Okay, I’ve fallen into the trap of uploading “TMI” to the internet. Fortunately, I seem to have gotten it down before anything disastrous happened. “Seems” is, of course, the operative word. The issue is trust. Without history to fall back on, most of us seem to default to trust. “Most?” Well, given internet history, more and more have decided they’re too smart to trust easily, a trait of mixed virtue.
Traditionally, as a society, we have trusted physicians, lawmakers, law enforcers, scientists, bankers, and a host of other professionals. Yet, history has shown some of them to be fatally unworthy of trust. And, this is no longer limited to subsequent generations misusing the tools of honorable innovators, such as the uses to which energy conversions have been used.
Two recent New York Times articles have highlighted this issue. The first, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the Sequel” by Rebecca Skloot, details the events following the author’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. This overwhelming best seller tells of the 1951 harvesting of DNA samples without the knowledge or consent of Harriet Lacks, a recently deceased tobacco farmer. In mid-March this year, the genome was sequenced and the results published with her name and family information. Not only had Lacks not been told of the harvest, her family did not hear about the research until twenty years later when her grandchildren were made part of the study.
After a press release from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, which sequenced the genome, stated “We cannot infer anything about Henrietta Lacks’s genome, or of her descendants, from the data generated in this study,” a skeptical scientist uploaded the published DNA to a free Internet website, SNPedia, a Wikipedia-like site for translating genetic information. The results validated his skepticism, and that of those who agreed with him that the laboratory’s assertion was untrue. As Skloot said, “No one knows what we may someday learn about Lacks’s great-grandchildren from her genome, but we know this: the view we have today of genomes is like a world map; genomic Google Street View is coming very soon.”
The second article, “Masked by Gibberish, the Risks Run Amok” by Floyd Norris discusses the unchecked losses JP Morgan Chase Bank accrued in the “mess of the London ‘whale trades’ that dominated the financial news last year. In essence, Bruno Iksil, the so-called “London Whale,” in a written report, called for executing “trades that makes sense,” specifying: “sell the forward spread and buy protection on the tightening move . . . use indices and add to existing position . . . go long on risk on some belly tranches especially where defaults may realize . . . [and] buy protection on HY and Xover in rallies and turn the position over to monetize volatility.” If you are confused by these orders, a gibberish-like string of very specialized investment terms, you are in good company. Not only were other members of JP Morgan’s International Senior Management Group of the Chief Investment Office nescient of some of them, so were the comptroller’s office, federal investigators, and eventually the senators on the investigating committee.
Though the assertion that these terms are gibberish may be exaggerated, the result of asking a bank to become that involved in investment strategy was clearly a disaster. This fiasco is nearly certain to inspire the writing, if not passing of laws prohibiting using unclear terms from being an effective defense for financial misdeeds.
What both cases have in common is that in both stories, even as the situation worsened, no one ever commented on the “emperor’s new clothes.” Not until the bottom fell out. Perhaps — and I do mean maybe — the scientists developing the genome, with their eyes on the goal rather than the ball may have had legal protection for harvesting cells without knowledge or consent of a dead patient. It would certainly not be the first time science has been shortsighted: I was one of thousands of infants subjected to the nuclear alternative to tonsillectomy and, to this day, I do not understand the arrogance that presumed that aiming several thousand rads of atomic radiation at a tiny, immature target would be any easier than herding cats. And what about the scientist who uploaded the DNA to make a point? He may have acted with the noblest of motives, but it was further penetration into the family’s privacy. In its way like bombing war factories — an immorality in aid of a moral cause. Moreover, no-one asked any questions until Skloot’s book was published. So, again perhaps, laws may be passed to prevent the rest of us from her scenario. [Although in this political climate, I wouldn’t count on it.”
Imagine if someone secretly sent samples of your DNA to one of many companies that promise to tell you what your genes say about you. That report would list the good news (you’ll probably live to be 100) and the not-so-good news (you’ll most likely develop Alzheimer’s, bipolar disorder and maybe alcoholism). Now imagine they posted your genetic information online, with your name on it. Some people may not mind. But, I assure you, many do: genetic information can be stigmatizing, and while it’s illegal for employers or health insurance providers to discriminate based on that information, this is not true for life insurance, disability coverage or long-term care.
In the financial incident, the results were so very far reaching, that even the very human desire not to look stupid in the eyes of one’s colleagues appears much more degrading than it normally would, but for the judgment of history. True, few situations that most of us will face will threaten our very existence. However, don’t be surprised if there’s a strong ratio aspect between world financial collapse and an individual’s stigma.
If those charged with keeping our scientific and financial house in order fall back on loglines like “too big to fail,” they effectively condone the deregulation that left us vulnerable to attack. Deregulation requires a high level of trust which has yet to be justified in modern times. Proof positive that some people don’t read or learn from history — or worse, that they saw what happened in the 1920s because of the deregulation under Hoover, and wanted it to happen again with them as beneficiaries. Whatever the consequences.
Sadly, many of those who would open the way for financial abuses are often the same as those who want to put in the protocols by which privacy would become obsolete. As Skloot pointed out, there are economic ramifications, and lobbyists are certainly putting them on their to-do lists. Yet the consequences may not be simply economic. Given our new technologies and the chasm between politics and people, we could be on a slippery slope to yet another holocaust.
Honestly, I can’t say I won’t continue to default to trust, but I won’t count on having my trust justified. Still, I’m sure we can count two things: some people will write protective laws and others will fight them — fighting hard and, possibly, dirty. Though we can also count on human beings being afraid to look foolish, we can only hope they won’t let it stop them from asking the scary questions. And, yes, now, I’m very careful about what I upload.
1. “Too Much Information”
2. Published: March 23, 2013 in the Opinion section of the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/24/opinion/sunday/the-immortal-life-of-henrietta-lacks-the-sequel.html?emc=eta1&_r=0 Photo of Henrietta Lacks from http://kemetically-afrolatino.tumblr.com/post/18858884833
3. Skloot, Rebecca, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, New York: Crown Publishers, 2009.
5. Norris, Floyd, “Masked by Gibberish, the Risks Run Amok,” New York Times, March 21, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/22/business/behind-the-derivatives-gibberish-risks-run-amok.html?src=recg
6. Apparently, there are no online photos of Iksil, but, in search for one, Google Images pops up photos of Voldemort. According to the online Daily Mail, he dubbed the voice of Harry Potter’s arch enemy before announcing his resignation. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2142866/JPMorgan-Chase-trader-Bruno-Michel-Iksil-thought-2bn-loss.html. The Gettys Image of JPMorgan Chase Bank appeared at http://nj1015.com/jpmorgan-chase-acknowledges-2-billion-trading-loss/
Learning from mistakes from Allied Universal Safety and Security Training website: http://rjwestmore.com/2013/01/1464/fire-kills-233-in-brazil-demonstrates-tragic-pattern-of-failing-to-learn-from-history/Henrietta Lacks from: Skloot, Rebecca, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, New York: Crown Publishers, 2009.
Morgan front: https://www.jpmorganchase.com/
Atomic Energy symbol: https://www.slideshare.net/edstermer/cdocuments-and-settingsemy-documentsenergy-and-the-environment1010atomic-theoryatomic-theory