The Ethical Hoax

An unlikely research team produces remarkable results!

An unlikely research team produces remarkable results!

As anyone who reads Ethics Alarms with any regularity knows, I detest hoaxes large and small, from the Piltdown man to the Hitler diaries to the offal thrown into the information stream by websites like The News Nerd.(Let’s see: what “satirical, humorous, obviously fake” story does the site that calls itself “America’s premium news site” offer as fact today? This: “As Deflategate looms over the heads of the New England Patriots, a source with the NFL has revealed that the league is considering permanently barring Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick from ever working in the National Football League in any capacity. That drastic action would only be taken if it is discovered that Belichick was directly responsible for the deflated footballs…” I guess that’s obviously satire because the NFL would never have the integrity to take such action, right? The story isn’t there to fool gullible blogs and sportswriters working on a deadline into republishing it…) Hoaxes are lies intended to deceive in order to humiliate whoever believes them, and often to enrich the hoaxer.

Occasionally, however, a hoax becomes an ethically justifiable tool. Such is the case with the bogus scholarly medical research article created by Dr. Mark Shrime titled “Cuckoo For Cocoa Puffs?”

Shrime was disturbed at the number of apparently legitimate medical journals with impressive names like the International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology that offer to publish papers for a $500 fee. Shrime calls them predatory journals, in part because they prey on trusting third world researchers and scientists for who $500 is a fortune. The other reason they are predatory is that they exploit the confusing—to laymen, which is to say, journalists– welter of legitimate scholarly journals in order to dangle intriguing junk science in front of the eyes of reporters who barely comprehend what they are reading. As Elizabeth Segren writes at Fast Company: Continue reading

Ethics Hero: Jerry Lewis

Great comedians are usually, as Sid Caesar once memorably told Larry King, “miserable sons of bitches,” and few fit that description better than Jerry Lewis. As a result, he also stands as a classic example of how not-so-nice people can still do wonderful, heroic deeds. In Lewis’s case, the deed is the  Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon. Lewis has announced that because of his failing health and advanced age (he is 86), the 2011 version will be his final telethon, and the show itself is being drastically scaled back from over 20 hours in its heyday to about 6 hours. The decline of his Labor Day telethon tradition is as good a time as ever to give Lewis—arrogant, loutish, egomaniacal, tough old bastard that he is—his due. Jerry Lewis is an Ethics Hero. There’s just no way getting around it.

For decades I thought that Jerry Lewis’s involvement with MDA was a stunt cooked up by his publicist during his decline in popularity, to ensure that he would have public visibility after studios stopped offering him movie roles. That was wrong: Lewis started doing telethons for muscular dystrophy in 1952, when his stardom was just blooming and he was still teamed with Dean Martin. his fundraising for medical research began as a series of local broadcasts and went national in 1966. By then Lewis’s career was indeed on the wane (his last hit movie had been “The Nutty Professor” in 1963), but the telethon had already been a constant in his life for 14 years. Jerry wasn’t doing it for himself. He really was doing it for “the kids.” Continue reading

The Unethical Consequences of Ethical Coffee

"Mmmmmmm! Smells ethical!"

When ethical conduct becomes too complicated, confusing, or controversial, the vast majority of people will shrug and give up, leaving the conduct to be embraced by fanatics who can be relied upon to argue among themselves about who is really being ethical.   Welcome to the world of so-called ethical coffee, where adherents must choose between a dizzying number of certifications and categories to ensure that their coffee purchases support ethical practices and objectives.

“Shouldn’t the dollars you spend support the values you believe in?,” chirps the home page of “Fortunately, when it comes to the morning cup of coffee so many of us love, it’s easier to put your money where your conscience is than with any other commodity. (Just try to find a gas station that can certify that the gasoline you’re putting in your tank isn’t linked to environmental disasters or labor abuses halfway around the world.) With coffee, you can pay a little more and know the grower is getting a minimum price or be sure you’re helping preserve winter habitat for some of the same songbirds that will show up next summer in your back yard.”

Hey, sounds great! Love those song birds! Then comes the “but’… Continue reading

Unavoidable Bias in the Embryonic Stem Cell Research Controversy

In the embryonic stem cell research ethics debate, I come out on the “pro” side. Nonetheless, a New York Times article this morning shows clearly how thoroughly and unavoidably biased scientists and researchers in the field are, leading to the conclusion that the decision whether stem cell research is ethical or not, and whether, or to what extent, it should be permitted, cannot be left to them.

The article, by Amy Harmon, begins,

“Rushing to work at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center one recent morning, Jason Spence, 33, grabbed a moment during breakfast to type “stem cells” into Google and click for the last 24 hours of news. It is a routine he has performed daily in the six weeks since a Federal District Court ruling put the future of his research in jeopardy. “It’s always at the front of my brain when I wake up,” said Dr. Spence, who has spent four years training to turn stem cells derived from human embryos into pancreatic tissue in the hope of helping diabetes patients. “You have this career plan to do all of this research, and the thought that they could just shut it off is pretty nerve-racking.” Continue reading