Introducing The Conversation

Brainstorm readers: We’re excited to call your attention to The Conversation, The Chronicle’s new home for opinion and ideas online. Building on Brainstorm and Innovations, it includes many of the regular contributors you have seen over the years and offers new ones as well.

Please follow us there. We hope to enlighten and entertain, and we also hope to hear from you. Feel free to reach us at


My Painting Habit

In my previous post, I talked about how my experience in changing my way of sneezing taught me how hard it is to change a habit even in instances where we know it would be better for us if we did. Habits don’t merely concern things like the way we sneeze, however.  For example, habits writ large are what define a culture, for a culture is nothing but a vast collection of shared habits that go by the more lofty designation “customs.” And though it’s not apparent at first glance, habits a…


Watchdogs or Showdogs? The Final Installment

Jenny Dyck Brian

Is it a conflict of interest for a bioethicist to work as a paid consultant for the pharmaceutical industry?

In recent weeks I have posted my conversation with Jenny Dyck Brian of Arizona State University, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on corporate bioethics boards.  (See parts one, two and three.)  Today we reach the final installment.

Q: A lot of people outside bioethics seem shocked when I tell them about academic bioethicists working for pharma.  But within the field,…


Sneezing, Cars, and Cows

“Texas Cow Poke” by Clotee Pridgen Allochuku via Flickr/CC

Sometimes I find it useful to think about things that bear no obvious relation to one another. For example, I’ve recently been thinking about sneezing, cars, and cows, and a connection to the problem of climate change has occurred to me.

First, sneezing. When I was young, I was taught to cover my mouth with my hand whenever I sneezed. Good girl that I am, I followed this rule until a couple of years ago, when I read that in order not to …


Why Isn’t Evolutionary Medicine More Popular Than It Is?

You have got a fever, your body aches, and you feel dreadful. What should you do? The traditional answer is: “Take two aspirin, drink lots of fluids, get to bed and call me in the morning if you don’t feel better.” Could it be that this is just the wrong advice? That the last thing you should do is reduce your temperature with aspirin or ibuprofen or whatever? Is it, to use a phrase, nature’s way of fighting illness?

This is very much the position of a small group of biologists and medics who ar…


Watchdogs or Show Dogs 3: Eli Lilly

Jenny Dyck Brian

Do bioethicists make pharmaceutical companies more ethical?

This is a central question motivating my interview with Jenny Dyck Brian, an Arizona State University professor who wrote her doctoral dissertation on corporate bioethics boards. (See parts one and two of the interview.) Today we turn to Eli Lilly, a company that has had its share of ethical scandal: the recruitment of homeless alcoholics for drug-safety trials, the suicide of a healthy volunteer in a Cymbalta study, th…


This Chicken Tasted So Much Better Before It Was Full of Hate

Like many people, I spent my summer vacation with my large and fiercely loyal extended family. Unlike many people, my family is mixed. No, I don’t mean mixed race or mixed class, although we are that too, but mixed politically. There are plenty of lefties among us; there are also plenty of conservatives. During the Bush years, I often found it incomprehensible that these people whom I love and respect could vote for a man who got this country into wars they didn’t believe in and cultural battles…



I know you’re already sick of reading about MOOC’s. But I’m afraid there’s no avoiding them. In The Chronicle this morning, UCLA philosopher Pamela Hieronymi argues:

Education is often compared to two other industries upended by the Internet: journalism and publishing. This is a serious error. Education is not the transmission of information or ideas. Education is the training needed to make use of information and ideas.

And so forth, before concluding:

Can technology make education less expensi…


Some Concluding Evolutionary Mysteries

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Those of us engaged in teaching, writing and speaking about science are participating in a Great Deception – well-intended, to be sure, but a deception nonetheless. The gist of that deception is that we teach science as a list of established findings rather than what it really is: The world’s best and most rewarding process of “finding.” Students and the general public are for the most part receptive to learning about science, but all too often, thi…


Advice to a Student Who Didn’t Like His First Year of College

Dear —–,

Thanks for your note today; your mom told me you’d be writing to me to get some advice about how to make your second year at college better than your first.

Let’s begin: The best way to get off to a good start with your professors is to call them “Professor,” and, if they’re women, not “Miss” or “Mrs.”; “Ms.” is preferable to either of those, but I’d stick with “Professor” since you know the person whose advice you’re asking happens to be one of those.

