story, undramatic though it might be, presented on 60 Minutes for all to judge, and my accuser, if he’s still accusing, can have his say in the court of public opinion too. I would have far more faith in that court, in which at least people get to be heard by their judges, than by this secret process, ideologically driven to ‘err on the side of caution’, which means basically erring on the side of the accuser. But it’s Avenatti’s aggressive fighting spirit that impresses me. I feel that spirit within me, but of course I don’t have much of an audience to bolster me, or any forum in which to fight. Clearly I face an uphill battle to be heard by even a nano-fraction of the public, but again I’m heartened that Avenatti has gotten at least six other women, victims of Trump (Daniels isn’t quite a victim in that she seems to have willingly had a sexual relationship with the Trump, pretty vomit-inducing in itself), to add support to his lying, bullying nature. A class action of some sort might help my case, just to highlight the fact that there are false allegations out there, some of them quite egregious in their nature and their impact.

I have no real way, though, of reaching out to others in my circumstances, and as a hapless loner, I doubt if I have the wherewithal – though I think I could act effectively as a spokesperson once a group was formed. Of course, given the moral panic about child sexual abuse and given the Me Too movement, it’s not an easy time for pleading innocence and victimhood as an ’empowered male’, but we should be pushing to at least get our stories (or non-story in my case – or a story about my accuser) heard, something which was never vouchsafed me during my court process.

Written by stewart henderson

March 19, 2018 at 1:33 pm

the secret world of DCSI’s Screening Unit unrevealed

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the black box that keeps the Screening Unit’s processes hidden from the public

Jacinta: Ok so let’s do a deep dive into the screening unit, the processes involved, the law that’s being followed, the staffing, the numbers of people being processed, time frames, consequences, pushback, serious possibilities of redress, anything else we can think of.

Canto: So here’s the situation as it stands. I received the letter from the DCSI screening unit on October 30 last year claiming that I ‘pose a risk to the safety of children’. I filed an application for a review of this decision on October 31, and the review is registered as having been commenced on that day. As a result of that DCSI decision, I was suspended from my teaching position, without pay, on November 10, the day my five-week contract was completed. I’ve been working from contract to contract, like most of the teaching staff where I work, or worked, though I was given ‘priority’ as a teacher about two years ago.

Jacinta: So you’ll get your job back if the DCSI’s decision is overturned.

Canto: I don’t know if there’s any guarantee of that. I was told, too, by a lawyer from the Legal Services Commission (I’ve called the LSC three times so far about all this) that I should have a right to some pay even as a casual, but I’m feeling cowardly about making any demands upon my employer, because I really really don’t want to lose my job.

Jacinta: So today is March 6, and it’s been well over 4 months since your appeal was lodged.

Canto: Yes and I’ve written two emails of complaint to the screening unit, and I’ve made an official complaint to the Ombudsman’s office. A rep from the Ombudsman has emailed me twice since, and now my review has been given ‘priority’. Last week a woman from the screening unit rang me, asking me to resend information that I’d already supplied. She explained that attached materials often got lost in the to and fro of emails within the screening unit – which didn’t inspire me with confidence. She also assured me that, once I’d resent the materials, she would quickly shunt me along the line to the next assessor in the process, because I was now a ‘priority case’. This, after four months! I’d hate to think of the wait for those who aren’t given priority. Six months, a year, two years? It’s a very destructive and demoralising process.

Jacinta: For the innocent, which of course you are. So while you’re waiting, I suppose you’ll want to find out more about this screening process. It has become more rigorous, it seems. What triggered this more rigorous screening process, and when was it established? Has the screening unit been bolstered, in terms of resources and staffing, to deal with this more rigorous and time-consuming screening process?

Canto: Yes I’ll try to find out more about this online, because again I’m again a little cowardly about approaching DCSI directly. They’ll think I’m a trouble-making nuisance.

Jacinta: Good god Canto, you’re an innocent man who’s been dealt pretty shabbily, first by the police, than the DPP and now the DCSI, and you’re worried about raising a fuss?

