Adventures in Ethics and Science

In the 20/27 December 2007 issue of Nature, there’s a fascinating commentary by Cambridge University neuroscientists Barbara Sahakian and Sharon Morein-Zamir. Entitled “Professor’s little helper,” this commentary explores, among other things, how “cognitive-enhancing drugs” are starting to find their way into the lifestyles of professors and students on university campuses, a development which raises some interesting ethical questions.

The questions are sufficiently rich here that this post will just serve as my first attempt to get some of the important issues on the table and to open it up for discussion. (There will also be an ongoing discussion of this commentary on the Nature Network website, in case you’re interested.)

Is there something unfair about taking cognitive enhancers in an academic setting?

Sometimes it seems the rules in academe are a lot fuzzier than the rules in baseball or cycling. Sahakian and Morein-Zamir found, in informal discussions with colleagues in the U.S. and the U.K., that academic scientists are already making use of compounds like modafinil (sometimes bought online) “to enhance productivity or mental energy, or to deal with demanding and important intellectual challenges.” (1158) They write:

For many, it seems that the immediate and tangible benefits of taking these drugs are more persuasive than concerns about legal status and adverse effects. There are clear trends suggesting that the use of stimulants such as methylphenidate on college campuses is on the rise, and is becoming more commonplace in ever younger students. Universities may have to decide whether to ban drug use altogether, or to tolerate it in some situations (whether to enable all-night study sessions or to boost alertness during lectures).

(1158)

Are cognitive enhancers on a par with steroids in sports?

Or are they simply an alternative for the kids who don’t like cola or cappuccino? Verily, the use of caffeine to enhance alertness and concentration is widespread, and you can obtain it legally, with no prescription, on nearly every block around an urban campus.

And really, if we have a worry that other sorts of substances (especially ones that aren’t clearly illegal) may be giving our colleagues or classmates an unfair edge, I think we have to dig a little deeper to ask some questions about the nature of the academic endeavor.

Should we think of the activity of students or scholars primarily as a competition to see who is the best?

If people make use of cognitive enhancers, are they significantly advantaged over their peers who do not? Is this the kind of thing that could screw up the curve in courses, make winning tenure easier for the chemically enhanced and harder for those working without the enhancers, and skew awards of grants toward the folks with the magic pills?

Even if cognitive enhancers had the potential to shift the standings in the competitions between students and between scholars to a dramatic degree, should we say that there’s a problem with the use of these drugs — or instead with the way the system is set up? Is it more unfair that some professors use a drug that gives them the mental energy to grade papers until 3 AM, or that the workload on professors is such that they have to stay up grading papers until 3 AM in order to have time to meet the obligations of their job?

I know there are professors who see teaching (and grading) students primarily in terms of weeding out and ranking. I’m not one of those professors. My goal is to help my students understand the material I’m teaching (as well as gain insight into how philosophers approach problems), and to help them hone their skills in critical thinking, reading, writing, and speaking, so they can go out into the world and take on the problems they want or need to solve.

Possibly some of my students would have an easier time achieving what I’d like them to achieve with the help of cognitive enhancers. (Others of my students may already be using cognitive enhancers prescribed for diagnosed disabilities.) I’m not sure I’d want to forbid my students making choices that helped put them in a state where they were better able to learn. Indeed, given how exhausted my students can be, I’ve sometimes been tempted to bring coffee to class.

But I have worries.

It could be that the demands on todays students are unreasonable (at least in terms of the time required to discharge them). Seventh graders are drinking coffee! High school students are staying up till 2 AM to get their school work done. Maybe giving the kids drugs to make these crazy schedules manageable is not the best response to the problem.

Do we know enough about long-term effects to accept drugs as a route to (possible) short-term improvements?

Do we even know much at this point about who will get an appreciable cognitive boost from these drugs? Some kind of reliable evidence — about efficacy and safety — would at least allow people to make informed choices before popping the pill their classmates are taking.

Are cognitive enhancers going to end up in the hands of the people who could most use the enhancement, or in the hands of the people who are already advantaged?

If the drugs are being purchased on the internet for enhancement rather than being prescribed for “legitimate needs” (as construed by doctors and health insurance carriers), it seems likely that more rich kids than poor kids will be using them. These are the same kids who are more likely to show up at university with the benefit of an excellent secondary education (and possibly private tutoring) — in other words, the kids who were already doing well rather than struggling.

