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

Month: October 2015

Scientists shape how the media portray synthetic biology (by Mirko Ancillotti)

mirko-ancillotti2 Most of us learn about scientific developments through the media. Journalists and newspaper editors not only select what to bring to public attention but also the way the contents are conveyed. But how can we be sure that what they report is well researched?

There are some new studies on how media portray synthetic biology in different countries. It turns out that reports are both unbalanced and uncritical. Most of the stories use the same terminology, figures of speech and envision the same fields of application. This is because they rely on the same sources: press releases, press conferences or interviews with a few prolific American scientists, with Craig Venter doing the lion’s share. Stories are often optimistic and future oriented. The promising applications of synthetic biology are connected to subjects that people already prioritize like health and environment. But it also means that the possible risks are omitted or presented in a few choice words close to the end.

josepine-fernow2Scientists have a public role and a duty to perform science outreach and science communication in a responsible way. This duty is amplified by the interaction with mass media. Indeed, there are a number of national and international regulations and guidelines that provide indications on what kind of relationship and communication scientists should entertain with the media and what pitfalls they should avoid. Is it a problem that the media copy their framing and present the field with their words? If scientists can reach the public directly, does that mean that we should increase our demand on their communication? Maybe not. Managing to popularize and frame science in a way that attracts media’s attention and an inattentive and unengaged public is already a communications feat.

Journalists have ethical responsibilities and a strong professional ethics. This resounds in a remarkable amount of national and international guidelines and regulations. Did the journalists do a good job when they kept the message and vision the scientists provided and spread that to the public? Should we ask journalists to be more critical and filter the voice of the scientists involved?

Well, we would of course prefer to receive balanced information filtered by knowledgeable science journalists. But science news is not always handled by them. Perhaps the real problem is the logic of the current media landscape. There is no time to research a press-release: the news have to go out, otherwise someone will beat you to it.  In the extreme, this logic allows for hoax press releases to become news (like the one that made the Emulex stock plummet in 2000). If we want journalists to do a good job, we have to give them time. Because the idea that media basically “retweet” what a few scientists and entrepreneurs decide is of course a bit disturbing.

If you are interested to read more about this topic have a look at Mirko Ancillotti’s recent publications:Uncritical and unbalanced coverage of synthetic biology in the Nordic press that was just published in Public Understanding of Science, or Synthetic Biology in the Press: Media Portrayal in Sweden and Italy.

Mirko Ancillotti and Josepine Fernow

We care about communication - the Ethics Blog

Two kinds of nonsense?

This is just a short follow-up to last week’s post: Thinking to the limits of language.

The attentive reader may have noticed that I spoke there of two kinds of transgressions of limits of language:

  1. A tendency to make a sweeping gesture and say, “Space is everywhere; it surrounds me.”
  2. A tendency to interpret the limit that is transgressed in (1), and which can be highlighted by saying, “Space does not exist in space,” as a profound truth indicating that space itself must be something hitherto unthought.

If space isn’t out there, surrounding me, then what is it? And thus one moves on, to explore this radical question about space in a hitherto unthought sense.

Both tendencies give rise to nonsense. I want to say that (1) gives rise to rather innocent nonsense talk. Almost anyone can feel the temptation to make that sweeping gesture, but it often ends there. Tendency (2), on the other hand, reveals a philosophically minded person, and it is only the beginning of a possibly life-long investigation.

Now, it has been argued, by Wittgensteinian philosophers, that there is only one kind of nonsense: pure nonsense (like “piggly wiggle tiggle”). But if we put nonsense in context and consider its manner of arising, then I believe we need to distinguish between at least two kinds of nonsense: in order to know what we deal with when we deal with philosophy.

Significant philosophers typically acknowledge the limit that we easily transgress; but their interpretation of it as “deep” turns it into a starting line for philosophy. And thus they transgress it anyway, but in their own way.

Pär Segerdahl

Minding our language - the Ethics Blog

Thinking to the limits of language… and then onwards

Pär SegerdahlI read last summer Immanuel Kant’s enormous work, Critique of Pure Reason. It struck me that one of the “methods” he uses could be described as: thinking to the limits of language.

How is such thinking done?

Like this, for example: I see a cloud in the sky and think that the cloud is up there (I indicate “where” with a pointing gesture). Thereafter, I think more abstractly that the same can be said about the part of space that the cloud fills. That part of space is also up there (I point again).

– But where is space itself, as a whole?

Here it is tempting to make a sweeping gesture and say, “Space is everywhere; it surrounds me.” But precisely that I cannot do, say or think. Because then I would treat space as if it were somewhere. I would treat space as if it existed, in space.

My thinking took me to a limit of language, which it is tempting to transgress. So far, so good. But then it struck me that Kant also has a definite interpretation of his method.

