Category Archives: Ethics

#shirtstorm: men hurting science.

Or “why the signs and symbols that create the Leaky Pipeline are unethical, and compromise the integrity of science itself.” This post because Katie Hinde asked, and this is just as important as the other writing I’m doing.

If you float through my sector of the Internet, you’ve probably heard or seen something about #shirtstorm: the clown in the Rosetta project—which just landed a robot on a comet—who decided it’d be the height of taste to be interviewed wearing this:

Yes, that’s Rosetta scientist Matt Taylor in a shirt depicting a range of mostly-naked women. The sexist, completely unprofessional character of this fashion choice is pretty obvious. Taylor also doubled down by saying of the mission “she is sexy, but I never said she is easy.”

Way to represent your field, mate.

Better people than me have talked about why the shirt is sexist, why it marginalizes women, why the response is horrid, and why the shirt—as a sign—is bad news. I’ve also seen a lot of defenders of Taylor responding in ways that can be boiled down to “woah, man [because really, it is always “man”], I just came here for the science.”

But the pointy end of that is that this does hurt science. Taylor, and his defenders, are hurting science—the knowledge base—with their actions.

As a set of claims about the world, science is pretty fabulous for the way that claims can be subjected to the scrutiny of testing, replication, and review. Science advances because cross-checking new findings is a function of the institution of science. It’s a system that has accomplished also sorts of amazing things—including putting a robot on a comet.

Image courtesy Randall Munroe under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License

Yet science advances only as far, and as fast, as its membership. This has actually been a problem for science all the way back to before it was routinely called “science,” when STEM was more or less just “natural philosophy” (“you’re welcome”—Philosophers). When American science—particularly American physics—was getting started in the 19th century, it went through an awful lot of growing pains trying to institutionalize and make sure the technically sweetest ideas made it to the top of the pile. It is the reason the American university research system exists, the American Association for the Advancement of Science exists, and why the American PhD system evolved the way it did (and yes, at the time it was basically about competing with Europe).

Every country has their own history, but the message is clear—you only get science to progress by getting people to ask the right questions, answer those questions, and then subject those questions to a robust critique.

The problem is that without a widely diverse group of practitioners, you aren’t going to get the best set of questions, or the best set of critiques. And asking questions and framing critiques is highly dependent on the context and character of the questioners.

The history of science abounds stories in which the person is a key part of asking the question, even as the theory lives on when they die (or move on to another question). Lise Meitner in the snow, elucidating the liquid drop model of atomic fusion. Léo Szilard crossing the street, enlightened by the progression of traffic lights into the thought of the nuclear chain reaction. Darwin and his finches. Goodall and her chimpanzees. Bose and his famous lecture that led him to his theories of quantum mechanics.

The point is that the ideas of great scientists, and the methods they use, depend on the person. Where they came from; how they experience the world. In order to find the best science, we need to start with the most robust starting sample of scientists we can.

When people are marginalized out of science—women, people of color, LGBQTI people, people with disabilities, people of other religions—the sample size decreases. Possible new perspectives and research projects vanish from science, because a bunch of straight white dudes just can’t think of it. That’s bad science. That’s bad society.

This has real, concrete implications for science and medicine. Susan Dodds, a philosopher and bioethicist at the University of Tasmania, has a wonderful paper called “Inclusion and exclusion in women’s access to health and medicine” (You can find the paper here). Dodds notes that the way our institutions are set up, access to healthcare and medical research is limited by the role of gender. Women’s health issues—again, in care and research—tend to be sidelined unless it has something to do with reproduction. This is to the point that research ostensibly designed to be sensitive to sex and gender often asks questions and uses methodology that limit the validity of experimental results to women, individually or as a group. The scientific community quite literally can’t answer questions properly for lack of diversity, and asks questions badly from an excess of sexism.

You can imagine how that translates across fields, and between different groups that STEM has traditionally marginalized.

So when you defend Matt Taylor, allow people to threaten Rose Eveleth, and tolerate the vitriol that goes on against women—in STEM and out of STEM—you limit the kinds of questions that can be asked of science, and the ways we have of answering those questions.

You corrupt science. You maim it. You warp it.

I realize this shouldn’t be a deciding factor—Matt Taylor’s actions are blameworthy even if he wasn’t engaged in a practice that contributes to the maiming of science. But for those who can’t be convinced by that, who “just want to be about the science,” take a good, long hard look at yourself.  If the litany of women scientists who never got credit for their efforts wasn’t bad enough, there are generations of women scientists—Curies, Meitners, Lovelaces, and Bourkes—that never were. We’re all poorer for that.

So next time you want to be “just about the science,” tell Matt Taylor to stick to the black polo.

