As part of my assessment for my MSc, I have been doing a joint poster project with my friend Rebecca surrounding the topic of violent video games. Are violent video games really causing our kids to be more aggressive? I say “our” kids – I don’t have kids. But I WAS a kid. And I played violent video games. So did my brothers. I wouldn’t consider us to be particularly aggressive. Maybe we were boisterous kids, but that was arguably before the games, and plenty of people have boisterous kids.
Image from GeekWithLaptop.com
Anecdotal evidence, you say? Maybe. But some facts and figures from the US of A -
“According to the FBI in 2009,The arrest rate for juvenile murders has fallen 71.9% between 1995 and 2008. The arrest rate for all juvenile violent crimes has declined 49.3%. In this same period, video game sales have more than quadrupled. The FBI statistics show that video game sales have been on the rise, while all juvenile violent crimes have fallen in the same amount of time.”
OK, but that’s just someone saying a thing on a debating website, I hear you cry. I won’t lie: I’ve made no effort to track down that report from the FBI. It could be made up. This is the internet, afterall. EDIT: Oh look, found it.
You might have read some news articles talking about a correlation between violent video gameplay and subsequent aggressive behaviour in children. Bollocks to that, is what I say. Correlation, as any good scientist knows, does not equate to causation. It might be that children that already have an aggressive disposition are more likely to be drawn to play violent games in the first place. They see violent games as a way of directing their aggression, which surely is no bad thing. We don’t see a correlation between calm kids and violent video gamplay, maybe because calm kids don’t get attracted to play violent video games (they’d much rather play bonkers colourful games like Katarmari Forever or Hamster Ball.)
And what about extraneous variables? Studies that show these correlations tend to ignore the children’s family history, or trait violence. Who knows, these kids might come from abusive homes, and violence is all they know. Oh, and we usually only see the short term effects of violent influences – what about a longitudinal study, please? Do these same kids grow up into violent adults? Or is that a rare thing? Are the majority of violent video game players (i.e. MOST WESTERN TEENAGERS) likely to populate the globe with murderers? I think not. They will probably be accountants, or contestants on Britain’s Got Talent, or some other, (arguably) normal lifetime pursuit.
Perhaps some “more research is needed” – I hate to fall back on that old line, but it’s true. Video games are here to stay, so rather than bitch and moan about the possible influence of young children, and their subsequent development into aggressive teens (view not supported by evidence), maybe it’s high time we started looking into the other factors influencing aggression in young people. Maybe there’s deep-rooted issues. Maybe aggressive children need early-intervention programmes. Maybe we need to teach the negativity of violence to young people. What about anger management strategies for children? Don’t scoff – the naughty step works wonders for Supernanny.
Interested in reading more? Go for it -
Ben and I had marvellous designs to escape London before the royal wedding. We’re not big on royalty or crowds or any of that, so we thought we’d run away to the coast. There is a cave at Broadstairs that Ben has wanted to sleep in for years, and now seemed as good a time as any.
We left London at 6:50 yesterday morning. We got to Margate around 9. It was frigging freezing. We stopped at Angela’s Cafe (no customer toilets? Hmm.) by the seafront for some breakfast, then made our way to the supermarket for supplies. We decided to buy some burgers to cook on the little camping stove for dinner, as well as getting a lot of biscuits and so forth.
We then headed on the Joss Bay. It was super cold, so on went the winter coats (cry – I thought I was done with mine until October).
We went for a wander down the beach – aside from us, the only brave souls out and about were dog walkers. There were some insane surfers at about 9pm that night, but little during the day.
A walk up to the intended cave showed us a not so promising start: the chalk roof over the entrance had caved in, leaving a massive pile of rubble and a foreboding sign. Of course, Ben pays signs no heed…
And after a hell of a lot of convincing, I am helped up to the cave, too (good photo opportunity). It was clear we weren’t the only ones that ignore notices – there were signs that someone had recently been up there for a drink and a little campfire.
We weren’t so insane as to hop into the sea at this point – the wind was quite something, and it was overcast. Instead, we thought we’d head back to Margate for a dander. A bit of shopping (including Primark – it just seemed right, in Margate), and then the all-important fish and chips at Beano’s (we were by the sea, afterall). Well, I say fish and chips. I had scampi and chips (with gravy, om nom) whilst Ben had chips and a battered sausage.
