A blog by the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB) .Research Ethics is aimed at all readers and authors interested in ethical issues in research, the regulation of research and the procedures and process of ethical review.
Do you use Google Maps to navigate in a new city? Ask Siri, Alexa or OK Google to play your favourite song? To help you find something on Amazon? To read a text message from a friend while you are driving your car? Perhaps your car is fitted with a semi-autonomous adaptive cruise control system… If any software or machine is going to perform in any autonomous way, it needs to collect data. About you, where you are going, what songs you like, your shopping habits, who your friends are and what you talk about. This begs the question: are we willing to give up part of our privacy and personal liberty to enjoy the benefits technology offers.
It is difficult to predict the consequences of developing and using new technology. Policymakers struggle to assess the ethical, legal and human rights impacts of using different kinds of IT systems. In research, in industry and our homes. Good policy should be helpful for everyone that holds a stake. We might want it to protect ethical values and human rights, make research and development possible, allow technology transfer from academia to industry, make sure both large and smaller companies can develop their business, and make sure that there is social acceptance for technological development.
The European Union is serious about developing policy on the basis of sound research, rigorous empirical data and wide stakeholder consultation. In recent years, the Horizon2020 programme has invested € 10 million in three projects looking at the ethics and human rights implications of emerging digital technologies: PANELFIT, SHERPA and SIENNA.
The first project, PANELFIT (which is short for Participatory Approaches to a New Ethical and Legal Framework for ICT), will develop guidelines on the ethical and legal issues of ICT research and innovation. The second, SHERPA (stands for Shaping the ethical dimensions of Smart Information Systems (SIS) – A European Perspective), will develop tools to identify and address the ethical dimensions of smart information systems (SIS), which is the combination of artificial intelligence (AI) and big data analytics. SIENNA (short for Stakeholder-informed ethics for new technologies with high socio-economic and human rights impact), will develop research ethics protocols, professional ethical codes, and better ethical and legal frameworks for AI and robotics, human enhancement technologies, and human genomics.
All three projects involve experts, publics and stakeholders to co-create outputs, in different ways. They also support the European Union’s vision of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI). SIENNA, SHERPA and PANELFIT recently published an editorial in the Orbit Journal, inviting stakeholders and publics to engage with the projects and contribute to the work.
The human is a miserable being. Although we are pleased about the new and better-paid job, we soon acquire more costly habits, richer friends, and madder professional duties. We are back to square one, dissatisfied with life and uncomfortable with ourselves. Why can life never be perfect?
Discontent makes us want to escape to better futures. We want to run away from worries, from boredom, from disease, from aging, from all the limitations of life, preferably even from death. We always rush to what we imagine will be a better place. As often as we find ourselves back to square one.
The eternal return of discontent thus characterizes the human condition. We imagine that everything will be perfect, if only we could escape from the present situation, which we believe limits us and causes our discontent. The result is an endless stream of whims, which again make us feel imprisoned.
Always this square one.
Transhumanism is an intellectual revivalist movement that promises that AT LAST everything will be perfect. How? Through escaping from the human herself, from this deficient creature, trapped in a biological body that is limited by disease, aging and death.
How can we escape from all human limitations? By having new technology renew us, making us perfect, no longer suffering from any of the biological limitations of life. A brave new limitless cyborg.
Who buys the salvation doctrine? Literally some of the richest technology entrepreneurs in the world. They have already pushed the boundaries as far as possible. They have tried all the escape routes, but the feeling of limitation always returns. They see no other way out than escaping from EVERYTHING. They invest in space technology to escape the planet. They invest in artificial intelligence and in the deep-freezing of their bodies, to escape the body in the future, into supercomputers that AT LAST will save them from ALL life’s limitations, including disease, aging and death.
Do you recognize the pattern? Transhumanism is human misery. Transhumanism is the escapism that always leads back to square one. It is the dream of a high-tech quantum leap from dissatisfaction. What does paradise look like? Like a high-tech return to square one.
