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Oh, dear, Richard…

20 Aug, 14 | by Iain Brassington

Look, I know that Twitter really isn’t the place for nuanced debate.  But, by that token, everyone else should realise that as well – especially intellectual superstars. So how, then, to explain Richard Dawkins’ spectacular foot-in-mouth moment earlier today? It started off reasonably enough, with him tweeting about Catholicism’s stance on abortion and providing a link to this piece by Jerry Coyne in the New Republic; lots of people are going to agree with both Coyne and Dawkins, and lots to disagree, but we should expect that.  The tweet got a couple of replies.  I can’t be bothered transcribing them, but here’s a screenshot; you should be able to click to enbiggen it. Screen shot 2014-08-20 at 19.50.23

So far so good.  Dawkins’ reply is about as good a version of the sentience argument that you could cram into 140 characters; and InYourFaceNewYorker’s point articulates a problem faced by any number of women who are carrying a child with a disability of some kind.  (Well, by any number of parents, I suppose, except that it’s women who hold the moral trump here simply by dint of being the one carrying it.  Fathers could agonise about the best thing to do, too; it’s just that they don’t get to make the final decision.  Oh, you know what I mean.)  Where you stand on abortion doesn’t preclude recognising that it’s a genuine moral dilemma for many people, and a that there are respectable arguments and proponents of those arguments on both sides – by which I mean that people on either side should be able to recognise that their opponents are at the very least worth the effort of an argument. InYourFaceNewYorker goes on to articulate some of the aspects of the debate that make it so emotive and so intellectually rich:

Screen shot 2014-08-20 at 19.58.49

That doesn’t reflect Dawkins’ response to the dilemma, though.  Brace yourselves. more…

Paternalism up a Mountain

12 Aug, 14 | by Iain Brassington

“Paternalism” is one of those words that has a hell of a lot of power.  On several occasions, I’ve seen it used as a trump to shut down an argument: saying “But that’s paternalism” is, at least sometimes, treated as a way of showing that anyone arguing in favour of the allegedly paternalistic action is an imbecile, and has therefore lost the argument by default.  I suspect that this is due to a bastardisation of the (already iffy) “Georgetown Mantra”; but it does seem to be a position horribly common in medical schools.  It’s also very unsophisticated.  Whether or not something is paternalistic seems to me to be less important than whether it’s justified.  Something might be unjustified, and the reason for that might be because it’s paternalistic; but it doesn’t follow from that that no paternalism could be justified.  In just the same way, too much bleach or bleach in the wrong place is something you’d want to avoid; but it doesn’t follow that you should avoid bleach at all times and at all costs.

I want here to tell you a story based on something that happened just over a week ago. more…

How Not to Argue against a Proposed Law

5 Jun, 14 | by Iain Brassington

Yes, yes: it’s tedious and internecine, but it’s almost a year since I had a pop at Kevin Yuill’s book on assisted dying; how about an update?  Well, conveniently, there’s this, in which he tries “to convince my fellow liberal minded atheists to reconsider their support for legalized assisted dying”.  OK, then.  First up, this isn’t a pro-legalisation post: I’m much more interested in looking at the arguments presented in their own terms.  I think they’re bad; but that is to do with their form rather than their content.  Indeed, one of Yuill’s opening moves is something to which I’m sympathetic: in respect of Lord Falconer’s latest Bill to legalise assisted dying, he points out that

the chief sponsoring agency (Dignity in Dying) lamely differentiates between the dying (those with six months or less to live) and those with more time.
If the latter ingest poison in a room by themselves – well, that’s suicide.  But if those with less than six months take poison with the intent to end their lives, that is not suicide at all but <ahem> assisted dying. Nope, me neither.