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Paternalism, Procedure, Precedent: The Ethics of Using Unproven Therapies in an Ebola Outbreak

The World Health Organization convened an ethics panel on Monday to discuss the ethics of using experimental treatments in the current Ebola outbreak in—so far—Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria. The panel has, thankfully, concluded that “it is ethical to offer unproven interventions with as yet unknown efficacy and adverse effects, as potential treatment or prevention.”

Nonetheless, the reasons for this decision aren’t necessarily clear; statements like the one issued today are typically light on the details. My own experience on social media is that there isn’t a lot of clarity on the range of decisions we might take into account in coming to such a decision, and how we decide what’s important. And—believing, as I do, that ethics is as much a conversation as it is a set of decisions—that leaves open significant potential for misunderstanding and misrepresentation.

Kelly and I wrote the following over the weekend, but were sidetracked in posting it by pesky things like scientific accuracy, and the controversy that followed the announcement that a Spanish priest had also received the Zmapp treatment. We post this, as Kelly so beautifully put it, in the hope that it will be “is useful for answering the questions people who don’t have much background in ethics may have, as well as getting into the cultural zeitgeist for discussions not only about future pandemic situations but also discussions about disparate treatment of people from the Developed vs Developing World.”

[Cross-posted at Life as an Extreme Sport]

A “secret serum.” A vaccine. A cure. A miracle. With the announcement of the use of ZMapp to treat two Americans sick with the Ebola virus with apparently no ill effect, the hum and buzz on social media, commentary websites, and even the 24/7 news cycle, has become one of “should the serum be given to Africa? Will it?” The question has dominated for more than a week, and become something that the World Health Organization feels it needs to address by convening a panel of medical ethics experts to offer an analysis of what should be done.

And the general question about untested cures/vaccines in the event of a disease pandemic is an important one; there are already guidelines for what kind of treatments can and will be made available during a flu pandemic, and it seems quite sensible that a guideline be developed for all potential pandemic pathogens. However, it isn’t a question that is relevant in the current context, because we are already past that.

While people may be stating “should the serum be made available?” that’s not the question being asked.

It isn’t the question being asked, because we already know the answer: yes. In this last week, the serum has been made available—to Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol. The pair of American health care workers have received the ZMapp serum, which, until this past week, had not been tested on any human subjects. We already know that the answer to whether or not the serum should be made available is “yes”–or at least, “yes, to people like us.” [1]

Instead, more specifically, the implicit (and at times very explicit) question being asked is: “should the serum be made available to the West African countries suffering from the current Ebola outbreak?”

Your instinctive response to this might be “yes! This is clearly a matter of equality and justice; the lives of those people suffering from Ebola in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia, and Nigeria[2] are just as important as the Americans who were given the serum.” If so, good reader, then this essay is not addressed to you. After all, you have clearly reached the same conclusion we have: Why shouldn’t—assuming that Mapp can make good on its claims that it can manufacture sufficient quantities of their serum—those who are suffering have care made available? There are risks, to be sure. But those risks were clearly outweighed by the urgency of the situation in which Brantly and Writebol found themselves, and in which hundreds (if not thousands) of people across the Atlantic find themselves now.

And why not? If it is in our power to help those suffering, we ought to do so. Justice and equality are traditions upon which civilizations are based. Adam Smith, better known for his “invisible hand” of the market, believed that societies are only worthy when they are just. Peter Singer has argued that if we can help those in need at no cost to ourselves, we simply must do so. And Thomas Pogge has, for more then a decade now, argued that the historical injustices faced by countries who were preyed on by the West obligate those living today to assist in supporting the health systems of those countries, and bettering the lives of their citizens.

Indeed, the responses to “why not,” which attempt to justify not sharing a treatment already given to two people, has an uncomfortable relationship to the historical injustices that Pogge references. These objections, often made with good intentions, can be broadly broken down into three categories: paternalism; procedure; and precedent.

Paternalism

With paternalistic objections to proving experimental Ebola treatments to Western African nations in need, it’s common to hear concern about corruption, ability to consent, or even a call-back to previous, unethical testing on vulnerable human subjects. Perhaps the most common of these is the belief that all governments in Africa are corrupt maws that inhale non-governmental organization money and aid to prop up an exclusive elite at the expense of the rest of the country. The history of corruption, from the power voids left by colonial government departures, to the actual problems created by colonialism (complete with unnatural country delineations) are broadly recognized and, importantly, well beyond the scope of a post arguing that it is ethical to allow these countries self-determination.

A more specific ethical concern is that people who are gravely ill are often viewed as being unable to give consent, let alone informed consent. Much of the current outbreak has occurred outside of city areas, in rural and remote areas of the affected countries. There are some valid questions about whether or not people can genuinely understand the risks and benefits of using a completely experimental vaccine if they don’t have anything that easily maps onto the “basic education” system common in the developed world. There is also the fact that when people are gravely ill, they may not be cognizant and aware enough to grant consent, or that their family is so desperate for a cure that they will do anything, regardless of risk.

