A total of 3, were Level 2 "moderate risk" offenders, 4, were Level 3 "high risk" offenders and were Level 4s, which are specified by statute as "sexually violent predators. From a drab office in Pine Bluff, the Arkansas Department of Correction's Sex Offender Screening and Risk Assessment SOSRA program is doing groundbreaking, internationally-recognized work delving into the minds and motivations of those convicted of sexual crimes, using a combination of technology and old-fashioned interrogation techniques to separate the one-time offenders from the human monsters at the upper end of the scale, so that they can be more accurately assigned to one of the four levels see sidebar on page 19 that determine the depth and breadth of community notification.
It's a proven system, and works well enough that law enforcement agencies all over the world have sought SOSRA's advice. Still, even the experts in Pine Bluff will tell you that some of the well-intentioned things Arkansas does with SOSRA's numbers once they're assigned — most notably residency restrictions, which can drive offenders far from the support networks, work opportunities, and treatment options that might help them avoid committing another crime — may actually be making us less safe in the long run.
On the flip side of that are the offenders themselves. It's hard to feel sympathy for a sex offender. For every offender, there's a victim — sometimes dozens, or hundreds, many of whom will be mentally scarred for life. Still, talk to a few of those on the registry and the people who care for them, and it quickly becomes clear that life as a registered sex offender is a very tough row to hoe, even for relatively low-level offenders.
The general public isn't making SOSRA's fine, carefully-reasoned distinctions between Levels 1 through 4 — a sex offender is a sex offender is a sex offender to Average Joe or Jane — and the tales of those on the list that we spoke to are routinely about jobs lost, midnight moves, children mocked at school for what a father did, families made into outcasts and men happy to get any kind of work or any sort of roof over their heads. Listen to a few of those folks, and even if you don't buy every line of every sob story, even if you despise them for their crimes, it's easy to find yourself wondering: If all sex offenders are so extraordinarily dangerous that our society believes they should be monitored constantly for decades or for the rest of their natural lives, why do we force so many of them to live among us as pariahs instead of keeping them in jail?
Take enough away from a person, make him enough of a social leper, and a prison cell starts looking like a kind of mercy — which probably, come to think of it, isn't the best state of mind for a convicted criminal if you want him to keep to the straight and narrow. Walk past the door of the public library meeting room where Arkansas Time After Time meets one Sunday every month, and you might think you've happened upon a friendly book club, or maybe a group of weekend gardeners marooned indoors until spring.
In fact, ATAT is one of the few, if not the only, free-world sex offender support groups in Arkansas. The participants on the Sunday we visited were mostly middle-aged, the group evenly distributed between men and women and between offenders and the people who still love them. The group was started by Little Rock's Robert Combs, who understands what it is to live as a sex offender because he is one. It's impossible to sugar-coat what Combs did to earn his spot on the registry.
In December , Combs was working as a civilian historian for the Army's 2nd U.
Infantry Division in Seoul, South Korea — running a military museum, driving a Rolls Royce and spending his weekends going to embassy balls, he said — when police say he flew to North Little Rock and checked into a hotel with the goal of meeting an underage girl for sex. Police said he'd been conversing via e-mail with people he thought were a child and her mother for two months by the time he booked his flight, and that he'd previously mailed a CD containing over child-porn images. As you might have guessed already, the "girl and her mother" turned out to be officers with the North Little Rock Police Department.
I was not innocent of the crime," Combs said. I don't have any excuse other than I had cornflakes for brains. The minute they clapped those cuffs on me, the scales fell from my eyes, and I realized I was living in a very dark place. Arrested and eventually convicted of mailing child pornography, Combs spent five years in federal prison. Released to Little Rock and later classified as a Level 3 sex offender, Combs said he wound up homeless and sleeping under the Broadway Bridge for awhile before he was able to get back on his feet.
He decided to start Arkansas Time After Time, he said, after his daughter asked him what he was doing to give back to the community to help atone for what he had done. He admits it isn't easy to be a sex offender advocate. Even those in need tend to shy away from accepting ATAT's help. Several of the people in law enforcement and sex offender assessment we talked to are openly skeptical of Combs and his motives, which is perfectly understandable given what brought him to Arkansas in the first place.
Still, Combs insists that the group wasn't created to try and weaken the sex offender laws or somehow make it easier for offenders to commit sex crimes. Arkansas Time After Time wants, Combs said, many of the same things people in law enforcement want: At ATAT's January meeting, the group mostly talked about the things that concern all of us at a very basic level: If you have a unique skill set, you can always get a job, even if you're a Level 4 sex offender.
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If somebody says 'Kentucky Fried Chicken is hiring,' we'll spread that word out. We share information about where people can live, what mobile home parks are accessible, which apartments will rent to a person on the registry, and just share positive things as well as the struggle we all share. It's hard to imagine somebody getting excited over the prospect of a part-time job at KFC or living in a trailer park, but for a lot of the offenders on the list, that's the best they can hope for.
Many are fired as soon as an employer gets wind of their status. Current laws forbid Level 3 and 4 sex offenders from working in any job that might bring them into contact with children, and from living closer than 2, feet from any public or private school, daycare, public park or youth center. That's getting close to a half-mile, and when you start drawing a 2,foot circle around every school, park and daycare in most municipal areas, the circles quickly overlap. That can force offenders into rural areas, sketchier neighborhoods or even homelessness, often with no access to public transportation and treatment, and more limited access to employment.
Combs said the group's primary goal is to rescind the residency restrictions. He said he'd also like to see the sex offender registry made accessible only by law enforcement. If you can't find housing, you can't find employment, and you don't have the support of your community and your family, you're probably going to go back to prison. That doesn't help anybody. If you're a sex offender who hasn't been caught yet, SOSRA program director Sheri Flynn is probably the last person in the world you'd ever want to find yourself in a room with. From a beige government office suite in the back of what appears to be a repurposed shopping center just off the interstate in Pine Bluff, Flynn and a team of seven interviewers evaluate and classify every person in the state convicted of one of the "target offenses" requiring placement on the sex offender registry see page By the time you get to Flynn's door, you're going on the registry whether you like it or not.
