Positive feedback loops in bioethicsWednesday, 23 April, 2008
There are some situations in bioethics were people use a prior action has justification for further actions. I like to call these positive feedback loops, as they remind me of the positive feedback mechanisms of the body; an increase in one property (say, the level of a hormone) causes a set of signals to be releases that cause that property to change in the same direction as the initial perturbation. In economics, such loops are called ‘vicious circles’, such as where lack of education leads to a lack of income which leads to a further lack of education leading to a further loss in income and so on.
The most obvious loop is that involved in the debate about human embryonic stem cell research. These were banned or restricted (by limiting funding) in many places around the world, and many researchers no doubt shied away from the field due to the funding or legislative insecurity. Unsurprisingly, there have been far more treatments developed that involve adult stem cells than those using embryonic stem cells. Detractors of embryonic stem cells claim this lack of results is due to the inferiority of embryonic stem cells, and without the push for therapies, the restrictions on embryonic stem cell research are not likely to change, and could even be increased.
Similar examples involve agricultural biotechnology, where harsh restrictions GM crops causes them to be far more expensive and less efficient to grow, which weakens claims about solving the food crisis, which removes the major reason for allowing the research, which causes restrictions to increase.
I’m worried a similar problem of this sort could arise with human enhancement technologies, like genetic modification. They will first be banned for ethical problems or safety concerns. Then a few researchers will begin their research in other nations where there are no safety concerns or clinical trials, leading to horrible experimental disasters unrivaled in sci-fi films. Then those experiments will be exposed to the public, leading to mass panic. This social pressure will leading to even harsher restrictions on the research, driving the research even further underground, thus restarting the cycle again.
We need to watch out for these loops. It is entirely unscientific for people to claim that stem cells are better derived from adults than embryos if both are not on equal footing. It is entirely illogical for people to claim that growing GM food is more expensive if their concerns about GM food are what made it so expensive in the first place. And, it is especially bad to force research underground where it will be carried out in a manner unsafe to both the researchers and the research subjects, and illogical to believe such research would be equally dangerous if carried out in approved facilities under regulatory oversight. These loops can quickly spiral out of control into a land of very, very harsh restrictions on scientific research. And I, for one, would much rather have too much science than too much legislation.