“Jugar a ser Dios” wins National prize in Spain

jugarI was thrilled by the news that Jugar a ser Dios, the Spanish version of the introductory bioethics text written with my colleague Salvador Macip, has won best popular science prize at the 19th National University Edition Awards (link to announcement article, in Spanish, here).

The original Catalan version Jugar a ser Déus also won a prize (see here for my reflections on going to collect that award).

We are now hoping that Where Science and Ethics Meet, the English-language version, will earn a gong to accompany the plaudits it has received to date (e.g. here).

An Academic Life Observed: “Stoner” (book review)

As far as I can gather, John Williams’ 1965 novel Stoner became an overnight sensation nearly fifty years after it was written. Cover endorsements include Nick Hornby describing it as “A brilliant, inexorably sad, wise, and elegant novel” and Julian Barnes declaring it “A terrific novel of echoing sadness“. An uncredited reviewer in the Sunday Times labelled it “The greatest novel you’ve never read“.


Stoner tells the story of the eponymous academic’s career

Stoner tracks the life and career (in the first half of the twentieth century) of William (Bill) Stoner, a man raised in an agricultural community who goes on to become a lecturer at his alma mater, the University of Missouri in Columbia.

On one level, it would be hard to dismiss outright the critics who say it is a book in which nothing happens to an insignificant man working at nowhere-of-importance. Tom Hanks is right to say “it’s simply a novel about a guy who goes to college and becomes a teacher“. Yet, as Hanks goes on to acknowledge it is a fascinating account; the beauty with which an apparently trivial life is described, and the rich insights the story offers into everyday, ‘mundane’, human existence contribute to the appeal of Williams’ tale. I found myself reflecting that the book is in some senses a fore-runner of those fly-on-the-wall documentaries such as Educating Essex or Educating Yorkshire which focus on an unexceptional teacher in a typical comprehensive school going about their everyday business, in a manner that turns out to be unexpectedly profound and life-affirming.

There is, however, more to the contemporary appeal of Stoner than simply the quality of the writing. The setting may be 4000 miles from the UK, in a relatively obscure Midwestern institution in a different age, but it is easy to see why the book has proven popular amongst academics. There are themes within the novel that resonate with contemporary educational issues. Here are just a few that have struck me (with inevitable spoilers):

Widening participation: Bill Stoner is the first member of his family to go to University. It is actually his father’s idea for Stoner to enroll at the College of Agriculture at the University to learn more about novel farming techniques. The appeal to encourage students from non-traditional backgrounds into university education as a vehicle for encouraging their social mobility remains an important goal today.

The merits of non-vocational study: unfortunately for Stoner’s father, the experience of university life draws Bill in a different direction. He abandons his vocational course in favour of the more esoteric delights of English Literature, eventually becoming an expert in Middle English language and literature. Has Bill taken a self-indulgent turn? Is it wrong for students to take courses without clear utility? One driver in current attitudes regarding the purpose of university education sees the merits very much in terms of the contribution the emerging graduate will then make to the (financial) betterment of wider society.

The thrill of your first book publication: Stoner develops his PhD thesis into a book. He is initially excited by the prospect of his work reaching a wider audience. Over time, however, this enthusiasm is dampened by a realisation that most people have not and will not notice its existence; those that do are lukewarm regarding the merits of his tome. The author of an academic work may have generated an elegant synthesis of a topic close to their heart, but it requires the alignment of factors beyond their control – an unanticipated zeitgeist, adoption and promotion by prominent individuals elsewhere – for the magnus opus to gain real influence.

The gnawing doubts about the value of your contribution to Project Humanity: concerns about the purpose of our academic lives don’t necessarily stop at reflection about the value of our written work. Teachers at any level can struggle to remain convinced that their labours are truly making a difference. In a previous job we used to talk of the three years an undergraduate is at university as times when you were helping to build sandcastles on a conveyor belt. If you are teaching basic neuroanatomy to a woman who goes on to be a top brain surgeon then, albeit with hindsight, you can identify a direct correlation between your input and their contribution to society. But for someone teaching about the principles of Anglo-Saxon versification, or even the nuances of the Kreb’s Cycle, the connection between our toil and the broader flourishing of mankind may be harder to gauge.

