Thursday, December 20, 2007

ONLY in the US of A = Master's of Flat Earth degree program approved

Like in any other country, universities or other tertiary education institutions wanting to confer degrees to their students need to have them approved by one or another external review body. So, in the USA's (where else?) state of Texas (where else?) did the Institute for Creation Research (what else?) manage to get approval to administer a Master level science program. So, soon there will be an MFE available (Master of Flat Earth) from the Institute. How hilarious can it possibly get? Here's the institute's scientific agenda, in its own words: 'The Institute for Creation Research equips believers with evidences of the Bible’s accuracy and authority through scientific research, educational programs, and media presentations, all conducted within a thoroughly biblical framework.' There's also standardly Christian insights such as these: 'the harmful consequences of evolutionary thinking on families and society (abortion, promiscuity, drug abuse, homosexuality and many others) are evident all around us.' The New York Times reports that 'the Texas Education Agency’s director of science, Christine Castillo Comer, lost her job after superiors accused her of displaying bias against creationism and failing to be “neutral” over the teaching of evolution.' So, now that folks are more 'neutral' there with re to the creationism/evolution issue the creationists can offer their own academic degrees :).


This beautiful bloke managed successfully to purchase a new bride for himself, an 11 year old girl (you can tell, she's truly delighted to have been sold to this Islamic warrior). Nuff said...

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Public holidays

Like everyone I kinda like public holidays as they add to my vacation entitlement. The more the merrier I say. A world leader, I think, with regard to public holidays is probably South Africa. The country not only celebrates human rights, women's and other days, but also every religious holiday you can reasonably conjure up. There's a religion celebrating bits and pieces of their God related fairy tales, there's a public holiday to be had in South Africa. And don't remind me of Christianity inspired holidays. In Germany, where I grew up, we had more of them than you'd want to know about.

This makes no sense at all! Public holidays are just that, holidays to be celebrated by all of us, not by some of us who happen to celebrate one God or another. So, public holidays should sensibly express a given countries civic values, like 'human rights', 'freedom', 'equality', 'diversity' or whatever else is considered to be important by the country. Religious views necessarily belong in the private sphere. So, there is no good reason for why I, an agnostic, or my Muslim or Buddhist friends should have to put up with Christianity inspired public holidays. The same holds true for Christians in countries predominantly Muslim etc.

The state's proper role with regard to religion should be neutrality. Forcing all and sundry to celebrate particular religious events by way of forcing us to take time off work does not make any sense at all.

If someone wants to take time off to celebrate Xmas, I say, they should take leave and let the rest of us get on with our work. The same is true for Eid or any other excuse not to work. It's completely fine for a religious person to celebrate such events, but the state surely has no role at all to play with regard to them.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Robbing Peter to pay Bill: Mr Harper does AIDS

One must congratulate the Federal government of Canada on a pretty brilliant political move in terms of how it allocates its AIDS related resources. Mr Harper's government has decided to reallocate about 26 mio C$ within its AIDS budget. This amount is re-routed away from programs the government does not fancy much, politically. Funding for Ontario's community programs reportedly will be slashed by up to 30%. As one would expect, there has been quite a bit of an uproar in the community, ranging from gay men's AIDS groups to NGOs offering needle exchange programs to injecting drug users. So, all this looks much like a conservative government in conservative policy making action. On the face of it one should go about waving hands and writing bitter letters to newspaper editors - of which, no doubt, there will be many. After all, harm minimization programs for IV drug users work to some extent, and in light of rising numbers of HIV infections among gay men, any half-educated public health practitioner would have reason to be up in arms against Mr Harper's policies. Predictably, unless the provincial government steps in or other sources of funding for such community groups can be found, HIV infections will increase in Canada as a result of the cuts.
Here then is the brilliant bit of the government move. It re-routed the funding not to some conservative pet project or other, but to the Gates' Foundation's Vaccine Initiative. Gates offers to match every dollar provided with the foundation's own funds (well, really the taxes we pay to Microsoft for using its ubiquitous software). So, money is ultimately removed from the immediate fight against AIDS in Canada to the fight against AIDS in the world, particularly so in the developing world. After all, the ultimate solution to AIDS will not be found in prevention programs, it will be in a preventive vaccine - or it won't be a solution to begin with. It is that simple. While it is a bit surprising for a conservative government - actually, for any government - to prioritize much larger needs elsewhere over needs at home, arguably that is what we ought to do. If ever there was a policy aiming at the greatest good for the greatest number, this would probably qualify. A very ethical choice indeed! Or so it seems.
At a first glance, community based AIDS organizations criticizing Harpers government seem selfish at best. But only at a first glance, because, truth be told, in the big swing of things in the federal budget, these few millions to community based AIDS organizations are really neither here nor there. It would have been more than easy for Mr Harper's government to find the money for the Canadian AIDS vaccine initiative elsewhere if it had put its mind to it. There can be little doubt, the 'robbing peter to pay bill' kind of decision making that we are witnessing here, is politically motivated and has nothing at all to do with international public health priorities. The government's grand gesture in response to Mr Gates' even grander gesture suggests that some kind of hard ethical decision had to be made, when really there was no need for this at all.
We should wave our hands and write bitter letters to newspaper editors after all... unfortunately.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Iran - Open Letter to UN Secretary General

The Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji writes to the United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon, in a document endorsed by more than 300 leading intellectuals.


To His Excellency Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations,

The people of Iran are experiencing difficult times both internationally and domestically. Internationally, they face the threat of a military attack from the United States and the imposition of extensive sanctions by the United Nations Security Council. Domestically, a despotic state has - through constant and organised repression - imprisoned them in a life-and-death situation.

Far from helping the development of democracy, US policy over the past fifty years has consistently been to the detriment of the proponents of freedom and democracy in Iran. The 1953 coup against the nationalist government of prime minister Mohammad Mossadeq and the unwavering support for the despotic regime of the Shah, who acted as America's gendarme in the Persian Gulf, are just two examples of these flawed policies.

More recently the confrontation between various US administrations and the Iranian state over the past three decades has made internal conditions very difficult for the proponents of freedom and human rights in Iran. Exploiting the danger posed by the US, the Iranian regime has put military-security forces in charge of the government, shut down all independent domestic media, and is imprisoning human-rights activists on the pretext that they are all agents of a foreign enemy.

The Bush administration, for its part, by approving a fund for democracy assistance in Iran, which has in fact being largely spent on official institutions and media affiliated with the US government, has made it easy for the Iranian regime to describe its opponents as mercenaries of the US and to crush them with impunity. At the same time, even speaking about "the possibility" of a military attack on Iran makes things extremely difficult for human rights and pro-democracy activists in Iran.

No Iranian wants to see what happened to Iraq or Afghanistan repeated in Iran. Iranian democrats also watch with deep concern the support in some American circles for separatist movements in Iran. Preserving Iran's territorial integrity is important to all those who struggle for democracy and human rights in Iran. We want democracy for Iran and for all Iranians. We also believe that the dismemberment of middle-eastern countries will fuel widespread and prolonged conflict in the region.

In order to help the process of democratisation in the middle east, the US can best help by promoting a just peace between the Palestinians and Israelis, and pave the way for the creation of a truly independent Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel. A just resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the establishment of a Palestinian state would inflict the heaviest blow on the forces of fundamentalism and terrorism in the middle east.

Your Excellency,

Iran's dangerous international situation and the consequences of Iran's dispute with the west have totally deflected the world's attention and especially the attention of the United Nations from the intolerable conditions that the Iranian regime has created for the Iranian people. The dispute over the enrichment of uranium should not make the world forget that, although the 1979 revolution of Iran was a popular revolution, it did not lead to the formation of a democratic system that protects human rights.

The Islamic Republic is a fundamentalist state that does not afford official recognition to the private sphere. It represses civil society and violates human rights. Thousands of political prisoners were executed during the first decade after the revolution without fair trials or due process of the law, and dozens of dissidents and activists were assassinated during the second decade. Independent newspapers are constantly being banned and journalists are sent to prison. All news websites are filtered and books are either refused publication permits or are slashed with the blade of censorship before publication.

Women are totally deprived of equality with men and, when they demand equal rights, they are accused of acting against national security, subjected to various types of intimidation and have to endure various penalties, including long prison terms.

In the first decade of the 21st century, stoning (the worst form of torture leading to death) is one of the sentences that Iranians face on the basis of existing laws. A number of Iranian teachers, who took part in peaceful civil protests over their pay and conditions, have been dismissed from their jobs and some have even been sent into internal exile in far-flung regions or jailed.

