It is not well-publicized to the general public that individuals who receive any type of public aid, from food stamps to unemployment assistance, must first submit a urine sample for drug-test, at least in the states of Missouri, Arizona, Indiana, and Florida, with many other states considering such legislation. Jonathan Miller of the St. Louis Today extends this scenario – technically, aren’t home-mortgage interest deductions a form of subsidies for the middle class? What about tax subsidies taken advantage of by tax lawyers for corporations? Eventually, does the money not come from the same pool, the U.S. Treasury? If so, then why are these groups not subject to such a qualifying test?
Miller’s main point, however, is that such a test serves to evaluate both physiological as well as moral capacity. The end argument is that someone who tests positive for drugs would probably squander their welfare check. Taking such an argument all the way to the top, why do we not test for moral responsibility from the lawmakers on down? The responsibilities of government arguably holds more consequences than the decisions of a person with a food stamp. With the housing bubble burst not so long ago in mind, it seems odd that corporations have and still receive aid without the need of putting up explicit codes of conduct they need to go by, or even if there are minimum qualifications of responsibility corporations would need to fulfill to even qualify for government aid.
However, in today’s world power is indirectly associated with responsibility, and ultimately morality. Despite recent exposures in subprime lending and credit scams, consumers still inherently believe that experts are inherently trustworthy and more knowledgeable (the latter is likely true). We know that this can be a very naive assumption. So should some form of moral testing bring us some good? Miller argues that, whatever the action, the current system does not work – by subjecting only the lower class to any form of standards testing, it alienates and imposes a sense of self-inferiority upon that group, which is unfair and psychologically unhealthy. Creating new moral standards for common folks and lawmakers alike, then, could even out the playing field.
St. Louis Today
The London summer riots are now being written off as a classic case of mob mentality coupled with exasperation toward society and a few no good kids. As a recent UK Cabinet Office study stated, “the primary motivation for participation in this summer’s riots was not individual badness or disadvantage so much as the urge to join in.” As social creatures, human beings innately have a desire to imitate, and in a group, the psychological phenonmenon known as diffusion of responsibility makes normally unthinkable actions quite tempting.
For UK criminal law, what the summer riots and recent studies have caused is a new movement to examine the roots of social behavior and how crime and punishment should be changed. On one spectrum, the root of action is caused entirely a biological freak accident. In one case, a previously very normal mid-aged man suddenly developed an insatiable child pornography appetite and attempted to molest his step-daughter, only for neurologists to discover that this was caused by a developing brain tumor in an area in the brain linked to restraint.
The problem with current day law, especially in the UK, is that it is rooted in what the Guardian calls “commonsense philosophy of cause and effect, action and blame.” Unfortunately, this viewpoint stops being impartial and logical when the perpetrators of crime can arguably be shown to lack many moral and mental capabilities.
Developing technology and social media are also playing bigger and bigger roles in mediating crime. The same Cabinet Office report stated that social media gave young people live updates of the riot and incited many to join. Numerous rioters were caught after posting pictures on sites as Twitter and Facebook with stolen possessions. The bottom line, however, is that the circumstances to crime and our scientific understanding of crime and the human mind are rapidly advancing. Thus, the rule of law, with its proclivity to cling to antiquated precedents and history.
Just how far has forensic science progressed? If you ask attorney Bobby Lerma, a Brownsville lawyer almost three decades into the business, the answer you’d get is, “a lot.” Lerma points to the development of blood tests as an example.
“It was primitive at best,” he said. “By eliminating blood Type A, everyone that is Type O and others is a suspect.”
Lerma is one of the new appointees to the Texas Forensic Science Commission, a new task force created to examine cases of forensic evidence dispute to aim to “take the human error out of the science.” Criminal justice officials are finding that scientific evidence are becoming more and more integrated into the court room on a daily basis, but unfortunately, antiquated jurisdiction and lack of oversight and enforcement regarding technologies like DNA testing often lead to courtside mistakes, especially in condemning innocent defendants.
The case of Brandon Lee Moon is often cited as an example in Texas law. Moon was accused of rape in 1988 in El Paso, and the Department of Public Safety presented in his case DNA evidence at the scene that matched Moon. Almost twenty years later, The Innocence Project, a non-profit legal organization whose aim is to overturn wrongful convictions, filed a complaint on the quality of DNA testing. Further testing later exonerated Moon and he was freed.