The perils of making significant enemies within the academy (whilst doing the right thing): Like it or not, our progress through the academy is significantly influenced by other people’s views of us (e.g. local promotions, grant awarding panels, peer review of papers). Bill Stoner’s career is becalmed when he falls out with colleague Hollis Lomax. Stoner questions whether a graduate student Walker has sufficient academic aptitude to be allowed to proceed with his plan to author a dissertation on Shelley and the Hellenistic Ideal. Colleagues know Stoner is right, but Lomax is determined that his protégé Walker will be allowed to proceed. Unfortunately for Stoner their dispute occurs just prior to Lomax’s appointment as Head of Department. From his elevated position Lomax assigns Stoner a burdensome teaching schedule that effectively kills off his development of a second book.

Where Science and Ethics Meet

praegercoverI’m delighted that the English language version of my introductory book on bioethics, co-written with colleague Salvador Macip, is now available. Where Science and Ethics Meet: Dilemmas at the frontiers of medicine and biology is published by American company ABC-Clio (under their Praeger imprint). It may not make into your local Waterstone’s or WHSmith (at least not initially) but is available in the UK via online agents, including Amazon.

Praeger have done a fantastic job – the book is hardback with a dust jacket and looks really good. We are, however, always told not to judge a book by its cover and I’ve been thrilled that Where Science and Ethics Meet has had some stellar pre-publication endorsements.  These include:

  • This is the most readable introductory bioethics book I have ever come across. Impressively up-to-date and informative, it grips the reader with its strong sense of narrative. Strongly recommended.“—Michael J. Reiss, Professor of Science Education, UCL Institute of Education
  • Imaginative and enthralling. . . . With impressive expertise the authors present fascinating and user-friendly case studies for an enlightened and balanced account of pivotal bioethical debates for non-expert readers. What results is a highly original and authoritative roadmap of the moral and social implications that both clarify and potentially challenge the established norms of humanity and civilization.“—Gerard Magill, Vernon F. Gallagher Chair and Professor, Center for Healthcare Ethics, Duquesne University
  • The authors provide clear, well-balanced, and entertaining accounts of cutting-edge and frequently controversial topics in bioscience. I strongly recommend this original, thought-provoking introduction to bioethics that will prove of great value both to members of the general public and to those already embarked on a career in biology or medicine.“—David Adams, Editor, Effective Learning in the Life Sciences. How Students Can Achieve Their Full Potential
  • I commend strongly this well-written, readable, and informative book. Topics are introduced by beautifully crafted case studies followed by up-to-the-minute accounts of the related biomedical technologies, even-handed ethical discussions, and dozens of helpful text-boxes. A very valuable addition to bioethics literature.“—John Bryant, Emeritus Professor of Biosciences, University of Exeter; author of Beyond Human?
  • It often seems that developments in science race ahead while ethical debate is slow to catch up. Here, eight areas of cutting-edge scientific development and their related ethical debates are presented in an extremely clear and engaging manner using narratives that hook readers into the science and guide them through the ethical arguments for and against each development. I recommend this book to any reader interested in understanding the relationship between current scientific developments and ethics. Willmott and Macip urge us to reflect on the ethical impact of scientific developments and, crucially, to ask what kind of society is ethically acceptable for ourselves and future generations.“—Ann Gallagher, Professor of Ethics and Care, International Care Ethics Observatory, University of Surrey
  • As engrossing as any work of fiction and just as full of twists and turns, this book tackles some of the biggest ethical dilemmas we face by masterfully mixing hypothetical scenarios with real-world examples at the edge of scientific discovery. A gripping and thought-provoking read.“—Luís Carrasqueiro, Chief Executive, healthtalk.org
  • Written in a lively and engaging style, and enriched by intriguing case studies, this book is an invaluable introduction to bioethics. It will prove useful both for self study and for use in a wide range of courses dealing with this highly topical area. A particular merit is the book’s encouragement for readers to come to their own (now well-informed) conclusions.“—Professor Alastair V. Campbell, Corr FRSE, Director, Centre for Biomedical Ethics, National University of Singapore
  • This is a wonderfully lucid and well-organized text that will be very useful for anyone teaching bioethics to students of medicine or life sciences in school or university.“—Professor Richard Ashcroft, School of Law, Queen Mary University of London

The book is a slightly revised version of the work which won us the European Prize for the Popularization of Science in November 2013.

