Life as an Extreme Sport

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,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. 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.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. Whatever the reason, go read.

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.
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Lies, Damned Lies, and Mehdi Hasan on Abortion

I got really annoyed this morning. I woke up, and basically the first thing I saw on Twitter was numerous retweets and comments about a HuffPo UK article on abortion and social progressives attempting to argue that one could be socially progressive and still advocate for an anti-choice position.

I disagree, rather vehemently. To the tune of almost 3000 words, give or take, as I basically deconstructed the author’s entire argument in an attempt to show not only why it was wrong, but obnoxiously so. With thanks to Nicholas G. Evans, Catherine Flick, and Laura Northrup, all of whom provided feedback and helped to focus my irritation into coherence.

Without furtherOkay, with slightly further ado: yes, this piece was picked up and published, in edited form, on Comment is Free in The Guardian.

Now, really, without further ado,…

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15 Miles: Firearms Violence in America

Police are investigating a double shooting that left one person dead in the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia.

“It seems to be a very violent crime that took place in there which led to this double shooting homicide,” Philadelphia Police Chief Inspector Scott Small said.

Just another morning in Philly. Wake up, make note of the body count, get your coffee, go about your morning.

No shooting victims were reported in Philadelphia Friday night but at least 14 people were shot throughout the rest of the weekend, including two homicides and one police-involved shooting. At least four of the victims were women.With thanks to Jim MacMillan and Tara Murtha for the link to

But you won’t see an uproar about this, not from the media, not from concerned citizens outside of those few shouting to the roofs about the gun crisis in this country. You won’t hear calls for increased gun restrictions, background checks, 2nd Amendment arguments, or anything except maybe a blip on the nightly news about how sad it is, such violence, don’t these people know better? The well-manicured and coifed anchors will shake their heads sadly, and after the break, perkily bring us to some happier topic.

Because it’s not the Empire State Building. It’s not unexplained white shooters. It’s not people who have everything. It’s not mass casualty where the casualties are people this sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen to. This?

Is expected.

My sister was rotating through one of the northern Philadelphia hospitals last year, and told me about what an odd experience it was — where you note the number of bullet holes on the patient’s bodies, making sure that the number in the chart matches the number on the body. Often, they didn’t; there were more that hadn’t been treated, had healed on their own. Battle wounds and pride. Move 15 miles west, into the suburbs where I live, and the emergency room doctors would be shocked and horrified to have that sort of counting done on the bodies of their patients; it would make the news, rather than be an accepted part of life. Because that’s as far as it takes to move from an area of institutional breakdown, racism, and failed inner-city policies to gentrified and genteel areas where the social expectations are light years difference. You don’t shoot people on the Main Line. Our yards are too well-maintained for that.

I am an anomaly among my very liberal friends: I don’t automatically argue that we need more gun control when violence happens. This is undoubtedly in part because I was raised by a father who hunts, whose family lived in Alaska, because I’ve come face-to-face with a moose before and would very much like to not do that again without being armed and able to defend myself, and yes with a semi-automatic because moose? Are big. Oh, people will excuse hunters and people who live in areas like the wilds of Alaska or even middle of nowhere America, places where it’s still considered acceptable to have a gun, certain sorts of approved and accepted weapons. But that really misses the point, doesn’t it? Because the people who are breaking the law are clearly not motivated by following the law.

And most of the time, those folks who are breaking the law and getting subsequent media coverage? The spree shooters, revenge shooters, the ones who are white and well-mannered and aren’t supposed to be like that? They’re the ones who already own their weapons legitimately, and if they do and have, then all the proposed laws in the world, save an outright ban which has already been negated by the acceptance of subsistence hunters and wilderness safety, won’t help. And no one wants to talk about the illegal guns, the ones that are part of the 14 homicides in two days in Philadelphia. Because those aren’t situations that can be bandage-approached with an appeal to laws and bans. Those are situations that bring us into decaying inner cities and hopelessness and social changes that need to happen beyond a law or two.

It’s not hard to notice that the world that judges the United States for it’s firearms violence tends to be a world that has a more communitarian notion of social health and care. Thus, many times when the world that judges decides to speak up, it comes from an uninformed point of view that assumes that if the United States were to simply do as they do, ban guns, have buybacks, follow the lead of these more progressive societies, then all the firearms violence will simply fade away like a bad memory of a less enlightened time.