We need new technology to solve problems in the world. When coupled with human discontent, however, technology reinforces the pattern. Only you can free yourself from the pattern. By no longer escaping to an ideal future. It does not work. Running to the future is the pattern of your misery.
Transhumanism is the intellectual purification of human misery, not the way out of it.
Public health focuses on the prevention of disease and the promotion of health on a collective level, that is, the health of the population. This distinguishes public health from medical care and the doctor-patient relationship.
In a clinical setting, the doctor discusses treatments with the patient directly and risks and benefits are assessed in relation to that individual. In contrast, public health agencies need to base their analysis on a collectivist risk-weighing principle, weighing risks of the population against benefits of the population. One example could be taxation of cigarettes or information concerning ways to reduce obesity.
Although the generalizations involved and the collectivist focus is necessary in public health, and although the overall intentions are good, there is always a risk that individual interests, values and rights are threatened. One example is the way current national and international breastfeeding policy affects non-breastfeeding mothers and possibly gay and adoptive parents. The norm to breastfeed is very pervasive, and studies show that women who cannot breastfeed feel that they may harm the baby or that they are inadequate as parents. It is possible to think of a couple who want to share parenthood equally and for that reason choose to bottle-feed their baby due to their values. The collectivist focus is based on a utilitarian rationale where the consequences in terms of health-related benefits of the population are the primary goal of successful interventions. In such efforts, the most important value is efficacy.
In addition to the underlying utilitarian perspective on health, there is also a somewhat contrasting human rights perspective in public health: the idea that all humans have certain rights, and that the right to life and health are of utmost importance. Finally, health is also discussed in terms of local and global justice, especially since inequalities in terms of socio-economical and educational differences have been acknowledged during recent years.
As mentioned above, there is a risk that the interests, values and rights of particular individuals and minorities are neglected by ever so well-intended collectivist policies. The power involved in more and less coercive public health policies calls for a certain measure of responsibility. A balance should be struck between the aim to promote the collective good and the respect for the choices and values of individuals.
In addition, a certain measure of compassion is needed. Compassion could be seen as a disposition to think and act in an emotionally engaged way in order to understand and acknowledge the effects of policy on individuals. This is clear when reflecting on the effects of breastfeeding policy on individuals who cannot breastfeed their babies.
Finally, since public health policy is not only a matter of evidence and science, but also about values, a certain degree of humility should be exercised, acknowledging also the provisional character of scientific evidence. This is the case with measles vaccination. The safety and efficacy of the vaccine can, and has been, established by science. However, the question whether to introduce mandatory vaccination is a matter of values. It should be possible to acknowledge and respect the values and perspectives of individuals without compromising what scientific evidence suggests in terms of safety and efficacy.
The virtues of responsibility, compassion and humility could be understood in terms of values of public health professionals, and they should be encouraged by the agencies for which such professionals work.
Allegedly, there are over 12.000 so called predatory journals out there. Instead of supporting readers and science, these journals serve their own economic interests first and at best offer dubious merits for scholars. We believe that scholars working in any academic discipline have a professional interest and a responsibility to keep track of these journals. It is our job to warn the young or inexperienced of journals where a publication or editorship could be detrimental to their career and science is not served. We have seen “predatory” publishing take off in a big way and noticed how colleagues start to turn up in the pages of some of these journals. While many have assumed that this phenomenon mainly is a problem for low status universities, there are strong indications that predatory publishing is a part of a major trend towards the industrialization of misconduct and that it affects many top-flight research institutions (see Priyanka Pulla: “In India, elite institutes in shady journals”, Science 354(6319): 1511-1512). This trend, referred to by some as the dark side of publishing, needs to be reversed.
