When “neuro” met “ethics”

June 13, 2017

Pär SegerdahlTwo short words increasingly often appear in combination with names of professional fields and scientific disciplines: neuro and ethics. Here are some examples: Neuromusicology, neurolaw, neuropedagogy. Bioethics, nursing ethics, business ethics.

Neuro… typically signifies that neuroscience sheds light on the subject matter of the discipline with which it combines. It can illuminate what happens in the brain when we listen to music (neuromusicology). What happens in the brain when witnesses recall events or when judges evaluate the evidence (neurolaw). What happens in children’s brains when they study mathematics (neuropedagogy).

…ethics (sometimes, ethics of…) typically signifies that the discipline it combines with gives rise to its own ethical problems, requiring ethical reflection and unique ethical guidelines. Even war is said to require its own ethics of war!

In the 1970s, these two words, neuro and ethics, finally met and formed neuroethics. The result is an ambiguous meeting between two short but very expansive words. Which of the two words made the advance? Where is the emphasis? What sheds light on what?

At first, ethics got the emphasis. Neuroethics was, simply, the ethics of neuroscience, just as nursing ethics is the ethics of nursing. Soon, however, neuro demonstrated its expansive power. Today, neuroethics is not only the “ethics of neuroscience,” but also the “neuroscience of ethics”: neuroscience can illuminate what happens in the brain when we face ethical dilemmas. The emphasis thus changes back and forth between neuroethics and neuroethics.

The advances of these two words, and their final meeting in neuroethics, reflects, of course, the expansive power of neuroscience and ethics. Why are these research areas so expansive? Partly because the brain is involved in everything we do. And because all we do can give rise to ethical issues. The meeting between neuro… and …ethics was almost inevitable.

What did the meeting result in? In a single discipline, neuroethics? Or in two distinct disciplines, neuroethics and neuroethics, which just happen to be spelt the same way, but should be kept separate?

As far as I understand, the aim is to keep neuroethics together as one interdisciplinary field, with a two-way dialogue between an “ethics of neuroscience” and a “neuroscience of ethics.” This seems wise. It would be difficult to keep apart what was almost predetermined to meet and combine. Neuroethics would immediately try to shed its neuroscientific light on neuroethics. And neuroethics would be just as quick to develop ethical views on neuroethics. The wisest option appears to be dialogue, accepting a meeting that appears inevitable.

An interesting article in Bioethics, authored by Eric Racine together with, among others, Michele Farisco at CRB, occasions my thoughts in this post. The subject matter of the article is neuroethics: the neuroscience of ethics. Neuroethics is associated with rather grandiose claims. It has been claimed that neuroscience can support a better theory of ethics. That it can provide the basis for a universal ethical theory that transcends political and cultural divides. That it can develop a brain-based ethics. That it can reveal the mechanisms underlying moral judgments. Perhaps neuroscience will soon solve moral dilemmas and transform ethics!

These pretentions have stimulated careless over-interpretation of neuroscientific experiments. They have also provoked rash dismissal of neuroethics and its relevance to ethics. The purpose of the article is to support a more moderate and deliberate approach, through a number of methodological guideposts for the neuroscience of ethics. These include conceptual and normative transparency, scientific validity, interdisciplinary methods, and balanced interpretation of results.

In view of this critical perspective on hyped neuroscientific claims, one could define the article as a neuroethical article on neuroethics. Following the linguistic pattern that I described above, the article is an example of neuroethics-ethics. No, this will not do! We cannot use these two expansive words to specify in neurotic detail who currently happens to advance into whose field.

I choose to describe the article, simply, as a neuroethical paper on neuroethics. I want to see it as an example of the dialogue that can unite neuroethics as an interdisciplinary field.

Pär Segerdahl

Racine, E., Dubljevic´, V., Jox, R. J., Baertschi, B., Christensen, J. F., Farisco, M., Jotterand, F., Kahane, G., Müller, S. (2017). “Can neuroscience contribute to practical ethics? A critical review and discussion of the methodological and translational challenges of the neuroscience of ethics.” Bioethics 31: 328-337.

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We transgress disciplinary borders - the Ethics Blog

Internal investigation of research misconduct often fails

May 30, 2017

Pär SegerdahlWhat characterizes a research scandal? In a short article in Hastings Center Report, Carl Elliott uses as an example the case of Paolo Macchiarini at the Swedish Karolinska Institutet.

Macchiarini’s deadly experiments with stem cell-covered artificial trachea, transplanted to patients who did not have life-threatening diseases, have unique features linked to the personality and charisma of the researcher. However, the scandal resembles other scandals on one point, Elliott says. Whistle-blowers who use internal channels at the home university to handle research misconduct often fail. Justice is not done until the press reveals the scandal. In this case, a Swedish documentary film, The Experiments, exposed the scandal.