Then (because outside London, shops SHUT at unreasonably early times) we wandered down the seafront to look at the old amusement arcades (Ben loves arcades – yay for arcade games!). We shot a few things (House of the Dead 2 is good fun) and had a laugh at the lameness of the prizes available.
After this, we drove back to Joss Bay. And it started raining. And it was still cold. And we wussed out. Fine, there, you win. It was just too bloody miserable for sleeping on the beach, even in a cave (which gets tide-locked). And London (and home) was just too temptingly close. So here we are, in London, on D-day.
I have so far managed to not watch any Royal Wedding stuff on the telly (I really have no interest – I bear the lovely couple no ill will, but they are just people… I don’t know them or anything). In fact, I stayed in bed until about 10 – yay for Bank Holiday Friday.
We’re still thinking about driving out to the country side this afternoon to make those burgers.
Nope, sorry, massive disappointment. Similar to Ben’s reaction to Gran Turismo 5 (where he was waiting ages for it, really looking forward to it, and cetera), Sonic Colours just did not meet my expectations.
That’s cruel – Sonic Colours is a pretty good game in its own right. The game is pretty (especially the starlight carnival planet) and the designers have obviously tried hard to remain true to the original charm of the original Sonic games.
But it just… doesn’t match up. It doesn’t have the same addictability as Sonic, Sonic 2, Sonic & Knuckles… There is even more annoying stuff to fall off of than in Lego Batman (beyond challenging, into the realms of pure frustration, to the point where I actually just turned off the console mid-level several times). The controls are a bit sticky (the double jump is a pain in the arse) and the “Colours” themselves are a bit gimmicky and frankly slightly embarrassing.
Oh, and the 2-player part of the game SUCKS. Jesus.
Fine, I’ll admit it – I didn’t finish this game. It just didn’t grab me like those from my childhood did. In fact, I traded it in today, and got Lego Star Wars for PS3 instead.
It seems SEGA still haven’t managed to recapture the wonderful Golden Combination that those original games had (up until the first 3D game *shudder*). I even liked Sonic Spinball. But not this.
Maybe I’ll just download the original games instead…. Sigh.
Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I was determined to get in to central London on Sunday, in order to experience Chinese New Year 2011, London style.
You will also be aware that I was sadly disappointed.
Whilst there was food in abundance, lion dances parading from shop to shop, and lanterns laced above our heads, Chinatown was rammed with people (prams = BAD IDEA, people), so good luck actually seeing over heads.
Oh, and to the chap behind me who shoved me in the back whilst we were all trying to get out of New Loon Moon – Yes, you were pushing me, no, pushing didn’t help, and no, threats don’t work on me either. Yes, you were right to feel embarrassed and shut up after I pulled you up on that one. Weren’t expecting that from a girl half your size, were you? Jerk.
I know what you’re thinking, because I thought it too at first: Why can’t people just put their rubbish in the bin?!! Well, maybe it’s because…
My other major irritation with Chinese New Year in London is that there was advertising EVERYWHERE. The paper lanterns were sponsored by Lebara mobile, children carried red balloons festooned with Lyca Mobile logos, and lo and behold – Kung Fu Panda 2 fortune cookies. It all just felt a bit tacky and was, in my honest opinion, a massive anticlimax. On the upside, I managed to get three buffet box take-aways for £9. With that in hand, I bustled through the insanely large crowds (well, that’s what you get when you have a completely free event) and retreated to home.
What about you? Maybe you aren’t as jaded about your Chinatown Chinese New Year experience as I was. Maybe you are 6’5” and therefore actually managed to see a lion dance. Maybe you were one of the many pushchair-users that rammed me in the ankles – we need to talk.
One of those stupidly-late-night-on-BBC-Radio-3 sort of discoveries. New to me, maybe not to you.
A bit cruel, but hilarious!
Since I still appreciate you,
Let’s find love while we may.
Because I know I’ll hate you
When you are old and grey.
So say you love me here and now,
I’ll make the most of that.
Say you love and trust me,
For I know you’ll disgust me
When you’re old and getting fat.
An awful debility,
A lessened utility,
A loss of mobility
Is a strong possibility.
In all probability
I’ll lose my virility
And you your fertility
And this liability
Of total sterility
Will lead to hostility
And a sense of futility,
So let’s act with agility
While we still have facility,
For we’ll soon reach senility
And lose the ability.
Your teeth will start to go, dear,
Your waist will start to spread.