Canto: Well, also, to be honest, I don’t think DCSI will be very co-operative.

Jacinta: There’s really nothing online about this. Nobody appears to be protesting apart from yourself, not online at any rate. There’s nothing negative at all about the Screening Unit, The ‘Me Too’ movement is featured strongly, and there’s a lot of irritation online that false allegations are given a lot of attention when under-reporting of real cases of sexual abuse, harassment and so forth, is more of a problem. So it’s not a good environment for bringing all this up. I suppose at least it wasn’t a female that falsely accused you. Females are considered more reliable.

Canto: Well, I’ve received an update from the Ombudsman’s office. Here’s the most important part of it:

As you are aware I have been assessing the processing of your application for a child related screening clearance. I have been provided with updates from the department and your application is still with the Assessment Team. I understand your initial application took 7 months to process. In the department’s  assessment you would be aware that the department is considering such information as your disclosable court outcomes from 2006 offences. The department should have advised you that your review is being managed by a team of people who process your application independently from the initial application  process. I would anticipate given the current backlog of applications the department is processing that your application may still take some weeks to finalise. This office has met with Screening Unit Officers and the Ombudsman has also met with the Chief Executive of DCSI, Mr Tony Harrison, about the delays in the processing of more complex applications. The department is considering strategies to counter the delay and our office will be advised of their progress. At this stage I do not think it is reasonable for this office to continue to monitor your individual application and I will now close your file. I understand that you are anxious to have your application finalised and invite you to recontact our office in approximately four to six weeks if your application is not finalised.

I’ve put the expression ‘2006 offences’ in bold because the expression was offensive to me, they were of course alleged offences, which were never even tested or explored in court let alone proven. But I don’t think the woman meant to offend me, it was inadvertent.

Jacinta: But wording matters hugely to the innocent, I understand. Anyway the letter provides useful information – you now know that the CEO of DCSI is Tony Harrison, and you learned previously that Kelly Tattersall is the director of the Screening Unit. Above all you’ve learned that there is in fact a backlog of applications and that they’re ‘considering strategies’ to counter the delay. It’s a very slight glimpse through the opacity of the Unit’s workings…

Canto: Another quibble I have – and you’re right, wording matters hugely to the innocent – is the reference to my case as ‘complex’. I don’t see it as complex at all, it’s extremely straightforward, but it was made complex by the behaviour of the police and the DPP.

Jacinta: I’ve found Tattersall on Linked-in. She’s been director of the Screening Unit since May 2013, so she would definitely know something you want to know – whether this ‘rigorous’ screening has been going on for the whole of her period in office, or whether it’s new, and exactly how new it is. She would also know, of course, just how many of these ‘complex cases’ there are. It’s so effing difficult to get any information.

Canto: Another person, who would know, of course, is this Tony Harrison. Just searching on him leads me to the ‘about us’ section of DCSI online. The department is overseen by the state minister Zoe Bettison. The website lists the Screening Unit as one of its assets, but I’m blocked from accessing it. It’s quite literally a black box!

Jacinta: Well I can understand the need for privacy of course, but the lack of public access to its general processes is a problem, to put it mildly. Sunlight is the best…. you know.

Canto: For what it’s worth, I’ve downloaded ta copy of the state’s Children’s Protection Act 1993, updated only last month, and we might look more deeply into that next time.


Written by stewart henderson

March 12, 2018 at 9:47 am

why Obama’s warnings about dictatorship are more than justified

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Watching one of the cable news networks, either CNN or MSNBC – I’ve become interested in the USA’s parlous political situation as a diversion from my own probs – I listened not so attentively to two opposing views on a recent speech given by Barak Obama in which he warned against complacency with regard to creeping dictatorship. This speech has apparently inflamed Republicans, or members of the alt-right, whatever, I’m not too keen on knowing all the distinctions within that country’s disturbing polity. I got a sample of this ‘indignation’ when a right-wing pundit on the show launched into Obama for his example of Germany in the thirties – all those millions of Jews and Enemies of the State gassed, all that racist ideology and disgusting craziness, how incredibly offensive to make such a comparison, right? Obama really showed himself to be the most shameful opportunist, who’d stoop to anything, and how can you possibly compare this Trump administration with such a maniacal mass-murderer and his henchmen, etc etc.