If Elliott is right, I personally draw two conclusions. The first is that investigative journalism is important. It reveals misconduct that would otherwise not be exposed. My second conclusion is that we cannot be satisfied with this.

Angry customers who want to force the shop assistant to correct what they think went wrong can threaten: “If you don’t fix this, I’ll contact the local newspaper.” A responsible person who suspects research misconduct should not have to act in a way that others can interpret as partial exercise of power. It poisons the situation and increases the risk for the whistle-blower.

If internal channels often fail to handle research misconduct, as Elliott claims, a system of external management is required. Therefore, it is good that a Swedish public inquiry recently suggested that an independent agency should investigate suspected research misconduct.

Contacting the media should not have to be “the way” of effectively exposing research misconduct; it is a way out if the standard way fails. If the way out often is required, something is wrong with the way.

Pär Segerdahl

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Research is not a magical practice

May 16, 2017

Pär SegerdahlWhy does hearing about research sometimes scare us in a vertiginous way? I mean the feeling that researchers sometimes dig too deeply, that they see through what should not be seen through, that they manipulate the fundamental conditions of life.

It does not have to concern GMOs or embryonic stem cell research. During a period, I wrote about studies of human conversation. When I told people that I was working on conversation analysis, I could get the reaction: “Oh no, now I dare not talk to you, because you’ll probably see through everything I say and judge how well I’m actually talking.”

Why do we react in such a way? As if researchers saw through the surface of life, as through a thin veil, and gained power over life by mastering its hidden mechanisms.

My impression is that we, in these reactions, interpret research as a form of magic. Magic is a cross-border activity. The magician is in contact with “the other side”: with the powers that control life. By communicating with these hidden powers, the magician can achieve power over life. That is at least often the attitude in magical practices.

Is this how we view research when it scares us in a dizzying way? We think in terms of a boundary between life and its hidden conditions; a boundary that researchers transgress to gain power over life. Research then appears transgressive in a vertiginous way. We interpret it as a magical practice, as a digging into the most basic conditions of life.

The farmer who wants to control the water level in the field by digging ditches, however, is not a magician who communicates with hidden forces. Digging ditches gives you ordinary power in life: it gives control of the water level. I would like to say that research is more like digging ditches to control the water level than like engaging in magic to control life itself. Certainly, research gives power and control – but in life, not over “life itself.”

This does not mean that research does not need to be regulated; digging ditches probably needs regulation too.

The magical aura of charismatic researchers sometimes seduces us. We think they are close to the solution of “the riddle” and give them a free hand… We must be careful not to give research work a magical interpretation.

Pär Segerdahl

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Where to publish and not to publish in bioethics – the 2017 list

May 9, 2017

Stefan Eriksson, Associate Professor of Research Ethics, Uppsala University

Allegedly, there are over 8.000 so called predatory journals out there. Instead of supporting readers and science, these journals serve their own economic interests first and at best offer dubious merits for scholars. We believe that scholars working in any academic discipline have a professional interest and a responsibility to keep track of these journals. It is our job to warn the young or inexperienced of journals where a publication or editorship could be detrimental to their career and science is not served. We have seen “predatory” publishing take off in a big way and noticed how colleagues start to turn up in the pages of some of these journals. While many have assumed that this phenomenon mainly is a problem for low status universities, there are strong indications that predatory publishing is a part of a major trend towards the industrialization of misconduct and that it affects many top-flight research institutions (see Priyanka Pulla: “In India, elite institutes in shady journals”, Science 354(6319): 1511-1512). This trend, referred to by some as the dark side of publishing, needs to be reversed.

Gert Helgesson, Professor of Medical Ethics, Karolinska InstitutetThus we published this blog post in 2016. This is our first annual update (the previous version can be found here). At first, we relied heavily on the work of Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado, who runs blacklists of “potential, possible, or probable” predatory publishers and journals. His lists have since been removed although they live on in new form (anonymous) at the Stop predatory journals site (SPJ) and they can also be found archived. These lists were not, however, the final say on the matter, as it is impossible for one person to judge reliably actors in every academic discipline. Moreover, since only questionable journals are listed, the good journals must be found elsewhere.

