Category Archives: Uncategorized


Introducing The Conversation

Brainstorm readers: We’re excited to call your attention to The Conversation, The Chronicle’s new home for opinion and ideas online. Building on Brainstorm and Innovations, it includes many of the regular contributors you have seen over the years and offers new ones as well.

Please follow us there. We hope to enlighten and entertain, and we also hope to hear from you. Feel free to reach us at


My Painting Habit

In my previous post, I talked about how my experience in changing my way of sneezing taught me how hard it is to change a habit even in instances where we know it would be better for us if we did. Habits don’t merely concern things like the way we sneeze, however.  For example, habits writ large are what define a culture, for a culture is nothing but a vast collection of shared habits that go by the more lofty designation “customs.” And though it’s not apparent at first glance, habits a…


Watchdogs or Showdogs? The Final Installment

Jenny Dyck Brian

Is it a conflict of interest for a bioethicist to work as a paid consultant for the pharmaceutical industry?

In recent weeks I have posted my conversation with Jenny Dyck Brian of Arizona State University, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on corporate bioethics boards.  (See parts one, two and three.)  Today we reach the final installment.

Q: A lot of people outside bioethics seem shocked when I tell them about academic bioethicists working for pharma.  But within the field,…


Sneezing, Cars, and Cows

“Texas Cow Poke” by Clotee Pridgen Allochuku via Flickr/CC

Sometimes I find it useful to think about things that bear no obvious relation to one another. For example, I’ve recently been thinking about sneezing, cars, and cows, and a connection to the problem of climate change has occurred to me.

First, sneezing. When I was young, I was taught to cover my mouth with my hand whenever I sneezed. Good girl that I am, I followed this rule until a couple of years ago, when I read that in order not to …


Why Isn’t Evolutionary Medicine More Popular Than It Is?

You have got a fever, your body aches, and you feel dreadful. What should you do? The traditional answer is: “Take two aspirin, drink lots of fluids, get to bed and call me in the morning if you don’t feel better.” Could it be that this is just the wrong advice? That the last thing you should do is reduce your temperature with aspirin or ibuprofen or whatever? Is it, to use a phrase, nature’s way of fighting illness?

This is very much the position of a small group of biologists and medics who ar…


Watchdogs or Show Dogs 3: Eli Lilly

Jenny Dyck Brian

Do bioethicists make pharmaceutical companies more ethical?

This is a central question motivating my interview with Jenny Dyck Brian, an Arizona State University professor who wrote her doctoral dissertation on corporate bioethics boards. (See parts one and two of the interview.) Today we turn to Eli Lilly, a company that has had its share of ethical scandal: the recruitment of homeless alcoholics for drug-safety trials, the suicide of a healthy volunteer in a Cymbalta study, th…



I know you’re already sick of reading about MOOC’s. But I’m afraid there’s no avoiding them. In The Chronicle this morning, UCLA philosopher Pamela Hieronymi argues:

Education is often compared to two other industries upended by the Internet: journalism and publishing. This is a serious error. Education is not the transmission of information or ideas. Education is the training needed to make use of information and ideas.

And so forth, before concluding:

Can technology make education less expensi…


Some Concluding Evolutionary Mysteries

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Those of us engaged in teaching, writing and speaking about science are participating in a Great Deception – well-intended, to be sure, but a deception nonetheless. The gist of that deception is that we teach science as a list of established findings rather than what it really is: The world’s best and most rewarding process of “finding.” Students and the general public are for the most part receptive to learning about science, but all too often, thi…


How to Recruit for the Humanities

In the most recent American Freshman Survey, the top reason for going to college was “to be able to get a better job,” with 85.9 percent of respondents rating it as “very important.” Only half of the respondents rated “to make me a more cultured person” as “very important” (50.3 percent).

No wonder the humanities now collect only around 12 percent of bachelor’s degrees, including history.  (See the Humanities Indicators project for handy compilations of data.)  According to the MLA, all the fore…



Iconic phrase from the old TV show, Dragnet; now reduced to an endangered species (Wikipedia)

I have a great fondness for experiences, ideas, certain people, many animals, places, even some things. And I assume you do, too. Among these sources of delight, respect, and appreciation, I would include regular old-fashioned facts, although with the full recognition that not all of them are equally verifiable, or even equally definable. Nor are they equally pleasant, although part of the pleasure come…


And Now Mars

It’s been almost half a century since Apollo 11 carried Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong to the moon. I remember running to make sure I’d catch the actual landing on television. Like many who heard Neil Armstrong’s first words when he walked on the moon, I heard them incorrectly. They are much more moving the way he actually said them: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” That a single man was walking on the moon was a magnificent idea, even th…


Watchdogs or Show Dogs?

