Hannah Maslen

Historical crimes, historical sentences?

Rolf Harris has been sentenced to five years and nine months in prison for sexual offences he committed at various points in the 60s, 70s and 80s.  There has been public outrage at the supposed leniency of his sentence, which will now be reviewed by the Attorney General to determine whether it will be sent to the Court of Appeal. Continue reading

Girls should do competitive sports to ‘build confidence and resilience’. Really?

The chief executive of the Girls Day School Trust claimed this week that girls should take part in competitive sport as a way to build confidence and resilience.[1] The claim is particularly about taking part in sports where one wins or loses. As far as is reported, these claims are not based on studies showing the psychological effects of participation in competitive sport, but are nonetheless presented as a supplementary argument for girls to do more sports in schools. Obviously, the primary argument will always be that doing sport is good for your health.

Without large scale empirical research, the claim that taking part in competitive sports builds transferable confidence and resilience remains a hypothesis. I am going to suggest that it is not a particularly convincing one (especially when applied to all girls, and in particular to the girls whom Fraser hopes will take up sport) and that any rhetoric accompanying a drive to promote exercise should stick to the more fundamental argument that it improves health. Continue reading

Expert workshop on cognitive enhancement device regulation: Are there ‘two worlds’ of devices?

Last week, we held an expert workshop with key stakeholders to discuss our recent Oxford Martin School policy paper. Our policy paper put forward proposals for how we thought cognitive enhancement devices such as brain stimulators should be regulated. At present, if these sorts of devices do not make medical treatment claims (but instead claim to make you smarter, more creative or a better gamer, say) then they are only subject to basic product safety requirements. In our paper we suggested that cognitive enhancement devices should be regulated in the same way as medical devices and discussed how this could be implemented. Indeed, the devices that are being sold for enhancement of cognitive functions use the very same principles as devices approved by medical device regulators for research into the treatment of cognitive impairment or dysfunction associated with stroke, Parkinson’s disease and depression (amongst other conditions). Being the same sorts of devices, acting via similar mechanisms and posing the same sorts of risks, there seemed to be a strong argument for regulation of some form and an equally strong argument for adopting the same regulatory approach for both medical and enhancement devices.

Having published our paper, we were very keen to hear what people more closely involved in making policy and drafting legislation thought of our proposals. Individuals from the Medical and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, the EU New and Emerging Technologies Working Group, a medical devices company, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, and experts on responsible innovation and on brain stimulation joined us. Overall, the response to our recommendations was positive: all participants agreed that some regulatory action should be taken. There was a general consensus that this regulation should protect consumers but not curtail their freedom to use devices, that manufacturers should not be over-burdened by unnecessary regulatory requirements, and that innovation should not be stifled. Continue reading

On the ‘right to be forgotten’

This week, a landmark ruling from the European Court of Justice held that a Directive of the European Parliament entailed that Internet search engines could, in some circumstances, be legally required (on request) to remove links to personal data that have become irrelevant or inadequate. The justification underlying this decision has been dubbed the ‘right to be forgotten’.

The ruling came in response to a case in which a Spanish gentleman (I was about to write his name but then realized that to do so would be against the spirit of the ruling) brought a complaint against Google. He objected to the fact that if people searched for his name in Google Search, the list of results displayed links to information about his house being repossessed in recovery of social security debts that he owed. The man requested that Google Spain or Google Inc. be required to remove or conceal the personal data relating to him so that the data no longer appeared in the search results. His principal argument was that the attachment proceedings concerning him had been fully resolved for a number of years and that reference to them was now entirely irrelevant. Continue reading

“Whoa though, does it ever burn” – Why the consumer market for brain stimulation devices will be a good thing, as long as it is regulated

In many places around the world, there are people connecting electrodes to their heads to electrically stimulate their brains. Their intentions are often to boost various aspect of mental performance for skill development, gaming or just to see what happens. With the emergence of a more accessible market for glossy, well-branded brain stimulation devices it is likely that more and more people will consider trying them out.

Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is a brain stimulation technique which involves passing a small electrical current between two or more electrodes positioned on the left and right side of the scalp. The current excites the neurons, increasing their spontaneous activity. Although the first whole-unit devices are being marketed primarily for gamers, there is a well-established DIY tDCS community, members of which have been using the principles of tDCS to experiment with home-built devices which they use for purposes ranging from self-treatment of depression to improvement of memory, alertness, motor skills and reaction times.

Until now, non-clinical tDCS has been the preserve of those willing to invest time and nerve into researching which components to buy, how to attach wires to batteries and electrodes to wires, and how best to avoid burnt scalps, headaches, visual disturbances and even passing out. The tDCS Reddit forum currently has 3,763 subscribed readers who swap stories about best techniques, bad experiences and apparent successes. Many seem to be relying on other posters to answer technical questions and to seek reassurance about which side effects are ‘normal’. Worryingly, the answers they receive are often conflicting. Continue reading

Computer vision and emotional privacy

A study published last week (and summarized here and here) demonstrated that a computer could be trained to detect real versus faked facial expressions of pain significantly better than humans. Participants were shown video clips of the faces of people actually in pain (elicited by submerging their arms in icy water) and clips of people simulating pain (with their arms in warm water). The participants had to indicate for each clip whether the expression of pain was genuine or faked.

