Macchiarini and the spirit of fraudulence

February 10, 2016

Pär SegerdahlI assume you heard of Paolo Macchiarini, the “star surgeon” who, with the willpower of a general, simply would win a great battle at the frontline of research – by creating new tracheae using the patients’ own stem cells. That the endeavor had costs in terms of a few soldiers’ or patients’ lives is sad, but some losses must be accepted if one is to win a major battle in the service of cutting-edge experimental research.

It is difficult to avoid such an interpretation of Macchiarini’s mindset, after seeing the Swedish TV-documentaries about him (“Experimenten”/”The Experiments”). You feel the presence of a dominating iron will to carry out a plan and to win. It feeds a warlike spirit in which collegial doubts must be suppressed because they corrupt the morale and slow down the march forward, toward the frontline.

Truth is, as we know, the first casualty of war. Losses must be described as successes, in order not to lose readiness for action in the final battle – which, of course, will be won, don’t for a moment doubt that! The condition of patients who after surgery barely can breathe must thus be described as if the surgery had given them a nearly normal respiratory function. Macchiarini’s misconduct follows the logic of war.

Imagine this rigid winner, waiting impatiently for patients for whom his unproven methods (with some good will) could be interpreted as a last chance to survive. Does he approach the patients as a doctor who wants to offer a last treatment option? Hardly, but the possibility of interpreting the situation in such a way takes him to the frontline: he gets the opportunity to operate on them.

Does he then relate to the patients as a researcher to his participants? Not that either. For the treatment is only improvised in the heat of battle and can hardly even be called experimental; and all failures will be covered up by more scientific fraudulence.

The fact that research ethics developed in the shadow of the Second World War is hardly a coincidence. Something that worries in the Macchiarini case is that research itself – with its competition for funding and more – obviously can be animated by a warlike and strategic spirit of winning, which corrupts individuals as well as institutions…

It goes without saying that suspected research misconduct should not be investigated by the universities themselves; that there is a need for an independent body that handles such matters.

Pär Segerdahl

This post in Swedish

Following the news - the ethics blog


Trust, responsibility and the Volkswagen scandal

December 15, 2015

Jessica Nihlén FahlquistVolkswagen’s cheating with carbon emissions attracted a lot of attention this autumn. It has been suggested that the cheating will lead to a decrease in trust for the company, but also for the industry at large. That is probably true. But, we need to reflect on the value of trust, what it is and why it is needed. Is trust a means or a result?

It would seem that trust has a strong instrumental value since it is usually discussed in business-related contexts. Volkswagen allegedly needs people’s trust to avoid losing money. If customers abandon the brand due to distrust, fewer cars will be sold.

This discussion potentially hides the real issue. Trust is not merely a means to create or maintain a brand name, or to make sure that money keeps coming in. Trust is the result of ethically responsible behaviour. The only companies that deserve our trust are the ones that behave responsibly. Trust, in this sense, is closely related to responsibility.

What is responsibility then? One important distinction to make is the one between backward-looking and forward-looking responsibility. We are now looking for the one who caused the problem, who is to blame and therefore responsible for what happened. But responsibility is not only about blame. It is also a matter of looking ahead, preventing wrongful actions in the future and doing one’s utmost to make sure the organisation, of which one is a member, behaves responsibly.

One problem in our time is that so many activities take place in such large contexts. Organisations are global and complex and it is hard to pinpoint who is responsible for what. All the individuals involved only do a small part, like cogs in a wheel. When a gigantic actor like Volkswagen causes damage to health or the environment, it is almost impossible to know who caused what and who should have acted otherwise. In order to avoid this, we need individuals who take responsibility and feel responsible. We should not conceive of people as powerless cogs in a wheel. The only companies who deserve our trust are the ones in which individuals at all levels take responsibility.

What is most important now is not that the company regains trust. Instead, we should demand that the individuals at Volkswagen raise their ethical awareness and start acting responsibly towards people, society and the environment. If they do that, trust will eventually be a result of their responsible behaviour.

Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist

(This text was originally published in Swedish, in the magazine, Unionen, industri och teknik, December 2015.)

