Virtually Speaking Science: A New Place to Find Me on the Interwebs

In what is likely the worst “kept under wraps” bit of news in a while, I’m happy to announce that I’m joining the Virtually Speaking Science collective as a new host. But before I get to roll out the welcome mat and chatter with other people about their work, I’m going under the interviewee lens; Jennifer Ouellette is interviewing me Wednesday, May 14, at 8pm ET/5pm PT.

What is Virtually Speaking Science? It is a live webcast ‘radio’ with a digital, Second Life studio audience of:

[i]nformal conversations hosted by science writers Alan Boyle, Tom Levenson and Jennifer Ouellette, who explore the often-volatile landscape of science, politics and policy, the history and economics of science, science deniers and its relationship to democracy, and the role of women in the sciences.

VSSI’ve been having a blast getting to know my co-hosts, setting up my Second Life avatar, and getting to know my producer, Sherry Reson. And for a touch of nostalgia, VSS is hosted by the Exploratorium in Second Life. As some of you know, I not only grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I spent many, many hours in the Exploratorium. In some ways, this is very much a coming home for me; a long time later, I’m back–at least virtually–at one of the first places that sparked my interest in and wonder for science.

I hope you’ll tune in and join me. I think we’re going to have a lot of fun.

In Which An Editor Obnoxiously Brags About Her Author

I spent much of the fall grumbling – mostly good-naturedly – about editing a dissertation on the dual-use dilemma in the life sciences. I fell into editing the project rather late,1 which led to some memorable crankiness on my part (I actually sent back one chapter with “no” and “rewrite”), and sleep turned into a precious commodity for a while.

Overall, though, I’m incredibly proud of the small part I had in the project, and extremely proud of the author in general. You can’t read the dis (yet), but you can see a little bit of Nick’s writing over on the Scientific American guest blog, today, where he looks at the proposed DHHS policy on gain-of-function research in the life sciences:

Yet even if we do overcome the hurdle of identifying what is beneficial, and what manifestly dangerous, the proposed actions given by the framework are somewhat alarming. The framework gives the option to transfer dangerous gain-of-function research to agencies that conduct classified research, such as the Department of Defence or the Department of Homeland Security.

Yet classified government research in the life sciences doesn’t have a great track record of being in the public interest: the Defence Intelligence Agency’s attempts to make genetically modified anthrax, the Defence Threat Reduction Agency’s milling weapons-grade anthrax in secret, or the CIA’s creation of Soviet-style “bomblets” that are used to disperse biological agents (in the name, so claimed, of assessing their effectiveness in use against the US), are all example of deeply troubling classified life sciences research purported to be in the public interest.

The possibility of taking research we’ve already ascertained is problematic, and giving it to an agency with a history of misuse of research, is frightening. We should question this new policy to the extent that it leaves open this option. If research is risky to public health, or doesn’t show merit regarding actually emerging infectious diseases, why open the way for that research to be done in secret?

You should go read it because you’re excited about the idea of a new, non-American voice in bioethics, or because you’re interested in the life sciences and dual-use research, or because you want an idea of what I was working on in the fall, or because you see the issues here for corruption, or just because I said so and you know I have fantastic taste.2 Whatever the reason, go read.

  1. Note, fellow editors: don’t take on a large project like that with a two-month window, especially not when you have two academic conferences of your own to prepare for and attend, plus your day job. []
  2. I do. Bias aside. And if you haven’t picked up on the bias yet, you’re just a wee bit slow now, eh? And I don’t know what this lampshade is doing on my head. []

Power Broker Bioethicists

Alice Dreger has a new post up discussing How to be a Bioethicist. She admits, upfront, that she sort of sucks as one, and not for reasons the snarkier or more vindictive readers of this blog might assume. Rather, she sucks as a bioethicist because she has a penchant for naming names and citing her work, because she is concerned about principles, and because she hasn’t figured out how to get a staggeringly high salary, regardless of currency. (Of course, she missed the fourth reason she makes a bad bioethicist: her unfortunate affliction with XX Syndrome.)

Sarcasm, and even personal issues aside, I think Dreger raises a very interesting point about North American bioethics as a whole: what I rather jokingly referred to as the advent of “power broker bioethics” before I realized that this, indeed, was actually and precisely the correct phrase.

