Author: José Betancourt

Should the results of Nazi experiments ever be taken up and used?

During World War II, Nazi doctors had unfettered access to human beings they could use in medical experiments in any way they chose. In one way, these experiments were just another form of mass torture and murder so our moral judgement of them is clear. But they also pose an uncomfortable moral challenge: what if some of the medical experiments yielded scientifically sound data that could be put to good use? Would it be justifiable to use that knowledge? Using data It’s tempting to deflect the question by saying the data are useless – that the bad behaviour must have produced bad science, so we don’t even have to think about it. But there is no inevitable link between the two because science is not a moral endeavour. If scientific data is too poor to use, it’s because of poor study design and analysis, not because of the bad moral character of the scientist. And in fact, some of the data from Nazi experiments is scientifically sound enough to be useful. The hypothermia experiments in …

Women in gender-equal countries have better memory

Let’s try you. Read the title above once, then cover it and write down word for word what you remember. Having difficulties? How well you do may be down to which country you live in. That’s according to a new study, published in Psychological Science, involving an impressive 200,000 women and men from 27 countries across five continents. It revealed that women from more conservative countries performed worse on memory tests than those from more egalitarian countries. Demographics expert Eric Bonsang and his colleagues analysed national survey data from individuals above the age of 50. They used existing data on cognitive performance tests measuring episodic memory (memory of autobiographical events). These involved recalling as many of ten words read out by a researcher as possible in one minute either immediately or after a short delay. The team rated each country’s level of gender equality by looking at the proportion of people agreeing with the statement: “When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women.” Women outperformed men on memory in …

Just another ‘war on drugs’ disaster

The recent passing of a new addition to the British statute books, which will come into effect on April 6th, is the latest in a long line of poorly drafted drug laws. The new law, to act in parallel with the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, effectively bans all substances – with the exception of alcohol, tobacco and caffeine – with a “psychoactive effect” on “normal brain functioning”. The awful irony of a UK government exempting two of the most individually and socially harmful substances has not been lost on concerned commentators. So where exactly has this nonsensical law come from? How on earth have we got ourselves into this situation? And will it work? To answer that, it’s worth reflecting on the emergence of novel psychoactive substances (NPS), or so called legal highs. New highs In 2009, club drug researchers first heard talk of the stimulant NPS mephedrone or “M-Cat” at UK clubs and after parties. At that time, there was growing disillusionment among users with the purity of popular illegal club drugs – as one of our interviewees put …

Affects of some of the most addictive substances

Affects of some of the most addictive substances

What are the most addictive drugs? This question seems simple, but the answer depends on whom you ask. From the points of view of different researchers, the potential for a drug to be addictive can be judged in terms of the harm it causes, the street value of the drug, the extent to which the drug activates the brain’s dopamine system, how pleasurable people report the drug to be, the degree to which the drug causes withdrawal symptoms, and how easily a person trying the drug will become hooked. There are other facets to measuring the addictive potential of a drug, too, and there are even researchers who argue that no drug is always addictive. Given the varied view of researchers, then, one way of ranking addictive drugs is to ask expert panels. In 2007, David Nutt and his colleagues asked addiction experts to do exactly that – with some interesting findings. 1. Heroin Nutt et al.’s experts ranked heroin as the most addictive drug, giving it a score of 3 out of a maximum …

Problem of Hollywood ‘whitewashing’

Actor Ed Skrein’s much applauded withdrawl from the role of Asian character, Major Ben Daimio, in the Hellboy reboot has again highlighted the pervasive practice of “whitewashing” in contemporary Hollywood. Whitewashing is not new. It was a common practice in classical Hollywood where some of its most egregious examples include John Wayne as Ghengis Khan in The Conqueror and Mickey Rooney as Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Audiences know instinctively that whitewashing is bad – hence the criticisms of other whitewashing films and the resulting hashtag #StarringJohnCho that went viral in spring 2016. As a cultural practice, having white people play, replace and stereotype characters of colour obscures and erases their history, agency and power. Although it is fair to reject whitewashing as false and offensive on these ideological grounds, to do so without further scrutiny does not allow us to explore the reasons why it exists. Whitewashing happens in a number of ways. It can be the whitening through casting of a character who was originally a person of colour in historical or …