Thus we published this blog post in 2016. This is our third annual update (the first version can be found here). At first, we relied heavily on the work of Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado, who run blacklists of “potential, possible, or probable” predatory publishers and journals. His lists have since been removed although they live on in new form (anonymous) at the Stop predatory journals site (SPJ) and they can also be found archived. The latest effort to create a thorough blacklist comes from Cabells, who distinguish around 70 different unacceptable violations and employs a whole team reviewing journals. These lists are not, however, the final say on the matter, as it is impossible for one person or a limited group to judge reliably actors in every academic discipline. Moreover, since only questionable journals are listed, the good journals must be found elsewhere.
A response of gate keeping needs to be anchored in each discipline and the scholars who make up that discipline. As a suitable response in bioethics, we have chosen to, first, collect a few authoritative lists of recommended bioethics journals that can be consulted by anyone in bioethics to find good journals to publish with. For our first post, we recommended a list of journals ourselves, which brought on some well-deserved questions and criticism about criteria for inclusion. Unfortunately then, our list ultimately drew attention from other parts of the message that we were more concerned to get across. Besides, there are many other parties making such lists. We therefore have dropped this feature. Instead we have enlarged the collection of good journal lists to the service of our readers. They are all of great use when further exploring the reputable journals available:
It is of prime importance to list the journals that are potentially or possibly predatory or of such a low quality that it might be dishonoring to engage with them. We have listed all 50 of them alphabetically (eleven new entries for 2019, two have ceased operation and been removed), and provided both the homepage URL and links to any professional discussion of these journals that we have found (which most often alerted us to their existence in the first place).
Each of these journals asks scholars for manuscripts from, or claims to publish papers in bioethics or related areas (such as practical philosophy). They have been reviewed by the authors of this blog post as well as by a group of reference scholars that we have asked for advice on the list. Those journals listed have unanimously been agreed are journals that – in light of the criticism put forth and the quality we see – we would not deem acceptable for us to publish in. Typical signs as to why a journal could fall in this category, such as extensive spamming, publishing in almost any subject, or fake data being included on the website etc., are listed here:
We have started to more systematically evaluate the journals against the 25 defining characteristics we outlined in the article linked to above (with the help of science and technology PhD students). The results will be added when they exist.
We would love to hear about your views on this blog post, and be especially grateful for pointers to journals engaging in sloppy or bad publishing practices. The list is not meant as a check-list but as a starting point for any bioethics scholar to ponder for him- or herself where to publish.
Also, anyone thinking that a journal in our list should be given due reconsideration might post their reasons for this as a comment to the blog post or send an email to us. Journals might start out with some sloppy practices but shape up over time and we will be happy to hear about it. You can make an appeal against the inclusion of a journal and we will deal with it promptly and publicly.
Please spread the content of this blog as much as you can and check back for updates (we will do a major update annually and continually add any further information found).
Annals of Bioethics & Clinical Applications (Medwin Publishers) Criticism 1 │ Criticism 2
Critical remark: Publisher was on Beall’s list and is on many other lists of these journals. They say that they are “accepting all type of original works that is related to the disciplines of the journal” and indeed the flow chart of manuscript handling does not have a reject route. Indexed by alternative indexes.
Austin Journal of Genetics and Genomic Research(Austin Publishing Group) Criticism 1 │Criticism 2 │Criticism 3
Critical remark (2017): Spam e-mail about special issue on bioethics; Listed by SPJ; Romanian editorial member is said to be from a university in “Europe”; Another editorial board member is just called “Michael”; APG has been sued by International Association for Dental Research and The American Association of Neurological Surgeons for infringing on their IP rights. Student review concludes the journal is not suitable to publish in.
Critical remark (2019): Listed by Cabells with 10 violations.
Creative Education (Scientific Research Publishing – SCIRP) Criticism 1 │ Criticism 2 Critical remark (2017): Listed by SPJ; They claim misleadingly to be indexed by ISI but this relates to be among cited articles only – they are not indexed. A thorough review May 2017 concludes that it exhibits at least 5 of the 25 criteria for “predatory” journals.