Iranian workers are deprived of the right to establish independent unions. Workers who ask to be allowed to form unions in order to struggle for their corporate rights are beaten and imprisoned. Iranian university students have paid the highest costs in recent years in defence of liberty, human rights and democracy. Security organisations prevent young people who are critical of the official state orthodoxy from gaining admission into university, and those who do make it through the rigorous ideological and political vetting process have no right to engage in peaceful protest against government policies.

If students' activities displease the governing elites, they are summarily expelled from university and in many instances jailed. The Islamic Republic has also been expelling dissident professors from universities for about a quarter of a century. In the meantime, in the Islamic Republic's prisons, opponents are forced to confess to crimes that they have not committed and to express remorse. These confessions, which have been extracted by force, are then broadcast on the state media in a manner reminiscent of Stalinist show-trials.

There are no fair, competitive elections in Iran; instead, elections are stage-managed and rigged. And even people who find their way into parliament and into the executive branch of government have no powers or resources to alter the status quo. All the legal and extra-legal powers are in the hands of Iran's supreme leader, who rules like a despotic sultan.

Your Excellency,

Are you aware that in Iran political dissidents, human-rights activists and pro-democracy campaigners are legally deprived of "the right to life"? On the basis of Article 226 of the Islamic penal law, and note 2 of paragraph E of section B of Article 295 of the same law, any person can unilaterally decide that another human being has forfeited the right to life (mahduroldam) and kill them in the name of performing one's religious duty to rid society of vice. Over the past few decades, many dissidents and activists have been killed on the basis of this article and the killers have been acquitted in court. In such circumstances, no dissident or activist has a right to life in Iran, because, on the basis of Islamic jurisprudence and the laws of the Islamic Republic, the definition of those who have forfeited the right to life is very broad.

Are you aware that, in Iran, writers are lawfully banned from writing? On the basis of note 2 of paragraph 8 of Article 9 of the press law, writers who are convicted of "propaganda against the ruling system" are deprived for life of "the right to all press activity". In recent years, many writers and journalists have been convicted of propaganda against the ruling system. The court's verdicts make it clear that any criticism of state bodies is deemed to be propaganda against the ruling system.

Your Excellency,

The people of Iran and Iranian advocates for freedom and democracy are experiencing difficult days. They need the moral support of the proponents of freedom throughout the world and effective intervention by the United Nations. We categorically reject a military attack on Iran. At the same time, we ask you and all of the world's intellectuals and proponents of liberty and democracy to condemn the human-rights violations of the Iranian state. We expect from Your Excellency, in your capacity as the secretary-general of the United Nations, to reprimand the Iranian government - in keeping with your legal duties - for its extensive violation of the articles of the universal declaration of human rights and other international human-rights covenants and treaties.

Above all, we hope that with Your Excellency's immediate intervention, all of Iran's political prisoners, who are facing more deplorable conditions with every passing day, will soon be released. The people of Iran are asking themselves whether the UN Security Council is only decisive and effective when it comes to the suspension of the enrichment of uranium, and whether the lives of the Iranian people are unimportant as far as the Security Council is concerned. The people of Iran are entitled to freedom, democracy and human rights. We Iranians hope that the United Nations and all the forums that defend democracy and human rights will be unflinching in their support for Iran's quest for freedom and democracy.

Yours sincerely,

Akbar Ganji


Akbar Ganji's letter is endorsed by:

