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The Ethical Brain:

I recently read Michael Gazzaniga's most recent book, The Ethical Brain. This is a great book by a leading neuroscientist (and friend). The book seems to have arisen from Gazzaniga's work with the National Council on Bioethics, animated in substantial part by his perception of a lack of knowledge of science among some of his colleagues there. So this book seems to be pitched at the same audience to whom Bioethics report was aimed, in an effort to provide an accessible scientific background to a number of contemporary ethical and political controversies.

The book is more a collection of essays on related topics than an integrated whole. Part III of the book may be of most interest to readers here, as it is on the implications of neuroscience for law, including related questions such as memory. There are some terrific points in here. He surveys many of the currently-available "truth detection" tests that are out there. He discusses the promise and difficulties of some of the technologies out there for truth detection, such as fMRI machines. Toting it up, as I read him, he seems to conclude that perhaps the one with the most promise is one that focuses on facial expressions, which he concludes is quite difficult to fake.

He also has a fascinating discussion of the unreliability of many of the conventionally-used courtroom techniques, such as eyewitness reports. One amazing example he gives is of a woman who was assaulted while watching television, and then later confused her assailant with a person who happened to be on television at precisely the same instant. He recounts other situations where false memories hinder investigations and the like. For instance, he recalls the "DC sniper" from a few years ago, where it was thought that the guys were driving a white van. Instead, an eyewitness had simply seen a white van at the scene of the crime, and misidentified it as the sniper. Later witnesses then also thought they had seen a white van because the media kept reporting the white van, but it was largely imagined. His overall conclusion is provocative--many of the courtroom techniques we use today are terribly flawed, and there are alternatives out there that are much more reliable.

He also discusses a wide range of ethical issues that arise from various issues surrounding brain sciences, such as the use of drugs that make us smarter, as well as issues of aging and other questions. Given that abortion is somewhat in the news right now, I'll mention one provocative argument he offers that I hadn't previously seen. In one section of his book he describes the life cycle of a fetus. The goal here is to try to focus on certain developmental milestones to address the question of when a fetus becomes a "person" for moral purposes, and perhaps legal purposes. So, for instance, he argues that there is no reasonable basis to claim that moral personhood arises at the moment of conception, or more specifically, before 14 days of gestation. The crux of his argument is that both twinning and chimeras (two embryos spontaneously reconverge and become one again) occur during this period. His conclusion about this is, "it is hard to ascribe the sense of what is happening to the uniqueness of the 'individual' or 'soul' that is supposedly being formed at the instant of conception." (p. 12).

He also has an interesting chapter on religion, where he describes how the brain reacts during religious experiences and the psychological experience of religion. One interesting point he makes in passing is that it turns out that scientists are just attached to their particular theories as religious believers, and in fact, scientists are just as reluctant to surrender their beliefs about science when confronted with contrary evidence as are religious believers. He notes (p. 146):

Nowhere does the human capacity to form and hold beliefs become more stark than when clear scientific data challenge the assumptions of someone's personal beliefs. It would be easy to spin a story line about how a particular person with a set of religious values resisted the biological analysis of this or that finding in an effort to reaffirm his or her belief. There are many such stories, but they miss the point. Scientists themselves are just as resistant to change a view when confronted with new data that suggest their view is incorrect. All of us hold ot to our beliefs, and it now appears that men are even more tencious about not letting go than are women.

He adds (pp. 146-47), "Interestingly, it turns out that scientists are slower to change their views in the face of new data than are preachers."

Overall, quite an interesting book that covers a wide range of modern controversies in bioethics. It is also quite accessible. It is also short (178 pages) and in a few instances I felt that it was too short, in the sense that some of the discussions could have been developed in greater depth. Nonetheless, it is highly recommended.

One testament to Gazzaniga's influence on popular discussion of these issues is that it is reported that he was the prototype for the character of the neuroscience professor in Tom Wolfe's book, I Am Charlotte Simmons. In fact, Gazzaniga is mentioned by the professor in Wolfe's book during one of his lectures.

John Burgess (mail) (www):
The question of "personhood at conception"--and exactly the same answer--was one that came up in a course in the intersection of Science and Religion I took at Georgetown, back in 1968. The professor, an elderly Jesuit priest, noted that this did fly in the face of religious doctrine, but that the facts remained facts.
1.11.2006 9:40am
HMS Bagel:
Having gotten a Biology degree, I have observed the behavior of scientists over an extended period of time in their natural habitat, and I would have to agree that scientists can be some of the most unscientific and ideologically driven people out there.

The unobtrusive naturalist who simply loves to observe nature is unfortunately the exception rather than the rule.

Really, academic science is the same as law - you pick a side and it is a matter of marshalling the evidence to prove your case. Of course, academic scientists also must be right, or appear to be right, in order to be paid - otherwise no one is going to want to learn what they are teaching or buy their textbook.
1.11.2006 10:21am
Deoxy (mail):
Actually, the point of "personhood" that makes the most sense, if one could somehow start from scratch in the whole abortion debate, would be to use the same criteria for life's beginning as it's end; that is, however death is defined, flip it, and when a fetus couldn't be legally declared dead (or perhaps, couldn't be legally declared dead by any one of the methods used), then it is a person. Interestingly enough, this would be a little past the end of the first trimester...