I agree that the six-month time limit is arbitrary, and probably morally indefensible.  But…

*deep breath*

But note how Yuill botches even this point. more…

Their Poor Little Heads might Explode

1 Jun, 14 | by Iain Brassington

There’s a nice little piece by Martin Robbins in this week’s Guardian in which he talks about the fact that women seem to be less supportive of abortion than men.  That does seem counterintuitive, given that… well, given the obvious physiological facts and the relative burden of risks related to pregnancy.  So there’s an interesting little anthropological puzzle here; and he suggests a number of factors that might explain the phenomenon. For example, there’s some research that finds that women are more likely than men to agree that life begins at conception – though, as he points out, while that might help explain the different views of termination, we’d still need to know why more women think that to begin with. Another potential explanation is that men like the idea of not having to do the right thing by their pregnant partners by paying child-support or, if you’re reading this in the 1950s, marrying them: abortion gives a way out of that.  But – and Robbins doesn’t mention this – that again presupposes keeping the baby as the default position to which people are looking for an alternative.  We could also talk about social pressure, and the way that women are still expected to be mothers, and how that feeds into attitudes.  In fact, we could talk about a lot of things:

So which is it? Internalised sexism, men’s liberation, fundamentally different ideas about the point at which life begins, or something else entirely? I doubt only one factor is at work, but it seems that we lack a definitive answer. And that’s a shame, because in the ongoing battle of ideas it seems like a very important question to ask.

I suspect some will deride his “we need to do more research” conclusion, but it seems eminently sensible to say that, faced with a quirk of attitudes, a full explanation would be at least aesthetically satisfying, even if not especially urgent.  He also provides lots of useful links.

Over at the CMF blog, Philippa Taylor’s suggestion – which also has lots of useful links – is a little different. more…

Consigned to the Index

28 May, 14 | by Iain Brassington

There’re probably times when all of us have had a solution, and just had to find a problem for it.  It’s an easy trap; and it’s one into which I suspect Gretchen Goldman may have fallen in an article in Index on Censorship about scientific freedom and how it’s under threat from disputes about Federal funding in the US.  No: I’m not going to be arguing against scientific freedom here.  Only against a certain use of the appeal to scientific freedom in response to a particular problem. First up, let’s note the points on which Goldman may well be correct.  She notes that the disputes in the US about federal funding that have led to big cuts and a short-but-total government shutdown are very bad for science.  She points out that political machinations even meant that researchers working in government-funded areas couldn’t access their emails.  This had direct and indirect consequences, all of which were pretty undesirable.  For example,

[m]any government scientists were not allowed to access email, much less their laboratories. One scientist noted that his “direct supervisor … confiscated all laptop computers on the day of the shutdown”.

Without access to work email accounts, federal scientists were also prevented from carrying out professional activities that went beyond their government job duties. Several scientists pointed out that their inability to access emails significantly slowed down the peer-review process and, therefore, journal publication.

In the wider sense, to have science and funding bodies that are vulnerable to political shenanigans isn’t good for science, and is probably not good for humanity.  You don’t have to think that research is obligatory to think that it’s often quite a good thing for science to happen all the same.  And shutdowns are particularly bad for students and junior researchers, whose future career might depend on the one project they’re doing at the moment; if a vital field trip or bit of analysis or experiment is liable to get pulled at almost any moment, they don’t have a reputation yet to tide them over.

So far, so good.  However, things are iffier elsewhere. more…

While We’re Talking about Ambiguous Sex

16 May, 14 | by Iain Brassington

So: what is one to make of Conchita Wurst?  I’ve not heard the song that won Eurovision this year, but I’m willing to bet that the world would be a better place if every entrant had been thrown into the Køge Bay before a single note was struck.  But that might just be me.


Conchita Wurst. Wurst. Geddit? Wur… Oh, suit yourself

Writing in the TelegraphBrendan O’Neill has other concerns.  Why, oh why, oh why can’t people just use the pronoun “he” when referring to Wurst?  Wurst was born a man; therefore the male pronoun is more appropriate.  (He’s never one to duck the important issues of the day, is Bren.)  “Did everyone overnight transmogrify into a Gender Studies student and imbibe the unhinged idea that gender is nothing more than a ‘playful’ identity?” he asks.  More: the fact that people refer to Wurst with the feminine pronoun is a symptom of what he calls “today’s speedily spreading cult of relativism”, and allowing people to choose their identity is “narcissistic”.