The only question is where. Arkansas is doing it right," Flynn said. We're actually doing it right, and more and more states are starting to do assessments the way we do it. Asked why sex offenders are uniquely dangerous enough to require a public registry and community notification when those released after serving time for other serious crimes such as murder don't, Flynn said the reasons are two-fold. First, she said, with the exception of certain crimes like serial murder or gang-related murder, those who commit homicide generally don't have a compulsion to commit murder, or go out looking for someone to kill at random.
Many sex offenders, on the other hand, have just that sort of compulsion: In addition, Flynn said the often long-term psychological trauma a sex offender can inflict on each new victim must be taken into account, and justifies law enforcement taking extreme measures to keep the public informed. While many states classify sex offenders by the offense the person was convicted of, by the number of times they've been charged with a sexual offense, or by using a questionnaire — an "actuarial instrument" that seeks to determine the likelihood they will re-offend based on their answers to specific questions about victim preference, victim gender, the age they began offending and the like — SOSRA has been a trail-blazer in the use of an individualized assessment approach, utilizing lengthy interviews, multiple actuarial instruments and computerized lie detection to root out sex offenders' hidden sexual compulsions — deviances that aren't found on a rap sheet and behaviors that many offenders have never revealed to anyone other than their victims.
It takes longer, but Flynn believes the results paint a much fuller picture of each offender, which can lead to better strategies for keeping the public safe. Their methods are revolutionary enough that Flynn and other members of SOSRA have made presentations before international conferences on sex offenders, and are asked to consult on cases in other states. A paper Flynn co-authored is soon to be published in the prestigious journal "Law and Human Behavior" — a once-in-a-lifetime honor for most any researcher in the field. To show the wisdom of individualized assessment, Flynn cites a case she uses in a Power Point presentation she's delivered all over the country: Under the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of , the federal law that ranks sex offenders largely based on the crime they were convicted of, Flynn said the man would have been a Tier 1 "least serious" offender, and a "low risk" offender in most states that use only an actuarial instrument.
During an extensive interview with SOSRA, however, the man began to disclose many other sex offenses in what Flynn called a "detached, matter-of-fact manner. They have no remorse. By following that red flag down some very dark alleyways, Flynn and her colleagues were eventually able to get the man to admit to a host of sexual crimes: If we'd just gone from what we knew from the title of his conviction, he would have been a Level 1.
So you see the importance of doing that individualized assessment. While there's undoubtedly some high fives at SOSRA when they smoke out a "true pedophile" so the public can better see him coming, Flynn said the goal of SOSRA is to do an accurate assessment so the appropriate level of notification can be made. The process of assessment probably couldn't go on without some kind of stick to force offenders to participate. Those who don't show up for two consecutive assessment appointments, who appear for assessment impaired by drugs or alcohol, who refuse to cooperate with the process or who are aggressive or violent during the assessment default to Level 3.
All offenders can apply for reassessment after five years. Every assessment is reviewed by an attorney. If that attorney questions the level status, it is then reviewed by the Sex Offender Assessment Committee, a nine-member board appointed by the governor. All Level 4 classifications must be approved by that board.
Flynn said she does training seminars constantly to try and educate the public about how the sex-offender levels are assigned and the differences between them. She notes that all the notification in the world will never beat an attentive parent at keeping a child safe, a message she said she's been telling reporters for 12 years, but which she's never seen in print. If you've got somebody spending time with your kids, you need to know who they are and what their background is. Flynn and several others who think a lot about the issue have deep reservations about residency restrictions. The sex-offender levels are designed to keep the community safe through notification, she said, and not to determine where an offender can reside.
Flynn did her master's thesis on residency restrictions, and said there's evidence to suggest they might cause more offenders to re-offend. They can't work, because they can't live near a job. Why would one change from, say, Kikuyu truth to Navajo truth? Such merit-driven switches are rare. With one crucially important exception. Scientific truth is the only member of the list which regularly persuades converts of its superiority.
People are loyal to other belief systems for one reason only: When people are lucky enough to be offered the opportunity to vote with their feet, doctors and their kind prosper while witch doctors decline. Even those who do not, or cannot, avail themselves of a scientific education, choose to benefit from the technology that is made possible by the scientific education of others. Admittedly, religious missionaries have successfully claimed converts in great numbers all over the underdeveloped world.
But they succeed not because of the merits of their religion but because of the science-based technology for which it is pardonably, but wrongly, given credit. Surely the Christian God must be superior to our Juju, because Christ's representatives come bearing rifles, telescopes, chainsaws, radios, almanacs that predict eclipses to the minute, and medicines that work. So much for cultural relativism. A different type of truth-heckler prefers to drop the name of Karl Popper or more fashionably Thomas Kuhn:.
Your scientific truths are merely hypotheses that have so far failed to be falsified, destined to be superseded. The best you scientists can hope for is a series of approximations which progressively reduce errors but never eliminate them. The Popperian heckle partly stems from the accidental fact that philosophers of science are traditionally obsessed with one piece of scientific history, the comparison between Newton's and Einstein's theories of gravitation. It is true that Newton's inverse square law has turned out to be an approximation, a special case of Einstein's more general formula.
If this is the only piece of scientific history you know, you might indeed conclude that all apparent truths are mere approximations, fated to be superseded. This provides a good way to think about illusions such as the Necker Cube. Well, that is an interesting theory; so is the philosopher's notion that science proceeds by conjecture and refutation; and so is the analogy between the two. Without venturing into the high-tech worlds of virtual reality, we already know that our senses are easily deceived. Conjurors — professional illusionists — can persuade us, if we lack a sceptical foothold in reality, that something supernatural is going on.
Indeed, some notorious erstwhile conjurors make a fat living doing exactly that: This is a job which is best handed over to the professionals, and that means other conjurors. The lesson that conjurors, the honest variety and the impostors, teach us is that an uncritical faith in our own senses is not an infallible guide to truth. But none of this seems to undermine our ordinary concept of what it means for something to be true.