Well, maybe it’s up to rich kids to decide how to spend their money. But what kind of impact would increasing the disparities have on our mission to educate all the students who come to us? How much harder will it be for us to bring the under-prepared kids up to where they should be if they are also “under-enhanced”?

Would I take cognitive enhancers?

I don’t think that I would.

I confess that I have a serious caffeine dependency right now, and I’d like to try to quit. The cognitive enhancer I’d really like to use is adequate sleep.

But I think I’d take a pass on the other options, even if I had reason to believe that most of my colleagues were using them.

I think I’d worry whether the good work I did was really mine.

Honestly, I’m conflicted about this attitude of mine towards the products of thinking with my “natural” brain. I don’t think the work of my colleagues who take medications for their depression or ADHD or anxiety is any less their work. I understand that they need their meds to function in the ways that feel “proper” to them.

But I find myself feeling that my brain ought to function pretty well as it is, and that making it do so is primarily a matter of discipline. I want to know what I can do with what I’ve got. The competition is a matter of living up to my own potential rather than ranking favorably compared to someone else.

I’m still thinking this through. Maybe more coffee will help, but so will your thoughts on these issues, so lay them on me.

Update: Shelley weighs in here.

Comments

  1. #1 BikeMonkey
    December 19, 2007

    “Would I take cognitive enhancers?

    I don’t think that I would.

    I confess that I have a serious caffeine dependency right now,”

    As the old punch line goes, We’ve already established what you are madam, all we are doing now is negotiating the price.

    As far as ethics goes in sports doping vs. academic doping the issues are precisely the same. You think caffeine is a-okay as a doping agent. You wouldn’t try and stop students from having a nicotine patch on during class either, would you? Ritalin? Meth? no-no. What’s the difference? Why are “natural supplements” which possibly include steroid or ‘roid-like actions okay but BALCO-derived products bad? Why are completely artificial performance enhancers like Gatorade, glucose drips (see TdF) and subcutaneous or IV fluid-replacement okay where natural ephedra-containing or THC-containing consumables are banned? What clear and consistent policy can we establish other than “because I said so”?

  2. #2 BikeMonkey
    December 19, 2007

    Actually a prior editorial in Nature raised an even better ethical issue which goes beyond personal choice. It boils down this observation. Wouldn’t you maybe agree to become addicted to crack if you were going to be able to cure cancer?

    cross to Retrospectacle

  3. #3 vika
    December 19, 2007

    The only legal cognitive-enhancing drug with which I’m personally familiar, besides caffeine and nicotine, is modafinil (which Shelley touches on in her post). For several years, starting third year in college and through my fifth year of grad school, I couldn’t stay awake when sitting still for long periods of time. As far as I can tell, this was the result of OD’ing on chocolate-covered espresso beans, which ended up trashing my immune system and significantly changing my body’s reaction to caffeine for several years afterwards.

    Anyway. The falling-asleep bit was a problem, to put it mildly: whether working at a computer, driving a car or sitting in a three-hour seminar with, like, six other people (nowhere to hide!), at some point I started nodding off regardless of how hard I tried not to. That’s how I got modafinil prescribed in the first place.

    From what I know of it, it doesn’t enhance anything so much as prevent the “I’m tired” signal to travel through my body. If I took it when already tired, it had no effect. It had to be taken before the weariness hit, and it helped me both stay awake and concentrate. Too bad there was a side effect: after a month or so of regular use I started having terrible mood swings when coming down from it, so bad that I voluntarily stopped using modafinil unless I really, really needed it.

    Oddly enough, the time I spent on it seemed to have re-calibrated my body. I still need coffee on long road trips, but then, I like driving across the U.S. :)

    As to ethics: we enhance and diminish our performance all the time with stuff we ingest. In stressful academic situations I function much better when there’s lots of protein in my body; is that cheating? Likewise, poorer students tend to get worse nutrition; is this unfair? Ultimately I don’t believe that it’s an ethical question; the real value of academic research is the results, and if yours aren’t good enough, performance enhancing only buys you time, not additional brain. The economic disparity among students is quite real, though; in this academe mirrors the rest of the world.

  4. #4 Janet D. Stemwedel
    December 19, 2007

    Yup, it seems like the line between what we think it’s OK to put into our body and what we think is out of bounds is pretty darned arbitrary. That’s why I’m only speculating about what I would do, given the option.

