Dope sports

Paul Raven @ 28-01-2011

Kyle Munkittrick takes on one of the few sports-related topics that’s of any interest to me at all, namely the blanket ban on performance-enhancement drugs. He’s bouncing off a post by cyclist Floyd Landis, who calls for a lifting of the ban using a rather cumbersome but basically valid analogy to gun control:

“In the US we have these gun laws where half the country thinks we should have them and half don’t, but the fact of the matter is that the bad guys have guns and you can’t get them back from the bad guys. It’s nice to live in a pretend world where you can start over, where you say you’re not going to have guns, well that’s wonderful and good luck with that and go to church on Sundays and enjoy yourself, but the fact of the matter is that there are guns and the bad guys have them and trying to keep others from having them isn’t going to accomplish anything… “

An argument based on pragmatism has something going for it, of course, but it puts Landis’ attempts to retain his stripped title into an interesting perspective, to say the least. But Munkittrick raises the stakes and goes after the ethical question:

Laws and ethics are not based on what is easy and what is hard to control. They are based on standards of justice and what is ethically right. The reason I believe doping should be allowed is that I see nothing unjust or wrong about professional athletes using chemical compounds and medical knowledge to improve their abilities and performance. Let me rephrase that: there is nothing wrong with taking steroids.

The concern over professional athletes misusing steroids is always framed as some lone juicer injecting himself in his bedroom so he can get that extra home run. That’s not how it happens. Even illegal doping is under the watchful gaze of a team of professional athletic doctors, trainers and nutritionists. Do you think Floyd Landis mixed up his hyper-complex, nary-undetectible designer steroids and blood doping techniques in a lab in his basement?

Steroids are dangerous. But so are thousands of other prescription drugs for which we require doctor supervision. The only ethical reason to ban steroids if they are dangerous and harmful even when used properly. To say doping is wrong because it’s against the rules is circular, yet that’s what most arguments come down to once one is unable to prove steroids are harmful if used properly. Let’s stop pretending that most professional athletes 1) aren’t doping and 2) that they aren’t under strict supervision when they do. Let em take ‘roids.

My own argument in favour of lifting the ban is simply that it would make sports much more entertaining: strip away the false veneer that it’s all about a fair contest between equals and expose it as the sponsorship-fueled tribal ape pissing contest that it really is. Let transhumans like Oscar Pistorius compete against unmodified meatbags; let corporate-sponsored teams become close-knit clans that tweak their genes from generation to generation in the hope of giving them an edge. Because as Munkittrick points out, they’re all trying to do exactly that anyway; if people want to risk screwing up their bodies so they can win an ultimately meaningless physical contest, I say let ’em do it.

Would public pressure to achieve drive athletes to dangerous extremes? Quite possibly, if it isn’t already doing so – and that might force us to face the archaic relationship we have with physical contests as status markers and political symbolism. In the meantime, just think of the television possibilities… something’s got to replace the fading lustre of “reality” programming, after all, and what better than ritualised combat between end-case transhumans?

[ * NB: much of the above paragraph is meant as sarcasm, but by no means all; I’ll leave you to guess which bits are which. And if you’re wondering whether I was picked on by jocks at school, yes, I was. ]


The case for cognition enhancement advocacy

Paul Raven @ 04-11-2010

It’s yet another hat-tip to George Dvorsky, this time for pointing out a paper by Gary Miller in which he lays out the obstacles in the path of supporters of cognitive enhancement pharmacology, and ways for overcoming such:

I argue that, regardless how miniscule the risks or how blatantly obvious the benefits, a majority of U.S. citizens is unlikely to support the unrestricted dissemination of cognition enhancing drugs, because each individual member of the majority will be led astray by cognitive biases and illusions, as well as logical fallacies.

If this premise is accurate, then the people of the United States may already be suffering an opportunity cost that cannot be recouped. While a minority of the U.S. electorate can challenge the constitutionality of a policy enacted by a majority, a minority cannot sue to challenge the legislature’s refusal to enact a specific policy. In other words, we in the minority have no way of claiming we were harmed by what “good” could have come—but did not come—due to the legislature’s inaction. We cannot claim the “opportunity cost to the greater good” as an injury, and we cannot compel a court to balance that opportunity cost of inaction against the individual interests that dissuaded the majority from action. Our only recourse is to compel the majority to change its stance via persuasion.

Sounds remarkably like Mike Treder’s suggestion that calm rational discussion of the pros and cons is the best way to advance the transhumanist project, no? No big surprise, I guess, given the overlap between the groups in question… though as I said before, as much as it’s the most morally sensible course of action available, I don’t know how much good calm rational advocacy will be on a an irrational and sensationalist political landscape. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.


