Johanna Ahola-Launonen’s posts

Guest Post: The food environment, obesity, and primary targets of intervention

Written By Johanna Ahola-Launonen

University of Helsinki

Chronic diseases, their origins, and issues of responsibility are a prevalent topic in current health care ethics and public discussion; and obesity is among one of the most discussed themes. Usually the public discussion has a tendency to assume that when information about health lifestyle choices exist, the individual should be able to make those choices. However, studies increasingly pay attention to the concept of food environment[1] and its huge influence. If obesity really is that serious an issue to public health, health care costs, and economy as many suggest, focus should be directed to the alteration of food environment instead of having the individual as the primary target of intervention.   Continue reading

Guest Post: Genetics education, genetic determinism, and the trickle-down effect

Written By Johanna Ahola-Launonen

University of Helsinki

In bioethical discussion, it is often debated whether or not some studies espouse genetic determinism. A recent study by Tuomas Aivelo and Anna Uitto[1] give important insight to the matter. They studied main genetics education textbooks used in Finnish upper secondary school curricula and compared the results to other similar studies from e.g. Swedish and English textbooks. The authors found that gene models used in the textbooks are based on old “Mendelian law”-based gene models not compatible with current knowledge on gene-gene-environment-interaction. The authors also identified several types of genetic determinism, that is, weak determinism and strong determinism, which both were present in the textbooks. The somewhat intuitive remark is that genetic education has to have a strong trickle-down effect on how people understand genes, and that we should be careful not to maintain these flawed conceptions. Furthermore, it would be useful to separate the discussion on genetic determinism into the terms “weak” and “strong”, of which the strong version is undoubtedly rarer while the weak is more prevalent.

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Guest Post: New Tools for Bioethics Education and Public Engagement

Written by Johann Ahola-Launonen

University of Helsinki

How should bioethical discussion be? The academic debate entails a tension between different parties, which often are difficult to compare. To mention some, for example, some draw from the tradition of liberal consequentialism and demand for rationalism and the avoidance of lofty moral arguments. Others descend from the teleological and communitarian tradition, emphasizing that the moral issues ought to be holistically confronted in their complexity, accepting that they cannot be analyzed in logical, reasonable fragments[1]. Continue reading

The discussion that the scientists in Nature and Science called for should remain in realism, not go on to superhumans

Just over a week ago, prominent scientists in Nature and Science called for a ban for DNA modification in human embryos. This is because the scientists presume that now it actually would be possible to alter the genome in a human embryo in order to treat genetic diseases. Consequently, this would result in modified DNA in germ cells that would be inherited to future generations. The scientists wish to have a full ethical, legal, and public discussion before any germ-line modifications will be made. Furthermore, issues of safety are of importance.

The scientists’ statement is of utmost importance and hopefully this ethical, legal, and public discussion will emerge. However, the discussion on germ-line DNA modification is at danger if the debate will be taken to the level of science fictional superhumans, as already has happen. Not only can such discussion cause unnecessary public worry, it also leads the deliberation away from the actual and urgent questions.

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Trust, mistrust, and science – finding the balance between conspiracy theories and naïve trust

Scientific illiteracy and “anti-science”-beliefs are a common topic in scientific and academic communities. For example, how most (or many) Americans do not understand the difference between DNA and a genetically modified food. Another known topic is, for example, skepticism towards vaccinations. In this editorial of the biggest Finnish newspaper, the author predicts that the new rise of the Middle Ages is upon us if people refuse to trust scientific results, and emotions continue to rule out reason.

While excessive skepticism and building conspiracy theories against science might, by and large, be irrational and, most importantly, harmful, the phenomenon deserves a deeper consideration than accusations of irrationality, emotionality, or stupidity.

