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Archive for March, 2011

An article about bioethics in the Times gives a frightening example of the way language can be distorted to misrepresent the truth and skew an ethical argument (last Friday, 11 March, page 3). It makes you wonder whether it’s just lazy journalism, or whether the Times has some particular interest in slanting the ethical debate in these areas.

 

Painting by David S. Goodsell - mitochondria at top right

The article is about a new ‘therapy’ designed to cure mitochondrial failure, which can cause fatal conditions that affect about 100 children in Britain each year. These are the facts, reported in a ‘How it works’ box at the side, and sifted from the body of the article: two embryos are created, both from the father’s sperm, but one from the mother’s egg, and one from a donor’s egg. Two pronuclei are taken from the ‘mother/father’ embryo, which is then discarded. These are then placed in the ‘donor/father’ embryo (from which the pronuclei have been removed), which has healthy mitochondria. This newly ‘created’ embryo is implanted in the mother’s womb and allowed to gestate.

So let’s be clear: an embryo is harvested (I can’t find a better work) of its pronuclei, then discarded, and another embryo is given new pronuclei and allowed to grow. It’s embryos we are talking about. Leave aside for the moment what you think about the personhood of embryos, or their dignity or worth, or whether they have a soul, etc. The scientific point that no biologist would deny is that an embryo is a human life in its very earliest states; a new creature, at the beginning of its life, biologically/genetically distinct from the life of its parents.

Mark Henderson, Science Editor in the Times, does explain all this. But he peppers the article with ambiguous phrases about what is actually happening. First, in the main article, he writes that ‘the treatment involves merging DNA from two fertilised eggs, one from the mother, the other from a donor’ [my italics here and below]. This is strictly true, but it’s a strange way of referring to embryos. It would be much more natural to talk about two embryos rather than two fertilised eggs, and the suspicion is that this is a way of drawing attention away from the reality that embryos are being harvested and discarded.

Second, in a Commentary box also written by Henderson, he writes, ‘The notion of creating a baby with a small genetic contribution from a third parent is bound to strike some people as controversial’. This is a misleading. The mitochondrial DNA in the new embryo will have been indirectly inherited from the donor – in this limited sense the donor makes a ‘contribution’; but it is actually taken from the embryo that has been created from the donor’s egg and father’s sperm. The ‘small genetic contribution’ is not taken from a third parent (which sounds like a benign piece of information), it is taken from a newly created human embryo.

Notice how Henderson is comfortable calling the finally created healthy embryo a ‘baby’, but never refers to the discarded embryo that has had its two nuclei removed as a baby.

Henderson goes on to say in his Commentary that the new procedure adds a fresh dimension to issues of surrogacy and egg donation ‘because a third person will also contribute a small amount of DNA to the baby’. I presume he is trying to say that the third person contributing the DNA is the donor. Once again, it’s true that the mitochondrial DNA is indirectly inherited from the donor, but the ‘contribution’ is made directly by the embryo not the donor.

Then, in the caption underneath the photograph of a baby’s foot held in an adult’s hand, we read that ‘The technique replaces faulty mitochondria from the mother with a healthy form from a second egg‘. This is completely untrue. The healthy mitochondria do not come from an egg, they come from a newly created embryo, which has its pronuclei replaced with the pronuclei from another embryo.

The ‘How it works’ box is both honest and dishonest at the same time: the text says ‘These [pronuclei] are injected into a healthy embryo‘; yet the caption right beside it, under the illustration, says ‘Egg with healthy mitochondria‘. Perhaps Henderson was not responsible for these captions and boxes.

You may think I’m being obsessive about language. It just frightens me how language can be manipulated in a reputable newspaper to distort the truth and mask both the scientific and ethical reality of one of the most serious issues facing our culture. It makes you wonder whether the Times is seeking to promote a controversial scientific procedure rather than just report it and let the facts speak for themselves.

Here is the full Commentary [subscription required]:

The notion of creating a baby with a small genetic contribution from a third parent is bound to strike some people as controversial.

