Friday, 28 December 2012

US Approval of the GMO Salmon "Frankenfish" - Reasons for Continuous Caution Remain in the Absence of Added Value

Today, New Scientist reports about what looks like a landmark event in the USA and (due to the role of the US for the world economy, trade and global regulation affecting trade) global handling of the possibility of using genetically modified animals for food production. Other reports can be found here, here, here, here. The FDA, in a statement released on December 27, has cleared a particular brand of GM Salmon – dubbed the "Frankenfish" by my US bioethics colleague Art Caplan in a comment that is nevertheless cautiously positive of the development, at least from a food safety point of view – modified to internally produce more growth hormone and thus grow to full size faster on less feeding or larger size with maintained feeding levels. To forestall possible negative environmental impact, it has also been engineered to carry a sex-chromosome abnormality, rendering it sterile, and the production will take place in closed off settings, especially in its initial phases, where it will take place in tanks isolated from the natural environment. All of these things are expanded on in the NS piece and the links it provides. The proposal by the FDA will be open for public comment for 60 days.

Concerning the use of genetically modified organisms for food production, there are basically four issues to address: Is it good for anything, what is its benefits? How safe is it to eat and produce (in the same way as we would ask of any other crops or cattle)? How environmentally safe is it? Are the two safety levels mentioned sufficient to warrant production in light of the benefits? Art Caplan comments on the food safety side of the issue, something that has traditionally attracted lots of attention in the media. It is also angle often played by opponents of GMO for food, since immediate safety to consumers (and sometimes workers) is something that appeals very directly to people's sentiments and may thereby affect their moral and political views. However, the GMO industry likes the food safety side of the discussion very much as well, since – as a matter of fact – when assessed on the basis of actual evidence, GM food stands up pretty well compared to many more "traditionally" produced food. This is the point that Art is making and precisely for this reasons, I agree that food safety is not what the discussion should focus on with regard to GM food. However, this is far, far from deciding the issue, since there remains the environmental risk aspects of not the eating, but the actual production of the food. This has always and continue to be the overwhelming reason for a high degree of caution, skepticism and restraint in the GM food area.

In a very recent (and, I would say, seminal) book by David B. Resnik, Environmental Health Ethics, that I just finished reading and am about to review for the journal Public Health Ethics, this is the main conclusion to embrace, although it is held out that GM food may bring some rather particular food safety issues when the genetic modification concerns the production or resistance to toxic agents. Nevertheless, Resnik ends up supporting the notion of a regulated and supervised introduction of GM food, where a number of factors must be considered to decide an issue like that of the "Frankenfish" Salmon production. In my own thinking around the GM food issue – foremost in my book The Price of Precaution and the Ethics of Risk (in particular in chapter 6) – I reached a similar, yet slightly more specific, conclusion. One thing that Resnik lists among the factors to ponder is that of the value of the final product, however, there is not much of specific discussion of what the actual value of actual GM foods is (rather than what it may be). My own analysis, in contrast, takes this into account and ends up, because of this, in the position that, in fact, most actual GM food prospects are very difficult to justify in view of the environmental risks. This since most GM food provides no benefit whatsoever that cannot be had in other ways, besides a better profit margin for the producer.

So where do we end up regarding the GM salmon in light of this. Well, first of all, it should be underscored that the project has indeed put some impressive environmental safeguards in place. The environmental concerns with regard to GM food production are basically two, genetic leakage over species borders and (because of genetic leakage or other reason) ecological hazard, and these are indeed addressed by the sterility of the "Frankenfish" as well as the external measures, such as initial growth in isolated tanks. However, as we know, nature is a very complex system that we still understand only partially (to put is mildly), and there will of course be risks, uncertainties and things we currently don't know about remaining. The crucial question, therefore, is the last one formulated above, whether or not the added value of this particular product makes it worth allowing the introduction in view of the risks and uncertainties, given the safeguards described. It is here, that I become less optimistic than the FDA, Caplan and (possibly) Resnik. While there may certainly be envisioned a use of GMO technology to provide humanity with significant benefits to justify large scale introduction (under oversight) of GM food with safeguards of the sort described, the "Frankenfish" salmon, just as the "roundup ready" crops, does seem to provide benefit, first, merely of a monetary kind and, secondly, only to the producer. This is, in the GM salmon case, no different than the use of growth hormone or antibiotic feeding supplement in industrial farming. Therefore, I can see no added value of this product and thus it cannot justify its environmental risks, however small.

Friday, 23 November 2012

New book chapter available open access: The Best Interest of Children and the Basis of Family Policy: The issue of reproductive caring units

As some of you may recall, a little while ago, I flagged a forthcoming book called Families: Beyond the Nuclear Ideal (edited by daniela Cutas and Sarah Chan and published by Bloomsbury Academic in its Science, Ethics and Society series), where I have a chapter, together with my colleague Thomas Hartvigsson. What I was perhaps not entirely clear about is that, in fact, this chapter and – indeed! – the rest of the book is avaliable open access for reading and non-commercial sharing under a Creative Commons lisence, while the book can also be purchased as both hardcopy and e-book in the regular fashion. To me, a rather clever solution for trying to combine the commercial requirements of running a publishing business and still satisfy the very sound and strong arguments for having all sort of research material and academic output freely available for anyone.

Our chapter is called "The Best Interest of Children and the Basis of Family Policy: The issue of reproductive caring units" and deals with an issue that we introduce, thus:

The notion of the best interest of children figures prominently in family and reproductive policy discussions and there is a considerable body of empirical research attempting to connect the interests of children to how families and society interact. Most of this research regards the effects of societal responses to perceived problems in families, thus underlying policy on interventions such as adoption, foster care and temporary assumption of custodianship, but also support structures that help families cope with various challenges. However, reference to the best interest of children can also be applied to a more basic issue in family policy, namely that of what is to be considered a family in the first place. This issue does not raise any questions regarding the proper conditions for when society should intervene in or change the family context of a child. Rather, it is about what social configurations should be recognized as a potentially fitting context for children to enter into and (if all goes well) eventually develop into adulthood within. Any social configuration so recognized constitutes what we will call a reproductive caring unit (RCU). An RCU is a social configuration such that society's default institutional arrangements allow it to have (by sexual and artificial reproduction, adoption, and combinations of these), care for and/or guard children – the approved RCUs thereby being the basic ‘menu’ of what families with children there may be in society. Opinions on what should be allowed to be an RCU will frame any further discussion of the questions already mentioned, but also policies having further implications for, for example, the practices of adoption and reproductive technology, as well as regulation of custody in the event of separation or parental disagreement.
There is a communicative problem involved in talking about this issue in terms of the word ‘family’, however. Due to a combination of biological necessities, socio-economic and developmental circumstances, prejudice and custom, people around the world tend to associate this term with the presence of romantic or sexual relationships (between adults) and/or genetic links (between adults and children). However, the question indicated above does not necessarily imply such things to be in place in the case of a legitimate RCU. What should be awarded the standing of a family in this sense, then, may be something that many people find strange to call a family. At the same time, if you ask the question whether a single mother and her adopted child, or four adult siblings living together and caring for a foster child could constitute fitting social arrangements for children to enter and develop within, people would not (we presume) rule out this question as empty just because the word ‘family’ seems odd to apply to them. Rather, we suggest, social configurations within which children are raised are called ‘families’ as we tend to view them as legitimate RCUs. Thus, to the extent that there are reasons to allow RCUs not involving the ingredients of romantic/sexual relations or genetic linkage, this will be a reason to change linguistic practice.
The question we want to address, then, is about what is implied by arguments in terms of the best interest of children for the issue of what should be allowed to be a family in the sense of an RCU. This is a question not about particular cases, but about general institutional arrangements. Society needs policies as to what RCUs to allow and within these frames, any single initially legitimate RCU may be found unfitting for serving this purpose, just as in the case with dysfunctional ‘nuclear families’. Arguments about what is in the best interest of the concerned children in such cases can (and should) be brought to bear on this issue. However, as will be seen, these arguments involve quite different considerations compared to when assessments in terms of the best interest of children are applied to the issue of RCUs.

