Blog Archives

Sam Harris: Science Can Answer Moral Questions

Timely and provocative, here is Sam Harris on facts, values, morals and perceptions. Jump here for lesson ideas. Trigger alert (it’s Sam Harris): some raw issues discussed.

Sex, Lies and Cigarettes

I came across this video via Steve Harton’s Hartonline Bio website and clicked on it because of the Indonesia connection. I’m glad I did, though it made me quite angry.



Having spent most of the last eight years in Indonesia, I have long been concerned about the ubiquity of the tobacco industry and the all-pervasive nature of the advertising. Everything – literally everything – is sponsored by tobacco. From TV and movies to sports (!), some schools (!!) and music concerts. There is no escaping the message that smoking is cool, good for you and leads to an exciting life.

So how did it get this way when the developed world is shunning the dangers of smoking?

This 40-minute documentary by Vanguard puts it all in context. From the viral video sensation of Aldi the smoking baby, to the simple, ruthless economics of exploiting a developing country and targeting their children as an emerging market, the film-makers lay it out clearly and passionately. It focuses too on the work of an anti-smoking action group who face the huge challenge of taking on big tobacco in a country where so much depends on it – it’s a major cash crop and source of income.

This video is a YouTube upload, but there are clips and resources on the official Vanguard page.

I loved the bit where the Miss Indonesia contestants help the film-maker crash the World Tobacco Asia conference!

Some questions and thoughts to consider when watching the movie:

  1. Near the end of the movie, there is a quote from Warren Buffett: “I’ll tell you why I like the cigarette business. It costs a penny to make. Sell it for a dollar. It’s addictive. And there’s fantastic brand loyalty.” Although he has changed his stance on tobacco, it neatly illustrates the bottom-line ethos of business.
  2. As a publicly-owned company, your main responsibility is to the shareholder – you must maximise profits. Discuss the ethics of targeting children in emerging economies as a market.
  3. Accepted science states that tobacco is addictive and harmful to human health. Why then has this not been recognised by the Indonesian government?
One thing I noticed that the film does not mention – in recent years, anti-smoking has started to take off and it is now forbidden to smoke in public transport and restaurants (still allowed here in Japan). Does this mean the movement is gaining ground? Time will tell.

For more good documentaries, have a look at Vanguard's website.

Lorenzo’s Oil: Grade 11 Review

Lorenzo’s Oil is brilliant for reviewing much of the content of Grade 11, and in particular the Genetics and Biochemistry components of this semester. As you watch, answer the questions on the question sheet.

More ALD resources:

Myelin Project: Augusto Odone’s Website

ALD information page, from the NIH

AccessExcellence questions and ideas for Lorenzo’s Oil

The First Synthetic Lifeform

Here is Craig Venter announcing the successful self-replication of a cell with an entirely synthetic genome:

This is one of the biggest news stories of the year, and time will tell what its implications are. It has been extensively covered in the media, and will surely be a part of school ethics discussions for years to come.The full Science paper is online here.

Search for news stories and resources to help you answer these questions:

1. In what ways is this the first synthetic organism?

2. What were the success criteria for this organism?

3. What failsafes were put in place should the bacterium become widespread?

4. What are some of the potential applications of this new technology?

5. What are some of the ethical implications of synthetic biology? Identify stakeholders in the debate and outline their point of view.

Stem Cell Foundation: Rock Stars of Science

This is a moving clip from the StemCellFoundation, and their channel has lots of decent, informative video clips. Check it out.

Michael Specter – The Danger of Science Denialism

Why do otherwise rational, sensible people choose to reject good science in some cases and believe unfounded claims in others?

With apparently eroding trust in government and authority, people are looking to less reliable sources of information – which is particularly dangerous when it comes to health. On the one hand, they believe stories such as ‘Facebook causes cancer‘, or in the unproven alt-meds of homeopathy and vitamin supplements, yet they reject solid scientific evidence with regard to vaccine safety, anti-retroviral drugs or GM crops.

As Michael Specter says in this TED 2010 talk, “We hate BigPharma… and we run from it into the arms of Big Placebo*.”