With the rapid rate of advancement of DNA testing, forensic tests used prior to 1990 are now in comparison basic and often erroneous. Texas is not the first state to implement a specific group to examine the quality of forensic evidence entering into the courtroom, nor will it be the last. Current focus is attempting to quality-control current criminal cases, but many groups feel that there should also be a policy push in opening the files of old cases to examine more situations like Moon’s. As of right now, non-profit groups like the Innocence Project are the only organized backbone in the movement to overturn wrongful convictions.
Evidence collection is usually the first and most important step in prosecution. However, aside from physical evidence, anecdotal evidence and eyewitness testimony must be collected by police themselves through interviews. In a study that focuses specifically on child sexual abuse (CSA) cases, lead author Emma Phillips and her team finds that there are often times very little physical or technical evidence available. Thus, the prosecution must build their case largely from the child’s account, and in this case a detailed and objective case is paramount.
Child witness interviewing and testimony is heavily scrutinized, not only due to the sensitivity of the matter but also because the general and scientific community believe that children are more likely to be influenced by how and who they were interviewed. The day-care sex-abuse hysteria in the late 1980s and early 1990s is the prime example of why such caution is paid now. A specific case was the McMartin preschool trial, where Judy Johnson, a McMartin student’s mother, made accusations that her child has been sexually abused by a school teacher. Hundreds of the school children were subsequently interviewed, but through what were later declared as misleading and improper techniques that led to bizarre confessions and accusations.
The Phillips study corroborates recent findings of manners of proper interview methods. More IRI (Investigation Relevant Information) was found when questions were open, probing, and presented in an encouraging manner, while less information was found through close ended, close-choice, and leading questions that contained opinions.
It is often impossible to tell if the information extracted from the proper methods are in reality true, which will continue to pose as a major roadblock to child sexual abuse investigations as it is simply the nature of the crime and timeframe that goes with it. However, from an investigator’s standpoint, by utilizing proper methods, we can maximize the possibility of extracting the most useful information.
Emma Phillips, Gavin Oxburgh, Amanda Gavin & Trond Myklebus. Investigative Interviews with Victims of Child Sexual Abuse: The Relationship between Question Type and Investigation Relevant Information. J Police Crim Psyc. DOI 10.1007/s11896-011-9093
In celebration of Halloween, writer-director Eli Roth (Splat Pack director known for the Hostel series) plans on partnering with Discovery to give viewers a special treat. Unlike his previous works of mindless gore, however, this time Roth aims to take a semi-stab at science, with his show entitled “How evil are you?”
Roth isn’t the first to look at the propensities of committing evil acts by “everyday citizens.” The most well known study is by Yale social psychologist Stanley Milgram in one of the most controversial yet notable social psychology experiments, conducted in 1961. Milgram, dubbed by some as a brilliant composer of elaborate experiment schemes, created an experiment where subjects were assigned to the role of “teacher” and had to convey instructions to a “learner” (in reality a confederate of the study) to administer a series of electric shocks to a “learner” in increasing voltage should they fail to learn the word (in reality there was no learner nor shocks administered, merely a prerecording). Astonishingly, roughly 60% of all participants gave orders to administer the final 450V shocks, despite being told in some cases that the “learner” had a previous heart condition and hearing pleading from the “learner” to stop.
While current IRB regulations would never permit a repeat of the Milgram study, Roth aims to replicate it as closely as possible on his TV show, as well as introduce technologies developed after the Milgram study. For example, he aims to incorporate brain scans (presumably fMRI) to see how his own brain reacts when exposed to very violent images.
A large part of the show, much like many of Roth’s films, is largely going for shock culture – exposing subjects to images of various valences and emotionality has already been quite well documented, and it’s highly dubious Roth will be able to conclude that he is “evil” purely from his fMRI activity. However, this show does bring to the general public the idea of how much “evil” and “wrongdoing” is socially manipulated, and how supposedly average and very mentally healthy individuals can be convinced to either engage in or condone horrific acts. Moreover, weaknesses in Roth’s “experiment” itself will deliver the larger observation that we cannot flatline define what is “evil.”