Yet Professor Turnbull’s team, which has developed the new IVF technique, is driven by the noblest of ethical motives: the desire to help families affected by a devastating burden of disease.

If the procedure is approved by Andrew Lansley, it stands to help women like Sharon Bernardi, from Sunderland, who has seen six children die in infancy because they inherited mitochondrial disorder.

When Professor Turnbull published promising results a year ago, she posed for photographs with her son Edward, then 20, who had a mitochondrial condition called Leigh’s disease.

Mr Bernardi died last week. As scientists began to consider whether the therapy should be used on patients, his death serves to illustrate the terrible impact these disorders can have — and the need for prevention.

When weighing the advice they will give to Mr Lansley, the expert panel he has convened will consider the safety and effectiveness of Professor Turnbull’s procedure.

They will want to see evidence that human embryos created this way appear to be normal, as well as the results of animal studies.

The medical benefits will need to outweigh the risks that are always involved when techniques like this move from laboratory and animal experiments into human reproduction. There are also ethical issues to be considered.

The principle that more than two parents can contribute biologically to the birth of a child is already recognised in Britain, as egg donation and surrogacy are legal. The new procedure adds a fresh dimension, however, because a third person will also contribute a small amount of DNA to the baby.

Embryo-rights groups will oppose the technique, because it involves merging two embryos, one of which is destroyed. It will also concern some people who object to manipulating DNA in irreversible ways, even if there is a medical benefit, or who feel it is wrong to subject a potential child to a procedure to which it cannot consent.

Mr Lansley could approve the work himself, but given its controversial nature he is more likely to give MPs a free vote. This would provide the first test of this Parliament’s attitude towards bio-ethics. David Cameron, whose disabled son Ivan died in 2009, is understood to be privately supportive.

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With a title like ‘Plagiarism and the internet’, you are expecting me to write about how plagiarism is infinitely easier and infinitely more common than it was before the advent of the internet. Well it is. But it’s also true that the internet has made it a lot easier to discover whether someone is plagiarising, and where they are getting their materials from.

Jimmy Wales, one of the Wikipedia founders, explains all.

The German defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has announced his resignation after admitting that he had plagiarised parts of his PhD from the University of Bayreuth. Online tools played a big role in exposing his methods: for almost two weeks a group worked to identify the specific sections from his thesis that were lifted straight from other sources. When they realised that Google Docs – although a useful tool for small group collaboration – wasn’t the right platform for mass participation in the project, they created a “wiki” (a site for collaborative works) named PlagiPedia to handle the effort.

In just a few days the wiki went into overdrive: from no page views on 16 February to nearly 2m on 18 February. A university investigation – culminating in a decision described by Debora Weber–Wulff, a professor of media and computing at Berlin university, as the fastest by a German academic institution in 400 years – resulted in the revocation of Zu Guttenberg’s doctorate. To date, the wiki has received 40,000 comments and 15,000 Facebook “likes”, and there are 1,224 pages on it exploring the details of the accusations of plagiarism against him.

Last week a second wiki was launched to explore whether Saif Gaddafi’s PhD thesis from the London School of Economics included plagiarism. A few days later Britain’s Media Standards Trust unveiled a website called churnalism.com which helps expose plagiarism in the media. By pasting press releases into a “churn engine” readers can discover the extent to which they have been recycled, verbatim, in online news articles. The internet is thought to have fostered a cut-and-paste culture of uncritical plagiarism: schoolteachers and university lecturers in particular regularly complain about coursework lifted straight off the site that I run, Wikipedia. But, if nothing else, sites like Plagipedia and churnalism.com show us that the internet is perfectly capable of correcting its own follies.

Of course Saif Gaddafi is guilty of far worse than plagiarism. But his history with the LSE is a black mark for the institution, and in particular for the examiners, such as Lord Desai, who approved his thesis. We may be able to forgive them some aspects of this – plagiarism is sometimes notoriously difficult to detect, particularly when you have only a small committee of experts doing the examining.