“The idea that we should not allow science to do its job because we are afraid is really very deadening, and it’s preventing millions of people from prospering.”

From a TOK perspective, how does this talk highlight the clash between emotion and reason in the ways of knowing? (Or as Specter says, “You have the right to your own beliefs- but not your own facts.”)

*The industry in non-proven remedies and vitamin supplements runs to billions of dollars a year.

Gene Patent Overturned: Bioethics in Action

This week a federal judge in the USA overturned patents on the BRCA1 and 2 genes, which are held by biotechnology company Myriad.The genes are implicated in breast and cervical cancer in women, specifically those who have a hereditary risk of developing cancer. Myriad’s gene sequence test is good at detecting sequences that indicate risk in these women, and they have patented this sequence of genes. The American Civil Liberties Union, among others, have been campaigning against the patenting of genes – products of nature.

Here is a really good video (45 mins) from Duke University. Prof Robert Cook-Deegan, the director of the Center for Genome Ethics, Law & Policy at Duke’s Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy, discusses issues surrounding the patenting of genes, including the case of Myriad Genetics:

The news story from Science magazine is here, and makes for good reading.

Also, read this neat article from BadScience: “I patent your ass. And your leg…

Since the Human Genome Project, up to 20% of human genes have been patented by their discoverers. By patenting the genes – which are present in all of us – the companies responsible have control over what can be done with regards to research, diagnostic testing and treatment.

Here is a short video on the BRCA1 gene (critical in women), from OvarianCancerDr:


1. What was the effect of the patent on research and medicine?

2. What is the effect of the patent being overturned now likely to be?

3. Explain the significance of the clause that states “…[patent #5,747,282] makes claim to any sequence of 15 nucleotides, the “letters” of the genetic code, coding for any part of the protein made by the BRCA1 gene.

4. Who are the major stakeholders in gene patenting and the current Myriad case?

5. What would you do to balance the needs of the biotech industry with freedom to research science without fear of litigation or being blocked?

6. What are the strengths and weaknesses of genetic testing services?

7. What would you do if you knew you had a family history of a type of cancer and knew there was a test you could take to assess your risk?

8. If you could have a full genome-scan done, would you? Why or why not?

9. From a TOK perspective, how does this higlight the issues of ‘knowledge’? Who ‘owns’ knowledge if it is discovered? Would the case be different if Myriad were patenting a gene that they had created rather than one which already exists?

Resource List:

BRCA1 and 2 genes, from the National Cancer Institute

Gene Patents, from the American Civil Liberties Union

Duke Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy

Bad Science article, from Ben Goldacre

Genetic Engineering & Biotech resources

Here’s the class presentation:

Essential Biology: 4.4 Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology

For more resources on each of the types of biotech studied, head over to the main page.

The Cove

Winner of the Sundance 2009 audience award:

Find out more about the cove here:

Official Website

If you get the chance to see it, think about how it links with the Ecology and Conservation unit:

What is happening in terms of bioaccumulation and biomagnification of toxins?

Is this approach to the dolphin populations sustainable?

ToK Link:

The actions portrayed in the movie are considered by many to be unethical but by those committing them to be a necessary part of life. Think about what determines one’s set of personal ethics – what parts of our own lives might be considered unethical by others? Are there actions we carry out which are unethical but which we choose not to think about because it is uncomfortable or inconvenient to do so?

International Mindedness:

How does this method of farming compare to intensive cattle and poultry farming in other industrialised countries?

Here’s a short clip of an intensively-farmed chicken’s life:

And you and find out more about it on Channel 4’s Hugh’s Chicken Run page.

Why is Science Important?

The most important question any science teacher should ask themself – because if we don’t have a good answer, what are we doing in the classroom? I heard about this after listening to the Guardian’s Science Weekly podcast. Alom Shaha, a science teacher and film-maker, went into the pod to promote and discuss his project: Why is Science Important?

The result of his efforts is a website full of great answers to the question, along with a 30-minute film.

Watch the full film here:
Why is Science Important? from Alom Shaha on Vimeo.

Or if your connection can’t hack it, it’s broken into chunks here:

So… Why is Science important?

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