Thursday, August 30, 2012

Response to “Society Does Not Make Gender” by Dr. Larry Young and Brian Alexander

"A queer symbol of new gender image"
by Finnish artist Susi Waegelein
At the beginning of August, Ruth Padawer published a piece in the New York Times magazine about gender non-conforming children and parents. Last week, Dr. Larry Young of Emory University and science writer Brian Alexander (who are publishing a book together, The Chemistry Between Us) published a response to the article, in which they argue, essentially, that gender is biologically hardwired into the brains of fetuses by the organizational effects of hormones. They go on to implicitly endorse what has been called the “brain sex theory” of transgender identity/behavior. According to this theory, hormones organize the sex/gender of the brain much later than they organize the sex/gender of the genitals, allowing for a discordance to develop between the two (Bao 2011).

Admirably, Young and Alexander use the brain sex theory to argue for an acceptance of gender non-conforming children. They write, “so rather than seeing threat, we should embrace all shades of gender, whether snips and snails, sugar and spice, or somewhere in between.” However, there are (at least) four major problems with their argument: they essentialize gender; they uncritically embrace human brain organization theory; they uncritically embrace the double-edged sword of essentialism on behalf of transgender people; and they selectively (mis)use evidence about intersex and transgender people to support an ideological claim about the innateness of gender differences.

Experimental Ethics: An Even Greater Challenge to the Doctrine of Double Effect

In his article Neuroethics: A New Way of Doing Ethics, Neil Levy (2011) argues that “experimental results from the sciences of the mind suggest that appeal to [the Doctrine of Double Effect] might be question-begging.” As Levy frames the Doctrine, the Doctrine is a moral principal that is meant to ground the intuitive moral difference between effects that are brought about intentionally versus those that are merely foreseen. More specifically, the Doctrine is supposed to ground the intuition that, when certain conditions are met, it is morally permissible to bring about a bad outcome that is merely foreseen, but, under these same conditions, it would not be morally permissible to bring about a bad outcome intentionally. Or, another way to put this, the Doctrine claims that it takes more to justify causing harm intentionally than it takes to justify causing harm as a merely foreseen side effect (Sinnott-Armstrong, Mallon, McCoy, & Hull, 2008).

The intellectual roots of the Doctrine of Double Effect begin with St. Aquinas and St. Augustine. The Doctrine has since played a central part in moral theorizing within both the Catholic Church and within secular moral theorizing.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Welcome Our Newest Neuroethics Scholar!

It is with great pleasure that the Emory Neuroethics Program announces its newest neuroethics scholar: Riley Zeller-Townson! The Neuroethics Program invited graduate students to create and to join collaborative, interdepartmental faculty teams at Emory and in the Atlanta community to pursue Neuroethics scholarship.  Graduate students were free to propose projects of interest to them. Proposals included innovative ideas in the arena of teaching, empirical research, new media, and beyond. By the completion of their one year appointments, each scholar is expected to co-author a paper and present his or her work.  The selection process was quite competitive. The abstract of Riley’s proposed project and a short bio can be found below.

Riley Zeller-Townson (Neuroethics and Art)
Riley Zeller-Townson

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Finding and Naming (Symptom) Constellations

By Guest Contributor Racheal Borgman, MA  

The rhetorical component of illness is an important extension to the issues raised in last month’s post on the DSM. As Anjana Kallarackal pointed out, there are concerns aplenty when it comes to the DSM and how the committee goes about its categorizing work. But I was especially interested by the very first response to the post, by David Nicholson:

"I wonder if it would be useful to try to put a number to the "negative consequences" of a given addiction… If we could decide how damaging some addiction was, maybe that would tell us how much to medicalize it as well. Insurance companies could decide that they'd cover cognitive behavioral therapy for internet addiction, but nothing beyond that."

It’s an incredibly tempting solution.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Military and Dual Use Neuroscience

If there’s one thing I learned from the most recent installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, it’s this:  if you’re doing interesting research, it probably has a military application.

In the interest of spoiler avoidance, let's just call this Wayne Enterprises invention "dual-use." (

Monday, August 13, 2012

Comment on: Placebo for Psychogenic Illnesses: Why “It’s all in my head” does and doesn’t matter

*This post was originally posted on the Neuroethics Women (NEW Leaders) Leaders site.

Recently, I composed a piece for Nature Science Soapbox entitled, Placebo for Psychogenic Illnesses: Why "It's all in my head" does and doesn't matter and in the Huffington Post on Placebo. Both pieces work to reframe and deepen our understanding of medicine and illness by utilizing neuroscience. Importantly, this process must include humility for the limitations of neuroscience and our current understanding of the brain while also maintaining an openness to what we don't know, avoiding foreclosing opportunities for richer understanding of the brain's capabilities.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Brain Connectomes: Your ticket to the future

Science often provides us with thrilling and puzzling scenarios in which our imaginations are forced to conceive the possibilities the future may bring. Life after death is an old concept that is getting a facelift. The Connectome, a very real development in neuroscience, is being used to conceptualize another very interesting piece of science-[fiction]: mind uploading.

Image from

Fast-forward a few centuries. Bear with me, as this requires imagination. You have just died and are beginning the journey to the next stage of your life. For this trip, you won’t have to pack any bags. If all goes smoothly, you will be back home in time for the evening sitcoms. Your casket was lowered into the Earth this morning and because your driver’s license indicated ‘Continue Life’ you are scheduled for resurrection this afternoon. Suddenly, a message appears.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

A Case Study in Misunderstanding

The media gets a bad rap for oversimplifying, misrepresenting, and even sensationalizing stories. Stories about science are no exception. But it is also no secret that the scientists themselves are under all sorts of pressures to oversimplify, misrepresent, and even sensationalize the science.

But sometimes even good science and good reporting can lead to inaccuracies in “translation” that may look like (intentional) oversimplification, misrepresentation, or even sensationalization, when in fact these inaccuracies are due to honest, understandable, and avoidable misunderstandings.

One of the sources of this honest misunderstanding comes from cognitive neuroscience’s usage of everyday mental terms. Often the scientists’ usage of mental terms differ in important respects from the everyday understanding of these mental terms, and the particular idiosyncratic (from the everyday-use point of view) ways in which the scientists are employing the terms aren’t always made explicit.[1]