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Posts Tagged ‘ethics

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

a smart ploy, with serious overtones for gender equality

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This is serious, mum: striking a blow for common-sense and against gender-regulated dress-codes. CREDIT: DEVON LIVE / SWNS.COM

I heard an amusing story on the morning news about young male students in England protesting the absurd imposition of a strict long trousers dress code in all weathers at some local high school, where the girls, of course, are allowed – or rather, required – to wear skirts. It reminded me of my days in high school in the early seventies when we were gathered together, boys on one side, girls on the other, to hear our deputy head launch a tirade against ‘long, scruffy hair’. Of course, he was talking only about boys, who henceforth were banned from having hair below the collar. Of course I couldn’t help but notice that all the girls’ hair, of indeterminate scruffiness, hung below that level. I also noted with interest that the deputy head was completely bald.

More than forty years on I still fume at that arbitrary diktat, such is my rabid anti-authoritarianism, but of course I didn’t then have the courage, or the power, to make a protest. Forty-odd years on and these English schoolboys have staged a protest that’s magnificently rebellious, non-violent, eye-catching, intelligent and humorous, by coming to school in the standard uniform – for girls. Interestingly, the media were on hand to capture the spectacle and to interview the lads, who were articulate and positive about the comfort and style of their skirts. The media presence suggests to me the collusion of parents, and a deal of planning leading up to the big day….

So Dr Google reveals that the boys were from Isca Academy in Exeter, Devon, and accompanying photos reveal the boys’ obvious delight in their ploy. I sincerely hope it was entirely their idea. The protest has had immediate effect, with a new policy on shorts to be adopted ‘subject to consultation’. The problem with this is that there’s a heatwave on now in England, so the boys likely won’t be allowed their shorts until the hot weather is over. I’m hoping they’ll continue with their skirts while the heatwave lasts. That would be the most logical and practical solution. However, the gender-segregating stupidity of our general society, never mind the petty regulations of what looks to be a conservative, elitist Devon school, will probably not permit that. The school itself is using climate change as an excuse for a permanent withdrawal of its long-trousers rule, rather than admitting that the rule is idiotic at any time – though perhaps no more idiotic than most dress rules that segregate the genders.

It seems like a minor issue, but I don’t think so. It goes to the heart of gender equality. Dress codes that clearly separate the genders – and I’m leaving aside the LBGTQ etc minefield – are never a good idea. And this of course includes hairstyle codes. For a start there’s the impracticality. Both codes would have to be equally flexible to suit weather conditions as well as working conditions, and to suit personal choice. It would be manifestly unfair, for example, to restrict the length of boys’ hair when girls’ hair length is unrestricted. And it would be manifestly unfair to impose trousers on boys and skirts on girls when weather conditions will differentially affect the genders because of their uniforms, not to mention differentially affecting their freedom to engage in a range of other activities, for example in the rough and tumble of the playground. To manage this flexibility with two separate, and highly differentiated dress codes, would be virtually impossible. Not to mention that this stark separation doesn’t represent the reality of gender. Neurological studies reveal that there’s no categorical difference between the male and the female brain, only statistical differences, and the variation within female brains and within male brains is far greater than the difference between the genders. This should be seen in our choice of clothing too, but I think we’re still constrained too much by myths of masculinity and femininity, even in our casual dress. We need to keep working on it.

There’s another, more important issue, though, about highly differentiated male/female dress codes. When you have stark differences like these there are always associated values. Differences in type are generally seen as differences in quality. For example, a dress, of whatever design, is rarely viewed in the same businesslike way as long trousers or a suit. Suits radiate a kind of standardised, more or less faceless power, and women rarely wear them and are certainly not encouraged to do so. Of course it’s hard to say what came first – the suit, which then invests the male with power, or the male, who invests the suit with power – but it seems to me the power differential is real, and a more diverse dress code, best encouraged from early childhood, would help to break that down.

