Freakonomics Podcast: This Is Your Brain on Pollution (Ep. 472)

This podcast explores the potential cognitive and developmental issues that air pollution can have. The best part of this episode though gets into the very clever methods the researchers employ to find natural “experiments”.

Before listening to selections from this episode it might be interesting to ask students to design a hypothetical experiment to evaluate whether the hypothesis explored in this episode is true and then listen to some of the actual methods employed to then examine why those choices were made.

Of particular interest was a research study discussed around the 26 minute mark in which a government policy in China provided an excellent “natural experiment” to help think about the impact of air pollution. Part of evaluating this topic could also be a discuss of ethics in experimentation when kids ultimately decide that a good experiment would be to pollute the environment of one group and not another to see what happens.

Air pollution is estimated to cause 7 million deaths a year and cost the global economy nearly $3 trillion. But is the true cost even higher? Stephen Dubner explores the links between pollution and cognitive function, and enlists two fellow Freakonomics Radio Network hosts in a homegrown experiment.

Human Gene Editing Receives Science Panel’s Support

“In a report laden with caveats and notes of caution, the group endorsed the alteration of human eggs, sperm and embryos — but only to prevent babies from being born with genes known to cause serious diseases and disability, only when no “reasonable alternative” exists, and only when a plan is in place to track the effects of the procedure through multiple generations.

“Human genetic engineering for any reason has long been seen as an ethical minefield. Many scientists fear that the techniques used to prevent genetic diseases might also be used to enhance intelligence or create humans physically suited to particular tasks, like soldiers.”

TED Talk: Paul Knoepfler: The ethical dilemma of designer babies


“Creating genetically modified people is no longer a science fiction fantasy; it’s a likely future scenario. Biologist Paul Knoepfler estimates that within fifteen years, scientists could use the gene editing technology CRISPR to make certain “upgrades” to human embryos — from altering physical appearances to eliminating the risk of auto-immune diseases. In this thought-provoking talk, Knoepfler readies us for the coming designer baby revolution and its very personal, and unforeseeable, consequences.”

Building a Better Human With Science? The Public Says, No Thanks

We will increasingly have to deal with questions and issues raised by our increasingly sophisticated abilities to alter genes and enhance humans through the use of biotechnologies. As our scientific abilities increase so too do the questions around the ethical use of such technologies. This article discusses public opinions around the abstract uses of these technologies.

What should the limits of the uses of these technologies be? What criteria should we use to determine these limits?

“Americans aren’t very enthusiastic about using science to enhance the human species. Instead, many find it rather creepy.

“A new survey by the Pew Research Center shows a profound distrust of scientists, a suspicion about claims of progress and a real discomfort with the idea of meddling with human abilities. The survey also opens a window into the public’s views on what it means to be a human being and what values are important.”

The Quest to Resurrect Extinct Species

“A father-son duo of biologists has set the stage for so-called de-extinction. But should we be doing this at all?”

“In the past, scientists played their cards close to the vest as they developed, then commercialized, powerful new technologies. Often, they were sure that what was best for the science was best for society. And time after time, their secrecy and paternalism fed fears that sparked a public backlash — over technologies as diverse as test-tube babies, cloned animals like Dolly the sheep and genetically modified organisms. “The reason we’re in this situation with [the backlash against] genetically modified organisms is because we didn’t talk about it clearly enough, early enough,” Church says.”

Tweaking Genes to Save Species

Should humans intentionally try to kill of a species? What if this tactic resulted in the complete extinction of these mosquitos? What if this extinction resulted in saving human lives?

“BIOTECHNOLOGISTS have engineered the mosquito that spreads the Zika virus to pass a lethal gene to its offspring. Another team of researchers has devised a way to spread sterility through the mosquito population, using a technique called gene drive to wipe out the offending insects.

“If regulators approve this genetic tinkering, these insects could become a powerful weapon against the spread of mosquito-borne diseases to humans. But bugs like these, and the techniques used to create them, might have another role to play: helping to protect the earth’s biodiversity.”

Another article on the same topic.

The incredible tale of irresponsible chocolate milk research at the University of Maryland

“Academic press offices are known to overhype their own research. But the University of Maryland recently took this to appalling new heights — trumpeting an incredibly shoddy study on chocolate milk and concussions that happened to benefit a corporate partner.

“It’s a cautionary tale of just how badly science can go awry as universities increasingly partner with corporations to conduct research.”


Ethicists approve ‘3 parent’ embryos to stop diseases, but congressional ban remains

“But panel members said that they took the philosophical issues seriously, noting that someone with genetic material from two different maternal bloodlines would potentially have to wrestle with questions about identity, kinship and ancestry.

“They also countenanced the possibility that people would want to use this new technique to create babies that are enhanced in some way intellectually or physically. They said that is not a major concern at the moment because the feasibility of such enhancements remains speculative.”

Another article about the application of the technique.

Designing babies or saving lives in Mexico?

All Gene-Editing Research Should Proceed Cautiously, Scientists Conclude

“The official statement, which says work altering human germ lines should remain only in the lab, caps a three-day summit on using technology to alter the human genome”

And a second article on the subject

“Improving” Humans with Customized Genes Sparks Debate among Scientists”

Pet micro pigs? Chinese biotech firm says it will sell very small swine

This article offers us another example of the ceaseless advancement of new and innovative applications of genetic engineering. With all this advancement come more questions about the ethics of such techniques.

“What rules should apply to gene editing is an increasingly pressing question for not just agencies such as the FDA but also scientists and medical ethicists as the technique moves from the animal world to the human realm. Although gene editing holds the promise of significant medical breakthroughs, it also could open a Pandora’s box of eugenic-like applications.”