Field of Science

Shock as Bronze-age ethics intrude on 21st century medical care

Medical advances frequently bring with them ethical challenges. Life-support, which these days brings with it the possibility of keeping a body alive for decades after the brain has permanently died, creates a particularly thorny one. How, exactly, can brain-death be defined and diagnosed? What about quality of life? And who has the final say in the decision to switch off life support? These cases keep ethicists and philosophers awake at nights.

Meanwhile, in deepest, darkest Canada (Mannitoba, to be precise), the issues are much simpler for the adherents of one bronze-age cult. The Canadian Jewish News reports on the case of Samuel Golubchuk, an 84-year old man with minimal brain function and no hope of recovery:

In a court affidavit, Rabbi Y. Charytan, a Chabad Lubavitch rabbi who works for Jewish Child and Family Services here and has known Samuel Golubchuk for several years, said that Orthodox Jews believe “life must be extended as long as possible and we are not allowed to hasten death.”

Rabbi Charytan said he told hospital officials that “it is a sin and not acceptable” for them to remove life support from Golubchuk.

So, according to Jewish law, developed in a time when modern life support was not even a twinkle in doctors' eyes, we are to fill our hospitals with living corpses. Not only that, but we are being asked to turn our physicians into torturers, in the words of the philosopher Peter Singer:

Doctors and nurses feel they are being turned into torturers, forced to inflict painful procedures on patients who have no hope of recovery. They feel that they are violating their professional ethics, including the precept: "First, do no harm." For example, a nurse said she was appalled by Mr. Golubchuk's condition. He was retaining 45 litres of water, and his skin was swollen to the point of bursting. According to the nurse, "he was rotting from the inside out."
Don't these people have any compassion?

Do humans have genitals? Vote now!

The NHS body map site is being upgraded! Currently it gives visitors a visual way to interact with their healthcare encyclopaedia. Click on the bit of the body you're interested in, and it will shuttle you off to the relevant part of the site.

With the upgrade, hi-resolution digital images will replace the current 2D pictures, allowing you to peel away the skin and take a look at the organs in animated 3D. So far so good - but new technology brings with it an old (but, as they point out, not a very old) moral dilemma:
However, debate has been raging within Choices as to whether the images should be anatomically correct and include genitalia or whether their nether regions should be masked.
In a sane world, this would be a no-brainer. It's a medical website, for Pete's sake! But we have a chance to make them see sense. They're polling the public, so now's our chance to strike a blow for common sense in the NHS! (well, a little bit anyway)

Click here to access the vote.

Science education doesn't inoculate against religion

One of the striking features of religion is the way in which the intensity of religious fervour varies from time to time and from place to place. The past two centuries have been witness, in the industrialized world at least, to a slow decrease in the importance of religion for most people. Sociologists have come up with a number of theories to explain this phenomenon. A classic explanation was made famous by Max Weber, a German who was one of the founding fathers of modern sociology in the early 20th century. Weber believed that the increasing influence of science would lead to disenchantment with religion. According to Phillipa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, in their book Sacred & Secular (Chapter 1):

In this perspective, the era of the Enlightenment generated a rational view of the world based on empirical standards of proof, scientific knowledge of natural phenomena, and technological mastery of the universe. Rationalism was thought to have rendered the central claims of the Church implausible in modern societies, blowing away the vestiges of superstitious dogma in Western Europe. The loss of faith was thought to cause religion to unravel, eroding habitual churchgoing practices and observance of ceremonial rituals, eviscerating the social meaning of denominational identities, and undermining active engagement in faith-based organizations and support for religious parties in civic society.

The publication last week of the international PISA assessment of student’s science competency gives an opportunity to test this theory. PISA used a standard test in over 40 countries – OECD nations and OECD ‘partners’. Each country was given a score according to how well its pupils did. These results can be put together with international survey data on the frequency of prayer (for example, from the World Values Survey and the International Social Survey).

The result, shown in the figure above, is statistically significant (P=0.006), but the association is tiny (r^2=18%). What’s more, the association is weakened somewhat after you adjust the science scores for differences in GDP, and it disappears altogether after adjusting for socio-economic differences between the countries (see figure below).

On the basis of this evidence, at least, it seems that science education has no direct effect on the intensity of religious belief.

Does creationism kill babies?

Johann Hari had an article in Monday's Independent linking the Daily Mail's campaign against MMR vaccinations (which the government's chief scientific advisor David King has estimated will kill 50-100 children) to the creationist agenda of its chief exponent - the frankly barking mad Melanie Phillips. His suggestion is that anyone who can't get to grips with the idea of a virus evolving is unlikely to be able to understand the need to vaccinate. But I think this is stretching it. The link is much simpler: Phillips simply can't understand science in general, and it's unfortunate that the Daily Mail promotes her. But then the Mail knows that lies about science and scientists sell - to a certain audience in middle England, that is.

