The fourth blot of the Rorschach inkblot test.

Bioethics and Epistemic Scientism 12(4)

Journal of Bioethical Inquiry, Volume 12, Issue 4 (December 2015)
Guest Editors: Christopher Mayes, Claire Hooker, and Ian Kerridge


“Leapin’ Lizards, Mr. Science”: Old Reflections on the New Archaeology (and Musings on Anthropology, Art, Bioethics, and Medicine)

Leigh E. Rich

Ethics, Foreseeability, and Tragedy in Australian Immigration Detention

Ryan Essex

Letters to the Editor

Why We Should Care About Ebola in West Africa and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome in South Korea: Global Health Ethics and the Moral Insignificance of Proximity

Benedict Shing Bun Chan, Zion Tsz Ho Tse, King-Wa Fu, Chi-Ngai Cheung, and Isaac Chun-Hai Fung

Critical Commentary

When Lack of Evidence Is Evidence of Lack

Neil Pickering

A Strong Remedy to a Weak Ethical Defence of Homeopathy

David Shaw

Critical Perspectives

Vaccine Refusal and Trust: The Trouble With Coercion and Education and Suggestions for a Cure

Johan Christiaan Bester

Recent Developments

Intellectual Property in Genetic Material

Isabelle Gatley


Bioethics and Epistemic Scientism

Christopher Mayes, Claire Hooker, and Ian Kerridge

Scientism and Pseudoscience: A Philosophical Commentary

Massimo Pigliucci
The term “scientism” is used in a variety of ways with both negative and positive connotations. I suggest that some of these uses are inappropriate, as they aim simply at dismissing without argument an approach that a particular author does not like. However, there are legitimate negative uses of the term, which I explore by way of an analogy with the term “pseudoscience.” I discuss these issues by way of a recent specific example provided by a controversy in the field of bioethics concerning the value, or lack thereof, of homeopathy. I then frame the debate about scientism within the broader context of C.P. Snow’s famous essay on the “two cultures.”

“Personal Knowledge” in Medicine and the Epistemic Shortcomings of Scientism

Hugh Marshall McHugh and Simon Thomas Walker
In this paper, we outline a framework for understanding the different kinds of knowledge required for medical practice and use this framework to show how scientism undermines aspects of this knowledge. The framework is based on Michael Polanyi’s claim that knowledge is primarily the product of the contemplations and convictions of persons and yet at the same time carries a sense of universality because it grasps at reality. Building on Polanyi’s ideas, we propose that knowledge can be described along two intersecting “dimensions”: the tacit–explicit and the particular–general. These dimensions supersede the familiar “objective−subjective” dichotomy, as they more accurately describe the relationship between medical science and medical practice. Scientism, we argue, excludes tacit and particular knowledge and thereby distorts “clinical reality” and impairs medical practice and medical ethics.

What Should We Eat? Biopolitics, Ethics, and Nutritional Scientism

Christopher R. Mayes and Donald B. Thompson
Public health advocates, government agencies, and commercial organizations increasingly use nutritional science to guide food choice and diet as a way of promoting health, preventing disease, or marketing products. We argue that in many instances such references to nutritional science can be characterized as nutritional scientism. We examine three manifestations of nutritional scientism: (1) the simplification of complex science to increase the persuasiveness of dietary guidance, (2) superficial and honorific references to science in order to justify cultural or ideological views about food and health, and (3) the presumption that nutrition is the primary value of food. This paper examines these forms of nutritional scientism in the context of biopolitics to address bioethical concerns related to the misuse of scientific evidence to make claims regarding the effect of diet on health. We argue that nutritional scientism has ethical implications (i) for individual responsibility and freedom, (ii) concerning iatrogenic harm, and (iii) for well-being.

The Race Idea in Reproductive Technologies: Beyond Epistemic Scientism and Technological Mastery

Camisha Russell
This paper explores the limitations of epistemic scientism for understanding the role the concept of race plays in assisted reproductive technology (ART) practices. Two major limitations centre around the desire to use scientific knowledge to bring about social improvement. In the first case, undue focus is placed on debunking the scientific reality of racial categories and characteristics. The alternative to this approach is to focus instead on the way the race idea functions in ART practices. Doing so reveals how the race idea (1) helps to define the reproductive “problems” different groups of women are experiencing and to dictate when and how they should be “helped”; (2) helps to resolve tensions about who should be considered the real parents of children produced by reproductive technologies; and (3) is used to limit ART use where that use threatens to denaturalize the very sociopolitical landscape the race idea has created. In the second case, scientific knowledge regarding reproduction is thought to call for technological control over that reproduction. This leads to an overemphasis on personal responsibility and a depoliticization of racialized social inequalities.

