Tom Douglas’ Posts

Is there a duty to execute prisoners humanely?

An article published this week in PLoS Medicine discusses the ethics of research on US lethal objection protocols. The authors conclude:

While lethal injection and the death penalty present a host of ethical questions, the specific, pressing issue now faced by 36 US states, the federal government, and the 3,350 prisoners on death row is the movement to amend lethal injection protocols to comport with Eighth Amendment requirements and to minimize the potential for pain and suffering, in itself a commendable goal. As jurists demand lethal injection protocol changes, however, corrections officials, governors, and their medical collaborators are left in a legal and ethical quandary. In order to comply with the law and carry out their duties, they are employing the tools and methods of biomedical inquiry without its ethical safeguards. Given the current guidelines for human experimentation, it is difficult to conceive of circumstances in which lethal injection research activities could be carried out in a fashion consistent with these ethical norms, and yet those engaged in such research would seem to be required to do so.

This passage raises many questions. Is is the movement to amend lethal injection protocols really the pressing issue? Can a movement to execute prisoners more humanely really be commendable? But let’s focus on the authors main claim: namely that the states in question face a legal and ethical quandary since, (i) they are under "duties", as well as legal requirements, to execute more humanely, but (ii) they cannot do so without breaching the ethical and legal requirements.

The authors devote most of their attention to the second claim, (ii), but arguably (i) is more problematic.

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Genetic discrimination and the future of health insurance

The US Congress today passed legislation banning the use of genetic information by insurance companies, unions and employers. As Dominic Wilkinson noted in his post on 26 April, this legislation might have interesting implications for professional sport. The reform also raises questions about the future of insurance markets.

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Trading on Testosterone: Doping and the Financial Markets

Two cambridge researchers have found that  found that the amount of money a male financial trader makes in a day is correlated with his testosterone level. The pair – John Coates and Joe Herbert – also found that a trader’s testosterone at the beginning of a day is strongly predictive of his success that day, suggesting that testosterone causes improved stock market performance, rather than the reverse.

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The New York Times recently published a feature article on a website called PatientsLikeMe. This is an online community like facebook or MySpace, but with a medical twist. The members have serious medical conditions, like Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, or HIV, and they use site to post quantitative information about their treatment and symptoms. The site then presents this information for all to see. For example, users can search the website for a drug and then view bar graphs illustrating reasons that members take the drug, the distribution of dosages, length of treatment, reasons for stopping treatment, and patient ratings of the treatment. Individual profiles also show line graphs plotting disease progression and showing major treatment events. The aim is to offer patients the information required to better tailor their own treatment.

It’s easy to think of both risks and benefits of this sort of website.

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Remembering what happened vs. remembering what it meant

An upcoming issue of the Psychological Bulletin will
include a review suggesting that the memories of children may be more reliable
– at least for evidential legal purposes – than the memories of adults.

The review conducted by Valerie Reyna and Chuck
Brainerd assesses over thirty studies sparked by their own earlier research on what they call the Fuzzy Trace Theory. According to that theory, people store
two different kinds of memory of experiences: memory of what happened (verbatim memory), and
memory of the meaning of what happened (gist memory). Reyna and Brainerd hypothesised that
children rely more on the former, and adults rely more on the later, and they presented results indicating that this makes adults more prone to certain sorts of ‘false
memory’, since what an event meant to someone may be inconsistent with what
actually happened. In the upcoming review,
Reyna and Brainerd will claim that the slough of publications triggered
by their initial research backs up these hypotheses.

Suppose that Reyna and Brainerd are right. What
would follow?

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A study
published in this week’s issue of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience finds
that including irrelevant neuroscientific information in an explanation can
make people more likely to believe that explanation.

groups of subjects – neuroscience ‘novices’, neuroscience students, and neuroscience
experts – were given descriptions of psychological phenomena followed by one of
the following types of explanation:

I. A
good explanation excluding irrelevant neuroscientific information

good explanation including irrelevant information

bad explanation excluding irrelevant neuroscientific information

bad explanation including irrelevant information.

rated bad explanations to be more satisfying when they contained neuroscientific
information (i.e. IV > III) while students rated both good and bad
explanations more satisfying when the contained irrelevant neuroscientific
information (i.e. IV > III and II > I). No similar effect was found for
experts, who in fact rated good explanations to be less satisfying when they
included irrelevant neuroscientific information (i.e. I > II).

That neuroscientific
novices may be persuaded by neuro-babble is, of course, troubling.

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Funding cuts for homoeopathy

The Guardian, Times and BBC are today reporting that National Heath Service funding for homoeopathy is on the decline. A survey conducted by Pulse has found that only 37% percent of the UK’s primary care trusts are still funding homoeopathy services, with more than 25% having reduced funding to homoeopathy in the last two years.

The real news, I would argue, is that more than a third of the UK’s funding bodies are still funding the alternative medicine.