A power broker, for those of you who missed the 80s or anything to do with Wall Street, is “a person who is important by virtue of the people or votes they control; a power broker who does you a favor will expect you to return it.” It, in many ways, describes the behavior Dreger details: attempts to suppress dissent via appeals to authority; trading favors for benefits; obfuscating financial details in an effort to hide paper trails; and always, always looking for ways to inflate one’s sense of self via title and position.
Continue reading

Is It Moral for Lefties to Vote for Obama What?

Over at The Atlantic yesterday, Conor Friedersdorf explained why he refuses to vote for Barack Obama this election season. His argument boils down to Obama having a dismal human rights record:

Obama has done things that, while not comparable to a historic evil like chattel slavery, go far beyond my moral comfort zone. … Obama terrorizes innocent Pakistanis on an almost daily basis. The drone war he is waging in North Waziristan isn’t “precise” or “surgical” as he would have Americans believe. It kills hundreds of innocents, including children. And for thousands of more innocents who live in the targeted communities, the drone war makes their lives into a nightmare worthy of dystopian novels.

This, I do not disagree with. Obama has done a lot of things that make me uncomfortable to flat out unhappy. I don’t agree with many of his policy decisions – and frankly, I also don’t expect to. While it would be nice if I was Queen of the World, realistically, that’s never going to happen (and equally realistically, we should all be happy about that). Obama has been a disaster on several issues of international human rights and morality – but taking a look at their positions, it’s not clear to me that Mitt Romney would be any better. Friedersdorf, however, thinks that the moral thing to do would be to vote for Gary Johnson, even though he won’t win.

No. In fact, I’d say that Friedersdorf’s argument clearly shows why it would be immoral for someone to vote for anyone other than Obama – at least, if someone can manage to remove themselves from a biased white male privilege position long enough to stop navel-gazing outward and take a look at our home front for a minute. Friedersdorf says

I don’t see how anyone who confronts Obama’s record with clear eyes can enthusiastically support him. I do understand how they might concluded that he is the lesser of two evils, and back him reluctantly, but I’d have thought more people on the left would regard a sustained assault on civil liberties and the ongoing, needless killing of innocent kids as deal-breakers.

Really? He doesn’t see how a woman can enthusiastically support the person who has created a program of healthcare equality? Friedersdorf can’t understand how a woman may support someone who has been trying to get the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act passed? Or how a woman might feel more kindly inclined towards someone who is strongly pro-choice and advocates for and supports a woman’s right to control her own reproductive decisions?

There are more to civil liberties than those overseas. There are the ones right here at home, and allowing your outrage over foreign issues to cloud the domestic issues is something that you can have if you are holding that invisible privilege knapsack. But charging that I am somehow acting immorally because I am advocating for, campaigning for, and voting for Obama? That’s the kind of position you can take if your rights and your abilities to equality aren’t being threatened on the home front – and that, more than anything else, is a clear sign of the benefit of privilege of gender and race.

I am not, of course, saying that Obama should be left off the hook for his dismal foreign policy record. It is bad, and the human rights issues – held over from previous administrations or otherwise – need to be dealt with, and swiftly. Drone strikes need to end, the military needs to pull back from where it is not wanted or recognized by the local populations, and we need a serious re-evaluation of our entire interaction with the Middle East.

But that doesn’t mean someone should charge that supporting Obama is an immoral act and that moral voters should throw away their vote in protest, giving the chance for a split vote to allow Romney in to office. Not seeing the threat Romney offers – from his hawkish positions on international policy (really, you think he’s going to be better than Obama) to his attacks on women, minorities, and the middle class (the real middle class, not his idea of middle class) – is something you can do if you’re not in the group he’s targeting.

Yes, I realize that Friedersdorf laid out his argument on the immorality of voting for Obama with philosophical language, falling back on various traditions to justify his argument. I could do that; I know my Kant, my Mill. I could loop in virtue ethics.1 The thing is, in this case, I think utilizing that specialized language and thinking – when talking to the general public – is a cop-out. It’s an attempt to use education to beat people over the head to get them to agree because oh, that person clearly knows what they’re talking about, and no. I know that trick, and this is too important for that.

So don’t listen to people who want to argue philosophical positions with you2 or are trying to appeal to their own authority to guilt you in to their position. Don’t look at the people making emotional appeals. Instead, look at what is genuinely important to you. What are your value issues? What is important to you? If you self-identify as liberal, then you’re concerned about social justice, healthcare, women’s rights, GLBTQ rights, equal pay, access to education, STEM advancement; you support science and evidence-based education; and yes, you are concerned about justice and international policy and human rights.