In the open-source software world we have a saying: “Many eyeballs make all bugs shallow.” Similarly, many people working together to look for plagiarism can be dramatically more effective than only a few.

The key internet rule now is not to avoid copying, but to admit it when you do.

The text on the image reads:

You go on YouTube for example and you post a video clip…within hours you’ll have hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people doing variations of your act….It used to be that if you were in the realm of popular culture, you would be inspired by an earlier performance, by an earlier style, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, for example. But that would really be incumbent upon you to create an original style, a trademark style. That’s what you were known by. Now the important thing is to copy. It’s a copy culture. [Lee Siegel, author of Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob]

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Many discussions about freedom try to push you to an extreme position: you are either completely determined and in denial about this, or radically free to determine what you will do and who you will become. [WARNING: minor plot-spoilers coming up]

The film The Adjustment Bureau, based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, has a nice take on this. The visible, historical world – our ordinary reality – is watched over by members of the Adjustment Bureau. Their job is to make sure that the Plan unfolds as it should – a Plan for human civilisation as a whole, and for each individual. But instead of pulling every string, like Ed Harris sitting in his control room in The Truman Show, they let things take their own course, and step in every now and then to make minor ‘adjustments’, carefully planned interventions that nudge our lives in one direction or another, without causing too many ‘ripples’ that might cause us to think we are in hands of a higher power. We experience these adjustments as accidents or chance events, but they are the workings of an invisible fate giving shape to our lives. The plot turns on a wonderful scene when one member of the Bureau misses his cue, and someone doesn’t spill a cup of coffee as they are meant to, so that the Plan unravels.

The film illustrates a simple truth: that the whole course of our lives depends on chance events and unplanned encounters. It takes up these themes from those wonderful films Wings of Desire and Run Lola Run. We think we are, to a certain extent, in control of our lives; yet we are not in control of the insignificant happenings that have most significance for our lives. Is it Fate? Providence? Chance?

It’s a light-hearted thriller-cum-comedy-romance, beautifully executed, with one or two weighty ideas from Dick. It has the feel of a Magritte painting come to life. If you like sci-fi, Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, or casual musings about human freedom, you’ll enjoy it. And if you like all four, as I do, you’ll have a ball.

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Last Saturday saw the first ever World Book Night, when a million books were given away across the UK. The Guardian had the wonderful idea of asking writers which books they most often give as gifts, and which they’ve been most pleased to receive. Take a look here – it gives you so many new ideas about what to read.

This, as an example, is Margaret Atwood’s entry:

The book I most often give as a gift is The Gift, by Lewis Hyde (Canongate). I keep four or five copies around the house at all times, for swift giving to people who need them. Most often they are artists of one kind or another, and are worrying about the disconnect between what they do and how hard they work, and how little money they make. Hyde’s book explains the differences between the money economy in which we think we live, and the gift economy, in which we also live. Gifts – including artistic gifts – travel in mysterious ways, but travel they must, or else they die. The Gift is essential reading for anyone who has embarked on this journey. (It also inspired the creators of World Book Night. That is one of its gifts.)

Twenty-five titles were chosen to be given away. How? The World Book Night website explains that they “were selected by a committee of people committed to books, based on recommendations from publishers, booksellers and others”.

I’ve copied the covers below. If you click on the title-links it takes you to the World Book Night comments on the book. (I can’t get all the titles and covers to line up nicely – oh well!)

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Perhaps I’m overstating it in the title, but new research from the States shows that the Catholic Church there is much better at retaining old members than it is recruiting new ones. Or more precisely, it is not losing members any faster than any other mainstream Christian body; the problem is that it is not gaining them very effectively. As John Allen says: “To put all that into crass capitalistic terms, in America’s highly competitive religious marketplace, the real Catholic problem isn’t customer service but new sales.”

St Patrick's Cathedral, New York

 

Here is his analysis of the 2008 “Religious Landscape Survey” from the Pew Forum. You can read his interview with the people at the Pew Forum here.