1. Jurgen Habermas (JW Goethe UniversitC$t, Frankfurt)

2. Charles Taylor (McGill University)

3. Noam Chomsky (MIT)

4. Ronald Dworkin (New York University)

5. Robert Bellah (University of California, Berkeley)

6. Alasdair MacIntyre (University of Notre Dame)

7. Orhan Pamuk (recipient of the 2006 Nobel prize for literature)

8. JM Coetzee (recipient of the 2003 Nobel prize for literature)

9. Seamus Heaney (recipient of the 1995 Nobel prize for literature)

10. Nadine Gordimer (recipient of 1991 Nobel prize for literature)

11. Mairead Corrigan-Maguire (recipient of the 1976 Nobel peace prize)

12. Umberto Eco (novelist, Italy)

13. Mario Vargas Llosa (novelist, Peru)

14. Isabel Allende (novelist, Chile)

15. Robert Dahl (Yale University)

16. Michael Walzer (Princeton University)

17. Seyla Benhabib (Yale University)

18. Cornel West (Princeton University)

19. Michael Sandel (Harvard University)

20. Eric Hobsbawm (Birkbeck College, University of London)

21. Stanley Hoffman (Harvard University)

22. Nancy Fraser (New School for Social Research)

23. Philip Pettit (Princeton University)

24. Slavoj E=iE>ek (University of Ljubljana)

25. Daniel A Bell (Tsinghua University)

26. Nikki Keddie (UCLA)

27. Marshall Berman (City College of New York)

28. Hilary Putnam (Harvard University)

29. Robert Putnam (Harvard University)

30. Alan Ryan (Oxford University)

31. Zygmunt Bauman (University of Leeds)

32. Richard J Bernstein (New School University)

33. Nicholas Wolterstorff (Yale University)

34. Talal Asad (City University of New York Graduate Center)

35. Joshua Cohen (Stanford University and Boston Review)

36. Fred Dallmayr (University of Notre Dame)

37. Richard Falk (Princeton University)

38. Harvey Cox (Harvard University)

39. Stephen Holmes (New York University)

40. Andrew Arato (New School for Social Research / University of Frankfurt)

41. Jose Casanova (New School for Social Research)

42. Charles Tilly (Columbia University)

43. David Held (London School of Economics)

44. Joseph Raz (Oxford and Columbia University)

45. Steven Lukes (New York University)

46. Claus Offe (Humboldt University, Berlin)

47. Axel Honneth (JW Goethe UniversitC$t, Frankfurt)

48. Khaled Abou El Fadl (UCLA)

49. Nasr Hamed Abu Zayd (University of Humanistics)

50. Abdullahi An Na'im (Emory University)

51. Saad Eddin Ibrahim (American University of Cairo)

52. Abdulkader Tayob (University of Capetown)

53. Zakia Salime (Michigan State University)

54. Henry Louis Gates, Jr (Harvard University)

55. Charles S Maier (Harvard University)

56. Sara Roy (Harvard University)

57. William A Graham (Harvard University)

58. Elaine Bernard (Harvard University)

59. Alexander Keyssar (Harvard University)

60. Farid Esack (Harvard University)

61. Kwame Anthony Appiah (Princeton University)

62. Alexander Nehamas (Princeton University)

63. Anne-Marie Slaughter (Princeton University)

64. Jeffrey Stout (Princeton University)

65. Mirjam Kunkler (Princeton University)

66. Partha Chatterjee (Columbia University)

67. Todd Gitlin (Columbia University)

68. Akeel Bilgrami (Columbia University)

69. Saskia Sassen (Columbia University)

70. Nadia Urbinati (Columbia University)

71. Arthur Danto (Columbia University)

72. Claudio Lomnitz (Columbia University)

73. Lila Abu-Lughod (Columbia University)

74. Gauri Viswanathan (Columbia University)

75. William R Roff (Columbia University & University of Edinburgh)

76. Alfred Stepan (Columbia University)

77. Timothy Mitchell (New York University)

78. Tony Judt (New York University)

79. Zachary Lockman (New York University)

80. Adam Przeworski (New York University)

81. Dipesh Chakrabarty (University of Chicago)

82. Fred Donner (University of Chicago)

83. Manuela Carneiro da Cunha (University of Chicago)

84. Avi Shlaim (Oxford University)

85. Richard Caplan (Oxford University)

86. Alan Macfarlane (University of Cambridge)

87. Mary Kaldor (London School of Economics)

88. Paul Gilroy (London School of Economics)

89. Richard Sennett (London School of Economics)

90. Leslie Sklair (London School of Economics)

91. Sami Zubaida (Birkbeck College, University of London)

92. Veena Das (Johns Hopkins University)

93. William Connolly (Johns Hopkins University)

94. Richard Wolin (City University of New York Graduate Center)

95. Stanley Aronowitz (City University of New York Graduate Center)

96. Adam Hochschild (writer, US)

97. Rabbi Michael Lerner (editor, Tikkun)

98. Cherif Bassiouni (DePaul University)

99. Benjamin Barber (University of Maryland)

100. Ashis Nandy (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi)

101. Ariel Dorfman (Duke University)

102. Ziauddin Sardar (City University, London)

103. WJT Mitchell (editor, Critical Inquiry)

104. Howard Zinn (Boston University)

105. Stephen Lewis (McMaster University)

106. Michael BC)rubC) (Penn State University)

107. Steven Nadler (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

108. Ernesto Laclau (University of Essex)

109. Chantal Mouffe (University of Westminster)

110. Eduardo Galeano (writer, Uruguay)

111. Achille Mbembe (University of the Witwatersrand)

112. Robert Boyers (editor, Salmagundi)

113. Joe Sacco (graphic novelist)

114. Adam Shatz (The Nation)

115. Arjun Appadurai (New School for Social Research)

116. Dick Howard (Stony Brook University)

117. John Esposito (Georgetown University)

118. Ian Williams (Guardian, online columnist)

119. Ronald Aronson (Wayne State University)

120. Mark Kingwell (University of Toronto)

121. Azyumardi Azra (Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University, Jakarta)

122. Norman Finkelstein (author, US)

123. David Schweickart (Loyola University)

124. Marcus Raskin (Institute for Policy Studies)

125. Juan Cole (University of Michigan)

126. Carlos Forment (Centro de InvestigaciC3n y DocumentaciC3n de la Vida PC:blica)

127. Ronald Beiner (University of Toronto)

128. David E Stannard (University of Hawaii)

129. Jonathan Rosenbaum (Chicago Reader)

130. Stephen Eric Bronner (Rutgers University)

131. Katha Pollitt (The Nation)

132. Charles Glass (writer, Paris)

133. John Keane (University of Westminster)

134. Matthew Rothschild (The Progressive)

135. Anthony Barnett (openDemocracy)

136. Murat Belge (Bilgi University, Istanbul)

137. Michael Tomasky (editor, Guardian America)

138. Thomas McCarthy (Yale University)

139. Daniel Born (editor, The Common Review)

140. DuE!an VeliDkoviD (editor, Biblioteka Alexandria, Belgrade)

141. Chris Toensing (Middle East Research and Information Project)

142. Frank Barnaby (editor, The International Journal of Human Rights)

143. Douglass Cassel (University of Notre Dame)

144. Nelofer Pazira (president, PEN Canada)

145. MartC-n Espada (University of Massachusetts, Amherst)

146. Douglas Kellner (UCLA)

147. William Shepard (University of Canterbury, New Zealand)

148. David Ingram (Loyola University Chicago)

149. Enrique Krauze (editor, Letras Libres, Mexico City)

150. Gavin Kitching (University of New South Wales, Australia)

151. Joel Rogers (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

152. Martin Shaw (University of Sussex)

153. Carl Boggs (National University, Los Angeles)

154. Ahmed Rashid (journalist, Lahore)

155. Thomas Keenan (Bard College)

156. Rafia Zakaria (Indiana University)

157. Michael Thompson (Logos)

158. Shadia Drury (University of Regina)

159. Courtney Jung (New School for Social Research)

160. Simon Critchley (New School for Social Research)

161. Hussein Ibish (Hala Salaam Maksoud Foundation)

162. Christopher Norris (Cardiff University)

163. Vinay Lal (UCLA)

164. Chris Hedges (The Nation Institute)

165. Simon Tormey (University of Nottingham)

166. Melissa Williams (University of Toronto)

167. Sandra Bartky (University of Illinois at Chicago)

168. Thomas Sheehan (Stanford University)

169. James Tully (University of Victoria)

170. Asma Afsaruddin (University of Notre Dame)

171. Pankaj Mishra (writer, India)

172. Martin Beck MatuE!tC-k (Purdue University)

173. Stephen Zunes (University of San Francisco)

174. Stephen Kinzer (Northwestern University)

175. Rick Salutin (The Globe and Mail)

176. James Reilly (University of Toronto)

177. Ayesha Jalal (Tufts University)

178. Ismail Poonawala (UCLA)

179. Elizabeth Hurd (Northwestern University)

180. Michael Mann (UCLA)

181. Patricia Springborg (Free University of Bolzano, Italy)

182. Henry Munson (University of Maine)

183. Charles Kurzman (University of North Carolina)

184. Rohan Jayasekera (associate editor, Index on Censorship)

185. Stathis N Kalyvas (Yale University)

186. Mary Ann Tetreault (Trinity University)

187. Robert Jensen (University of Texas at Austin)

188. Rashid Begg (University of Stellenbosch, South Africa)

189. Roxanne L Euben (Wellesley College)

190. Peter Mandaville (George Mason University)

191. Edward Friedman (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

192. Ingrid Mattson (Hartford Seminary)

193. Muqtedar Khan (University of Delaware)

194. Duncan Ivison (University of Sydney)

195. Danny Postel (author, US)

196. Mariam C Said

197. Michaelle Browers (Wake Forest University)

198. Tariq Modood (University of Bristol)

199. Ronald J Hill (University of Dublin)

200. Gregory Baum (McGill University)

201. Tamara Sonn (College of William and Mary)

202. Saba Mahmood (University of California, Berkeley)

203. Mark Juergensmeyer (University of California, Santa Barbara)

204. Lucas Swaine (Dartmouth College)

205. Charles Butterworth (University of Maryland)

206. Carole Pateman (Cardiff University)

207. Amrita Basu (Amherst College)

208. Fawaz Gerges (Sarah Lawrence College)

209. Yong-Bock Kim (Asia Pacific Graduate School for Integral Study of Life)

210. Ann Norton (University of Pennsylvania)

211. Cecelia Lynch (University of California, Irvine)

212. Susan Buck-Morss (Cornell University)

213. Aristide Zolberg (New School University)

214. Craig Calhoun (president, Social Science Research Council)

215. Hagit Borer (University of Southern California)

216. Dennis J Schmidt (Penn State University)

217. John Ralston Saul (author, Canada)

218. Corey Brettschneider (Brown University)

219. Timur Kuran (Duke University)

220. Paul Chambers (University of Glamgoran)

221. Robert R Williams (University of Illinois at Chicago)

222. Nicholas Xenos (University of Massachusetts, Amherst)

223. WD Hart (University of Illinois at Chicago)

224. Louise Antony (University of Massachusetts, Amherst)

225. Rama Mantena (University of Illinois at Chicago)

226. Judith Tucker (Georgetown University)

227. Sam Black (Simon Fraser University)

228. Genevieve Fuji Johnson (Simon Fraser University)

229. Shelley Deane (Bowdoin College)

230. Craig Campbell (St Edward's University)

231. Samer Shehata (Georgetown University)

232. Mona El-Ghobashy (Barnard College)

233. Jacque Steubbel (University of the South School of Theology)

234. David Mednicoff (University of Massachusetts, Amherst)

235. Zeynep Arikanli (Institute of Political Studies, Aix-en-Provence, France)

236. RE Jennings (Simon Fraser University)

237. Walid Moubarak (Lebanese American University)

238. Nicola Pratt (University of East Anglia)

239. Ulrika MC%rtensson (Norwegian University of Science & Technology)

240. Jillian Schwedler (University of Massachusetts, Amherst)

241. Robert D Lee (Colorado College)

242. Alice Amsden (MIT)

243. Stephen Van Evera (MIT)

244. Joanne Rappaport (Georgetown University)

245. Douglas Allen (University of Maine)

246. Sharon Stanton Russell (MIT)

247. Matthew Gutmann (Brown University)

248. Louis Cantori (University of Maryland)

249. Catherine Lutz (Brown University)

250. Azzedine Layachi (St John's University)

251. Katarzyna Jarecka (Jagiellonian University, Krakow, Poland)

252. HC Erik Midelfort (University of Virginia)

253. Edmund Burke, III (University of California, Santa Cruz)

254. Michael Urban (University of California, Santa Cruz)

255. Susan Moeller (University of Maryland)

256. Laurie J Sears (University of Washington)

257. Margaret Levi (University of Washington)

258. Ebrahim Moosa (Duke University)

259. Robert Ware (University of Calgary)

260. John Entelis (Fordham University)

261. Juan Linz (Yale University)

262. Malise Ruthven (writer, Scotland)

263. Charles Derber (Boston College)

264. Matthew Evangelista (Cornell University)

265. Adam Michnik (editor, Gazeta Wyborcza)

266. Norman Birnbaum (Georgetown University)

267. Hamza Yusuf (Zaytuna Institute)

268. Carol Gould (Temple University)

269. Nubar Hovsepian (Chapman University)

270. Colin Rowat (University of Birmingham)

271. Bettina Aptheker (University of California, Santa Cruz)

272. Jan Nederveen Pieterse (University of Illinois)

273. Udo Schuklenk (Queen's University)

274. Alistair M Macleod (Queen's University)

275. Nancy Gallagher (University of California, Santa Barbara)

276. Jamie Mayerfeld (University of Washington)

277. William A Gamson (Boston College)

278. Michael Goldman (University of Minnesota)

279. Jan Aart Scholte (University of Warwick)

280. Koen Koch (Leiden University, Netherlands)

281. Morton Winston (College of New Jersey)

282. Michael Perry (Emory University)

283. Tony Smith (Tuft University)

284. W Richard Bond (Brock University)

285. Adrie Kusserow (St. Michael's College)

286. Nissim Mannathukkaren (Dalhousie University)

287. Justin Tiwald (San Francisco State University)

288. Csta SveinsdC3ttir (San Francisco State University)

289. Feyzi Baban (Trent University)

290. Elzbieta Matynia (New School University)

291. Beverley Milton-Edwards (Queens University Belfast)

292. Awad Halabi (Wright State University)

293. Arthur Goldschmidt (Penn State University)

294. Peter Railton (University of Michigan)

295. Naomi Klein (author, Canada)

296. Paul Aarts (University of Amsterdam)

297. Thomas Mertes (UCLA)

298. Samuel C Rickless (University of California, San Diego)

299. Emran Qureshi (Harvard University)

300. Donald Rutherford (University of California, San Diego)

301. Terry Eagleton (University of Manchester)

302. Mujeeb Khan (University of California, Berkeley)

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Congratulations Australia...