Then the leftist speaker got to respond and it quickly degenerated into a shoutfest. Of course I felt like shouting too, but then I thought of a more dignified response.

Obama spoke calmly and thoughtfully, and yes certainly he was referring to the Trump administration without naming it. And his comparison with the rise of Hitler might have been controversial but what other choice did he have, seriously? What other dictator would’ve meant anything to most Americans? Obama had a choice of dictatorships subverting democracy. In other words, recent dictatorships. He also would’ve known, consciously or unconsciously, that your average American knows less than zero about the history of any country other than their own. So is he going to talk about Franco’s Spain, or Tito’s Yugoslavia, or Suharto’s Indonesia? Not bloody likely, that would be like talking Swahili to an American audience. Hitler was the obvious, really the only choice. And I have to say, I’ve long been pissed off by the ‘never mention Hitler’ taboo in political discourse. He should be mentioned regularly and often, and then again.

Trump has clear and obvious dictatorial tendencies. He rarely if ever has anything positive to say about democratically elected leaders, but he’s passionately in love with Putin, a petty dictator who’s turned his country into an economic basket case, with a GDP almost exactly the same as Australia’s in spite of a population six or seven times the size. Putin tortures and murders his opponents, or steals their money and sends them into exile, where they live in constant fear for their lives. He has likely destroyed any possibility of democracy in Russia for decades, though I try to still be optimistic about that. I have no doubt that Trump is only curbed by the institutions he lashes out at – the media, the courts, the FBI, the Department of Justice, etc, and would love nothing more than to be monarch of all he surveys, with statues and banners devoted to him everywhere. Then he wouldn’t be reduced to empty threats of suing the many women he’s abused, he could simply eliminate them – a much more permanent, and cheap, solution. He wouldn’t have to humiliate himself by begging support for the Roy Moores of the world, he could simply appoint them, as does his great love Putin.

So the point is that today’s joke can become tomorrow’s reality. Recently, Trump has expressed his ‘disappointment’ about not being able to control the Department of Justice, clearly referring to the Mueller investigation. Privately, we hear, he’s apoplectic with rage about it. We hear also about his ‘administration’ trying to set up an alternative CIA, and his lawyers suggesting he can’t obstruct justice by virtue of his position. You want to laugh, but how many of us were laughing at the very idea of Trump’s candidacy?

All of this, it seems to me, results from a political system in which way too much power is invested in one man (hopefully there will be a female Prez some time soon). In this respect, the USA appears to have far less checks and balances than other western political systems. For example, it appears that the US Prez has veto rights over decisions made by the US congress or senate. This would be unthinkable in any other western nation that I know of. There’s also the apparent fact that the Prez is seen as the representative of justice in the country, which is why past Presidents such as Nixon have seemed confused about their relationship to the law – whether they’re above, below or adjacent to it. It’s a farcical but disturbing situation which just doesn’t occur in other western democracies, in which roles and power are more diversified and the leader is very much first among equals. The fact that legal experts are actually debating whether the American President can be accused of obstructing justice is a perfect example of the craziness at the summit of US politics. If the Prime Minister of Australia, or Great Britain, or the Chancellor of Germany tried to argue that they were above the law, they wouldn’t be just thrown out of office, they’d be laughed out of office. They say that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely; the US President’s power isn’t absolute, but it’s certainly too far on that side of the spectrum.

