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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From tree of knowledge to knowledge landscapes

May 7, 2014

PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogScience was long revered as free and self-critical pursuit of knowledge. There were hopes of useful applications, of course, but as fruits that once in a while fall from the tree of knowledge.

In a thought-provoking article in the Croatian Medical Journal, Anna Lydia Svalastog describes how traditional reverence for science and devout hope of fruits from above in practice disappeared with World War II.

Researchers who saw science as their calling instead found themselves called up for service in multidisciplinary projects, solving scientific problems for politically defined aims. Most famous is the Manhattan project, intended to develop an atomic bomb to alter relative military strengths.

This way of organizing research has since then become the rule, in a post-war condition in which research initiatives aim towards altering relative economic strengths between nations. Rather than revering science, we value research in project format. We value research not only in economic terms, I want to add, but also in terms of welfare, health and environment.

From the late 1970s, political and economic interest in research shifted from physics to the life sciences and biotechnology. Svalastog mentions examples such as genetically modified organisms (GMO), energy wood and biological solutions to pollution. It is difficult to say where research ends and applications begin, when interest in applications governs the organization of research from the outset.

The main question in the article is how to understand and handle the new condition. How can we understand the life sciences if society no longer piously anticipates applications as fruits from above but calculates with them from the beginning?

Svalastog uses a new concept for these calculated fruits: bio-objects. They are what we talk about when we talk about biotechnology: energy wood, GMO, cultivated stem cells, vaccines, genetic tests and therapies, and so on.

The point is that science doesn’t define these objects on its own, as if they still belonged to science. Bio-objects are what they become, in the intersection of science, politics and society. After all, vaccines don’t exist and aren’t talked about exclusively in laboratories, but a parent can take the child to the hospital for vaccination that was decided politically to be tax-financed.

Instead of a tree of knowledge stretching its fruit-bearing branches above society, we thus have flatter knowledge landscapes in which a variety of actors contribute to what is described in the article as bio-objectification. The parent who takes the child to the hospital is such an actor, as is the nurse who gives the vaccine, the politicians who debate the vaccination program, the journalists who write about it… and the research team that develop the vaccine.

Why do we need a concept of bio-objectification, which doesn’t reverently let the life sciences define these objects in their own terms? I believe, to understand and handle our post-war condition.

Svalastog mentions as an example controversies about GMO. Resistance to GMO is often described as scientifically ignorant, as if people lived in the shadow of the tree of knowledge and the solution had to consist in dropping more science information from the tree. But no links with levels of knowledge have been established, Svalastog writes, but rather with worldviews, ethics and religion.

What we need to handle our condition, Svalastog maintains, is thus the kind of research that was neglected in the post-war way of organizing research. We need humanistic research about knowledge landscapes, rather than instinctive reactions from a bygone era when the tree of knowledge was still revered.

I presume that this humanistic research too will be performed in project format, where humanistic scholars are called up for research service, studying the contexts within which bio-objects are understood, handled and valued.

Undeniably, however, some interesting thoughts about our condition here hover more freely above the knowledge landscapes.

Pär Segerdahl

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How does biotechnology become real?

March 12, 2014

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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Genetic exceptionalism and unforgivingness

August 30, 2012

What fuels the tendency to view genetic information as exceptionally private and sensitive? Is information about an individual’s genetic disposition for eye color more sensitive than the fact that he has blue eyes?

In Rethinking Informed Consent in Bioethics, Neil C. Manson and Onora O’Neill make heroic efforts against an avalanche of arguments for genetic exceptionalism. For each argument meant to reveal how uniquely private, how exceptionally sensitive, and how extraordinarily risky genetic information is, Manson and O’Neill find elucidating examples, analogies and comparisons that cool down tendencies to exaggerate genetic information as incomparably dangerous.

What fuels the exceptionalism that Manson and O’Neill fight? They suggest that it has to do with metaphors that tempt us to reify information; temptations that, for various reasons, are intensified when we think about DNA. Once again, their analysis is clarifying.

Another form of genetic exceptionalism strikes me, however; one that has less to do with information. I’m thinking of GMO exceptionalism. For thousands of years, humans improved plants and animals through breeding them. This traditional way of modifying organisms is not without environmental risks. When analogous risks appear with GMO, however, they tend to change meaning and become seen as extraordinary risks, revealing the ineradicable riskiness of genetic manipulation.

Why are we prepared to embrace traditionally modified organisms, TMO, when basically the same risks with GMO make us want to exterminate every genetically manipulated bastard?

Unforgivingness. I believe that this all-too familiar emotional response drives genetic exceptionalism, and many other forms of exceptionalism.

Consider the response of becoming unforgiving. Yesterday we laughed with our friend. Today we learn that he spread rumors about us. His familar smile immediately acquires a different meaning. Yesterday it was shared joy. Today it is an ugly mask hiding an intrinsically untrustworthy individual who must be put in quarantine forever. Every trait of character turns into a defect of character. The whole person becomes an objection; an exception among humans.

Manson and O´Neill are right when they analyze a tendency to reify information in genetic exceptionalism. But I want to suggest that what fuels this tendency, what makes us more than willing to yield to the temptation, is an emotional state of mind that also produces many other forms of exceptionalism.

We need to acknowledge the emotional dimension of philosophical and ethical thinking. We don’t think well when we are unforgiving towards our subject matter. We think dogmatically and unjustly.

In their efforts to think well about genetic information, Manson and O’Neill can be understood as doing forgiveness work.

They calm us down and patiently show us that our friend, although he sometimes does wrong, is not that intrinsically bad character we want to see him as, when we are in our unfortunate unforgiving state of mind.

We are helped towards a state of mind where we can think more freely and justly about the risks and benefits of genetics.

Pär Segerdahl

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