In last week’s episode of TWIS, Kirsten and guest co-host Andy Fell reported on an online survey by Nature magazine in which 20% of respondents claimed to have taken medications to improve focus or mental performance. An April Fools’ article about the “World Anti Brain-Doping Authority” apparently spawned this survey, which despite the silliness actually raises some serious questions.
At this point, we have medications which allow us to improve the functionality of our existing cognitive abilities, but in the near future it is possible that we will see the development of drugs for treating Alzheimer’s disease and similar conditions which could be capable of actually making our brains better.
Is this really comparable to doping by athletes? Should we be worried about keeping scientists from doping in order to maintain some sort of fairness in academic grading and grant distribution? Would you take drugs to make yourself smarter? Should anyone?
I don’t think it is the same as athletic doping. Yes, on a biological level, the principle is identical–taking drugs to make your body work better, but to me, the difference lies in the goal (yes, I am about to argue that the end may justify the means in this case). Before I begin, let me just say that I am a pretty avid baseball fan (go Twins!). Having said that, when it comes down to it I don’t think the outcome of a sports event really makes that much difference to our survival and well-being as a species. Because of the fact that games are about competition for its own sake, I think it is reasonable to expect to maintain a standard of fairness when it comes to what the players are or are not allowed to do to improve their performance. These rules serve to level the playing field as well as protect the health of players who feel pressure to do everything they can to keep up with the next player.
In science, competition for grants is not competition for its own sake. It is competition to see who gets to be paid to advance science. Yes, scientists want to be the one to make that big breakthrough and be remembered forever, but the individual scientist, whether community-minded or self-serving, is never the sole beneficiary of a breakthrough’s rewards. Science benefits all of humanity, so I can’t see how it matters who makes a discovery or whether they take drugs to help them do it.
Would I take drugs to make me smarter? Maybe. It’s a tempting proposition a la “Charley”. I’d probably have to weigh the side effects with the possible outcomes and go from there. I don’t know. If I could hypothetically take something that would make me better able to improve people’s lives, even if it had negative side effects, I’d have to seriously consider doing it. Maybe that’s just me, but I suspect there are others who feel the same way.
What do you think? Would you do it?