The hypocritical path of human enhancement

Performance-enhancing drugs use is widespread throughout many competitive sports and attracts a considerable amount of university students. Around 1% of the United States population has misused anabolic steroids alone. Nonetheless, most amateur and professional athletes will deny their use. Scientific research on the area has halted and several claims about their effects have no scientific basis. Most means of obtaining such drugs are not trustworthy and many people might be putting their health at risk. While it seems there would be known safer (and riskier) protocols for taking them, given that no one can publicly endorse their use most users will only guess at what’s the best protocol. It is plausibly the case many sports would simply not exist at the present level if not due to the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Take bodybuilding before and after the development of modern anabolic steroids. Interestingly, even that last athlete will deny, and actually condemn, using steroids. Simply put, this area is dominated by hypocrisy and misinformation. I fear the exact same thing is happening with cognitive enhancement.

Firstly, while statistics reveal they are used by somewhere between 10 to 30% of university students, and even professors, few people will publicly admit their use – given the amount of taboo, one can hardly blame them. Secondly, just as it happened with doping in sport, there is a nearly complete disregard for scientific evidence – which has indicated some of these drugs are actually safer than coffee – and the construction of the belief cognitive enhancement is a risky business. Thirdly, there are very few incentives to actually conduct studies and gather enough evidence to conclude whether and which of these drugs are safe. Lastly, the main consumers of cognitive enhancers are in academia, which in some regards is as competitive as most sports. It is hard to know exactly which type of social dynamics governs doping in sports, but I often suspect competitiveness leads the ones who have access to effective (and often undetectable) drugs and protocols to support both the ban and disinformation, so that they can preserve their relative advantage. Adding to that there is the fear of being considered a fraud and meritless of their achievements. Not yet present on the cognitive enhancement scenario are the direct punishments such as suspensions, but this might just be a matter of time – or not even necessary so that the hypocritical scenario becomes a natural end point.

Half a century ago physical enhancements were perhaps in a similar situation we are today regarding cognitive enhancement. Somewhere in the second half of the 20th century there was a growing demonization of doping, whereas paradoxically its use sky-rocked. I fear unless something changes we are on track to end up in a world where many people use cognitive enhancements but publicly deny it, where no one knows for sure their risks or how to use them, and where proper scientific research on it is scarce and ignored.

One first step to avoiding going down the hypocrisy road would be to allow the lawful prescription of cognitive enhancers. In a very twisted way this is already happening. The exact figures are unknown, but around 1% of school-age children in the US are taking prescribed stimulants and the UK is quickly catching up. Among the various criticisms of the new “bible of psychiatry”, DSM-5, is that now too many things are being considered a psychopathology and thus subjected to medicalization. Perhaps in some cases we could drop the pathologization but keep the drugs.

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One Response to The hypocritical path of human enhancement

  • Anders Sandberg says:

    As always, I love to bring up the Riis, Simmons et al. 2008 paper: they found no correlation between stated willingness to ban hypothetical enhancers and willingness to take them. Looking closer at the data suggests that the least popular enhancers, the ones affecting fundamental traits, were not seen as especially important to ban. The ones that were likely to be regarded as bannable were those giving a positional advantage and were fairly popular/affecting non-fundamental traits. So that is where I expect to see the most hypocricy.


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