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Nudges in a post-truth world.

22 May, 17 | by miriamwood

Guest Post: Neil Levy

Full Article: Nudges in  a Post-Truth World

Human beings are motivated reasoners. We find ways to believe what we want to believe, sometimes even in the face of strong evidence to the contrary. This fact helps to explain why so many political issues are intractable, and why so many of us reject the scientific consensus on urgent issues like GMOs, vaccination and climate change. Given the importance of these issues, any means of increasing our responsiveness to evidence deserves exploration.

Nudges – proposals, stemming from the behavioural sciences, for changing the way people act by changing their environments – may be one way of increasing responsiveness to evidence. In my paper, I briefly review evidence that suggests that people resist messages for (apparently) irrelevant reasons, and that by focusing on these reasons, we can make them more responsive to these messages. For instance, people tend to dismiss testimony that comes from those who do not share their political ideology, even when the issue is an empirical one (like climate change). There is evidence that ensuring that the ideology of the source matches the ideology of the audience makes the audience more receptive to the message.

But nudges are ethically controversial. There are a number of reasons why they are controversial, but the central reason is that many people see them as threatening the autonomy of the nudged. It is one thing to address people are reasoning beings, by giving them arguments. It is another to address them as mechanisms, bypassing their reasoning. The truth of claims about vaccines, say, do not depend on who says them, and if we make people more responsive to these claims by altering their source, we manipulate them. We give them causes for their beliefs, not reasons. Or so many people claim.

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How Different are Female, Male and Intersex Genital Cutting?

16 May, 17 | by bearp

By Brian D. Earp  (@briandavidearp), with Rebecca Steinfeld, Goldsmiths, University of London 

Three members of the Dawoodi Bohra sect of Islam were recently indicted on charges of “female genital mutilation” (FGM) in the US state of Michigan. In Norway, meanwhile, one of the major political parties has backed a measure to ban childhood male circumcision.

Fearing that objections to female forms of genital cutting will be applied to male forms, some commentators have rushed to draw a “clear distinction” between them. Others, however, have highlighted the similarities.

In fact, childhood genital cutting is usually divided not just into two, but three separate categories: “FGM” for females; “circumcision” for males; and “genital normalisation” surgery for intersex children – those born with ambiguous genitals or mixed sex characteristics.

In Western countries, popular attitudes towards these procedures differ sharply depending on the child’s sex. In females, any medically unnecessary genital cutting, no matter how minor or sterilised, is seen as an intolerable violation of her bodily integrity and human rights. Most Westerners believe that such cutting must be legally prohibited.

In intersex children, while it is still common for doctors to surgically modify their genitals without a strict medical justification, there is growing opposition to non-essential “cosmetic” surgeries, designed to mould ambiguous genitalia into a “binary” male or female appearance.

Belgian model Hanne Gaby Odiele, for example, has spoken openly about the negative impact of the “irreversible, unconsented and unnecessary” intersex surgeries she was subjected to growing up.

In male children, by contrast, the dominant view is that boys are not significantly harmed by being circumcised, despite the loss of sensitive tissue. Some even point to potential health benefits, although most doctors agree that these benefits are not enough to outweigh the risks and harms. Even so, many people believe that parents should be allowed to choose circumcision for their sons, whether for cultural or religious reasons.

But these attitudes are starting to change. Over the past few decades, and even more strongly in recent years, scholars of genital cutting have argued that there is too much overlap in the physical effects, motivations, and symbolic meanings of these three practices – when their full range across societies is considered – for categorical distinctions based on sex or gender to hold up.

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The Unusual Case of Ian Paterson and Criminally Harmful Surgery

9 May, 17 | by Iain Brassington

Guest post by Alex Mullock, University of Manchester

On 28th April 2017 in the case of breast surgeon, Ian Paterson, the jury in Nottingham Crown Court agreed that in carrying out unnecessary and mutilating surgery the defendant had done what no reasonable surgeon would do.  Paterson was convicted of seventeen counts of wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm (GBH) and three counts of unlawful wounding (under, respectively, sections 18 and 20 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861) against nine women and one man. These ten victims, however, have been reported to represent a tiny proportion of all Paterson’s alleged victims, a group that might amount to hundreds from his many years of practice in the NHS and private sector.