What do you mean by true? The hypothesis that I was in Chicago has not so far been falsified, but it is only a matter of time before we see that it is a mere approximation. Or, reverting to the first heckle, I would not expect a jury, even a Bongolese jury, to give a sympathetic hearing to my plea that,. It is simply true that the Sun is hotter than the Earth, true that the desk on which I am writing is made of wood. These are not hypotheses awaiting falsification; not temporary approximations to an ever-elusive truth; not local truths that might be denied in another culture.
To a pedant, these are still hypotheses which might be falsified tomorrow. But they never will be. Strictly, the truth that there were no human beings in the Jurassic Period is still a conjecture, which could be refuted at any time by the discovery of a single fossil, authentically dated by a battery of radiometric methods. Even if they are nominally hypotheses on probation, these statements are true in exactly the same sense as the ordinary truths of everyday life; true in the same sense as it is true that you have a head, and that my desk is wooden.
If scientific truth is open to philosophic doubt, it is no more so than common sense truth. Let's at least be even-handed in our philosophical heckling. A more profound difficulty now arises for our scientific concept of truth. Science is very much not synonymous with common sense. Admittedly, that doughty scientific hero T.
Science is nothing but trained and organized common sense, differing from the latter only as a veteran may differ from a raw recruit: But Huxley was talking about the methods of science, not its conclusions. As Lewis Wolpert emphasized in The Unnatural Nature of Science , 17 the conclusions can be disturbingly counter-intuitive. Quantum theory is counter-intuitive to the point where the physicist sometimes seems to be battling insanity.
We are asked to believe that a single quantum behaves like a particle in going through one hole instead of another, but simultaneously behaves like a wave in interfering with a non-existent copy of itself, if another hole is opened through which that non-existent copy could have travelled if it had existed.
It gets worse, to the point where some physicists resort to a vast number of parallel but mutually unreachable worlds, which proliferate to accommodate every alternative quantum event; while other physicists, equally desperate, suggest that quantum events are determined retrospectively by our decision to examine their consequences. Modern physics teaches us that there is more to truth than meets the eye; or than meets the all too limited human mind, evolved as it was to cope with medium-sized objects moving at medium speeds through medium distances in Africa.
In the face of these profound and sublime mysteries, the low-grade intellectual poodling of pseudo-philosophical poseurs seems unworthy of adult attention. You appeal for money to save the gorillas. Very laudable, no doubt. But it doesn't seem to have occurred to you that there are thousands of human children suffering on the very same continent of Africa. There'll be time enough to worry about gorillas when we've taken care of every last one of the kiddies. Let's get our priorities right, please! This hypothetical letter could have been written by almost any well-meaning person today.
In lampooning it, I don't mean to imply that a good case could not be made for giving human children priority. I expect it could, and also that a good case could be made the other way. I'm only trying to point the finger at the automatic , unthinking nature of the speciesist double standard. To many people it is simply self-evident, without any discussion , that humans are entitled to special treatment. To see this, consider the following variant on the same letter:. But it doesn't seem to have occurred to you that there are thousands of aardvarte suffering on the very same continent of Africa.
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There'll be time enough to worry about gorillas when we've saved every last one of the aardvarks. This second letter could not fail to provoke the question: What's so special about aardvarks? A good question, and one to which we should require a satisfactory answer before we took the letter seriously. All that I am criticizing is an unthinking failure to realize in the case of humans that the question even arises.
Humans are humans and gorillas are animals. There is an unquestioned yawning gulf between them such that the life of a single human child is worth more than the lives of all the gorillas in the world. But tie the label Homo sapiens even to a tiny piece of insensible, embryonic tissue, and its life suddenly leaps to infinite, uncomputable value. This way of thinking characterizes what I want to call the discontinuous mind. We'd all agree that a six-foot woman is tall, and a five-foot woman is not. Indeed, I hardly need to say caricature.
The discontinuous mind is ubiquitous. It is especially influential when it afflicts lawyers and the religious not only are all judges lawyers; a high proportion of politicians are too, and ail politicians have to woo the religious vote. Recently, after giving a public lecture, I was cross-examined by a lawyer in the audience. He brought the full weight of his legal acumen to bear on a nice point of evolution. If species A evolves into a later species B, he reasoned closely, there must come a point when a mother belongs to the old species A and her child belongs to the new species B.
Members of different species cannot interbreed with one another. I put it to you, he went on, that a child could hardly be so different from its parents that it could not interbreed with their kind. So, he wound up triumphantly, isn't this a fatal flaw in the theory of evolution?
But it is we that choose to divide animals up into discontinuous species. On the evolutionary view of life there must have been intermediates, even though, conveniently for our naming rituals, they are today usually extinct. They are not always extinct. In Britain these are clearly distinct species, quite different in colour. Anybody can tell them apart. But if you follow the population of Herring Gulls westward round the North Pole to North America, then via Alaska across Siberia and back to Europe again, you notice a curious fact.
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At every stage around the ring, the birds are sufficiently similar to their neighbours to interbreed with them. Until, that is, the ends of the continuum are reached, in Europe. At this point the Herring Gull and the Lesser Black-backed Gull never interbreed, although they are linked by a continuous series of interbreeding colleagues all the way round the world.
The only thing that is special about ring species like these gulls is that the intermediates are still alive. All pairs of related species are potentially ring species. The intermediates must have lived once. It is just that in most cases they are now dead. The lawyer, with his trained discontinuous mind, insists on placing individuals firmly in this species or that.
He does not allow for the possibility that an individual might lie halfway between two species, or a tenth of the way from species A to species B. There can be no half measures. And from this flows much evil. We admit that we are like apes, but we seldom realize that we are apes. Our common ancestor with the chimpanzees and gorillas is much more recent than their common ancestor with the Asian apes — the gibbons and orang utans.
There is no natural category that includes chimpanzees, gorillas and orangs but excludes humans. In truth, not only are we apes, we are African apes. All the African apes that have ever lived, including ourselves, are linked to one another by an unbroken chain of parent-child bonds. The same is true of all animals and plants that have ever lived, but there the distances involved are much greater. Molecular evidence suggests that our common ancestor with chimpanzees lived, in Africa, between 5 and 7 million years ago, say half a million generations ago.