Jenny Dyck Brian

Jenny Dyck Brian

It is no secret that many academic physicians work for the pharmaceutical industry as speakers and consultants. Less widely known is that the pharmaceutical industry also employs academic bioethicists.

Beginning in the 1990s, a number of pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies began to set up bioethics advisory boards, ostensibly to obtain guidance about controversial ethical issues. Over the years, the ties between industry and bioethics have gradually grown closer, with com…


It Takes A Cooperative to Raise a Child

More than 30 years ago, Elisabeth Landes and Richard Posner provocatively observed that a “glut” in black babies exists in the United States foster care system. Their controversially framed assessment attracted ardent criticism, including charges of racism. Nonetheless, Posner and his colleague touched on urgent and yet unresolved problems, including how to (a) provide more meaningful life opportunities for child wards of the state by transitioning them into permanent home placements, (b) re…


Private Greed, Public Loss

Protesters in front of Pennsylvania Station on Aug. 2, 1962 (Photo by Eddie Hausner/The New York Times. Click on image to get to source page.)

In 1882, New York Central Railroad president William Henry Vanderbilt declared, “The public be damned.” Although one might think this sentiment an anachronism that went away with the demise of 19th-century robber barons, it’s actually a perennial problem for democracies whenever private owners own what function as public spaces.

Here’s an example of wha…


The Mathematical Argument for Gun Control

The AR-15, a semi-automatic version of the military M16 rifle, marketed by Colt for civilian sales. “Thanks” in large part to the NRA, there are no federal restrictions on private ownership of these weapons in the US. Do you feel safer knowing that your neighbor might well have one of these?

David Barash: Not surprisingly, gun control is once again on people’s minds. For those Brainstorm readers tired of my opinions, I’m happy to “host” the thoughts of Dr. Michael Shermer, who writes a r…


What Is Secular Art?

Ever since I was in graduate school, I have lamented the inability of scholars to solicit and engage with cultivated lay audiences. With that in mind, I invite you to check out this video, part of a series I have been making which streams on the British New Humanist (a really interesting and intellectually diverse magazine of skeptical thought) and the good ol’ Huffington Post.

I envisioned this series as a sort of “Secularism 101.” I felt that it was necessary because my study of the subject d…


13 Ways of Looking at ‘Yeshiva’

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds. 
It was a small part of the pantomime.

As you may well not have heard on your corporate nightly news, the Obama-era National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has been near-paralyzed by years of Republican dirty tricks leading to resignations and scandal that included frequent leaking of confidential board proceedings to former Republican board members advising the Romney camp.  With the Department of Justice eyeballing the corporate hacks in question, howe…


Thank God for the NRA!

Hip, hip hooray for the NRA, ever-watchful guardian of humanity!

The global arms trade in conventional weapons is in the neighborhood of $60-billion, much of it fueling mayhem, misery, and mass killings around the world. Last week, however, UN negotiators were unable to meet their deadline for writing a comprehensive and much-anticipated Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).  And a large share of the blame for that failure rests with that paragon of personal and social responsibility, our own beloved and ev…


The Millennial Vote

In 2008, as everybody knows, the youth vote turned out to be one of the strongest Democratic cohorts in recent political history.  Voters under 30 went for Obama at nearly a 2-to-1 rate, an enormous gap that looked ominous for Republicans for many years to come.  College students in particular showed extremely high “unfavorability” for Sarah Palin and for social conservatives in general.  Even though only 51 percent of Millennials bothered to cast their vote in 08, their steep tilt to one side …


Hope Emerging From Despair: HIV/AIDS in South Africa

Gail Johnson with a portrait of Nkosi


For the past three years, one stream of my work has involved extensive field research on the sexual trafficking of girls in the Philippines, South Africa, and India.  For some years, my research has involved trafficking generally, including that of organs, children, and even body parts such as human tissues.  However, this project examines trafficking beyond the exploitation and kidnapping women and girls taken against their will and under false consent …