In twenty years or so, dear,
I’ll wish that you were dead.
I’ll never love you then at all
The way I do today.
So please remember,
When I leave in December,
I told you so in May.
OK, at time of writing, I am taking a very short break from furiously revising for a research methods exam. It’s my last exam, so I’ll be working hard for this one.
Bearing that in mind, I have not much to offer you today except this photo of a squirrel, taken with my phone, in Regent’s Park last Friday.
Normal service will be resumed shortly; watch this space.
Well, at the start of 2010, I resolved to read more. And I think I’ve done pretty damn well. Here, as we stand at the edge of the abyss, and the last dregs of 2010 filter away, I can happily say that I have read quite a few books this year.
It’s been tricky, too: throwing myself into a scientific discipline at the last minute (shut up, physicists: psychology so is a science. It has ology and everything) meant that I faced a lot of academic reading, in the form of text books and journal articles. But in between all of that, I have managed a grand total of 39 books this year – 23 non-fiction, and 16 fiction (where I’ve listed text books, that’s where I have actually read them, cover to cover). And this is what they were:
- 30.01.10 – Nicky Hayes – A First Course in Psychology (nf)
- 09.02.10 – Matt Ridley – Nature Via Nurture (nf)
- 01.03.10 – James Hogg – The Three Perils of Man (f)
- 07.03.10 – Adam Phillips – Monogamy (nf)
- 22.03.10 – John Marzillier & John Hall – What is clinical psychology? (nf)
- 24.03.10 – Aldous Huxley – Brave New World (f)
- 30.03.10 – Terry Pratchett – Nation (f)
- 22.04.10 – Walter J. Freeman – How Brains Make Up Their Minds (nf)
- 15.05.10 – G. K. Chesterton – Father Brown Stories (f)
- 19.05.10 – Russell L. Ackoff, Herbert J. Addison & Sally Bibb – Management f-Laws (nf)
- 20.05.10 – Lewis Carroll – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (f)
- 26.05.10 – Siri Hustvedt – The Shaking Woman or A History Of My Nerves (nf)
- 29.05.10 – Terry Pratchett – Thud! (f)
- 02.06.10 – Oliver Sacks – The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat (nf)
- 23.06.10 – Wilkie Collins – The Woman in White (f)
- 29.06.10 – Joseph Conrad – Heart Of Darkness (f)
- 02.07.10 – David Hume – On Suicide (nf)
- 05.07.10 – *Iain Banks – Complicity (f)
- 22.07.10 – Jonathan Weiner – Time, Love, Memory (nf)
- 26.07.10 – Christopher Fowler – Spanky (f)
- 14.08.10 – Robert Winston – Human Instinct (nf)
- 22.08.10 – Iain M. Banks – Consider Phlebas (f)
- 28.08.10 – American Psychological Association – Concise Rules of APA Style (nf)
- 08.09.10 – Andy Field & Graham Hole – How to Design and Report Experiments (nf)
- 13.09.10 – Nick Braisby (ed.) – Cognitive Psychology: A Methods Companion (nf)
- 20.09.10 – Ken Kesey – One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (f)
- 07.10.10 – Steven Pinker – The Language Instinct (nf)
- 12.10.10 – *Paul Broks – Into The Silent Land (nf)
- 21.10.10 – Daniel Levitin – This Is Your Brain On Music (nf)
- 31.10.10 – Oliver Sacks – Musicophilia (nf)
- 07.11.10 – The Poetry and Short Stories of Dorothy Parker (f)
- 10.11.10 – Alain de Botton – Status Anxiety (nf)
- 11.11.10 – Richard Bach – Jonathan Livingstone Seagull (f)
- 14.11.10 – Richard P. Feynman – The Meaning of it All (nf)
- 29.11.10 – *Andrew Solomon – The Noonday Demon (nf)
- 04.12.10 – Iain Banks – The Bridge (f)
- 26.12.10 – Axel Scheffler – How to Keep a Pet Squirrel (f)
- 27.12.10 – Dr Liz Miller – Mood Mapping (nf)
- 29.12.10 – Michael S. Gazzaniga – Nature’s Mind (nf)
And I’ve just started the first one for 2011. How about you? Did you chomp through some good reads this year? Which were your favourites? I’ve put an asterisk by my three absolute favourites this year, and massively recommend them.