This is not long by evolutionary standards. Happenings are sometimes organized at which thousands of people hold hands and form a human chain, say from coast to coast of the United States, in aid of some cause or charity. Let us imagine setting one up along the equator, across the width of our home continent of Africa. It is a special kind of chain, involving parents and children, and we'll have to play tricks with time in order to imagine it.
In turn she holds the hand of her mother, your grandmother. Your grandmother holds her mother's hand, and so on. The chain wends its way up the beach, into the arid scrubland and westwards on towards the Kenya border. How far do we have to go until we reach our common ancestor with the chimpanzees? It's a surprisingly short way. Allowing one yard per person, we arrive at the ancestor we share with chimpanzees in under miles.
We've hardly started to cross the continent; we're still not half way to the great Rift Valley. The ancestor is standing well to the east of Mount Kenya, and holding in her hand an entire chain of her lineal descendants, culminating in you standing on the Somali beach.
The daughter that she is holding in her right hand is the one from whom we are descended. Now the arch-ancestress turns eastward to face the coast, and with her left hand grasps her other daughter, the one from whom the chimpanzees are descended or son, of course, but let's stick to females for convenience. The two sisters are facing one another, and each holding their mother by the hand.
Now the second daughter, the chimpanzee ancestress, holds her daughter's hand, and a new chain is formed, proceeding back towards the coast. First cousin faces first cousin, second cousin faces second cousin, and so on. By the time the folded-back chain has reached the coast again, it consists of modern chimpanzees. You are face to face with your chimpanzee cousin, and you are joined to her by an unbroken chain of mothers holding hands with daughters. If you walked up the line like an inspecting general — past Homo erectus, Homo habilis , perhaps Australopithecus afarensis — and down again the other side the intermediates on the chimpanzee side are unnamed because, as it happens, no fossils have been found , you would nowhere find any sharp discontinuity.
Daughters would resemble mothers just as much or as little as they always do. Mothers would love daughters, and feel affinity with them, just as they always do. And this hand-in-hand continuum, joining us seamlessly to chimpanzees, is so short that it barely makes it past the hinterland of Africa, the mother continent.
Our chain of African apes in time, doubling back on itself, is in miniature like the ring of gulls in space, except that the intermediates happen to be dead. The point I want to make is that, as far as morality is concerned, it should be incidental that the intermediates are dead. What if they were not? What if a clutch of intermediate types had survived, enough to link us to modern chimpanzees by a chain, not just of hand-holders, but of interbreeders?
We can't quite interbreed with modern chimpanzees, but we'd need only a handful of intermediate types to be able to sing: It is sheer luck that this handful of intermediates no longer exists. Good luck from some points of view: But for this chance, our laws and our morals would be very different. We need only discover a single survivor, say a relict Australopithecus in the Budongo Forest, and our precious system of norms and ethics would come crashing about our ears. The boundaries with which we segregate our world would be all shot to pieces.
Racism would blur with speciesism in obdurate and vicious confusion. Apartheid, for those that believe in it, would assume a new and perhaps a more urgent import. But why, a moral philosopher might ask, should this matter to us? Isn't it only the discontinuous mind that wants to erect barriers anyway? So what if, in the continuum of all apes that have lived in Africa, the survivors happen to leave a convenient gap between Homo and Pan?
Surely we should, in any case, not base our treatment of animals on whether or not we can interbreed with them. If we want to justify double standards — if society agrees that people should be treated better than, say, cows cows may be cooked and eaten, people may not — there must be better reasons than cousinship. Humans may be taxonomically distant from cows, but isn't it more important that we are brainier?
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Or [better], following Jeremy Bentham, that humans can suffer more. Or that cows, even if they hate pain as much as humans do and why on earth should we suppose otherwise? Suppose that the octopus lineage had happened to evolve brains and feelings to rival ours. They easily might have done. The mere possibility shows the incidental nature of cousinship. Yes, in an ideal world we probably should come up with a better reason than cousinship for, say, preferring carnivory to cannibalism.
But the melancholy fact is that, at present, society's moral attitudes rest almost entirely on the discontinuous, spedesist imperative. Bishops would bleat, lawyers would gloat in anticipation, conservative politicians would thunder, socialists wouldn't know where to put their barricades.
The scientist that achieved the feat would be drummed out of common-rooms; denounced in pulpit and gutter press; condemned, perhaps, by an Ayatollah's fatwah. The world that would be so shaken, by such an incidental event as a hybridization, is a speciesist world indeed, dominated by the discontinuous mind. I have also argued that, in any case, the present position of the hallowed gap is arbitrary, the result of evolutionary accident. If the contingencies of survival and extinction had been different, the gap would be in a different place.
Ethical principles that are based upon accidental caprice should not be respected as if cast in stone. Senior Ministers could be forgiven for seeing scientists as little more than alternate igniters and quenchers of public panic. If a scientist appears in a newspaper today, it will usually be to pronounce on the dangers of food additives, mobile phones, sunbathing or electricity pylons. I suppose this is inevitable, given the equally forgivable preoccupation of citizens with their own personal safety, and their tendency to hold governments responsible for it.
But it casts scientists in a sadly negative role. And it fosters the unfortunate impression that their credentials flow from factual knowledge. What really makes scientists special is less their knowledge than their method of acquiring it — a method that anybody could adopt with advantage.
Even more important, it leaves out the cultural and aesthetic value of science. It is as though one met Picasso and devoted the whole conversation to the dangers of licking one's brush.
The Devil's Dictionary ()
Science, like painting and some would say like cricket , has a higher aesthetic. Science can be poetry. Science can be spiritual, even religious in a non-supernatural sense of the word. In a short memo it is obviously unrealistic to attempt comprehensive coverage of the kind that you will anyway get from civil service briefings. Instead, I thought I would pick out a few isolated topics, vignettes almost, that I find interesting and I hope that you might too.