Ben Goldacre in the Guardian was also amusing this weekend on the insanity that characterizes the Daily Mail's science 'journalism' (reproduced in his blog).

The Science of 'The Golden Compass'

This Christmas season's blockbuster - The Golden Compass - is released to cinemas worldwide tomorrow. And, to celebrate Volume 1 of Pullman's trilogy finally making onto the screen, what better than a post on the science lurking within the story! Fantasy adventures aren't usually the best place to look for science - and to be honest there isn't much in Golden Compass. But that doesn't stop people trying...

The books heavily feature allusions to dark matter, and also to the idea of 'parallel universes' - there's even a direct reference in Book 2 (The Subtle Knife) to Everett's 'Many Worlds' interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Everett's classic 1957 paper is quoted by a catholic nun turned particle physicist, of all things. Fan website His Dark Materials takes a look at both (sidestepping the obvious problem that moving from one 'world' to another is fundamentally impossible in Everett's theory...), as well as some other phenomena such as quantum entanglement, string theory, and the aurora.

If that leaves you hungry for more, the excellent science writing duo John and Mary Gribbin have written a book that should satisfy even the geekiest of fans!

Now here's a question: the books rely on Cartesian dualism - souls are not only separate from the physical body, but (in one of the parallel worlds at least) they they have their own embodiment. Not only that, but consciousness is not an emergent property of matter, as those dull naturalists whould have us believe, but is due to the presence of magical 'god particles'. Does this make the books anti-atheist? Perhaps humanists everywhere should be urging a boycott of the films, for peddling such supernaturalist nonsense!

Marmosets are altruistic too!

A study out today has shown that marmosets, like humans, can and do act truly altruistically (see refs). Altruism is a hot topic in evolution. True altruism would, on the face of it, reduce an individual's reproductive fitness, and so you might expect that natural selection would weed out any altruists.

As the Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy puts it:
... by behaving altruistically an animal reduces its own fitness, so should be at a selective disadvantage vis-à-vis one which behaves selfishly. To see this, imagine that some members of a group of Vervet monkeys give alarm calls when they see predators, but others do not. Other things being equal, the latter will have an advantage. By selfishly refusing to give an alarm call, a monkey can reduce the chance that it will itself be attacked, while at the same time benefiting from the alarm calls of others. So we should expect natural selection to favour those monkeys that do not give alarm calls over those that do.
The realisation that evolution acts at the level of the gene, rather than the individual, partially resolves the paradox. Kin selection gives an evolutionary reward for helping out relatives. Reciprocal altruism, in which an altruistic act increases the individual's chances of help in the future, can explain some other altruistic acts.

But humans also engage in a different form of altruism - acts of generosity towards people who are not related and who are unlikely to personally repay the debt. Such altruism is rare among animals. But research published online today in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science has shown that marmosets, too, engage in this form of 'pure' altruism.

Science explains the experiment:
To see whether marmosets are more selfless, a team of researchers led by anthropologist Judith Burkhart of the University of Zurich in Switzerland placed two of the monkeys in adjacent cages. The "donor" marmoset could reach one of two trays on a platform outside its cage. On each tray sat two dishes--one with a tasty cricket, the other without. When the donor monkey pulled a tray close, one dish came to it, while the second slid within reach of the "recipient" monkey next door. The researchers found that when another monkey was present, the donor was more than 20% more likely to pull the tray containing food to its counterpart. The donor was never rewarded for its good deed and knew it couldn't score a cricket by pulling the tray, but that didn't matter. It seems the marmoset simply felt the urge to feed a stranger.
So why should marmosets and humans have evolved this form of altruism, and not other primates such as chimpanzees? Burkart hypothesises that it is because both humans and marmosets are co-operative breeders, in which unrelated adults in the group (so-called 'helpers') take over some of the responsibility for child rearing. What do the helpers get out of the deal. Charles Snowdon, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, laid out the possibilities in a paper earlier this year:
  • helpers that have cared for other infants have greater reproductive success when they become parents than individuals that do not have previous infant care experience
  • unrelated helpers can gain the benefits of living in a social group (communal foraging or protection against predators)
  • males that display involvement with infants are more likely to obtain subsequent mating with the female they assist
Within the context of a co-operative group, therefore, altruisitic behaviour can enhance reproductive fitness and becomes a worthwhile evolutionary strategy.

  • Burkart, J., Fehr, E., Efferson, C., & van Schaik, C. (2007). From the Cover: Other-regarding preferences in a non-human primate: Common marmosets provision food altruistically Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104 (50), 19762-19766 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0710310104

Noah's Causeway?

The Giant’s Causeway: a bunch of hexagonal shaped rocks is Northern Ireland’s most famous landmark which attracts thousands of tourists a year. In the past primitive superstitious people with no understanding of science attributed its creation to the actions of a giant called Finn MacCool during a rivalry with a Scottish giant. We now all know that it was formed 60 million years ago from the rapid cooling and cracking of basaltic lava as it flowed into water.

