The Facebook Scandal that Wasn’t – By Udo Schuklenk

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Udo Schuklenk

PNAS, the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published on June 24, 2014 the results of a study involving Facebook (FB) users. The authors wanted to ‘test whether emotional contagion occurs outside of in-person interaction between individuals by reducing the amount of emotional content in the News Feed.’ The researchers investigated this question by manipulating the newsfeeds of a few hundred thousand randomly selected FB users. Some received more positive messages, and some received more negative messages. The identities of these users were not known to the researchers in question. FB permitted social scientists to mess with some of their users’ brains for the purposes of a research project. It’s something that FB does frequently. The contents of its news-feeds are manipulated all the time, its algorithms changed often. FB users have agreed to this since 2012 when they signed up to a user agreement for the free service stating:

… we may use the information we receive about you … for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.’

For reasons I still fail to understand fully, some high-profile US bioethicists came out in the typical fashion bioethicists have become notorious for – expressing outrage in various forms and shapes about the supposedly unethical nature of the study. My esteemed colleague Robert Klitzman, for instance, described the study as ‘scandalous’.

My own view of the study is that it isn’t scandalously unethical, even though it would have been better had the research participants been informed about being targeted for research purposes. It seems absurd to me that there are no complaints from these ethicists if FB does exactly the same thing (manipulating its news-feed algorithms to change its users – mine for crying out loud! – state of mind while we use their service). However, grandiose hand waving is triggered if researchers do the same in order to address important research questions. From a consequentialist perspective, this doesn’t make a great deal of sense. More than that, we FB users are informed that ‘information we receive about you’ may be used for ‘testing’ and ‘research.’ Bioethicist Art Caplan, meanwhile, thinks that telling us that we might be subjected to research projects is insufficient for us to truly comprehend that we might be subjected to research projects. Really!

Well, to cut a long story short, Michelle Meyer and other bioethicists – myself included – came together to pen a response to our outraged colleagues, defending the research in question. Nature, of all publications, took our commentary. Check it out some time, be it just to reassure yourself that bioethicists aren’t all about seeing scandal and problems in every corner of the universe. Since we wrote our piece, a number of bioethicists, including Dan Brock, Peter Singer, Dan Wikler and others have signed on to our statement.

Let the debate begin.

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Should We Prepare For The End?

New Report Calls for Decriminalisation of Assisted Dying In Canada 

End of Life Report, BioethicsA report commissioned by the Royal Society of Canada, and published earlier this week in the journal Bioethics, claims that assisted suicide should be legally permitted for competent individuals who make a free and informed decision, while on both a personal and a national level insufficient plans and policies are made for the end of life.  

End-of-life decision-making is an issue wrapped in controversy and contradictions for Canadians. The report found that most people want to die at home, but few do; most believe planning for dying is important and should be started while people are healthy, but almost no one does it. And while most Canadians support the decriminalisation of voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide, both remain illegal under the Criminal Code of Canada. 

The Royal Society of Canada (RSC), a national organisation of distinguished scholars, artists and scientists, believes the time has come for a national debate on end-of-life decision making as assisted dying is a critically important public policy issue, where opinion, practice and the law seem out of alignment. 

Read this report for free now!

Journal Club: The Moral Obligation to Create Children with the Best Chance of the Best Life

TBioethicshis month the Philosopher’s Eye is inviting discussion on the free article ‘The Moral Obligation to Create Children with the Best Chance of the Best Life’ written by Julian Savulescu and Guy Kahane, and the most cited article of 2010 published in the journal Bioethics.

What are your thoughts on the controversial topic discussed in this article? We invite your comments below…

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Abstract:
According to what we call the Principle of Procreative Beneficence (PB), couples who decide to have a child have a significant moral reason to select the child who, given his or her genetic endowment, can be expected to enjoy the most well-being. In the first part of this paper, we introduce PB, explain its content, grounds, and implications, and defend it against various objections. In the second part, we argue that PB is superior to competing principles of procreative selection such as that of procreative autonomy. In the third part of the paper, we consider the relation between PB and disability. We develop a revisionary account of disability, in which disability is a species of instrumental badness that is context- and person-relative. Although PB instructs us to aim to reduce disability in future children whenever possible, it does not privilege the normal. What matters is not whether future children meet certain biological or statistical norms, but what level of well-being they can be expected to have.

Bioethics