Neurosociety Conference: podcasts and more

The Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (InSIS) and the European Neuroscience and Society Network (ENSN) recently jointly organised an international conference at Oxford’s Saïd Business School on Neurosociety. The theme of the conference was the rise of the brain and the emergence of the brain industry or ‘neuro markets’. The aim was to explore how, why and in what ways the figure of the brain has come to permeate so many different areas of thinking and practice in academic and commercial life. What are the consequences for academia, business, commerce and policy?

They have now posted podcasts and slides for many of the talks here.

Speakers include:

  • Kelly Joyce (College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA)
  • Sabine Maasen (University of Basel)
  • Patricia Pisters (University of Amsterdam)
  • Nikolas Rose (London School of Economics and Political Science)
  • Jonathan Rowson (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA)
  • Steve Woolgar (InSIS, Said Business School, Oxford)
  • Paul Wouters (Leiden University)

21st century enlightenment

Another great video from RSA-Animate.  Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the Royal Society for the for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) explores the meaning of  21st century enlightenment. There are many worthy ideas here, and given the way understanding of the brain is highlighted, I was naturally smitten.  My favourite line: “21st century enlightenment calls for us to see past simplistic and inadequate ideas of freedom, of justice, and of progress.” [2nd place: “The moral and political critique of individualism now has an evidence base.” ]

Watch, and feel free to note your favourite (or most reviled) line in the comments.

Techno-enthusiasts and techno-phobes

The December edition of the Atlantic Monthly has a very interesting article about Freeman Dyson’s famously skeptical view of climate change – he has come out forcefully suggesting that it is just not something we should worry about.  For those who don’t know, Dyson is a brilliant physicist who has spent much of his career at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies, and has been both a practicing scientist as well as one who shares his insights on a regular basis with the general public – in 1996 winning the Lewis Thomas Prize for writing about science.  The author of the article, who has known Dyson for many years, ponders the question of how someone so brilliant could be in such profound disagreement with the rest of the scientific community?

The interesting part of the answer for me was this: that Dyson has an unfailing confidence in the redemptive power of technology.  I think that this attitude is at the heart of the many of the debates in neuroethics – are we enthusiastic about the potential advantages that a particular technological development (be it drug, device, or something else) may provide, or are we skeptical, referring again and again to the precautionary principle as our guiding light?

Kevin Kelly, founding executive editor of Wired magazine and hardly a technophobe writes,

“The idea of progress has been slowly dying. I think progress lost its allure at the ignition of the first atom bomb at the end of WWII. It has been losing luster since. Even more recently the future has become boring and unfashionable. No one wants to live in the future. The jet packs don’t work, and the Daily Me is full of spam. No one finds the Future attractive any longer.” Continue reading

Prosocial enhancement

Over at The Atlantic website, they have a special section called The Ideas Report which is chock full of interesting thoughts about ‘the themes that shape our times’. Chris Good, a staff editor at the recently posted a piece entitled, “Give Scientists Performance-Enhancing Drugs”.  The ideas in the article are, to put it delicately, a bit problematic. There are many issues that Chris raises which I disagree with, but I will limit my comments to a few choice items.

The essential message of the piece is that sometimes it might be good for society as a whole to have a subset of people take cognitive enhancers. Chris trots out the ‘unfair advantage’ argument, but then dismisses it with the following logic:

“But for scientists and researchers, particularly those working on medical advancements, things are different. They’re working for the public good. Fairness matters less. If one biochemist or physicist “cheats” to gain an edge over a rival research lab, university department, or grant competitor, it may be unethical, but we should be willing to forgive if it means one less day on earth with incurable cancer or massive emissions of carbon gas.”

This argument might stand as a nice little bit of consequentialist thinking, but for the naive notion that scientists are all working for the public good. It is true that many scientists do so (that is one reason why the public often holds them up as paragons of virtue), but it is hardly the case that arc of scientific progress is monolithic, or that every discovery leads inexorably towards a cure for cancer. But Chris is prepared to carry out an experiment, with scientists as the guinea pigs.  He concludes by suggesting:

Throw fairness out the window, and let’s see what happens.

I don’t even know what to say about that comment. Continue reading

Does the Science of “Prosocial Behaviour” Smuggle in a Political Prior?

Over at Pharyngula, PZ Myers’ reliably lively ScienceBlogs province, a recent post offers some incisive treatment of a philosophically arresting debate between Sam Harris and sundry interlocutors, most prominently Sean Carroll. The topic – whether science can answer moral questions, or, more perilously rendered, whether one can, in fact, derive “ought” from “is” – exerts a tidal attraction upon my blogging muscles, but I can resist for now; Myers’ relevance to this entry issues specifically from a choice bit of phraseology in his write-up.

When Harris claims that the discernment of human well-being (and hence of utility-maximizing courses of action) is a purely empirical matter, Myers finds him guilty of “smuggling in an unscientific prior in his category of well-being.” What I want to explore after the jump is the following possibility:

It may be that the developing body of work in neuroscience and psychology probing various morally charged phenomena has been smuggling in a politically loaded prior under the terminologically neutral guise of the category “prosocial behaviour.”