If you feel tempted by this, please just click on the chapter link, and read it in its entirety, as well as the other contributions to this book, by authors such as Adrienne Asch, David Gurnham, Paul D. Hastings, Kerry Lynn Macintosh, Julie McCandless, Melinda Roberts, Joanna E. Scheib, Mary Lyndon Shanley, Naura Irene Strassberg, and several others.

And if you like that, please consider buying the book, or at least liking its Facebook page, or in other ways contributing to spreading awareness of its availability. Thank you!

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

All Quiet on the Teaching Front

Just a sign that I'm alive. Doing my main spot of this term's teaching these few weeks: Hume's moral philosophy of the Treatise for the B.A. candidates and some extra lectures at the primary level ethics course to fill in for a colleague struck by some acute health problems. In parallel, I'm writing on a research report and a part of an article that needs to be delivered about yesterday and doing the odd reading of, for instance, a new Ph.D. thesis on the personal identity objection to advance directives in health care, for which I'm on the examination committee. I have half a post on the hate crime theme written, that discusses how hate crime policy issues relate to bordering areas such as terrorist and honour crime policy from the point of view of ethics and basic values. Hopefully I'll be able to finish that in a months time or so.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

J.J.C. "Jack" Smart - R.I.P.

I just learned via various sources on Facebook and Twitter that the Australian philosopher J.J.C. a.k.a. Jack Smart passed away today at the age of 92. The very fact that this sad news is immediately echoing around the world tells you something about his stature, and a further glimpse of this can be caught by visiting his webpage at Monash University, which besides his distinguished carreer reveals that he was busy publishing high quality papers as late as at the age of 86.

His most well-known philosophical achievements were his championship of physicalism in the philosophy of mind (sometimes known as the identity theory) and of utilitarianism in ethics. The significance of the former work, Smart has described best himself here. My own contact with his work mainly connected to the latter. As so many others in my own and several subsequent generations of philosophy students, I was introduced both to advanced normative ethical theory, to sophisticated utilitarianism and to the art of debating the most heated and basic ethical issues without any loss of civility or philosophical depth through Smart's and Bernard William's little pro & con gem, Utilitarianism: For and Against.

I met Jack Smart only once, when he was visiting Stockholm University some time in the late 1980's or early 1990's and I remember how impressed I was by his kind gentleness that in no way cut down any of the stark clarity I had met in his writing. No less impressive, of course, since he was already then far from young. More information about his life and philosophy can be found here.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Comment in Nature on Proposal to Slack Ethical Requirements on Gene Therapy Research

So, if anyone's interested, I just posted a comment in Nature's online edition on a proposal from gene therapy research specialist Fulvio Mavilio to slack the research ethical requirements for clinically introducing gene therapy. A few typos managed to find their way in, but I don't think the message is muddled by that.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Euro-English (right!)

I'm just forwarding this little gem that a colleague posted on Facebook today and which seems to originate from here. Enjoy!

The European Union Commissioners have announced that agreement has been reached to adopt English as the preferred language for European communications, rather than German, which was the other possibility.

As part of the negotiations, the British government conceded that English spelling had some room for improvement and has accepted a five-year phased plan for what will be known as EuroEnglish (Euro for short). In the first year, "s" will be used instead of the soft "c". Sertainly, sivil servants will reseive this news with joy. Also, the hard "c" will be replaced with "k". Not only will this klear up konfusion, but typewriters kan have one less letter.

There will be growing publik enthusiasm in the sekond year, when the troublesome "ph" will be replaced by "f". This will make words like "fotograf" 20 per sent shorter.
In the third year, publik akseptanse of the new spelling kan be Expekted to reach the stage where more komplikated changes are possible. Governments will enkorage the removal of double letters, which have always ben a deterent to akurate speling. Also, al wil agre that the horible mes of silent "e"s in the languag is disgrasful, and they would go.

By the fourth year, peopl wil be reseptiv to steps such as replasing "th" by "z" and "w" by " v".
During ze fifz year, ze unesesary "o" kan be dropd from vords kontaining "ou", and similar changes vud of kors be aplid to ozer kombinations of leters. After zis fifz yer, ve vil hav a reli sensibl riten styl. Zer vil be no mor trubls or difikultis and evrivun vil find it ezi tu understand ech ozer. Ze drem vil finali kum tru.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Are Drones more Advanced than Human Brains?

'What??', you may rightfully ask, has the philosopher joined the club of positive futurists that he word-whipped so badly recently? How could the US distance-controlled search and destroy flying units popularly known as "drones" ever be compared to the complexity of the wiring or functionality of a real brain? Especially so since said drones evidently fail massively (see also here) to do what they are supposed to. Not meaning that I find the activities of humans in military operations much more tasteful, mind you – just so that we can put that little debate to a side for now.

But it's not me, folks! It's no smaller an intellectual giant than the very President of Yemen, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, elected by a massive majority as the sole candidate in 2012, who says so – or seems to be saying so, according to the Washington Post (reported also in my own country here, here) Yes, that's right, the very same Yemen where the activities of drones have recently been heavily criticised for inefficiency, inhumanity and political counterproductivity (see also here). What he says more precisely, in response to the exposure of the increased use of drones in Yemen, is this:

Every operation, before taking place, they take permission from the president /.../ The drone technologically is more advanced than the human brain.

Now, it is not my place here to criticise the decisions of the president as such, I'm sure there are more than one political delicacy for him to consider in these matters. However, since he seems to be basing his decision at least partly on the above assessment of the capacities of drones, there seems to be a tiny bit here for the philosopher to have a word about. Simply put: are there any reasons to hold true what he says about drones and brains?

I'm sure that your initial reaction is the same as mine was: obviously not! The laughingly narrow computational, sensory and behavioral capacity of a drone to be comparable to the immensely complex biological wiring of the human brain and its sensory and nervous system, capable of so much more than merely killing people - come off it! So, why not just say that? you may wonder. Because, on further inspection, I changed my mind, I confess that the just stated is indeed one interpretation of what the president says, but it is far from the only one and even less the most reasonable one.

Consider again the comparison made in  the quote above.

Note, for instance, that it is done between a part of humans (their brain) and the whole of the drone. Human brains are in fact not capable of doing much unless assisted by the rest of the human body. This in contrast to a drone, that includes not only its computer and sensory mechanisms, but a whole lot of mechanics as well. This makes the drone capable of, e.g., flying and bombing, which the human brain as such is clearly not capable of.

You may retort that the brain may feel and think much better about more things than the drone computer (plus sensors), but that's also a simplification. For sure, a drone is probably a much too simple machine to be ascribed anything like beliefs or feelings (or any sort of sentiment or attitude beyond purely behavioral dispositions of the same kind that can be ascribed to any inanimate object). But we also know that a computer has a capacity for computation and quantitative data processing far beyond any human with regard to complexity and speed. So when it comes to getting a well-defined type of task done, the drone computer and sensors may very well do much better than any single or group of human brains.

