“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

Introducing BiologyOnTheBox

Today I am officially launching my latest project. BiologyOnTheBox is a website for sharing recommendations regarding broadcast media programmes and clips that might be useful in the teaching of bioscience. The majority of links and reviews relate to TV shows in the UK, though some relate to radio.

biologyonthebox.wordpress.com is a site for sharing recommendations regarding TV and radio resources for use in teaching bioscience

biologyonthebox.wordpress.com is a site for sharing recommendations regarding TV and radio resources for use in teaching bioscience

Recommendations on BiologyOnTheBox can, in principle, be used by anyone with access to copies of the original programmes. It is, however, intended to dovetail particularly closely with the fantastic Box of Broadcasts resource. I’ve enthused previously about Box of Broadcasts (BoB), including here (TES Opinion) and here (this blog). However having had a lunchtime conversation recently with a number of colleagues who had no idea what BoB was, here’s a brief intro. If you are already familiar with BoB feel free to jump down to the section on BiologyOnTheBox. Continue reading

Why I *still* love Delicious

Delicious logo

Delicious has survived various changes of ownership in the last ten years. Fortunately rumours of its demise have never been correct (yet)

This week, I passed a landmark of sorts when I bookmarked my 10,000th website using the Delicious tool.

Back in December 2007, my colleague Alan Cann persuaded me to try out a new social bookmarking tool, then called del.icio.us (I guess from a current vantage point we’d call this an early example of “cloud computing“). Here was a way to mark websites in case you wanted to find them again at a later stage. If that sounds a bit like “favourites” on your PC, then it was – but this was SO much more. Using del.icio.us you could:

  • add to one list of sites regardless of which machine you happened to be using
  • add tags of your choosing (“folksonomies”) meaning that you could mark the page by content, by source, by potential use, etc
  • add some additional notes or comments
  • share the sites with other people (including setting up RSS feeds)
  • dip into the bookmarks being used by other people, the “social” dimension.

The value of this resource was immediately obvious to me. As someone with eclectic interests, coupled with a significant horder streak, here was a mechanism to flag up things I might want to find again at a later stage without clogging my office with paper print outs. This was a point I tried to convey in a pair of (slightly contrived) photos in a July 2008 presentation about social bookmarking (still available on Slideshare which is, incidentally, one of my other favourite resources). Continue reading

To Whom It May Concern: Some advice for students seeking references

Reference writing takes time and effort, do your best to help your referee do the best they can for you

Reference writing takes time and effort, do your best to help your referee do the best they can for you

A number of recent events have prompted me to reflect again on the subject of reference writing.

Offering a letter of recommendation, or completing one of the myriad different online forms, is not a trivial task, either in terms of the labour involved or the potential significance of the resultant document. In this post I want to make some suggestions for any students seeking a reference from an academic, regardless of their discipline, which I hope will make the process more effective (and less fraught) for all parties.

1. Ask. Firstly, do ask a potential referee before you offer their name to the organisation seeking the reference. On one level this is common courtesy. However it also does two things to the benefit of the applicant: it forewarns the academic that they need to budget some time for writing a reference and gathering the relevant information (see 3, below); it also gives them the opportunity to suggest a more appropriate referee for the specific job. Unless there are exceptional circumstances, the first person you should ask for a reference is your personal tutor. For finalists or graduates requiring a second academic commendation the next person to ask is usually your project supervisor. Continue reading


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