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

Month: February 2015

The need of a bird’s-eye view

Pär SegerdahlIn the previous blog post I wrote about the tendency in today’s research to build common research platforms where data are stored and made open: available for future research, meta-analysis and critical scrutiny of published research.

The tendency is supported at EU level, by bodies responsible for research. Simultaneously, it is obstructed at EU level, by other bodies working with data protection.

The same hopeless conflict can be seen in Sweden, where the Swedish Data Inspection Board time and again stops such efforts or criticizes suggestions for how to regulate them. This month the Data Inspection Board criticized a proposed law on research databases.

It may seem as if the board just dryly listed a number of points where the proposal is inconsistent with other laws or allowed unreasonable infringement of privacy. At the same time, the Data Inspection Board seems alien to the new way of organizing research. Why on earth should researchers want to save so much data so damn long?

How can we handle these conflicts between public bodies that each has his own little mission and thus its own limited field of vision?

Pär Segerdahl

We want to be just - the Ethics Blog

Open research platforms and open data

Pär SegerdahlToday, I recommend reading about two major changes in current research. Both changes are reflected in the December issue of the newsletter:

The changes concern researchers’ relation to their material.

The first change has been discussed on the Ethics Blog. It is that samples and data that individual research groups collect begin to be saved, documented and analyzed in joint biobanks. The material is then made available to other researchers, both nationally and internationally.

This requires an attitude change among researchers who are used to store their data material locally and then use it locally. Now, one sends the material to the biobank instead, which takes care of it and provides service to researchers in the form of analysis, access to more data, advice, and more. Perhaps researchers need not always collect their own material, if relevant data are available via the biobank infrastructure.

This change is discussed in the editorial by Joakim Dillner, Acting director of BBMRI.se, and in an interview with Mark Divers, Head of the biobank facility that BBMRI.se built up at Karolinska Institutet.

The second change has not been discussed on this blog. It is featured in an interview in the newsletter with a researcher in cognitive neurophysiology, Gustav Nilsonne. It is closely related to the first, but requires a change in attitude to what it means to make research available through publication in scientific journals.

The change is about making research open not only through Open Access publication of scientific articles, but also by making raw data available. Such a change is significant in several ways:

  1. Data collected with efforts of many research participants can be used multiple times instead of disappearing in forgotten archives.
  2. Published findings can be critically examined; it becomes more difficult to cheat or be negligent.
  3. It becomes easier to make meta-analysis of data from many studies.

These changes can of course be seen as two sides of the same coin. Researchers seeking services from the biobank facility must accept that other researchers apply for access to “their” data … which thereby become open.

Pär Segerdahl

We recommend readings - the Ethics Blog

Norm fever


Pär Segerdahl

How does one become a Platonist; a person who believes in a world of pure ideas? This blog post tries to give an answer.

If I were to use one word to sum up the character of everything that agitates people, it would be: normativity.

As soon as we are engaged by someone’s hairstyle, by a political program, or by how some researchers treated their research participants, we perform some form of normative activity.

Think of all the things we say daily, or hear others say:

  • – It looks better if you comb it like this
  • – What a beautiful coat
  • – Do you still buy and listen to CDs?
  • – That’s not a proper way of treating people
  • – To deny women abortion violates human rights

All these normative attitudes about the tiniest and the greatest matters! Then add to this normative murmuring the more ambitious attempts to speak authoritatively about these engaging issues: attempts by hair stylists, by orators, by politicians, by ethicists, by the Pope, by sect leaders, and by activist organizations to make themselves heard above the murmuring.

A person who was troubled precisely by the latter attempts to speak more authoritatively about the issues that engage people was Socrates. He asked: Are these wise guys truly wise or just cheeky types who learned to speak with an authoritative voice?

Socrates wandered around in Athens, approaching the cockerels and examining their claims to know what is right and proper, genuine and true. These examinations often ended in acknowledgement of lack of knowledge: neither the cockerel nor Socrates himself actually knew.

Socrates’ examinations look like a series of failures. No one knows not what he claims to know. None of us even know what knowledge is!

For Socrates, however, failure is success. He converted another mortal and helped his soul discover a more ideal orientation towards pure normativity: the eternal standards of all that is. No mortal has normative authority, only the norms themselves have. You must search for them, rather than follow orators or sect leaders who just want to make themselves heard. You must orient yourself towards normativity as such, and strive towards perfection.

Socrates was feverishly attracted to this dream of pure normativity. He called his dream “love of wisdom”: philosophy. But for the dream to be more than a feverish dream the dream must be real and reality must be a dream. Another aspect of Socrates’ art of conversation was, therefore, a series of myths, parables and stories, which suggested a more real world beyond this one: a realm of eternal pure norms, the ultimate standards of all things.

One such story is about a slave boy who, although he was illiterate, could be made to “see” a truth in geometry. How was this possible? Of course, because the slave boy’s immortal soul beheld the norms of geometry before he was born among us mortals! Reminiscence of more original normative authority, truer than any mortal’s loud-voiced pretentiousness, made it possible for the slave to “see.”

Something similar occurs, Socrates implied, each time we see, for example, a beautiful building or a brave soldier. Something more primordially real than the house or the soldier – pure norms of beauty, courage, buildings, soldiers – shine through and enable us to see what we naively take for granted as reality. Primordial reality – a realm of pure norms – illuminates all things and enables us to see the beautiful building or the brave soldier (if they resemble their standards).

If normativity sums up the character of everything that engages us, it is perhaps not surprising to find that it easily makes us dream feverishly about a realm of ultimate normative authorities, called “pure ideas.”

Pär Segerdahl

We like challenging questions - the ethics blog