All entries for May 2006

May 30, 2006

The benefits of not finding what you want…

Writing about web page

I found this article on the BBC News website very interesting, not least because it made me think about my own habits.

The idea put forward is that random exposure to subjects, viewpoints and media that you would not usually search for is important in broadening people's horizons and even in increasing their creativity. But is new technology increasing or decreasing the incidence of serendipity it? And is it really that important?

May 24, 2006

Justifying violent crime?

With the current murmerings about the rights of criminals being overplayed and victims being put at extra risk a story in this morning's Metro seemed particularly apt.

Jonathan Wright was assaulted by Michael Donohoe and hit over the dead with a nail–studded post, leaving him with a three–inch gash over his ear. However, when he applied to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority for compensation he was turned down because he swore at his assailant. Quoting from the letter of refusal…

Your conduct, in being verbally abusive towards the assailant, was an important factor in the incident.

May 22, 2006

Relationship standards

I had a rather random conversation today, the upshot of which was the following:

  • Why is it that the idea of a woman in a heterosexual relationship being intimate with another women is often relatively acceptable, if not arousing, to their corresponding partners? Why is the reversal involving the partner with another man generally less acceptable to the woman?

  • Why is it that some men don't regard their girlfriend kissing other women as cheating yet if they kissed another man it would be a serious offence?

  • Do men and women have different attitudes towards cheating and does this result in some hypocrisy in the actions of either?

May 19, 2006

Herceptin, H5N1 and drugs trials

I was attempting to avoid the H5N1 bandwagon but it looks like I failed…

Many have complained recently about the coverage of the bird flu story in the media, saying that it has been sensationalist and potentially panic–inducing. This is clearly a difficult subject because whilst the chances of the virus mutating and becoming a transmissible human virus are relatively low, if this does actually happen the resultant pandemic could be terrifying. It depends on how you classify a potential crisis. The BBC has on its forum, as many have highlighted, a series of alarmist comments from members of the public (as well as, presumably, a swathe of others asking everyone to calm down). The BBC and newspapers have been criticised for their own coverage of the situation.

The opening paragraph from a recent New Scientist article read:

I have nothing against miracles, but whenever there's a big buzz about a new drug, it's a fair bet it'll be down to the usual suspects: vested interests, early research, and uncritical journalists.

I'm sure everyone will be aware of the hype surrounding the release, and subsequent variable availability, of the new breast cancer drug Herceptin. The media pronounced it a 'wonder drug', but how many people know the real truth about its successes? The tests carried out showed that Herceptin benefits only a small number of women – shrinking tumours in only 15% of cases – yet the early reports did not make this clear. The trial was carried out on women who had cancers that had been treated early. Emphasising a figure of a 52% reduction in recurrence in a group who already have a small chance of re–contracting the disease is misleading (even those who have no treatment after surgery have a recurrence maximum of 10% per year, dropping to 3% after 10 years). The test groups were also very small – only in the 10s – so the perceived advantages could have been down to pure chance. Yet this drug was described as a potential ‘cure’ by the 2006 President of the American Society of Clinical Oncology: a man who is also a paid consultant to Genentech, Herceptin’s US distributor.

Another important recent medical story was about the drugs trial that left six men critically ill. Many criticisms were voiced at the time criticising and even blaming the manufacturer of the drug. Yet when a follow–up story came out declaring that the manufacturer had followed all the required protocols and was thus not guilty of any negligence it didn't make the BBC News website front page, nor the Science and Nature front page. In fact, I had to do a search to find it.

Now, I don’t begrudge anyone access to a treatment that may save or help to sustain their lives: far from it. However, bearing in mind the huge variation between the hype and the reality in the case of Herceptin I can’t help but think that the injustice has been blown slightly out of proportion. Again with H5N1, there is a balance to be had between the potential risks. But is it the duty of the media to reflect these issues realistically and in a balanced manner? The newspapers need to sell and the TV companies need to maximise viewer ratings, and sensational stories will help with this. However, whereas newspapers are private companies, the BBC is publicly funded and has a Board of Governors who purport to act as ‘trustees of the public interest’. Is it in the public interest for these stories to be reported in a totally balanced manner or should we be expected to draw our own conclusions based on the true facts? How do you ensure a balanced coverage when many important stories may be reported many times, each time with a potentially different slant? Surely the purpose of a forum is to air the views of the public: should the BBC or any other company censor its fora to prevent potential hysteria or is this unfair?

May 10, 2006

Our view of the mind

Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age 18. Albert Einstein

Common sense in humans can be range from the universal to the very specific and can depend on someone's culture and background: some external influences are constant from population to population and some are not.

Common sense is something that artificial intelligence researchers are having trouble teaching to robots. Yet many researchers in neurology maintain that the human mind relies solely on the functioning of the information processing system that is the brain: a series of interconnected neurons. It is as yet unknown how 'automated' our brain functions are or how much is nature and how much nurture. Indeed, some scientists and philosophers are edging towards a wider viewpoint, that the mind encompasses the actions of the brain together with far more complex and adaptive interactions with the physical environment.

The fact that the automated view of the human mind is widely accepted is, I think, very interesting as it has some difficult implications. If our minds are but a series of automated circuits, is there anything that distinguishes us from robots? Are we not just a more sopisticated version of the same system? What implications does this have for our concepts of the 'mind' and the 'soul' and even of 'life' itself?