Neither of these issues, though, means that it is impossible for infected patients or their families to made determinations about what kind of care they would like to receive. An aspect of receiving informed consent is to make sure risk and benefit is described in a way that makes sense and is understandable to the people making the choices; in this, the reverence for autonomy of the individual should be respected, rather than the paternalistic instincts of those in positions of power.

Informed consent also ties into specific and ugly histories involving pharmaceutical testing and African countries. There is a history of many countries in Africa, like Zimbabwe and South Africa, being exploited for AZT trials, experimental hormonal contraceptive, and other drugs and devices. These trials are frequently coercive, and have contributed to the legacy of black bodies being manipulated and violated for “the benefit of all.”

Fears about consent and testing on vulnerable populations are valid; no one is saying to parachute the ZMapp serum down in little chilled coolers for willy-nilly application. Merely that, given the history of testing on vulnerable people and exploiting the populations of African countries, rather than standing in a position of authority saying “let us decide whether or not we will let you make your own decision,” the West should step aside and say “this is your choice.”

The difference here is stark: it’s a matter of forcing an option vs. accepting that the choice is to be made by someone not you (where “you” is “the West”), and that these countries are full-fledged countries who have their own systems and own choices.

Procedure

Others believe that there is an ethical issue in distributing the serum on a broad scale. Some people claim that the outbreak provides the perfect opportunity to conduct a large, randomized control trial (RCT)—the “gold standard” of medical research—of ZMapp. Others believe that such a trial is impossible in the context of a pandemic, and we should thus hold off from making the drug available for lack of ability to monitor the drug’s efficacy.

We believe both positions are false. By fetishizing the gold standard, we—the USA and developed world—miss the point of our role as participants in solving this disease outbreak. Standards of evidence required for drug use are different from country to country, even in the developed world. They are also different in different contexts, and levels of urgency. An RCT would introduce an element of testing to treatment that, given what we know about the justified mistrust that people in developing nations have of the developed world and their experiments, would creating more tensions in countries wary of Western medical interventions. The potential of an RCT to backfire and jeopardize the provision of care makes it unwise—without changing our conclusion that assistance must be rendered.

But the lack of wisdom in conducting an RCT doesn’t mean we should just throw up our hands and not assist. If the countries responsible for managing the outbreak thought it opportune, a large cohort study could be done where everyone who is able receives treatment, and the results are compared to the history of the virus over time. This might not allow researchers to control every factor, but it would go a long way to showing the efficacy of ZMapp the next time Ebola surfaces.

Talk of trials, however, misses the point of our role in participation in a more fundamental way. If you aid someone, you do so for their benefit on their terms. We don’t want to mandate data collection “for the good of West Africa.” We should ask the decision makers inside Guinea, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Liberia how we can best collect data with them, for them and their benefit as they see it.

The WHO has developed frameworks for this in other disease contexts, such as pandemic influenza.[3] While these need not define the scope of cooperation, the past can serve to guide deliberation on how best to assist. The WHO’s policies, by virtue of being reached through international consensus, gives extra weight to the global nature of this cooperation.

Precedent

The WHO can play an extra role in countering the paternalism of intervention by developed nations, while beginning the process to set a good precedent for future outbreaks. Jeremy Farrar, David Heynmann, and Peter Piot have argued that:

“The [WHO] could assist African countries with developing rigorous protocols for the use and study of experimental approaches to treatment and prevention, while coordinating more traditional containment measures. As the only body with the necessary international authority, it must take on this greater leadership role.” [5; emphasis added]

The capacity of the WHO to provide oversight, while still enabling African countries to enact their own protocols and treatment plans, is our best chance to address concerns over oversight of the outbreak. There is no denying that this outbreak is international, and without proper management more countries could see cases of Ebola arise. An international body is better equipped to do this with legitimacy, and without paternalism, than any one country alone. The recent declaration by the WHO that the Ebola outbreak is a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, and their accompanying recommendations, is the perfect backdrop for this type of action.