... and good riddance!

Oxford University's eggheads and freedom of speech

Not to be outdone by the ACLU Oxford University's student run Debating Society has invited two fascists to speak during a free speech event at Oxford University tomorrow.
Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party, was convicted by UK courts for materials inciting racial hatred for producing materials denying the holocaust.
Similarly, David Irving, a discredited historian who was sentenced to three years in jail by Austrian courts for his holocaust denials.
The argument seems to be that an event debating the question of freedom of speech has to rely on fascists' contributions in order to be suitably credible. In fact, dear Oxford Debating Society why not also invite a couple of pedophiles feeling violated in their freedom of speech, because they're unable to advertise child sex brothels in Asia and elsewhere? Or a representative of the KKK who is upset about limitations in his (usually his) freedom of speech, because he is unable to rave about getting rid of all African Americans? Surely there is an infinite number of lunatics out there that could valuably contribute to your important debate...
What these students have clearly missed is that a debate about reasonable limits (or none) on freedom of speech can be had without inviting Griffin and Irving or similarly shady character, and without violating these characters' right to express themselves. After all, it is not their entitlement or legal right to be invited by the Debating Society to express their views. They can simply go to Hyde Park's Speakers' Corner and rave about ethnic minorities, gays and the EU - in the rain.
This is why Trevor Phillips, chair person of the UK's Commission for Equalities and Human Rights is right when he said, 'this is not a question of freedom of speech, this is a juvenile provocation.'

Friday, November 23, 2007

Bioethics @ UNESCO - the farce continues

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have been scathing (that's an understatement) about pretty much most activities of UNESCO in the field of bioethics. The organization's bioethics committees churn out Declarations clearly aiming to beat each other to the title of being the most inept guidance document in the field (and there's plenty of contestants out there). Its Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights requires its member states, among other things, not to discriminate against people on any grounds. Tell that to current day South Africans trying to rectify the former apartheids state's injustices by means of affirmative action, or explain that to investigators excluding particular people from a given clinical trial on prudent scientific grounds. The same document also exhorts clinical researchers to maximize the trial participants' benefits. This is pretty much impossible and would in fact render most clinical research impossible. There's much more nonsense that forms the core mantras of this Declaration, and, understandably so, the document is by and large ignored by folks in developed countries. This is not so in developing countries, and this is what we as Editors of Developing World Bioethics warned in an Editorial about. We suggested that people not overly familiar with modes of bioethical reasoning might just fall for this sort of waffle and as a result the Declaration rather than being consigned to the traditional dustbin of UNESCO text production activities, might actually have negative impacts on policies or training programs established in developing countries.
It seems that we were correct. Today a Kenyan newspaper reports that a UNESCO bioethics center (and accompanying professorial chair) has been established at Egerton University in Kenya. I'm sure nobody in the field of bioethics has ever heard of Egerton University's research and teaching excellence in bioethics. Indeed, the new bioethics professor, sorry, the new UNESCO bioethics professor at that university, a professor Jude Mutuku Mathooko, has - according to a quick google scholar search that I undertook just now - not published a single peer reviewed paper (in a bioethics or other reputable journal) on a bioethical subject matter. Not a big surprise then that our new professorial bioethics colleague, undoubtedly after an extensive UNESCO in-house peer review process found competent to research and teach bioethics, also happens to be chairperson of one of UNESCO's bioethics committees. How he got there... don't ask. It's UNESCO after all. I'm sure this bloke is a nice chap, but surely even he should realize that it takes more to be a bioethics professor then access to UNESCO's rolodex and frequent visits to Paris.
Anyway, there is some bright spot in all of this. According to the Kenyan news report, 'The centre will perform functions in line with Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights and other declarations.' Yes, the university promises that its new UNESCO bioethics center will operate and indoctrinate in line with the above criticized Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights. This possibly explains why long-established serious bioethics research and teaching institutions in developing countries such as South Africa, Mexico or the Philippines were shunned in favor of a Kenyan institution that happens to be the employer of UNESCOs bioethics committee's Kenyan chairperson.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Stem cell wars - it's the science stupid!

The current uproar over new developments in stem cell research is nothing short of hilarious. What happened: scientists in labs in California/Japan and Wisconsin, using slightly different techniques, managed to produce pluripotent cells without relying on the destruction of 10-14 day old embryos in the process. Researchers have long been excited about these pluripotent cells as they can grow into all sorts of damaged or destroyed human tissue. In other words, the potential for medical breakthroughs using such cells is very substantial indeed.

The God squad has been vigorously (not to say viciously) opposed to the old-fashioned way of producing such cells, because embryos 10-14 days after conception would be destroyed in the process of extracting pluripotent stem cells. In God's mind this was terrible research, because according to God's representatives down here on earth these cell accumulations (called embryos) should be treated as if they were persons. Well, a few hundred cells don't display any of the dispositions we'd usually require to be present for a given entity to be called a person. God doesn't seem to know this. I tried to contact God for some time, but there doesn't seem to be any email details available to engage God in a discussion about God's views on embryo research. God's earthly representatives only refer to God's authority to explain why embryos - at whatever developmental stage - must not be destroyed. So, a serious argument about the ethics or otherwise of the matter could never be had, because the authority driving so much of the 'holy embryo' stance remains somewhat elusive.

As I write this the religious commentators claim that their ethical stance has been 'winning' on this matter, and science showing how 'right' they were all along. This is remarkable for several reasons:

  • First off, it's highly unusual for this particular group of people to respect science at all - well, unless it supports their slightly warped view of the world (where evolution didn't take place, and where we humans - helped ever so slightly by, you guessed it, 'God' - popped into existence just a few thousand years ago). So I doubt they're well advised to suddenly pick scientific progress of the sorts explained above as proof of the truth of their ethical stance. After all, what are they going to do next time science contradicts their view of the world. Scientific truth is not really a pick-and-choose type activity. They can't have their cake and eat it, I'd think.
  • Secondly, the research in question, good news as it is, suffers some serious drawbacks at the moment, including a higher risk of cancer in mice in which pluripotent cells that were derived by the new method were implanted. This drawback might be temporary, time will tell.
  • Thirdly, most scientists working in the field still agree that we will not be able to progress significantly without some form of destructive embryonic research continuing. In other words, pretending that the ethics wars over the moral status of embryos have suddenly concluded due to a new 'ethical' method of producing pluripotent cells having been found is grossly misleading.

I am somewhat disappointed that those high-profile ethicists who campaigned in favor of destructive embryonic stem cell research (while there seemed no viable scientific alternative) have been awkwardly silent in their response to these new findings. The truth is, however, that the position they held at the time was correct. If scientific progress permits us now to achieve the same objective without destroying embryos, that's excellent news and should be applauded by them, too. The reason for this is not at all, of course, that the 'holy embryo' crowd was right all along, but rather, that crucial biomedical research can now progress much faster without God's earthly troopers interfering a great deal. That's great news and more than enough reason to applaud the new developments!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Death penalty again

I have always been 'against' capital punishment.

My main reasons had to do with the view that killing people against their express wishes is barbaric, as well as with the fact that once a wrongly sentenced person has been killed, no subsequently discovered mistakes can possibly be rectified as the innocently executed person cannot be brought back to life. I was also always concerned that in the USA at least the distribution of death penalty suggests a legal system that is fundamentally unjust. Those most likely to get handed down a capital punishment verdict happen to belong to ethnic minority groups, and they happen to be poor. Rich murderers such as OJ Simpson on the other hand are able to buy themselves out of such verdicts by means of deploying legal teams capable of getting them off the hook.

Last but by no means least I considered the argument from the deterrent effect of capital punishment unconvincing, mostly because there had been no empirical evidence actually supporting this argument. This last reason is a truly important matter. If it can be shown that the existence of capital punishment incontrovertibly reduces the number of murders of innocent people one would at least have one powerful reason to reconsider this kind of punishment. It would then not seem any longer to be the case that a slam-dunk type case against the death penalty exists. One could still consider it barbaric, of course, and one could (one should!) have serious concerns about erroneous judgments, but these sorts of costs could well be outweighed by lives otherwise preserved thanks to the deterrent effect.