Whilst human observers could not discriminate real expressions of pain from faked expression better than chance, a computer vision system that automatically measured facial movements and performed pattern recognition on those movements attained 85% accuracy. Even when the human participants practiced, accuracy only increased to 55%.

The authors explain that the system could also be trained to recognize other potentially deceptive actions involving a facial component. They say:

In addition to detecting pain malingering, our computer vision approach maybe used to detect other real-world deceptive actions in the realm of homeland security, psychopathology, job screening, medicine, and law. Like pain, these scenarios also generate strong emotions, along with attempts to minimize, mask, and fake such emotions, which may involve dual control of the face. In addition, our computer vision system can be applied to detect states in which the human face may provide important clues about health, physiology, emotion, or thought, such as drivers’ expressions of sleepiness and students’ expressions of attention and comprehension of lectures, or to track response to treatment of affective disorders.

The possibility of using this technology to detect when someone’s emotional expressions are genuine or not raises interesting ethical questions. I will outline and give preliminary comments on a few of the issues: Continue reading

Are the reasons why people take illegal drugs relevant to sentencing decisions?

The laws that prohibit possession of certain drugs are ostensibly justified because they protect people from the health risks that are associated with uncontrolled or heavy use. Some have argued that criminalizing possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use is overly paternalistic (people should be free to make potentially risky choices as long as they don’t put others at risk) or even counterproductive (criminalizing drug use fuels a black market, many aspects of which present greater dangers to individual drug users and wider society). I find these arguments intuitively persuasive (although clear evidence would be needed to substantiate the claim that criminalization is in fact counterproductive).

So, if there is a justification for putting controls on personal drug use it seems that it ought to appeal solely to the physical and social harms that would result from a policy of drug liberalization. Such an approach is roughly reflected in the UK drug laws: the graded classification system, which determines the maximum penalty for possessing drugs in each class (A to C), considers only the harmfulness of the drug: punishment is linked to risk to health. Criminalization of drug use thus has nothing to do with a moral evaluation of this drug use.

However, a news story this month raises the question of whether moral considerations are sometimes playing a role in the sentencing of those convicted of possessing illegal drugs. Continue reading

Marathon mice, enhancement and the will to work out

In his article in the Pacific Standard last week, author Bruce Grierson discusses the emerging scientific evidence that the ‘will to work out’ might be genetically determined. Grierson describes a ‘marathon mouse’, the descendant of a long line of mice bred for their love of exercise, and a 94-year-old woman called Olga, who is an athletic anomaly. Both the mouse and Olga love to work out. The mouse goes straight to his wheel when he wakes up, running kilometers at a time and Olga – a track and field amateur – still competes in 11 different events. Grierson suggests that cracking the code for intrinsic motivation to exercise would lead to the possibility of synthesizing its biochemical signature: ‘Why not a pill that would make us want to work out?’, he asks. Such a possibility adds an interesting dimension to the debate about enhancement in sport, and to enhancement debates more generally. Continue reading

Happiness, meaning and well-being

If someone were to ask you what you want from life, how would you reply? Plausible answers might include: ‘to be happy’, ‘to be successful’, ‘to make a difference’, or perhaps ‘to experience as much as possible’. Whatever these aspirations mean in their detail, they capture various implicit assessments of what we think it means to live a life that is good for us. A recent psychological study presents interesting data that suggests that two of the things we might want in our lives – happiness and meaning – sometimes do not go together. In fact, some of the things that lead to a life being happy are negatively associated with it being meaningful and some of the things that seem to confer meaning detract from happiness. If this occasional incompatibility is in fact the case, does this mean that we must sometimes make a decision about which to pursue? Continue reading

The new offence of ‘wilful neglect’ – what’s new?

It was announced last week that a new offence of ‘wilful neglect or mistreatment’ is to be created for NHS hospital staff whose conduct amounts to the deliberate or reckless mistreatment of patients. This offence will be modeled on an existing offence under the Mental Capacity Act which punishes the wilful neglect or ill-treatment of patients lacking capacity. Currently, a medical worker convicted of this offence faces a maximum sentence of five years imprisonment, or an unlimited fine. The sanctions for the proposed new offence are likely to be of a similar severity.

The creation of the offence comes in the wake of the inquiry into the widespread negligence that occurred at Mid Staffordshire hospital. Intended principally to deter healthcare workers from mistreating patients, the new offence has been proposed following review of patient safety. The leader of the review, Professor Don Berwick, emphasized that patient safety must become the top priority and that the measure was needed to target the worst cases of a ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude that led to ‘wilful or reckless neglect or mistreatment’.

Concerns about its impact

Whilst most would agree that patient safety should clearly be a priority, there has been concern that the new criminal sanction could create a ‘climate of fear’ amongst healthcare workers and that individual workers will be penalised for mistakes that are the result of inadequate staffing or simple human error, rather than blameworthy acts of malice. Continue reading

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