Compassion, or Colonialism

We have to ask ourselves if we want to continue inflicting the wounds of colonialism on African nations. Insisting that Americans are a “special case” when it comes to a disease with a current CFR of 56% only underscores a persistent mistrust: that people in the West get better treatment and care, because those lives are valued more than the lives in developing parts of the world. This fear can be seen in previous Ebola outbreaks: During the 2000-2001 Ugandan outbreak of Sudan ebolavirus, an existing pervasive belief that Euro-Americans visit Central Africa to harvest body parts for profit was amplified by infectious disease control efforts, resulting in infected individuals and their family running and hiding from medical treatment, magnifying the extent of the outbreak. Many local people during the 2002 outbreak of Zaire ebolavirus in the border areas of Gabon and the Republic of Congo believed that Ebola was a disease invented by the French to eliminate African populations (allowing the French unfettered access to their lands and materials).[4] Currently, people in Liberia are already asking why, if there is no cure for Ebola (the standard response on the ground), the Americans are being cured. [5]

The choice to use the experimental vaccine was already made; that genie is well and truly out of the bottle. The question you have to ask yourself is this: can you live with supporting the idea that the lives of Brantly and Writebol are more important than the life of Shiekh Umarr Kahn, the only virologist in Sierra Leone? What about Dr. Samuel Brisbane, the chief medical officer of one of Liberia’s medical centers? How about the other approximately 800 people spread between Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia, all of whom are certainly valued by the people within their lives.

Is this an appeal to emotion? Certainly. Sometimes decisions about what is moral, ethical, right, requires seeing the people you’re talking about as people, rather than numbers and statistics on the other side of an ocean. But that emotion can and should build into our conception of ethics and justice. Returning to the legacy of Adam Smith, “the relief of misery for its own sake is an impulse whose justification is a core intuition…of any plausible theory of moral thought.”[6]

We know that Ebola is a disease of missing infrastructure, poverty, and minimal health care systems. No one is suggesting that these countries not be given the help that they are asking for, in containing the disease, in implementing public health strategies, or in having access to any experimental cures and vaccines available. No one denies that there are ethical issues at stake. Nor are we stating a belief that ZMapp–or Tekmira, or any other unproven intervention–will stop the current outbreak. What we are advocating is merely that we, who have traditionally and unjustly held power over African nations, step back and accept our role as people to provide assistance, rather than determine it.

Kelly Hills and Nicholas Evans

[1]: While some light debate may have questioned whether or not Brantly and Writebol had the ability to consent, there has never been a serious question here in the USA of not giving them the serum.

[2]: Not “Africa.”

[3]: World Health Organization. Pandemic influenza preparedness Framework for the sharing of influenza viruses and access to vaccines and other benefits. Geneva, 2011. http://www.who.int/influenza/resources/pip_framework/en/ Accessed 8 August 2014.

[4] Hewlett BS, Hewlett BL. “Ebola, Culture and Politics: The Anthropology of an Emerging Disease,” pp 57;77. Thomson Wadsworth; Belmont, California; 2008.

[5] Farrar J, Heymann D, Piot P. Experimental Medicine in a Time of Ebola. Published 6 August 2014: http://online.wsj.com/articles/experimental-medicine-and-african-ebola-1407258551 Accessed 7 August 2014.

[6] Campbell, T. “Poverty as a Violation of Human Rights: Inhumanity, or Injustice?” in Pogge, T., Freedom from Poverty as a Human Right: Who Owes What to the Very Poor? (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007)

That Facebook Study: Update

UPDATE 30 June 2014, 8:00pm ET: Since posting this, Cornell has updated their press release to state that the Army did not fund the Facebook study. Moreover, Cornell has released a statement clarifying that their IRB

concluded that [the authors from Cornell were] not directly engaged in human research and that no review by the Cornell Human Research Protection Program was required.

Where this leaves the study, I’m not sure. But clearly something is amiss: we’re still sans ethical oversight, but now with added misinformation.

 ***

So there’s a lot of news flying around at the moment about the study “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks,” also known as That Facebook Study. Questions are being asked about the ethics of the study; while I want to post a bit more on that issue later, a couple of facts for those following along.

Chris Levesque pointed me to a Cornell University press release noting that the study in question received funding from the US Army Research Office. That means the study did receive federal funding; receipt of federal funding comes with a requirement of ethics oversight, and compliance with the Common Rule. It is also worth noting that the US Army Research Office has their own guidelines for research involving human subjects:

Research using human subjects may not begin until  the U.S. Army Surgeon General’s Human Subjects Research Review  Board (HSRRB) approves the protocol [Article 13, Agency Specific Requirements]

and

Unless otherwise provided for in this grant, the recipient is expressly forbidden to use or subcontract or subgrant for the use of human subjects in any manner whatsoever [Article 30, “General Terms and Conditions for Grant Awards to For-Profit Organizations“]

***

I’ve also been in touch with Susan Fiske, the editor of the study. Apparently, the Institutional Review Board (IRB) that approved the work is Cornell’s IRB. That IRB found the study to be ethical:

on the grounds that Facebook filters user news feeds all the time, per the user agreement. Thus, it fits everyday experiences for users, even if they do not often consider the nature of Facebook’s systematic interventions. The Cornell IRB considered it a pre-existing dataset because [Facebook] continually creates these interventions, as allowed by the user agreement (Personal Communication, Fiske, 2014).*

So, there’s some clarification.

