Professor Richard Ashcroft, an AJOB Neuroscience Editorial Board Member, teaches medical law and ethics at both the undergraduate and postgraduate level in the Department of Law at Queen Mary University of London.
Readers of AJOB Neuroscience will be very familiar with the range and pace of innovation in applications of neurosciences to problems in mental health and wellbeing, education, criminology and criminal justice, defense, and love and sexuality – to name but a few areas of human concern. However, there is a skeptical tendency which pushes back against such innovation and claims. This skepticism takes a number of forms. One form is philosophical: some claims made about neurosciences and their applications just make no sense. They rest on conceptual mistakes or logical fallacies. This kind of attack has been made most persuasively by neuroscientist M.R. Bennett and philosopher P.M.S. Hacker in their Neurophilosophy: Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience (2003). Another form is empirical: some claims are advanced on the basis of weak or flawed evidence, and may go well beyond what that evidence could support, even if on its own terms the data are robust and obtained in methodologically sound ways. A typical instance of this is the way that newspapers regularly report neuroimaging studies which purport to describe “the autistic brain,” when at best they describe some differences in one subset of autistic people carrying out one experimental task, compared with a small control group of putatively neurotypical people. Another form is ethical: some technologies raise significant ethical challenges. And obviously some challenges are political, bearing on interests of particular social groups or on competing visions of the society we want to live in. The standard examples here are drawn from debates about neuro- or psychopharmacological enhancement.