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A presumed consent system for organ donation

Earlier this month, Gordon Brown, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, voiced his support for a presumed consent system for post-death organ donation in the UK. At present, organs may be procured from a dead body without the family’s consent if the deceased had actively opted-on to a national organ donation register. Under a presumed consent system, all would be included on the register unless they had actively ‘opted out’.

Objecting to Brown’s proposal, the economist and journalist Irwin Stelzer writes in the Telegraph this week:

90 per cent of us favour organ donation, but only 25 per cent make advance arrangements to become donors. From that, the opt-out advocates conclude that most of the non-donors are merely negligent: they forget to register. Really?

It is equally plausible that non-participants have no objection to the procedure, but simply do not want to participate, just as many (most) people have no objection to elections, but choose not to participate, for reasons sufficient unto themselves.

This objection strikes me as unpersuasive.

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Feeling good about the failure of others

The journal Science last week published a study indicating that the reward centres in our brains are highly sensitive to the success of others. In the study, 19 pairs of subjects were presented with a task involving the estimation of the number of dots on a screen, and were then provided with feedback about their perfromance and about a monetary payment that they would receive. They were also provided with the same information about the other member of the pair. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to ascertain the effects of this feedback on blood flow in the midbrain-striatal and midbrain-prefrontal dopaminergic projections – parts of the brain implicated in generating subjective rewards, such as positive feelings, in response to achievement. The researchers analysed the cases in which both members of the pair were successful on the task and found that, in such cases, the reward centres activated more strongly in response to a given payment when the other member of the pair received a lower payment than when the other received an identical or higher payment.

The main conclusion that the authors draw from this finding is that it supports the widely held view that subjective rewards are sensitive to the success of others, at least where success is measured in financial terms. Existing studies claiming to support this view have faced difficulties in, among other things, measuring subjective rewards, but the authors of the Science article suggest they they can avoid this difficulty by using activation of the reward centres as an objective proxy for subjective feelings.

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Lie-detection using functional MRI

American last week reported that
psychiatrist Sean Spence and collaborators at the University of
Sheffield are
developing a lie-detection test based on functional magnetic resonance
(fMRI) technology.
Using fMRI, Spence and colleagues are able to monitor blood flow to
certain areas of the brain’s
prefrontal cortex that are implicated in the regulation of truth
telling, spotting patterns of blood flow associated with lying or
witholding the truth. The
technique promises to outperform existing polygraph technology, which
relies on
signs of anxiety that are notoriously unreliable indicators of lying.
It has already been used on the British reality TV show Lie Lab,
though Spence emphasizes that it is not yet ready for widespread forensic use.

the United States, the commercialization of fMRI lie-detection tests by
two companies – ‘No Lie MRI’ and ‘Cephos’ – has already provoked some
ethical worries.

One concern is that fMRI lie detection will be
adopted before there is good information on its reliability. The thought is
that undue significance might be attached to results which are in fact highly
uncertain. But suppose that the fMRI approach could be developed into a
lie-detection test that far outstrips polygraphs in reliability. Would its use
remain problematic?

Some worry that the technology might be misused
by, for example, anti-terrorism agencies. Such agencies might be tempted to
apply the test in situations where its use would amount to a gross infraction
on individual privacy and autonomy. This is a real worry, but it applies
equally to existing lie-detection technology which, though controversial, has
been widely used. It’s not clear why misuse of a more reliable test should be
more problematic than misuse of a less reliable one.

concern is that it is difficult to
define lying or truth-telling in a precise and uncontroversial way. But
also difficult to define many personality traits or motives that serve
grounds for suspicion in criminal investigations. Yet judgments about
personality or motive are routinely made in such investigations. If
investigators were prevented from making judgments that rely on poorly
defined concepts,
their forensic capabilities would be drastically limited.

concerns about the risk of exaggerating
the reliability of test results might remain; even a fully developed
fMRI lie-detection test would surely give some false positives
and false negatives. But again, it’s not clear why the reliability of
an fMRI
test would be exaggerated any more than, say, the reliability of
polygraph technology, or the various other technologies routinely used
forensic scientists. The tendency of some to exaggerate the reliability
of technology-based tests has been a longstanding problem in forensics,
and it’s one that should certainly be confronted. But it hasn’t
generally be seen as a good ground for rejecting new technologies,
presumably because the benefits of those technologies have been thought
to outweigh the risks of misinterpretation.

The possibility of an fMRI lie-detection test certainly raises
some ethical issues. But its not clear that any of these issues are new, nor
that the ethical concerns surrounding the use of such a test would be any
greater than those surrounding the use of existing forensic technologies.

Main sources:

L. Greenemeier, Are you a
liar? Ask your brain. Scientific American, 15
November 2007. Available at

Lure of lie detectors spooks
Nature 441, 918-919; 22 June 2006. Available at


D. D. Langleben et al. NeuroImage 15, 727–732;

J. Wild. Nature 437, 457; 2005

F. A. Kozel et al. Biol. Psychiatry 58, 605–613;

E. Check. Nature 435, 254-255; 2005

J. Knight. Nature 428, 692-694; 2004