C & S 1

The authors

“My brain made me do it”: are we ready for more Neurolaw?

I’m excited to say that my book Biological Determinism, Free Will and Moral Responsibility: Insights from Genetics and Neuroscience is being published this week.

determinism cover

There are 5 chapters, in which I have attempted to pull together threads from moral philosophy, from law and from neuroscience to examine the growth of Neurolaw. Around the world, notably the USA and Italy, an increasing number of defendants are appealing to their genes or issues with the structure and function of their brain as mitigation for their crimes. To what extent should we allow this, now or in the future?

Chapter summaries:

  • Free will and determinism: an overview of some of the main schools of thought regarding the “free will problem” – Libertarianism, Compatibilism and Hard Determinism.
  • Existing legislation on mental disorders and criminal cases: automatism, criminal liability, diminished responsibility, “disease of the mind”, insanity, mens rea and M’Naghten.
  • Biological basis of behaviour: background on behavioural genetics and the use of various brain imaging techniques to investigate the extent to which our behaviour might be “hard wired”.
  • Use of genetic and neuroscientific evidence in criminal cases: a brief history of neurolaw. Summarises many of the key cases in which scientific evidence has been proffered by in criminal cases as (partial) justification of the behaviour of the defendant.
  • Are we ready for an expanded use of neuroscientific evidence in the courtroom?: In which I caution that the current use of genetic and brain physiology evidence is, at best, premature and uncertain.

Putting the moving image to work in biochemistry education

The December edition of the Biochemical Society magazine The Biochemist has historically taken a slightly less serious look at some aspect of the subject. This year the focus is Biochemistry on Screen. Articles include discussion of Star Trek, Jurassic World, Contagion, Spiderman and others. I contributed a piece about the different ways that use moving image (especially TV) can be used in Biochemistry education. A copy can be accessed via this link.

Update: the article is now also mirrored on the website of ERA, the Educational Recording Agency (accessed via this link).

The December 2015 edition of The Biochemist focuses on screen representations of Biochemistry

The December 2015 edition of The Biochemist focuses on screen representations of Biochemistry

Getting referencing right: applying the 4 Cs

For a variety of reasons, I have been reflecting on principles that undergird good citation practice. So far I’ve come up with “the 4 Cs guide” (I say I’ve come up with them, as I’ve not done any reading on this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this or something similar has co-evolved elsewhere).

When advising students or colleagues on appropriate organisation of their references at the end of a document, I encourage them to check that they’ve followed the 4 Cs guide:

Correct: Have they cited the correct sources? This might mean drilling back to the first occurrence of an observation (e.g. in the primary literature) rather than a review article. Clearly we don’t want to be encouraging people to cite the original paper if they’ve not read it, but you sometime see statements such as “Smith and Bloggs have shown…” when actually Smith and Bloggs wrote the review in which they discussed the experimental work of Ramone and Farnes-Barnes who made the observation described. Continue reading

When assessment interferes with the measured

There was a time, not so long ago, when no scientific presentation could afford to omit at least one cartoon from The Far Side. One of my personal favourites (which can be seen here) depicts people of an apparently remote part of the world hiding their luxury Western goods as anthropologists arrive unannounced in the village.

I was reminded of this cartoon recently whilst washing my hands at work. This surprising mental leap was prompted by the temporary addition of a tool for monitoring water consumption in one of our buildings.

Can the method of assessment interfere with the thing it is supposed to be measuring?

Can the method of assessment interfere with the thing it is supposed to be measuring?

As can be seen in the photograph, the equipment being used scores few points for subtlety. I cannot believe that people use their usual amounts of water when confronted by this instrument. This raises the question of their value given that the method of monitoring is almost certainly interfering with the thing that is being measured. Continue reading