East European Scientific Journal (East European Research Alliance)
Critical remark (2017): Listed by SPJ; Criticised by Beall for having a bogus editorial board; Claims to be indexed by ISI but that is not the well-known Institute for Scientific Information (now Thompson Reuters), but rather the so-called International Scientific Indexing. Thorough reviews November 2018 and February 2019 conclude that it exhibits at least 13 or 14 of the 25 criteria for “predatory” journals.
Ethics Today Journal (Franklin Publishing)
Critical remark (2019): Listed by Cabells with 9 violations.
European Academic Research (Kogaion Publishing Center, formerly Bridge Center)
Critical remark (2017): Listed by SPJ; Uses impact factor from Universal Impact Factor (now defunct); A thorough review May 2017 concludes that it exhibits at least 15 of the 25 criteria for “predatory” journals.
European Scientific Journal (European Scientific Institute)
Critical remark (2017): Listed by SPJ; Use of alternative indexes. A thorough review May 2017 concludes that it exhibits at least 9 of the 25 criteria for “predatory” journals.
International Journal of Contemporary Research & Review
Critical remark (2017): Listed by SPJ; Indexed by Index Copernicus; Despite claims they seem not to be indexed by either Chemical Abstracts or DOAJ. A thorough review June 2017 concludes that it exhibits at least 9 of the 25 criteria for “predatory” journals.
International Journal of Current Research Criticism Critical remark (2017): Listed by SPJ; Uses IF from SJIF and Index Copernicus and more. It wrongly claims to be indexed by Thomson Reuters, ORCID and having a DOI among other things. A thorough review January 2018 concludes that it exhibits at least 12 of the 25 criteria for “predatory” journals.
International Journal of Current Research and Academic Review (Excellent Publishers)
Critical remark (June 2018): Listed by SPJ and Cabells because of misleading claims about credentials, metrics, and too quick review; alternative indexing; publishes in almost any field imaginable; the editor -in-chief is head of the “Excellent Education and Researh Institute” (sic) which does not seem to exist even when spelled right?
International Journal of Ethics & Moral Philosophy (Journal Network)
Critical remark (2017): Listed by SPJ; Publisher was criticized by Beall when launching 350 journals at once; After several years not one associate editor has signed up and no article has been published; No editorial or contact details available. A thorough review in May 2019 concludes that it exhibits at least 12 of the 25 criteria for “predatory journals”.
International Journal of Ethics in Engineering & Management Education Critical remark (2019): Papers from almost any field; Claims to have a 5.4 Impact factor (from IJEEE); Indexed by GJIF etc. A non-existent address in “Varginia”, US (sic!); Open access but asks for the copyright; Claims to be indexed in Scopus can’t be verified. A thorough review February 2018 concludes that it exhibits at least 16 of the 25 criteria for “predatory” journals. Listed by Cabells with 11 violations found.
International Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences
Critical remark (2017): Listed by SPJ; Has an amazing fast-track review option for $100 that guarantees “the review, editorial decision, author notification and publication” to take place “within 2 weeks”. “Editors” claim that repeated requests to be removed from the list of editors result in nothing. Thorough reviews in February and June 2018 conclude that it seems to exhibit at least 7 to 10 of the 25 criteria for “predatory” journals.
International Journal of Humanities & Social Studies Critical remark (2017): Listed by SPJ; IF from International Impact Factor Services; States that there “is no scope of correction after the paper publication”.
Critical remark (2018): They write that the “review process will be completed expectedly within 3-4 days”.
International Journal of Philosophy (SciencePG) Criticism 1 │ Criticism 2 Critical remark (2017): Listed by SPJ; Alternative indexing and also IF from Universal Impact Factor (now defunct); Promises a two-week peer review. Thorough reviews in April and November 2018 conclude that it seems to exhibit at least 10 or 8 of the 25 criteria for “predatory” journals and also find obvious examples of pseudo-science among the published articles.