I should probably start by saying I did not like this book. In fact, there are no significant redeeming features, in my honest opinion. So, if you have read this book, use this book or like this book for whatever reason, then please give this review a miss. Because I didn’t like it, this review will mainly concentrate on WHY I didn’t like it. These opinions, being opinions, are not debatable.
Where to start? Probably at the beginning, is best. When this book was first released, I read an interesting review of it in the Guardian. So, when I saw this book in my local BHF book shop, I thought “what the hell” and thought I’d give it a go. I have never read a self-help style book in my life, and now I know why.
Dr Liz Miller is an ex-neurosurgeon, and so you would expect her to be a sensible woman of science. She’s not: she is full of absolute crap. I was willing to sit through her sad stories of struggling through her breakdowns (she says in the text that she is bipolar, but she doesn’t specify what type. I suspect cyclothymia), and to start with, her advice is pretty sound. However, it is also common sense: keep a mood diary so that you can try and see patterns in mood vs. time of day, events, foods, etc.
Anything that didn’t fall under this header of “common sense advice” was not useful at all, and in fact made me rather angry. One of my common gripes is preachy, self-righteous types: Miller is one of these. Her favourite thing to preach about, it would seem, is food. I knew this would be a problem from the Introduction, where she gently declares a war on meat, alcohol, and processed food. Later in the book, she all but blames mood disorders solely on what we eat.
Let me get one thing straight: PROCESSED FOOD WILL NOT MAKE YOU DROP DEAD. You do not need to be on a “raw food diet” to be happy. Let’s look at the evidence: you know plenty of people who eat microwave meals, take aways and stuff from tins on an almost daily basis, and yet they are functioning perfectly. And then there is “Doctor” Gillian McKeith. I’m sure you’ve all been forwarded a copy of the McKeith vs. Nigella email (they’re both 50, and yet…) She doesn’t look like a happy bunny. She looks fucking miserable.
Fair enough, we’re all sensitive to different foods in different ways – I’m not all that susceptible to caffeine, but I am more careful about alcohol nowadays. And I think that’s the key: you do NOT have to give up everything fun or delicious to live well. You need to know your own body. And that’s where Mood Mapping MIGHT be useful: just for finding patterns in your mood in response to external stimuli. But you do NOT NEED TO BUY THIS BOOK (RRP: £12.99) to be able to do that. Food is not the root to aaaaaall your problems.
On a housekeeping note: Miller needs to get hold of a better proofreader. Even my casual, half-attentive reading of this book (often accompanied by a background of Christmas TV and the sound of family members reading articles from the newspaper outloud) spotted a whole menagerie of errors. Most hilarious IMHO was pp. 237-8, and the supposed “Causes of bipolar”…
“…Bipolar disorder can also start after head injury, treatment with anti-malarial drugs, particularly mefloquinine, head injury, childhood abuse, drug abuse…”
And later on in this ridiculous list of madness and repetition: post-traumatic stress disorder. WHAT?! PTSD is a mental illness in its own right, not a “cause” of bipolar. I think she’s getting confused: violent mood swings are not the only characteristic feature of bipolar. They are a symptom. And guess what? They just so happen to be quite a significant symptom of PTSD, too. Just because someone is having severe mood swings does not mean they have suddenly “come down with” bipolar disorder.
I’m trying to keep this short, so here’s the last and most important reason why I hate this book:
“…what my research and experience did prove is that mood and its associated chemicals respond more to the five keys to mood than they do to drugs. By physically managing your mood, it is often possible to dispense with drugs entirely.” (p. 233)
My, that’s a sweeping statement. And, “prove”? Really? Please, tell this to anyone suffering from psychosis, or chronic, major depression. Some people simply cannot function without medication. Some people can’t even cope WITH medication, it’s that bad. MY research and experience INDICATES this. Read a far better and more realistic account of mood disorder.
By all means, I am not poo-pooing Miller’s personal trauma and experience of the mental health system, but that is what it is: a personal trauma. She found something that works for her. Good. She has no right to prescribe it to others.
WARNING: Philosophy in progress
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
I have been thinking a lot about death lately. It is hardly surprising: I have suffered a great deal of loss this year, with Ben’s aunt Flossy dying last Boxing day, then his beloved dog Laura in April. Soon after my birthday, in May, I lost the last of my grandparents: my dad flew over from Dubai to bury his mother. I was too upset to even write a coherent tribute post for that particular loss.