That something like this is the intended meaning of the statement is actually hinted at by the use of the qualifier "technologically". One interpretation of that could perhaps be the same as synthetic or manufactured, in which case, the statement would become trivially true, but also empty of interesting information: we already knew that brains are not artifacts, didn't we? But the word "technology" may also signify something else than the distinction between natural and artificial, it may rather signify the idea of technology as any type of use of any type of instrument for the realisation of human plans. In effect, the qualitative comparison between drones and human brains has to be done relative to the assumed goals of a specific plan. In this case, I suppose, that of killing certain people while avoiding to kill certain other people. This, of course, opens the issue of whether one should attempt to kill anybody at all, but it is rather obvious that the president does not signal that question to be open for debate in spite of the fact that pondering it would be a task where a human brain would for sure be vastly superior to a drone.

A pretty boring retort at this stage could be to point to the fact that if it hadn't been for human brains, there wouldn't be any drones. One could add, perhaps, that the operation of drones takes place with active guidance and operation of humans (including their brains). But surely, what the president is getting at is how things would have gone had humans tried to carry out whatever orders they are trying to carry out without access to the drones.

And, plausibly, this is what the president means and claims: that humans using drones get more of those people killed that are supposed to be (according to given orders) killed and less of those that are not supposed to be killed compared to if human soldiers or fighter planes had been used.  The statement carries no deeper ramifications for cognitive science or philosophy, except perhaps that our celebration about the capacities of the human mind and brain tend to become less obvious and looking more self-serving when taken down from more general and unspecific levels.

It is, of course, an empirical question whether or not the claim about the greater efficiency (relative to some particular set of orders or goals) is correct or not (as seen there are some doubts expressed in the Washington Post stories), but it is not an a priori obvious falsehood. To assess it would, however, require access not only to body count data and such, but also the precise content of said orders with regard to e.g. accepted degrees of collateral killings, losses to own troups (guaranteed to stay at zero when using drones) and so on. Which, of course, will not be forthcoming. The dear president Hadi can say whatever he wants about the relative capacities of drones and brains and never be faulted.

For my own part, I cannot but remember the rendering (from the book The Man who Knew too Much) of a response by Alan Turing in a radio debate on artificial intelligence in the 1950's to the challenge that no computer could ever compose sonnets (or any other poem, one supposes) of similar quality to those of Shakespeare. Turing said that while it was possibly true that computer poems would not be enjoyable for humans, he rather thought that a computer could be able to compose poems of great enjoyment to other computers. If anyone has a more exact reference of this, I would be happy to receive it.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

BBC newspeak on mob hate crimes against Roma in France

So, here's a short note on a piece of news reporting that upset me quite a bit yesterday night. Partly this is due to the nature of the events described, bearing evidence of the French authorities' increased acceptance of lawless harassment against Roma people, thus setting aside basic obligations to tend to human rights, rule of law and legal security. But even more so, the way in which these events are described upset me. Especially considering the source being not the press office of the Front Nationale or the British National Party, but actually the BBC.

Basically, what is reported is that of a local French mob running amok – inspired by the usual anecdotal rumours and lose slander figuring in cases like these since the witch-hunts of the 17th century – taking the law into their own hands and forcing (one supposes by threats of violence and/or actual physical force, how else does one force?) a group of homeless Romas (sometimes referred to as Gypsies or Travellers) to flee a camp set up on a wasteland close to a Marseille housing estate. In the process, parts of said camp were set on fire and anonymous members of the mob in so many words say that they were passively or indirectly inspired to the attack by local police authorities. Said authorities in turn seem to actively turning a blind eye to the incident claiming that they were "not able to report any crime".

This, the usually impeccably to the point and correct BBC chooses to describe as "vigilantes" with "no reports of violence" "evicting". Yep, vigilantes – just like Batman or any other righteous crime fighter who steps in when the high and mighty lost their ability to uphold the law. Yep, non-violent – just like that example of peaceful popular protest known as Kristallnacht that also had suspected arson and unlawful coercion and threat on the menu, besides general mayhem And the best of all: evicting, just like any landlord would do had the tenants not behaved themselves – all proper and according to due procedure. Yep, nothing to add to the local police's obviously completely ridiculous stated inability to report any crime. If this is not the worst case of racist newspeak I have encountered in mainstream media for a long time I don't know what is.

Shame on you, BBC!

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Professional Academic Philosophers: Actively support the Gendered Conference Campaign - Petition

A call to support the Gendered Conference Campaign. "We call on all philosophers - male and female, junior and senior - not to organize male-only or male-almost-only conferences,workshops, or edited volumes." Here's the petition site.

I have signed the petition and, on request submitted the following official motivation:

Academic philosophy has a gender problem and has had one for a long time. If nothing else, this becomes obvious when philosophy is compared to other academic areas when it comes to representation at higher levels of professional status and controlled for results in studies. Besides the general political spin that can be made on this with regard to gender equality, I find this situation troublesome also for purely academic and philosophically chauvinistic reasons; our beloved subject misses a large portion of potential talent due to what mainly seems to be structural reasons.The proposed action in this petition in order to influence conference organizers when it comes to keynote speakers is, in light of this, a very modest one.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Further on what's Cookin' at AJOB and

I have now received conformation and independent corroboration of the rumours and signs I reported about before, which due to a number of factors I was unsure how to assess. Summer Johnson McGee has indeed stepped out of the management of the American Journal of Bioethics, and also announced that she are cutting her ties to The actual letter, or email, of resignation has now been forwarded to me and is here shown in its entirety:

From: Summer <>
Subject: Leaving AJOB
Date: 10 September 2012 2:31:21 PM CDT
Cc: " Wolpe" <>, "Robert \"Skip\" Nelson" <>, David Magnus <>

Friends of The American Journal of Bioethics and,
I want to share with all of you that Friday, September 14, 2012 will be my last day at The American Journal of Bioethics and In mid-August, I had detailed conversations with both David Magnus and the publisher about my desire to leave AJOB. I have elected also that, the blog, the weekly newsletter, and all of its social networking sites (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn) will no longer be owned and operated by me nor will the editorial office reside with me any longer. I have so enjoyed working with you as peers, and I owe you a succinct explanation for my departure. I firmly believe that we are right to be proud of the Journal's last twelve years, the first era of The American Journal of Bioethics.  AJOB accomplished things that no one in bioethics or publishing thought possible, least of all its editors and staff. Until a few months ago, I often said that the work I did for AJOB felt impactful and rewarding, even important. AJOB no longer feels that way to me.  Whether it is me, the field, or the journal that has changed, I know that I no longer want to lead our field's most cited journal. 
So, with thanks to those who have asked me not to depart, I feel I must leave the Journal, a decision made much easier because I know it is in the competent hands of David Magnus and the editorial staff he and I hired in the last few months.  It has been a privilege to spend the last four years working with the journal’s editorial board, authors, peer reviewers, and readers.  My departure from our journal is of course very emotional for me. AJOB has been my labor of love for a very long time. I thank each of you who contributed to that experience for me personally and professionally; your faith in the journal and in me has been unwavering and unforgettable.
I wish The American Journal of Bioethics, its current editors, editorial board, and readers the best of luck in its next era.  I bid you a fond, bittersweet, farewell.  

Summer Johnson McGee, PhD
 The bulk of the text is what is (or was) actually quoted in William Heisel's mysteriously shut down post at Reporting on health (of which you can read a web cached version here), which makes that shut down even more strange.