How safe is exercise supplements

An Australian woman with a genetic disorder died from consuming too many protein supplements, it was recently reported. The woman in question, Meegan Hefford, a 25-year-old bodybuilder, suffered from a rare, undiagnosed disorder that caused a fatal build-up of ammonia in her body (ammonia is produced when the body breaks down protein). This raises the question: are exercise supplements safe? In healthy people, most commonly used supplements intended to enhance the body – often referred to in the scientific literature as “nutraceuticals” or “functional foods” – are harmless. Nonetheless, there are rare cases where underlying health conditions or excessive consumption could cause ill health. By far the most common supplement taken by gym goers are those containing amino acids in the form of protein, protein hydrolysates (such as whey protein), or individual branched chain amino acids (BCAA), containing leucine, isoleucine and valine. People take these supplements to support muscle building on the premise that amino acids are the building blocks of muscle tissue. Aside from the rare genetic disorder suffered by Meegan Hefford, are there …

When does borrowing become cultural appropriation in dance?

Dance has been a significant part of human culture since the very earliest civilisations. While today it is done more for entertainment purposes, its use can be traced back many thousands of years to ancient ceremonies and rituals. For as long as they have been moving, dancers have always borrowed from other forms of movement, using them as inspiration to evolve their own work. But in recent years, when too much inspiration is taken, critics have started accusing dancers of cultural appropriation. Take belly dance for example. One of the world’s oldest forms of dance, it originated in Middle Eastern and Northern African countries, such as Egypt, Turkey and Lebanon, but is now danced around the world. Belly dancing isn’t just one type of dance: there is no single set of moves to follow in time to a beat. Though there are certain moves that are similar – focusing on the hips, chest and shoulders being moved in isolation from the rest of the body – each culture has its own version of a belly …

Tech companies want to detect your emotions and expressions, but users are not happy

As revealed in a patent filing, Facebook is interested in using webcams and smartphone cameras to read our emotions, and track expressions and reactions. The idea is that by understanding emotional behaviour, Facebook can show us more of what we react positively to in our Facebook news feeds and less of what we do not – whether that’s friends’ holiday photos, or advertisements. This might appear innocuous, but consider some of the detail. In addition to smiles, joy, amazement, surprise, humour and excitement, the patent also lists negative emotions. Possibly being read for signs of disappointment, confusion, indifference, boredom, anger, pain and depression is neither innocent, nor fun. In fact, Facebook is no stranger to using data about emotions. Some readers might remember the furore when Facebook secretly tweaked user’s news feeds to understand “emotional contagion”. This meant that when users logged into their Facebook pages, some were shown content in their news feeds with a greater number of positive words and others were shown content deemed as sadder than average. This changed the emotional …

Would you want Google to know if you have ‘criminal genes’?

Artificial intelligence is already being put to use in the NHS, with Google’s AI firm DeepMind providing technology to help monitor patients. Now I have discovered that Google has met with Genomic England – a company set up by the Department of Health to deliver the 100,000 Genomes Project – to discuss whether DeepMind could get involved. If this were to happen, it could help bring down costs and speed up genetic sequencing – potentially helping the science to flourish. But what are the risks of letting a private company have access to sensitive genetic data? Genomic sequencing has huge potential – it could hold the key to improving our understanding of a range of diseases, including cancer, and eventually help find treatments for them. The 100,000 Genomes Project was set up by the government to sequence genomes of 100,000 people. And it won’t stop there. A new report from the UK’s chief medical officer, Sally Davies, is calling for an expansion of the project. However, a statement by the Department of Health in response …

Statues of medical racist who experimented on slaves should also be taken down

Confederate generals are not the only statues causing public outrage in the US. On Saturday, protesters gathered in New York City’s Central Park to call for the removal of a monument to James Marion Sims – the “father of gynaecology” – a doctor who bought, sold and experimented on slaves. There are two other Sims statues on state-owned property. One is in Columbia, South Carolina, and the other in Montgomery, Alabama. In an interview with MSNBC, Steve Benjamin, the mayor of Columbia, recently agreed that the local Sims statue should come down “at some point”. Now the New York Academy of Medicine has reissued a statementsupporting the removal of Sims’ effigy from Central Park. Over the past five decades, a small army of academics – including social historians, feminists, African American scholars and bioethicists – have reached a consensus that Sims’ medical research on enslaved patients was dangerous, exploitative and deeply unethical – even by the standards of his times. And doctors at the Medical University of South Carolina, in Sims’ home state, have publicly …