Nuclear risks March 30, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Is now the time for a discussion of the pros and cons of nuclear power? In the aftermath of the Fukushima Power Plant I disaster, doubts about the advisability of nuclear power are proliferating like atoms of radioactive iodine. Given the “hot” climate, it would seem reasonable to postpone decisions about the future of nuclear power until the facts, and cooler heads, can prevail. This approach is recommended in a recent Globe and Mail article by uWaterloo Professor Jatin Nathwani:
There’s a compelling need for a perspective based on solid evidence and assessments to help guide our decisions as they pertain to management of the crisis and subsequently a plan for energy futures. In the unfolding tragedy in Japan – the earthquake and the tsunami – depicting the ferocity of Mother Nature to deliver unforgiving destruction and pain is the central story. And yet, we have grafted onto this bleak tale our anxieties about nuclear risks, driven largely by incomplete information.
I don’t know if the term “grafted” is the best choice of terms here. After all, the Fukushima disaster has surely demonstrated that the ability of nuclear power plants to resist natural events such as earthquakes and tsunamis is relevant to a complete assessment of the risks posed by nuclear power. Certainly, we may have much to learn in this regard, as the notable past nuclear disasters of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl were man-made.
The risks involved in nuclear power are usefully outlined in this article by Elizabeth Kolbert. Professor Nathwani notes that relatively few people have been killed or injured from accidents in nuclear power plants. As Kolbert adds, the threats to life and limb from other power sources may be more considerable:
Every time there’s an accident, proponents of nuclear power point out that risks are also associated with other forms of energy. Coal mining implies mining disasters, and the pollution from coal combustion results in some ten thousand premature deaths in this country each year. Oil rigs explode, sometimes spectacularly, and so, on occasion, do natural-gas pipelines. Moreover, burning any kind of fossil fuel produces carbon-dioxide emissions, which, in addition to changing the world’s climate, alter the chemistry of the oceans.
So, nuclear power seems like a win in terms of public safety and climate-friendliness.
However, there are other risks to be considered, as Kolbert points out. One, of course, is terrorist attack. Another is the problem of evacuating people from the area of a power plant in the event of a disaster. Many plants reside near populated areas that would be difficult to evacuate. Also, there is the problem of what to do with the spent fuel:
After several decades and billions of dollars’ worth of studies, the U.S. still does not have a plan for developing a long-term storage facility for radioactive waste, much of which will remain dangerous for millennia.
Regulating nuclear power is expensive, in part because of people’s fears about it. Those fears, groundless or not, must be addressed, adding considerably to the cost of the system.
Then there are risks involved in simply postponing public discussion. One such risk is that, in the absence of much public interest in the matter (other matters tend to attract public attention more consistently than nuclear power), an attitude of complacency may set in. As mentioned in this previous posting, operators of nuclear plants prefer to simply not think about what could go really wrong with them, leading to a lack of preparation. Zealous public engagement certainly presents challenges, but so does public apathy.
Another matter to ponder is that, when the facts about nuclear power have been gathered and consensus reached, they may be inadequate to determine public policy. Rare events, such as a devastating earthquake, are perhaps too difficult to predict with much accuracy. Also, simply amassing facts does not, by itself, necessarily lead to a consensus of interpretation in the public or among experts. Thus, multiple and mutually incoherent narratives about the future of nuclear power may fit equally well with the empirical record.
Finally, decisions about how to proceed with nuclear power are determined not only by whatever facts are available but by values as well. As Kolbert points out, nuclear power did not arrive on the (American) scene as the result of a rational calculation but, in part, as a means of reconciling Americans to the ongoing development of nuclear weapons. In the words of President Eisenhower at the ground-breaking of the Shippingport, PA, plant:
“My friends, through such measures as these, and through knowledge we are sure to gain from this new plant we begin today, I am confident that the atom will not be devoted exclusively to the destruction of man, but will be his mighty servant and tireless benefactor,” the President said.