In any case, the text does not really throw any light on the specifics that has led to Summer's decision. Heisel, as I mentioned in my former post, has a vaguely hinted guess. And in a blog post at Psychology Today, bioethics researcher Alice Dreger offers further possible reasons for Johnson McGee to abandon ship. These, as it were, are further alleged conflict of interest cases that may have been severely manhandled by the old AJOB management, but which are not explicitly connected to the scandal around possibly pharma corrupted pain medication research, that I told about in the former posting, and more extensively in another one before.  That is, there may be yet another complex of COI problems at AJOB to which Johnson McGee (and her husband and former editor in chief, Glenn McGee) might have been connected. In this case, the connection is to clinical experiments involving drugs and prenatal diagnosis on fetuses and children with hereditary abnormalities in the sex-hormone production, which Dreger and colleagues critically assess in a very recent article. In fact, this potential problem for AJOB is connected also to members of its editorial and conflict of interest boards, as well as the editor in chief of its sibling journal AJOB Primary Research, Robert Nelson.

In any case, Dreger in her post describes in exact terms what that is about, and reports that she and a colleague have just written the new AJOB management to look at the matter with fresh eyes in light of what has recently come to pass. The ball is now in the hands of suddenly sole editor in chief, David Magnus.

As for my own worries around the integrity of AJOB, having to do with the not very sound financial ties between the former editor in chief and, things are still unclear. Nothing in Johnson McGee's letter makes any more clear how the relationship between the new AJOB management, AJOB itself and now looks like. Do any of the editors of AJOB have financial interests in that, together with the role of in the AJOB operation, provide incentives for making editorial decisions based on other grounds that those that should guide a scientific editor? This remains to be seen.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Something's Cookin' at AJOB and (Now Updated)

Updates added after the original post can be found at the bottom marked by bold text.

Yep, yep - there is definitely something going on - less clear, however, what it is and less clear how it connects to the long string of recent events around the American Journal of Bioethics and the important work of restoring confidence in the journal's integrity.

First, emails have this week been swishing around the bioethics scholarly community, quoting an alleged letter from Summer Johnson McGee announcing her resignation as editor in chief of the American Journal of Bioethics, as well as stepping out of the connected website business In both instances effective from September 14.

Second, William Heisel posted about and commented on this news and how it was viewed by remaining editor in chief, David Magnus on his blog at Reporting on Health, where he also quoted the above mentioned letter. The spirit of the post was that, possibly, perhaps as an add-on to the former troubles, Johnson McGee's unfortunate apparent connection to a number of recently announced and rather grave conflict of interest declaration problems at AJOB linked to an ongoing federal investigation of research corruption with pharma money at the former academic home of both AJOB, and Johnson McGee may have become too much to handle.


Heisel's post has now been blocked for access since a few days (the link above is to a web-cache of the original page), and Johnson McGee is still listed as editor in chief at the journal website, where the press release announcing her recent appointment is also still available. Nothing is announced at, except that the information about Summer Johnson McGee's ownership of the website through a company called Bioethics Internet Group that I quoted in my latest post on this topic has now been taken out (and someone has seen to it that former versions of pages are not being cached). No word either in the AJOB Facebook group.

On twitter, people are asking Heisel about what's going on with no response so far – his account is silent since September 11, when he posted info about an update to the mentioned blog post. I was in contact with him via email the day before yesterday, but he did only want to talk on the phone about this matter and since we are 9 hours apart timezone-wise, this has not yet been possible to arrange. Or he has decided it wise not to communicate on the matter at this point.

Given the past occurrences of lawsuit threats in response to blog posts or articles connecting to AJOB and the businesses of its (now former) editorial management (see my last post on AJOB for more on that), it's not without that one is getting a bit worried. At the same time, if it really is true that Summer Johnson McGee is stepping down in the way indicated by all the rumors and signs, doing it in a cloud of civil law action would hardly make the whole thing more graceful, so I cross my fingers for her sake as well as Heisel's.

Hopefully, not least for AJOB's sake, all of these question marks will be straightened out soon. But, let's play with the thought that the initial rumor is true – what would that imply for AJOB? This, to my mind, depends on two things. First, Johnson McGee's actual connection to the recent round of problems around conflict of interest declarations and the linked alleged pharma corrupted research on pain medication. If this alleged link is weak or non-existent, Johnson McGee stepping down would not seem to help restoring confidence in AJOB through that route. Second, the point that I raised in my latest post on this topic about the problem of having an editor in chief that is directly financially dependent on what pieces are published in AJOB, through how that affects traffic and advertisement revenue. This aspect of AJOB integrity is not fixed by Johnson McGee stepping down, since it remains to be known how the ownership of looks from September 15, and how will be connected to the AJOB operation in the future. Transparency on these points is absolutely crucial for AJOB's reputation, and something should ideally be posted about this in the about section at and/or the journal website at the publisher as soon as possible.

Update, September 15, 2012:
Just now, when checking for news, I noticed that Summer Johnson McGee's name is off the editor-in-chief listing for AJOB in the about section for the journal at However, she is still listed at the actual journal homepage of the publisher Taylor and Francis.

The ownership of and its role in the AJOB operation is still undeclared. In fact, the about section for only speaks about AJOB, as if that is equivalent to

I can also report that the original web-cache link to Heisel's blog post was killed by Google (possibly on the request by someone of the involved parties), and has now been replaced by another service.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Hate Crime: Videos on Prevention, Psychology and Policy

So, this connects to a European research project on hate crime policy that I'm in, called When Law and Hate Collide, and that I have been posting about before, here, here and here. I have also linked to video-documented symposia within the project on the topics of perspectives on hate crime (Strasbourg) and the philosophy of hate crime (Gothenburg).

Now, videos are online from the third symposium of this project (a fourth is due to take place in Brussels in January next year) that took place in April this year, in Frankfurt, Germany, organized by our German partners in the project, Michael Fingerle and Caroline Bonnes. The theme of this particular symposium was the prevention and psychology of hate crime. So without further ado, here's some more social science research in the making - welcome to the lab!

David Brax (and Christian Munthe) - The Hate Crime Concept(s): Moral, Legal and Political Considerations

Anneli Svensson: How the LGBTQ Population's Suffering from Hate Crimes and Its Consequences Can Help us Understand the Preventive Work

Marc Coester: Community Crime Prevention in the case of Hate Crimes and Right-Wing Extremism

Edward Dunbar - Community, Forensic, and Clinical Characteristics of Hate Crime Offenders in L.A.

Bastian Finke: MANEO - Berlin's Gay Anti-Violence Project introduces itself

Helmolt Rademacher: Prevention in Schools - Conflict Resolution Education in Germany 

Michael Fingerle (and Caroline Bonnes): Risk - Resilience 


Ulrich Wagner - A Meta-Analysis of Prevention Programs


Sunday, 9 September 2012

Could and Should Rivers have Rights? Yes, of Course!

This little news item, spurred some slightly uneasy reactions when I forwarded it on Twitter today. It's about New Zealand granting a particular river "legal personhood", implying it to have legitimate interests and rights, just like other legal persons.

Must be crazy, right? Or at least appalling and misguided, given all the instances globally where actual people are not being granted such standing? Or, at least, I – in light of philosophical views I hold in other areas – should be against anything in this direction. I mean, if I'm hesitant to award human embryos or fetuses moral status of the sort claimed by pro-life ethics advocates, why should I be prepared to grant rights to a river??

Well, it may surprise you all to know that I actually find the New Zealand move perfectly defensible. Be back to explain why in a later post, unless someone presents the right answer here in the comments before ;-)

Families – Beyond the Nuclear Ideal... the title of a book soon to be released by Bloomsbury Academic as part of its Science, Ethics and Innovation series, edited by Daniela Cutas and Sarah Chan, with one chapter contributed by myself and Thomas Hartvigsson (on how to apply the best interest of children standard to the issue of what sort of families to allow), plus others by, e.g., Adrienne Asch, Melinda Roberts, Kerry Lynn Macintosh and a number of other distinguished scholars in whose company I'm very proud to be.
In the words of the presentation by the editors, this book....