May 07, 2006

Equality in higher education

Writing about web page

Rather surprisingly there is a contentious issue that raises its head frequently in the media about which I feel quite strongly, but which I actually haven't mentioned on this blog. This is not something that happens frequently, do to address this inconsistency:

I am talking of the call from pressure groups for universities to change their admissions policies to actively increase the proportion of students from ethnic minorities. To quite from the above article:

The University is unlikely to take action to increase the number of non–white students, despite a damning report by the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE). Trevor Philips, Chairman of the CRE, said in a recent speech that he wanted Universities to take “positive action” to admit more students from underprivileged and ethnic minority backgrounds. One CRE official told the Times, “If you have a black student and a white student at the front of the admissions queue, we would want the University to take positive action to take the black student first.” A spokesperson for the CRE told the Boar that the number of students from ethnic minority backgrounds at Russell Group Universities was “concerning”.

Now, I'm all for increasing the level of education of gifted students from ethnic minorities. I agree that efforts should be made to redress the balance. However, I do think that the approach the CRE is recommending is wrong.

What do you do when you have two candidates at the front of the admissions queue? You interview both and pick the strongest candidate. The CRE claims that their recommendations do not equate to positive discrimination. I'm afraid I think that any process which selects candidates on the basis of anything other than academic merit IS positive discrimination.

I feel that this situation should be approached in a different manner. Universities should not be required to choose, positively or negatively, on the basis of race, just as they should not bias themselves towards state school pupils or any other group that is viewed to be underrepresented. If anything, the interview process should be developed so that it is increasingly possible for tutors to select on the basis of someone's intellectual capacity for their chosen subject rather than on the extent to which their school has taught them.

Targeting universities at all is, I believe, misguided. The levels of pupils from ethnic minorities in universities, and particularly those higher up the rankings, is merely a reflection of a general trend throughout the entire education system. On average these pupils live in poorer areas, go to less successful schools, and thus achieve lower grades. Lowering grade requirements could be an option, allowing more candidates to come to interview and thus giving more the chance of proving their worth outside the constraints of the National Curriculum and the negative influences of their schools, but it may well be unworkable.

Instead, why not attempt (and I know this is highly idealistic of me, but hey!) to redress the balance from its point of origin? It is not the job of universities to give unfair advantage to certain candidates, but rather the responsibility of the Government to improve primary and secondary education and to give gifted children, no matter what background they come from, the opportunity to achieve from the youngest age possible.

Something should be done to allow the brightest students to get the places they deserve at university, but I think asking universities to discriminate in the grounds of race is the wrong way to go about it.

May 06, 2006

A musing

I have become very aware that many recent posts have delved into the consideration of human rights, and there are a great many different viewpoints expressed by all the contributors.

Is the advocation of human rights always a good thing or is there a point at which the rights of the individual become detrimental to society as a whole? Are people, particularly in the social climate we have now, willing to surrender their rights for the sake of society? Should they? Do all members of society have equal rights, and if not, should they?

May 04, 2006

IVF and older mothers

Writing about web page

The top headline on today's BBC News homepage is the story of Patricia Rashbrook, 63, who is now seven months pregnant with her fourth baby after undergoing IVF treatment abroad by controversial fertility doctor Severino Antinori.

  • Should someone have the right to have a child irrespective of their circumstances, be that age or anything else?

  • Why should the state or a doctor have the right to deny a women the chance of having a baby when she has the means and is in reasonable health?

  • Should the increased health risks of pregnancy and birthing for older women be taken into account even if the mother is determined to go ahead despite these risks? Should we also consider the increased risk of genetic disease?

  • Are the Rashbrooks putting the welfare of their child first? Or are they being selfish?

  • Is there a difference between a women who is reproductively challenged but of a childbearing age undergoing IVF and one who is post–menopausal? Is one more unnatural than the other? This concept of what is natural is difficult. Is it unnatural for us to undergo any other surgical treatment? Or take drugs?

  • Antinori defends his actions by arguing that Rashbrook has a life expectancy of at least another 20 years so she should live to see her child into adulthood. Is this a reasonable argument? Is it fair to expect the child to potentially take on the role of carer for their parents before they are an adult?

  • Antinori also argues that older people make better parents. Is this generally–held assumption true? Is it valid to say that beyond a certain point parental skills may well deteriorate, as mobility and agility decrease. If women were meant to raise children into their old age why would the menopause exist? Is there something to be said about problems of a gap of two generations rather than just one?

  • Is there more of a stigma attached to older mothers than older fathers? Why is this?

May 02, 2006

What if… some philosophical propositions

Follow-up to Death row injections and whether we have our priorities right from Musings of a blonde

The BBC is currently running a survey which presents four hypothetical philosophical dilemmas representative of potential real–life situations.

What if (and here I paraphrase)...

  • You are in hospital and are providing life support for someone else. If you stay there for the next nine months the other person will be cured and you will leave unharmed. Do you have an obligation to stay?

  • You are watching a train run down a track towards a group of five people who are unable to move and will certainly be killed. You have the chance to divert the train down another track which has only one person stuck in its path. Should you change the direction of the train?

  • The same train is running down the same track towards the same five people. You are standing on a bridge over the track, next to a fat man. You want to jump down onto the track to stop the train from running over the five people, but you are not heavy enough to stop it. The fat man is. Should you push him over the edge? Is your answer the same as that for the previous example? If not, why not?

  • You and five people are stuck in a cave and there is a small hole in the wall you could get out of. The largest of the group is chosen to go first but he gets stuck. The tide is rising and you need to get out quickly. You find some dynamite, which will not blow a hole in the wall but will move the man who is stuck. He pleads with you for his life. Do you blast the man out, allowing you and the remaining four to escape? If you were in the place of the man would you say the same?
Is there a difference between killing someone and letting them die? Are consequences all that matter, or are there some things we should never do, whatever the outcome?

May 2006

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  • To all of you who have been through or are going through IVF – all the best through the ups and down… by Lela on this entry
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