We can forget it for you wholesale

Paul Raven @ 23-09-2010

Via Technovelgy comes news of progress in erasing memories using drugs, a mechanism independent of the way said memories actually form. Admittedly, the state of the art so far appears to be making fruit flies forget that certain smells coincided with a shock administered to one of their legs, but hey, you gotta start somewhere…

Fans of memory-erasure should check out Marissa Lingen’s subtle yet highly affecting Futurismic story “Erasing The Map” from back in February 2009. Her fictional erasure is surgical, not chemical, but the moral questions care nothing for the methods used…


Reasons not to worry about brain enhancement drugs

Paul Raven @ 20-08-2010

Professor Henry Greely reckons it’s high time (arf!) that we stopped trying to ban cognitive enhancement drugs and focus our attentions on developing rules governing their use [via SentientDevelopments]. It’s a pragmatic approach; as Greely points out, the current grey legality of “revision drugs” like Ritalin isn’t doing anything to stop their use, and as the pharmacological industry introduces more cognition-boosting chemicals onto the market (albeit ostensibly as treatments for various maladies of the mindmeat), that situation is unlikely to reverse itself.

Of course, lots of people are scared of the idea of brain enhancement, and there are some good reasons for that. But there are also some bad (or at least illogical) reasons. take it away, Mr Greely:

There are at least three unsound reasons for concern: cheating, solidarity, and naturalness.

Many people find the assertion that enhancement is cheating to be convincing. Sometimes it is: If rules or laws ban an enhancement, then using it is cheating. But that does not help in situations where there are no rules or the rules are still being determined. The problem with viewing enhancements as cheating is that enhancements, broadly defined, are ubiquitous. If taking a cognitive-enhancement drug before a college entrance exam is cheating, what about taking a prep course? Using a computer program for test preparation? Reading a book about taking the test? Drinking a cup of coffee the morning of the test? Getting a good night’s sleep before the test? To say that direct brain enhancement is inherently cheating is to require a standard of what the “right” competition is. What would be the generally accepted standard in our complex and only somewhat meritocratic society?

The idea of enhancement as cheating is also related to the idea that enhancement replaces effort. Yet the plausible cognitive enhancements would not eliminate the need to study; they would just make studying more effective. In any event, we do not reward effort, we reward success. People with naturally good memories have advantages over others in organic chemistry exams, but they did not work for that good memory.

Some argue that enhancement is unnatural and threatens to take us beyond our humanity. This argument, too, suffers from a major problem. All of our civilization is unnatural. A fair speaker could not fly across a continent, take a taxi to an air-conditioned auditorium, and give a microphone-assisted PowerPoint presentation decrying enhancement as unnatural without either a sense of humor or a good argument for why these enhancements are different. Because they change our physical bodies? So do medicine, good food, clothing, and a hundred other unnatural changes. Because they change our brains? So does education. What argument justifies drawing the line here and not there? A strong naturalness argument against direct brain enhancements, in particular, has not been—and I think cannot be—made. Humans have constantly been changing our world and ourselves, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. A golden age of unenhanced naturalness is a myth, not an argument.

I’m guessing that most readers here are open to the idea of cognitive enhancement (by whatever method)… but even so, what’s the most compelling argument you’ve heard against it?


Doom du jour: the drugs don’t work

Paul Raven @ 12-08-2010

The increase in human longevity is due, in at least a significant part, to the invention of the antibiotic. But the age of the antibiotic may nearly be over, as we become victims of their success:

Last September, Walsh published details of a gene he had discovered, called NDM 1, which passes easily between types of bacteria called enterobacteriaceae such as E. coli and Klebsiella pneumoniae and makes them resistant to almost all of the powerful, last-line group of antibiotics called carbapenems. Yesterday’s paper revealed that NDM 1 is widespread in India and has arrived here as a result of global travel and medical tourism for, among other things, transplants, pregnancy care and cosmetic surgery.

“In many ways, this is it,” Walsh tells me. “This is potentially the end. There are no antibiotics in the pipeline that have activity against NDM 1-producing enterobacteriaceae. We have a bleak window of maybe 10 years, where we are going to have to use the antibiotics we have very wisely, but also grapple with the reality that we have nothing to treat these infections with.”

And this is the optimistic view – based on the assumption that drug companies can and will get moving on discovering new antibiotics to throw at the bacterial enemy.

It’s not just infectious diseases that will become a big problem again, either; without effective antibiotics, you can effectively rule out organ transplantation, and a whole raft of other stuff. Will that ten-year window be wide enough for us to develop some sort of blood-cleaning nanotech?

Speaking of drugs, those wacky chappies at the Pentagon are looking for new ways to stockpile vaccines against the possibility of global pandemics, and one plan that caught their eye was from a Canadian firm with the idea of gene-modding tobacco plants to produce a flu vaccine. I always thought “Canadian tobacco” was euphemistic street slang… y’know, “hey dude, where can I score some Canadian tobacco?*”

[ * Apologies to my Canuck readership for this woeful stereotype. If it makes any difference, I only rib you lot because you’re less easily offended than your brethren to the south. 😉 ]


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