Well, you might want to review this particular issue. The New York Times today analyses recent empirical evidence and concludes that there is reasonably strong evidence supporting the claim that there is a deterrent effect. Even if you still think that capital punishment is an unconditional 'no no', you might want to reconsider your reasons for holding this view in light of the research reviewed in the NYT.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Land of the free and all...

I don't know what you think about US teenage boys running around in baggy pants usually displaying bits and pieces of their (usually unusually tasteless) underwear (due to the pants hanging sufficiently low at their backsides). Well, for a long time in the land of the free (home of the body bag) there has been debate on rightwing 'news' outlets such as Fox about whether or not something should be done to force such teenagers to pull up their pants so to speak.
Well, our freedom loving and defending neighbours to the south of the Canadian border have decided to take drastic action. In a number of jurisdictions parents (!) can now be send to jail if their kids are found in public with sagging pants.
There are quite a few interesting questions (some serious, some not so serious) that one can ask in this context: a very basic one would be 'what's so terrible about teenagers displaying cloth other than jeans on their backsides'? What exactly is different about that type of cotton compared to other types of cotton? It seems as if in the land of the free government now determines which types of cotton you may show in public as part of your wardrobe, and which types of cotton are so 'no no' that they could get your parents into jail. And, what if a teenage kid wants his parents to get out of his way and into jail? All he needs to do is to buy a pair of loose fitting jeans, let them hang down his bum, and show off his red satin underwear (yes, the one with the disney cartoon on it :). Welcome to the land of the free in action. I wonder whether guys wearing muscle shirts in summer will be next on the jailbird list, or women displaying too much flesh for the liking of the taste police.
The whole point of youth culture has always been to protest against 'grown up', old fogies' mainstream views of the world, tastes, etc. Now this could well take your parents into jail.
Beats me... It's tempting to tell those taste police officers to get a life and get out of other people's pants.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Islamic 'justice' ... ctd

Two little news items, one reported by the BBC today, the other briefly summarised from the DER SPIEGEL website ... they speaks more or less for themselves, I think, so I shall merely reproduce them here. Before someone gets on the soapbox 'explaining' that Islam is a peaceful ideology, deeply tolerant, and so on and so forth, perhaps it's worth pointing out that it is kind of odd that this sort of stuff only seems to happen in countries that call themselves Islamic. Kinda think that the proof's in the pudding, and that pudding just doesn't seem to suggest tolerant and peaceful ideology to me...

An appeal court in Saudi Arabia has doubled the number of lashes and added a jail sentence as punishment for a woman who was gang-raped.

The victim was initially punished for violating laws on segregation of the sexes - she was in an unrelated man's car at the time of the attack.

When she appealed, the judges said she had been attempting to use the media to influence them.

The attackers' sentences - originally of up to five years - were doubled.

Extra penalties

According to the Arab News newspaper, the 19-year-old woman, who is from Saudi Arabia's Shia minority, was gang-raped 14 times in an attack in the eastern province a year-and-a-half ago.

Seven men from the majority Sunni community were found guilty of the rape and sentenced to prison terms ranging from just under a year to five years.

But the victim was also punished for violating Saudi Arabia's laws on segregation that forbid unrelated men and women from associating with each other. She was initially sentenced to 90 lashes for being in the car of a strange man.

On appeal, the Arab News reported that the punishment was not reduced but increased to 200 lashes and a six-month prison sentence.

The rapists also had their prison terms doubled. But the sentences are still low considering they could have faced the death penalty.

The Arab News quoted an official as saying the judges had decided to punish the girl for trying to aggravate and influence the judiciary through the media.

The victim's lawyer was suspended from the case, has had his license to work confiscated, and faces a disciplinary session.

The DER SPIEGEL weekly news magazine reports today that in the peace loving Islamic nation of Afghanistan a teenage boy was shot to death by peace loving Islamic freedom fighters ... because he taught a neighboring kids English after class. Thank goodness for that peace loving, tolerant etc etc

Monday, November 12, 2007

Flu vaccination

I'm sure, those of us who ever had the flu will know that it is quite desirable to undergo the annual vaccination routine. Depending on what country one lives in there's different rule re access to flu vaccines. For instance, in the UK the NHS limits access to vaccines. GPs are required to prioritize along the lines of age (people above 50 years of age, young kids as well - surprise, surprise - folks working in the NHS). Us teachers, even though we spend hours meeting oodles of people, or bus drivers and such workers, are not a priority according to the NHS.
'Priority' ... that's, of course a pseudo-allocation type of activity. The NHS has decided that it's not worth purchasing sufficient supplies of vaccine, hence the annual scramble to prioritize. In South Africa local pharmacies sell the vaccine to anyone capable of purchasing it. Of course, it would make perfectly sense to simply vaccinate everyone. The incidence of suffering and disease as well as the amount of a given society's productivity losses due to illness could be very significantly reduced. So, for essentially stingy governments to limit access is counter productive. They are failing their citizens health needs.

Equally, I never understood why people who know of themselves to have the flu venture
back to places populated by large numbers of people (school and university class, work places, that sort of thing). Given that the people they mingle with cannot protect themselves against the flu virus spread by people knowing to be infected, I think it's fair to say that a clear cut case can be made in support of the idea that such infected people actively harm their work colleagues, fellow students, fellow aircraft passengers, and so on and so forth. We might be well advised to establish policies that - at a minimum- permit such folks to stay at home (and so contain the spread of the infection).

The good news for me. While I was just about today to enter Daffy's (ever hunting for a bargain) on Broadway and 34th, some guy pushed a leaflet into my hand. Unlike many other folks I always grab such materials and briefly check them (just so I don't miss a bargain). Well, today it paid off. I got a leaflet inviting me to pick up free flu shots that were offered in Manhattan by the American Lung Association. So, instead of going to Daffy's (actually... to be honest ... I simply postponed by 30 min), I got my free flu shots. What a pleasant difference to the nonsense going on in the UK NHS. For once I didn't need to weasel my way into getting access to a flu vaccine that I should be receiving from the public health services or private medical aid schemes anyway. Long live the American Lung Association!

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Fuel vs Food - what's more important?

Interesting (if that's the right word) development. Critics of the green movement have long criticised the Green's single-minded pre-occupation with the environment. It seemed highly problematic to expect folks in developing countries to ratchet up their environmental standards if that meant a significant slowing down of economic development (with all the benefits this brings for human advancement in terms of jobs, education and health care).

Well, Australia's THE AGE broadsheet published a very interesting summary of a currently ongoing crisis in that context. Food prices worldwide have gone up at a record rate. It goes without saying that the poor are very much at the receiving end of this development. Part of the reason is that the world's farmers are switching their production to more lucrative products. Not, as you might expect, illicit drugs, but oil replacement products such as ethanol. Prices for staple foods have gone up by a whopping 18% in China, 13% in Pakistan and Indonesia and about 10% in Latin America. Reports THE AGE, 'India, Yemen, Mexico, Burkina Faso and several other countries have had, or been close to, food riots in the past year. Meanwhile, there are shortages of beef, chicken and milk in Venezuela and other countries as governments try to keep a lid on food-price inflation.'

Looks like we're heading for a head-on competition between motorists competing for ethanol fuels for their vehicles, and the much larger number of poor people trying to survive, and being unable to purchase food at affordable prices anylonger.

Scary stuff. Having just made my way to North America, I'm flabbergasted by the ridiculous number of oversized cars with absolutely gigantic engines on the streets everywhere. You know, in the UK or Germany you'd see a 3 litre V6 type car only once in a blue moon, while here it seems to be at the lower end of what people like to drive around in. Not much by way of sympathy for our poorer neighbours then...

Thursday, November 01, 2007

On curries and placentas

I got to be honest, I HATE any kind of curry. Not my thing. And, finally I have a good reason. A woman was fined today for lacing her husband's curry with dog excrement. Goes without saying that he ate some of it before she burst into laughter and he took her (subsequently) to court and divorced her. Now, as the saying goes, it takes two to tango so she probably had at least some reason to be irritated about her husband. Still, doc excrement... I dunno. Anyway, my main thing really is: be weary of curry, it's even possibly to hide dog excrement in it without you ever noticing.