An important reason for the need of deeper elaboration is in the following controversy: on the one hand, the scientific community, rightly, calls for trust to scientific work. Enormous accomplishments of biomedical science are a great argument for trusting science and its capability to improve life. However, on the other hand, there is strong evidence that the scientific community is not always trustworthy. Medical companies, the paramount founder of medical research, have faced many accusations of scientific misconduct and fraud (how funding affects outcomes – see also this and this -, ghostwriting, corruption). Furthermore, there is discussion about how FDA reacts to questionable and even unreliable scientific papers. It is claimed that despite the knowledge about scientific misconduct, the FDA does little to report the questionable results to physicians and medical researchers. And there is at least much evidence to discuss good practices concerning e.g. Monsanto and how things work with GMO agriculture. “What companies do is not the problem of science” is a legitimate sentence when discussing only the mere possible existence of some biomedical or GMO innovation, but when brought to a concrete level, the real-life questions should be taken back to the issue. Continue reading

Conventional and non-conventional medicine and the Placebo Paradox

Alternative medicine is a trendy topic to discuss – both by despising and praising it in a contradictory manner. But there is something controversial in the categorical critique towards it. The controversies and fallacies in the categorical praise are much elaborated and I will mostly leave aside that part. Continue reading

Biomedical enhancement and the need for more precise conceptions

Much of the discussion about biomedical enhancements is about arguing whether some biomedical enhancement would, or would not be a good, ethical, or efficient means for enhancing a particular human characteristic. In this blog and in other bioethical literature bioethicists discuss the proposed effects that biomedical enhancements would have, for example, to intelligence and other cognitive capacities, empathy, sunny mood, altruism, sense of justice, or to halting climate change. The list is extensive and endless. The discussion on efficacy, ethics, justice, and human nature is an important part of the whole philosophical debate, as is the discussion about the limits of philosophy, reality, and science fiction. However, an important point that might be in need of emphasis would be to take under inspection the very concepts that are the target of enhancement. What do intelligence, sunny mood, altruism, sense of justice, and the-characteristics-that-prevents-us-halting-climate-change really mean?

If the target characteristics are looked at carefully, it seems that much of the discussion can be described as a form of language bewitchment where conceptions of the human language and conceptions of the empirical science of biology are mixed. Just because the human language includes conceptions such as intelligence, altruism, sunny mood, criminal, and sense of justice, it does not mean that there would be any corresponding concrete physical entities to these conceptions.

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Facebook and Apple – Increasing choice and control or creating biased solutions?

Reproductive technologies were in the headlines when Facebook and Apple announced they would offer female employees a $20,000 benefit to freeze their eggs. According to the report, this enables women to delay child bearing for different reasons and gives women more control. The announcement states that egg freezing is a pricey but increasingly popular option for women: The procedure typically costs up to $10,000, with an additional $500 for storage each year. After freezing eggs, in vitro fertilisation (IVF) can be used afterwards.

I wish to start with a disclaimer: I’m totally for increasing control and flexibility with reproductive technologies, I think the possibility as such is great, I cheer if some women genuinely wish to use this option, and I totally recognize that Facebook and Apple are just giving an option. However, there is room for questions. First, individual-level solutions are suggested where the actual issue is likely to be socially constructed, and secondly, IVF is seen merely as a handy option. These two are discussed in the following. Continue reading

Bad news for “intelligence-genes”

Intelligence and its heritability has been a popular topic in scientific communities and public discussions for long. Recent findings give new insight to the debate: one of the largest studies on genetic influence to intelligence and other behavioral traits turned up inconclusive findings, as Nature News reports in a recent article “Smart genes” prove elusive.

Existing literature on candidate gene associations is rich in studies that have been unable to replicate and findings have been based on “wishful thinking and shoddy statistics”. According to an editorial in Behavior Genetics,

it now seems likely that many of the published findings of the last decade are wrong or misleading and have not contributed to real advances in knowledge. Continue reading

Epigenetics and Blaming Pregnant Women: Hasty Conclusions, Control, and Simplified Burden of Responsibility

In a recent (13.8.2014) article in Nature , Sarah S. Richardson and colleagues maintain that careless discussion of epigenetic research on how early life affects health across generations could harm women.

Authors discuss the extensive history of placing the burden of responsibility of a child’s health on the lifestyle of the pregnant mother – and the means for controlling women’s behavior. Authors describe how, for example, evidence of any fetal harm easily lead to zero-tolerance regulatory frameworks and severe informal and formal consequences (e.g. social condemnation for an occasional sip of alcohol despite the ambiguous evidence that very moderate and occasional drinking should harm the fetus), and how the “lack of emotional warmth” of the “refrigerator mothers ” was considered to be the reason to child autism as late as the 1970s. Going even more backwards in the history, various defects were attributed, for example, to the company the mother kept during pregnancy.

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