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The Academy

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…

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…

How Magic can help Teach Students about Medical Ethics

24 Aug, 13 | by Iain Brassington

Guest post by Daniel Sokol, KCL

For some time, I have been interested in the relationship between magic and medical ethics.  Five years ago, I gave a talk in Prague on how to use magic in medical ethics education.  More recently, I held a workshop on Magic for Anaesthetists, which touched on ethical issues in anaesthesia.  My latest ‘guest’ lecture is entitled Magic, Medicine and Medical Ethics and examines the ways in which the work of professional magicians can shed light on the art and ethics of medicine.

This blog is for those who teach medical ethics.  It explains how a magical effect can help convey ideas in a memorable and thought-provoking way.  I am grateful to Gerry Griffin, a fantastic card magician from the United States, for permission to use one of his effects.  I respectfully ask readers to keep the secret to themselves.

more…

Call for Participants: Concepts of Mental Health

8 Jan, 13 | by Iain Brassington

British Postgraduate Philosophy Association Masterclass 2013
April 12th-13th, University College London

This year’s BPPA masterclass will be on concepts of mental health, and applications are invited from graduate researchers within the field of philosophy and mental health.

A masterclass involves a mixture of seminars, group workshops, presentations by students and experts and critical discussion.  The small number of participants (8-10) means that all will have a chance to speak and discuss their research as well as getting to know others working in similar areas.  It is an excellent way of deepening and broadening understanding of a given area and further developing one’s own research.

This year’s masterclass will be led by experts committed to furthering interdisciplinary research into mental health issues, combining philosophical training with clinical experience.  Professor Bill Fulford is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy and Mental Health at the University of Warwick and is a Member of the Philosophy Faculty at the University of Oxford.  His previous posts include Honorary Consultant Psychiatrist at the University of Oxford and Special Adviser for Values-Based Practice in the Department of Health.  Dr Hanna Pickard is a fellow of All Souls College at the University of Oxford and a Wellcome Trust Biomedical Clinical Ethics Research Fellow in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Oxford.  She also holds a clinical post as a therapist at the Complex Needs Service with the Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust.  The experts will be leading group-workshops and seminars and will present on their own research over the course of the masterclass.

The broad focus of the masterclass will be on exploring the varying conceptions of mental health and illness and the assumptions accompanying and lying behind these conceptions.  The aim is to explore the assumptions and often false dichotomies which shape perceptions of mental health, from the perceptions of those in the field of psychiatry to those found amongst other medical professionals and the non-medical public.  Topics we expect to be discussed include, but are not restricted to

  • free will, responsibility and related notions and their applications and misapplications within understanding of mental health problems, in particular in relation to addiction;
  • the effect of neurological research on conceptions of mental health;
  • the distinction between cognitive disorders and personality disorders;
  • the extent to which mental illness can and ought to be understood within the framework of physical illness.

The precise content of the masterclass will be in part determined by the research interests of the participants and there will be opportunities for 6 participants to present their own research.

To apply, send an academic CV (including any relevant clinical or practical experience) with a cover letter stating your area of research, the relevance of your research to the masterclass and what you could contribute to the masterclass (500 words max).  Please also state whether you would like to present on your research (presentations will be brief – about 20 minutes each). Please also attach a reference from your supervisor (if applicable), confirming your interest and that you would make a valuable contribution to the masterclass.

The masterclass will be held at University College London.  Breakfast and lunch will be provided on both days and accommodation for those coming from outside of London.  There may also be some small travel bursaries available.

Deadline for applications: February 15th

Please send applications and any queries to: bppamasterclass2013@gmail.com

Website: https://sites.google.com/site/bppamasterclass2013/
Twitter: @BPPAmasterclass

 

[IB adds: This looks excellent, and anyone working in this field should definitely consider going.  And the rest of us should just pray that it's videotaped and uploaded to YouTube...]

198!

23 Oct, 12 | by Iain Brassington

Seriously!  Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics has published a paper with a hundred and ninety-eight listed authors!

I’ve always been slightly puzzled by multi-authored papers – by just how many people get to add their names to a piece of work.  A friend of mine who is a proper scientist once tried to explain how it works in the sciences to me – about how you need to give credit to the people who ran the experiment, but also to those who did the titration and general donkey-work.  That seems fair enough.  Having said that, I suspect that there’s often a bunch of people who get credits that shouldn’t be there.  (I remember once seeing a CV from a guy that had 45 pages’ worth of publications listed.  Granted, it was double-spaced… but, still: there must have been the thick end of a thousand papers listed; there’s no way on God’s good Earth that he could have played a significant role in all of them.  So why was he entitled to claim them?  Why did he take the credit?  Apparently, it was because, although not all of the papers referred to work he’d done, they did all refer to work done by other people in a lab he ran.)  Anyway… the Steinhauser et al ad infinitum paper, with its 198 authors, isn’t lab-based, so the credit-where-it’s-due argument wouldn’t work.