Then last week, I heard the sudden, unexpected and painful news that Janet McCleery, the singing teacher that set me on the road of beautiful musicianship, had passed away in her sleep.
I heard from someone at Ardingly (one of the several places in Sussex that she taught organ and singing) that Janet was discovered when she did not turn up for an engagement, and the person involved called the police. Quite a testament to her reliability. Apparently, they broke into the house and found her in bed, seemingly having died in her sleep – a lovely peaceful way for her to go, but shocking for everyone else; especially as she was not that old either (67).
I went to her Requiem Mass held at Worth Church in Sussex just yesterday morning. I found the majority of the service to be sadly unmoving: the priest talked at length about Janet’s religious faith (which I never once discussed with Janet in the many years I knew her) but only mentioned her incredible musicality once (which was, in my eyes, the driving force of her life).
Please, don’t get me wrong: I may be an atheist, but I am a non-aggressive atheist. I don’t mind religion. People can believe what they want to believe. However, I think it is frankly quite insulting that priest was given so much space to say so much about so little. A large percentage of the congregation (myself included) chose not to step up for Communion or even a blessing, illustrating that they were not their for the religion, but there to celebrate the life of a wonderful, humble, caring, devoted, talented and inspiring woman.
It was only when the choir sang Fauré’s “In Paradisum” and Michael Oakley (head of music at Worth school) made an impassioned, moving, and personal speech in memory of Janet, that I truly felt moved. I admire Michael greatly for pushing on with his words of tribute for this wonderful woman, despite the fact that he was obviously struggling with emotion.
I am sorry that I didn’t see her all that often in recent years. I can’t remember the last time I spoke to her, but it will have been many months, if not a year or two. That fact pains me greatly: she was a huge, positive influence in my life.
Rest in peace, Janet. You live on in the many lives you touched, the many people you shared your music with, the many eager young musicians you trained.
Le Pain Quotidien: The Daily Bread. This is (with toppings) what they serve. It’s not cheap, at all, but it is lovely. And you know what? It’s not French. Nono, it’s BELGIAN. Yes, it surprised me a little bit too.
I was in South Kensington on Thursday, and had arrived earlier than anticipated. I had to kill time before Angharad arrived, and I was hungry, so I just randomly picked LPQ to eat my lunch at. I was pretty stunned at the prices (not in a good way) but decided to forgo a coffee (to save pennies) and have a glass of tap water instead. This way, I could order my lunch and pretend the bill was normal.
I decided to go for one of their signature tartines – essentially an open sandwich. I liked the look of the egg salad tartine (with capers and anchovies – salty loveliness) and it was the kindest to my wallet too, so double win.
Oh yes, it was pretty, and it was tasty, but I have to say I was frankly a little disappointed with the portion size, considering 1) the price and 2) that this was a Belgian bistro, not a French one (please refer to my comments on Belgian food at Edible Glitter). Also, I wish that they had equipped me with some kind of serrated knife: whilst the wholemeal bread was lovely (and remember: their name means “the daily bread” – they pride themselves on their bread) the crust was very hard and therefore a nightmare to cut.
That said, it was incredibly tasty: the salty anchovies and capers gave the egg a nice kick, and there was a lovely balance of toppings. I only wish that it wasn’t 470 calories, which I didn’t know until LPQ website threw that in my face only minutes ago.
LPQ’s are all over the place – check their website for you nearest one, and pop in for a treat. They also have coffees and breads to take away!
The Meaning Of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist
I was a wee bit disappointed by this book. I think Richard P Feynman is brilliant, and therefore maybe I was expecting something utterly ground breaking. Maybe it’s important to remember that this book is actually a transcript of three John Danz lectures which professor Feynman delivered in April 1963 at the University of Washington. As a result, the book tends to be a little fragmentary, a few points are repeated, and a little unfocussed. Perhaps, had Feynman gone back to this and refined it, we would be left with a more comfortable and satisfying read. As it stands, it might benefit from you reading it aloud (as if you were giving it as a lecture, live).
That said, this small work does reflect on some important topics, mainly the use of science to society. What makes for good scientific practice? What is the true value of science? Can scientists really believe in God? And, my personal favourite, why is it, that with the advances of scientific research in the modern world, is there such widespread belief in flying saucers, homeopathy and astrology?