Now, let’s just ignore for the moment that Conchita Wurst is a character, and so it makes perfect sense to call her “her” in just the same way that one might use “her” to refer to Dame Edna Everage.  (Thanks to someone I don’t know on Facebook for making that analogy – it’s a good ‘un.)  O’Neill sort-of-acknowledges that, but he doesn’t let that minor point get in the way of a more general rant against people preferring to be referred to by one pronoun rather than another.  For example, he takes this swipe at Chelsea Manning:


Resurrectionism at Easter

23 Apr, 14 | by Iain Brassington

There’s a provocative piece in a recent New Scientist about what happens to unclaimed bodies after death – about, specifically, the practice of coopting them for research purposes.

Gareth Jones, who wrote it, points out that the practice has been going on for centuries – but that a consequence of the way it’s done is that it tends to be the poor and disenfranchised whose corpses are used:

[T]he probably unintended and unforeseen result [of most policies] was to make poverty the sole criterion for dissection. [... U]nclaimed bodies are still used in countries including South Africa, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Brazil and India. While their use is far less in North America, they continue to constitute the source of cadavers in around 20 per cent of medical schools in the US and Canada. In some states in the US, unclaimed bodies are passed to state anatomy boards.

For Jones, the practice of cooption ought to be stopped.  His main bone of contention is the lack of consent – it’s a problem that’s made more acute by the fact that the bodies of the disenfranchised are more likely to be unclaimed, but I take it that the basic concern would be there for all.

One question that we might want to ask right from the off is why informed consent is important. more…

Who’s the SilLIer?

30 Mar, 14 | by Iain Brassington

It’s funny how things come together sometimes.  A few months ago, I mentioned a slightly strange JAMA paper that suggested that non-compliance with treatment regimes should be treated as a treatable condition in its own right.  The subtext there was fairly clear: that there’s potential scope for what we might term “psychiatric mission-creep”, whereby behaviour gets seen as pathological just if it’s undesirable and can be changed with drugs.  I was reminded of this by a couple of things I found last weekend.

I was avoiding work by pootling away on the internet, and stumbled across a couple of things.  This - an article about American politics that notes the use of psychiatry as a means of social control – was one of them:

[In 1980] an increasingly authoritarian American Psychiatric Association added to their diagnostic bible (then the DSM-III) disruptive mental disorders for children and teenagers such as the increasingly popular “oppositional defiant disorder” (ODD). The official symptoms of ODD include “often actively defies or refuses to comply with adult requests or rules,” “often argues with adults,” and “often deliberately does things to annoy other people.”

Many of America’s greatest activists including Saul Alinsky [...] would today certainly be diagnosed with ODD and other disruptive disorders. Recalling his childhood, Alinsky said, “I never thought of walking on the grass until I saw a sign saying ‘Keep off the grass.’ Then I would stomp all over it.” Heavily tranquilizing antipsychotic drugs (e.g. Zyprexa and Risperdal) are now the highest grossing class of medication in the United States ($16 billion in 2010); a major reason for this, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2010, is that many children receiving antipsychotic drugs have nonpsychotic diagnoses such as ODD or some other disruptive disorder (this especially true of Medicaid-covered pediatric patients).

For some reason, I had foxes on my mind as well, and so I entered the word “Fox” into google; and I should have known that it’d provide lots of hits for the US TV conglomerate.  One story that came up on the search had to do with a twitter account called @LIPartyStories.  This was apparently a feed that would repost pictures sent from its teenage followers of themselves in various states of intoxication and déshabillé.  So far, so straightforward: the day that teenagers stop getting drunk and doing stupid things at parties is the day that the world will stop turning.  Granted, when I was young, we didn’t post stuff online – but if the internet had been around, we probably would have.  Kids do daft stuff; they sometimes regret it; then they grow up, and do daft stuff less.