And this brings me, finally, to a hot-button issue: the burqa, and also the niqab and other variants. Many of the discussions around banning the burqa have to do with issues such as identification, but this misses the clear-cut point that the burqa, in particular, is a cultural symbol of female inferiority, and nothing else. That’s all it is. That’s what it’s for. And cultures that treat women in this way, with or without their own collusion, are in violation of basic human rights. Cultures that impose the burqa will try to present arguments for its use that are as reasonable as they can possibly make them to a global audience, but they can’t argue with the evidence that the women in those cultures have far less freedom, opportunities and power than the men.

This is the point, for me. Some cultures are better than others, and the best cultures are those more in harmony with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the human values that underpin that declaration. The best cultures are also those most in keeping with what science and history tell us about human nature – and they tell us a lot. If we didn’t have cartloads of information about what kinds of culture or society allow us to thrive, we wouldn’t be able to develop analyses such as the OECD better life index, which currently measures 38 countries through 11 parameters including jobs, safety, community, education, environment and life satisfaction. Australia currently ranks second behind Norway, after being number one for three consecutive years (the OECD is headquartered in Paris).

In December last year, in an article titled “Why Australia needs a debate on the burqa ban”, Andrew Macleod, a business leader, speaker and commentator, wrote ‘I believe every culture can set the customs and norms that they wish.’ This is, of course, fair enough, it’s like saying ‘I believe everyone has a right to their own opinion’, but that doesn’t mean every opinion has to be respected, or is worthy of respect. Particular customs and norms can and should be challenged. Macleod, in his article, takes the ‘when in Rome’ view. You should adapt your behaviour and practice to the norms of the country you’re visiting or living in. I would follow that advice too, but not out of respect – merely out of survival. I wouldn’t want to land up in a foreign jail or be beaten half to death by an angry mob. More importantly – and it’s easy for me because I’m poor and can rarely afford to travel anyway! – I would research any country before visiting it, to ensure that it has customs and laws worthy of respect. I’ve often been urged by friendly students to go and visit their native countries, but, not being a businessman or a seasoned traveller, I haven’t the slightest interest in visiting a country that doesn’t uphold basic human rights, even for a day.

Of course I can’t, and wouldn’t want to, stop people from other countries visiting Australia, and I don’t think an outright ban on the burqa would be a good idea, though I think sensible laws relating to such apparel in certain situations should be enacted. I’d want to ensure also that there is vetting – not to ensure conformity with ‘Australian values’, but in conformity with global human values and rights. You can’t, and shouldn’t try to, coerce people into espousing such values. We need to show by example the value of such values. The OECD only measures 38 countries, and they’re mostly western countries with market economies and established democratic institutions – advanced countries as they’re called. We’re internationally recognised as one of the best of them, and should be able to advertise ourselves as a country whose values are worth adopting, without resort to the breast-beating nationalism that too many Americans, and Australians, indulge in (and such values have nothing discernible to do with speaking near-perfect English).

Do I look too modest in this? Clothing to make the heart sink

Written by stewart henderson

June 25, 2017 at 2:42 pm

Is Donald Trump a great businessman?

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another failed venture and a probable scam

Today I listened to a ‘news report’ delivered in front of our small class by a teenage student from China, a sweet young lad, near 7 feet tall and skinny as a bean, with limited English, whom I’ve been coaching in grammar. Students are asked to choose from a list of articles, simplified, in our class’s case, to pre-intermediate or elementary English level, and report on the article in their own words. My student had chosen the topic ‘Why Hilary Clinton lost the election’, a simplified version of an article by Dan Roberts, originally published in The Guardian on 9 November 2016, the day after Trump’s victory. Before he delivered his report, he had to check it through with me, a routine procedure, but to my annoyance he didn’t have any plan or notes to show me, and assured me that ‘it was all in his head’. He also asked me if it was alright if he focused more on Trump than on Hilary. I told him it was best not to divagate too much from the article, but he was free to voice his own opinion of the candidates.

It wasn’t a great talk. My student was, of course, very nervous, and he glossed over Roberts’ view that Clinton lost the election due to the economy, lack of trust and the weakness of her message. His main point was that Trump won because he was a successful businessman, and running a nation is all about money and success. This was really the totality of his talk, delivered in a halting, repetitive way.

