On Ethics, White and Grey Areas, and Being Dense

Last month there was an international "science of reading" story carried by the South African Press Association, l'Agence France Presse and the Australian Associated Press based on a story in the British journal Nature (Subscription only link here) that reported, in part

.... Researchers from Spain, Colombia and Britain seized a golden chance to find out more, thanks to 20 former rebels in Colombia who took part in an adult literacy course to help them reintegrate society. After the volunteers had become literate, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of their brains were compared with those from 22 illiterates who were matched for age and cultural background. The new readers had a higher density of so-called grey matter, where information processing is carried out, in several areas of the left hemisphere of the brain, the investigators found. Previous research has already determined that these areas are responsible for recognizing the shapes of letters and translating the letters into speech sounds and deriving a meaning from them. Reading also boosted neural connections, known as white matter, between the different regions of grey matter. The team took the findings a step further by looking at the brains of people who mastered reading in childhood.


Is it just me, or does anybody else wince at this Doctor Strangeglove style of pro-literacy research? I mean, I don't meet a lot of illiterate former Colombian rebels (most former Colombian rebels have been killed by current Colombian death-squads) so maybe I'm out of touch with the cutting edge here. Still...

I don't know what troubles me more: the first-world driven pseudo-science with inflated claims and faulty logic, the gross expenditure of money on something with no practical application, or the ethical framework of research done, if not in our name, then certainly under the banner of our field.

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