It’s also good to spell that perso…


How to Recruit for the Humanities

In the most recent American Freshman Survey, the top reason for going to college was “to be able to get a better job,” with 85.9 percent of respondents rating it as “very important.” Only half of the respondents rated “to make me a more cultured person” as “very important” (50.3 percent).

No wonder the humanities now collect only around 12 percent of bachelor’s degrees, including history.  (See the Humanities Indicators project for handy compilations of data.)  According to the MLA, all the fore…


Watchdogs or Show Dogs 2: SmithKline Beecham

Jenny Dyck Brian

In the first part of my interview with Jenny Dyck Brian of Arizona State University about pharma’s bioethicists, we talked about whether or not ethicists could be used as public relations tools.  Today we turn to a specific case.  In the mid-1990s, SmithKline Beecham—a company that later became part of GlaxoSmithKline—set up its Ethics and Public Policy Board to look especially at issues in genomic science, an area in which the company was eager to become a leader.  The…


20 Funny: The August Version (Part 2)

11. “Have you ever wondered about the stupidity of the term ‘o’clock’?  Americans have happily incorporated into our everyday speech a term that makes us sound like leprechauns.” Gene Weingarten, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for The Washington Post, from The Hypochondriac’s Guide to Life. And Death.

12. Voice-mail prompt: “After the tone please leave your I.Q. or your blood pressure, whichever is higher.” Lewis Frumkes, author of How To Raise Your I.Q. by Eating Gifted Children.

13. On health f…



Iconic phrase from the old TV show, Dragnet; now reduced to an endangered species (Wikipedia)

I have a great fondness for experiences, ideas, certain people, many animals, places, even some things. And I assume you do, too. Among these sources of delight, respect, and appreciation, I would include regular old-fashioned facts, although with the full recognition that not all of them are equally verifiable, or even equally definable. Nor are they equally pleasant, although part of the pleasure come…


Small Government = Big Trouble

In the arresting words of an Atlantic headline, ”We Now Have Our Smallest Government in 45 Years.” The proportion of government workers in the population is down to where it was in 1968, a decline of about 10 percent from its peak in the year 2000. Since the official end of the Great Recession alone, there are 600,000 fewer folks on government payrolls.

If you’re a fan of Arthur Laffer, whose eponymous curve was the most deceptive geometrical form since the Stars and Bars, and who still enjoys t…


And Now Mars

It’s been almost half a century since Apollo 11 carried Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong to the moon. I remember running to make sure I’d catch the actual landing on television. Like many who heard Neil Armstrong’s first words when he walked on the moon, I heard them incorrectly. They are much more moving the way he actually said them: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” That a single man was walking on the moon was a magnificent idea, even th…


Watchdogs or Show Dogs?

Jenny Dyck Brian

Jenny Dyck Brian

It is no secret that many academic physicians work for the pharmaceutical industry as speakers and consultants. Less widely known is that the pharmaceutical industry also employs academic bioethicists.

Beginning in the 1990s, a number of pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies began to set up bioethics advisory boards, ostensibly to obtain guidance about controversial ethical issues. Over the years, the ties between industry and bioethics have gradually grown closer, with com…


It Takes A Cooperative to Raise a Child

More than 30 years ago, Elisabeth Landes and Richard Posner provocatively observed that a “glut” in black babies exists in the United States foster care system. Their controversially framed assessment attracted ardent criticism, including charges of racism. Nonetheless, Posner and his colleague touched on urgent and yet unresolved problems, including how to (a) provide more meaningful life opportunities for child wards of the state by transitioning them into permanent home placements, (b) re…


Private Greed, Public Loss

Protesters in front of Pennsylvania Station on Aug. 2, 1962 (Photo by Eddie Hausner/The New York Times. Click on image to get to source page.)

In 1882, New York Central Railroad president William Henry Vanderbilt declared, “The public be damned.” Although one might think this sentiment an anachronism that went away with the demise of 19th-century robber barons, it’s actually a perennial problem for democracies whenever private owners own what function as public spaces.

Here’s an example of wha…


When Medical Muckraking Fails

“The Man With the Muck Rake,” courtesy of National Archives UK

Everyone knows how muckraking is supposed to work.  An investigative reporter uncovers hidden wrongdoing; the public is outraged; and the authorities move quickly on behalf of justice and righteousness.  There can be failure at any of these points, of course.  Sometimes there is no outrage.  The timing of the story may be poor, or the media outlet might be too small to get any real attention.  If the target of the investigation …