Feynman also discusses scepticism at length, and in the final lecture he explores how science has been abused. Whilst nothing strictly ground-breaking, Feynman is a hugely respected scientist but also a great teacher and philosopher. A nice quick read for anyone interested in science, philosophy, scepticism, and the philosophy of science.
And as another reviewer has pointed out: Yes, it rambles, but then so do scientists!
Oh dear, oh dear. A huge disappointment. Sorry, Alain de Botton – I know I really enjoyed your The Consolations Of Philosophy back before I even began my degree, but this didn’t even come close. Rather than “the story of our quest for love from the world”, Status Anxiety is like a cross between a lame self-help book and a brief history of civilisations. As I pointed out to Ben this morning, I enjoyed the pictures more than the text: this says an awful lot.
de Botton’s book is not completely without merit, however: like a good philosopher should, he does reflect on what drives us as human beings. Some of it will hopefully make you reflect as well. He looks at why and under what conditions we suddenly feel the compulsion to display status, but balances this with a look at those walks of life that chose to discard the need for material wealth (oh look: it’s the Greek philosophers). But it does take a long time for these highlights to get going, and they are brief. The majority of the book dwells in dry language and only mildly interesting historical topics.
That said, the included illustrations are lovely – they do bring the text to life. Unfortunately, I feel that the text is held up rather than complimented by its illustrations: a set up which is a bit desperate. But I was able to take away some philosophical musings: if you’ve got the patience, maybe you can extract something from this book as well. Otherwise, try The Consolations Of Philosophy instead: it’s much better.
Ben has been raving about Dorothy Parker pretty much since we first met, and having finally gotten around to reading her work, I am beginning to understand why.
All of her poems are bitter and witty, and none are too long (Ben and I are not overly fond of poems where you have to turn the page – again, call us philistines if you want). Parker voices frustrations that you wish you had found the words to express. She’s especially bitter about the plight of woman – but voices it fantastically well. Parker’s women are feisty, vengeful and fierce. A snippet from one of my favourites is in order, I think…
…Down from Caesar past Joynson-Hicks
Echoes the warning, ever new:
Though they’re trained to amusing tricks,
Gentler, they, than the pigeon’s coo,
Careful, son, of the cursed two -
Either one is a dangerous pet;
Natural history proves it true -
Women and elephants never forget….
Ballade of Unfortunate Animals
I’m fairly certain that Parker is not for everyone: she does not write happy or upbeat, and too much Parker, I’m sure, might make you pretty bitter yourself, so I advise taking in small doses. Not all of it is fantastic – a lot of it is self-indulgent pining over lost loves and boredom. Like the modern teenager, she does seem to enjoy her misery far too much.
However, she is very witty and observant, and made me laugh out loud more than once (at the expense of her archetypal characters, I must admit). Her short stories are fairly entertaining too, but I felt they weren’t on par with her poetry. That said, both stories and poems make clever observations about the hypocritical and often cruel behaviour of “normal people”.
And I can see myself getting Inscription for the Ceiling of a Bedroom inscribed on my bedroom ceiling.
…Though I go in pride and strength,
I’ll come back to bed at length…
…Summer, Winter, Spring, and Fall -
I’m a fool to rise at all!
Poor Dotty P.
It’s yours, apparently.
Fairly intuitive, you might say. It’s all my DNA, mapped out. Why should it belong to anyone but me?
But with genome mapping projects really gathering speed now, many people are beginning to worry about a new scale of identity theft.
This was the topic touched upon last night at the Royal Institution of Great Britain: why map the human genome? Who owns this genetic information? What are the risks?
Guest curator Mark Henderson facilitated the discussion, between Dr Daniel MacArthur, Dr Caroline Wright and Professor Sir Mark Walport (director of the Wellcome Trust). The speakers held quite different stances on how genetics should and shouldn’t be handled, which naturally made for a far more interesting discussion (no one likes a discussion that consists of a lot of “yes, I agree”. Far better is the: “I’m just going to stop you there…”)
We began with Dr MacArthur, outlining the new Genomes Unzipped program. This is an online program where MacArthur and 11 colleagues have publicly released parts of their sequenced genomes online, for all of us to peruse. Not just that, but that show them in a variety of “easy to read” formats, with some explanations of what we’re looking at. He and the team are trying to help inform the public, and help them to analyse their own data without having to disclose it to anyone else. MacArthur states that he and his colleagues are doing this to open up the discussion about genetics: he argues that at the moment, everyone has a very anxious attitude towards genetic information, but that this fear is without reason.