While I am on the sexist topic of women doing odd things, a story from South Africa. A woman in Durban stole placenta (image to the left for illustrative purposes only) from a hospital storage room in order to sell it off as a lucky charm to interested parties. So, she sliced the stuff into small pieces put them in nice looking glass containers (you might have bought one during your last trip, probably in a local flea market), and sold em off. Well, yuck it is. Ugh! - Quite so. Also goes without saying that she stole the placenta, that it wasn't her's to begin with, and that the former owners didn't consent to their placenta being turned into luck charms. So, it's not that the thief performed too well on the ethics front.

BUT, seriously, who was harmed by any of this? The placenta would have been discarded by the hospital (I have never seen a woman clamoring to take it home). So, the thief, at best engaged in a peculiar kind of recycling I suppose. If someone steals rubbish, even lucky charm rubbish such as placentas, is the appropriate response really a suspended 1 year prison term as the Magistrate in the South African had it? I don't know...

I fully appreciate that this all is more of the weekend entertainment variety, and for that I apologise, but these sorts of acts don't come across one's desk every day....

Monday, October 29, 2007

Should skincolour manipulating products be developed and sold?

Nice article today on the CBC news website. Some students from Carleton University have developed yet another cream capable of whitening the skin color of darker skinned people. It's kinda old news, due to continuing racist ideologies insisting that a lighter skin coloration is kinda better than a darker skin coloration, skin lightening products have been on the market for a very long time. You'll find them in most drug stores in places where larger numbers of darker skinned folks live. In many parts of India it is common knowledge that the darker a young woman is, the more difficult it will be for her to find a husband (or her family for her - don't ask). Now, the question is, of course, whether one should aid such skin color related prejudices by means of developing products that permit folks to lighten their skin color. We should never develop any kind of technologies that serve such purposes. They will only prolong the existence of such prejudices over time, because the cremes in question will be seen as an easy way out of the dilemma by many, while really they help cementing views about the inferiority of particular skin colors.

The inventors of the concoction in question insist that they're no racists (a claim likely to be true), and that in fact their creme could also be utilized by folks wanting to darken their skin color.

At first this seems an innocent enough idea then, as the technology kind of cuts both ways. It stops being innocent when we ask ourselves why some light skinned people like to look a bit darker (but not really dark, of course). The reason is that to many pink skinned folks a slightly darker look translates into ideas of vacation (you know, beach, sun and tequilas) and health. Of course, darker skinned folks will not have this kind of motive in mind. They are more likely to think that they might move up in societal status if they're lighter skinned. Equating then the two possible utilisations of the technology seems remarkably naive. Interestingly, one of the students is from India and should be painfully aware why such products are so popular in that country, yet clearly it doesn't seem to have hit home that, big as that market might be, it's nonetheless a market created by racist interpretations of skin color.

So, in the same way that I would not want a prenatal genetic test predictive for homosexuality in a homophobic society (even if it could be also used by homosexuals to detect heterosexual etc etc), I would not want to see products on the market that support racist societies' take on skin coloration.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Lives not worth living and voluntary euthanasia

Most of the voluntary euthanasia crowd argue that we should permit competent folks who are suffering from a terminal illness, and who consider their lives not worth living access to death with dignity if they so wish. Death with dignity here is meant to include access to voluntary euthanasia and/or physician assisted suicide. The main reasons have both to do with the idea that we should respect competent people's choices particularly when it comes to how they wish to end their lives, and also with the view that there is little point in sticking around when you suffer from a terminal illness, and there is no prospect that you'd be able to enjoy your life sufficiently again that you yourself consider it worth living. So, it's not about a Nazi declaring your life not worth living, but that you yourself say that you wish to die, because you yourself do not consider your life worth living any longer.

I find this argument by and large persuasive, but it strikes me as mostly strategically motivated. Opponents of voluntary euthanasia have long been arguing that accepting this argument, and translating it into policy would lead us down a slippery slope to non-voluntary euthanasia (say folks get killed a) against their express wishes [there doesn't seem to be any evidence whatsoever to support this claim, at least with regard to countries that have since legalised voluntary euthanasia], and b] that incompetent folks get killed). The latter point is quite dicey obviously. If you've someone who meets the other criteria (terminal illness, overwhelming impact on that patient's quality of life), and you know that competent people under such circumstances often (but not always!) demand voluntary euthanasia or physician assisted suicide, how are you to go about someone unable to express an autonomous choice?

Anyway, my main question today is somewhat different, but also somewhat related to the incompetent patient. As you may or may not know, very many people suffer from clinical depressions. It's truly a debilitating disease that renders the quality of life not worth living for many of those affected. Some of the anti-depressants that are on the market work for some of those affected, but for many patients these drugs do not work, or do not work reliably over time, or do not work sufficiently well to permit them to enjoy their lives again. It goes without saying that depressive people have suicidal thoughts that are usually caused by their depression.

But, here is the question: If a given depressive patient has tried and tested the available anti- depressants over reasonable periods of time, and they fail to do the trick for her, would it be unethical if a doctor complied with her request for an overdose of some drug cocktail or other that would permit her to end her life? If the legitimacy of decisions on voluntary euthanasia or physician assisted suicide rests on a patient's evaluation of her experienced quality of life over time, who are we to say that a depressed patient 'because she is depressed' should not be respected in her wish to end her life?

My view would be that we should acknowledge that depression might be the major factor triggering her demand to die with dignity, but equally that unless we're able to do something successfully (in her judgment, not our's) about her depressions, we should respect her choice. At the end of the day, whether or not we consider our lives worth living should be the decisive factor with regard to society respecting patients' end-of-life decision making. The question surely is not whether their condition is terminal but whether there is a reasonable likelihood that the condition that renders their life not worth living (in their judgment!) can be fixed in the foreseeable future. If the answer to this question is 'no', or 'most likely not', it does not matter whether the condition we are concerned about is of a terminal nature. It does not help a great deal to go on about depressed people being not competent to evaluate exactly how they feel about their lives. The fact of the matter is that they know perfectly well how it is to live with depressions, they understand that it is their depression that stuffs up their lives, but also that nothing that they tried worked to bring their lives back to reasonably livable normality. To use that experience to declare them incompetent to make choices about ending their lives seems absurd to me.

Am I missing something?

Friday, October 26, 2007

African Vaccine Trials Ethics Problems Continue

A few weeks ago much propagated microbicide trials designed to test the efficacy of a microbicide aimed at reducing or preventing HIV transmission during sexual intercourse ended in failure. It turned out that the microbicide actually increased the risk of HIV infection. All sorts of ethical questions arose, of course, including whether an infection acquired during the course of the trial should count as a trial related injury that ought to be subject to compensation.

Well, much better resourced preventive HIV vaccine trials also crashed in a spectacular way today. Again, it turned out that the trials left those who were injected with the vaccine candidate more susceptible to HIV infection than those who were in the placebo arm. In all fairness to those who undertook this trial, the plug was pulled quickly when these results came to light. Equally, how would one ever find out whether a vaccine candidate works other than by means of undertaking such trials. So, the problem with both the microbicide trials, and the preventive vaccine trials isn't that they took place at all. The problem is to do with the question of what is owed to those who became already infected during the course of the prevention trial, and to those who are now at greater risk of catching an infection. There were also clear failings in the informed consent process.

I think these quotes from two of the participants are revealing in important ways. I found them in an article in the Washington Post:

"It's quite shocking," said Nelly Nonoise, 26, who had received three injections of the vaccine in her left shoulder. She added, "I probably wouldn't have joined the study knowing there's a risk." Another participant, Nonhlanhla Nqakala, 22, said she thought the text message urging her to visit the vaccine test site meant she had tested positive for HIV. Her brother and a close friend had the disease and died, she said. Nqakala said she was relieved when a doctor explained that she was not infected, but the news of a possible problem with the vaccine -- she had received three doses, not placebos -- left her distressed. "I thought the trial would help us find a cure for HIV," she said."

Now, here is a problem obviously! Two people are being interviewed by the journalist, and both indicate that they didn't understand properly the nature of the trial. This does not reflect well on the investigators' professed best practice standards in their informed consent process. It seems obvious that they happily accepted participants into their trial who did not actually comprehend the nature of the trial.

Again, the question is what is owed to the trial participants by the trial sponsors and / or the investigators. Surely if you accept people into your trial that end up being worse off when the trial is stopped, you have some responsibility for these folks, particularly so when obviously you took participants into the trial that didn't understand what was going on in the first place.

And yes, this smug ethicist can claim without embarrassment that 'I told you so' prior to the start of the trial. I argued that trial participants' competence and level of information / comprehension needed to be tested in order to rule out that people would end up in the trial that do not understand its nature. This was rejected at the time with arguments such as 'we would never be able to recruit enough participants then'. So the public health and research imperative was prioritised over individual participants' well being.

Lessons to be learned: Well, to be frank, the warnings were there prior to the trial and they were ignored. That one should not do this isn't exactly a new lesson, so, if anything we should probably consider erring on the side of caution on the odd occasion in future.

