Getting Philosophical

A month or two back, in the editorial for the edition of Eureka discussing science and the media on the back of an event at the Royal Society, it was written

We should send chemistry graduates to poetry slams, physicists to literary festivals, while the non-scientists should be welcomed on to lab benches until we all learn to speak the same language and appreciate what each other does.

I am not precisely following this admonition, but nevertheless I have accepted – with some trepidation – an invitation to participate at one of the Hay festivals; not the well-known literary festival but the more recently initiated philosophy one known as HowTheLightgetsIn which runs in parallel.

Flyer for HowTheLightGetsIn Festival

When I was first rung up I just assumed that this was an invitation to discuss gender issues, since I seem increasingly to be wheeled out to do that. So I was completely gobsmacked to find instead I was being asked to take part in a debate about Human Enhancement. What, I thought, do I know about this? When pressed, it turned out that I was being invited to participate because I have done some work potentially related to prosthetics. Readers may recall I wrote previously about the original press release associated with the L’Oreal/UNESCO prize and how Chinese Whispers transmuted the content relating to protein aggregation into something very different. Now, the other part of this release was similarly taking on a life of its own from ‘work relevant to hip replacements’ to being an apparent expert in something totally other. So at the end of the phone I took a deep breath. I paused. I said I’d come back to them. But upon reflection I thought, as a scientist I should enter into a debate with philosophers and bioethicists and not run away from it; on a subject like this a science input is extremely important and so I agreed. Earlier I wrote

Professors aren’t without their own weak spots and it’s never too late to improve one’s skillbase.

I have accepted the challenge, am setting out to improve this particular skillbase of public debating, and now I await with some nervousness my participation in the following (I quote from their blurb):

Human and Superhuman
Mary Warnock, John Harris, Athene Donald, Aubrey de Grey. Bryan Appleyard chairs.

Scientists now claim a brave new world of designer humans is on our doorstep. Is this an illusion, a disaster, or a great opportunity to reinvent what it means to be human?
Life extension proponent Aubrey de Grey and philosopher John Harris take on bioethicist Mary Warnock and Cambridge physicist Athene Donald.

(You will see I am starting with the very best: Mary Warnock, who is a long term heroine of mine and erstwhile Mistress of my alma mater college Girton. She it was who chaired the production of the 1984 Warnock ‘Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology’, the bedrock of the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. I am glad I am on the same side as her!)

Right, I thought, I had better get to grips with the other side. So I spent much of Easter reading John Harris’ book Enhancing Evolution, the Ethical Case for Making Better People. Harris is a philosopher, currently a professor of Bioethics at Manchester (in the Law Faculty). I have not made a habit of reading books by philosophers and I cannot tell whether my reaction to this book is specific or general. As a scientist, weighing up evidence, let me just say I did not find it convincing. I should probably save my detailed views for the debate itself but, suffice it to say, much of it seemed to me to be a case of Harris making assertions and assumptions which he thought were so self-evident as needing no discussion and then trouncing other people’s views who had perhaps done the same thing. He is clearly very sure of his own position. I am quite prepared to believe my reaction to this is because I am missing something crucial that underlies the way he writes, but I’ll give an example by way of illustration.

In his chapter on the Good and Bad Uses of Technology he is busily dissecting Leon Kass’s arguments, with whom he clearly violently disagrees. Kass says:

No music lover would be satisfied with getting from a pill the pleasure of listening to Mozart without ever hearing the music. Most people want both to feel good and to feel good about themselves, but only as a result of being good and doing good.

Kass does not believe enhancement by artificial means is good because (in part) it won’t make us feel good. However Harris attempts to negate the argument by saying

Kass is right, but not because he or the music lover to whom he appeals are fastidious. You cannot get music from a pill because a pill does not make a sound, even in the brain.

I find this rebuttal completely unsatisfactory because so much of what Harris talks about is equally implausible. We do not currently have a prevent-all vaccine for cancers – to which he frequently alludes as if it will happen – so why does he rule out a pill which makes us hear Mozart in the brain as not going to happen but asserts the things he wants to believe in as certainties? I am nervous that I am completely missing the points Harris wants to make (impostor syndrome rears its ugly head again), but I will discover this publicly at the end of May!  I do at least have a clear idea of my position, and I hope I can inject some rational science into the discussion in as well as my own more personal views about the desirability and plausibility of some of the  proposals Harris puts forward.

Having signed up for one debate at the limits of my knowledge base, in the interests of getting science into a philosophy festival, it seemed a small step to agree to a second one:

A Paradigm of Health
Athene Donald, Dylan Evans, Jayney Goddard, Steve Fuller. Rachel Armstrong chairs.

Even though the successes of western medicine are loudly applauded, alternatives from aromatherapy to raki, acupuncture to crystal healing, balloon in popularity. Is this evidence that the western model of health is flawed? Could any of these alternatives offer a genuinely new paradigm or are we seeing human gullibility at work?
Homeopath Jayney Goddard and iconoclastic sociologist Steve Fuller face up to Cambridge biophysicist Athene Donald and author of Placebo: The Belief Effect Dylan Evans.

I’ve only just started on my crash course of reading for this one yet…..but I do have a clear notion of where I stand. Having said that, it is a fact that I have carried out some research vaguely relevant to acupuncture (even if ultimately my motivation was to try to stop my international collaborators invoking a ‘vital force’ that I thought was no more than Brownian motion) and I don’t rule all alternative medicine out, just some of the obvious things such as homeopathy.

Finally, yes I have additionally agreed to give a solo talk on gender issues, bizarrely currently called ‘Saving Science’. I managed to get the blurb for my talk altered to the fact that women might be ‘vital’ for science rather than about to save it, but failed to spot the misleading word ‘saving’ was still present in the title

Saving Science
Athene Donald

The laureate for the Women in Science awards, Dame Athene Donald, talks about the dangers of prejudice, overcoming gender stereotypes and how women are vital for the sciences.
‘Revolutionary’ – Guardian

So you can see that the Chinese whispers continues. I – and not just my alleged treatments for Alzheimer’s Disease – have become ‘revolutionary’. Oh dear.

Maybe see some of you in Hay?

This entry was posted in Communicating Science, Interdisciplinary Science and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Getting Philosophical

  1. Frank says:

    Wow, that´s quite a set of engagements. I admire your courage! Is that all on the same day or will you have time to recover. I´ve never been to Hay but it does sound like an amazing series of events.

    Another aspect of “improvement” is the use of drugs. I remember this interesting essay on nootropics a few years back

Comments are closed.