The “obscure motives” that compelled Paterson may forever remain a mystery but it is interesting that the charges against him relate only to patients he treated in his private practice.  This enabled the prosecution to create a narrative that suggested that financial gain could have been the motivating factor for Paterson’s crimes.  Without greed as a possible motive his actions are baffling, and the prosecution’s case, in alleging that surgery which Paterson argued was performed in the patient’s best interests actually constituted GBH or unlawful wounding, would be more challenging because of the medical context of the allegations.  Importantly, the medical exception to the criminal law – the principle that consensual surgery carried out by qualified professionals is legitimate (“proper medical treatment”) – means that there is an assumption that harm caused by surgery is not a matter for the criminal law because it is a risk that we accept in order to enjoy the benefits of surgical medicine.

Even when surgeons make terribly negligent mistakes, English criminal law, interpreted through legal principles established through the courts, means that even recklessly dangerous surgeons need not fear the criminal law.  (An exception may arise if the patient dies, in which case a charge of gross negligence manslaughter might follow.)  Paterson’s conviction is a landmark case, which might have implications for the prevailing assumption that non-fatal surgical violations are not a criminal matter. more…

Gene Editing For A Long Life – A No Brainer?

28 Apr, 17 | by miriamwood

Guest Post: Isabelle L Robertson
Paper: Student Essay- Designing Methuselah: an ethical argument against germline genetic modification to prolong human longevity

I am 16 years old. I am at the start of my life and looking towards my future, deciding on universities, career options and how I want my life to be. At the moment I can expect to perhaps live to 90 years of age. To me, this seems like a pretty good life. If I was offered more would I take it? I’m not sure; perhaps, if my health and independence can be guaranteed, then yes, I might.

Scientists have identified genes in mice that regulate lifespan. They have then edited these genes and have bred mice that have lived a full generation longer than their peers. These genes have their equivalents in the human genome too. Gene editing is becoming more refined by the day and it is predictable that it will one day be technically possible to edit the genome of human embryos to extend their lifespan. Again, extending from mice trials humans with these same genes altered could live to around 130 years old, the equivalent of a whole extra generation.

Gene editing technology brings with it many exciting opportunities such as the possibility of ridding some individuals of disease causing genetic variants. The possibilities extend beyond this though. It is not an unlikely prospect that in my lifetime I will be faced with the choice of deciding if I want my children to have any genetic alterations. These alterations might not just be limited to lifespan extension either; it is foreseeable that enhancements to traits as varied as intelligence, appearance and athletic capability may be potentially on offer. It’s clear that ethical discussion around each of these scenarios is needed. In my paper I have concentrated on whether genetically editing the human genome to extend lifespan is likely to enhance the quality of a person’s life.

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Debate: The Fiction of an Interest in Death? Justice for Charlie Gard

26 Apr, 17 | by miriamwood

 

Julian Savulescu

Dominic Wilkinson’s Response

A judge ruled last week that baby Charlie Gard will have his treatment withdrawn, against the wishes of his parents. His doctors argued that the rare mitochondrial disease (MDDS) he was born with was causing him unbearable suffering.

His parents had raised funds to take him to the US for experimental treatment and they wanted the chance to try the treatment. His doctors argued that such treatment could only prolong his suffering. It was their belief that it was in his best interests for treatment to be withdrawn, and for his life to end, a belief which the trial judge endorsed.

“It is with the heaviest of hearts, but with complete conviction for Charlie’s best interests, that I find it is in Charlie’s best interests that I accede to these applications and rule that GOSH may lawfully withdraw all treatment save for palliative care to permit Charlie to die with dignity.”