...examines, through a multidisciplinary lens, the possibilities offered by relationships and family forms that challenge the nuclear family ideal, and some of the arguments that recommend or disqualify these as legitimate units in our societies.

That children should be conceived naturally, born to and raised by their two young, heterosexual, married to each other, genetic parents; that this relationship between parents is also the ideal relationship between romantic or sexual partners; and that romance and sexual intimacy ought to be at the core of our closest personal relationships -- all these elements converge towards the ideal of the nuclear family.

The authors consider a range of relationship and family structures that depart from this ideal: polyamory and polygamy, single and polyparenting, parenting by gay and lesbian couples, as well as families created through current and prospective modes of assisted human reproduction such as surrogate motherhood, donor insemination, and reproductive cloning.
And the full table of contents runs like this:

Chapter 1: Daniela Cutas and Sarah Chan, Introduction: Perspectives on Private and Family Life
Chapter 2: Julie McCandless, The Role of Sexual Partnership in UK Family Law: the Case of Legal Parenthood

Chapter 3: Mianna Lotz, The Two-Parent Limitation in ART Parentage Law: Old Fashioned Law for New-Fashioned Families
Chapter 4: Christian Munthe and Thomas Hartvigsson, The Best Interest of Children and the Basis of Family Policy: The Issue of Reproductive Caring Units

Chapter 5: Joanna Scheib and Paul Hastings, Donor-conceived Children Raised by Lesbian Couples: Socialization and Development in a New Form of Planned Family

Chapter 6: David Gurnham, Donor-conception as a ‘Dangerous Supplement’ to the Nuclear Family: What can we learn from parents’ stories?

Chapter 7: Susanna Graham, Choosing Single Motherhood? Single Women Negotiating the Nuclear Family Ideal

Chapter 8: Mary Shanley and Sujatha Jesudason, Surrogacy: Reinscribing or Pluralizing Understandings of Family?

Chapter 9: Adrienne Asch, Licensing Parents: Regulating Assisted Reproduction

Chapter 10: Simon Căbulea May, Liberal Feminism and the Ethics of Polygamy

Chapter 11: Maura Irene Strassberg, Distinguishing Polygamy and Polyamory Under the Criminal Law

Chapter 12: Dossie Easton, Sex and Relationships: reflections on living outside the box
Chapter 13: Kerry Lynn Macintosh, Human Cloning and the Family in the New Millenium  
Chapter 14: Melinda Roberts, Moral and Legal Constraints on Human Reproductive Cloning
You can follow the book on its Facebook page to receive notification of publication, ordering opportunities, and so on.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Overselling Science, Halting Progress, Killing Opportunities: Gene Therapy, Cloning, Stem Cell Medicine & Synthetic Biology

Here's a note, slightly provoked by a pretty ridiculous piece posted at the webpage of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. In this piece, a self-proclaimed, so-called "positive futurist" named Dick Pelletier delivers a sales-pitch for the program of synthetic biology much as envisioned by Craig Venter when holding his regular presentations aimed at potential funders, investors and customers in order to raise the value of his services, products and patents. Right off the bat, I want to underscore that what I mean to be saying here is not against Venter's scientific aims or, for that matter, his visions of what his science might eventually be good for. Not at all. What I want to point to, however, is the sort of overselling of scientific areas which are, frankly, in rather early stages of development that is going on in Pelletier's piece and that Venter himself is a bit guilty of as well, but that does not in any way limit itself to this particular field. Rather, I will here use similar patterns from the areas of human genome and associated gene therapy research, research on cloning and stem cell medicine to illustrate what this sort of overselling actually achieves, and why people and organisations (such as the IEET) seriously committed to using science and technology for the good should be wary of of this type of rhetoric.

So, what is it that Pelletier says? Well, a lot of unsubstantiated stuff, mostly, besides a lot about what synthetic biology "might" or "may" lead to, such as all of that which Craig Venter said when presenting his institute's breakthrough a while back. Very nice. I can see why Venter wants to attract investors and raise the share price of the company holding his patents, as well as the prices of the latter, and I suppose that Pelletier has some personal reasons, unknown to me, to help him doing that. What boggles my mind, however is the lack of complications, risks and the pretty optimistic (or is it infantile?) time-scale applied:

...they will produce a complete cellular system by 2015. Once this happens [...] Darwinian evolution will take over. This knowledge will help scientists understand how humans evolved in the past, and provide guidance towards a future human evolution driven, not by nature, but by tomorrow’s synthetic life technologies. We will see tiny self-reproducing factories, disease-killing machines, and exotic creations performing many useful functions.
 Nice. Getting help from something that certifiably works to understand nature better with the help of some technological innovation. Sound scientific strategy, right? But, who would have thought that.... 2020, synthetic life creations could eliminate, or make manageable, nearly all human sicknesses, including most of today’s dreaded age-related diseases.
Hmmm? And that is not the end, for in fact.... 2030 or before, human-made life forms could provide everyone with an affordable, ageless and forever healthy body fashioned from newly-created ‘designer genes.’
Right. Fantastic. Here's my life savings, then - no questions asked.

Not a word about risk, failure, misuse, limitations or the wicked ways of the world that most likely will see to it that this, just as any other piece of technology, no matter how well it works, will certainly not provide "everyone" with anything worth having. In particular if guys like Pelletier (as well as Venter) continues to cry wolf long, long before there is anything even close to worth having in those areas where imminent delivery is ambitiously promised. Perhaps this is what it means to be a positive futurist? Well, in that case we don't really need them do we? We already have them, just they are known under other names (take your pick) when calling us up at the least suitable hours, or filling our email inboxes, with one senseless business scam after another.

Ok, ok, so calm down. So far, this is just another of these naïve grown-up school boys and useful idiots letting some steam off. Admittedly, there is also a wider organisation with academic ambitions that for some reason is publishing the rant, which is perhaps a bit more of a reason to get worked up. But, hey, that's nothing new, is it? So what is the problem? To get to that, I need to widen the lens a bit, in order to describe how this is just one of many examples of how – indeed! – exciting and promising scientific and technology areas are ridiculously oversold, to the possible financial gain of a few of the involved experts, but to the detriment of those people that could in fact have reaped substantial benefits from the field, had it not been for the fact that once that stage is near, everyone with a buck to spare to make it happen has lost interest and, frankly, faith. So here's my cases:

1. Gene therapy. This baby has in fact been pitched as being right around the corner since the 1950's (and through the 60's and 70's), believe it or not (just pick up some of the scientific articles in the field and look for the little motivator sentence at the end). It is a wonder that James Watson was able to reuse it to attract funding for the HUGO project (although he had to switch to the wider concept of genomics half-way, when the prospect revealed itself to be much less practical than what had been thought at the outset). However, now when at last some of the first really promising clinical applications are indeed surfacing, investors have lost interest and so would I, had I been in their midst. The example of a fully developed, initially tested and very promising gene therapy for cancer sitting in the freezer due to lack of funding to do the larger sort of trials needed to have good evidence for safety and effectiveness is telling. I mean, who would believe anyone claiming to have a "promising" gene therapy that just needs some testing when that song and dance has been performed a million times before with the same depressing aftermath?