A response of gatekeeping needs to be anchored in each discipline and the scholars who make up that discipline. As a suitable response in bioethics, we have chosen to, first, collect a few authoritative lists of recommended bioethics journals that can be consulted by anyone in bioethics to find good journals to publish with. Last year, we recommended a list of journals ourselves, which brought on some well-deserved questions and criticism about criteria for inclusion. Unfortunately then, our list ultimately drew attention from other parts of the message that we were more concerned to get across. Besides, there are many other parties making such lists. We therefore have dropped this feature. Instead we have enlarged the collection of good journal lists to the service of our readers. They are all of great use when further exploring the reputable journals available:

It is of prime importance to list the journals that are potentially or possibly predatory or of such a low quality that it might be dishonoring to engage with them. We have listed all 36 of them (up with eleven from last year) alphabetically and provided both the homepage URL and links to any professional discussion of these journals that we have found (which most often alerted us to their existence in the first place).

Each of these journals asks scholars for manuscripts from, or claims to publish papers in bioethics or related areas (such as practical philosophy). They have been reviewed by the authors of this blog post as well as by a group of reference scholars that we have asked for advice on the list. Those journals listed have unanimously been agreed are journals that – in light of the criticism put forth and the quality we see – we would not deem acceptable for us to publish in. Typical signs as to why a journal could fall in this category, such as extensive spamming, publishing in almost any subject, or fake data being included on the website etc., are listed here:

We have started to more systematically evaluate the journals against the 25 defining characteristics we outlined in the article linked to above (with the help of science and technology PhD students). The results will be added when they exist.

We would love to hear about your views on this blog post, and be especially grateful for pointers to journals engaging in sloppy or bad publishing practices. The list is not meant as a check-list but as a starting point for any bioethics scholar to ponder for him- or herself where to publish.

Also, anyone thinking that a journal in our list should be given due reconsideration might post their reasons for this as a comment to the blog post or send an email to us. Journals might start out with some sloppy practices but shape up over time and we will be happy to hear about it. You can make an appeal against the inclusion of a journal and we will deal with it promptly and publicly.

Please spread the content of this blog as much as you can and check back for updates (we will do a major update annually and continually add any further information found).


UPDATE! New journal added: Advance Humanities and Social Sciences (Consortium Publisher). Behind this journal you’ll find OMICS, the most-ever discussed publisher of this kind, see http://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/predatory-publisher-expanding-empire-in-canada. The only article published in 2016 is very badly edited, all the references are lost in the text and the paper would not pass an exam at our departments. The publisher is listed on SPJ.

UPDATE II: New journal added: The Recent Advances in Academic Science Journal (Swedish Scientific Publications). Despite the name it seems based in India. The only Swedish editor’s existence cannot be verified. Website quality is lacking. Listed on SPJ.

In light of recent legal action taken against people trying to warn others about dubious publishers and journals – see here and here – we want to stress that this blog post is about where we would like our articles to show up, it is about quality, and as such it is an expression of a professional judgement intended to help authors find good journals with which to publish. Indirectly, this may also help readers to be more discerning about the articles they read. As such it is no different from other rankings that can be found for various products and services everywhere. Our list of where not to publish implies no accusation of deception or fraud but claims to identify journals that experienced bioethicists would usually not find to be of high quality. Those criticisms linked to might be more upfront or confrontational; us linking to them does not imply an endorsement of any objectionable statement made therein. We would also like to point out that individual papers published in these journals might of course nevertheless be perfectly acceptable contributions to the scholarly literature of bioethics.

Stefan Eriksson & Gert Helgesson

Read more about Stefan’s work at CRB here

Essential resources on so-called predatory publishing and open access:

We like ethics : www.ethicsblog.crb.uu.se

Fear of the unknown produces ghosts

April 26, 2017

Pär SegerdahlWhat really can start feverish thought activity is facing an unclear threat. We do not really see what it is, so we fill the contours ourselves. At the seminar this week, we discussed what I think was such a case. A woman decided to test if she possibly had calcium deficiency. To her surprise, the doctor informed her that she suffered from a disease, osteoporosis, characterized by increased risk of bone fractures.

She already had experienced the problem. A hug could hurt her ribs and she had broken a shoulder when pushing the car. However, she felt no fear until she was informed that she suffered from a disease that meant increased risk of bone fracture.

I do not mean she had no reason to be worried. However, her worries seem to have become nightmarish.

Presumably, she already understood that she had to be careful in some situations. However, she interpreted the “risk factor” that she was informed about as an invisible threat. It is like a ghost, she says. She began to compare her body with a house where the foundation dissolves; a house which might therefore collapse. She began to experience great danger in every activity.

Many who are diagnosed with osteoporosis do not get fractures. If you get fractures, they do not have to be serious. However, the risk of fractures is greater in this group and if you get a hip fracture, that is a big problem. The woman in the example, however, imagined her “risk factor” as a ghost that constantly haunted her.