Still, I can’t buy the Cornell IRB’s justification, at least on Fiske’s recounting. Manipulating a user’s timeline with the express purpose of changing the user’s mental state is, to me, a far cry from business as usual. Moreover, I’m really hesitant to call an updating Facebook feed a “pre-existing dataset.” Finally, better people than I have talked about the lack of justification the Facebook user agreement provides.

This information, I hope, clarifies a couple of outstanding issues in the debate so far. Personally, I’d still like to see a lot more information about the kind of oversight this study received, and more details on the Cornell IRB’s analysis.

* Professor Fiske gave her consent to be quoted in this post.

What Am I Reading? 8 June 2014

One of the things I’m asked most often by non-philosopher, non-bioethics types is “what exactly is that you do during the day?” The answer, by and large, is that I read and write. My reading can be pretty diverse and—at times—obscure. Below are a handful of the things I read this week.

Dewey, John. 1929. Experience and Nature. London: George Allen & Unwin, pp. 1–100

My supervisor-to-be and I were talking about American philosophy late last week, when I revealed to him that I’d not read any of John Dewey’s work. Jonathan, a gung-ho pragmatist, recommended I get stuck in to Experience and Nature. So I did. It is—in Jonathan’s own words—turgid, but there are gems.[1]

Grande, David, Sarah E Gollust, Maximilian Pany, Jane Seymour, Adeline Goss, Austin Kilaru, and Zachary Meisel. 2014. “Translating Research for Health Policy: Researchers’ Perceptions and Use of Social Media.” Health Affairs. doi:10.1377/hlthaff.2014.0300.

A paper about the trends in social media use among health and healthcare researchers. Nothing particularly stunning in the conclusions: apparently, older academics don’t like social media much, and in general the healthcare sector are a bit apprehensive about communicating via Twitter.

There’s an interesting tidbit tucked in the bottom of Table 1, however. There was a drop-off in female use of social media in this sector that appears divergent from male use. There isn’t any mention of gender differences in the study, but it certainly seems to stand out.

Moya-Anegón, Félix, and Víctor Herrero-Solana. 2013. “Worldwide Topology of the Scientific Subject Profile: a Macro Approach in the Country Level.” PLoS One 8 (12). Public Library of Science: e83222. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0083222.

Moya-Anegón and Herrero-Solana present a cluster analysis of publications across different countries. They found three clusters of research and, matching them against country outputs, posited a geographic distribution of research interests.

I thought their discussion could be a bit more robust, however, and would like to see some more work done on the why of particular research outputs in countries. The Eastern Bloc, for example, lost a lot of its talent in the life sciences during the Lysenko Affair; a murderous head of Russian science killing of advocates of gene theory is going to cramp a country’s style in genetics. Building these complex stories into robust and current data would be an excellent addition to the field.

Glass, Jonathan D, Nicholas M Boulis, Karl Johe, Seward B Rutkove, Thais Federici, Meraida Polak, Crystal Kelly, and Eva L Feldman. 2012. “Lumbar Intraspinal Injection of Neural Stem Cells in Patients with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis: Results of a Phase I Trial in 12 Patients.” Stem Cells 30 (6). Wiley Online Library: 1144–51.

Read as part of a post Kelly and I are putting together. More on that soon.

Resnik, David B. 2013. “H5N1 Avian Flu Research and the Ethics of Knowledge.” Hastings Center Report 43 (2). Wiley Online Library: 22–33. doi:10.1002/hast.143.

I’m writing a paper about—surprise, surprise—dual-use, and in no small part am responding to David’s treatment of the so-called “ethics of knowledge.” This, and a range of other papers that I haven’t listed here, were background to that piece.

Sobel, D. 1994. “Full Information Accounts of Well-Being.” Ethics 104 (4): 784–810.

There’s a lot of philosophy out there, and I’m doing my best to make sure that my own accounts of ethics aren’t just reinventing other people’s concerns. If they are, I’d rather just cite them and save the scholarly space for something that’s more contribution-y. Sobel has some interesting stuff on how we account for our own and other’s wellbeing; it’s particularly pertinent for anyone working in economics or social policy (me).

Mableson, Hayley E, Anna Okello, Kim Picozzi, and Susan Christina Welburn. 2014. “Neglected Zoonotic Diseases—the Long and Winding Road to Advocacy.” PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases 8 (6): e2800. doi:10.1371/journal.pntd.0002800.

Great little article on the action—or lack thereof—of international agencies and government to recognize or address issues surrounding neglected zoonotic diseases. Discussion centers around the need for advocacy, and what that entails at a high level.