(Jozsef Kovacs, writing in a paper currently available as a pre-pub in the JME, is also concerned about authorial inflation, and who should get the credit for a given paper, and how to improve things.  It’s definitely worth a look.)

The author list for the Steinhauser paper seems to have been generated at least in part via the membership of a Facebook group (and one that no longer exists, or at least one that is so private that it doesn’t show up on a search).  That’s just silly, and there’s no way that anyone can successfully marshall so many contributors.  That turns a paper into an open letter.  Indeed: the “authors” seem to think that their paper could be treated as such without loss: more…

Modesty, Conscience, and What it Takes to be a Doctor (with a bit of Comedy)

19 Oct, 12 | by Iain Brassington

Two apparently unrelated new and new-ish papers in the JME have caught my eye over the last few days.  One of them is this one: Salilah Saidun’s “Photographing Human Subjects in Biomedical Disciplines: An Islamic Perspective”.  We’ll come to the other in a little while.

There’s a couple of puzzling things about the paper.  One is that I’m not sure what the tone is supposed to be.

It could be a descriptive piece, along the lines of “Look, here’s what Muslims might think about medical photography, and if you’re going to take or use medical photographs, you might want to keep it in mind.”  Of course, it’s by no means certain that all Muslims think alike, or that if (mirabile dictu) they do, it has anything much to do with Islam – but we’ll put that to one side.  Similarly, the fact that some people do think this won’t tell us much about what practical implications there ought to be, beyond keeping it in mind.  It won’t tell us that we ought to adhere to those opinions.  Islamic rules might provide a reason to behave in a certain way; but there might be other reasons to behave in a certain other way – and they might sometimes be more compelling.  I’ll put that to one side, too, though.  As a descriptive paper, it might very well be the sort of thing that’s useful on the wards.

But a descriptive reading won’t explain the passages that appear to have a more normative dimension: more…

In Defence of Live Tweeting

4 Oct, 12 | by Iain Brassington

Questions to which the Answer is Eh?  What are you on about?  No, really: what?, part 2: Should people who live-tweet conferences be thrown out and barred from future conferences?

A story in IHE that concerned a debate (well, I say “debate”, but it was clearly a slow news day…) about the rights and wrongs of live-tweeting prompted Brian Leiter to post this:

[A]nyone who live-tweets a conference should be immediately disinvited from the event, and any future ones.

He elaborated later:

The medium of twitter is not suited to discursive reasoning or extended analysis or argument.  But philosophy presentations contain discursive reasoning and extended analysis and argument.  Therefore a twitter version of a talk will necessarily mutilate it.  Since mutilation of someone’s work has no value, people who attend a conference should have the courtesy not to try to tweet the talks.  If they do not have that courtesy, they should be thrown out.   There may be fields where presentations lend themselves to tweeting; on that issue, I’m agnostic.  But philosophy isn’t one of them.

Hmmmm.

Naaaaaah.

The first sentence (I’d call it a premise, but that seems to overrate it) of this is possibly true, but not obviously so.  For sure, you can’t get much into a single tweet, but a succession of tweets is capable of generating serious discussion.  There’s not room for nuance – but that might mean simply that you’re forced to cut to the chase.  Thus, though the second sentence is probably true, the third is false.

The claim about courtesy bears a bit more scrutiny.  more…

Jon Cogburn’s Plea to Grad Students (and Others)

24 Sep, 12 | by Iain Brassington

[IB: I'm taking the liberty of copying in its entirety Jon Cogburn's post on NewAPPS about submitting papers to journals, because it's worth reading.  He directs it to graduate students - but I think that the same point applies to anyone, especially if they're new to the field in which they're writing.  Since a lot of people writing for journals like the JME - especially on topics in clinical ethics - are medics before they're ethicists, or are coming at ethics from a non-standard direction, I think that the advice is particularly pertinent.]

A Plea to Graduate Students Submitting Papers

Three times this year a bad thing has happened after I’ve encouraged editors to give a paper “revise and resubmit.”

