Why aren't ethicists better people?

Professional ethicists aren't any more likely to behave ethically than baseline humans who don't get paid to sit around all day and contemplate the difference between right and wrong. Read the rest

North Korean defector to Finland claims evidence of illegal human experiments

The researcher, "Lee," worked in Ganggye, Chagang, and escaped with what he says is 15GB of data detailing illegal human subjects biochemical research, which he is due to present to the European Parliament this month. (Thanks, Sulka!) Read the rest

On ethics in information technology

Our field requires ethical frameworks we accept, instead of rules that remain technically unbroken while we hackers violate their spirit with as much ingenuity as we can muster.

Moral dilemma: rescuing the miners, rescuing the babies:

On Crooked Timber, Ingrid Robeyns presents a tough moral calculus: if you can save 50% of a group of trapped miners with 100% certainty, knowing the remainder will die; or you can try to rescue all the miners, with a 50% chance that they'll all die, which would you choose (And then: what if they were babies, not miners?) Read the rest

Facebook's massive psychology experiment likely illegal

Researchers from Facebook, Cornell and UCSF published a paper describing a mass-scale experiment in which Facebook users' pages were manipulated to see if this could induce and spread certain emotional states. Read the rest

Cold Equations and Moral Hazard: science fiction considered harmful to the future

My latest Locus column is "Cold Equations and Moral Hazard", an essay about the way that our narratives about the future can pave the way for bad people to create, and benefit from, disasters. "If being in a lifeboat gives you the power to make everyone else shut the hell up and listen (or else), then wouldn’t it be awfully convenient if our ship were to go down?" Read the rest

Pope blasts capitalism

In a new Evangelii Gadium, Pope Francis has condemned doctrinaire capitalism, "deified markets," trickle-down economics, and the finance industry. He decried the growing gap between the rich and the poor, tax evasion by the wealthy, and characterized ruthless free-market economics as a killer that was inherently sinful. Read the rest

Call for papers: Robots, Risks and Opportunities

Michael sez, "We Robot, the conference in which roboticists, lawyers, philosophers and many others meet to try to work out how robots will fit into the society of the future, will be meeting in the University of Miami School of Law in Coral Gables Florida Apri 4-5, 2014. The Call for Papers just went up, with abstracts due Nov. 4. This is the place where people go to discuss whether robot diagnosticians should be trusted even if we can't understand the reasons for their choices, what limits we should put on battlefield drones, and whether law enforcement can be mechanized. Last year's conference also featured a presentation from one of the creators of Futurama."

Call for Papers – We Robot 2014: Risks & Opportunities – April 4 & 5 in Coral Gables, FL (Thanks, Michael!) Read the rest

Placebos work, so how do we ethically use them?

The head of Harvard's placebo program is trying to figure out a good answer that question. Read the rest

When the octopus says, "ouch"

Given that people are going around doing things like cutting off octopus limbs in order to understand their distributed neuron processing system, it's worth asking some questions about how octopuses perceive pain, as well. That's more complicated than you might think. As Katherine Harmon explains, it's likely that octopuses have some kind of awareness of when they're touching something unpleasant. But just how that works, and how similar it might be to the way we vertebrates understand "pain", is a big mystery. Read the rest

A moving account of how hospitals negotiate complicated cases of patient rights

Yesterday, a story about human experimentation spurred an interesting discussion in the comments about patient rights — can somebody who is dying make the informed decision to accept a treatment that could lead to them dying sooner? At Scientific American today, an HIV doctor has written a moving account of dealing with a very similar question, as one of his patients made the choice to refuse food, and her family and doctors were faced with the task of deciding whether or not to feed her through a stomach tube. Read the rest

Neurosurgeons at UC Davis censured after trying out probiotic treatments on brain cancer patients

The Sacramento Bee is reporting on a complicated story about last-ditch treatments and the ethics of human experimentation.

Glioblastomas are incredibly deadly brain cancers that usually kill the people diagnosed with them within 15 months. Two neurosurgeons at UC Davis ran across anecdotal evidence suggesting that glioblastoma patients who accidentally picked up infections after surgery sometimes lived much longer — one of the surgeons claims that a patient he knew of survived another 20 years. Read the rest

China says it will stop harvesting organs from prisoners

More than half of China's donated organs come from executed prisoners. The Chinese government now says it will begin phasing out that practice, starting in November. All new organ donors must volunteer. Of course, there's good reason to be skeptical of this announcement. As Smithsonian points out, the practice has already been illegal since 2006 with not much done to change it. Meanwhile, a harrowing 2011 investigative report by Ethan Gutmann in the Weekly Standard revealed a system that leaves plenty of room for "volunteer" loopholes. Read the rest

Ethical questions for security experts

Alex Stamos's Defcon 21 presentation The White Hat’s Dilemma is a compelling and fascinating look at the ethical issues associated with information security work in the era of mass surveillance, cyberwar, and high-tech extortion and crime. Read the rest

Life, death, and the people we love the most

Margaret Pabst Battin is a philosopher and right-to-die activist who firmly believes that the concepts of autonomy and mercy demand that we, as a society, allow the sick, the old, and the infirm to decide, for themselves, how and when and where they will die. In 2008, her husband, Brooke Hopkins, barely survived a bicycle accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down, on a pacemaker, and frequently sick. At The New York Times Magazine, Robin Henig tells the moving, beautiful, and sad story of a couple struggling in real life with questions that had, previously, been mostly theoretical. At the heart of it is a big, messy question: What happens if you do, sometimes, really want to die ... but the people who love you aren't ready to let go just yet? Read the rest

Why new cloned mice can help scientists treat lab animals more humanely

This week, scientists cloned a mouse from cells found in a drop of mouse blood. That's different from other cloned mice, whose creation relied on more invasive sampling from the liver, bone marrow, and lymph nodes (read: the original animal was euthanized). Cloning mice is valuable for scientific research — it's handy to have your subjects be as alike one another as possible. Now, scientists have a way to do that without having to kill the original mouse. Read the rest

How an aborted fetus may have saved your life (and the lives of many other fetuses)

Cell culture lines are cells, taken from donor tissue, that have been divided and separated over and over and over — providing researchers with reliably identical "families" of cells that can be used to biomedical research. Some, like the now-famous HeLa line, are derived from cancerous tissue and replicate indefinitely. Others, like WI-38, will only divide a set number of times (in the case of WI-38, it's 50), but new cells can be frozen at any point and stored. When you thaw them out later, they'll pick back up dividing from the point in the 50-division cycle where they were when frozen.

WI-38 is a particularly important cell culture line. Used extensively in the development of vaccines, these are the cells that helped create the vaccine for Rubella, a disease that, just a few decades ago, used to kill and maim many fetuses whose mothers' became infected. Between 1962 and 1965, it's estimated that rubella infections caused 30,000 stillbirths and left 20,000 children with life-long disabilities.

But WI-38 is controversial. That's partly because the cells that founded the line came from the lung tissue of a fetus that was legally aborted during the fourth month of pregnancy by a woman in Sweden in 1962. At Nature News, Meredith Wadman has a fascinating long read about the moral and ethical issues surrounding WI-38. This isn't just about the abortion question. Also at issue: Did the fetus' mother consent to tissue donation? And are we okay with the fact that she and her family have never received compensation, despite the money that's been made off selling WI-38 cell cultures? Read the rest

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