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Steve Clarke’s Posts

Did Eyjafjallajokull Kill the Precautionary Principle?



In mid-April the airports of most major cities in Europe were closed for the better part of a week as a response to the presence of the volcanic ash cloud that spread over Europe as a consequence of the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland. The decision to allow planes to start flying again is sometimes portrayed as being a result of a reduction of the density of ash over European skies. However, this is only a small part of the story. The crucial decision that allowed planes to start flying appears to have been a decision to set a safe level of volcanic ash, something that the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) did not do until 20 April, several days after its advice had led to the closure of most of European airspace (See:


It might seem incredible to many that the decision to close airports across Europe was made without any reference to a safe level of volcanic ash in the atmosphere. If we do not know what a safe level for flying is then how do we know whether we have crossed it or not? However, this will not surprise those of us who are familiar with the thinking that underpins much contemporary risk management, particularly in Europe. Broadly speaking there are two approaches to risk management that are commonly taken. One approach is to employ ‘cost-benefit analysis’. Under this approach one considers the risks of a particular course of action as well as the potential benefits of that course of action and attempts to weigh these. The course of action evaluated is then compared with alternative courses of action and the one with the most advantageous balance of costs versus benefits is selected. The other approach is to apply the ‘precautionary principle’. There are many different versions of the precautionary principle, however, the guiding idea behind it is that we should be ‘better safe than sorry’. In other words, we are to make decision about whether to bear significant risks or not without giving full consideration to the potential benefits that may result from us bearing those risks, focusing our attention on the potential for harm.


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Should the NHS pay for homeopathic remedies?



Homeopathy is form of alternative medicine which was first developed in the late 18th Century and has been hovering on the fringes of medicine ever since. Homeopathic remedies are prepared by a process of extreme dilution of a harmful substance and it is claimed by homeopaths that a substance taken in very small amounts will actually cure the symptoms it tends to cause when taken in larger amounts. This is the homeopathic principle that ‘like causes like’. Some homeopathic remedies are diluted to such a degree that it is hard to see how they could possibly cause anything, even if the principle of ‘like causes like’ was accepted as a principle of conventional science. The Society of Homeopaths concedes that this is mysterious and gestures at quantum physics as a possible means of integrating homeopathy with mainstream science: The author Jeanette Winterson, who is an advocate of homeopathy, gestures to nanoparticles to integrate homeopathy with mainstream science:



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Shall Ape be Allowed to Kill Ape?

It is widely accepted that it is immoral to cause gratuitous harm to animals, and indeed there are many charities that have been set up around the world, such as the RSPCA (see: to prevent harm to animals and to promote animal welfare. Some organisations want to go further than mere protection of animals, however, and seek to promote the idea that we should recognize various ‘animal rights’. For example, the participants in the ‘Great Ape Project’ argue that non-human ‘great apes’ – chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos – should share the human right to life, the human right to the protection of individual liberty and the human right not be tortured. See: Advocates of rights for great apes have had some modest success. In 2007 they convinced the parliament of the Balearic Islands, an autonomous province of Spain, to grant some rights to the great apes (See:


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When Patients Should be Obliged to Participate in Medical Research

In a recent article on the BBC News website Professor Anthony Mathur, Head of Advanced Cardiac Imaging at Barts and the NHS Trust, argues that cardiac patients should be obliged to take part in medical research (See It seems that it is difficult to get patients to agree to participate in clinical trials, however research subjects are required if new heart stem cell therapies are to be developed. Professor Mathur’s proposal has been given short shrift by David Hunter, writing on the BMJ Group Journal of Medical Ethics blog (See Hunter suggests that Mathur’s proposal amounts to a failure to respect autonomy and he further suggests that the way to solve this problem is to devote more time and resources to recruitment, rather than relying on cardiac patients agreeing to participate. Michael Cook writing on BioEdge describes a possible defense of Mathur’s proposal in radical utilitarian terms. (See On such views, if the benefits of research outweigh the costs then, all things being equal, the proposal is morally justified, regardless of concerns about respect for individual autonomy.

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Should Psychiatrists Pray with Their Patients?

In a recent interview in the Psychiatric Times (Podcast here: psychiatrist and ethicist Dr. Cynthia Geppert discusses the interesting issue of whether or not it is ethically acceptable for psychiatrists to pray with their patients. Geppert’s discussion is prompted by the case of a patient who had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer and who asked her psychiatrist to join her in prayer. It seems that many patients, particularly at times of crisis, ask their psychiatrists to join them in prayer. Furthermore, it seems that the majority of patients would like their physicians to be willing to pray with them, at least on some occasions.