Fouchier, Ron A M, Vincent Munster, Anders Wallensten, Theo M Bestebroer, Sander Herfst, Derek Smith, Guus F Rimmelzwaan, Björn Olsen, and Albert D M E Osterhaus. 2005. “Characterization of a Novel Influenza a Virus Hemagglutinin Subtype (H16) Obtained From Black-Headed Gulls.” Journal of Virology 79: 2814–22.

Reading a paper by Ron Fouchier? Not surprising, considering he a frequent subject of my writing (here, here, here) .

Many of these titles are available online, for free. For those who aren’t, I’m happy to provide #canhazpdf assistance.


  1. Dewey really had an optimistic belief about the way science worked. This isn’t surprising for the early 20th century. Still, Dewey writes “physicists did not think for a moment of denying the validity of what was found in that experience [provided by the results of the Michelson-Morely experiments], even though it rendered questionable an elaborate intellectual apparatus and system.” That? Isn’t what happened. In fact, there were a litany of experiments that followed trying to measure the aether flux due to the earth’s motion.  ↩

A Quick Note on Andrew Bolt

I wrote a dissertation on censorship, and I’ve devoted thousands of hours to studying the right to freedom of speech, professional obligations of journalists, and the harms that are caused when people open their mouths and say things that are hateful, spurious, or just plain wrong. This is, for better or worse, my job. So I feel compelled to write about Bolt’s “I am, you are, we are Australian.” (I’m not going to link to it. I feel bad enough having read the screed; if you want to give him those clicks, do it yourself.)

There are so many things wrong with Bolt’s article, but I’m going to limit what I want to say to a couple of glaring errors he makes about Australian constitutional history. Perhaps if Bolt had done his homework , he’d note that the statement

[The writers of the Australian Constitution] were inspired by the creed that all citizens — those, at least, we admitted — are as one before the law.

is 100% false. In point of fact, Edmund Barton—first Prime Minister of Australia, and one of the drafters of the Australian Constitution—had the opinion that

the moment the Commonwealth obtains any legislative power at all it should have the power to regulate the affairs of the people of coloured or inferior races who are in the Commonwealth.

This led to section 51(xxvi) of the Constitution, the so-called “race power.” The race power granted the Commonwealth the power to make special laws for anyone on the basis of their race.

Surprisingly, the race power did not extend to Indigenous Australians, until that exception was removed in 1967. Not that it made a difference, as section 122 of the Constitution, which allows for the Commonwealth to set law in the territories, provided for plenty of opportunity to act in paternalistic, degrading, and generally awful ways to the detriment of Indigenous Australians.

Then there is Bolt’s claim that

although, contrary to popular myth, they granted Aborigines the vote in all states where they had the franchise

which is a red herring of sorts. The Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 excluded

aboriginal native[s] of Australia Africa Asia or the Islands of the Pacific except New Zealand’ unless covered under Section 41 [of the Constitution, which grants the right to vote for both houses of the parliament].

But section 41 left voting matters to the states. So speaking of the Constitution’s power to grant voting rights is more or less meaningless—state action and Indigenous Australian involvement did the work. The Australian Electoral Commission itself notes that the Constitution was interpreted to deny Indigenous Australians the vote  That’s why Queensland didn’t give Indigenous Australians the vote until 1965. That’s why compulsory voting wasn’t applied to Indigenous Australians until 1984. Which in itself is a form of civic disenfranchisement that, in a country where mandatory voting applies to everyone else, is a travesty.

(I haven’t even got to the unspeakably racist language Bolt uses. If anyone can explain Bolt’s term “race industry professionals” to me in a way that doesn’t make me swear loudly, I’ll give you a prize. That he uses “scare quotes” around “race” is equally terrible.)

Whatever his intentions, Bolt paints a false picture. He’s again abused his platform to spread misinformation, and on a subject about which he’s already contravened the Racial Discrimination Act once. The Herald Sun should pull this article.

When someone misuses their power to convey ideas to millions, and does so in a racist and harmful manner, they should be taken to task.  Bolt should have the book thrown at him—and that book should probably be on the constitutional history of Australia. The other editors at the Herald Sun have an obligation not to let their colleague spread falsehoods.

Disclaimer: If I’ve made any mistakes that are indicative of my privilege as a white Australian (or any other privilege I’m carrying—and I carry a lot), let me know, and I’ll do my best to rectify it immediately.

How do we respond to the Nature Publishing Group?

First, it was the questionable decision to give a platform to Lukas Koube’s mysoginistic rant about “publishing only on quality”—a subject Kelly Hills has covered here. Then, it was the outing of pseudonymous science blogger Dr. Isis by senior editor Henry Gee. All of this after Bora Zikovic’s resignation from Scientific American—also owned by the Nature Publishing Group (NPG)—last year.