He interprets the limit he acknowledged as if it were fundamental and primary: as if it were a source that enables our seeing of clouds and other things (here and there). Space itself does not exist (in space): space is the possibility of seeing things (here and there). This possibility is subjective, “within us,” Kant says; but that cannot be meant in the ordinary spatial sense.

Kant thus interprets limits of language as sources. Speaking, writing and thinking about these sources, he develops purified philosophical prose. He develops extra-ordinary forms of language, possessing absolute authority since they speak of what comes first: the sources within us of what we ordinarily experience and chatter about.

So although Kant indeed acknowledges the limit (by pointing out that space does not exist in space), he nonetheless contrives esoteric language to systematically present its nature and function as a source. The limit inspires, as if it were a philosophical starting line.

Is there an alternative to Kant’s interpretation? The alternative is that the limits of language hold for all of us, not least as thinkers. Thinking to the limits of language, as we did, does not lead to sublime discoveries of “first truths,” although it sounds profoundly true to say: “space does not exist in space.”

Paradoxically, it is when we reach the limit, and acknowledge it as a limit, that the temptation to transgress it arises. For our acknowledgement of the limit appears profoundly true and worth its own investigation. It strikes us as an “original” truth preceding all ordinary truths about, for example, that cloud in the sky.

And in that spirit we move onwards, as if summoned by the perceived profundity of the limit.

Pär Segerdahl

The Ethics Blog - Thinking about thinking

The challenge to simulate the brain

Michele FariscoIs it possible to create a computer simulation of the human brain? Perhaps, perhaps not. But right now, a group of scientists is trying. But it is not only finding enough computer power that makes it difficult: there are some very real philosophical challenges too.

Computer simulation of the brain is one of the most ambitious goals of the European Human Brain Project. As a philosopher, I am part of a group that looks at the philosophical and ethical issues, such as: What is the impact of neuroscience on social practice, particularly on clinical practice? What are the conceptual underpinnings of neuroscientific investigation and its impact on traditional ideas, like the human subject, free will, and moral agency? If you follow the Ethics Blog, you might have heard of our work before (“Conversations with seemingly unconscious patients”; “Where is consciousness?”).

One of the questions we ask ourselves is: What is a simulation in general and what is a brain simulation in particular? Roughly, the idea is to create an object that resembles the functional and (if possible also) the structural characteristics of the brain in order to improve our understanding and ability to predict its future development. Simulating the brain could be defined as an attempt to develop a mathematical model of the cerebral functional architecture and to load it onto a computer in order to artificially reproduce its functioning. But why should we reproduce brain functioning?

I can see three reasons: describing, explaining and predicting cerebral activities. The implications are huge. In clinical practice with neurological and psychiatric patients, simulating the damaged brain could help us understand it better and predict its future developments, and also refine current diagnostic and prognostic criteria.

Great promises, but also great challenges ahead of us! But let me now turn to challenges that I believe can be envisaged from a philosophical and conceptual perspective.

A model is in some respects simplified and arbitrary: the selection of parameters to include depends on the goals of the model to be built. This is particularly challenging when the object being simulated is characterized by a high degree of complexity.

The main method used for building models of the brain is “reverse engineering.” This is a method that includes two main steps: dissecting a functional system at the physical level into component parts or subsystems; and then reconstructing the system virtually. Yet the brain hardly seems decomposable into independent modules with linear interactions. The brain rather appears as a nonlinear complex integrated system and the relationship between the brain’s components is non-linear. That means that their relationship cannot be described as a direct proportionality and their relative change is not related to a constant multiplier. To complicate things further, the brain is not completely definable by algorithmic methods. This means that it can show unpredicted behavior. And then to make it even more complex: The relationship between the brain’s subcomponents affects the behavior of the subcomponents.

The brain is a holistic system and despite being deterministic it is still not totally predictable. Simulating it is hardly conceivable. But even if it should be possible, I am afraid that a new “artificial” brain will have limited practical utility: for instance, the prospective general simulation of the brain risks to lose the specific characteristics of the particular brain under treatment.

Furthermore, it is impossible to simulate “the brain” simply because such an entity doesn’t exist. We have billions of different brains in the world. They are not completely similar, even if they are comparable. Abstracting from such diversity is the major limitation of brain simulation. Perhaps it would be possible to overcome this limitation by using a “general” brain simulation as a template to simulate “particular” brains. But maybe this would be even harder to conceive and realize.

Brain simulation is indeed one of the most promising contemporary scientific enterprises, but it needs a specific conceptual investigation in order to clarify its inspiring philosophy and avoid misinterpretations and disproportional expectations. Even, but not only, by lay people.

If you want to know more, I recommend having a look at a report of our publications so far.

Michele Farisco

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