International Journal of Philosophy and Theology(American Research Institute for Policy Development) Criticism 1 │Criticism 2 │ Criticism 3
Critical remark: A thorough review in June 2018 concludes that “there are grounds to believe that the American Research Institute never intended to create a serious scientific periodical and that, on the contrary, its publications are out-and-out predatory journals.”
We need to do research to know what people think is important in genetic risk information. What they prefer to know. But how do we find out? One way is to ask people to answer questionnaires.
One problem with questionnaires is that they ask one thing at a time. Do you prefer a hotel room with a sea view when you are on vacation? You probably answer yes. But do you prefer the sea view even if the room is above the disco, or costs 500 EUR per night? If you only ask one thing at a time, then it is difficult to know how different factors interact, how important they are relative to each other.
One way to get past this limitation is to ask people to choose between two alternatives, where the alternatives have several different attributes.
Hotel room A: (1) View: sea (2) Price: 200 EUR per night (3) Distance to the center: 30 minutes walk (4) Sound level: high.
Hotel room B: (1) View: parking (2) Price: 100 EUR per night (3) Distance to the center: 40 minutes bus ride (4) Sound level: low.
Which room do you choose, A or B? The choice tasks are repeated while the attributes are varied systematically. In this way, one can learn more about what people prefer, than through a regular questionnaire. One can see how different attributes interact and which attributes are more important than others are. One can also calculate how much more important an attribute is over another.
The same kind of study can be done about genetic risk information instead of hotel rooms. Jennifer Viberg Johansson at CRB recently did such a study. Four attributes of the risk information were varied in the choice tasks:
(1) Type of disease (2) Probability of developing disease (3) Preventive opportunities (4) Effectiveness of the preventive measure.
Which of the attributes was most important to the people who participated in the study? How much more important was it?
It turned out that the most important attribute was the effectiveness of the preventive measure. If the information contained an effective preventive measure, the respondents clearly preferred that information. The effectiveness of the preventive measure was twice as important to know, compared to the probability of developing the disease.
Apparently, it is important for people to be able to influence the risk. One conclusion in the study is that when risk information says that there is an effective preventive measure, then risk communication can focus more on the preventive measure than on the probability of developing disease.
The method is called, “Discrete Choice Experiment.” If you want to look more closely at the method and get more results, read Jennifer Viberg Johansson’s article in Genetics in Medicine.
The emergence of several national level brain initiatives and the priority given to neuroscientific research make it important to examine the values underpinning the research, and to address the ethical, social, legal, philosophical, and regulatory issues that it raises.
Neuroscientific insights allow us to understand more about the human brain: about its dynamic nature and about its disorders. These insights also provide the basis for potentially manipulating the brain through neurotechnology and pharmacotherapy. Research in neuroscience thus raises multiple concerns: From questions about the ethical significance of natural and engineered neural circuitry, to the issue of how a biological model or a neuroscientific account of brain disease might impact individuals, communities, and societies at large. From how to protect human brain data to how to determine and guard against possible misuses of neuroscientific findings.
Furthermore, the development and applications of neuro-technology to alleviate symptoms or even enhance the human brain raise further concerns, such as their potential impact on the personality, agency, and autonomy of some users. Indeed, some empirical findings appear to even challenge long held conceptions about who we are, the capacity to choose freely, consciousness, and moral responsibility.
Neuroethics is the field of study devoted to examining these critical issues. Unfortunately, it has sometimes been reduced to a subfield of applied ethics understood as a merely procedural approach. However, in our understanding, neuroethics is methodologically much richer. It is concerned not just with using ethical theory to address normative issues about right and wrong, but notably with providing needed conceptual clarification of the relevant neuroscientific and philosophical notions. Only by having conceptual clarity about the challenges presented will we be able to address and adequately manage them.