Given more space, I would have mentioned other vignettes such as nanotechnology, which I suspect we shall be hearing a lot about in the twenty-first century. The genetic code is truly digital, in exactly the same sense as computer codes. This is not some vague analogy, it is the literal truth. Moreover, unlike computer codes, the genetic code is universal.
Modern computers are built around a number of mutually incompatible machine languages, determined by their processor chips. The genetic code, on the other hand, with a few very minor exceptions, is identical in every living creature on this planet, from sulphur bacteria to giant redwood trees, from mushrooms to men. The consequences are amazing. It means that a software subroutine that's exactly what a gene is can be Copied from one species and Pasted into another species, where it will work exactly as it did in the original species. In the same way, a NASA programmer who wants a neat square root routine for his rocket guidance system might import one from a financial spreadsheet.
A square root is a square root is a square root. A program to compute it will serve as well in a space rocket as in a financial projection. Surely some of its fishiness must rub off? It is a cheerful thought, by the way, that most young people today understand computer software far better than their elders, and they should grasp the point instantly. The present Luddism over genetic engineering may die a natural death as the computer-illiterate generation is superseded.
Is there nothing, then, absolutely nothing, in the misgivings of Prince Charles, Lord Melchett and their friends? I wouldn't go that far, although they are certainly muddleheaded. Suppose it is sufficiently similar that the main routine can indeed be borrowed, but it still needs tweaking in detail. In that case, it is possible that the rocket could misfire if we naively import the subroutine raw.
Switching back to biology, although genes really are watertight subroutines of digital software, they are not watertight in their effects on the development of the organism, for here they interact with their environment, including importantly the environment furnished by other genes. The antifreeze gene might depend, for optimal effect, on an interaction with other genes in the fish. Plonk it down in the foreign genetic climate of a tomato, and it might not work properly unless tweaked which can be done to mesh with the existing tomato genes.
What this means is that there is a case to be made on both sides of the argument, and we need to exercise subtle judgement. But the doomsayers would also have a point if they softened their stance from emotional gut rejection to a rational plea for rigorous safety testing. No reputable scientist would oppose such a plea.
It is rightly routine for all new products, not just genetically engineered ones. A largely unrecognized danger of the obsessive hysteria surrounding genetically modified foods is crying wolf. I fear that, if the green movement's high-amplitude warnings over GMOs turn out to be empty, people will be dangerously disinclined to listen to other and more serious warnings.
The evolution of antibiotic resistance among bacteria is a vicious wolf of proven danger. Yet the menacing footfalls of this certain peril are all but drowned out in the caterwauling shrieks over genetically modified foods, whose dangers are speculative at most. To be more precise, genetic modification, like any other kind of modification, is good if you modify in a good direction, bad if you modify in a bad direction, like domestic breeding, and like natural selection itself, the trick is to introduce the right new DNA software.
I can't leave the subject of gut feelings without a favourite quote from the lamented Carl Sagan.
- Sympathy for the devil.
- Violin Sonata (Sonatina), Op.137 No.2, D385 piano/violin score.
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When asked a futurological question, he said that not enough was known to answer it. The questioner pressed him on what he really thought. I shall return to the point under Ethics. Meanwhile, some more remarks on the future of genetics in the twenty-first century, especially in the wake of the Human Genome Project HGP. The HGP, which will be completed any time now, is really a twentieth-century accomplishment. It is an outstanding success story, but it has limited scope.
We have taken the human hard disk and transcribed every jot and tittle of the stylebits of information on it, regardless of what they mean in the software as a whole. The HGP needs to be followed up by a twenty-first-century Human Embryology Project HEP which, in effect, deciphers all the high-level software routines in which the machine-code instructions are embedded.
An easier task will be a series of genome projects for different spedes like the Arubidopsia plant genome project, whose completion is announced on the day that I write. These would be quicker and easier than the HGP, not because the other genomes are smaller or simpler than ours, but because the collective expertise of scientists increases cumulatively and rapidly with experience.
There is a frustrating aspect of this cumulative improvement. Given the rate of technological advance, with hindsight, when we started the Human Genome Project it wasn't worth starting. It would have been better to do nothing until the last two years and start then! Indeed, that is pretty much what the rival firm of Dr Craig Venter did. The HGP implicitly plays down the differences between individuals. But, with the intriguing exception of identical twins, everybody's genome is unique, and you might wonder whose genome is being sequenced in the HGP.
Has some dignitary been singled out for the honour, is it a random person pulled off the street, or even an anonymous clone of cells in a tissue culture lab? It makes a difference. I have brown eyes while you have blue. Which version of the tongue-curling gene makes it into the published Human Genome?
Which is the canonical eye colour? But the diversity itself is expunged from the record. By contrast the Human Genome Diversity Project HGDP , now under way, builds on the foundation of the HGP but focuses on those relatively few nucleotide sites that vary from person to person, and from group to group. Incidentally, a surprisingly small proportion of that variance consists of between-race variance, a fact that has sadly failed to reassure spokesmen for various ethnic groups, especially in America. They have dreamed up influential political objections to the project which they see as exploitative and tarred with the brush of eugenics.
The medical benefits of studying human variation could be immense. Hitherto, almost all medical prescribing has assumed that patients are pretty much the same, and that every disease has an optimal recommended cure. Doctors of tomorrow will be more like vets in this respect. Doctors have only one species of patient, but in future they will subdivide that species by genotype, as a vet subdivides his patients by species.
For the special needs of blood transfusions, doctors already recognize a few genetic typings OAB, Rh etc. In the future, every patient's personal record will include the results of numerous genetic tests: The point is that for some diseases there may be as many different optimal treatments as there are different genotypes at a locus — more even, because genetic loci may interact to affect susceptibility to disease. Another important use of the genetics of human diversity is forensic. Precisely because DNA is digital like computer bytes, genetic fingerprinting is potentially many many orders of magnitude more accurate and reliable than any other means of individual identification, including direct facial recognition despite the unshakeable gut feeling of jurors that eyewitness identification trumps everything.
Moreover, identity can be established from a tiny trace of blood, sweat or tears or spit, semen or hairs. DNA evidence is widely regarded as controversial, and I need to say a little about why. Firstly, human error can obviously vitiate the accuracy of the method. But that is true of all evidence. Courts are already accustomed to taking precautions to avoid the muddling up of specimens, and such precautions now become even more important.
