Science

Getting People To Get Things Done – A New Psychological Trick

Subtly designing people’s choice environment in a way that they decide for a desired cause of action – so called “nudging” – receives growing interest as a potential tool for practical ethics. New psychological research suggests a surprisingly simple, but potentially powerful strategy to nudge people.

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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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Reducing negative emotions towards out-group members

At present I am travelling with my immediate family, seeing less immediate family, back and forth across the US south. One thing I’ve remembered: it can be good to be a part of a close-knit group. One’s faults and mistakes are more readily understood and forgiven. One’s strengths are more readily celebrated. One’s identity is bolstered in all sorts of ways.

As we should know by now, of course, it can be bad to be a part of a close-knit group as well. In ways one’s freedom and identity can be constrained by group membership. But I’m not thinking of the effects on group members. Being a part of a close-knit group can more readily lead to immoral behaviour towards non-group members. The faults and mistakes of those outside the group are less readily understood and forgiven. The strengths of those outside the group are less readily celebrated. In general, it is easier to demonize and dehumanize out-group members.

An interesting recent paper – ‘Their pain gives us pleasure: How intergroup dynamics shape empathic failures and counter-empathic responses’ – sheds some light on these phenomena. Continue reading

Evolutionary psychology and multidisciplinary challenges

Evolutionary Psychology has recently gained some public attention in Finland, as the University of Turku has announced that it will establish the discipline as a permanent study module from the beginning of autumn 2014. University of Turku reports itself to be among the first universities in Europe to provide studies in this discipline[1].

Evolutionary psychology (EP) is a debated discipline, and its institutionalisation adds some weight to the debate. A thorough discussion of its “pros and cons” are beyond this entry – instead, I am interested on the manner in which this relatively young and multidisciplinary discipline is debated.

Most debaters seem to have a strong opinion about EP. It can be seen as the Grand Theory answering all the questions of humanity, or as pseudoscience without slightest scientific background. Obviously, none of the extremist positions is sensible.

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Horizon 2020 and The Role of Lay People’s Perspectives in Bioethical Reasoning

By Kimberly Schelle & Nadira Faulmüller

Horizon 2020, the European Union’s 2014-2020 largest research programme ever, includes the call to pursue ‘Responsible Research and Innovation’ (RRI). RRI stands for a research and innovation process in which all societal actors (e.g. citizens, policy makers, business and researchers) are working together in the process to align the outcomes with the values, needs, and expectations of the European Society. In a recently published paper on the importance of including the public and patients’ voices in bioethical reasoning, the authors describe, although in other words, the value of the RRI approach in bioethical issues:

“A bioethical position that fails to do this [exchange with the public opinion], and which thus avoids the confrontation with different public arguments, including ones perhaps based in different cultural histories, relations and ontological grounds […], not only runs the risk of missing important aspects, ideas and arguments. It also arouses strong suspicion of being indeed one-sided, biased or ideological—thus illegitimate.”

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Genetically Modifying Mosquitoes to ‘Bite the Dust’? Ethical Considerations

At some point, most people will have questioned the necessity of the existence of mosquitoes. In the UK at least, the things that might prompt us into such reflection are probably trivial; in my own case, the mild irritation of an itchy and unsightly swelling caused by a mosquito bite will normally lead me to rue the existence of these blood-sucking pests. Elsewhere though, mosquitoes lead to problems that are far from trivial; in Africa the Anopheles gambiae mosquito is the major vector of malaria, a disease that is estimated to kill more than 1 million people each year, most of whom are African children. Continue reading

Can we solve the world’s problems by offering a large enough prize?

On the 22nd of October 1707, more than 1400 British sailors died when a British naval fleet sank in stormy weather off the Isles of Scilly. The disaster was later attributed to failings in navigation and sailors’ difficulty in determining their location at sea. This was a perennial problem at the time, and had persisted despite intense scientific research. Seven years later, the UK government passed the Longitude Act, offering 20,000 pounds (more than 2 million pounds in today’s money) to anyone who could develop a method for reliably determining longitude at sea. The longitude prize was eventually won by John Harrison, a self-educated Lincolnshire clockmaker.

Yesterday, 300 years after the original Longitude act, the UK Technology Strategy Board launched a £10 million pound prize competition, a new ‘Longitude prize’. The money will be awarded to a scientist or group of scientists who come up with a solution to one of a set of major global challenges – inadequate food/clean water supply for everyone, antibiotic resistance, spinal cord injury, dementia, the large carbon impact of air-flight.

The new Longitude prize is the latest in a series of innovation inducement competitions over time. These competitions have offered monetary rewards for solving problems as diverse as the development of butter substitutes, the first trans-Atlantic air flight, reusable aircraft for space flight, or an alternative fertilizer to bird poo. One novel feature of the 2014 Longitude prize is that it is seeking public input into the specific challenge to be targeted. Public voting will decide which of the six global challenges above are to be the focus of the prize.

But are innovation prizes an effective or appropriate way to solve major global scientific challenges? Continue reading

Cognitive science and threats to free will

It is often asserted that emerging cognitive science – especially work in psychology (e.g., that associated with work on automaticity, along with work on the power of situations to drive behavior) and cognitive neuroscience (e.g., that associated with unconscious influences on decision-making) – threatens free will in some way or other. What is not always clear is how this work threatens free will. As a result, it is a matter of some controversy whether this work actually threatens free will, as opposed to simply appearing to threaten free will. And it is a matter of some controversy how big the purported threat might be. Could work in cognitive science convince us that there is no free will? Or simply that we have less free will? And if it is the latter, how much less, and how important is this for our practices of holding one another morally responsible for our behavior? Continue reading

Being a Good Person by Deceit?

By Nadira Faulmüller & Lucius Caviola

Recently, Peter Singer, Paul Bloom and Dan Ariely were discussing topics surrounding the psychology of morality. Peter was emphasizing the importance of helping people in need by donating money to poverty fighting charities. That’s easier said than done. Humans don’t seem to have a strong innate desire of helping distant strangers. So the question arises of how we can motivate people to donate considerable amounts to charity. Peter suggested that respective social norms could be established: in order to make people more moral their behaviour needs to be observable by others, as Dan pointed out, only then they will be motivated to help strangers on the other side of the world. Is this true? – do people only behave prosocially because they feel socially pressured into doing so?

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Trouble Brewing? The Ethical Significance of Synthetic Yeast

Back in 2010, I blogged about Craig Venter’s creation of the first synthetic organism, Synthia, a bacteria.

Now, in 2014, the next step has been made by a team at John Hopkins University, the use of synthetic biology in yeast, which, whilst still a simple organism, has a similar cell structure to humans (and other more complex organisms): a nuclei, chromosomes and organelles. The engineered yeast has been reproduced to over 100 generations, passing on its new DNA.

The pace is breathtaking. Moore’s law describes a phenomenon in computing, where computer capacity (so far) doubles every two years. Kurzweil uses Moore’s law to predict the ‘singularity’: a state where humans no longer control, or even comprehend, the progress that technology continues to make.

It’s difficult to measure scientific progress in the same way as computer power, but it’s clear that leaps in progress are now measured in years, not decades. Yet still we wait until technology is upon us before we act.

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