We, as a society, are apparently still unsure about how nuclear power fits in with our priorities and our way of life. Time will surely bring new and relevant facts to light. However, it will also bring novel plant designs, new environmental circumstances, and unforeseen and persistent social challenges. So, it is not clear that tomorrow will be a more advantageous time to discuss nuclear power than is today.
Biotechnolgy and design March 28, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV203 , comments closed
Check out this TEDx talk by Paul Wolpe concerning ethical issues in bioengineering. Wolpe outlines a number of ways in which the abilities of researchers to design organisms presents challenges to our collective wisdom. Among the possibilities are:
- remote controlled rats, that is, rats with cybernetic implants that allow people to guide their actions with a remote control, and
- Rat-bots, that is, robots with brains composed of networked rat neurons.
One of the many ethical questions raised by this research, as Wolpe points out, is, “At what point is it not acceptable to deprive a ‘bot of either type of its autonomy?” As our creations get smarter and more independent, they will try to do things that their minders do not wish them to do. So, the minders will use the remote control to overrule the ‘bot. However, when a ‘bot gets smart enough and capable enough, does that veto power become unethical? I assume it would be unethical to implant such a remote control in a human being. So, where does the line fall?
(Image courtesy of Jeblad via Wikimedia Commons.)
In my classes on design, I point out that there are two (out of many other) principles of ethics that are particularly important for designers:
- Things that are morally impermissible may be physically possible, and
- Things that are morally obligatory may be physically unnecessary.
The second point is usually good news for designers. It implies that it is possible to make the world a better place, through design. The first point presents the flip side, if you like. It implies that it is possible to make the world a worse place, through design. Clearly, the designer faces a dilemma: How to tell when a design will make things better or worse?
This bio-engineering research challenges us on many levels. What is the difference between living and non-living things? What sort of living things is it good to design and create? What limits ought there to be the autonomy of those things? Both remote-control rats and rat-bots seem, to me, already to be pushing the limits of the permissible if only because they seem so creepy and coercive. Have a look at the video and see what you think.
Human exoskeletons March 25, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203, STV302 , comments closed
You should watch this fascinating TED talk by Eythor Bender of Berkeley Bionics. He briefly discusses the notion of human exoskeletons, that is, a mechanical or robotic superstructure worn by a human being. The point of the exoskeleton is to either:
- Enable people who disabled in some way to overcome their disability or
- Enhance the abilities of normal humans.
Mr. Bender (no relation to Bender the robot I believe) demonstrates an exoskeleton called eLEGS that permits Amanda Boxtel to walk after 19 years confined to a wheelchair. In the latter category, Russ Angold demonstrates HULC, an exoskeleton designed to enhance the endurance and cargo capacity of a foot soldier.
(Image courtesy of Daren Reehl via Wikimedia Commons.)
These designs represent the astonishing progress made in research on human augmentation made in recent years. They will be a tremendous boon to people who are disabled or otherwise designed out of the amenities and opportunities afforded to normal people in society. Of course, they will also create a tension in what is considered normal, as people explore their use for human enhancement (outside of the military). For what purposes would you want an exoskeleton?
I would like one, at least to help me survive the coming robot apocalypse.
Swedish drivers and Jevon’s Paradox March 23, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Scott has discussed the reduction in water usage in Waterloo region as a potential counterexample to Jevon’s Paradox. The paradox implies that gains in efficiency in a design do not necessarily translate into gains in sustainability. In the case of water usage, the implication would be that gains in water efficiency, e.g., from uptake of low-flow toilets, would not necessarily result in more sustainable water consumption. The recent drop in water consumption in the Waterloo region, coupled with uptake of low-flow toilets among other things, might call the Paradox into question.
