A blog from the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB)

Month: March 2014

Research ethics as moral assurance system

PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogModern society seems to be driven by skepticism. As philosophers systematically doubted the senses by enumerating optical and other illusions, our human ability to think for ourselves and take responsibility for our professional activities is doubted by enumerating scandals and cases of misconduct in the past.

The logic is simple: Since human practices have a notorious tendency to slide into the ditch – just think of scandals x, y and z! – we must introduce assurance systems that guarantee that the practices remain safely on the road.

In such a spirit of systematic doubt, research ethics developed into what resembles a moral assurance system for research. With reference to past scandals and atrocities, an extra-legal regulatory system emerged with detailed steering documents (ethical guidelines), overseeing bodies (research ethics committees), and formal procedures (informed consent).

The system is meant to secure ethical trustworthiness.

The trustwortiness of the assurance system is questioned in a new article in Research Ethics, written by Linus Johansson together with Stefan Eriksson, Gert Helgesson and Mats G. Hansson.

Guidelines, review and consent aren’t questioned as such, however. (There are those who want to abolish the system altogether.) The problem is rather the institutionalized distrust that makes the system more and more formalized, like following a checklist in a mindless bureaucracy.

The logic of distrust demands a system that does not rely on the human abilities that are doubted. That would be self-contradictory. But thereby the system does not support human abilities to think for ourselves and take responsibility.

The logic demands a system where humans become what they are feared being.

The cold logic of distrust is what needs to be overcome. Can we abstain from demanding more detailed guidelines and more thorough control, next time we hear about a scandal?

The logic of skepticism is not easily overcome.

Pär Segerdahl

We challenge habits of thought : the Ethics Blog

How does biotechnology become real?

PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogSeeing things with our own eyes, not just hearing about them, makes a difference. Words certainly arouse images, but they are our own images of what we never saw.

This is a challenge for the rapid development in biotechnology. Genetically modified organisms are created, in vitro fertilization is practiced, stem cells are grown, and biobanks are constructed.

For most of us this is only hearsay. The words we hear arouse images, but as I said: images of what we never saw with our eyes. When we then respond to new forms of biotechnology, perhaps with anxiety or a sense of unreality, it is often our own images we respond to.

It’s like trying to form an opinion of a person who is hidden in a cloud of rumors. What a difference it makes to actually meet the person, and not only respond to the images that the rumors create within us.

Increased popular scientific efforts don’t automatically solve the problem. On the contrary, relying too much on the visual potential of, for example, computer animation can contribute to the cloud formation. People are stimulated to create even further images of what they never saw.

So how can biotechnology be made real? I believe: by showing what can be shown. Just seeing a genetically modified tomato or a person who underwent stem cell treatment makes biotechnology more real to me than any image of the DNA helix or stem cell differentiation can.

Seeing what can be shown – often practical applications – doesn’t necessarily make me approve of all forms of biotechnology, but I can discuss the technology without being too much distracted by my own cloud of images. I can discuss what became real.

How new forms of biotechnology can become real for the public is discussed in a new article in the Croatian Medical Journal, written by Anna Lydia Svalastog, Joachim Allgaier, Lucia Martinelli, and Srecko Gajovic.

They introduce the notion of Knowledge Landscapes to think more concretely visually about communication with the public about new forms of biotechnology. They emphasize science museums as one arena where biotechnology can be discussed as a reality rather than as an urban myth.

Show what can be shown.

Pär Segerdahl

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The risk with knowing the risk

PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogInforming individuals about their genetic risks of disease can be viewed as empowering them to make autonomous decisions about their future health.

But we respond to risk information not only as rational decision makers, but also with our bodies, feelings and attitudes.

An American study investigated elderly people whose genetic test results showed a predisposition for Alzheimer’s disease. One group was informed about the risk; the other group was not.

In subsequent memory tests, those who were informed about the risk performed markedly worse than those who weren’t informed.

Knowing the genetic risk thus increased the risk of a false positive diagnosis of dementia. The informed participants performed as if they already were on the verge of developing Alzheimer’s.

The risk with knowing the risk is thus a further complication to take into consideration when discussing biobank researchers’ obligation to return incidental genetic findings to individual participants.

Returning information about genetic risks cannot be viewed only as empowering participants, or as giving them valuable information in exchange for contributing to research.

It can also make people worse, it can distort research results, and it can lead to false diagnoses in clinical care.

Pär Segerdahl

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