News in a Box
The more friends you have, the bigger your brain? That is the conclusion that Geraint Rees, study leader and director of UCL’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, recently unveiled. Rees and his team at University College of London found that Facebook users with the greatest number of friends not only had more grey matter (the tissue of the brain responsible for sensory, emotional, and motor control) in brain regions associated with social skills, but also that Facebook and other similar social networking sites change these brain regions, or that people born with more “social linking brains” act differently on social networking sites.
In an interview with the Guardian, Rees states that “[a] key question for debate in contemporary societies with online social networks is do people use them in the same way or are they enabling a completely different type of communication and interaction that was never before possible? People get worried about whether that is in some way affecting or changing our brains or the ways we interact with the world.”
This finding is not the first to conclude effect of social networking sites on the brain, as Lady Greenfield of Lincoln College published in 2009 a study warning the “infantilizing” effect social networking sites like Facebook and Bebo had. In a speech before the House of Lords, Greenfield even purported that children who use such sites “are devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance. As a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilised, characterised by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity.”
What Rees makes a clear distinction between is that he shines light on the inability to discern cause from effect – does Facebook really rewire the brain, or are greater friend groups simply the result of a unique brain? This study interestingly did not find correlations between friend group sizes and size in frontal cortex involved with more complex decision making, so any malignant effect of Facebook upon judgment seems very unlikely.
More importantly, it draws us back to an even larger question: just how determined is our sociality? While social interactions seemed largely dictated by personal action, certain biological predictors, like brain size in areas associated with social interaction, correlate strongly with how social we are. Further understanding of how prevalent things like Facebook usage can affect brain anatomy will no doubt continue to contribute to our understanding of nature and nurture.
PC News Mag
R. Kanai, B. Bahrami, R. Roylance, and G. Rees. Online social network size is reflected in human brain structure. Proc. R. Soc. B. Available online before publication 10.1098/rspb.2011.1959
How we act in a social environment is bi-directionally dictated, both by our mental though processes as well as by expectations of others. The mere fact of knowing that you are being watched by others causes people to perform better on tasks in a phenomenon called social facilitation. People also tend to act more favorably to the social situation when they are observed. Scientists argue that this effect may stem from the desire to better one’s social reputation, which depends on an individual’s actions as well as how people judge these actions.
But what happens when one lacks the ability to fully engage in social interactions? Scientists at CalTech studied this exact question and posted the hypothesis that in patients with autism, where they cannot make full reciprocal social interactions, these patients will also not show an increase in prosocial behavior in the presence of others. The Caltech team specifically used a situation where subjects were to make donations in the presence or absence of an observer. Control subjects in comparison made significantly more donations in the presence of another. Interestingly, both high performing autistic subjects as well as control subjects showed an improvement in performance when observed while performing a continuous performance task (CPT), showing that there is no broader “deficit in social cognition”  in the autistic group. The study overall finds that people with autism do not possess the ability to take into account other’s perception of the self, though they still understand the ideas of basic social constructs (such as, what is the self, what is others, etc.).
Developmental diseases such as autism, then, seem to directly affect a person’s perception of what is socially accepted. Such a study becomes relevant to the realm of law and crime when we consider whether people lacking full social perception would also not see why pushing someone down in broad day light is socially wrong. However, the study, through the CPT tests, suggest that even if people do not possess certain prosocial sensitivity, they will still very likely still understand the key ideas of social structure, and baseline morality. While they may not understand that it’s the social convention to tip a bit more when others are watching, they will ostensibly still know that stealing from the donation box is wrong.
1. Izuma, K., Matsumoto, K., Camerer, C.F., Adolphs, R. Insensitivity to social reputation in autism. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. Published online before print: Oct. 10, 2011, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1107038108
We’re always told that our teenage years are among the most important – it is during this time that we will learn life skills that will help us survive “in the real world” and make life-long childhood friends. According to a new study by Yale neuroscientists, the brain also undergoes critical changes during the teenage years that directly affect our socializing skills, as reflected by mouse models.
Neurogenesis in the mouse junvenile timeframe is “mainly confined to the subgranular and subventricular zones.” By using a trangenetic model mouse where neurogenesis does not occur in the adolescent period, the scientists found that the mice had increased anxiety and could not successfully interact with other normal mice. These mice also showed additional memory problems. In a second part to the study, the same “ablation” of neurogenesis in adult mice did not result in any social problems.