The upper management within NPG has offered some attempt at an apology. Philip Campbell’s response to the outcry about Koube’s article was, I felt, inadequate, but at least ticked some of the relevant boxes for an appropriate apology outlined by Hills. The “statement” regarding Gee’s actions by NPG—to say nothing of Gee’s own “apology”—however, were completely unacceptable.

NPG have a lot of work to do if they are going to set things right. They are going to have to institute new policies, give more sustained and considered attention to the issue of representation in science, and I daresay fire at least one person. And though the organisation itself may not be totally corrupt, that shouldn’t dissuade us from holding NPG accountable for the actions performed on its platform, by its people, and in its name. As NPG, apparently, has little interest in changing by themselves, a community response is warranted.

Today, I’ve seen calls for a boycott. Not everyone is comfortable with boycotting organisations, and I’m sure that collective acts like boycotts will resonate with people according to their context. For my part, growing up in a country with a strong union movement, I see the merits. Boycotts are a lot like quarantine: they require cooperation and discipline, which are two things that human beings aren’t great at. Industrial action of any kind involves sacrifice. But they can get things done.

So what would a boycott of NPG look like? From where I sit, it could entail three things taken individually or together.

1. Don’t publish with NPG

The first is to not publish with NPG. Academic publishers need articles to thrive, and though there are more people looking to be published with NPG than there are pages on which to publish them, denying a publisher access to quality publications can hurt their ability to market their product. It can also hurt their impact factor (which I’ll talk about more in a moment).

Don’t be fooled, however about the scope of this commitment. Nature publishes sixty-two journals, and has a controlling stake in the Frontiers open access publisher. They also, again, own Scientific American. For some fields, not publishing with NPG will mean more than in others. For science writers, especially those who freelance, this will also involve an economic decision. It is something that should be the subject of respect and support as people decide on how they are going to act.

2. Don’t review for NPG

Reviewing is a professional service that serves the community, but also gives a publisher quality assurance for its publications. Peer review is, in the main, a free service, and in this reviewers are a store of labour on which a publisher relies. Refusing to review can seriously disrupt operations in a journal, as anyone with experience in the editorial process will tell you. Refusing to review for NPG would effectively stymie their ability to fulfill one of the benchmarks of the scientific process.

It is also worth nothing that NPG has an editor who has no qualms about violating the privacy of individuals based on a grudge—not a ringing endorsement for peer-review at NPG. In his “apology,” Gee asserts that he’d never violate this professional obligation, but there’s no reason at this stage to believe him. That’s a kind of trust that needs to be re-earned, and his apology doesn’t exactly instill one with hope about that happening in the future.

3. Don’t cite NPG

This last one is perhaps the most controversial, as, done as a collective act, the effects can be wide-ranging. Citation affects a journal’s impact factor, which is a key currency of academic publishing. When one journal surpasses another in impact factor, it is a big deal, and when a journal’s impact factor decreases it is cause for concern. Academics also depend on the impact factor of journals for their own careers, and whether or not they will be cited informs choices about where to publish.

Not citing papers, however, is a tricky business for researchers. Using results of research without citation constitutes plagiarism, and so academics will need to be careful about how they write, and even what they can research, should they choose to boycott NPG in this fashion. That will hurt some more than others.

For science writers, I suspect this is a completely different—but equally important—set of considerations. Promoting one’s work (and those of one’s colleagues) is a means to a livelihood in a very direct way. In this, I think that again science writers and journalists will need to assess what this means in terms most appropriate to their fields, as publication influences their lives in a different way to academic researchers.

 

Boycotts aren’t easy. Participating in one may mean dealing with your institution wanting to know why you won’t be taking your research to a publication like Nature. It may mean resigning from editorial duties, or even pulling existing publications from review. It might strain professional relationships.

The newly-minted PhD is more likely to suffer from participating in a boycott, as individual articles—and potential articles—are more important to their job prospects. A central component of Gee’s wrongdoing is how pseudonymity and anonymity insulate against abuses of power, and how removing that safety leaves people vulnerable to harm. Those who are starting their careers have the most to lose when this abuse of power is turned against them. More established faculty will need to support junior members in such an industrial action.

Individuals will need evaluate what they can reasonably tolerate in terms of the costs of a collective action. I think something a lot of people can agree on, however, is that standing by while one of the largest publishing groups in the scientific world allows its editors to give voice, or act on their own, to perpetuate injustices is unacceptable. We ignore NPG’s actions at our peril.

I’m grateful to Kelly Hills for helping me put this together from an earlier draft. Credit also goes to her for the incisive point about the scope of NPG’s reach, the full extent of which I was not aware.