So Trump is currently pushing an envelope that’s already too large – the envelope of Presidential power. But there are positive signs. Certainly there’s no chance of him being re-elected, with his popularity waning and no real chance of it rising again, with a profoundly serious criminal investigation moving inexorably closer to Trump and his family, and with local elections moving against the Republicans. The tragedy is – and this is yet another problem for the US political system – that when Trump is pushed out of office, which I predict will happen next year, his administration won’t be dumped at the same time, as would happen in just every other democratic country, with fresh elections held. Instead you’d have an entirely discredited administration, led by the super-imbecilic bible-basher Mike Pence or the generally supine Paul Ryan, limping along for another two or three desolate years.

I may have made some mistakes about how the political system works in the USA, as I don’t like to get too close to it (I don’t find the odour appealing), but I do find it tiresome if not laughable when I hear American pundits talking about theirs as the greatest democracy, or their country as the cradle of democracy, etc. I am finding it entertaining at the moment though, with due deference to the poor and the struggling who are truly being done over by their absurd President and his horrendous policies.


Written by stewart henderson

December 10, 2017 at 11:09 am

The battle for justice, part 1: some background to the case

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A prosecution should not proceed if there is no reasonable prospect of a conviction being secured. This basic criterion is the cornerstone of the uniform prosecution policy adopted in Australia.

from ‘The decision to prosecute’, in ‘Statement of prosecution policy and guidelines’, Director of Public Prosecutions, South Australia, October 2014

not this movie, unfortunately

I rarely focus on myself on this blog, but now I feel I have to. Today I lost my job because of something that happened to me about 12 years ago. So the next I don’t know how many posts will be devoted to my battle for justice, in the hope that it may help others in a similar situation. Of course I also find that writing is my best solace, as well as my best weapon. I have no financial resources to speak of, all I have is a certain amount of nous.

Between 2003-4 and 2010 I was a foster carer, under the aegis of Anglicare. Over that period I fostered six boys, with naturally varying success.

So why did I become a foster carer? I simply saw an ad on a volunteering website. I was being pushed to do some work, which I’ve always been reluctant to do, being basically a reclusive bookworm who loves to read history, science, everything that helps to understand what humans are, where they came from, where they’re going. And I hate when work interferes with that! But having come from what for me was a rather toxic family background, trying to shut myself from screaming fights between parents, and being accused by my mother, the dominant parent, of being a sneak and a liar, and ‘just like your father’ (her worst insult), and being physically and mentally abused by both parents (though never sexually), and having run away from home regularly in my teen years, I imagined that, as a survivor, I could offer something which might work for at least some of these kids  – a hands-off, non-bullying environment which would be more equal in terms of power than many foster-care situations. Call me naive…

Mostly, this approach worked. I did have to get heavy now and then of course, but not for long, so I always managed to stay on good terms with my foster-kids, as I have more recently with my students. This was even the case with the lad who accused me of raping him.

Let me describe the case as briefly as possible. A fifteen-year old boy was in my care in September 2005. He was much more of a handful than the previous two boys I’d looked after, and when I lost my temper with him during a school holiday trip in Victor Harbour, he took it out on me by claiming to his mother, with whom he spent his weekends, that I’d punched him on the back of the head. This was false, but his mother took the matter to the police, and the boy was immediately taken out of my care.

After an internal review conducted by Anglicare I was cleared of any wrongdoing, to their satisfaction at least, and another boy was placed in my care. Then, sometime in early 2006, this boy was secretly whisked out of my care, and I was informed by Anglicare that a serious allegation had been made against me. I was in shock, naturally thinking this new boy had also accused me of some kind of violence, but I was finally informed by the Anglicare social worker who’d been overseeing my placements that ‘it isn’t your new foster – kid’. The penny dropped more or less immediately that it was the same boy who’d accused me of hitting him. This boy, as far as I was aware, was now living happily with his mum.

I was left in limbo for some time, but eventually I received a message from the police to go to the Port Adelaide police station. There I was asked to sit down in an office with two police officers, and informed that I was under arrest for rape.