    But given that drugs are just chemicals, and we’re ingesting chemicals all the time (in our food and beverages), and that our bodies are making their own chemicals, I wonder how the lines we draw could avoid being tied to our personal and cultural ‘druthers.

    Mine include generally not wanting to spend money on stuff I can do without, not wanting to incur unknown risks, and not setting too many variables into motion at once in my head.

    But I don’t think there’s a good reason my ‘druthers should be normative for anyone but me.

  5. #5 Spaulding
    December 19, 2007

    Your coffee analogy is apt.

    Is it unethical for a student, a teacher, or any other professional to use a calculator? A computer? Reading glasses? Insulin? Notes? A supportive family?

    The role of technology is to provide a tool to exceed our physical or mental limitations. Dependency is a disadvantage of technology, as technology users do not develop the mental habits or physical muscles and calluses that would be appropriate to a non-technological lifestyle.

    This is part of the reason that Socrates opposed the use of written language. It’s a pretty old conversation, and it’s pretty tired when you note the standard pattern:

    civilization embracing a technology in the past = a good tradeoff

    civilization embracing a technology in the future, or the young ‘uns embracing it now = oh noes!

    Sure, if these enhancers are significantly detrimental to long-term health, that knowledge should be promoted. Beyond that, it’s just another tool in a long line of similar aids.

  6. #6 monson
    December 19, 2007

    So, What should I take to improve performance? Has there been research to show what works best? i know that sleep and eating good help but if I could get a little more help I would take it.

  7. #7 Markk
    December 19, 2007

    “As far as ethics goes in sports doping vs. academic doping the issues are precisely the same.”

    To me no – in fact almost opposite. Academics, except in narrow cases where competing for grad schools (and even there the high end colleges look at the whole person right…well anyway), are not about competing with each other. As a person who has interviewed my share of graduates for industry, achievement was loosely based on grades, they were more of a hurdle to get over, a baseline. I wouldn’t care what the student took, supplement wise – as long as it wasn’t illegal, or damaging to the students health in a large degree. In fact, I want to know where these super drugs or supplements are for distribution? Looking at the drugs suggested though, these aren’t really enhancing anything much, they are just keeping people awake. Where is the EPO for the brain that jumps you 20% in mental metabolism? Where is the testosterones that let you “recover” from learning one subject quickly and put you in mind for another. I think if these existed they would, if relatively safe, be recommended, not made illegal.

    We are not trying to level a playing field in schools, we are trying to get each student to perform at their best, a degree is just that, a level of knowledge and background.

  8. #8 Gelfling
    December 19, 2007

    “starting to appear”?

    Was i really the only one who recrystallized ephedrine for…..non-recordable experiements?

    Somehow i think not. And i know i was the conservative one in my lab.

  9. #9 Spaulding
    December 19, 2007

    Also, differential availability of enhancements is at best a digression.

    If the goal is to level the academic playing field, then socialized, federally funded education organised via blind meritocracy is the way to go. Also, students should receive all meals in their dorm’s cafeterias. Preferably, parental involvement should end with weaning at the very latest.

    Then we can talk about how unfair it is that only some of the students will have an extra hundred bucks to spend on some pills.

    Seriously, every new technology launches with an income gap. That’s not a non-issue, but it’s not an argument against a particular technology, nor against technology in general. “If the poor can’t have it, no-one will” is not a good mantra for a civilization.

  10. #10 Donalbain
    December 19, 2007

    The ethics of sport and academia are completely different. Sport has a set of arbitary rules that are there SPECIFICALLY to make things more difficult to achieve in order to make the sport entertaining to watch and to play. For example, in baseball, you can’t use a bat the size of a barn door because it would make the sport too easy. By choosing to play the sport, you sign up to those rules accepting that entertainment of others is the primary purpose of the endeavour. One of those rules in some sports is that you can’t take drugs.
    Academia is not made up of rules that are speccifically designed to make things harder (it just sometimes seems that way), the aim is to expand the grand total of human knowledge and taking drugs may well help towards that end.

  11. #11 Peter Ashby
    December 19, 2007

    When I was an undergrad there were two guys in our hall who decided to use nodoze to crash study the night the before an exam. They woke up an hour after the exam had started… IIRC the work with the stimulants the airforce uses on its pilots shows that when you borrow energy like this you must pay it back. The brain is a major energy user in the human body, cognition uses energy or fMRI wouldn’t work. It’s the same with MDMA/Ecstasy use up all those neurotransmitters that intensively and when it wears off you will be deficient.