This is a profoundly difficult decision, and one in which all parties are acting out of care and compassion for the child. My comments are of course limited as I do not have access to all the relevant facts. However, it does raise an important question about the current basis of such decisions.

Ethics of Limitation of Life Prolonging Medical Treatment

In general, medicine has a presumption in favour of saving life, or prolonging life. There are three justifications for departing from this default. That is, there are 3 justifications for withholding or withdrawing life prolonging medical treatment:

  1. the patient autonomously refuses it. (autonomy)
  2. continued life is no longer in the patient’s interests (best interests)
  3. the probability of the treatment prolonging life, or the quality of life, or the length of time the patient can surVive are too low to justify the cost of the attempt (distributive justice)

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Debate Reponse: Charlie Gard, Interests and Justice – an alternative view

26 Apr, 17 | by miriamwood

Dominic Wilkinson

Responding to Julian Savulescu

The sad and difficult case of Charlie Gard, which featured in the media last week, is the latest in a series of High Court and Family court cases when parents and doctors have disagreed about medical treatment for a child. Doctors regard the treatment as “futile” or “potentially inappropriate”. Parents, in contrast, want treatment to continue, perhaps in the hope that the child’s condition will improve. In the Charlie Gard case, the judge, Justice Francis, rejected Charlie’s parents’ request for him to travel to the US for an experimental medical treatment. He ruled that life-sustaining treatment could be withdrawn, and Charlie allowed to die.

Two reasons

As Julian Savulescu argues,there are two different ethical reasons for health professionals to refuse to provide requested medical treatment for a child. The first of these is based on concern for the best interests of the patient. Treatment should not be provided if it would harm the child. The second reason is on the basis of distributive justice. In a public health system with limited resources, providing expensive or scarce treatment would potentially harm other patients since it would mean that those other patients would be denied access to treatment.

The importance of resources

When doctors and the courts consider cases of ostensibly “futile” treatment, they often focus exclusively on best interests. That is understandable, since the prevailing ethical and legal frameworks largely ignore the question of limited resources. The courts have no mechanism, statute or precedent, to allow them to assess whether or not a treatment would be too expensive or of too little benefit to provide it. Professional guidelines tell doctors that they should base decisions on the interests of the child.

In many cases, however, it is uncertain whether or not treatment would be in the interests of the patient. There may be much stronger and clearer arguments to limit treatment on the basis of finite and scarce medical resources.

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The Implications of Libertarianism for Compulsory Vaccination

24 Apr, 17 | by miriamwood

Guest Post: Justin Bernstein

Paper: The Case Against Libertarian Arguments for Compulsory Vaccination

In a recent political controversy, libertarian Senator Rand Paul articulated his opposition to a policy of compulsory vaccination, stating that he was “all for [vaccines],” but that he was “also for freedom.” U.S. opponents of vaccines often object to compulsory vaccination on the (false) grounds that vaccines cause autism. But Paul’s claim that he was “for freedom” suggests a distinct, libertarian-minded rationale for opposing compulsory vaccination.

Libertarians deny that the state has the right to restrict individual liberty in order to promote welfare. A policy of compulsory vaccination promotes welfare by ensuring herd immunity. But such a policy also restricts individual liberty because it requires parents to subject their children to a medical procedure, and permits the state to punish non-compliance. So, a policy of compulsory vaccination certainly seems at odds with the libertarian’s commitment to liberty–even if herd immunity is threatened.

Some libertarians, however, attempt to avoid the controversial conclusion that libertarianism is incompatible with compulsory vaccination. In my recent paper, “The Case Against Libertarian Arguments for Compulsory Vaccination,” I argue that such attempts are unsuccessful, and so libertarians must either develop new arguments, or join Senator Paul in opposing compulsory vaccination.

