dimanche 12 juillet 2009

The trouble with "neuroethics"

Here's a letter to the editor that I've just found in the latest issue of
Science. It's a call for the generalization of teaching "neuroethics" to neuroscience students. Read it first, and then - if you care - take note of the low opinion I have of such a proposal. Warning: I'm angry at this letter.

Science 10 July 2009:
Vol. 325. no. 5937, p. 147
DOI: 10.1126/science.325_147a


Neuroscientists Need Neuroethics Teaching

With the advancement of neurosciences in recent years, there is a growing need to ensure that its students are educated in applied neuroethics as part of their formal studies. However,neuroethics education is not commonly an integrated part of neuroscience training. Discussions we have had with members of the Russell group, an association of the 20 major research-intensive universities in the United Kingdom, indicate that the majority of their neuroscience students do not receive formal neuroethics teaching.

Neuroscience research findings have begun to have far-reaching ethical implications on education, treatment, and even the law. For example, ascertaining that cognitive enhancing drugs not only improve performance in neuropsychiatric groups, but may also enhance cognition in young healthy adults has raised concerns and debate about the safety, access, and equity in education, work, and academic settings where taking drugs for enhancement purposes is becoming increasingly widespread (1, 2). Functional magnetic resonance imaging has been used to identify residual cognitive function and conscious awareness in patients assumed to be in a vegetative state, yet who retain cognitive abilities that have evaded detection using standard clinical methods (3). Several companies offer neuromarketing and brain-based lie-detection services, which has raised concerns from the academic communityat large about the use and misuse of neuroscientific results (4).

Neuroethical issues are surely going to become ever more pertinent with new developments in imaging analysis techniques, the simultaneous integration of multiple neuroimaging systems, and the linking of genetics with imaging. Although we realize that both students and lecturers are often plagued with already challenging schedules, we propose that as standard good practice, academic departmentsshould ensure that mechanisms are in place for teaching neuroethics. A solid education in the neurosciences should encompass the ability to consider the ethical implications of one's research. Such an education will ultimately also promote future neuroscientists integrating socially relevant questions into their research and ensuring from an early stage that the public at large is supportive of advances in neuroscience.

Barbara J. Sahakian1,2 and Sharon Morein-Zamir1

1 Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine, Addenbrooke's Hospital and the MRC/Wellcome Trust Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute (BCNI), University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK.
2 Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.


  • 1. B. Sahakian, S. Morein-Zamir, Nature 450, 1157 (2007).
  • 2. H. Greely et al., Nature 456, 702 (2008).
  • 3. A. M. Owen et al., Science 313, 1402 (2006).
  • 4. E. Racine et al., Nat. Rev. Neurosci. 6, 159 (2005).
Ok, so let's see, why should students in neuroscience waste precious time in neuroethics classes? Why is this so urgent and important right now? Are Sahakian and Morein-Zamir so alarmed at the ignorance of their students on matters of ethics that they fear they might becomes dangers to society? Should neuroethics be teached very early on so that neuroscience students, god forbid, never become evil scientists?

This letter is simply ridiculous. Isn't it self-evident that every human activity has ethical implications, and that everybody should be required to ponder the ethical implications of what they do? I mean, shouldn't we worry about the ethical behaviour of future physicists? Chemists? Geneticists? Lawyers? Economists? Doctors? Taxi drivers? Car retailers? Catholic priests? Pop singers? What about the ethics of the man-on-the-street? Do we need a new field of ethics for each and every human activity and field of research? Why on earth should students in neuroscience be singled out for such a stupid proposal?

"A solid education in the neurosciences should encompass the ability to consider the ethical implications of one's research", the authors of the letter say. Please take a few seconds to let that sentence sink in. "The ability to consider the ethical implications"? What does that even mean? Only psychopaths don't have such an ability. Why should that even be taught?

And by the way, what would a class of neuroethics entail anyway? What the hell would "formal neuroethics" teaching look like , and why does it seem so natural and unquestionable that this would be "standard good practice"? Hey, neuroscientists have been exploiting and killing animals for as long as the field came into existence, but now the younger generations should really stop to ponder the problems that humanity face because we start using fMRI to "detect lies"? And so what exactly will be solved by teaching "neuroethics"? That this could be misused by nasty people, that society can be changed by new knowledge, and so forth? And then what? What is the point? Are students in business school taught that capitalism can alienate lives, diminish cultural diversity and pollute the environment? Should they be? Would that make a difference? Would we then restrict or forbid capitalism?

And what is "neuroethics" anyway? The field hardly even exists, for god's sake. (yeah I know, there is a journal, a bunch of books, vocal proponents that all say different things, etc. And I say this is not a field at all, there). It's not like the philosophical domain of ethics is firmly settled and uncontroversial by now, you know. I think we would know if ethics and neuroethics were actually helpful to society, in any sense. Look at the examples they give in their letter: yes, people take drugs for "enhancement purposes". So fucking what? Why on earth should neuroscience students receive special teaching about that? For one thing, this has been going on for millenia, and then it's an issue that concerns everyone, not only students in neuroscience: how about chemists, laypeople, sellers, users, politicians, etc? Why should neuroscientists in particular be super special concerned about this, and why shouldn't neuroethics be taught to everyone, then? Because drugs mess with people's brains, and neuroscientists happen to specialize about the brain? That's the reason? How pathetic is this reasoning? Why is this embarrassing piece even published in Science?

And then there is the very idiotic idea that teaching neuroethics would ensure that "the public at large is supportive of advances in neuroscience". What if it does? In what sense exactly should we scientists care what the "public at large" thinks of our research? What does the "public at large" know about science and ethics anyway, and why should an "ethical" neuroscience necessarily be supported by it? This is simply crazy.

The thing is I actually think that "neuroethics" might end up being a legitimate field. But sending the message that there is something particularly disturbing about what future neuroscientists will be up to is simply self-defeating (the authors of the letter are neuroscientists). Because that's the essence of the letter: without special teaching, students in neuroscience are unable to understand "big questions" about culture, society, right and wrong. Even worse, they are unable to spontaneously ponder or consider such questions. Nevermind that society and the world are already entirely messed up by the financial crisis, wars, violence, corruption, pollution, stupidity, religion, poverty, and so forth. No, the real problem right now is neuroscience.

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