Keith Albow, a Fox pundit, doesn’t see it quite like that: more…

So THAT’s where I’ve been going wrong…

7 Nov, 13 | by Iain Brassington

Blogging here has been a little sparse for the last few months; I’d like to be able to blame it all on the pressures of work, but this post suggests that it might be otherwise: some combination of not getting up at the crack of dawn, and not smoking, seems to be a factor:

Apparently, Kant had formulated the maxim for himself that he would smoke only one pipe, but it is reported that the bowls of his pipes increased considerably in size as the years went on.

Nietzsche was fond of tea and long walks, which is just another reason to like him.  I’m going to try using that as a reason not to go to meetings: “Sorry: optimal REF performance demands that I go to the edge of a glacier”.  Bound to work, that.

(Via @PsychEthics and @SynFutures on twitter – with some potential irony, given the damage that the internet has done to productivity…)

Under-Treatment, Treated.

29 Aug, 13 | by Iain Brassington

Right: file this paper from the JAMA under “Properly Odd”.  It’s a proposal that nonadherence to a treatment regime be classed as a treatable medical condition in its own right.

No, really.  Look at the title: “Medication Nonadherence: A Diagnosable and Treatable Medical Condition”.

Starting from the fairly straightforward premise that non-adherence to treatment regimes is “a common and costly problem”, Marcum et al move at the end of their opening paragraph to have medication nonadherence recognised “as a diagnosable and treatable medical condition”.  The authors allow that, as a precursor to treatment, there must be an accurate diagnosis.  However,

for undetected and under-treated conditions such as medication nonadherence, one way to identify the population of interest is to conduct screening. The 1968 World Health Organization principles on screening tests have clear application to medication non-adherence. For example, the condition is an important problem, there are suitable tests available, and there are acceptable treatments for those with this problem.

Well, OK; but it hasn’t yet been shown that nonadherence is a condition, and so it’s too early to say that it’s a condition for which tests and treatments are available.  It shouldn’t be hard to see what’s gone wrong here: the fact that treatable medical conditions are serious problems that are (or could in principle be) reversible doesn’t entitle us to say that any serious problem that is (or could be) reversible is a treatable medical condition.  The authors appear to have got things – to use the vernacular – arse about tit.

So is there any evidence offered in the paper for non-adherence being a medical condition in its own right?  The paper is short, but even so, it’s not something I want to reproduce here; all the same, there’s nothing that leaps out.  The main planks of the argument are simply that it’s a problem, that it’s a problem that has something to do with health, and that it’s therefore a health problem properly understood.

The authors continue:

Using previously established methods and instruments, screening to diagnose medication nonadherence among adults across care settings should be routine. A number of screening tools or instruments are currently available to determine the underlying behavior(s) of interest.  This approach illustrates how clinicians and researchers can begin conceptualizing the diagnosis and treatment of medication nonadherence.  [...] Also, given the proposal to routinely screen for medication non-adherence in adults, the next step is to match the identified barriers to a proven treatment for the condition.

Well – if I can interrupt for a moment – they can begin diagnosis and treatment of the condition so long as the condition is actually a thing.  Which it isn’t.

I have a horrible feeling that I know what’s going on here; there’s a couple of telltale signs:

Inclusion of medication adherence data in the electronic health record will allow for sharing among health care professionals and insurers, establishing trends over time as well as benchmarking for quality improvement purposes. Moreover, it is paramount that patient-reported medication adherence information (eg, medication beliefs and values) is incorporated into such documentation.

And this makes me think that it’s got something to do with the role of private insurance in the US medical system.  If you can get non-aherence accepted as a condition, then it’s something that insurers’d have to cover, which would mean…


… Actually, no.  I’ve no idea.  I mean, it wouldn’t actually make it a condition.  You can’t just define a condition into existence because it’d suit some purpose.

In the current health care climate, there is a strong demand for improving the quality of care delivered, including medication adherence.

Hmm.  That’s not really helping.


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