Yet, Treehugger notes a recent study in Sweden that seems to confirm that the Paradox still has some teeth. Sweden has some of the most aggressive (and successful) sustainability policies around. It has, for example, been a world leader in the per capita uptake of “green” automobiles, such as cars that run on ethanol or clean diesel. So, Swedes are adopting more fuel-efficient cars, but does that mean that they are consuming less fuel (and producing less pollution) overall than before? Apparently not:
Emissions from the transport segment rose by 100,000 tons last year in Sweden. Trafikverket, the Swedish Tranport Agency (STA), reported that while purchases of efficient and greener cars decreased carbon dioxide emissions on a per car basis (from 164 to 151 grams of CO2 equivalent per kilometer driven), people’s increased driving caused emissions to rise.
It’s not easy being green! (Or perhaps it’s too easy.)
(Image courtesy of Stannered via Wikimedia Commons.)
As Scott mentioned, economists have tried to explain the paradox by appeal to rational behaviors, e.g., that overall economic growth in Sweden simply puts more money in Swedes’ pockets, allowing them to drive more. Well, economic growth in Sweden was positive in 2010, but negative overall in the 3-year study period.
Of course, the Paradox may spring from sources other than people’s rational responses to monetary incentives. For example, there is the effect of moral capital, which I have mentioned before. In an article entitled, Do green products make us better people?, Mazar and Zhong describe a study in which they set two groups of people to spend money in online stores. One store sold “green” products whereas the other sold conventional equivalents. After shopping, participants were given the opportunity to make extra money by cheating the experimenters. It turned out that people who bought products at the “green” store were more likely to cheat afterwards than the other group. Mazar and Zhong postulate that people have a sense of “moral capital”, that is, a sense of their moral rectitude. When people feel that they have a high level of moral capital, they may “spend” the excess by allowing themselves to behave badly. Perhaps this effect can help to explain the situation in Sweden: Swedes took to green cars, which gave them an elevated level of moral capital. They then spent the excess on themselves by taking more trips. The result was an overall increase in fuel consumption and pollution output.
Of course, this explanation is speculative. But it suggests that we may have to further into human nature than allowed in classical economics to understand patterns of consumption. As Scott noted, there is the effect of regulation to be considered. In addition, there is the fact that people are social animals and, as such, sometimes behave as they do out of a sense of guilt or license. So, perhaps the fault lies not in our cars but in ourselves.
Water-Water-Water. Loo-Loo-Loo. March 22, 2011Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV100, STV404 , comments closed
It’s World Water Day.
Although I missed the celebrations and heavy thinking on campus held in honor of the special day, I did note a local newpaper report that the Region of Waterloo is consuming less water, despite population growth.
Waterloo Region’s residents, businesses and municipalities used under 149,000 cubic metres of water per day in 2009, down from 165,000 nine years earlier, according to a report from the Region of Waterloo.
And that’s despite an expanding population that has added an extra 75,000 residents here since 2001.
“There’s a downward trend, and it’s across Ontario,” said Steve Gombos, manager of water efficiency for the Region of Waterloo.
What came to mind when I saw the headline was if this somehow contradicted the Jevons Paradox, which has been mentioned here in the past and holds (roughly) that gains in technological efficiency very often lead to increased, not decreased, consumption of a resource. Stanley Jevons was thinking about steam engine efficiency and coal consumption in mid 19th century Scotland, but even modern economists have observed the effect and postulated answers:
Energy efficiency gains can increase energy consumption by two means: by making energy appear effectively cheaper than other inputs; and by increasing economic growth, which pulls up energy use. (Henry Saunders, 1992, quoted in Horace Herring, E. 1998. “Does Energy Efficiency Save Energy: The Implications of accepting the Khazzoom-Brookes Postulate.)
The local newpaper article points to gains in efficiency, such as the push for low-flow toilets and repairing leaks in public water mains, as an important driver of the decrease in water consumption. I don’t know if a low-flow toilet will make anyone “go” more often, but presumably gains from fewer leaks would mean in principle that the price of water could come down and people might be inclined to use more–a longer shower maybe, or a more lush lawn or garden. But, there also have been regulatory changes contributing to the decreased consumption: lawn watering has been curtailed significantly in the past few years with peak water use bylaws. This is important because the Jevons paradox doesn’t apply if conservation efforts are imposed.