DNA fingerprinting can establish, almost infinitely far beyond all reasonable doubt, whether a smear of blood came from a particular individual. Secondly, astronomical though the odds against mistaken identity by DNA fingerprinting theoretically are, it is possible for geneticists and statisticians to come up with what seem like widely different estimates of the precise odds. Lawyers are accustomed to pouncing when expert witnesses seem to disagree.
If two geneticists are summoned to the stand and are asked to estimate the probability of a misldentification with DNA evidence, the first may say 1,, to one while the second may say only , to one. Ladles and gentlemen of the jury, what confidence can we place in a scientific method, if the experts themselves can't get within a factor of ten of one another? Obviously the only thing to do is throw the entire evidence out, lock, stock and barrel. Is only over whether the odds against a wrongful identification are hyper-mega-astronomical, or just plain astronomical.
The odds cannot normally be lower than thousands to one, and they may well be up in the billions. Even on the most conservative estimate, the odds against wrongful identification are hugely greater than they are in an ordinary identity parade. I demand a line-up of at least a million men!
The idea of a nationwide database, in which all citizens' DNA fingerprints would be held, is now being discussed only a sample of genes, of course: I don't see this as a sinister. Big Brotherish idea and I have written to my doctor volunteering to be a guinea pig in the pilot study of , now being prepared.
But there are potential problems, of a civil liberties character. If your house is burgled, the police will routinely look for traditional, old-fashioned fingerprints of the burglar. They need to fingerprint the householder's family too, for elimination purposes, and most people are happy to oblige. Obviously the same principle will apply to DNA fingerprinting, but many people would want to stop well short of a nationwide database. Presumably they would also object to a nationwide database of conventional, old-fashioned fingerprints, but perhaps that is not a practical issue because it would take too long to search through it for a match.
DNA fingerprinting doesn't suffer from this difficulty. Computer searches of huge DNA databases could be accomplished swiftly. What, then, are the civil liberties problems? Surely, those with nothing to hide will have nothing to fear? A surprisingly large number of people, of all ages, are genetically unrelated to the man they think is their father. To put it mildly, it is not clear that to disillusion them, with conclusive DNA evidence, would increase the sum of human happiness. If a national DNA database were in place, it might be hard to control unauthorized access to it.
If a tabloid newspaper were to discover that the official heir to a Dukedom was actually sired by the gamekeeper, the consternation in the College of Heralds might be mildly amusing. But in the population at large it doesn't take much to imagine the family recriminations and sheer private misery that could flow from freely available information of true paternity. Nevertheless, the existence of a national DNA database wouldn't alter the situation much. It is already perfectly feasible for a jealous husband, say, to take a saliva or blood sample from one of his supposed children and compare it with his own, in order to confirm his suspicion that he is not the real father.
What the national database could add is a swift computer search to find out who, out of all the males in the entire country, is! More generally, the study of human diversity is one of very few areas where a good though in my opinion not overwhelming case can be made against the pure disinterested search for knowledge: It is possible that, by the end of the twenty-first century, doctors will be able accurately to predict the manner and time of death of everybody, from the day they are conceived.
At present this kind of deterministic prognostication can be achieved only for possessors of genes such as Huntington's Chorea. The whole life insurance business depends upon such forecasts being vague and statistical. Those who die old subsidize the heirs of those who die young. If the day comes when deterministic forecasting along Huntington's Chorea lines becomes universal, life insurance as we know it will collapse. That problem is soluble presumably by universal compulsory life insurance with no individual medical risk assessment.
As things are now, we all know we are going to die, but most of us don't know when, so it doesn't feel like a death sentence. That may change, and society should be prepared for difficulties as people struggle to adjust their psychologies to it. I have already touched on some ethical issues. Science has no methods for deciding what is ethical. That is a matter for individuals and for society.
But science can clarify the questions being asked, and can clear up obfuscating misunderstandings. Science cannot tell you whether abortion is wrong, but it can point out that the embryological continuum that seamlessly joins a non-sentient foetus to a sentient adult is analogous to the evolutionary continuum that joins humans to other species. If the embryological continuum appears to be more seamless, this is only because the evolutionary continuum is divided by the accident of extinction. Fundamental principles of ethics should not depend on the accidental contingencies of extinction.
You cannot have it both ways. Science cannot tell you whether it is wrong to clone a whole human being. But it can tell you that a Dolly-style clone is just an identical twin, though of a different age. Science cannot tell you whether anybody has a soul, but it can tell you that, if ordinary identical twins have souls, so do Dolly-style dones. But it can challenge you to explain how stem cell cloning differs morally from something that has long been accepted: Tissue culture has been a mainstay of cancer research for decades.
A typical lab, at the University of California, grows 48 litres of HeLa cells per day, as a routine service to researchers in the university. The total daily worldwide production of HeLa cells must be measured in tons — all a gigantic clone of Henrietta Lacks. In the half century since this mass production began, nobody seems to have objected to it.
Those who agitate to stop stem cell research today have to explain why they do not object to the mass cultivation of HeLa cells. Admittedly, nobody is tempted to call their placenta Mary, but one might equally question the emotional wisdom of bestowing such a name on a Siamese twin with no heart or lungs, and only a primitive brain. In , a television gastronome served on screen a new gourmet dish: The rest was flambeed in brandy, and then sage and lime juice were added.
The family of the baby concerned ate It, with twenty of their friends. The father thought it so delicious that he had fourteen helpings. The whole thing was presented in the papers as a bit of a lark. Yet those who worry about slippery slopes need to ask themselves why that television dinner should not be called cannibalism. I want to conclude with a rather idiosyncratic approach to the matter of science and ethics: I want to suggest that objective truth sometimes needs the same kind of protection as the libel laws now give to individuals.
