Friday, January 11, 2008

Brain Doping and the Myth of Academia as a Meritocracy

The other day I discussed brain doping issues and following the discussion, I found some commentary by a PhD student in neuroscience on the issue.

Interest in potions and drugs which increase awareness and "brain power" has been around for thousands of years. Many natural compounds from ginseng to coffee to cocaine have been touted as a dubious panacea for a muddled mind. However in the pharmaceutical age, we are now in possession of agents which actually do enhance cognition through changes in neurotransmitter release....

People have been engaging in "cognitive doping" for ages. Today the legal drug of choice for cognitive enhancement is caffeine, although nicotine may also have the effect of focusing people. Both of these drugs have side effects which are dose- and delivery-dependent and are quite addictive. However their demand and daily use are staggering.

There is a booming industry in herbal enhancers like St. John's wort or ginseng, which have evidence to back up some of their claims, although side effects and drug interactions are still an issue.

And it is difficult to argue that taking a cognitive enhancer is cheating in the academic sense, since a pill will never inform you as to the correct answer on a multiple-choice test or give you the answer to any essay question. It will only improve the focus and grasp on information which you already know. |Cognitive Enhancers in Academic Doping - Retrospectacle|
Retrospectacle has her own interesting discussion, but also sends one to Adventures in Ethics and Science for more.

Reading through the commentary I again find myself feeling that all the discussion of "cheating" is rather naive and makes unfounded assumptions about academia being a true meritocracy and confuses the desire for a level playing field with the reality.

I think the commenter Spaulding makes some good points:
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. |Link|

And another good point:

[The] 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. |Link|

The world is not fair and never will be. I don't say this as a defeatist, but as a way of focusing on the reality of the situation and trying to determine what is the best public policy and how the law should comport with that public policy.

I think good public policy should treat people as rational actors (until they prove otherwise at least) and allow them to make informed decisions about what drugs/chemicals to take and the possible consequences and benefits.

In general, I think a free society allows consented adults to do whatever they damn well please.

But when the potential advantages are academics coming up with better innovations and technologies for society, then, I say subsidize the smart drugs and hand them out like candy canes at Christmas.

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