But the catch is that a big cause for the drop in water consumption is a decrease in industrial activity in the region, and I suspect, across the province. Using rounded figures from the article, to produce a single car might take 150 000 liters of water, but a single person in Waterloo uses only 250 liters a day. In other words, two years of my life to use as much as a single new Toyota or Ford.
Unfortunately, the article doesn’t distinguish which changes had a bigger effect on water consumption but I will harbor my own suspicions for now (car sales are down) and continue to worry. If all we’ve done is export our industry overseas, we’re just exporting our water problem. Canada might have some of the largest supplies of freshwater in the world, but we remain one of the worst when it comes to efficient water consumption. Most Canadians simply don’t care about water efficiency, Jevons paradox or not. Is it really prudent to export that problem?
Maybe I should have gone to the talks.
Send in the ‘bots March 21, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
Here is a short, interesting article combining the topics of my recent posts on the 11 March earthquake in Japan and recent strides made by robots. In particular, this article notes the curious fact that, although Japan is one of the most robot-friendly nations around, it does not have robots working in the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant. Instead, a small group of human operators have been struggling to keep the power plant under control themselves.
(Image courtesy of Jiuguang Wang via Wikimedia Commons.)
One can only hope that these workers are not suffering excessively from radiation exposure. I am reminded of the “human-robots” or “bio-robots” of Chernobyl: Military personnel employed to shovel debris on top of the failed reactors in an attempt to contain the radiation leakage. Needless to say, many of those people suffered badly from radiation exposure.
In any event, why is it that the Japanese plant lacks robots, when these are common in the nuclear plants of the EU, for example? The article offers a few reasons. The first is simply bad timing:
Kim Seungho, a nuclear official who engineered robots for South Korea’s atomic power plants, said: “You have to design emergency robots for plants when they are being built so they can navigate corridors, steps and close valves.”
The Fukushima plant was built in the 1970s, well before robots were able to work on sophisticated tasks.
Of course, this point raises the issue of why robots could not have been designed to do useful work in the plant after its construction.
A second reason is simple denial:
Kim, a deputy director in nuclear technology for the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute, said budget constraints and denial have kept emergency robots out of many plants in his country and around the world.
“Nuclear plant operators don’t liked to think about serious situations that are beyond human control,” he said by telephone.
There often a trade-off between efficiency and robustness in design. That is, people often prefer to have cheaper but less resilient systems, especially if they do not credibly foresee a failure of the system. The result, in the event of a failure, is that people other than the designer’s maker or owner pay the extra price. In the case of the failure of the Fukushima reactors’ safety system, the price is evacuation and possible radiation exposure for the plant’s operators and its neighbours.
Another issue might be the amount of autonomy to be granted to emergency robots. This is an emerging issue for military drones that fly armed over the territory of potential military targets. In the event of some problem, e.g., lack of communication with home base, under what circumstances would the drones be granted permission to fire without explicit authorization? A similar issue arises in the case of emergency robots in a power plant: In the event that human operators are unavailable or out of contact, what should the robots be authorized to do? I image that this problem is no small one. Still, it seems as though we should be discussing it.
Of course, given their absence, it is unclear what difference robots might have made to efforts to cope with this disaster. However, it may be a good bet that power plants currently without robots for assistance are now in the market for some.
Risk assessment and unusual events March 18, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
The recent earthquake off the coast of Japan has, of course, devastated that country and, unfortunately, brutally exposed some of the difficulties of disaster planning and preparedness. In particular, a tremblor of such a high magnitude was not expected at the site where it occurred, according to this article in Science:
“I never thought this kind of [event] could happen” in this region, says Hiroo Kanamori, a seismologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
This lack of forewarning is doubly unwelcome in a country whose seismic risks have been so long and minutely studied. How could such a possibility have been missed or dismissed?