Try as we might to remind ourselves that the Catholic church isn’t Microsoft and that quantitative measures of success or failure don’t always correspond to the logic of the Gospel, most of us take that lesson to heart only selectively. Some Catholics can’t resist touting the huge crowds at World Youth Day as an endorsement of their version of orthodoxy; others cite polling majorities in favor of reform on birth control and other issues as proof of the sensus fidelium.

The most powerful recent instance of that temptation has been Catholic reaction to the 2008 “Religious Landscape Survey” from the Pew Forum, which documented a remarkable fluidity in religious affiliation in America — almost half of American adults have either switched religions or dropped their ties to religion altogether.

For Catholicism, the banner headline was that there are now 22 million ex-Catholics in America, by far the greatest net loss for any religious body. One in three Americans raised Catholic have left the church. Were it not for immigration, Catholicism in America would be contracting dramatically: for every one member the church adds, it loses four. On the other hand, the study also found that the Catholic church has a higher retention rate than other major Christian denominations, and that 2.6 percent of the adult population is composed of converts to Catholicism, representing a pool of nearly six million new Catholics.

Naturally, critics of various aspects of Catholic life, such as the sexual abuse crisis or what some see as an overly conservative ideological drift, see the defections as proof of malaise. (A prominent American theologian recently claimed the Pew data reveal a “mass exodus” from the church, which he linked to a preoccupation by some bishops with the culture wars.) Equally predictably, Catholics content with the status quo play up the good news.

Given the disparities in interpretation, I turned to the director of the Pew Forum, Luis Lugo, to try to understand what the data really have to say. I spoke to Lugo by phone Thursday morning, and we were joined by Pew senior researcher Greg Smith.

Here’s the bottom line: In comparison with other religious groups in America, the Catholic church’s struggles aren’t really with pastoral care, but missionary muscle. Overall, Catholicism serves existing members fairly well, as measured by the share that chooses to stick around; what it doesn’t do nearly as well is to evangelize. The data do not reflect widespread dissatisfaction in the pews, at least to any greater extent than other religious bodies face. Instead, they reveal a problem with getting people into the pews in the first place.

To put all that into crass capitalistic terms, in America’s highly competitive religious marketplace, the real Catholic problem isn’t customer service but new sales.

Even if one were to focus just on defections, it’s not clear which ideological camp in today’s church could claim vindication. While many former Catholics object to church teachings on issues such as abortion and homosexuality, one in ten Protestant Evangelicals in America today is also an ex-Catholic, many of whom deserted Catholicism because it wasn’t conservative enough. Finally, there’s a clear plug for youth ministry implied in the Pew data: Roughly two-thirds of those who abandon Catholicism do so before they’re 23, which means the make-or-break period is adolescence and early adulthood.

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I’m just back from a night in Chester – two hours from Euston on the train. In fact the hotel I stayed in was just over the Welsh border;so I wasn’t just out of London, I was out of England.

It’s good to be reminded that London is not ordinary life for everyone in Britain. I expected the “it’s too big, too busy, too brash” attitude. One man I met, brought up in Chester, reflected on a recent trip to London, and told me how he was amazed that you had to stand on the right-hand side of the escalators so that other people could rush past you on the other side. Why not just take your time and let the escalator do the work? Why not indeed.

I remembered that just this week I was standing on an escalator behind two people who were talking to each other – a very ordinary and beautiful thing to do – but they were on the same step, and so one of them was standing on the left-hand side! And I was thinking at the time ‘are you crazy, just standing there blocking the clear line of the fast lane?’ When someone came racing down and wanted to pass, he moved out of the way immediately, but then he went back to his position on the left!

You can tell how mad my stream-of-consciousness thinking has become in the apparent normality of this London madness. And how right the good people of Chester are to be bemused and a little concerned by all this.

But the other conversation I had about my home city surprised and heartened me a lot. When I was talking about the escalator conversation later in the evening, someone else said that they had visited London recently with friends, and they had all commented, reflecting on their different experiences, that London seemed a friendlier place than it had been a few years ago – for them as visitors. People were more helpful, more willing to talk, happier to engage.