    Multi day endurance event participants know that going without sleep for too long elicits hallucinations. I expect that these things will have similar paybacks and we may find that unless we are very careful (students careful?) we may end up like those two guys, no better off in the long run.

    But hey, we are suckers for anything that is perceived to give the faintest advantage, remember all those athletes with those nose plasters on? And here was me thinking that lung function was never limiting in healthy people, that was cardiac output.

  12. #12 mollishka
    December 19, 2007

    But I find myself feeling that my brain ought to function pretty well as it is, and that making it do so is primarily a matter of discipline.

    This is why many people are anti-antidepressants.

  13. #13 Brandon
    December 19, 2007

    Some of the above discussion seems to me to be obscured by the tendency to lump in a number of very different things under the label ‘academic’, which is term indicating a set of institutions, not a unified project. For instance, one of the things done in academia is assessment and certification of students: in effect, this is one of the primary reasons for having degree and specialization programs rather than simply having a system that is more like a large-scale community college continuing education program (which would be more reasonable if, for instance, we put a greater weight on one of the other functions of academic life, like general education of the public, than on giving students authentic credentials for the workplace, which is one of the big academic money-makers). And a potential worry is about how cognitive enhancers might mess up the value of this function if, for instance, the assessment can’t distinguish someone who normally meets certain standards from someone who only meets them when hyped up on something.

    I agree with some of the commenters who think this worry is not so serious. But it can’t be dismissed by handwaving; it isn’t immediately obvious why enhancers wouldn’t be a problem for assessment in academia given that they are a problem for other sorts of assessment. (I think the commenters who have raised questions about how much these cognitive enhancers are really cognitive enhancers probably have a stronger argument; then the question really does become, ‘Well, how does this really differ from things like drinking coffee to wake up or taking ibuprofen to eliminate a headache on the day of a test?’)

    But if we look at other functions of academic life and institutions (like research and discovery) we might well get a very different view.

  14. #14 Nat
    December 19, 2007

    Janet posed a series of questions.

    ****”Is there something unfair about taking cognitive enhancers in an academic setting?”

    We already do. It’s called caffeine. We also take bright light sometimes. Are these unfair? Because we already employ these. We also employ years of academic instruction where equity of access is a real and enduring problem. I’m not sure that unfair is a term I find useful in this discussion.

    ****”Should we think of the activity of students or scholars primarily as a competition to see who is the best?”

    This is what kids have drilled into them from an early age (it seems especially in America). It was only half way through a PhD when I realised that grades probably didn’t matter as much as I was led to beleive. However, that didn’t help me get a PhD stipend through the traditional routes -as they were all based on grades and not actual academic output/performance (i.e. papers). But then the question was ‘Should we?’. The answer is probably that we shouldn’t, but the fact that we do.

    ****”Do we know enough about long-term effects to accept drugs as a route to (possible) short-term improvements?”

    Which drugs specifically? You will need to have sufficient knowledge of each particular chemical agent in order to answer that question for each particular chemical agent. Furthermore, if you don’t use the ‘drugs’ long-term you cannot possibly have information about their long term effects. To have knowledge of long term effects you just have to wait to find out.

    ****”Are cognitive enhancers going to end up in the hands of the people who could most use the enhancement, or in the hands of the people who are already advantaged?”

    I think somebody has already answered this above. New technology usually ends up being used by the best off first. Back in undergrad I couldn’t afford a cup of coffee anyway.

    ****”Would I take cognitive enhancers?”

    I already do -every morning and sometimes once more in the day. Coffee. Been around a long time, effective and safe. I also have access to modafinil. It’s also been around a while (70s) although it’s long term effects have not been well studied. I would use it for continuous operations (i.e. data collection for 24 hours or at 3AM) given it’s efficacy. However, I haven’t had the need to do it yet. I think that if I had Janet’s all night marking session lined up before a hard deadline I probably would employ modafinil.

  15. #15 Sandra Kiume
    December 19, 2007

    The best cognitive enhancers are not drugs, they’re diet, exercise and adequate sleep. Is optimizing health cheating, in a world of junk food and sleep deprivation? I wonder.

  16. #16 Super Sally
    December 19, 2007

    High school students are staying up till 2 AM to get their school work done.

    Not new-trig class homework usually took that long. Neither is 3 day marathon to finish college senior research write-up before deadline. Caffeine was the drug of choice, but hard to come down off after the marathon. It took some time to be able to sleep and for stomach to settle. Glad I was not walking into an exam in that condition.