Naturally I was irritated at this, but I let it slide. This was a test of English and not so much a test of critical thinking and analysis, though that had to be a factor. So, the fact that my student didn’t provide any evidence of Trump’s great business acumen certainly was a problem for his talk, which was clearly tendentious. However, considering that this was a low-level class I was prepared to give him a bare pass, and to quash my feelings over this oft-repeated claim that Trump has great business smarts.

From other sources I’ve heard very different claims. Sam Harris, in his Waking Up podcast, regularly asserts his view that virtually nobody is more unfit for the office he currently holds than Trump – the ‘boy-king’, as he calls him. In a recent interview with David Frum, Trump’s business skills were ridiculed. First, Frum took aim at Trump’s foreign policy approach, which was to see other parts of the world, such as the EU, as essentially business competitors, or people you should try to ‘cut deals with’, obviously to the advantage of the US. The fact that he was often dealing with allies who shared the values of the US seemed irrelevant. Then Frum mocked Trump’s reputation as a business operator, pointing out that in Toronto, where Frum, a Canadian-American, is involved in business, namely real estate, which of course is Trump’s business field, Trump’s reputation is somewhere between mud (to people he owes money to) and a laughing-stock (to interested spectators). He went on to say that ‘No-one in the business world has any respect for him as a businessman’.

Business and economics are not exactly my strong suits, but it seems to me that Frum, a lifelong Republican with inside knowledge of the real estate business, is a reliable witness here. However, I don’t want to take on face value his claim that nobody in the business world respects him. I need more evidence.

Before I go on though, I should make the point that Trump has, of course, already shown himself to be unfit for office regardless of his business activities. His bullying tactics as a candidate, the profound narcissism in so many of his utterances, his inflammatory and stupid remarks about those who live south of the US border, his ‘moslem ban’, his treatment of the free press, his admiration for the Russian mafioso dictator above all other world leaders, his scientific illiteracy, his pathetic and disgusting attacks on women’s appearance, his attacks on the judiciary, his contempt for his own intelligence agencies, and so much more, prove him to be a disaster for democracy and proper governance, and the shame for his election lies squarely with those who voted for him, knowing, as any intelligent person would know, the kind of person they were backing.

So to the business. A brief dummies’ guide to Trump’s ventures is given here, and it shows that his failures outnumber his successes, which presumably doesn’t prove him a failure, just as one or two movie successes can recoup twenty movie losses. As to his actual value, it’s pretty well the length of a piece of string, and it’s unclear if he’s made any money at all from the wealth he inherited. And it’s also very unclear how much money he actually inherited. Trump himself said during the campaign that he started off with $1 million and built a company worth more than $10 billion, a remark he prefaced with ‘believe me’.

Funnily enough, nobody does.

Trump received a share of his father’s estate at his death in 1999, and though there’s no clear figure, it was a lot more than $1 million. More importantly, his father set him up financially long before that. Donald Trump became President of Trump senior’s real estate business in 1974, at which time it was valued at $200 million, according to one estimate. But who knows? Here’s an interesting commentary from a Quora finance expert, Will Wister:

The growth of his wealth since 1982 has been in line with that of the S&P 500, according to his own statements. Donald Trump’s self-described net worth was $200 million in 1982. If he invested that money in the S&P 500, he’d be worth about $8.3 billion today. Today he claims his net worth is $8.7 billion. So based on his own claims, he has barely outperformed the S&P since 1982.

Some articles claim that Donald Trump’s inheritance was somewhere between 40 and 200 million in 1974. Since 1974, the S&P 500 is up about 74-fold. So his current claimed net worth of 8.7 billion would equate to about 120 million in 1974, which is right in the middle of estimates of what he inherited. In other words, if the articles are accurate, his performance was very close to that of the market from 1974 to present.

What this tells me, above everything else, is how the world is geared to the massive advantage of the super-rich (if you inherited millions in the seventies, you’d have to be disastrously stupid or dysfunctional to be a failure today), but it’s totally speculative about the boy-king’s wealth.

You would think that the public have a right to know more about this subject, considering that Trump parades his success as a businessman, and has used the claim as evidence of his ability to be the bestest of Presidents. Yet Trump has managed to evade the call to present his tax returns to the public, rejecting a 40-year tradition, and why would a successful businessman do that?