Actually, not all of us know that. The primitive superstitious people with no understanding of science have raised their heads once more. The Causeway Creation Society is a new group championing a biblical interpretation of this famous geological formation. They claim it can’t be 60 million years old as the Earth is only 5000 years old and that it was actually formed by that old favourite amongst hard-line young Earthers: Noah’s flood.

They have lobbied that the Causeway’s visitor’s centre include a biblical perspective on the causeway, they would also like to see exhibits in the Ulster Museum altered to include biblical perspectives on dinosaurs. Forty years of violence hasn’t done enough harm to N. Ireland’s reputation, now they want to advertise to the country’s visitors that we are superstitious and backwards.

The Centre has also written to several assembly members and have put together a petition which they intend on presenting at the Stormont assembly. Are they a bizarre fringe group that will be ignored? If they were in England, Scotland or Wales the answer would probably be yes. Although there is a worryingly growing creationist movement in Great Britain, I don’t think it’s strong enough for these people to get any serious respect or influence. However, this is Northern Ireland.

By far the most religious part of the UK, we protested the Civil Partnership Act (it wasn’t that long ago homosexuality was illegal) and we have as our most senior religious figure a man who renounced the Pope as the antichrist (worth a watch).

Now that the Protestants and Catholics are no longer fighting with each other their extremists are able to unite to tackle their common enemies, evolution seems to be high on the agenda. Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party has been writing to schools in my own home town of Lisburn to encourage them to teach “alternative theories to evolution”. Our Arts and Culture minister Edwin Poots has made it clear that he believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible as do many of his DUP colleagues. Happily there is some resistance to this
"Lisburn wants to be known as a centre of educational excellence and not a medieval and inward looking town,"
Said Dr Quinn of St Patrick’s High School. Lisburn does have some very good schools whose reputation can only be tarnished by this farce. There seems to be less resistance from the protestant schools, even the highly respected protestant grammar schools, one of which was recently used as a venue for Answers in Genesis’s Paul Taylor.

Due to the religious divide in Northern Ireland most schools have a strong Christian ethos be it Protestant or Catholic and sympathy for creationist views will be easily found amongst many school’s board of governors. There are also plenty of people in the Stormont assembly and local councils who will support these creationist movements.

The people and politicians of Northern Ireland need to decide if they want to maintain their reputation for educational excellence or if Ulster says no to reason, science, education, dignity and international respect.

Lisburn Today: Creation motion passed by Council

Lisburn Today: Schools reject Lisburn Council Call

Let's not confuse ethics with religion

John Vlazny, Catholic Archbishop of Portland, has an interesting article today on the difference between ethics and religion.
Because of the consistent confusion between ethics and religion, it is important for Catholic teachers like bishops to clarify positions they take. Are these moral convictions based on church teaching? Or are these ethical convictions, based on human reason, illuminated by Scripture and the teaching of the church? Yes, the church teaches it is wrong to kill, to steal, to perjure oneself, to defame a neighbor, to marry one’s own parent or child. These are not matters of religious belief. They are ethical concerns.

UK science education: could try harder

After a nail-biting wait, the exam results are finally in! And they're not too bad. The UK has come in at a respectable 9th place (out of 30) for science education on the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) - or 14th out of 57, if you include the OECD's 'partners' in the mix. The UK scored 515 - significantly above the OECD average (500).

However, the picture's not quite so rosy if you delve deeper. The UK is a lot richer than many of these countries. After adjusting for GDP, the UK slips to 13th out of 29 (the bureaucrats of Luxembourg must be too busy to figure out their GDP), 12th place based on per-student science education spending, and 15th place based on a basket of economic, cultural and social factors. So, in context, the UK's grades are distinctly average.

The UK also gets a slapped wrist for gender differences - boys do better than girls in UK science, and the gap is bigger in only two countries (Chile and Indonesia). Only Australia and Ireland achieved perfect balance between the sexes.

On a brighter note, the UK does a lot better than the US, which managed to come in significantly below the OECD average and reached a lowly 29th ranking out of all 57 countries in the assessment. The difference is particularly stark on the "Living systems" component - where the UK ranks 8th, but the US ranks 34th. Not doubt there is a connection here to the recent poll which discovered that, whereas 79% of Americans believe in miracles, only 42% accept Darwin's theory of natural selection... (Mind you, 32% of mainstream US Christians - and 37% of the lunatic fringe - believe in witches!)

Time Magazine: What makes us moral?

Nice cover story in last week's Time (US Edition) - What makes us moral ? It quotes Marc Hauser (author: Moral Minds), and Barbara J. King (author: Evolving God). As the New Humanist points out, refreshingly the article concerns itself only with naturalistic explanations - religion only gets a look in as an example of a way of enforcing group discipline. Well worth a read. While you're there, why not take the quiz!