Note that whenever I review a paper and don’t recommend immediate acceptance I work really hard trying to help the writer so that their rewrite will to be up to the quality of the journal.  Even when I counsel “rejection” I still try to give detailed constructive advice about how the paper could be recast, even suggesting places the author should send the rewritten paper.

So three times this year instead of making the changes I recommended the author resubmitted substantially the same paper and argued with some vehemence that they should not have to change their paper in the ways I suggested.  In all three cases the journal editor had given the paper “revise and resubmit,” but then rejected the insufficiently rewritten paper.  In two of these cases I googled the paper title after this was over and found out that the submitters were graduate students.  This is so bad on so many levels.

First, it’s clear to me that some graduate students have no idea that “revise and resubmit” is a very, very good thing, that if you just rewrite the paper up to the reviewer and editor’s standards that at most journals it is almost certain to get accepted.  All three of the people viewed “revise and resubmit” as if it were a kind of rejection, and not a kind of conditional acceptance, as it usually amounts to (de facto if not de jure).  Second, it’s clear to me that some graduate students have no idea what “idiot-proofing” a paper amounts to.  Let me explain.  Suppose that your reviewer is an uncharitable idiot.  Suppose I was when reviewing the papers.  It doesn’t matter!  My comments are still invaluable because you still need to rewrite the thing so that the next uncharitable idiot reviewing it doesn’t make the same mistakes.  Third, it’s clear to me that some graduate students have no idea how high the burden of proof is if you want to convince an editor that the reviewer who has published extensively in the topic in question is making elementary mistakes about the paper.So please communicate this to all and sundry: (1) Revise and resubmit is something to be celebrated, (2) always take into account criticism and suggestions, even if only to idiot-proof for the next reviewer, (3) have some humility.I”m not trying to be censorious here.  If I was I wouldn’t spend so much time giving detailed advice about how to get papers up to publishable standards.  In addition, I know first-hand how stressful this process is for writers and first-hand how stress can produce weird and suboptimal behavior.  I’m trying to help.

I’d very be interested to hear if other reviewers have faced this kind of self-destructive behavior, and if so if there’s anything more we should be doing to stop it.  But if I’m being a jerk here, I trust that someone will point that out too.

Is Bioethics Really a Bully? Really?

11 Sep, 12 | by Iain Brassington

On his blog in The Independent, John Rentoul has a long-running feature called “Questions to which the Answer is No“.  In it, he examines the kind of screaming rhetorical-question headline much beloved of certain middle-market tabloids: “Is this photographic evidence of Nessie?”, “Does coffee cure cancer?”, “Does coffee cause cancer?”, “Does MMR bring down house prices?“* and so on.

Here’s the first in an intermittent parallel series from me: “Questions to which the Answer is Eh?  What are you on about?  No, really: what?“.  For the inaugural post, step forward Dan Sokol, the BMJ”s “ethics man”, who asks in his latest column, “Is Bioethics a Bully?”.  The answer to this is Eh?  What are you on about?  No, really: what?.

(A warning before I start: I’m about to go off on one.  Even by my standards, this is big.  You might want to go and make tea.)

The general thesis of the article is this:

Bioethics, in its current form, has bullying tendencies. Ironically, it often adopts a paternalistic attitude towards clinicians, treating them as an ethically deficient species.  Although bioethics should not shy away from pointing out ethical concerns in medical practice, sometimes forcefully, it must not give way to negativism or, worse still, to a zeal to condemn.  Clinicians are easy targets and, without a command of the fancy theories and language of the accusers, possess few means to respond formally.

Is the thesis true? more…

Philosophy, Bioethics and Otherworldliness

31 Aug, 12 | by Iain Brassington

Hmmmm.

So Brian L picked up on Catarina’s post that picked up on Brian E’s post that picked up on the ever-simmering stuff about male circumcision – and the American Academy of Pediatrics’ latest policy position in particular – with the comment “Philosophers are a bit unworldly, but this is still quite something”.  I take the implication of that to be that, even by the standards of philosophers, this debate is abstract and abstruse and perhaps even a little omphalosceptic.

The comment reminds me of a conversation that Muireann Quigley and I had with someone – I can’t remember who – a couple of IAB’s ago: this unknown person – whom I think was a medic rather than a philosopher – was wondering aloud about the number of papers on things like enhancement, and IVF, and so on, and whether there weren’t more important things for bioethicists to think about – notably what to do about the various things that actually do directly threaten the life and welfare of real people right now. more…

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