This matter of his tax returns and the state of his wealth takes on added importance in consideration of Trump and his family’s seemingly murky relations with Russia’s kleptocracy. Considering the bumbling way that Trump is dealing with the US presidency, it’s virtually impossible to imagine him as anything other than a bumbling businessman. Loud, histrionic, bragging and bullying certainly, but also bumbling and quite likely manipulable, given his infantile narcissism. This makes it more urgent than ever to uncover whether or not he’s indebted to Putin and his billionaire henchmen, who, I have no doubt, are far smarter and more cynical than he is. There’s an Emoluments Clause in the US constitution which states that:

no Person holding any Office…shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.

The legal question then becomes – do any Russian bail-outs for Trump’s incompetent business dealings constitute such emoluments? This would result in endless legal argy-bargy. Presumably Trump could squirm out of it if it was shown that, if there were any bail-outs, they occurred before he became President. But anyway it’s unlikely that he would willingly provide any information whatsoever about his financial dealings – which, given his well-known association with Russian political and financial figures, and given the well-established fact that Russia sought to undermine the democratic process in the recent election, and given the fact of Trump’s fawning admiration for the Russian dictator, whom he clearly admires above all other political leaders, should surely be sufficient reason, not for impeachment, but for removal from office. The Emoluments Clause, which in any cause wasn’t originally intended to be interpreted broadly, shouldn’t be given as the reason, it should be based on more serious matters. I’m not one to argue for treason, given my stance as an international humanist, but clearly Trump has betrayed democracy, the open society and the rule of law with his evasions and allegiances.

So far it looks like Trump is the kind of businessman you’d expect him to be given his performance as President, and given the character he displays. His ties to Russia are legion, and appear to be financially substantial, given that his many bankruptcies have exhausted the patience of US moneylenders. His business bragaddocio may fool the odd naive Chinese teenager, but the American public should have known better.

Incidentally, it seems the best business decision Trump has ever made was to run for President. The huckster’s chuckling now. Talk about playing the American public for suckers.

Written by stewart henderson

June 18, 2017 at 11:10 am

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

a brief and fairly obvious point

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Someone has pointed out that Frump is a bully and a thug. That person witnessed his bullying via the television, as did, presumably, millions of others. The bully, on being named, proceeded to ridicule the person making the point. The invalidity of such a response, a response which has a well-known designation, ad hominem, was shown some 2,500 years ago. It is equally invalid today of course. This invalidity applies equally to all those who say that actors, musicians etc should not be listened to on matters political, or indeed any other matter. A person’s claim must be based on its truth value, not on the person’s profession or supposed expertise.
So it’s of absolutely no relevance whatever whether Frump’s bullying and thuggery is highlighted by an under-rated actor, an over-rated actor, a journalist, an academic or a drunken person in a pub. The only relevant question is whether the claim is true. And it’s a very easy question to answer in this instance ,as the evidence is bigger than your average blue whale.

etc, etc

Written by stewart henderson

January 10, 2017 at 1:58 pm

what should a vegan’s pet eat, and other immortal questions

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Jacinta: So here’s a question – if vegans have pets – say a cat or a dog – do they feed them only vegetables?

Canto: I don’t know, I suppose it would depend on the vegan…

Jacinta: Shouldn’t it depend on the pet? Cats and dogs are carnivores aren’t they? So it would be a form of cruelty to deprive them of meat. Might even be murder.

Canto: We don’t extend murder to the killing of other animals.

Jacinta: Many vegans do.

Canto: Good point. I once read an article by a vegan philosopher, who gets out of those problems by declaring that using animals as pets is unethical. A form of slavery, I suppose.

Jacinta: So, we free the pets? Along with the cows, the sheep, the donkeys, the camels, the water buffalos, the horses, the chooks and pigeons and all those other creatures we’ve used and abused so horridly?

Canto: Well, from memory – I’ll never be able to hunt out the article – he didn’t address the issue of those animals already under captivity of one sort or another. He was simply wanting to argue on general principles that using animals for our personal benefit was unethical.

Jacinta: Even if it benefits the animal?