This attitude, however, doesn’t consider the very deep social differences between our societies — not differences based on autonomy or amendments, but differences based on the very nature and idea of how we interact with members of our society. In other words, it is not that what is “painfully self-evident to Canadians and citizens of other nations with discernible social democratic traditions needs to be bolstered by sustained reasoning and argumentation in the more atomistic (rights-oriented) U.S. milieu;”Turner L. “Bioethics, Public Health, and Firearm-Related Violence: Missing Links Between Bioethics and Public Health.” Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics 1997;25:42-48 this is the argument that occurs whenever there are mass shootings that make the news for their stepping outside of what we consider accepted realms of violence. Because those rights are only invoked when the dialog blows out beyond the inner city. Public good and personal autonomy are polite concepts that come up when the violence invades the middle class neighborhoods; it’s not part of the debate that happens when 14 people are killed in two days in Philadelphia, when 19 people are wounded overnight in Chicago. It’s not part of the debate that happens when two are killed and three wounded in Camden, because there isn’t a debate.

It is simply accepted.And to be perfectly fair to Dr. Turner, whom I quoted earlier, this is largely the point his paper is making: that bioethicists have a responsibility to social bioethics, and that these problems of social justice, public health, and so forth need to be the central focus of the field, rather than the “lure of lucre.” I admit to slightly misreading the quote for my own purpose, in that quite a few of my Canadian and Australian friends do say things like that, which does tend to leave me wanting to pitch them through the nearest window.

In order to have an honest discussion about firearms violence in America, we need to realize that the discussion to be had is not one of regulation first, but of greater social issues. It’s a dialog that needs to be based in equality, access, healthcare, education, and removing the constraints that cause such a dramatic difference in medical, hospital, and social response in 15 short miles.

why “but buddhism is a philosophy” is obnoxious

Earlier today, my Twitter buddy Tauriq Moosa retweeted a link to Martin Pribble’s lastest blog post, titled What’s the Harm in Religion? I find a lot of the atheist blogger output to be interesting, and trust that anything Tauriq retweets will at least be thought-provoking, so I clicked and read.

And sure enough, thought-provoking is one way to put it. Right in the first paragraph is one of those things that has me gritting my teeth and rolling my eyes, hard:

And herein lies the problem with religions; they, by their nature, encroach upon the non-religious areas of life and influence decisions on a social and political level.

Uhm. Okay. And from there, Pribble goes on to make some pretty gross generalizations about religions, period, which of course, by virtue of being gross generalizations, are wrong. And being irritated and pre-coffee and armed with Twitter, I fired off a quick and admittedly snide reply, figuring that if nothing else, another day spent doing very little in order to not aggravate my exceedingly unhappy lungs would be brightened by a brief fiery debate with a respected atheist voice.

And while I did engage with Mr. Pribble, I should note that he was at all times exceedingly respectful, open to my criticism, and conceded points. (I was, to say the least, surprised. Clearly Mr. Pribble doesn’t know that you are supposed to attack internet opponents with pitchforks and fire.) But there was one deviation that just stuck in my craw, as it were, because it’s something that I hear a lot: Buddhism isn’t a religion, it’s a philosophy.

For all the things out there that irritate me – and you don’t need to be the most eagle-eyed reader to realize it’s a relatively long list – one of the ones that gets under my skin faster than about anything else is the insistence that Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion. This is, as I noted to Mr. Pribble, obnoxious. Why? Because it’s a way of invalidating a data point that doesn’t agree with the point or argument that the person – generally of an anti-religion bent – is trying to make. And if you can’t support your position without ignoring the deviations that invalidate the position being argued, then you need to consider coming up with a new argument for that position.

As for whether or not Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy, I was in a philosophy program for a couple of years. I still regularly talk to philosophers. And while some might be forgiven for thinking wine is our sacrament, philosophers as a whole don’t have ritualized ceremonies, meditations, or any great need to burn incense while talking shop – no, not even us odd Continental philosophers. Buddhism, on the other hand, can have almost as much pomp, circumstance and flash to it as Catholicism, which, when you think about it, is saying something.

Being religious is not synonymous with theism. It’s understandable that atheists would be most vocal against the Abrahamic, theistic religions because those are the dominant religions in the world. But this is still positioning in opposition to a specific subset of religion, rather than all religions. And if atheists mean truly being a-theistic, then they need to leave room to embrace those who are religious and atheistic, as well. And if the atheism movement’s problem is with all religions, rather than the theistic ones, then they need to come up with a better word to express that concept.

And any which way, people need to stop attempting to negate the fact that, uncomfortable as it may be to some people’s world views, it is entirely possible to be atheistic, non-proselytizing – and religious.