If it’s true, isn’t that great? And if it’s true, I wonder why? Is it because London is more multicultural, so the natural English reserve has given way to the openness that perhaps comes more easily to people brought up in different cultures? Is it because customers have higher expectations about how they should be treated in shops and restaurants and entertainment venues, and businesses are better at training staff and responding to these expectations? Or is it because of some deeper shift in the zeitgeist? I’m not sure. But it warmed my heart to think that one or two random people from outside London had gone home with good impressions of the city and of those of us who live here, despite our obsession with standing on the right of the escalators.

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There has been a lot of comment about the role of Facebook and other social media in publicising and facilitating the uprisings in the Arab world and beyond. Lawrence Pintak writes about the indispensable role played by Al Jazeera, the Arabic satellite TV channel.

As darkness fell on Tahrir Square the night of Feb. 1, a giant makeshift TV screen broadcast Al Jazeera’s live coverage of the Egyptian uprising to the enthusiastic crowd. The channel would later transmit Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s speech, in which he announced that he would not stand for reelection but would stay in office for the remainder of his term; below the screen, the protesters chanted their displeasure at what they viewed as this insufficient concession.

It was a moment that spoke volumes about the unique link between the Qatar-based channel, the uprising in Egypt, and the Tunisian revolution that was its inspiration.

It also underscored the new reality facing Arab regimes: They no longer control the message.

Since Jan. 28, Al Jazeera has been playing a cat-and-mouse game with the Mubarak regime, which knocked it off the government-controlled Nilesat satellite, shut its bureau, seized its transmission equipment, and arrested some of its staff.

But over the weekend, at least 10 other satellite broadcasters in the region began replacing their own programming with Al Jazeera’s feed, foiling the Egyptian regime’s efforts to prevent its citizens from watching the channel that has become its chief nemesis.

“We have been working round the clock to make sure we are broadcasting on alternative frequencies,” Al Jazeera said in a statement on its website. “Clearly there are powers that do not want our important images pushing for democracy and reform to be seen by the public.”

And therein lies the reason Al Jazeera has emerged as such a central player in the drama now unfolding in the region. Unlike the bland, state-owned Egyptian station, or its more conservative, Saudi-owned rival Al Arabiya, Al Jazeera has captured the hopes of the crowds gathering on the streets of Cairo.

“The genius of Arab satellite TV,” Abderrahim Foukara, Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera, once told me, “is that it [has] captured a deep-seated common existential pain called Arab sensibility and turned it into a picture narrative that speaks to something very deep in the Arab psyche.”

Put another way: There is no chance that the world would be watching these extraordinary events play out in Egypt if Egyptians had not watched the Tunisian revolution play out in their living rooms and coffee shops on Al Jazeera.

If you don’t know the history of the channel, Pintak fills in the gaps here:

Change was Al Jazeera’s raison d’être from the day 15 years ago when the upstart ruler of the tiny emirate of Qatar founded the channel, which he called Al Jazeera (“The Peninsula,” named for the tiny thumb of desert that comprised his Gulf fiefdom). He hired a bunch of out-of-work Arab journalists who had lost their jobs with the BBC and gave them a mandate: Make his rival autocrats uncomfortable — and boost his political juice throughout the region in the process…

That is not to say the Arab media is a monolith or that Al Jazeera is without its critics in the Arab world. Just as Fox and MSNBC attract partisans in the United States, Arabs turn to Al Jazeera, its Saudi-owned rival Al Arabiya or various other channels, depending on their politics. Many claim Al Jazeera supports the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, a notion bolstered by its recent WikiLeaks-style release of secret documents from the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which has undermined the Palestinian Authority. And there has long been a perception that the Qatar-based channel is anti-Mubarak. Whether that is a good or bad thing lies in the eye of the beholder.

Among many other things, it shows you the continued significance of television, even in an age of digital communication and social media. If you haven’t seen it, take a look at the English language 24-hour news channel here. I’m not clued-up enough to know where it sits in terms of politics, bias, etc; but it certainly gives you a different perspective from the usual UK channels.

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