    And I remember when you avoided caffeine, because it kept you awake…

    So even “legit” choices have at least temporary harmful effects.

  17. #17 Lab Lemming
    December 19, 2007

    Janet, how much coffee do you drink? More than 2 and a half cups is enough to fail a doping test, were you to compete in an official athletic event.

  18. #18 BikeMonkey
    December 19, 2007

    “More than 2 and a half cups is enough to fail a doping test, were you to compete in an official athletic event.”

    Sure about this LL? The 2007 WADA list has caffeine in the “2007 Monitoring Program” but it is not a “Prohibited Substance”. The 2007 US AntiDopingAgency (USADA) list seems to directly quote the WADA list on stimulants, so ditto. It used to be one of the threshold substances (under 12 micrograms/ml of urine and you were OK) but was delisted as of Jan 1, 2004 from what I can tell.

  19. #19 Alan Kellogg
    December 19, 2007

    Is it fair? Life isn’t fair. Life is can be very unfair, and even when starting conditions are fair, results tend to be unfair.

    We are not created equal, we differ in ability, capability, and potential. Often greatly. Most of the readers of this blog also live in a competitive culture. We think in terms of winning and losing, and of gaining whatever advantage we can in our efforts. We can either impose a ban on cognitive enhancement medication, and thus create a new enforcement nightmare; or make the new drugs widely available to everyone at low cost, and thus give all who wish the assistance the chance to obtain those drugs.

    Do we ban, tolerate, allow, or encourage? Why?

  20. #20 PhysioProf
    December 19, 2007

    Here is what I posted at DrugMonkey’s joint:

    “The ethical issues only become interesting if a drug can actually enhance performance in normal individuals.

    I have seen evidence that use of various stimulants can enhance the performance of both regular and naive users in certain very contrived and constrained cognitive tasks. However, I have seen no evidence at all that any drugs can actually improve cognitive performance on real tasks that matter (here, in the context of acadmic science, but analogously in any other field of intellectual pursuit): designing an experiment, writing a grant, delivering a seminar, etc, let alone at long-term goals like obtaining a Ph.D., getting an academic position, getting tenure, etc.

    Until there is evidence that any of that stuff can be enhanced, the ethical dimension is completely uninteresting.”

  21. #21 bill
    December 20, 2007

    I think I’d worry whether the good work I did was really mine.

    [...]

    I don’t think the work of my colleagues who take medications for their depression or ADHD or anxiety is any less their work.

    One of these has got to go. I know my position (quick version: the only relevant caveat is side-effects!), but I’d really like to hear you think this through.

  22. #22 Kurt
    December 20, 2007

    I can’t get myself too excited about this question; it doesn’t seem to me that there are any real ethical issues involved if the “cognitive enhancers” 1) actually work to some degree and 2) don’t have negative side effects. (Of course those are two big “if”s.) I don’t think the analogy with sports competition is at all valid.

    Let’s up the ante a little bit…I fully expect that something like the following scenario will occur in my lifetime: Suppose you are planning to conceive a child, and there is a gene manipulation therapy available which will result in your child having an enlarged neocortex with 20% more neurons, and a correspondingly increased cognitive ability. Studies [presumably done by godless atheist scientists in former-east-block countries, or maybe by RaĆ«lians] indicate that the risk of the procedure is similar to standard in-vitro fertilization, and the resulting offspring show no adverse side effects. Would you do it?

  23. #23 Anonymous
    December 20, 2007

    I think I’d worry whether the good work I did was really mine.

    What makes it “yours”? It came into existence based on your efforts. Sure, you may have needed the drugs, but you needed a lot of other things as well (your education, funding and resources, etc.). None of these dependencies make it any less valuable as a contribution to human knowledge, or any less your contribution. From this perspective, there is no ethical reason not to take the drugs. It will make life harder for people whose goal is to show off their natural abilities, but this is not a goal I’m sympathetic to.

    The one ethical issue I can see concerns stopping taking these drugs. Suppose I take performance-enhancing drugs early in life, but stop once I get tenure. (Even assuming the drugs are safe, perhaps I’d rather not spend the money.) Then I’ll have used them to compete for my position, but I will be unable to maintain this level of performance for the rest of my career. Considering that most of my career will be post-tenure, this is unfair to the non-drug-using candidates who could have done just as well in the long run.