2. Cloning. Well, this story is in fact a part of that of gene therapy, as well as the next one of stem cell medicine. Here, the overselling has been mainly in the form apparent mavericks claiming to be planing very shortly or to actually have done human cloning, as well as to claim human cloning to be a help for a large number of problems that may engage people. I won't supply any link here, since this is fraud and tinfoil-hat territory, but if you're curious, just google "human cloning" and surf away. In any case, human cloning comes in two basic varieties. One is what is also known as "therapeutic cloning" or, better, somatic cell nuclear transfer, as used in a process to produce pluripotent embryonic stem cells. Another one is what is sometimes referred to as "reproductive cloning", meaning that SCNT is used to produce a human embryo, which is then transferred into a woman's uterus and allowed to be carried to term. This latter technique is interesting mostly as the most realistic prospect for having a gene therapy procedure that could in fact work for some of the major and most serious genetic diseases. However, the prospect of having anyone allow that to happen, even less to provide funding for it has been substantially crippled by the actions of the mentioned mavericks. In effect, while gene therapy for mitochondrial genetic disease might slip through the net raised in response to the proof of the apparently obvious irresponsibility of scientists provided by said mavericks, the dream of of this sort of powerful gene therapy has otherwise been effectively bumped off.  

 3. Stem cell medicine. This is a very much alive area, and in recent years there has been a stream of news about fraudulent or highly questionable operations (other examples are here and here, and these are just a few, among the ones popping up through a simple search). Hurrying to promise this or that on the basis of a scientific basis that is still pretty frail and full of gaps, and clinical experience is effectively nil. All of these operations, of course, grossly oversell the potential of whatever stem-cell based service they are offering and, of course, they do that to attract paying customers and investors. A step away from that regarding fraudulent behaviour, but still related when it comes to vested interests playing a part, we have the recent European case of the failed attempt to have embryonic stem cell lines patented. While the reasoning of the court may be discussed, it is clear to me that the case for a patent at this early stage will have to contain pretty obvious misleading parts, lest the condition of usefulness present in all patent laws would be difficult to meet. Furthermore, said sort of overselling would have had to continue when making use of the patent. Stem cell scientists and supporters enraged over the ruling were all pretty open about that the idea of the patent was to sell it to big pharma in order to have them fund clinical development, research, large trials, and so on. Well, that's fine, but would at this early stage seem to imply promising said corporate actors enough to have them open the purse. So, one may justifiably wonder what was indeed happening in the case of professor Brüstle, who was denied a patent by the European Court of Justice – was it just a loss of clinical prospect or was it his personal financial exit strategy that disappeared in a cloud of mist, or was it a bit of both? Probably the last, so we may be certain that he would have just as good a reason to oversell as in the other cases I have mentioned, had he instead been allowed his patent. And I'm pretty sure that this would have backfired, just as the other examples I have been given above, all while the rights of the patents would have blocked the scientific progress that might one day have made the sales-pitch honest and fair. Or, it that would have proven to be overly pessimistic, to discourage any potential funder or investor, just as in the case of gene therapy.

And backfire it will also in the synthetic biology case if people like Pelletier continue to rant and do Craig Venter's marketting work for him, albeit the latter – I'm sure – will laugh all the way to the bank.

Monday, 3 September 2012

70 000

Just a short note on the event that Philosophical Comment today, just a few minutes ago, passed the handsome figure of 70 000 readers since its start in November 2009.

Thanks to you all who read, comment, link, like, connect, follow, and so on!

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Lots to do at the American Journal of Bioethics

As readers of this blog know, I have informed about and commented quite a bit on various controversies and debates surrounding the American Journal of Bioethics – when it comes to standard ways of ranking academic journals, the by far most influential of those in the field of bioethics and medical ethics, as well as celebrated for its pioneer editorial design with main "target articles" and rapid responses, plus a parallel publication online at the, a research, news and comment portal for bioethics. Notwithstanding these qualities, the recent events I have been reporting about have undoubtedly scarred AJOB as an institution and left the current management with a challenging task of restoring lost trust. A short reminder:

1. A high profile resignation from the editorial board by Hilde Lindemann due to doubts about the soundness of the journal's editorial and managerial policies (here, here, here).

2. An impossible conflict of interest situation within the editorial management of AJOB created when former editor in chief Glenn McGee resigned to take up a post as full-time consultant for the private stem cell banking company, CellTex, while his wife (a distinguished bioethicist ijn her own right, but under default legislation, of course, sharing the financial ties of her husband), Summer Johnson McGee took over the AJOB rudder (together with David Magnus). It didn't help the case that Glenn McGee's resignation process and move to CellTex was far from ideally managed (creating lots of completely unnecessary questions) or that the Cell Tex operation itself is highly questioned among bioethics researchers. My reports and comments are here, here, here, here, here, here. The affair resolved itself when Glenn McGee announced his resignation from the CellTex job (thereby severing the vested conflict of interest ties affecting Summer Johnson McGee), but had at that point already effected two heavy resignations from the editorial board by John Lantos (who provided a strongly worded explanation) and Udo Schüklenk, himself editor in chief of the journal Bioethics (the latter however, still listed as a board member at the AJOB website).

This last affair had a bit of a semi-relevant aftermath, when CellTex, the stem cell company to which Glenn McGgee had been signed on to provide ethics consultancy threatened University of Minnesota bioethicist Leigh Turner (as well as his university) with lawsuits, when he wrote a letter to the FDA, urging them to investigate CellTex. Almost simultaneously, Glenn McGee did a very similar thing to Carl Elliott, a bioethics professor at the same university as Turner, for his published criticism of McGee's involvement with CellTex, leading to a retraction by the publisher Slate. See here, and here. None of those events, of course, did any good for the stained reputation of AJOB and one would have wished the journal some peace and quiet to be able to set the ship back on a straight course. However, it does not seem to end there.

Earlier this year, it was revealed that a leading researcher of the Center for Practical Bioethics, Myra Christopher was to be included in a US Senate probe into suspected heavy duty corruption due to the sponsoring from pharmacological companies in the area of pain medication and care. Now, until not very long time ago, both the McGee's were attached to CPB and Christopher herself is a member of the AJOB editorial board. So far pretty circumstantial and not really a link. However, a very recent revelation is that AJOB, when publishing an article with Christopher as co-author, neglected to publish a meaty description of her conflicts of interests due to the pharma sponsorship of CPB, plus missed (possibly due to omissions by Christopher to follow the proscribed COI disclosure procedure) other similar COI's of her co-authors. More details are at William Heisel's Reporting on Health blog; here and here. In any case the link between the troubles at AJOB and the serious allegations against CPB and Christopher is through this development clearly more than circumstantial. AJOB has allowed the possibly corrupt situation at CPB to enter into its midst, and it did so when its editor in chief and one other editor was academically based at CPB, so that the journal was effectively run from there, and even more so its parallel online extension

Now, queried by Reporting on Health, David Magnus, one of the new editors in chief of AJOB described how steps are now taken to beef up the COI disclosure procedures of the journal. Together with the resolving of the conflict of interest situation, this bodes well for the journal's future, albeit the uphill that has to be climbed by Magnus and Johnson McGee and their co-workers on the editorial and managerial side of AJOB has not exactly become less steep. Being a fan of AJOB, it makes me happy to detect Magnus' resolve to clear up any remaining irregularities or integrity problems at AJOB, and thus take important steps to restore its reputation.

