Pinker on bioethics

Written by: Stephen Hsu

Primary Source:  Information Processing

Progress in biomedical research is slow enough. It does not need to be slowed down even further.

Boston Globe: A POWERFUL NEW technique for editing genomes, CRISPR-Cas9, is the latest in a series of advances in biotechnology that have raised concerns about the ethics of biomedical research and inspired calls for moratoria and new regulations. Indeed, biotechnology has moral implications that are nothing short of stupendous. But they are not the ones that worry the worriers.

… A truly ethical bioethics should not bog down research in red tape, moratoria, or threats of prosecution based on nebulous but sweeping principles such as “dignity,” “sacredness,” or “social justice.” Nor should it thwart research that has likely benefits now or in the near future by sowing panic about speculative harms in the distant future. These include perverse analogies with nuclear weapons and Nazi atrocities, science-fiction dystopias like “Brave New World’’ and “Gattaca,’’ and freak-show scenarios like armies of cloned Hitlers, people selling their eyeballs on eBay, or warehouses of zombies to supply people with spare organs. Of course, individuals must be protected from identifiable harm, but we already have ample safeguards for the safety and informed consent of patients and research subjects.

Some say that it’s simple prudence to pause and consider the long-term implications of research before it rushes headlong into changing the human condition. But this is an illusion.

First, slowing down research has a massive human cost. Even a one-year delay in implementing an effective treatment could spell death, suffering, or disability for millions of people.

Second, technological prediction beyond a horizon of a few years is so futile that any policy based on it is almost certain to do more harm than good. Contrary to confident predictions during my childhood, the turn of the 21st century did not bring domed cities, jetpack commuting, robot maids, mechanical hearts, or regularly scheduled flights to the moon. This ignorance, of course, cuts both ways: few visionaries foresaw the disruptive effects of the World Wide Web, digital music, ubiquitous smartphones, social media, or fracking. …

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Stephen Hsu
Stephen Hsu is vice president for Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State University. He also serves as scientific adviser to BGI (formerly Beijing Genomics Institute) and as a member of its Cognitive Genomics Lab. Hsu’s primary work has been in applications of quantum field theory, particularly to problems in quantum chromodynamics, dark energy, black holes, entropy bounds, and particle physics beyond the standard model. He has also made contributions to genomics and bioinformatics, the theory of modern finance, and in encryption and information security. Founder of two Silicon Valley companies—SafeWeb, a pioneer in SSL VPN (Secure Sockets Layer Virtual Private Networks) appliances, which was acquired by Symantec in 2003, and Robot Genius Inc., which developed anti-malware technologies—Hsu has given invited research seminars and colloquia at leading research universities and laboratories around the world.