Or at least to suggest that the Trades Descriptions Act might be more imaginatively invoked. If a pharmaceutical company advertises its pills as curing headaches, it must be able to demonstrate, in double-blind controlled trials, that its pills do indeed cure headaches. Double-blind means, of course, that neither the patients, nor the testers, know until afterwards which patients received the dose, and which the placebo control. If the pills cannot pass this test — if numerous strenuous efforts fail to distinguish them from a neutral placebo — I presume the company might be in danger of prosecution under the Trades Descriptions Act.
Homeopathic remedies are big business, they are advertised as efficacious in various ways, yet they have never been demonstrated to have any effect at all. Personal testimony is ubiquitous, but it is useless evidence because of the notorious power of the placebo effect. For all I know, some of them may work. But they must be demonstrated to work, by double-blind placebo-control trials or some equivalent experimental design. Mainstream medicine would simply adopt them. As the distinguished journalist John Diamond wrote movingly like many patients dying of cancer, he had false hopes cruelly raised by a succession of plausible quacks in The Independent recently:.
There is really no such thing as alternative medicine, just medicine that works and medicine that doesn't But I began this final section in more radical terms. I wanted to extend the concept of libel to include lies that may not damage particular people but damage truth itself. Some twenty years ago, long before Dolly showed it was plausible, a book was published claiming, in great detail, that a rich man in South America had had himself cloned, by a scientist code-named Darwin.
As a work of science fiction it would have been unexceptionable, but it was sold as sober fact. The author and publishers were sued, by Dr Derek Bromhall, who claimed that his reputation as a scientist was damaged by his being quoted in the book. My point is that whatever damage may or may not have been done to Dr Bromhall, far more important was the damage done to scientific truth itself. That book has faded from memory and I bring it up only as an example. Obviously I want to generalize the principle to all deliberate falsifications, misrepresentations, of scientific truth.
Why should a Derek Bromhall have to prove himself personally damaged, before we can prosecute a book which wantonly publishes lies about the universe? As will be obvious I'm no lawyer but, if I was, rather than constantly feel the need to drag things down to the question of whether particular humans have been damaged, I think I would like to stand up and defend truth itself. No doubt I shall be told — and convinced — that a court of law is not the right place for this.
But in the wider world, if I am asked for a single phrase to characterize my role as Professor of Public Understanding of Science, I think I would choose Advocate for Disinterested Truth. Trial by jury must be one of the most conspicuously bad good ideas anyone ever had. Its devisers can hardly be blamed. They lived before the principles of statistical sampling and experimental design had been worked out. Let me explain using an analogy. And if, at the end, somebody objects to my argument on the grounds that humans aren't herring gulls, I'll have failed to get my point across.
Adult herring gulls have a bright yellow bill with a conspicuous red spot near the tip. Their babies peck at the red spot, which induces the parents to regurgitate food for them. Niko Tinbergen, Nobel Prize-winning zoologist and my old maestro at Oxford, offered naive young chicks a range of cardboard dummy gull heads varying in bill and spot colour, and shape.
For each colour, shape or combination, Tinbergen measured the preferences of the baby chicks by counting their pecks in a standard time. The idea was to discover whether naive gull chicks are born with a built-in preference for long yellow things with red spots.
If so, this would suggest that genes equip the young birds with detailed prior knowledge of the world in which they are about to hatch — a world in which food comes out of adult herring gull beaks. Never mind the reason for the research, and never mind the conclusions.
Consider, instead, the methods you must use, and the pitfalls you must avoid. If you want to get a correct result in any such experiment. These turn out to be general principles which apply to human juries as strongly as to gull chicks. First, you obviously must test more than one chick. It could be that some chicks are red-biased, others blue-biased, with no tendency for herring gull chicks in general to share the same favourite colour.
So, by picking out a single chick, you are measuring nothing more than individual bias. So, we must test more than one chick. No, nor is three, and now we must start to think statistically. If we test just two chicks separately, suppose the first chick chooses red. It had a 50 per cent chance of doing so, at random. Now the second chick also happens to choose red. Again, the odds were 50 per cent that it would do so at random, even if it were colourblind.
There's a 50 per cent chance that two randomly choosing chicks will agree half of the four possibilities: Three chicks aren't enough either. If you write down all the possibilities, you'll find that there's a 25 per cent chance of a unanimous verdict, by luck alone. Twenty-five per cent, as the odds of reaching a conclusion for the wrong reason, is unacceptably large.
How about twelve good chicks and true? If twelve chicks are independently offered a choice between two alternatives, the odds that they will all reach the same verdict by chance alone are satisfyingly low, only one in But now suppose that, instead of testing our twelve chicks independently, we test them as a group. We take a maelstrom of twelve cheeping chicks and lower into their midst a red spotted dummy and a blue spotted dummy, each fitted with an electrical device for automatically tallying pecks.
And suppose that the collective of chicks registers pecks at red and zero at blue. Does this massive disparity show that those twelve chicks prefer red? The pecks are not independent data. Chicks could have a strong tendency to imitate one another as well as imitate themselves in lock-on effects. If one chick just happened to peck at red first, others might copy him and the whole company of chicks join in a frenzy of imitative pecking. As a matter of fact this is precisely what domestic chicken chicks do, and gull chicks are very likely the same.
Even if not, the principle remains that the data are not independent and the experiment is therefore invalid. The twelve chicks are strictly equivalent to a single chick, and their summed pecks, however numerous, might as well be only a single peck: Turning to courts of law, why are twelve jurors preferred to a single judge? Not because they are wiser, more knowledgeable or more practised in the arts of reasoning. Certainly not, and with a vengeance. Think of the astronomical damages awarded by juries in footling libel cases. Think how juries bring out the worst in histrionic, gallery-playing lawyers.
Twelve jurors are preferred to one judge only because they are more numerous. Letting a single judge decide a verdict would be like letting a single chick speak for the whole herring gull species. But for this argument to be valid, the twelve assessments really have to be independent. And of course they are not. Twelve men and women locked in a jury room are like our clutch of twelve gull chicks. Whether they actually imitate each other like chicks, they might. That is enough to invalidate the principle by which a jury might be preferred over a single judge.