One of the things that continues to create suspicion and confusion is the relation and connection between AJOB and This, I assume what was explained Hilde Lindemann's doubts with regard to the ownership of AJOB, and the latest post at Reporting on Health displays confusion around where information about AJOB is to be had – at the T&F website of the journal or at It has, through the first of the controversies mentioned above, been made very clear that AJOB is owned and published by Taylor & Francis, which in turn are not involved in the ownership or operation of But, of course, there is a business deal of some sort between T&F and, lest the latter would not be able to offer its members automatic access to all AJOB material or so vigorously promote AJOB (no doubt contributing to its popularity and impact). When I checked before, when controversy no. 2 above was going on, none of these things were made very clear at the website. However, the information given has now clearly improved and the ownership of as well as its business link to AJOB is now described in the "about" section, thus: is owned and operated by Bioethics Internet Group. Bioethics Internet Group (BIG) is wholly owned by Summer Johnson McGee, Ph.D. Funding for is provided by paid banner advertisements appearing on the website and a stipend from Taylor and Francis, Inc.
To me, this explains a lot why it "had" to be Summer Johnson McGee who took over the rudder when Glenn McGee resigned to take up the CellTex job. Although separate financial and organisational entities, only one of which with financial ties to the McGee's, and AJOB are very much dependent on each other. Or AJOB is at least dependent on to the extent that the latter does contribute to the success of the journal. Or perhaps the double involvement in and AJOB helps to fund the no doubt unusually complicated editorial operation of the journal's ambitious design? In any case, it would seem very probable that stands and falls as a business with the link to AJOB. So far, perhaps not much of a problem for AJOB from an integrity perspective. But it may need to be discussed to what extent it may be a problem that the editor in chief of AJOB has a direct financial interest in what is being published by AJOB (since that will affect the traffic of and, through that, advertisement revenue of BIG, owned by Johnson McGee).

In any case, another matter for Magnus, Johnson McGee and the editorial board – as well as responsible officers at Taylor & Francis, of course – to ponder as they all continue their efforts to restore AJOB to its former glory.

Friday, 17 August 2012

The Most Frightened Man in the World

You can always tell when those tyrants become pussycats, can't you?

Any other part of the week possibly rivaled by his buddy Assad, but this very day of the Pussy Riot ruling (here, here, here, here, here, here, here) there can be no other winner of the Yellow, chicken-hearted pussy of the year award:

Those real kitty-cats, however, step up the game and deal out one more claw:



Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Rawlsian Ageism at Yale: A Highly Ironic Call for Papers

Just a very short note on this little thing that created some discussion on Twitter today, after a tweet by Liam Shields, a young (yes, that is relevant, you'll see!) UK political philosopher, currently at the University of Manchester. It's a call for papers to a conference at no less a university than Yale, called John Rawls: Past, Present, Future, to be held the last day of November this fall. It all looks like a great event for anyone into political philosophy and theory, and it's especially nice since quite obviously, the organizers have wanted to avoid the usual parade of post-retirement academic giants that usually fill the programs of spectacles like these, despite having had very little new to say the last 30 years or so.

The call specifically states that no less than six papers, given ample amount of time for presentation, by younger contributors will be selected for the program. Again, very nice had it only been the "academic age" that was the target. However, whether by oversight, lack of insight or intention, this is not the case. The call runs:

We will select the most interesting three papers authored by students or scholars below 28 as well as the three most interesting papers from students or scholars between 28 and 37.
Yes, the author of the call has focused on biological age, when specifying what is a young contributor. Thus leaving out this nice opportunity for academically young students/scholars, who happen to be older than 37. One of the commentators on twitter actually belongs to that category. Moreover, it makes it technically possible (albeit not very likely) that in this category will fall some (to me unknown) political philosophy and theory prodigy, who already at the splendid age of 27 or 37 is a chaired professor and academically looks more like the post-retirement people I mentioned earlier.

Now, so far, this may be written off as just a silly mistake. However, the fact that the conference is on John Rawls in particular makes for a more subtle and sophisticated turn, theoretically as well as how to assess the mistake of the organizers. Rawls, as you may know, is most famous for his phenomenally influential book, A Theory of Justice, from 1971. The theoretical core of the complex body of thought presented there is a renewed variant of the formula of social contract theory, made into what philosophers, when I had my basic training, used to call an ideal observer theory of justification. What Rawls does, in short, is to defend a set principles for a just society on the basis of asking himself what principles a set of (highly hypothetical, naturally) self-interested, perfectly rational parties would accept, were they forced to make a choice behind what Rawls famously called a veil of ignorance. That is, they would know nothing about their own (or anyone else's) particular place or fate in a society resulting from application of the principles they select, but otherwise (being perfectly rational) know everything about that society in general terms. In this way, Rawls reasoned, the chosen principles would be immune from criticism based on claims of unjustified or unfair bias or discrimination. Typical examples of what the choosing parties would not know is their social standing, their race, their life-style preferences, their sex or gender and, indeed, their age.

So, ironically, it would seem that the call for papers not only misses the apparent target that the organizers presumably had in mind. It would, as it were, in fact not pass the very test that Rawls himself is famous for having brought forward as the source of justification for principles of distributing social goods. We can all make mistakes, but it boggles the mind how the organizers – all very established names in the field – would bring that double jeopardy on themselves.

Friday, 10 August 2012

More on How to Navigate in the Jungle of Online Open Access Academic Publishing

This post is a follow-up to one of the more popular posts of mine this year: How to Avoid Shaming Yourself and Your Field in the Academic Online Open Access Publishing Jungle. It has attracted a lot of readers and encouraging comments, here as well as via email, twitter and other routes. One of the early comments came from Jeffrey Beall, author of the list which made up the bulk of my own post, which was in turn cross-posted from Jeff's blog Metadata. What Jeff contacted me about was that he had just started a new blog focusing specifically on monitoring dodgy OA publishers, journals and related operations, such as academic editing, proof-reading, manuscript compilation and indexing services. My intention was to post this info, but then work stuff came in between, I momentarily forgot about it, and then contracted the illness which I am now almost recovered from.

So, with some shame on me, here is at last what looks to me as an outstanding source for accomplishing that which was the purpose of my first post: to help academics, PhD candidates, supervisors, etc. to navigate in the virtual jungle of the online OA academic publishing landscape, so as to avoid shaming oneself or one's academic institution, undermining one's forthcoming academic career, and so on. Jeff is frequently making fresh posts, and documents the result in continuously updated alphabetic lists. 

The blog's name?

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

USA Willingness to Abandon 2°C Target in Climate Talks Opens for Negative Spirals and Moral Criticism

Just the other day, the US government went public with an official willingness to abandon the henceforth solidly agreed 2°C target in global climate policy talks. It did so rather slippery, through a public address by the Special Envoy for Climate Change, Todd Stern, at Dartmouth College. Not a public declaration by the President, or at least a minister. But nevertheless a clear signal, since it is since some time posted at the US Dept. of State's webpage

The declaration of "flexibility" with regard to the 2°C target has been met with criticism. But I wonder why the critics all act so surprised. This, I would claim, is an expected outcome of the way that the COP climate policy summits have been going over the last few years. However, I also think that the "flexibility" is far more deadly than what is implied by the criticism and for this, I have support from some of my own latest research!