So how much of social problems that we see in adults are really caused by disorders during adolescent neurogenesis? The Yale study suggests that this may explain some cellular or mechanistic pathway that cause social development abnormalities marked in schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorders. Though a main or specific causes of neurogenesis have not been adequately elucidated, they serve to be the future of study. It seems that the adolescent phase is not only crucial for biological and social development, but also poses as a dangerous period during which certain biological misfunctioning will create complications specific to this time range. And as the Daily Mail says, “[g]o easy on that stroppy teen, their brains don’t work properly during adolescence.”
Lan Wei, Michael J. Meaney, Ronald S. Duman, and Arie Kaffman. Affiliative Behavior Requires Juvenile, But Not Adult Neurogenesis. The Journal of Neuroscience, 5 October 2011, 31(40): 14335-14345;doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1333-11.2011
A British High Court judge ruled today in what will probably become a landmark decision that a minimally conscious woman shall not be allowed to die. The ruling was against the petitions of the family members of the person of interest, a 52 years-old former hairdresser who suffered extensive brain damage in 2003 due to viral encephalitis. The family petitioned to remove her feeding tube earlier this year, arguing that the woman, M (whose real name cannot be given for legal reasons), would not wish to live a dependent life.
Opposing lawyers countered that she is not in an entirely unresponsive, vegetative state, and that as of right now she is living in relative clinical comfort. The High Court Judge Baker ruled in their favor, stating that “[t]he factor which does carry substantial weight, in my judgment, is the preservation of life. Although not an absolute rule, the law regards the preservation of life as a fundamental principle.” More definingly, however, is that the legal system is making refinements in defining the stages of a comatose state in the practical legal literature. A vegetative state shall now be held distinct from a minimally conscious state.
But what does a minimally unconscious state mean anyway? According to Joseph Giacino et. al., a minimally unconscious state is defined as “is a disorder of consciousness distinct from coma or the vegetative state, in which a patient exhibits deliberate, or cognitively mediated, behavior often enough, or consistently enough, for clinicians to be able to distinguish it from entirely unconscious, reflexive responses.” This state is especially separated and is placed one level above the “vegetative state” that the general public is most familiar with in recent year legal disputes, such as in the Terry Schiavo case.
What implications does this hold for future legal cases? One possibility is that opponents to petitions to terminate life will default to the argument that a patient is above base vegetative consciousness with this case as precedent. This also opens more avenues for more recent scientific clarifications of comatose states to trickle into the legal literature. The issue of termination of life will always be a controversial one, but perhaps future clarifications will put to ease the public worry of “what if the person would one day regain consciousness?” Though successful petitions to terminate life is not at all uncommon, cases like Terry Wallis are really the stories that stand out.
Giacino JT, Ashwal S, Childs N, et al. (February 2002). “The minimally conscious state: definition and diagnostic criteria”. Neurology 58 (3): 349–53.
Predicting the future may just be a mere number game, it seems, and no one is better at it than Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, businessman, consultant, and academic, currently a Professor at New York University. Mr. Bueno de Mesquita has already added quite a few Nostradamus-esque notches in his belt. He had not only successfully predicted the successor to Iran’s Ayatolla Khomeini five years before his death in 1989, as well Hosni Mubarak’s exile from Egypt in 2010, and his eventual ongoing trial. So what is his game? Nothing more than real life application of the economic study of Game Theory.
The modeling of Mr. Bueno de Mesquita and his company, Mesquita & Roundell, mostly predict situations in the political sphere. The design of his program uses programs to simulate a human actor’s motivation, influence, cost/benefit weighing, and, so it seems, their free will to make decisions. These human factors would then be combined with situational variables, such as the state of the economy, a leader’s supporters, officials, and opponents.
The nature of Mr. Bueno de Mesquita’s company is less like those of a weather forecast as it is a palm reading at the local psychic. His various consulting firms give advice on matters from how to speed up legislative policy to, to our interest, how to influence a jury or counter the prosecution.
So where is this all heading in the long run? One possibility is that this will (and is currently) triggering an “arms race” of sorts regarding smart technology. However, others argue that such computer models will lay the future in conflict dispute. The question of interest becomes how validly can human decisions be modeled by computer simulations and probability. Will we be able to use such a model to predict the likelihood a defendant is guilty in a court of law? Or perhaps we can use it to examine something like the impartiality of the jury, itself? The boundaries between man, law, and science, it seems, become more blended every day.
Source: The Economist