I now wonder: Are ethical debates sometimes are about similar ghost images? Most of us do not really know what embryo research is, for example, it seems vaguely uncanny. When we hear about it, we fill the contours: the embryo is a small human. Immediately, the research appears nightmarish and absolute limits must be drawn. Otherwise, we end up on a slippery slope where human life might degenerate, as the woman imagined her body might collapse.

I also wonder: If debates sometimes are about feverishly produced ghost images, how should we handle these ghosts? With information? But it was information that produced the ghosts. With persistent logical counter arguments? But the ghosts are in the feverish reasoning. Should we really continue to fill the contours of these images, as if we corrected bad sketches? Is it not taking ghosts too seriously? Is it not like trying to wake up yourself in a dream?

Everything started with the unclear threat. The rest were dreamlike consequences. We probably need to reflect more cautiously on the original situation where we experienced the first vague threat. Why did we react as did? We need to treat the problem in its more moderate beginning, before it developed its nightmarish dimensions.

This is not to say that we have no reason to be concerned.

Pär Segerdahl

Reventlow, S., Hvas, A. C., Tulinius, C. 2001. “In really great danger.” The concept of risk in general practice. Scandinavian Journal of Primary Health Care 19: 71-75

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Trusting yourself

April 18, 2017

Pär SegerdahlTrusting yourself, what does it mean? It can of course mean thinking that you always know best, trusting your strength to prevail over whoever and whatever you may meet in life.

There is another form of trust in yourself, where you trust your uncertainty rather than your certainty. You respond to your uncertainty not by accusing yourself, but by taking a deep breath and saying: this is difficult. I would not be so uncertain if it was not for the fact that I have come across something that truly requires caution, reflection, and long-term investigation.

It sounds humble when Socrates says that the only thing he knows is that he knows nothing. Or when it is said that wisdom lies in the recognition that one is not wise. In a sense, it is humble. However, this form of humility also exhibits self-reliance. One is uncertain not because one is unusually stupid but because some things are unusually difficult. Life sometimes surpasses the intellect.

People who trust their uncertainty express it as honest questions, instead of hiding it behind clever arguments and theses. When they express their uncertainty as questions, their work can begin. The uncertainty is then their only certainty. It shows them there is something worthy of investigation. It shows them the way, through sincere questions and rejections of premature solutions.

Sometimes weakness is a strength. Socrates relied on it. Researching persons do.

Pär Segerdahl

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Sliding down along the slippery slope

April 11, 2017

Pär SegerdahlDebates on euthanasia, abortion or embryonic stem cell research frequently invoke slippery slope arguments. Here is an example of such reasoning:

Legalizing physician-assisted suicide (PAS) at the end of life pushes healthcare morality in a dangerous direction. Soon, PAS may be practiced even on people who are not at the end of life and who do not request it. Even if this does not happen, the general population’s trust in healthcare will erode. Therefore, PAS must be forbidden.

Reasoning about the future is important. We need to assess consequences of allowing new practices. However, how do we assess the future in a credible way?

In an article in Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy, Gert Helgesson, Niels Lynøe and Niklas Juth argue that many slippery slope arguments are not empirically substantiated, but are based on value-impregnated factual assumptions. Anyone who considers PAS absolutely wrong considers it as a fatal step in a dangerous direction. Therefore, it is assumed that taking such a step will be followed by further steps in the same dangerous direction. If you chose the wrong path, you end up further and further away in the wrong direction. It seems inevitable that a first step is followed by a second step…

The problem is that this prophesying is based on the original moral interpretation. Anyone who is not convinced of the fatality of a “first” step does not have a tendency to see it as a “first step” with an inherent tendency to lead to a “second step” and finally to disaster.

Thinking in terms of the slippery slope can sometimes be experienced as if you yourself were on the slippery slope. Your thoughts slide toward the daunting precipice. Perhaps the article by Helgesson, Lynøe and Juth contains an analysis of this phenomenon. The slippery slope has become a vicious circle where the prophesying of disastrous consequences is steered by the moral interpretation that one defends with reference to the slippery slope.

Slippery slope arguments are not wrong in themselves. Sometimes development is on a slippery slope. However, this form of reasoning requires caution, for sometimes it is our thoughts that slide down along the slippery slope.

And that can have consequences.

Pär Segerdahl

Helgesson, G., Lynøe, N., Juth, N. 2017. Value-impregnated factual Claims and slippery slope arguments. Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy 20: 147-150.

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Approaching future issues - the Ethics Blog

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