(Image courtesy of Tpemg2 via Wikimedia Commons.)
The article provides some insight. First of all, risk assessments rely on past experience. Detailed earthquake measurements have been made and kept for a about a century in the region. In that record, earthquakes of magnitude 7 to 8.3 have occurred in 30 to 50-year intervals. This pattern suggested to seismologists that stress on the crustal plates in the region was being released rather than pent up. Given the apparent lack of stress buildup, who would expect such a powerful event?
Records of earlier earthquakes are less precise. Studies of silt buildup in the region suggest a large flood occurred in 869 AD, caused by an earthquake of magnitude of roughly 8.3. Perhaps earthquakes of such high magnitudes occur in 1000-year cycles, but there is almost no way to tell because they are too infrequent to figure in the data available.
The article also states that Japanese seismologists have been focused on the earthquake danger from the Nankai Trough, a fault zone that runs close to Tokyo. Perhaps this focus comes from the proximity of the trough to Japan’s largest city. Unfortunately, as the article points out, the 11 March earthquake and the 1995 Kobe earthquake, the two worst in Japan’s history, did not occur in this area. Perhaps the obvious impact of a quake near Tokyo led researchers to be more interested in the likelihood of an earthquake in that area than in other ones.
Finally, even if the stress on a fault can be estimated with some accuracy, its release is still difficult to predict. Will it be released in the form of several, smaller quakes, or in the form of one big one?
These points all emphasize the problems that bias and uncertainty represent for risk analysis. Risk assessment naturally tends to focus on available data and assets at stake. The result may be under-representation of risk and, therefore, under-preparation for destructive events. In view of these lessons, Kanamori argues for a change of focus in preparations:
“In view of the inevitable uncertainty, in my opinion it’s better to have a more general approach [to earthquake preparation] than to have a prioritized, focused effort.”
What this means is not clear. A greater margin of safety in building codes? More standby disaster relief assets? These are hard to maintain for extended periods because of the extra expense involved.
A more skeptical possibility is that disasters like this one are hardly possible to prepare for:
For a nation that prides itself on preparedness, a distressing realization might be that some earthquakes are just too big, and too rare, to prepare for.
If true, then this could be bad news for people living near other faults similar to that off Fukushima, Japan. In Canada, this includes citizens of British Columbia, who live near the Cascadia fault. What should Canada do to prepare?
Robots make strides March 17, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
You were probably expecting some screed on new legs for robots. In fact, today seems to be a good day for news about robots with no legs:
- The robot R2 has arrived aboard the International Space Station. It is a humanoid robot intended to act as an assistant to the astronauts aboard. Right now, only its torso is in space. Legs are to follow later this year after more testing.
- PAL Robotics (good name, no?) has introduced its REEM robot. The robot can act as a kind of concierge at airports and shopping malls, giving people directions and information about what is available and where. This version runs on wheels but perhaps legs will come in future iterations.
- Researchers have been studying how people would prefer to interact with medical robots. In particular, they have examined the question, “Would people prefer to speak to a nurse robot before or after being touched by it?” Curiously, they preferred being addressed afterward. Perhaps people are uncomfortable in treating the robot like a nurse when it is so different (it has no legs, for example) with whom they would expect a prior discussion. Or perhaps the answer is a bit of image management, a way of showing the experimenter that they are (and were) not afraid of robots. Of course, maybe people would prefer both before and after best.
- More and more robots are being deployed on Canadian farms. No mystery here: The rising dollar has made the robots cheaper to import and competitive with temporary and migrant labour. The robots perform a variety of jobs including milking cows, inspecting flowers, packaging fruit, and so on.
With food prices on the rise once again, and implicated in unrest in the Middle East and elsewhere, I suppose that any means of keeping food prices down is welcome, although the hardest hit farmers in developing nations will not see any benefits.
In any event, it is good to note that robots do not yet need to have legs in order to be useful servants. Perhaps being less anthropomorphic than a geminoid robot makes them easier to accept, for now.