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Can We Rely on Science to Catch Up?

In an article published in the Australian on 12 October 2009 (,25197,26195539-30417,00.html ), Des Moore the director of the Institute for Private Enterprise ( ), makes an interesting contribution to debate about the appropriate policy response to the threat of climate change. He suggests that we should rely on science to produce a viable solution to energy production that does not cause CO2 emissions. This might happen either because science leads to improvement in the efficiency of some currently known means of energy production that is not currently economically viable, or because scientists develop an entirely new means of producing energy. Because we can rely on this happening it makes no sense to institute costly emissions reduction policies now, or so Moore argues.

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Should Bankers Repent?

The Times (as well as a slew of other newspapers) reports that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams is complaining that financiers have, in general, failed to feel repentance for the ‘excesses of the boom that led to financial meltdown’ (See ). The Archbishop does not present evidence to back up the claim that bankers have, in general, failed to feel repentance, but it seems like a plausible enough claim, so let us assume that it is correct. The Archbishop also appears to assume that bankers should repent for the financial crisis and this assumption seems open to question. To repent is to express remorse or regret and to do so sincerely. No doubt some financiers, such as the famous swindler Bernie Madoff have committed acts for which it is appropriate that they express sincere regret or remorse. Madoff also broke the law and is currently in jail. But what might ordinary law-abiding bankers have done to warrant the Archbishop’s wrath?


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Should NHS Medical Services be Rated Like TripAdvisor?

The website TripAdvisor (See: ) allows viewers to access (and contributed to) popular ratings of hotels, restaurants and other travel related facilities all over the world. The NHS is now operating a website – NHS Choices – that performs a similar service in respect of NHS medical services: It contains a mix of hard data, such as information about mortality rates at hospitals and the performance of GPs across a range of different aspects of performance, as well as soft data including patients’ impressions of their stay at particular hospitals and their experience of being treated by particular GPs. The rating of hospitals, GPs and other specialisations in medicine follows on from the successful UK experience of publicising cardiac surgeons’ mortality and survival rates, a Government initiative to restore public confidence in cardiac surgery following the Bristol Royal Infirmary Scandal. According to a recent article in the Guardian this has lead to a 21% drop in mortality rates for coronary artery surgery over the last five years:


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The Poverty of Philosophy at Melbourne

A war of words has broken out in the pages of The Australian between friends of the
University of Melbourne School of Philosophy and the Dean of Arts at the
University of Melbourne, Mark Considine. See:,,25816073-12332,00.html and,,25759103-12332,00.html.
At the end of 2007 six of the school’s thirteen permanent faculty members took
voluntary redundancy packages.
 Despite the large number of philosophers lost, the school has
only been promised one replacement position. The friends of the school, who
include international figures in philosophy such as Frank Jackson and Peter
Singer, make the obvious point that a school of only seven will be unable to
provide specialist teaching in all the major areas of philosophy as well as the
equally obvious point that a school that is reduced in size by almost a half is
going to suffer a corresponding loss of reputation. They back up this latter
claim by pointing to a drop in the international rating of Melbourne in the
most recent edition of Brian Leiter’s ‘Philosophy Gourmet Report’ (see

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Trackr the Most Cloneworthy Dog: Best Friends Again?

According to recent media reports, a competition to find the world’s most cloneworthy dog has been organised by the American firm BioArts International BioArts has a subsidiary, Encore Pet Science, which now offers a commercial dog cloning service. The world’s first commercially cloned god, Lancelot Encore, was born late last year and cost US$155,000-. However, Encore Pet Science are now offering to clone dogs for a mere $138,500-. Encore Pet Science also offer a gene banking service, which enables cloning to occur long after the death of an animal.


The competition to find the world’s most cloneworthy dog offered the winning owner the chance to have their dog cloned for free. Of the many entrants, the German Shepherd Trakr was judged to be the most cloneworthy, as result of his heroic efforts at Ground Zero following the 2001 collapse of the World Trade Center, where he worked non-stop for 48 hours and found the last survivor in the rubble. Trackr has also helped recover over $1 million in stolen goods in a long career as a working police dog. Trackr has been rewarded for his efforts by the creation of five cloned puppies, Trustt, Valor, Prodigy, Solace and Déjà vu.

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