The Washington Post cites the Principal Investigator with these remarks:

"This is my worst nightmare," said Glenda Gray, the lead South Africa investigator for the vaccine study. "I haven't slept for days. I have a headache. I'm ready to resign from trials for the rest of my life."

Of course, while I have no doubt about Glenda Gray's integrity as a researcher, and while I have no doubt that her current qualms are genuine, much of this could have been avoided if sensible procedures in terms of the informed consent process had been put in place, including knowledge and comprehension evaluation of the prospective participants. The failure to do so puts the moral responsibility for this trial's failure squarely on the shoulders of the trial sponsors and investigators. It's not about resigning from clinical trials, it's about avoiding ethical short cuts (for instance in the informed consent process).

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

UNAIDS goes head-to-head with Catholic Church

Reuters reported this story yesterday:

Global Challenges | Catholic Church's Opposition to Condom Use Contributes to Spread of HIV in Latin America, UNAIDS Official Says
[Oct 24, 2007]

The Roman Catholic Church's opposition to condom use is contributing to the spread of HIV in Latin America, Alberto Stella -- UNAIDS coordinator for Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica -- said on Monday, Reuters reports.

"In Latin America, the use of condoms has been demonized, but if they were used in every relation, I guarantee the epidemic would be resolved in the region," Stella said. He added that youth "start to be sexually active between 15 and 19 without sex education" -- a factor that contributes to the spread of HIV. In addition, evidence indicates that promoting abstinence is "not working," according to Stella.

About half of the 1.1 billion Catholics worldwide live in Latin America, and the Roman Catholic Church "holds sway" in the region, Reuters reports. About 1.7 million people in Latin America are living with HIV/AIDS. The number of new HIV cases in the region increased to 410,000 in 2006 from 320,000 in 2004, according to UNAIDS (Reuters, 10/23).

Singapore being funny again

Singapore's legislators reportedly changed legislation that until recently threatened to punish perverse (in the non-reproductive sex act sense) sexual activity with jail of up to two years. So, a married couple enjoying oral-genital intercourse, if caught (somehow...) could end up in the slammer. Well, I'm sure that was just those Singaporeans being funny (different, 'Asian values' and all) again. You know, it's the same crowd that prohibited the sale of chewing gum because it messed up their subway. Reportedly Singaporeans are conservative - as if conservatives didn't do such things, but hey, I suppose they don't talk about it.

Anyway, Singapore, with this move came frighteningly close to the civil rights type legislations we take for granted in other democracies. To me it seems as if Singaporeans are kind of keen to continue to be sniggered about behind their backs, much like in the chewing gum case. So they decided that oral-genital is cool whenever it's male to female, but that it's totally unacceptable (and must be punished with jail of up to two years), when, you guessed it, two blokes engage in the same conduct. They even managed to legislate the same spiel for anal intercourse. So, if you're married and you engage in anal intercourse Singapore's legislators don't think any longer two years jail is a sensible response, but if you're a guy doing it with another guy, hey presto, Singapore's jail is waiting for you. One of its psychiatrists discussed in a local medical journal a couple of years back the question of whether one should offer a genetic test (prenatal) for homosexuality if one came about, in 'the absence of treatment'. At the time homosexuality had long been eliminated from any known classification of diseases, but then, he probably didn't know, being conservative and all.

In the real world, of course, nobody is likely to ever go to jail because of this legislation. How would any policewoman ever find out what's happening in any of a zillion flats in Singapore's high-rises? No, this really is a means to say straight sex that isn't reproductive is cool, while gay sex that isn't reproductive isn't.

Inequitably treating like things not alike? Sure thing. Unjust? Sure thing. Bit silly? Sure thing. But hey, what's new about Singapore? One the one hand the city state professes its version of Asian family values. These seem to require that homosexual activities (ie a victimless activity conducted among consenting adults) be criminalised. On the other hand, the professed Asian respect for conservative moral values doesn't seem to prevent the place from being one of Burma's dictators' favorite trading partners. Hypocrisy - I think so.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Conscientious objection to gay adoption

There's a lot of irony in this. Much to the chagrin of some of my gay friends I have always maintained that arguably gay people have a moral obligation to contribute to the welfare of children (often gay couples have the resources and the time to do so, frequently more so than heterosexual couples). In view of large numbers of orphans both in developed as well as in developing countries I think it would be only sensible if more gay people who find themselves in the fortunate situation to be able to resource the upbringing of such orphans should do so (eg adopt them). So, rather than thinking about gay adoption as a right that needs to be fought for, I believe it is a moral obligation that sufficiently resourced gay people have toward orphans. While I was saying 'duty' and 'obligation' as opposed to 'right' ('gay' preferably) my gay compatriots were not exactly taken by my views.
Well, thankfully there's always a religious person around working hard to stuff these matters up. You know, some bloke who had a chat with his 'God' the other day, and who then 'feels' strongly enough about it to campaign against gay adoption (the 'right' and, weirdly the 'duty'). The fascinating bit to me isn't that sort of conduct in itself, as to my mind organised monotheistic religions are about little other than this kind of activity. No, it all comes full circle to my other favorite topic, 'conscientious objection'.
63 year old Andrew McClintock is some kind of professional. His job as a Magistrate in Sheffield is to get kids into adoption. Well, you guessed it, Mr McClintock is part of God's squad, so he knows that it's 'wrong' to place orphans with adoptive gay parents. He wants that the place where he works excuses him from having to give orphaned children to gay adoptive parents. Conscientious objection as an idea holds much sway in health care professions. There members of God's earthly team also want a special exemption when it comes to certain types of medical services. The weird bit about the conscientious objection stance is, of course, that it's not about any kind of actual truth of the belief held by the objectors. So, it's not at all about whether they can show that their God exists and that the views they ascribe to their God are truly God's views, basic stuff like that. Rather, it's about the fact that they feel so very strongly about the issue. Well, what if Mr McClintock had joined an Aryan Nation type religion that would prevent him from given orphans to families from an ethnic group that he doesn't like, because his God etc etc, would that also fly as a reason for racial discrimination?
Given that conscientious objection, as we have seen, is not about the truth or otherwise of the God related claims, to me at least it seems that accepting a right to conscientious objection is close to saying 'anything goes' as long as the objector feels strongly enough about it. This absurdity is truly incompatible with professional conduct, and for that reason alone we should do away with any supposed right to conscientious objection.
You don't want to deliver services that we as society can reasonably expect of you by virtue of your professional status ... frankly, then take a hike and get yourself some other job that you're able to fulfill.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Brits are not selfish post-Thatcherites after all

One could be forgiven for thinking that the post-Thatcherite Brits, having elected the warmongerer and privatisation fanatic Mr Blair (also better known as US President's Busch's poodle) to be PM a few times, would be a fairly selfish bunch showing little concern for those in need. After all, if even the Labour Party in that country gets into the business of privatising public education and hospital care one would not expect a great deal of civic mindedness among the citizens that elect such governments.

Well, if you thought like this, you could not be more mistaken! The British Medical Association (a doctors' trade union) conducted a survey of patients' views on organ donation. The UK system, much like the Canadian system, requires people to opt-in so that their organs may be utilised in case of their death. The problem with this system is, essentially, that because many of us are too lazy or too forgetful, we forget to sign the relevant forms and as a result when unexpected death hits us, for instance on the road, our organs cannot be utilised to preserve the lives of people in need of transplant organs. Thousands of lives are lost each year, simply because we are phlegmatic, lazy or ignorant about this important issue. It has long been suggested that we have a moral obligation toward out fellow citizens in need. For that reason it makes more sense to operate a system where we presume that a given dying accident victim, for instance, is presumed to be ok with the organ extraction instead of saying that if there's no signature saying 'you may use my organs' we may not use them. In other words, instead of actively opting in you must actively opt out to selfishly (yes, I mean it!) take your complete set of organs to your grave (so they may be eaten by worms instead...). The same phlegmatism, laziness and ignorance that is the root cause of today's insufficient supply of transplant organs would be utilised to save lives.

2/3 of 2,000 Brits interviewed in the above mentioned survey confirmed that they support the presumed consent idea. That's a strong democratic majority if this was true across the country and the survey was representative. This contrasts with only 1 in 4 Brits being on the organ donation register.

Of course, waiting for politicians to act on this, is probably as futile as waiting for them to legalise voluntary euthanasia. They have long understood that such decisions are no vote winners, so they stay clear of making them. What's new?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Why give famous jerks a platform?