Technology and anxiety March 10, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
Last month, I discussed how medical information technology is not a panacea, meaning that the mere application of high tech in medicine does necessarily lead to improved medical results. In the article in question, a medical doctor discussed the tradeoffs involved in computerizing existing medical practices. I chimed in that designers of the technology tend to overlook some of the disadvantages of computerization because of their optimistic attitude towards the technology itself. This phenomenon of optimism leading to exaggerated views of the advantages of computerization I put down to motivated design.
It was interesting, then, to see this article on the potential overuse of diagnostic technology in pediatric medicine. Dr. Sean Palfrey of the Boston University School of Medicine argues that pediatricians sometimes rely too much on diagnostic high tech and not enough on simple physical examinations and their own training. Dr. Palfrey notes that increasing reliance on diagnostic technology raises challenging questions:
The evaluation of a child with fever and cough is a good example. There are many possible causes, and we have a huge battery of available tests that might give us potentially relevant information. But why should we no longer trust our physical exam, our knowledge of the possible causes and their usual courses, and our clinical judgment? How much will we gain by seeing an x-ray, now, and how likely is it that the result will necessitate a change in our management? How dangerous would it be if we chose to perform certain tests later or not at all? Might our residents not learn more by thinking, waiting, and watching?
I can think of a number of reasons whey pediatricians might be risk-averse in their diagnostic practices:
- Doctors, parents, and people in society in general have a special concern for the health and well-being of children. When a child appears in difficulty, their doctors naturally want to take special measures to help.
- As a doctor, the pediatrician’s job is to restore their patient to health. The effects of their treatment decisions on others, or on society in general, is not their responsibility. So, they arrange for whatever tests they feel might be useful to decide on an appropriate diagnosis and treatment.
- Insurance requirements and professional standards may demand the use of a diagnostic technology even where it may not be warranted in the view of a doctor in a given case.
- Then there is a simple aversion to failure. My impression, at some remove, is that doctors are strongly success-oriented and thus particularly averse to the possibility of making a mistake. They see diagnostic technology as a means to avoid failure and so they make use of it.
All these reasons are coloured, to some extent, by anxiety. That is, doubt about the outcome is present, and the pediatrician must consider the (possibly negative) view that others will take of their conduct. The result is that they experience anxiety, for which diagnostic technology provides some relief.
(Image courtesy of US Navy Journalist Seaman Joseph Caballero via Wikimedia Commons.)
So, the uptake of medical technology is driven by a push-pull mechanism. One form of push is provided by the optimism of the designers of medical technology. A form of pull is provided by the anxiety that doctors experience in diagnosing the ailments of their patients. If the result is too much reliance on diagnostic technology, then we might consider alternative routes for satisfying the mechanism that produces it. Dr. Palfrey suggests more professional discipline from doctors and more education for patients. I would not deny the importance of such measures. Yet, it seems to me that designers and doctors should think about some way of increasing their confidence, appropriately, in existing and established diagnostic technologies, such as the old-fashioned flashlight and tongue depressor.
Own the podium for $200. March 9, 2011Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV203 , comments closed
I’m going to reverse-Godwin this post. That is, I’ll start with Nazi atrocities, but end up with something a little more thought-provoking and meaningful.
In class last night, I brought up the infamous Nazi experiments on unwilling human victims, emphasizing the work of the “Angel of Death” Joseph Mengele. It was meant to be an example of a scenario in which the utilitarian estimate of benefits (useful anatomical and physiological knowledge that can help untold numbers of people) and costs (torture and death of a set of concentration camp prisoners) are not easily calculated. There are some outcomes which are difficult for many to condone, no matter what good might come of it. I didn’t get the sense that many in the class had heard of Mengele, and several students were curious about his own outcome. Unfortunately, he fled to South America and managed to evade justice, living out a secretive and unrepentant life.