Scientism as a Social Response to the Problem of Suicide

Scott J. Fitzpatrick
As one component of a broader social and normative response to the problem of suicide, scientism served to minimize sociopolitical and religious conflict around the issue. As such, it embodied, and continues to embody, a number of interests and values, as well as serving important social functions. It is thus comparable with other normative frameworks and can be appraised, from an ethical perspective, in light of these values, interests, and functions. This work examines the key values, interests, and functions of scientism in suicidology and argues that although scientism has had some social benefit, it primarily serves to maintain political and professional interests and has damaging implications for suicide research and prevention.

Revisiting the Persisting Tension Between Expert and Lay Views About Brain Death and Death Determination: A Proposal Inspired by Pragmatism

Eric Racine
Brain death or determination of death based on the neurological criterion has been an enduring source of controversy in academic and clinical circles. The controversy chiefly concerns how death is defined, and it also bears on the justification of the proposed criteria for death determination and their interpretation. Part of the controversy on brain death and death determination stems from disputed crucial medical facts, but in this paper I formulate another hypothesis about the nature of ongoing controversies. At stake is a misunderstood relationship between, on the one hand, the nature of our lay (or our “manifest image”) views about death and, on the other hand, the nature of scientific insights (and related conceptual refinements) into death and its determination (the “scientific image”). The misunderstanding of this relationship has partly anchored the controversy and continues to fuel it. Based on a perspective inspired by pragmatism, which stresses the positive contribution of science to ethical and policy debates but also challenges different forms of scientism in science and philosophy found in foundationalist interpretations, I scrutinize three different stances regarding the relationship between lay and scientific perspectives about the definition of death: (1) foundational lay views, (2) foundational expert views, and (3) co-evolving views. I argue that only the latter is sustainable given recent challenges to foundationalist interpretations.

Culture, Truth, and Science After Lacan

Grant Gillett
Truth and knowledge are conceptually related and there is a way of construing both that implies that they cannot be solely derived from a description that restricts itself to a set of scientific facts. In the first section of this essay, I analyse truth as a relation between a praxis, ways of knowing, and the world. In the second section, I invoke the third thing—the objective reality on which we triangulate as knowing subjects for the purpose of complex scientific endeavours like medical science and clinical care. Such praxes develop robust methods of “keeping in touch” with disease and illness (like biomarkers). An analysis drawing on philosophical semantics motivates the needed (anti-scientistic) account of meaning and truth (and therefore knowledge) and underpins the following argument: (i) the formulation and dissemination of knowledge rests on language; (ii) language is selective in what it represents in any given situation; (iii) the praxes of a given (sub)culture are based on this selectivity; but (iv) human health and illness involve whole human beings in a human life-world; therefore, (v) medical knowledge should reflectively transcend, where required, biomedical science towards a more inclusive view. Parts three and four argue that a post-structuralist (Lacanian) account of the human subject can avoid both scientism and idealism or unconstrained relativism.

Original Research

The Tortoise Transformation as a Prospect for Life Extension

Timothy F. Murphy
The value of extending the human lifespan remains a key philosophical debate in bioethics. In building a case against the extension of the species-typical human life, Nicolas Agar considers the prospect of transforming human beings near the end of their lives into Galapagos tortoises, which would then live on decades longer. A central question at stake in this transformation is the persistence of human consciousness as a condition of the value of the transformation. Agar entertains the idea that consciousness could persist in some measure, but he thinks little is to be gained from the transformation because the experiences available to tortoises pale in comparison to those available to human beings. Moreover, he thinks persisting human consciousness and values would degrade over time, being remade by tortoise needs and environment. The value available in the transformation would not, then, make the additional years of life desirable. Agar’s account does not, however, dispose of the tortoise transformation as a defensible preference. Some people might still want this kind of transformation for symbolic reasons, but it would probably be better that no human consciousness persist, since that consciousness would be inexpressible as such. Even so, it is not irrational to prefer various kinds of lifespan extension even if they involve significant modifications to human consciousness and values.

Parental Virtue and Prenatal Genetic Alteration Research

Ryan Tonkens
Although the philosophical literature on the ethics of human prenatal genetic alteration (PGA) purports to inform us about how to act, it rarely explicitly recognizes the perspective of those who will be making the PGA decision in practice. Here I approach the ethics of PGA from a distinctly virtue-based perspective, taking seriously what it means to be a good parent making this decision for one’s child. From this perspective, I generate a sound verdict on the moral standing of human PGA (research): given the current state of the art, good parents have compelling reason not to consent to PGA (research) for their child, especially as part of the first wave(s) of PGA research participants and especially for non-medically oriented purposes. This is because doing otherwise is inconsistent with a plausible and defensible understanding of virtuous parenting and parental virtues, founded on a genuine concern for promoting the overall flourishing of the eventual child. In essence, given the current and foreseeable state of the art, parents who allow prenatal genetic alteration of their children are less-than-virtuous parents to those children, even in cases where they have a right to do so and even if PGA turns out to be beneficial to the eventual child.