    On the other hand, this ethical issue is no different from the situation we already have with hard work. Someone who works outrageously hard (to an unsustainable degree) to get tenure with no intention of working that hard afterwards is competing unfairly.

  24. #24 steppen wolf
    December 20, 2007

    Dear all,

    I posted my reply as…well, a post! Check it out if you wish – right here

    But in brief, I would be wary of allowing the legalization of these drugs for the use by the healthy. And let me ask you something: if healthy people take Ritalin to improve their performance, what drug do we need to make to get unhealthy people to “catch up” again, now that their drugs have been basically hijacked? Not a minor ethical problem…

  25. #25 SteveG
    December 20, 2007

    Are we debating whether there should be an asterisk next to A+’s on certain people’s transcripts? I mean, he was a solid B+/A- student until one semester, all of a sudden, he’s quoting Seneca…in the original Latin…it just isn’t natural. But the profs have to share in the blame because we encouraged it with our curves to the highest score. If you wanted to get into grad school in the 90s, you had little choice since the competition was doing it.

  26. #26 Dave S.
    December 20, 2007

    Academia is not made up of rules that are speccifically designed to make things harder (it just sometimes seems that way), the aim is to expand the grand total of human knowledge and taking drugs may well help towards that end.

    It seems to me that if you’re going to take an ‘ends justifies the means’ approach, then that should be as valid in a non-academic setting as an academic one. Why should academe enjoy an exemption? Athletes take steroids or HGH or red blood cell injections, all of which are manufactured naturally anyway (except for maybe some weird designer steroids, but then again humans don’t naturally manufacture caffeine either). And if they improve performance, doesn’t that end also justify the means? If there is nothing unfair about taking cognitive enhancers for students, is there also nothing unfair about say professional chess players from taking the same enhancers?

    I’m just rambling here.

  27. #27 coathangrrr
    December 20, 2007

    Anonymous:On the other hand, this ethical issue is no different from the situation we already have with hard work. Someone who works outrageously hard (to an unsustainable degree) to get tenure with no intention of working that hard afterwards is competing unfairly.

    I think the problem comes in when we expect everyone to work to that same degree, especially when we know it is unsustainable. But, I would argue this is pretty much already the case in many milieus.I know a great number of people who are expected to work at an unreasonable rate so they can make some unreasonable goal. Moreover, a big part of this is built into the system. People accept the overwork at an early level because they know they will get to have over people overwork for them later.

    Nat:We already do. It’s called caffeine.

    Most definitely. I get a little tired of caffeine being brought up as an “analogy.” It isn’t an analogy, it is an enhancer, it just isn’t a pharmaceutical enhancer. I remember attending the bio-ethics track at the APA-pacific last year and there was about three papers in a row on just this topic. At each one I mentioned coffee and how it is a neuro-enhancer and the most cogent response I got was “I drink coffee.”

  28. #28 Frederick Ross
    December 20, 2007

    I am not addicted to caffeine (I loathe coffee, and mostly drink rooibos). Looking at this issue, I am completely unconcerned. As an experimental scientist, I generate ideas, design experiments to test them, analyze the results, and absorb relevant external material. I produce so many ideas that I generally abandon over half of them simply because I don’t physically have time to run the experiments to test them. For someone not doing particle physics or caught up in an -omics fad, data analysis is simply not rate limiting. Further, physical enhancers aren’t going to help me because most of my experiments actually require time in order for reality to take its course. And if I were to absorb external material faster, I might generate ideas faster, but if I’m already saturated, what difference does it make?

    Anyway, I’m not really sure what these drugs could enhance that would be useful. Brute force and focus isn’t the limiting factor in, say, physics class, unless you really didn’t understand algebra, much less calculus. Can these enhancers throw my associative net wider so I can find the strand which unsnarls a problem faster?

    And what about therapies which rewire your brain to work in more effective ways, such as calculational mathematics? In this sense, the invention of high school algebra is the most potent performance enhancer ever discovered by man.

  29. #29 GF
    December 20, 2007

    Interesting post and good comments.