In practice, as is well documented and as I remember from the three juries that it has been my misfortune to serve on, juries are massively swayed by one or two vocal individuals. There is also strong pressure to conform to a unanimous verdict, which further undermines the principle of independent data. Increasing the number of jurors doesn't help, or not much and not at all, in strict principle. What you have to increase is the number of independent verdict-reaching units. Oddly enough, the bizarre American system of televising trials opens up a real possibility of improving the jury system.
By the end of trials such as those of Louise Woodward or O. Simpson, literally thousands of people around the country have attended to the evidence as assiduously as the official jury. A mass phone-in might produce a fairer verdict than a jury. But, unfortunately, journalistic discussion, radio talk-shows and ordinary gossip would violate the Principle of Independent Data and we'd be back where we started.
The broadcasting of trials, in any case, has horrible consequences. In the wake of Louise Woodward's trial, the Internet seethed with ill-spelled and ungrammatical vicious-ness, the cheque-book journalists were queuing up, and the unfortunate judge presiding had to change his telephone number and employ a bodyguard. So, how can we improve the system? Should twelve jurors be locked in twelve isolation chambers and their opinions separately polled so that they constitute genuinely independent data?
If it is objected that some would be too stupid or inarticulate to reach a verdict on their own, we are left wondering why such individuals are allowed on a jury at all. Perhaps there is something to be said for the collective wisdom that emerges when a group of people thrash out a topic together, round a table. But this still leaves the principle of independent data unsatisfied. Should all cases be tried by two separate juries? Too expensive, at least if each jury has twelve members.
Two juries of six members, or three juries of four members, would probably be an improvement over the present system. I'll call it the Two Verdicts Concordance Test. It is based on the principle that, if a decision is valid, two independent shots at making it should yield the same result. Just for purposes of the test, we run to the expense of having two juries, listening to the same case and forbidden to talk to members of the other jury. At the end, we lock the two juries in two separate jury rooms and see if they reach the same verdict.
If they don't, neither verdict has been proved beyond reasonable doubt, and this would cast reasonable doubt on the jury system itself. To make the experimental comparison with Trial by Judge, we need two experienced judges to listen to the same case, and require them too to reach their separate verdicts without talking to each other.
Trial by Jury or Trial by Judge, yields the higher score of agreements over a number of trials is the better system and might, if its Concordance Score is high, even be accredited for future use with some confidence. Would you bet on two independent juries reaching the same verdict in the Louise Woodward case?
Could you imagine even one other jury reaching the same verdict in the O. Two judges, on the other hand, seem to me rather likely to score well on the concordance test. And should I be charged with a serious crime, here's how I want to be tried. If I know myself to be guilty, I'll go with the loose cannon of a jury, the more ignorant, prejudiced and capricious the better.
But if I am innocent, and the ideal of multiple independent decision-takers is unavailable, please give me a judge. This doubtless has some mystic connection with the following recipe for meditation. The quartz crystals will then generate a field of positive crystalline energy surrounding everyone in the room. Language like this is a con-trick. The word means nothing when applied to crystals. New Age lore also advises placing a quartz crystal in your water jug. Then place your crystal in a jug of water and drink this water the next day; one cup of water at two-hourly intervals.
You will be amazed at the result! Drinking water at two-hourly intervals is a good idea anyway, when you have flu. Putting a quartz crystal in it will have no additional effect. Pseudoscientific drivel like this is a disturbingly prominent part of the culture of our age. I have limited my examples to crystals because I had to draw a line somewhere. There is no obvious limit to human gullibility. We are docile credulity-cows, eager victims of quacks and charlatans who milk us and grow fat.
There is a rich living to be made by anyone prepared to prostitute the language — and the wonder — of science. But isn't it all — crystal ball gazing, star signs, birth stones, ley-lines and the rest — just a bit of harmless fun? If people want to believe in garbage like astrology, or crystal healing, why not let them? But it's so sad to think about all that they are missing. There is so much wonder in real science. These are at best a soul-sapping distraction. At worst they are dangerous profiteers.
The real world, properly understood in the scientific way, is deeply beautiful and unfailingly interesting. It's worth putting in some honest effort to understand it properly, undistracted by false wonder and prostituted pseudoscience. For illustration, we need look no farther than crystals themselves. In a crystal such as quartz or diamond the atoms are arranged in a precisely repeating pattern. The atoms in a diamond — all identical carbon atoms — are arrayed like soldiers on parade except that the precision of their dressing far outsmarts the best-drilled guards regiment, and the atomic soldiers outnumber all the people that have ever lived or ever will.
Imagine yourself shrunk to become one of the carbon atoms in the heart of a diamond crystal. You are one of the soldiers in a gigantic parade, but it'll seem a little odd because the files are arrayed in three dimensions. Perhaps a prodigious school of fish is a better image. Each fish in the school is one carbon atom. Think of them hovering in space, keeping their distance from each other and holding their precise angles, by means of forces that you can't see but which scientists fully understand. But if this is a fish school, it is one that — to scale — would fill the Pacific Ocean.
In any decent-sized diamond, you are likely to be looking along arrays of atoms numbering hundreds of millions in any one straight line. Carbon atoms can take up other crystal lattice formations. To revert to the military analogy, they can adopt alternative drill conventions. In graphite, the atoms form sheets of hexagons, like chicken wire. Each sheet is loosely bonded to those above and below it, and when impurities are present the sheets slide easily against each other, which is why graphite is a good lubricant.
Diamond is very much not a lubricant. Its legendary hardness abrades the toughest materials. The atoms in soft graphite and hard diamond are identical. If you could persuade the atoms in graphite crystals to adopt the drill rules of diamond crystals, you'd be rich.
It can be done, but you need colossal pressures and high temperatures, presumably the conditions that naturally manufacture diamonds, deep in the earth. If hexagons make a sheet of flat graphite, you can imagine that interspersing some pentagons among the hexagons could make the sheet buckle into a curve. Place exactly 12 pentagons strategically among 20 hexagons and the curve bends round into a complete sphere. Geometers call it a truncated icosahedron.
This is exactly the pattern of the sewing seams on a football. The football is, therefore, theoretically a pattern into which carbon atoms might spontaneously fall.