Correcting Error in Academic Publishing: An Ethical Responsibility

Phillida Bunkle
The 1988 publication of the report of the Cartwright Inquiry and acceptance of its recommendations by the New Zealand Government initiated comprehensive and internationally important reform of bioethics and patients’ rights. However, recent writing about the legacy of the inquiry has challenged the legitimacy of the inquiry and contributed to a climate questioning the value of the ethical reforms initiated by it. This article describes unsuccessful attempts to correct factual errors in one publication criticizing the inquiry. These attempts at correction raise ethical issues about the dissemination of the products of medical research—in particular, about the place of research subjects in post-publication ethical deliberations and the responsibility of universities and publishers in decision-making, especially in relation to the correction of error in academic publications.

Teaching Conflict: Professionalism and Medical Education

K. J. Holloway
Resistance by physicians, medical researchers, medical educators, and medical students to pharmaceutical industry influence in medicine is often based on the notion that physicians (guided by the ethics of their profession) and the industry (guided by profit) are in conflict. This criticism has taken the form of a professional movement opposing conflict of interest (COI) in medicine and medical education and has resulted in policies and guidelines that frame COI as the problem and outline measures to address this problem. In this paper, I offer a critique of this focus on COI that is grounded in a broader critique of neo-liberalism, arguing it individualizes the relationship between physicians and industry, too neatly delineates between the two entities, and reduces the network of social, economic, and political relations to this one dilemma.

Roma Women’s Perspectives on End-of-Life Decisions

Patricia Peinado-Gorlat, Francisco Javier Castro-Martínez, Beatriz Arriba-Marcos, Miguel Melguizo-Jiménez, and Inés Barrio-Cantalejo
Spain’s Roma community has its own cultural and moral values. These values influence the way in which end-of-life decision-making is confronted. The objective of this study was to explore the perspective of Roma women on end-of-life decision-making. It was a qualitative study involving thirty-three Roma women belonging to groups for training and social development in two municipalities. We brought together five focus groups between February and December 2012. Six mediators each recruited five to six participants. We considered age and care role to be the variables that can have the most influence on opinion regarding end-of-life decision-making. We considered the discussion saturated when the ideas expressed were repeated. Data analysis was carried out according to five steps: describing, organizing, connecting, corroborating/legitimating, and representing the account. The main ideas gleaned from the data were as follows: (1) the important role of the family in end-of-life care, especially the role of women; (2) the large influence of community opinion over personal or family decisions, typical of closed societies; (3) the different preferences women had for themselves compared to that for others regarding desired end-of-life care; (4) unawareness or rejection of advance directives. Roma women wish for their healthcare preferences to be taken into account, but “not in writing.” The study concluded that the success of end-of-life healthcare in Roma families and of their involvement in the making of healthcare decisions depends upon considering and respecting their idiosyncrasy.

The Restorative Role of Apology in Resolving Medical Disputes: Lessons From Chinese Legal Culture

Nuannuan Lin
This article is the first exploration of the Chinese notion of apology from a comparative legal perspective. By reviewing the significance of apology in the context of Chinese culture, the article presents a three-dimensional structure of apology that, in contrast to the understanding the research community now has, defines acknowledgement of fault, admission of responsibility, and offer of reparation as three essential elements of an apology. It is the combination of these three elements that enables apology to serve as a form of reparation. The article further places the three-dimensional apology in the context of the Chinese concept of “the relations of humanity,” arguing that an apology accompanying admission of fault and responsibility may help to restore the harmony of relations and, by so doing, resolve medical disputes positively.

Devotion, Diversity, and Reasoning: Religion and Medical Ethics

Michael D. Dahnke
Most modern ethicists and ethics textbooks assert that religion holds little or no place in ethics, including fields of professional ethics like medical ethics. This assertion, of course, implicitly refers to ethical reasoning, but there is much more to the ethical life and the practice of ethics—especially professional ethics—than reasoning. It is no surprise that teachers of practical ethics, myself included, often focus on reasoning to the exclusion of other aspects of the ethical life. Especially for those with a philosophical background, reasoning is the most patent and pedagogically controllable aspect of the ethical life—and the most easily testable. And whereas there may be powerful reasons for the limitation of religion in this aspect of ethics, there are other aspects of the ethical life in which recognition of religious belief may arguably be more relevant and possibly even necessary. I divide the ethical life into three areas—personal morality, interpersonal morality, and rational morality—each of which I explore in terms of its relationship to religion, normatively characterized by the qualities of devotion, diversity, and reasoning, respectively.


Love and Mercy

K. A. Bramstedt

Last Cab to Darwin

Katrina A. Bramstedt


RETRACTED ARTICLE: Imperialism in Bioethics: How Policies of Profit Negate Engagement of Developing World Bioethicists and Undermine Global Bioethics

Subrata Chattopadhyay, Catherine Myser, and Raymond De Vries