Some of you may have noted my yearly comments on the global climate policy talks, the so-called COP, from no. 15, 16 and 17. Since last time in Durban, it was agreed that the COP summit will not meet again until 2015, and since that agreement was a result of the continued refusal of a few powerful players (the US and China in particular) to yield on their position to have others pay for the inescapable burdens of managing the climate change that is already unavoidable and preventing or, at least, limiting further such change by halting the continuing rise of the global mean temperature to one of 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels. In my last comment, I elaborated on why the 2°C target is such an important cornerstone of the COP talks:

...the 2° target, it must be understood, is not in any way magical or set in stone. In fact, some claims it to be a much too allowing goal. Moreover, the target is rather a range than an exact temperature, since the climate models necessarily embody rather drastic uncertainties. But the 2°C is of importance for two reasons. First, it is one of the very few substantial things about climate policy that the global community has been able to agree on. Second, it approximates the limit of our empirical knowledge from the past and, thus, our basis for prediction, preparation and adaption in face of the various changes that increases of the global mean temperature bring. A bit simplified, beyond 2°C, what we have is basically mathematics and fantasy – something that is amply illustrated by the predictive models in climate change research. Our ability to prepare for whatever will be coming – and thus to be capable of reversing the process without considerable higher cost to human life and well-being – becomes drastically weakened.
Already in Durban, there was a clear tendency that some parties wanted, nevertheless, to abandon the 2°C target, and I warned that the yielding of, especially European countries to the pressures from USA, China and a few other parties with high short-term stakes, to postpone further yearly talks (where this focus on short-term self-interests of these countries were being painfully exposed), lest they would abandon the talks altogether, would further such an end result, since:

...we may expect no, repeat no, preparation on the political home-fronts of these countries for a climate deal in 2015 which implies making actual concessions and taking on actual commitments. This, I claim, is the main result of the strategy of the EU and the rest of the world in Durban.
 Why is this so? Because in the game of Chicken played by the US, China and their unholy group of allies (for the analysis showing that this is what they are doing, see my first COP post)...

...Europe and the rest of the Kyoto-protocol signing countries are allowing themselves to become what game theorists know as money pumps – someone who is applying a strategy that makes one systematically vulnerable to making deals that sum up to a loosing position, while one's counterpart is systematically winning, although each singular deal may look like a winner. Giving in to blackmail (which is, effectively, what Europe is doing in the climate policy negotiation game) is a prime example.
If not clear before, the declared "flexibility" on the 2°C target makes this as evident as one may wish. For the 2°C target is, as a matter of fact even more important than what has been set out above. For what the agreement on the 2°C target stands for is the idea that a climate policy agreement is supposed to limit further rises of the global temperature and, hence, limit the extent and costs (in monetary as well as human and environmental terms) of climate change, by limiting CO2 and other green house gas emissions. It is the global acceptance of that ultimate goal which has then created the necessity of negotiating of how to distribute the, no doubt, substantial costs of reaching it. It is, thus, within this frame that the above mentioned game of Chicken has been played, with the outcome that none of the institutional frameworks created at the COP meetings and mentioned by Todd Stern will have any substantial impact on climate change. Therefore, what Stern argues in his Dartmouth address is that the difficulties of reaching an agreement in such a context means that keeping to the 2°C target will mean that one forfeits one's chance of substantial global political agreement:

For many countries, the core assumption about how to address climate change is that you negotiate a treaty with binding emission targets stringent enough to meet a stipulated global goal – namely, holding the increase in global average temperature to less than 2° centigrade above pre-industrial levels – and that treaty in turn drives national action. This is a kind of unified field theory of solving climate change – get the treaty right; the treaty dictates national action; and the problem gets solved. This is entirely logical. It makes perfect sense on paper. The trouble is it ignores the classic lesson that politics – including international politics – is the art of the possible.
However, while I agree with Stern that the situation that has ensued in global climate policy negotiations is grave, the cure he proposes to my mind threatens to make the patient much more ill than if, simply, Europe and other states pressing for substantial concessions stood up a little bit better. And, as an aside, perhaps this is what Stern senses too, thus continuing the Chicken-playing by saying the things he does, hoping that the other side will thereby look at a hard line for insisting on such concessions as a hopeless strategy.But, nevertheless, if Stern would have his way, what would that imply? Would we then see a chance

In my recent book on the ethical basis of the precautionary principle, The Price of Precaution and the Ethics of Risk (Springer, 2011), I discuss the implications of the theory of the ethics of risk that I develop and defend on the example of climate change policy (chapter 6, section 6.2.1). A primary result of that analysis that is no way dependent on my own particular theory is that there is an intimate interplay between ethically analysing the issues of:

(1) how much of risk and damage due to climate change that may be accepted in view of the costs of preventing or reducing them and available options, and

(2) how the costs of reducing or preventing risk and damage due to climate change should be distributed between concerned parties.

This since, first, the answer to (1) will partly depend on what latitude of acceptable options that is available with regard to (2). The more constrained we are with regard to how the costs of action (and inaction) may be distributed, the less the room for arguing in favor of a lower acceptance level for climate change related risk and damage. This since there will be less practical ways of pulling an actual implementation of such a lower level off without having to distribute costs in unacceptable ways. Second, how (1) is set will dictate, under most minimally reasonable ideas of how (unavoidable) costs and harm should be distributed between parties, what solutions of (2) that become available. When more is at stake, issues about distribution becom more pressing and increasingly minor details (especially regarding already burdened, especially unfavored or otherwise especially vulnerable parties) will become more relevant.

This mutual dependence is mirrored by what seems like a very plausible social scientific assumption with regard to how events may in fact be expected to unfold: The lower the actual acceptance level for climate change related risk and damage is set, the more difficult it will be to reach actual consensus on how to distribute the costs of implementing such a level, and the farther away from consensus with regard to (2) that concerned parties perceive themselves to be, the less likely that they will agree on a lower level with regard to (1). The first is what has already been demonstrated by the COP failures. The second dependence, however, although I predicted it in my book, has so far not been demonstrated. That is, up to Todd Stern's announcement of the new "flexible" US view of the 2°C target. For this is what Stern's (and the USA's) new stand boils down to: allowing more of risk and damage due to climate change in order to have a less difficult situation agreeing to a distribution of the costs of the steps taken to limit the risks and damage of climate change. In straight terms: those that will be harmed by climate change will be harmed more and some that would not have been harmed otherwise will be now be harmed, since the US decides to accept that rather than open its massive purse just a tiny bit more.

In my book, I argue that reasoning in patterns like Stern here does is both morally and rationally indefensible (quite apart from its role in extending the blackmail operation of the Chicken playing henceforth forming the US main strategy), since it tends to create a self-fulfilling prophecy situation. If the US says that the formerly agreed upper limit on green house gas emissions (in terms of a limit to the rise of the mean global temperature) is open for revision upwards, parties will be less prepared to accept that limit (since they can see the opportunity of having to carry less costs for limiting emissions thereby created), and thus the case for the Stern stance is strengthened, since the 2°C target does not (due to his having made the initial statement) enjoy such a strong support after all. We can now see how this process may continue according to a so far unknown logic of development, where eventually the difficulties of agreeing on the distribution of costs will be so easy to overcome so that no significasnt party see any need for pressing for a further upward adjustment of the global emission or mean temperature limit. Will that be 4, a 5, a 6 or perhaps a 7°C limit? We don't know. All we know is that people will reap the harvest in the next few hundred years in terms of much more climate change related damage and and exponentially worse risks.

All of this is exactly why responsible politicians once upon a time made the 2°C agreement – so that something could be kept out of the negotiations, knowing what would otherwise ensue, thus creating a basis for a result that would actually save people from harm to a significant extent. But to do that, global politics needs to finally confront the distribution issue seriously, rather than dancing around it in a ritual of looking the other way that has been the rule of the COP summits. This is what the Stern address teaches us. It needs to disprove Stern's claim that doing that within the framework of a morally responsible resolve to limit the damage of climate change is not within "the art of the possible". In my book, I sketch one contribution to such an endeavor in the form of a way of solving the distribution issue (answering question (2) above) without invoking any of those traditional disagreements over what is just and fair that are currently poisoning and paralyzing global climate policy talks with useless ideology. It is possible, I argue, to infer a solution to the question of how to distribute the costs just by having each party work out what would be the most morally responsible decision for them to make in terms of the risks and chances, harms and benefits and available options. The total result of those solutions of each party will provide a distribution where no one will have a good reason to complain, while at the same time the resulting agreement may actually do some substantial good in terms of prevention and reduction of climate change related damage and risk.