As to scientists not changing their views in the face of new data... Those of us who are both religious AND willing to check the scientific data havee been noticing this for years. As with other religious points proven right by science (such as stable 2-parent homes being best for children), no credit is given. In fact, when the scientists finally do some actual SCIENCE (usually with the intent of proving once and for what wackos the religious people are), they are SHOCKED that the religious folks could actually be correct. It would be funny if it weren't so pathetic.
1.11.2006 10:24am
Mike Giberson (www):
If it is true that scientists are slower to change their views in the face of new data than preachers, it is certainly interesting that science generally manages to change more quickly than preaching.
1.11.2006 10:32am
spectator:
The crux of his argument is that both twinning and chimeras (two embryos spontaneously reconverge and become one again) occur during this period. His conclusion about this is, "it is hard to ascribe the sense of what is happening to the uniqueness of the 'individual' or 'soul' that is supposedly being formed at the instant of conception."

Are there not certain worms that, when split, will continue living as two worms? If we accept Gazzaniga's argument, we would have to conclude that such a worm can never exist as an individual, which seems absurd.
1.11.2006 10:57am
JB:
Or that people are worms.

That doesn't sound too far off either.
1.11.2006 11:00am
Wince and Nod (mail) (www):
Here is another example of adamant scientists, from Dean Esmay's site: AIDS and oncology.

Yours,
Wince
1.11.2006 11:02am
Bruce:
Later witnesses then also thought they had seen a white van because the media kept reporting the white van, but it was largely imagined. "Imagined" isn't quite the right word. Once you start looking, there are white box trucks literally all over DC. The probability that one would be near a sniper shooting approached 1. It was an example of framing error.
1.11.2006 11:13am
Goober (mail):
You're blaming him for Charlotte Simmons? Doesn't sound like he's a very close friend.
1.11.2006 11:17am
Fishbane (mail):
As to scientists not changing their views in the face of new data... Those of us who are both religious AND willing to check the scientific data havee been noticing this for years. As with other religious points proven right by science (such as stable 2-parent homes being best for children), no credit is given. In fact, when the scientists finally do some actual SCIENCE (usually with the intent of proving once and for what wackos the religious people are), they are SHOCKED that the religious folks could actually be correct. It would be funny if it weren't so pathetic.

I haven't seen this. Maybe it is the scientists I run with.

In general, most professional researchers I know (mainly in computational biology and physics) take religion the same way I do - to be various attempts at "best practices" for living in a community. Thus, various dietary restrictions in, e.g., the Bible made a great deal of sense for staying healthy at the time, but have gradually come to be ignored as technology progresses. The same evolution of mores, I suspect, will continue as technology continues to transform our lives.

That's one reason why I believe the abortion debate, which looks so intractable now, will be a quaint memory in a couple of generations, due to biotech transforming our understanding of life creation and giving parents much more control over the process. (You'll note this is a testable hypothesis I'm making.) Ditto, perhaps, for two parent arrangments - that has been a remarkably stable best-practice, but I can see scenarios in which that would cease to be the optimal arrangement.
1.11.2006 2:05pm
AK (mail):
Bruce is correct: white vans and panel trucks are all over the place in most urban areas, including the Washington metro area. I lived in Washington during the sniper murders, and I recall seeing white vans everywhere. Staying away from them wasn't at all easy.

In a sea of regular cars, a large white van or truck stands out and is very easy to see. Once the media put the idea of a white van in people's heads, they knew to look for one blocks away when they heard a shot. As Bruce said, in a densely populated metropolitan area, the probability of seeing a white van within a few blocks is almost certain.
1.11.2006 2:10pm
AK (mail):
The real psychological phenomenon at play with the white vans was that witnesses to the sniper murders became conditioned to look for white vans whenever they heard a gunshot. That probably inhibited their ability to notice other evidence of that would point to the real sniper.
1.11.2006 2:14pm
cmp:
The observation that scientists hold onto their beliefs as persistently as (or more persistely than) preachers is hardly surprising--there is no reason to expect that scientists have different psychological tendencies than any other group of people. But the fact that human nature applies to scientists doesn't say much about the rationality of the scientific enterprise, which incorporates certain generally accepted "rules" of evidence and logic perhaps precisely for the purpose of overcoming natural human irrationality. Therefore, while certain individual scientists may well resist giving up their pet theories in the face of contrary evidence, overall scientific consensus is much more responsive.
1.11.2006 2:45pm
HMS Bagel:
CMP, if you assume that humans are "naturally irrational," then you cannot conclude that humanly devised rules are rational. Further you cannot conclude that any human is capable of figuring out whether the rules are rational or not.

Therefore, I would conclude that humans are generally rational on an individual basis. However, there is plenty of evidence that humans act irrationally on a group basis, which can be demonstrated by the phenomenon of groupthink, i.e. the tendency of groups to reach false conclusions through marshalling perfunctory consensus. It seems to me that scientists engage in groupthink just as much as, if not more than, co-religionists. And the results for the world can be much more harmful.
1.12.2006 10:23am
cmp:
HMS: You misquote me. I did not say that "humans are 'naturally irrational'" but that there is "natural human irrationality." The distinction is that your misquotation suggests I implied humans lack rationality, whereas my actual statement was meant to suggest that there is an irrational element in human thinking. In other words, humans think both irrationally and rationally. Scientific methodology is an attempt--generally quite successful--to systematize the rational aspect of human thought and overcome the irrational part.

It is true, of course, that scientists sometimes engage in groupthink--as I indicated human psychological tendencies apply to scientists like everyone else. But I think it's fair to say that "science" has shown its ability to reach--and revise--consensus based on evidence better than most other human endeavors (excepting, perhaps, the market).

The recent North Korean cloning scandal is a great example of this. Is it likely that claims in the realms of philosophy or religion could have been so quickly and decisively falsified and that consensus in those fields could have been so quickly altered in the face of contrary evidence?
1.12.2006 11:09am