So understood, neuroethics plays a key role in the Human Brain Project (HBP). The HBP is a European Community Flagship Project of Information and Computing Technologies (ICT). It proposes that to achieve a fuller understanding of the brain, it is necessary to integrate the massive volumes of both already available data and new data coming from labs around the world. Expected outcomes include the creation and operation of an ICT infrastructure for neuroscience and brain related research in medicine and computing. The goal is to achieve a multilevel understanding of the brain (from genes to cognition), its diseases and the effects of drugs (allowing early diagnoses and personalised treatments), and to capture the brain’s computational capabilities.
The HBP is funded by the European Commission in the framework of the EU’s Horizon 2020 research-funding programme. The programme promotes responsible research and innovation (RRI). RRI is generally understood as an interactive process that engages social actors, researchers, and innovators who must be mutually responsive and work towards the ethical permissibility of the relevant research and its products. The goal is to ensure that scientific progress and innovation are responsible and sustainable: that they increase individual and societal flourishing and maximize the common good.
To develop, broaden, and enhance RRI within the project, the HBP established the Ethics and Society subproject. Ethics and Society is structured around a number of RRI activities such as foresight analysis (to identify at an early stage ethical and social concerns), citizens’ engagement (to promote involvement with different points of view and to strengthen public dialogue), and ethics support (to carry out research in applied ethics and to develop principles and mechanisms that ensure that ethical issues raised by research subprojects are communicated and managed and that HBP researchers comply with ethical codes and legal norms).
Neuroethical reflection plays a key role in this integration of social, scientific, and ethical inquiry. Notably, in the HBP such reflection includes conceptual and philosophical analysis. Insofar as it does, neuroethics aims to offer more than assistance to neuroscientists and social scientists in identifying the social, political, and cultural components of the research. Via conceptual analysis, neuroethics attempts to open a productive space within the HBP for examining the relevant issues, carrying out self-critical analysis, and providing the necessary background to examine potential impacts and issues raised. Neuroethical reflection in the HBP does not exclusively focus on ethical applications and normative guidance. Rather, it takes as a starting point the view that the full range of issues raised by neuroscience cannot be adequately dealt with without also focusing on the construction of knowledge, the meaning of the relevant notions, and the legitimacy of the various interpretations of relevant scientific findings.
At present, the importance of neuroethics is not in question. It is a key concern of the International Brain Initiative, and the different international brain projects are trying to integrate neuroethics into their research in different ways. What continues to be unique to neuroethics in the HBP, however, is its commitment to the idea that making progress in addressing the host of ethical, social, legal, regulatory and philosophical issues raised by brain research to a great extent depends on a conceptual neuroethical approach. It enables constructive critical alertness and a thought-out methodology that can achieve both substantial scientific ground and conceptual clarity.
If you want to read more, see below a list of publications on which this post is based.
It is well known that patients who are asked to participate in cancer trials are tempted by the therapeutic misconception. They believe they are offered a newer and better treatment, when in fact it is about research into an untested treatment. When researchers use genetic tests to develop personalized oncology, even more misconceptions can arise. I will soon explain. But first, what is personalized cancer treatment? Here is an example.
Patients whose tumor is to be operated may undergo preparatory radiation or chemotherapy. Since the preparatory therapy has severe side effects, one wants to avoid giving it to patients whose tumors do not respond to it. The challenge is to distinguish patients who respond to treatment from patients who do not. This is to be accomplished through, among other things, genetic tests on the tumor cells. If this works, you can develop personalized cancer treatment. Patients with the “right” tumor cell genetics receive the preparatory therapy, while patients who, according to the genetic tests, only get the side effects, with no effect on tumor growth, do not receive the therapy.
What are the misconceptions that can arise in patients who are asked to participate in research on personalized cancer treatment? Here are some examples.