Further reading:

Nihlén Fahlquist, J. 2015. “Responsibility as a virtue and the problem of many hands,” In: Ibo van de Poel, Lambèr Royakkers, Sjoerd Zwart. Moral Responsibility in Innovation Networks. Routledge.

Nihlén Fahlquist J. 2006. “Responsibility ascriptions and Vision Zero,” Accident Analysis and Prevention 38, pp. 1113-1118.

Van de Poel, I. and Nihlén Fahlquist J. 2012. “Risk and responsibility.” In: Sabine Roeser, Rafaela Hillerbrand, Martin Peterson, Per Sandin Handbook of Risk Theory, 2012, Springer, Dordrecht.

Nihlén Fahlquist J. 2009. “Moral responsibility for environmental problems – individual or institutional?” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 22(2), pp. 109-124.

This post in Swedish

We challenge habits of thought : the Ethics Blog


The Ebola epidemic also created an epidemic of rumors

November 18, 2015

Pär SegerdahlThe outbreak of Ebola virus disease in West Africa in 2014 was fought with scientific, medical knowledge about the virus. But for that knowledge to be translated into practice, good communication with the people in the affected areas was needed.

Joachim Allgaier and Anna Lydia Svalastog describe how communication was hampered by the fact that the epidemic also created an epidemic of rumors about the disease, which internet and mobile communication quickly spread in the affected areas and other parts of the world. The Ebola epidemic was at least two epidemics:

Unscientific ideas about the causes of the disease or about remedies (like eating raw onions, drinking salt water) spread online. But also conspiracy theories about the international efforts spread, which sometimes led to locals hiding their sick or preventing the work of humanitarian organizations.

The article also includes examples of successful treatments of the communicational epidemic. Local anthropologists found, for example, that the name “isolation centers” was interpreted by the locals as “death chambers,” and suggested that one should instead speak of “treatment centers.” Anthropologists could also, by contacting respected members of local communities, help changing burial rituals and other customs that contributed to the spread of the Ebola virus.

The article furthermore gives examples of how online social networks and YouTube, which contributed to the spread of rumors, also were used by the local populations to inform each other about how to wash  hands and behave to actually reduce the spread of the disease.

The conclusion of the article is that even if scientific and medical tools are absolutely central to combating virus epidemics, we must in order to succeed also treat the secondary, virtual epidemics that quickly spread through click-friendly news links and social networks online. All this requires sensitivity to local contexts.

Both kinds of epidemics must be treated simultaneously.

Pär Segerdahl

This post in Swedish

We care about communication - the Ethics Blog


Scientists shape how the media portray synthetic biology

October 27, 2015

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


Openness as a norm

March 11, 2015

Pär SegerdahlWhy should scientists save their code keys as long as 20 years after they conducted their study, the Swedish Data Inspection Board apparently wonders. In its opinion to a proposed new Swedish law on research databases, it states that this seems too long a period of time.

Yet, researchers judge that code keys need to be saved to connect old samples to new registry data. The discovery of a link between HPV infection and cervical cancer, for example, could not have been made with newly collected samples but presupposed access to identifiable samples collected in the 1960s. The cancer doesn’t develop until decades after infection.

New generations of researchers are beginning to perceive it as an ethical duty to make data usable for other scientists, today and in the future. Platforms for long-term data sharing are being built up not only in biobank research, but also in physics, in neuroscience, in linguistics, in archeology…

It started in physics, but has now reached the humanities and the social sciences where it is experienced as a paradigm shift.

A recent US report suggests that sharing data should become the norm:

Research is obviously changing shape. New opportunities to manage data mean that research is moving up an IT-gear. The change also means a norm shift. Data are no longer expected to be tied to specific projects and research groups. Data are expected to be openly available for a long time – Open Access.

The norm shift raises, of course, issues of privacy. But when we discuss those issues, public bodies can hardly judge for researchers what, in the current vibrant situation, is reasonable and unreasonable, important and unimportant.

Perhaps it is profoundly logical, in today’s circumstances, to give data a longer and more open life than in the previous way of organizing research. Perhaps such long-term transparency really means moving up a gear.