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Breakthrough Immunotherapies Seem Like a Dream Come True for Children with Leukemia

18 Apr, 17 | by miriamwood

Guest Post: Nancy Jecker, Aaron Wightman, Abby Rosenberg, Doug Diekema

Paper: From protection to entitlement: selecting research subjects for early phase clinical trials involving breakthrough therapies

A breakthrough therapy to cure cancer in children suffering from acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is a dream for many families.  New immunotherapies appear to make this dream a reality. Such therapies use a person’s own immune cells to recognize and combat their disease. In the largest study to date of ALL patients treated with a form of immunotherapy known as Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T-Cell therapy, a 93% remission rate was reported. Such results are a glimmer of hope for those whose prognoses were previously considered very poor.

However, the good news is tempered by the fact this potentially lifesaving experimental therapy may not be available to everyone who might benefit. And demand is growing as word spreads. Since CAR T-cell therapy for ALL is available only through clinical trials, do patients have a right to participate? How should we choose among medically suitable candidates?

We have faced these questions before. Most recently, with ZMapp to treat Ebola Virus Disease, azidothymidine (AZT) to treat HIV and AIDS, and Immunitab (Gleevac) to treat Chronic Myleogenous Leukemia. Are patients suffering from devastating, life-threatening diseases entitled to breakthrough therapies?

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The Moral Bioenhancement of Psychopaths

18 Apr, 17 | by miriamwood

Guest Post: Elvio Baccarini and Luca Malatesti

Paper: The Moral Bioenhancement of Psychopaths

We argue that the prescription of mandatory moral bioenhancement (from now on MB) of psychopaths is justified because it satisfies the requirement of public reason as elaborated in political philosophy. This is the requirement that a moral or political prescription should be justifiable to all those persons over whom the prescription purports to have authority.

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Donald Trump’s Mental Health (again)

14 Apr, 17 | by Iain Brassington

The speculation about Donald Trump’s mental health that was doing the rounds earlier in the year seems to have died down a bit.  That’s to be expected; like it or not, his Presidency is now part of normal life.  But I’ve been lagging in my blogging here, and so it’s only now that I’ve got a moment to mention in passing an op-ed article about Trump in the New Scientist that appeared just after I posted last on the topic.  (February.  I know, I know.)

It’s by Allen Frances, and it takes issue with what he calls “armchair diagnosis” of the president.  He’s right to say that there’s something disquieting about armchair diagnosis: “psychiatric diagnosis is already done far too casually and inaccurately in medical and mental health practice.  Armchair diagnosis further cheapens its currency.”  However, I do wonder whether we ought to pay some attention to whose armchair it is.  Often, it’s an armchair occupied by the genuinely ignorant, or the spiteful.  That’s the internet for you.  Accusing someone of being mentally ill or having a personality disorder on this account may be simply mistaken; or it may be intended as a jibe, the subtext of which is that there’s something shameful about having a mental health problem.  But not every armchair is the same: as Frances’ article admits, a letter with 35 signatories who work within the mental health field appeared in the New York Times.  That letter may be misguided, or ill-motivated.  But it is by people who, presumably, know a thing or two about the topic.  Their armchair is not my armchair.

But there’s something else about the piece that’s just nagging away at me.  I don’t know a heck of a lot about mental health, but (and maybe that’s why) there’s a passage in the article that strikes me as being just strange:

But the main [reason for opposing armchair psychiatry] is the inaccuracy of the narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) diagnosis: Trump may be a world-class narcissist, but this doesn’t make him mentally ill.

I wrote the criteria for NPD for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which guides mental health diagnosis in the US and beyond. These require not only that the personality features be present, but also that they cause clinically significant distress and impairment. Trump appears to cause severe distress in others (rather than experiencing it himself) and has been richly rewarded (rather than punished) for his self-promoting and self-absorbed behaviours.

[…] We must avoid the frequent mistake of confusing mental illness with bad behaviour. Most people who lie, cheat and exploit others are not mentally ill, and most mentally ill people do not commit dishonourable acts.

There’s a few things that are a bit odd about this. more…

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