Patients who are told that the researchers will do genetic tests can feel a genetic responsibility to participate, considering their children and grandchildren. They believe the test results may be relevant to close relatives, who may have the same disease genes. However, the tests are done on mutated tumor cells and therefore say nothing about inherited cancer risk. A sense of genetic responsibility can thus be triggered by the word “genetics” and create a genetic misconception of research in personalized oncology.
Other misconceptions have to do with the positive language used to describe personalized medicine. One talks about personally “optimized” treatments, about “tailored” treatments, about treatments that are adapted “to the individual.” This language use is not intended to mislead, but it is easy to see how words such as “optimization” can cause patients to believe that research participation means special treatment benefit.
The biggest challenge is perhaps to explain the research purpose behind the positive language. The aim is to be able in the future to distinguish between patients, to “stratify” them, as it less positively is called. Personally optimized care actually means that some patients do not receive certain treatments. This is, of course, reasonable if genetic tests can show that they have no benefit from the treatments but only get the side effects. However, what do cancer patients themselves say about stratified cancer treatment, where some patients are identified as non-responders and therefore are not offered the same treatment as other patients? Finally, do participants understand that “tailored treatment” is a future goal of the study and not something they are offered to try?
Communication with patients recruited for studies in personalized oncology faces many challenges, as patients are tempted by even more misconceptions than just the well-known therapeutic misconception.
Do you want to know more? Read the German study that inspired this blog post.
Outside of their practical contexts, simple messages quickly lose their meaning. Recall what it is like to find an old Post-it Note: “Don’t forget the disk!” – What disk? The risk is great that we invent a context. Incomprehensible messages awaken our imagination.
Similarly, messages about genetic risk need practical contexts that make the information meaningful and prevent nightmarish imaginations. The information needs to become part of a larger drama. Otherwise, we begin to fantasize: “Greatly increased risk of breast cancer.” – What do they mean, “greatly increased”? What do they mean, “breast cancer”? What do they mean, “risk”?
The difficulty of understanding and benefitting from genetic risk information is probably partly due to lack of context. The potential for generating risk information is growing rapidly. All this information is waiting for its dramas: contexts where people can ask concrete questions and get practical advice. Educational methods for explaining percentages cannot replace the loss of context. People who get genetic risk information need to know more about the disease they are at risk of developing. They may want to know if they should notify the employer of the risk. They may want to know if something can be done to reduce the risk. They may want to know what it is like to live with the disease, or with the risk of getting it. How is the family affected? Can you work having the disease? Should one worry or is it reasonable to hope that one will not get the disease? And so on.
In short, well-functioning genetic risk information has two dimensions. First, an individual dimension: “You have a greatly increased risk of…” Secondly, a general dimension: Practical instructions on a wide variety of issues that people need to know more about, and about which they otherwise begin to fantasize.
To speak the language of the theater: The individual dimension (the simple risk message) is the lines. The general dimension is the stage directions. Genetic risk information consists of both lines and stage directions.
When we discuss whether genetic risk information empowers people to influence their future health or just worries them, when we discuss the difficulty of understanding risk information, we should be clearly aware of these two dimensions of the information. Are we discussing the lines or the stage directions? Or are we discussing the lines together with the stage directions?
Which dimension of genetic risk information is most relevant to the individual? Perhaps the lines are merely a reason for moving on to the stage directions. The dramatic risk lines may speak mainly to the healthcare staff, while the individual above all needs the stage directions.
One could not work at a theater without distinguishing between lines and stage directions. Perhaps something similar applies to genetic risk information.
Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are considered to be the gold standard for determining a causal effect of medical interventions. To achieve this aim, possible confounding factors must be avoided. This implies excluding many patients from participating in the trial, for example, patients with concomitant conditions. A negative consequence of these exclusions, however, is limited generalizability. Studying the artificially uniform participant group, you will be able to determine a causal effect, but you will know much less about real-life treatment outcomes in the population where the intervention actually will be used.
Further artificiality is created by the written informed consent procedure, which excludes even further patients from participating in the trial. Moreover, because they know they participate in a clinical trial, participants may change their behavior.