    A number of fine things have been said. Although I am certainly not a philosopher, an anecdote springs to mind. Earlier this year, a grad student in the lab where I am working as a postdoc commented that I drink a lot of coffee, which is generally an unhealthy thing to do (is that really true – I don’t know). My reply was this, “I’m, up at least twice a night to rock my daughter back to sleep…I need it.” It had never before occurred to me that this might be a question of ethics. It seems like there is a lot of hand-wringing in the comments about where to draw the ethical line. Like many things, I suspect that academia is too general a category to draw a specific boundary. Instead, more specific situations should to be discussed…

  30. #30 potentilla
    December 21, 2007

    If you look at the problem from outside the world of academic competition for a moment, it is easy to draw a distinction between academe and sports.

    Academics are striving to produce somethat is useful or interesting or valuable to the rest of the world (whether research or teaching). So, ignoring the issue of side-effects for the moment, the rest of the world doesn’t care two hoots whether the academic has enhanced her cognitive abilities, it is just pleased with the results.

    Sportspeople produce entertainment for the rest of the world (and nothing else; there is no value inherent in running 100m faster than anyone has before, other than the excitment it provides to other people). So, and again ignoring side-effects, to the extent that using performance-enhancing drugs reduces the entertainment value, they should not do so

    I am not too impressed with the “maybe it wouldn’t really be my work” intuition, probably becasue I have a lot of first-hand experience of how one’s cognitive abilities can wax and wane, in my case due to serious disease, so I don’t think there is a useful sense of “really me” here. But, allowing for that intuition; Janet, here’s a thought experiment for you; if there were a drug which was guaranteed to have no side-effects, and which worked by enormously increasing (perhaps to close to 100%) the proportion of your thinking time at which you could think at your own personal best in terms of cognitive ability, would you take it? It wouldn’t make you ‘more clever’, it would make you ‘clever more often’?

    And if not, how is it different from coffee?

  31. #31 kururin
    December 21, 2007

    Good point, there is a big distinction between academia and sports. It seems a little idealistic to me, however, to think the only motivation for taking performance enhancers would be to increase output for the benefit of others. True, academics like to think they’re contributing to the advancement of knowledge but what about when that discovery or breakthrough is what wins them research grants? Or higher positions within an institute? The same can be said of athletes, there’s nothing like the idea of fame, going down in the records and even commercial deals that can all come from that split-second, skin-of-the-teeth victory. In both cases there’s a more self-centred motivation that might drive one to taking these substances.

  32. #32 potentilla
    December 23, 2007

    kururin – no, I wasn’t suggesting that the academics would take performance enhancers for the benefit of others (that would indeed be a lot idealistic). I was just pointing out that the outside world, in relation to its own interests, doesn’t care if academics take p-es, whereas it does care if sportspeople do.

    So the academics could be taking p.es and arguing internally about whether it was fair that should happen or fair that some of them could afford better ones than the others, and the outside world would have no interest in the arguments, because from its point of view, it was getting the best research and teaching possible, and wouldn’t mind whether that was achieved “naturally” or “artificially”, because it was the end that it was interested in.

    Whereas in sport, “the end” has little or no inherent value to the spectators; it’s the competition that has the value.

  33. #33 Amy
    December 26, 2007

    I take modafinil for narcolepsy. It can have some unpleasant side effects, and the results are not that spectacular. Honestly, if I were healthy, I wouldn’t even bother with it.

    One thing that concerns me is the increasing pressure to work long hours. I would hate to live in a world where the standard work-week keeps increasing to the point that people can’t spend time with their families. I’d love a career in research, but I’m pretty concerned about the demands of graduate school and an academic job.

  34. #34 Donalbain
    December 28, 2007

    DaveS:
    You ask why we dont go down the “ends justifies the means” route in sport as well as academia, well we do. It is just that the ends we have in mind are different. In sport, the aim is entertainment for the spectators and the players. So, building a brick wall across your goal in football would reduce the entertainment because it would make life too easy. Similarly, people feel that their entertainment in competing or watching is diminished if people play whilst on drugs.

  35. #35 YoungFrankie
    January 7, 2008

    Are the effects of these cognitive enhancers so great that they actually do give people an unfair advantage over others, more so than their natural abilities? The effects of steroids on sports performance are noticeable when you have two athletes in peak physical fitness running at speeds within a hundredth of a second of each other, whereas I doubt the fact that I drink gallons more coffee than a classmate would make me a better student.

    But what I really have to add to this conversation is…

    “My goal is to help my students understand the material I’m teaching (as well as gain insight into how philosophers approach problems), and to help them hone their skills in critical thinking, reading, writing, and speaking, so they can go out into the world and take on the problems they want or need to solve.”

    …why can’t all my professors be like you!!!!