The corrupt, and the corrupted

Corruption is something that’s hard to describe, but we usually “know it when we see it.” Justice  Stewart’s words were originally intended for pornography, but corruption suffers from an indeterminacy of its own. Even when we agree that corruption is happening, it is sometimes difficult to know what it is that is corrupt, and what is doing the corrupting. This last bit—what does the work of corruption—is often a matter of debate.

That’s the subject of Lawrence Lessig’s Daily Beast article today, which makes use of an exchange between Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY). McCain, in 1999, claimed that the roll of campaign contributions of the size experienced in the USA “corrupted our political ideals;” an idea that McConnell objected to by demanding to know who was corrupt. Lessig argues, in his article, that even in the absence of a corrupt person, a system may still be corrupt. Lessig argues that McCain’s claim

…is not about bad people doing bad things. The complaint is against a bad system, which drives good people to behave in ways that defeat the objectives of the system as a whole.

It is an interesting notion, and an important one—that systems can be corrupt, even when people aren’t. Institutional arrangements, when corrupt, can drive people in directions that are unfavorable.

I think, however, that Lessig is too quick in what he attributes to McCain. Though he later reneged, denying “that any individual or person is guilty of corruption in a specific way,” McCain claims that the campaign contribution system at present is a corrupting influence—one that corrupts everyone:

In truth, we are all shortchanged by soft money, liberal and conservative alike. All of our ideals are sacrificed. We are all corrupted. I know that is a harsh judgment. But it is, I am sorry to say, a fair one. And even if our own consciences were to allow us to hide from it, the people we are privileged to serve will not.

The importance of this comment can’t be understated. McCain isn’t necessarily saying that anyone is corrupt. He is however, saying that he and others are corrupted, and that they’ve been compromised in some way [1]. I’ve talked about being compromised elsewhere, but here I want to pull apart this notion of being corrupted—compared to being corrupt—a bit more.

The whole point Lessig wants to make is that institutional arrangements—for example, the effect of campaign contributions on the political process—change behavior. But in talking about the ways that corrupt institutions pervert individual actions, it is still important to talk in the language of individuals. The effect that McConnell wanted to (wrongly) identify as unidirectional—corrupt people cause corrupt institutions—flows in the other direction as well. Corrupt institutions do bear on individuals, as Lessig claims, but in doing so it can leave them corrupted, or even corrupt.

The difference between being corrupted, and being corrupt, is—if anything—very fine indeed. It seems plausible, however, to say that someone has been corrupted, or has had their actions corrupted, even if we don’t want to go so far as to say they are corrupt. That is, they’ve been compromised, but they do so under duress, and with little other options available.

This, of course, is a fine line to tread. Means don’t justify ends, but if your means are so limited as to make a problematic means the only way to a desirable end, then we make the best with what we have. Generally, we probably want to elect representatives who intend to bring about good outcomes, and promote reforms. These representatives may be compromised in doing that—no-one is perfect—but it seems that sometimes the price of the right person not stepping into that arena is too high. 

So maybe, in principle, we can have a corrupt system, with corrupted, compromised members, but no one genuinely corrupt. Of course, that seems somewhat optimistic: if there are people in congress actively opposing reform designed to redress a corrupt and corrupting institution, then they are most likely corrupt. Moreover, those who exploit a particular corrupt institutional arrangement for their own gain are certainly corrupt.

I don’t mean corrupt in the sense of unlawful activity, and I certainly believe that this is what McCain was attempting to cover for when denying that anyone was guilty of corruption. Representatives, Senators, and presidential nominees can accept and use campaign contributions, and do so in a lawful manner. Lobbyists aren’t breaking laws. But they, at times, doing the wrong thing.

We should also keep in mind that those who become compromised are still doing something wrong, even if there is no or little other alternative. And insofar as they are overly tardy in assisting in rectifying the system that corrupts them, they should be held to account. Hopefully, enough of these corrupted people will help in the reforms Lessig is championing, such as the American Anti-Corruption Act (ACA).

What legislation like the ACA hopes to accomplish is the make the unethical, unlawful. That’s a great thing. But it is also important to call out the individually corrupt, and recognize the corrupted, when we see them. Institutional reform is vital, but regulation and law rarely make corruption go away by themselves—corruption often occurs within the scope of lawful activity, and the genius of motivated people out to pervert something good can be nothing more than breathtaking. Preventing corruption does require regulation and legislation, but also requires vigilance and loud voices. We should make sure that we pay attention to the individual, as well as the institutional; to the corrupted, as well as the corrupt.

[1] McCain uses the term “corrupt” in three different ways in that speech. In his first usage, he refers to the Government as corrupt. In his second and fourth, he refers to the presence of campaign contributions being a corrupting factor. In his third—used in the quote above—he refers to the representatives as corrupted.