In fact, he argues that genetic information is very useful – it can tell us a lot about ourselves, about our history, and about the history of the entire species. Genetic tests are now available directly to consumers (in the form of such companies as 23&me, GeneTrack and many others), which means we could receive “personalised medicine” – just by looking at our genetic sequence, we can tell what drugs may be effective for us. This technique is already being used in some cancer treatments.
Dr Wright then backed up his claims (she too is a part of the Genomes Unzipped project), and tried to answer the question “how will it change clinical practice?”. She argued that some sweeping claims have been made in the past about the future of genomics – that, once perfected, everyone will have their genome sequenced at birth, and that this will replace the current infant screening process for illness and defect. But Wright says the genome should be used more selectively – after all, even genes cannot predict the future with certainty, as environment plays a huge role as to how we will develop. Genome sequencing should be used for clinical testing rather than a screening process. Screening looks at everyone, even relatively “healthy” people, whereas clinical testing looks at people who may be at risk from genetically inherited diseases such as cancer – by mapping genes in these select cases, we can see what is driving the illness and develop personalised medicines to treat them.
Screening healthy people is fraught with risks and problems – there are bound to be errors, or we may see problems where there are none. Plenty of people live their lives with “defects” they never knew they had, because they simple don’t cause a problem. A lot of lumps and bumps are benign, but genome sequencing will reveal them, and then doctors seem to have this urge to remove it, instantly. And who wants an invasive surgical procedure if they don’t need one? It’s traumatic and unnecessary. We need to balance out the risks and benefits of genomics.
And then there is the issue of informed consent – we need freedom from coercion and deception. I think one of the great issues surrounding genome mapping is that everyone assumes that the government will, one day, force us to all have our DNA on file. No plans for the immediate future. But what if we decide to sequence our genome anyway, voluntarily? The Genomes Unzipped team obviously have, and have been very public about it. Fine for them, but what about their blood relatives? Remember, you share 50% of your DNA with your 1st degree relatives (parents, siblings, children…) so if you decide to share your genetic information online, you’re also sharing a lot of your family’s information as well. And what if your genome reveals something you didn’t previously know, or didn’t want to know? It can have sensitive implications: what if you find out that you have a genetic predisposition for schizophrenia, or Huntington’s? Your children possibly do too. Then what? Do we have a Duty of Care? Yes, we can’t predict the future, we’re just “at risk”, but this new information does amount to something.
And what about data storage? Who is allowed to see it? Family? Doctors? Police? Researchers? In the case of Genomes Unzipped: everyone? Sir Walport stepped up to the mark to alert us to this. And it’s not just the mad conspiracy theorists either – what if insurance companies get hold of our genetic data? We could get higher insurance rates (or even denied insurance) if our genes suggest we are particularly susceptible to an illness. He showed explicit disbelief at the behaviour of the “Facebook Generation”, sharing very personal information with all and sundry – and once it’s online, it’s too late. What genomes can tell us might be a nasty shock. We might learn something we didn’t want to know, and certainly didn’t want to tell anyone else! This really confuses the ethical debate.
Fingerprints are a form of individual identification, but they tell you nothing ABOUT the person they belong too – they don’t tell you age, height, hair colour, socioeconomic background… But now? The informational content of DNA is going up, and sharply. An anonymised database, says Walport, is fine, but as soon as you attach a name to a sequence, there is bound to be discrimination.
As far as the Insurance Company question goes, Walport seemed to be undecided: remember, insurance is part of a two-way form of public protection, as it works on a basis of pooled risk. If you claim, the payout comes from the pool. There has been a genetic bias in insurance for a long time, not just since the dawn of genome sequence: we may have a family history of cancer, Huntington’s, and so forth, and we have a duty to disclose that to the insurance company. But, as Walport argues, we can pool genetic information without having to put namebadges in the mix.
Tricky stuff. Then followed some questions by Mark Henderson, and an open Q&A with the audience. I wanted to ask those taking part in Genomes Unzipped, “are you not scared, publicising this information online? You realise that it is now too late. If that information reveals, later on, something that you don’t wish everyone else to know, that you can’t “take it back”. That’s the beauty of the internet. Someone’s already downloaded it.” but I didn’t. Nevermind. Something for the rest of us to ponder, perhaps.