Continue reading


Adbusters, the magazine for and about culture jamming, never ceases to amaze me.  But this time, the thought-provoking issue is not their content per se, but rather one of the Letters to the Editor that they published.  It is from a long-term reader named Taylor Hudson, who begins his missive with this gentle disconnection:  “With a kind smile, I’m writing to share with you why I have canceled my subscription.”  Taylor goes on to explain, in a long and very thoughtful letter, that “It’s not enough to criticize anymore.  It is exhausting, disheartening and counterproductive…  Adbusters has presented or railed around very few true solutions for fostering people’s happiness.  For therein lies the real revolution, right?  To claim the right to be happy and free?”  [Adbusters does have at least one ‘campaign’ that is intended to foster happiness: Digital Detox Week.  Regular readers will recognize its similarity to a regular rant of my own.]

I very much like the gentle manner in which Taylor Hudson made his point to Adbusters, and wish to do likewise for neuroethics. Not to disconnect, but rather to suggest that we regularly scrub our analyses of innovations in the neurosciences to be sure that they are not criticisms devoid of solutions.  It is hardly news to point out that fields such as neuroethics can slip into the realm of nagging, raising alarms about new innovations and the harm they might bring to individuals, to society, to our very way of being.  In fairness, this is a natural outcome of the kinds of issues that we deal with in the field, and probably all of us have tripped up now and again while attempting to avoid that particular pitfall.  But really, it is easy to be a critic.

The challenge in neuroethics is to distinguish ourselves from the neuro-Technophiles, for whom all change is good, and from the neuro-Luddites, for whom all change is bad.  Rather, I suggest that we strive to find a third way, using techniques of close observation to analyze ways in which advances in the neurosciences writ large are or are about to affect us all, and then offering innovative solutions to make it more likely that these wondrous, exciting and even inevitable changes in the world around us, to the extent possible, improve the human condition.

Link to Adbusters’ Magazine and their Digital Detox Week Campaign

Image Credit: Smithereensblog

Ripples in political theory

The daily bread of neuroethics is in understanding the impact of new technologies in the neurosciences upon society – new drugs that affect the brain, new ways of imaging the brain, etc.  But there are other ways in which the neurosciences affects society, and one really interesting one is that modern neuroscience is changing politics.  This is a version of the neuro meme about which I have written about before, but two items made me realize that this is happening more than I had even imagined.

The first is the implosion of the Chicago School of Economics.  Both a formal academic enterprise – its brain trust populates the economics faculty at the University of Chicago – and a school of thought, the Chicago School has had a very influential run.  The particular specialty of the Chicago School is libertarianism, the philosophy which puts individual liberty at the top of the list of important freedoms, and emphasizes that the best choices are usually made by individuals rather than by organizations, even if the latter are peopled by experts.  Among the more vocal proponents of the Chicago School has been Richard Posner, a judge who is also a prolific public intellectual: Posner has written at least 38 books, innumerable scholarly, magazine and newspaper articles, and received 11 honorary degrees, all while sitting on the US Court of Appeals (in Chicago).  Sometime after the 2008 debacle in the financial markets, Posner committed heresy: in an article in the New Republic, Posner dumped the Chicago School in its entirety, suggesting that deregulation was a root cause of the financial meltdown.  In an in-depth profile of this change of heart, John Cassidy writes in the New Yorker

“As acts of betrayal go, this was roughly akin to Johnny Damon’s shaving off his beard, forsaking the Red Sox Nation, and joining the Yankees.” Continue reading

Public expression and DSM-V

The bible of Psychiatry, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), is the standard reference text by which psychiatric disorders are classified.  Every now and then, the psychiatric community revises the manual; the current version, DSM-IV was published in 1994 and in 2000 revisions of the text were added (hence the clumsy term DSM-IV-TR) but the categories of psychiatric disease remained unchanged.  At the moment, a committee is hard at work developing a new version, DSM-V, and the issue has morphed from scientific enterprise to public melodrama.

Over at H-Madness, a blog devoted to the history of psychiatry, the historian Hannah Decker has a wonderful post detailing the trials and tribulations of the controversies currently embroiling the production of DSM-V.  Entitled A Moment of Crisis in the History of American Psychiatry, Decker’s post covers all of the usual territory, some of which we have discussed previously (here and here). It bears repeating that the biggest challenge to the endeavour is the lack of objective criteria for defining psychiatric diseases: until neuroscience provides this clinical specialty with concrete insights into the relevant changes in human neurobiology that accompany psychiatric disease, the field will continue to be on shaky ground, defining and redefining ‘syndromes’ composed of constellations of symptoms rather than clearly understood alterations which result in pathology. Continue reading

The Singularity – What, Me Worry?

Image credit: Dog's Breakfast (

People have all sorts of reasons to both hope and worry about the presumptive singularity – that moment when computers magically develop so much computational power that they will begin outwit us in meaningful ways.  A score of science fiction stories have fed both dreams (“The answer is out there, Neo, and it’s looking for you, and it will find you if you want it to.”) and fears (“Dave. What are you doing Dave?”).  My mother-in-law recently sent me a link to a short graphic presentation that captures it pretty well.  Enjoy.