All this points to the importance of so-called pragmatic randomized controlled trials. In such trials, the effectiveness of two approved and routinely prescribed medicines are compared in normal clinical practice. This avoids most of the artificiality of RCTs and significantly improves generalizability and practical clinical relevance. Randomization is still required for scientific purposes, however, and written informed consent is an ethical obligation.
The demand for written informed consent is an obstacle to pragmatic trials. By creating, once again, artificial selection of patients, results continue to be less generalizable, which detracts from the whole point of conducting pragmatic trials. In a recent paper in the BMJ, twelve authors, among them, Stefan Eriksson at CRB, therefore argue that “EU clinical trial regulations should be revised to allow the waiver or modification of informed consent in low risk pragmatic trials.”
Some would consider this suggestion to be controversial. We need to keep in mind, however, the extremely low risks of studies that compare standardly prescribed medicines in normal clinical practice. We need to balance that low risk against the enormous social value of generalizable findings in evidence-based medicine.
What does taking something seriously mean? Seriously, I do not think there is a given answer. A common view, however, is that serious questions must have given answers: definitive either/or answers. Without either/or answers, truth seeking degenerates into irresponsible chattering. Embryo destruction is either murder or not murder (banging one’s fist on the table). Embryo research is either permissible or not permissible (banging one’s fist on the table).
Seriousness is polarized, one could say. If I were to take polarized seriousness seriously, which seems reasonable since nothing could be more serious than seriousness itself, I would have to ask: Is seriousness polarized or not? Either it is polarized or it is not polarized! I say this resolutely, banging my fist on the table. However, the question itself is polarized. My resolution and categorical banging suddenly appear comically embarrassing. My gestures seem to run ahead of me, answering the question I thought I asked seriously by making them. What happened? Did I reach the limit of seriousness, beyond which I no longer can ask serious questions about seriousness without ending up in self-contradiction?
Perhaps I just reached the limit of small seriousness, where great seriousness can begin. Contradicting myself need not be as bad as it sounds. Perhaps I did not even know I existed until I contradicted myself. My polarized reasoning ran aground. The sunken rock was myself. Self-contradiction allowed self-discovery. For we are not dealing with two contradictory propositions, so that we must seriously investigate which of them is the true proposition and which of them is the false proposition. I was contradicted by how I myself banged my fist on the table and said, resolutely, “either-or.”
Let us be grateful for the self-contradiction. It can open our eyes to another seriousness: the seriousness of self-reflection, where we, as Confucius says, turn around and seek the cause of our failure within ourselves. Thank you, dear self-contradiction. You may be embarrassing, but just for that reason I know that I am alive and not just a propositional machine that easily can be replaced by an online chatbot!
Why do I bring up these remarkable things? Perhaps because it would be tragic if we misunderstood contemplative thinking as superfluous in an empirically founded age. Schopenhauer said something similar: “Pure empiricism is related to thinking as eating is to digestion and assimilation. When empiricism boasts that it alone has, through its discoveries, advanced human knowledge, it is as if the mouth should boast that it alone keeps the body alive.”
Trying seriously to write a blogpost about seriousness, however, is risky. For blogposts are easily circulated as mere opinions. If you were to render the content of this post, you would almost certainly be forced to polarize it as a delimited position that is either true or false. If we followed Schopenhauer’s advice, however, we would give ourselves plenty of time to quietly digest, through thinking, the strange things said in the post. Such peaceful and quiet digestion of thoughts is beyond the capacity of chatterboxes and chatbots.
Do not misunderstand my joking style. It is meant seriously to avoid being taken seriously. The Chinese thinker, Chuang Tzu, did not want to be perceived as a pedant, so he said to his audience, “I’m going to try speaking some reckless words to you and I want you to listen to them recklessly.”
Chuang Tzu was a great thinker who did not want to be taken seriously as a small one.