Canto: Well I suppose the argument would be that even a well-treated slave is still a slave.

Jacinta: But if you free a dog, say, what would happen to it? You’re actually throwing it out of its home, it has nowhere else to go. And I believe that there’s historical evidence that dogs, and probably cats too, have adapted to live with humans. That it was their choice, in a sense. Like pigeons in the city getting fat on leftover bits of hamburger, with no obvious ill-effects. Do pigeons get diabetes?

Canto: Well there’s an obvious difference between scavenging pigeons and pets. Pets don’t choose to become pets. I think that’s the way the argument would run. Unfortunately there are a lot of current pets who would suffer from being set free, but that’s not the issue.

Jacinta: I think I see. We look after the pets we’ve got, then bury them and don’t have any more. And this wouldn’t mean the end of all dogs because there are plenty of strays – scavengers – to maintain the species. And no more enforced ‘pedigree’ breeding – I’d be all for that. But there’s a problem – in order to get rid of all the pets, you have to stop them breeding and that would mean desexing them – a gross interference of their right to reproduce. And if you allow them to reproduce, you must surely bear responsibility for their offspring as your home is theirs. You’re caught in a trap, you can’t walk out, because you love them babies too much.

Canto: You’re looking at it all from a practical perspective, which is all fine and good and relevant, but I think the issue for this philosopher was, I think – judging from him being a vegan – that all such usage of animals – pets as cuddly toys, dolphins as trained performers, horses and camels as pack animals, etc, not to mention farming them for slaughter – is unethical. What do you think of that as a general principle?

Jacinta: I don’t think it holds up, because species take advantage of other species all the time, and not just by preying on them. Sharks have their remoras, we have lice more or less specially adapted to us, roses have their aphids, in fact everywhere you look you have species making use of other species. And presumably being a vegan he marks a strict boundary between animal and vegetable and in reality that’s quite a fuzzy boundary, like with coral. And what about insects, what’s the vegan take on that?

Canto: Presumably negative – they have eyes and antennae and feelings of some sort.

Jacinta: Yes, well it’s a step too far I think. Yes we have a moral responsibility to avoid causing undue suffering….

Canto: Well what about this argument. Because we can survive – and indeed thrive – on only plants, we should do so. I mean, you’re talking about species that, say, are mostly carnivorous – that won’t survive if their food supply dries up. Sharks, for example, they can’t just become vegan, they’ve adapted to a very specific diet. We on the other hand are omnivores, we can dispense with certain varieties of food, including meat, and still live healthy lives, perhaps.

Jacinta: Hmmm, that’s definitely a more difficult question. I do believe that being omnivores, or being very adaptable in our diet has stood us in very good stead in the past, like in the last major  ice age when we almost died out apparently. So I’m wondering whether confining our diet might not expose us to greater risks…

Canto: It may not even mean confining our diet – we could synthesise many of the proteins and other nutrients we nowadays get from meat. We’ve already done that, probably.

Jacinta: Well I’ve heard they’re still a long way from synthesising anything that really has the nutrients as well as the texture, flavour, odour and je ne sais quoi of meat. At under about $200, 000.

Canto: And if they achieved that feat, and got it down to competitive prices, would you go vego?

Jacinta: Well of course – I’d have no reason not to. I just don’t think it’ll happen in my lifetime.

Canto: But let’s say for argument’s sake that it does – would you feed this synthetic stuff to your pet cat?

Jacinta: Ah so we come full circle. Yes I would, since it would be more or less chemically identical to meat.

Canto: But animals that have adapted to become carnivores have also adapted to become hunters. They go together. Haven’t you turned your cat from its proper course in life?

Jacinta: No, she became removed from her ‘proper course’, if there is such a thing, by becoming my pet, whether by her choice or mine, or the choice of her ancestors. Likely she will keep up her hunting skills, catching flies and insects and mice and small birds, if she can. And she will benefit from being my friend, as I will benefit from being hers. Like all good friends, we’ll use each other for own purposes, which we hope will be, and will try to make, mutually beneficial.

Canto: Okay, no further questions your excellency.


Written by stewart henderson

March 31, 2016 at 11:37 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