We need to be humbly open to that possibility and not repeat an old norm that research itself is leaving behind.

Pär Segerdahl

Approaching future issues - the Ethics Blog


Stress turns ordinary cells into pluripotent stem cells

February 19, 2014

PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogTissues of the body originally form when “naïve” undifferentiated embryonic stem cells differentiate to form the “mature” cells of specific tissues: liver cells, brain cells, skin cells, and so on.

The mature cells are then locked in their differentiated forms, as if they met their fate.

I recently mentioned that Yamanaka and Gurdon were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2012 for their surprising findings about dedifferentiation. Through direct genetic modification of nuclear function, mature cells can be reprogrammed to return to naïve stem-cell states. These dedifferentiated cells are pluripotent and can differentiate again and form a variety of mature cell types.

The rejuvenated cells regain the naïve properties of embryonic stem cells!

In January this year, an article published in Nature reported that the genetic reprogramming can be achieved more easily, without direct nuclear manipulation.

All you need to do to dedifferentiate mature cells, according to this article, is to subject them to stress: like an acid environment. Not all but some of the mature cells will be freed from their fate as liver or skin cells and return to naïve pluripotent states.

An easy to read summary can be found in BioEdge, and here is a link to the article:

Using mature cells to create stem cells with properties of embryonic stem cells might thus be easier than expected. In fact, the new findings weren’t even made in a stem-cell laboratory.

The ethical responses to the findings are not as thrilling as the findings. Some welcome the possibility of creating “ethical stem cells” that avoid the controversy about embryonic stem cells. Others see “new ethical issues” on the horizon.

These responses are characteristic of a routine view of ethical assessment as a static one-way process: ethicists assess others. But these findings indicate that processes in the opposite direction are possible as well, since they seem to challenge ethical assumptions about the unique function of the embryo.

I’m tempted to extend Thomas Kuhn’s notion of scientific revolutions to ethics. The new findings could function as anomalies for ethically paradigmatic ways of thinking about the embryo.

As stress turns mature cells into naïve pluripotent stem cells, these findings could stress some ethicists to return to more open-minded states that in the future can differentiate in new and unexpected directions.

Pär Segerdahl

We like challenging findings - The ethics blog


Human and inhuman

January 8, 2014

PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogThe words “human” and “inhuman” are often used as moral judgments. For example: reasoning is (brilliantly) human; violence is (terribly) inhuman.

Such forms of speech are perfectly in order. Yet, we easily go astray if we use the same forms of speech in attempts to diagnose war and conflict, or the path to peace. (Which is extremely tempting, especially for sensible people.)

The human is purified as rational being. Violence and conflict are understood as results of inhuman interference with human reason. Can such idealized analysis illuminate real problems?

What occasions these thoughts is a review in the Guardian, which in terms of blogging was published ages ago. Stuff worth thinking about was written already in 2006. The British philosopher John N. Gray then reviewed Amartya Sen’s book, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny.

Sen explains violence between groups as caused by inhuman interference with what is properly human. A proper human makes rational choices in a plurality of group belongings. But ill-disposed propagandists make gullible people think that their human identity already is fixed through a singular group belonging. This short-circuits reason and causes them to blast car bombs and commit genocide against people with other narrowly defined identities.

Without denying the reality of identity-driven violence or the danger of propaganda, Gray questions the innocent intellectualism of Sen’s diagnosis. Sen makes it sound as if people resort to violence because a false theory of human nature was drummed into them. He presents violence as if it were caused by inhuman factors disturbing human nature.

But people hardly lynch each other because of “erroneous beliefs.” And the fear, despair and cruelty of their actions are only too deep-rooted human traits, Gray observes grimly.

It is difficult to think clearly about the human. Perhaps even Gray, in spite of his clear-sightedness, occasionally starts out from a moral delimitation of the human: a more disillusioned one that prefers blaming rather than exalting the human.

(Gray’s own new book, The Silence of Animals, was reviewed last summer by Thomas Nagel.)

Pär Segerdahl

Minding our language - the Ethics Blog


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