Take a look at both candidates and look at the entire picture. Yes, voting is often a lesser-of-two-evils prospect, but in this case, if you’re going to fall back somewhere, fall back on the needs of the many, and remember the many that live around you as much as you remember the many worldwide.

  1. Yes, Nick, I’d even fall on my sword and argue the point with Foot. Shush. The right tool for the problem. []
  2. Unless you’re in a philosophy department or otherwise a masochist, in which case please come back, I still need to argue Rawls with someone. []

Splice and Slippery Slopes

In the six years since I started taking coursework, TAing, teaching, and eventually working in the field of bioethics, there has been one constant: the slippery slope fallacy will set me off ranting every time. In fact, as a TA and a teacher, it is one of the first things that I discuss in a classroom: why I will not abide slippery slope arguments, and just how sloppy that thinking can be.

So imagine my surprise to see a presentation of the slippery slope argument that not only was not sloppily presented, but was in fact one of the better arguments for it – and in a horror movie no less.

Yes, I saw Splice last weekend, and I was quite taken with the movie as a whole. As most reviews of the actual plot will tell you, the movie went strangely sideways in it’s last 20 minutes, and came to a somewhat more typical horror moving conclusion than the majority of the movie indicated (although in it’s defense, the final scene was quite deliciously back to the sort of psychological/thoughtful horror that most of the movie was).

What is the plot of Splice? Quite simply, that two rockstar molecular geneticists (I know, I know) decided to take their research on splicing critters together to the next level, and they created a human hybrid, a chimera of assorted animals. The result is Dren, a creature that starts off working on pushing every button in neotany-is-cute land before maturing into a startlingly beautiful, exotic adult. Roger Ebert was as taken with the movie as I was, and I recommend his review for a more thorough movie analysis. What I want to discuss here is why, ultimately, this movie presented an almost believable defense of the slippery slope argument.

The main male character, Clive (named in homage of Colin Clive and played with an intensely dark brilliance by Adrien Brody), disagrees with partner (Sarah Polley) Elsa’s desire to forge ahead with their gene splicing experiments to create a human hybrid. He argues that it’s wrong, it’s unethical, and it’s against the law so they could get into a lot of trouble. This is about all the actual dialog of the movie adds to the direct debate of human hybrids – there’s no actual discussion of why it is unethical, only Elsa’s clear ambition to do first what both characters agree will eventually happen somewhere by someone. Elsa supports her decision to create the hybrid by arguing that it could help create a multitude of cures for diseases (via some sort of protein marker, another hand-waved area of the movie), and that she and Clive should do this to do good. Enter Dren.

So far, so good – and pretty standard. It’s later in the movie where the slippery slope comes into play. Clive does something that won’t be specified here due to it’s somewhat spoilery nature, and he and Elsa get into a fight. Utlimately, he tells her that his unethical and immoral behaviour is a direct result of their creating Dren: by creating Dren, they rewrote and removed the rules that they used to govern themselves and their lives, and a world without rules was a crazy and immoral place. (I am, of course, paraphrasing in an effort to at least slightly obscure the plot.)

Now, this is interesting – not the idea that doing one small thing, like creating animal hybrids, will create some big travesty through a slippery slope that you keep sliding down, thinking that “just one more thing” won’t be so bad (after all, the basic premise of the slippery slope argument is that making change A will cause disaster X because it will be easier to take incremental steps to get to disaster X, as we become inured to each change or step). Instead, Clive argues that removing the boundaries that are created by the rules we as civil creatures agree to follow, there is nothing with which to judge right and wrong. In a way, the very idea of the slippery slope is reframed into something that I suspect would be more at home in the world of a virtue ethicist than mine. Can we judge what is right and what is wrong when we blur or erase the boundaries that we set up? How do you tell one or the other when there is no sign post to measure with?

Clive and Elsa step beyond the measuring post that their particular scientific community sets up as a moral guideline and as a way to evaluate and judge behaviour. Once they step beyond this line, they have nothing with which to establish their morals against – they’ve already gone beyond.

Is this the most convincing argument in the world? As briefly and tantalizingly presented as it was in Splice, no. While we might not have visible signposts once we step beyond the last line that should not be crossed (how many more ways can I mix this metaphor?), we still do have memory of what the previous signposts were and what they allowed and banned and why. However, I can just as easily see a movie more dedicated to exploring these issues and how we both establish and maintain our moral identity, offering a convincing argument towards this idea of destroying all the rules and having nothing left to live by. I’d like to see that movie, if only because I think it would create a lot of deep food for thought.