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!