I was somewhat taken aback haha, and I don’t recall much of the conversation after that, but I think it went on for a long time. I do remember one key question: if the boy’s lying, why would he make such an allegation? I had no answer: I was unable to think clearly, given the situation. But later that night, after my release on bail, an answer came to me, which might just be the right one. When the boy was in my care, the plan was to reconcile him with his mother, who put him in care in the first place because she couldn’t cope with him. I knew his mother, as I met her every weekend for handover. She was highly strung and nervous, and it seemed likely she was again having trouble coping with full-time care. Quite plausibly, she was threatening to return him to foster care, which he wouldn’t have wanted. She allowed him to smoke, she allowed him to hang out with his mates, and her environment was familiar to him. To him, I would’ve seemed boringly bookish and unadventurous. What’s more, his claim that I’d hit him had worked perfectly for him, getting him exactly where he wanted. Why not shut the door on foster care forever, by making the most extreme claim?

I don’t really know if this sounds preposterous to an impartial reader, but this answer to the riddle struck me as in keeping with what I knew of the boy’s thinking, and it was backed up by a remark he made to me, which soon came back to haunt me. He said ‘my mum’s friend told me that all foster carers are child molesters…’. It was the kind of offhand remark he’d often make, but it was particularly striking in light of something I was told later by my lawyer. Apparently, the boy didn’t tell his mother directly that I’d raped him, he’d told a friend of his mother, who’d then told her.

So, after the sleepless night following my arrest, I felt confident that I knew the answer to the key police question. I typed it up and took it forthwith to the Port Adelaide station (I didn’t trust the mail). How utterly naive of me to think they’d be grateful, or interested! I received no response.

So I obtained a lawyer through legal aid, or the Legal Services Commission. At the time I was dirt poor: I’d received a stipend as a foster carer, but that had stopped. Otherwise I worked occasionally as a community worker or English language teacher, mostly in a voluntary role. From the moment I was charged I spent many a sleepless night imagining my days in court, heroically representing myself of course, exposing contradictions and confabulations, citing my spotless record, my abhorrence of violence of all kinds, etc, etc. So I was a bit miffed when my lawyer told me to sit tight and do nothing, say nothing, and to leave everything to him. Standard procedure, presumably. The case passed from hearing to hearing (I don’t know if that’s the word – at least there were several court appearances), over a period of more than a year, and every time I expected it to be dismissed, since I knew there was no evidence. It had to be dismissed, there could be no other possibility. The only reason it had become a court matter in the first place, it seemed to me, was the absolute enormity of the allegation. But how could this possibly be justified? But I had to admit, the boy had, more or less accidentally, stumbled on the perfect crime to accuse me of – a crime committed months before, where there could be no visible evidence one way or another… It was all very nerve-wracking. And I was very annoyed at the fact that the DPP (the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions) seemed to have different lawyers representing it at every court appearance, and mostly they behaved as if they’d only been handed the brief minutes before.

Finally I arrived at the lowest point so far – an arraignment. I didn’t know this (my last) appearance would be an arraignment and I didn’t know what that was. I just expected yet another appearance with a handful of yawning court officials and lawyers in attendance. Instead I found a packed courtroom.

Arraignment is a formal reading of a criminal charging document in the presence of the defendant to inform the defendant of the charges against him or her. In response to arraignment, the accused is expected to enter a plea.

In Australia, arraignment is the first of eleven stages in a criminal trial, and involves the clerk of the court reading out the indictment. (WIKIPEDIA)

The reason the courtroom was packed is that several arraignments are processed in the same courtroom on the same day, so there were several accused there with their friends and families. Unfortunately, I was solo. On my turn, I was taken out to the holding cells and brought in – some kind of ceremonial – to the dock. The charge was read out (I’d already been given the ‘details’ by the lawyer, so I barely listened to it) and I was asked to plead, and the judge told the court, to my utter amazement, that I was adjudged to have a case to answer.

So it was perhaps even more amazing that, a week or two after that appearance, the case was dropped.



Written by stewart henderson

November 11, 2017 at 7:34 pm

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