James Watson (Jim to his mates, I presume) is a famous man. Jointly with Francis Crick he discovered the structure of the DNA. That's pretty cool as far as their contribution to scientific progress goes. The thing is, Watson was always kind of known to be a jerk, but people went out of their way to pretend that he wasn't, because of his contribution etc. Why a jerk? Well, Watson has the habit of using his fame to speak out on other issues outside his area of expertise, such as arguing that if a test capable of forecasting the sexual orientation of people came about, pregnant women should be permitted to abort fetuses likely to evolve into homosexuals. This comment, he says, was designed to demonstrate his support for women's right to choose to have abortions for any reasons and none. The question remains, tho, why did he pick 'gay' fetuses to make his point? He also made quite clear that he thinks the reasons for the problems in Africa have kinda to do with the lower intelligence of African peoples. It goes without saying that he since came to realise that he actually has been misunderstood. It's always a misunderstanding, of course it is. Here is the wording of the quote in the context of the interview. Your guess is as good as mine how there could be a misunderstanding... - So, the question is why one should give famous ageing jerks (he's 78 at the time of writing) a public platform to express their prejudices, particularly so when these prejudices are not even in areas of their scientific expertise.

So, I am very pleased that the British Science Museum recently withdrew an invitation to Dr Watson to speak there, on the grounds that 'Dr Watson has gone beyond the point of acceptable debate and we are, as a result, cancelling his talk'. Thumbs up to the Brits for not caving into Jim-co-discoverer-of-the-DNA fame, and for asking him to take a hike, and take his prejudices with him. What a shame that he lost the opportunity to promote his latest book to a British audience...

Addendum 19 Oct 2007
: More good news. Cold Spring Harbor Labs, the international temple of genetics research has announced that it has suspended Dr Watson. Makes me wonder what they're going to do about the 'Watson School of Biological Sciences', tho. Incidentally, the School, of which Dr Watson is the Chancellor, hasn't yet graduated a single black student. You know, my thing was always that you better honour folks posthumously, just in case they lose the plot on the way.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Swearing is healthy!

Hey, there's some good news today! For me! I like to swear. I even enjoy peppering lectures occasionally with swear words. Most universities these days are heavens of political correctness, politeness and ensuing eternal boredom. I was once even told that it would be inappropriate for me 'as an ethics professor' to swear. I'm sure you get the drift, swearing is unethical. Well, there's now some empirical evidence that swearing can be good for the atmosphere at the workplace! Imagine that, the occupational health benefits of swearing. Goes without saying, I love it. To me, swearing has always been a most cathartic experience, much like lap swimming does for me, too.

On pedophilia

The world's media and the world's cops (aka Interpol) are currently hunting a high-profile pedophile suspect. Paul Neil, a 32 year old Canadian English language teacher is currently hiding somewhere in Southeast Asia. Bizarrely local Canadian media outlets published the photo of a house where the suspect's mother and brother are currently renting a flat. So, in case I steal a car tomorrow, they'd probably also publish a photo of my parents' house, just so that you know where they are, so they may be punished for my alleged deed. Beats me ...

Anyway, pedophilia: I am almost certain this is one of those blogs I will regret to have ever written, but then, that hasn't stopped me in the past. So, some disclaimers first: Kids don't do it for me, never have, never will. I think legislation outlawing pedophile sexual activity (ie between adults and prebubescent children) is a desireable thing. It's probably also sensible that modern psychiatry has decided that pedophilia is some kind of mental illness, though, just like with other calls they made in terms of DSM inclusion, their coin flipping activitiy could have ended with a different call just as easily.

Having said all that, it gets more difficult to get one's head around the question of what it is that is bad about pedophilia. Fair enough, most of us, myself included, think it's kinda 'yuck'. Beyond that though, what are the main ethical reason against pedophilia (not in the sense of sexual orientation but in the sense of action)? It seems to me that we should reject pedophilia as a reasonable (as in: acceptable) sexual orientation, because children are unable to give informed, voluntary consent (the famous autonomous choice in other words) to sexual interactions with adults. The meaning they'd give to such acts are different to the meanings we ascribe to them (regardless of whether the actual action includes painful penetrative sex or not), and given the power differential between them and us, they're probably not really in a situation to say 'no'. So, this probably is sufficient to outlaw pedophile sex acts.

Still, I have some nagging doubts ultimately about the intellectual integrity of either of these arguments. If the first part of the argument constituted a correct interpretation of the situation, could that not also be read as a case against putting it on the 'shameful' list? Subject to no bodily harm occurring, I wonder whether the real harm doesn't occur when the kids learn from us how badly they have been abused. There is evidence that (some) kids actually enjoy the sexual activity with adults, and that how badly they have been abused only dawns on them much later in life. Well, this makes me wonder, of course, how this pleasurable activity was turned into a horrific experience of abuse retrospectively many years later. I wonder how much of our cultural bias against such activities is actually contributing to this re-interpretation of the initial pleasant experience. Prior that that some kids didn't even think of their experience in terms of abuse. Would they not be better off then not to find out? I wonder how harm minimisation could be most efficiently executed under the circumstances.

The second half of the argument seems even weaker. It is self-evident that there is a substantial power differential between an adult and a child. This power differential renders probably much of what goes on between the adult and the child involuntary. No doubt, prima facie that makes it a bad thing. The thing is, tough, that that is also true for relationships between adults. Power differentials exist in all relationships. Economic, psychological and other dependencies exist in the real world. They can be strong enough to render consent involuntary. We have no laws to protect weak willed adults, financially impoverished adults and the like from exploitation (sexual or otherwise) by other adults. It seems to me that if the second half of the argument rests on the non-voluntariness, to be consistent, we would have to cast our legislative web wider to include many relationships between adults, too.

I kind of hope that some readers of this blog might rise to the challenge and deliver deadly blows to these two counter arguments.

It has been argued that pedophile sex tourists roaming developing countries are particularly despicable characters. The argument goes that in addition to the already mentioned two arguments, they abuse the particular vulnerabilities of impoverished peoples for their own purposes. It has also been reported that dire poverty drives parents in some developing countries to sell their kids off to pedophile networks. - I do think the exploitation argument is sound and there can be little said in defense of such kinds of sex tourism. That's the easy one. It's an argument that has also been deployed in the context of child labour. Except that in the child labour scenario quite a few people (many of whom no doubt well-intentioned) defended child labour by pointing out that, yes, these kids are being exploited (and that's undoubtedly bad!); BUT, they go on to argue, what's the alternative? Surely most parents wouldn't sell their kids as workers to some company if they had a viable alternative. So, here's the conundrum, while the companies exploiting such dire need arguably behave unethical, those trying to make the best of out it (eg the parents) under the circumstances, quite possibly did the ethically right thing.

I still recall as if it happened yesterday, oodles of years ago, when I was a student at Monash I had a shouting match type conversation with a guy who admitted to going to Southeast Asian countries as a sex tourist targetting 'young people' as he called them. I went on and on about how terrible his behaviour is and and that he should not be doing this etc. Then he came with the argument that if he, and many other white males like him, didn't go and didn't buy 'young people' for sex, nobody would be any better off (he implied that they might starve) and arguably some would be worse off. He railed against us do-gooders who didn't understand the dependence of many many people on characters like him. I can't say that I like him much more now, just thinking back about this episode, but it seems to me that those campaigning against sex tourism need to do better than they do currently, in terms of offering viable alternatives to those in dire need. Otherwise there will always be an obliging response to market driven demand, no matter how hard we politically correct folks waive our hands. I know that some NGOs offer such programs, BUT surely if there were sufficient alternative out there, the needs of sex tourists would not be met any longer in developing countries. As we all know, this isn't exactly what's happening in the real world.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

African AIDS treatment programs lose 40% of patients within 2 years

A very important meta-analysis of patient retention rates in HAART programs in subsaharan Africa was published today in PLOS. Information about these retention rates are of utmost importance. Burried underneath all the rhetoric of human rights to health (and as a corollary access to health care), there's a serious public health issue. It is known that, for instance among people with chronic serious illnesses in developed countries, adherence to strict treatment regimes is only around 50%. So, the mentioned meta-analysis notes that in the average about 40% of patients with HIV infection enrolled in subsaharan AIDS treatment programs cannot be retained. Many are lost due to death (for instance because they got started on treatments too late), others are lost for other reasons. A positive spin on this would probably note that at least in some subsaharan AIDS treatment programs adherence to treatment regimes is better than in some developed countries (while, predictably, it's worse in others).

The negative spin would say that the findings of this meta-analysis are significant, because many of these people, while they will eventually die on AIDS, will have enough time to do two things: 1) develop drug resistant mutations of the AIDS virus, and 2) infect others with their drug resistant variant of the AIDS virus. In short: treatment programs of this sort run the very serious risk of contributing to a public health threat that is larger than the magnitude of the problem it tries to tackle.

Quite an ethical challenge for health policy makers in subsahara Africa, be they government, NGOs or civil society.