“Brains on Trial”: Research on Groups & Concern for Individuals

By Matthew L Baum

What are the implications of advances in brain science for the justice system? This was the topic of a panel discussion held Tuesday at MIT’s McGovern Institute and moderated by Alan Alda in conjunction with the premier of his new PBS special, “Brains on Trial”. The  discussion ranged from using fMRI for lie-detection to using it to help determine the reliability of an eye-witness.

In general, the panel rightly pointed out practical limitations of these technologies. Panelist Nancy Kanwisher highlighted, for example, that research on lie-detection is done in a controlled, non-threatening environment from which we may be unable to generalize to criminal courts where the stakes are high.

While I was sympathetic to most of this discussion, I was puzzled by one point that the panel raised several times: the problematic nature of applying data based on a group of people to say something about an individual (e.g., this particular defendant). To present a simplified example: even if we could rigorously show a measurable difference in brain activity between a group of people who told a lie in the imager and a group of people who told the truth, we cannot conclude that an individual is lying if he shows an activity pattern similar to the liars. Since the justice system makes decisions on individuals, therefore, use of group data is problematic.

To me, this categorical objection to group data seems a bit odd, and this is why: I can’t see how group data is conceptually different from ordinary circumstantial evidence. Read More

Safe Surgery Checklists May Raise Unintended Ethical and Legal Questions, Especially in Low-Resource Settings

By Matt Baum

The WHO Surgical Safety Checklist is unusual as a patient-safety intervention in that it has been widely promoted as universally effective, i.e. effective both in high-income and resource-limited settings; checklists are now used in approximately 1800 hospitals worldwide. In a paper recently published in the journal, BMJ Open, Aveling and colleagues report the results of a qualitative study on the implementation of the WHO checklist in two UK hospitals and two hospitals in resource-constrained settings in Africa.  Their results suggest that the checklist is “no magic bullet” – that if adopted without proper investment and adaptation to the context of the target hospital, the checklist not only may fail to replicate benefits, but can actually levy its own unintended costs – especially in resource-limited settings. Though the study raises a number of interesting questions, given the nature of this blog, I am hoping that we might start a discussion about  those in the domain of ethics and law.

For example, consider the following real case, which was reported in the BMJ paper:

“A patient admitted for cholecystectomy [surgical removal of the gallbladder] suffered hypoxic [oxygen depriviation-related] brain injury and died following surgery. Subsequently, two staff members (not the surgeon) were threatened with guns by the patient’s family, who said that the surgical team had killed the patient. The two staff members were later arrested and criminal charges brought against one of them. One of the questions asked during the police investigation was whether a pulse oximeter [i.e. a tool for measuring blood-oxygen levels] had been used. It had not: according to staff, no pulse oximeter was available for use, even though the checklist requiring use of this equipment was, officially, in use at the hospital.”

The staff members also did not get any legal representation for weeks because there were no clear policies established surrounding who was responsible for providing that counsel.

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