So what happened to the other notorious figures of the time? Stalin and Mao died in their beds and Hitler died of a self-inflicted gunshot. None would live to face recriminations. In a odd twist, David Gardner’s 2001 book The Last of the Hitlers suggested that Hitler’s remaining male descendants (via a half-brother) made a pact to never marry and let the bloodline die out, as either protest or self-inflicted familial punishment. Which strikes me as an odd way of going about things. To quote one sarcastic internet wag:
Nothing fights Nazi ideology more than the belief that there are evil bloodlines that must be expunged.
In any case, this pact depends on a kind of genetic determinism: that genes, or in this case “bloodlines”, have a dominating influence in our lives and that we have few if any choices about who are or who we will be. And yet, of Hitler’s extended family, his half-brother’s nephew fought for the US in WWII (earning a Purple Heart no less) and one of that man’s sons became a social worker in Long Island. The fraternal pact, if it truly exists, seems pointless given their outcomes and circumstances.
All of which was running through my head this morning when I read yet another report about the continued expansion of consumer genetic testing services.
Was your kid born to be an elite athlete? Marketers of genetic tests claim the answer is in mail-order kits costing less than $200…
Scientists have identified several genes that may play a role in determining strength, speed and other aspects of athletic performance. But there are likely hundreds more, plus many other traits and experiences that help determine athletic ability, said Dr. Alison Brooks, a pediatrician and sports medicine specialist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
I guess if you’re a parent contemplating an investment of tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars required to support a child through to their dream of competing in the highest echelons of sport, a $200 test is a drop in the bucket. But for as long as these “direct-to-consumer genetic tests” have been around, bioethicists have warned of the many risks. In particular, does the testing company provide sufficient guidance and consultation when it comes to interpreting the results? Genetic determinism is the trap to avoid, but these tests are being sold to a public that is notoriously bad at what ought to be seen as problems of probabilities or statistics, not guarantees. The cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker might be able to interpret his own genome, but can you?
- What happens if a child doesn’t get the results they wanted? Dreams of playing for the Stanley Cup could be dashed by a test for a gene that might hypothetically be linked to excellent situational awareness but poor stamina. Then what? Switch to baseball? Or drop out of sports altogether, “robbing perfectly capable youngsters of a chance to enjoy activities of their choice“.
- What happens if a child does get the results they wanted? Will it open doors to athletic programs or scholarships, perhaps denied to those without the right genes? Must they live up to their Olympic dreams, or be a failure forever? How can that not remind us of Jerome, a character in the 1997 film Gattaca, a supposed perfect genetic specimen who would be the world’s best swimmer, but whose life was shattered when he only came second.
- Are children even mentally, socially, and philosophically capable of processing the results of such a test? Should a test be restricted until the age of majority? Voting age? Drinking age?
Or maybe consumer testing will amount to nothing at all. One of the supposed advantages of genetic testing is that people with certain risks can take steps to try and avoid them. Do your genes make you susceptible to heart disease? Then lay off the hamburgers and fries and exercise more. Except, as one study showed, genetic tests haven’t had much impact at all:
Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute, and collaborators surveyed 2,000 people from several San Diego-area companies who were offered a genetic test from Navigenics, one of the first companies to offer genome-wide tests. The researchers found that the vast majority didn’t become overly anxious about the results, nor did they change their behavior by exercising more or altering their diet.
The money quote from that article says this even better:
“We already know that giving people all kinds of medical test results doesn’t seem to have profound behavioral impact. I think it was a naïve hope that there would be a something magic about genetic information that would inspire people to exercise and lose weight and eat better.”
So much for determinism. Let’s all hear a big cheer for apathy!
Time will tell how these athletic-focused genetic tests might be sold to the public and thereby used and abused, but in my mind all sorts of doors are now open:
- Should potential scholars be tested for intelligence genes?
- Should potential artists be tested for schizophrenia or bipolar disorders? Kay Jameson has argued that these characteristics tend to be common among the artistic and creative
- Should potential politicians be tested for a hypothetical honesty gene? (That’s my personal favourite)