Me, My Genes and Us

Keynote, presented at the conference Genetic Self Testing, Nordic Committee on Bioethics, Århus, 14-15 January 2009

Read the talk as pdf

Me, My Genes and Us

- Personal Experiences With Gene Tests, and Some Sociological Observations.

Robin Engelhardt, male, caucasian
Ancestry: Y-group Rb1, mitogroup T
Occupation: journalist, writer

I’m here to talk about my own personal experiences with genetic tests. As a journalist, I got the opportunity to take a personal genetic test from the decodeme website in order to write about this new service for Danish newspapers. So, although I am a theoretical biologist by training, my task will be to take the perspective of the consumer and to convey some of the thoughts and feelings people may have when deciding to take one of these personal genetic tests offered by different companies. Some of the questions I want to try to answer are: What do these tests tell us right now? What do they do to us? And what kind of social expectations might be created around this brave new world of genomics?

The main learning points I want to put forward are threefold: First, the genetic tests on the internet are currently not very useful, neither for the consumer, nor for the health care system. Second, the perceived usefulness of genetic tests will also in the future continue to be low for the consumer, mainly because of the counterintuitive concepts of probability on personal health. And third: The coming social and governmental changes will be much bigger than the changes in health care and prevention. One of the consequences, for instance, will be an alliance between researchers and patients/consumers, whom will build up strong pressures on the health care system, which itself will lag behind the scientific developments.

Ordering and understanding a genetic test
A small scraping from my mouth was enough. I sent the sample to Iceland, and after two weeks, I could log into a website and read about my DNA, my ancestry, my appearance and my genetic mutations. I could also download a 30MB file with more than one million number plate-like codes, called SNP's, listing my most common DNA variations. They show what makes me genetically unique, and tell, where I have inherited what from my parents, and how my DNA is different from other people's DNA.

It was like being scared and reassured at the same time. But most of all, it was a fascinating experience. The ability to check my genes online and keep up with the latest research, linking disease with SNP's, is almost addictive. When I drank milk, smoked or had a pain in the knee - immediately I checked what my SNP's says: And yes, I have the mutation that makes me break down lactose and I can therefore digest milk. And no, I have no particular tendency to become nicotine dependent, and I even have a reduced risk of lung cancer (This is good, a little devil inside me thinks, because then I can continue to smoke). And yes, the arthritis my grandmother had might also become part of my future.

It turns out that my risk of getting cancer, asthma or sclerosis is lower than in general, but I will have to prepare myself to the possibility of getting old mans diabetes (rs7903146 - TT), Alzheimer's disease (rs4420638 - AG) or become blind (rs1329428 - GG), but most probably I will die from a heart attack (rs10116277 - TT). I can also see that my SNP rs7495174 has the initials AA, and that the SNP rs12913832 has GG. The vast majority of people with this combination have, like me, blue eyes. I can also compare my DNA to other peoples DNA. I compare with Bantu people, with Bedouins and Mayans. But I have clearly most in common with the French and Scots.

Where the difficulties start
But then the problems started. When looking at my gene profile, what struck me most about the results was that they were so boring. All numbers fluctuate around a relative genetic risk of 1.0 – which is defined as the average of the population in question. So the first lesson was the following: SNP’s don’t seem to say much. Whether I had a probability of 0.92 or 1.14 – the usefulness of such numbers seemed close to nil.

It is as if there is a paradox here: Everybody says that physical and psychological traits are to a high degree heritable - but my individual genes are not very informative. What does it mean that my relative risk of getting lung cancer is 0.82? And getting arthritis 1.43? Either I’ll get it, or I won’t. The probability of a single event is a meaningless concept for me. The problem is the following: It might very well be that genes can cause diseases, but SNP’s just associate you with them. Lesson: Association is not causation.

The next question was: Which numbers should I ignore? Which ones should I worry about? And which ones could I be sure would manifest themselves at one point? Again: not easy. Although the absolute risk might seem more relevant, it also is not very useful. What does it mean that my risk of getting Alzheimer is increased from six percent to 10.5 percent? That I just can ignore it? That I should get checked? That I’ll have to shoot myself in the head when I get 60? Lesson: There is a real danger of getting hung up on numbers, even though they mean nothing.

My family history is definitely more useful. I know that my grandmother had arthritis and my other grandmother got type 2 diabetes. For these two diseases there are elevated risks for me too, and suddenly these numbers make more sense. Although the absolute lifetime risk of arthritis is only 1.4 percent, I feel – because of my family history – that my risk of getting arthritis is much higher than, say, Alzheimer, of which there is a much higher absolute risk but no family history! Lesson: The value of a genetic scan means less than knowing the disease history of your family.

Wrong or only premature?
The gene profile from the decodeme website clearly states that not all risk factors are included. This is important, because science is far from having found all the genetic associations for any of the investigated diseases. Take a look at the following table:

The table shows the time-dependency of the risks which have changed because of new evidence of associations. They are clearly changing the risk estimates in unpredictable ways. And probably this will continue for some years to come. What does it mean? Clearly consumers of the tests won’t say, that they get healthier when their relative risk numbers decrease, but they will be fair to say, that the numbers are premature, if not utterly wrong.

According to statistician John Ioannidis from Tufts University, the first association studies usually show great effects. But soon after, when other researchers verify the results and new SNP’s get included into the calculation, the strength of the associations is diminished. Often to such a degree that the effect becomes minimal and can be neglected. Even worse, Ioannidis believes that the vast majority of results are plainly wrong. Rather than measuring an effect, the tests measure a bias, e.g. a distortion of data due to lack of information from what is not yet included. One has to remember that only 1 million SNP’s are investigated, which means that we know nothing about 2,999 million SNP’s waiting to be analyzed. Lesson: Incomplete genetic data can lead to wrong conclusions about your health status.

Also, the more SNP’s you will find in the long run, there is a chance that the numbers will get closer and closer to the average relative risk of 1.0. Thus, the only way to verify the claims of the utility of the genome scans are to make large randomized studies, where participants not only get scanned all of their DNA, but also are followed through their life, so that you can correlate the genetic data with their behaviour, eating habits and lifestyle. The data would also have to be correlated with environmental and social factors. Only then it will be possible to achieve a safe separation between genetic and non-genetic factors underlying the development of diseases. (As James Watson said at a recent conference, where researchers investigated his genome: “We'll see if any of it adds five minutes to my life span,”) Lesson: Genetic data, isolated from lifestyle and environmental data, is not very informative.

What will other people do with this information?
Will other people be more sensible than I in interpreting their genes? Let’s hope so. At one point last summer I lured my half-brother to take the same test at decodeme. When I asked him what he had learned from the results, he said “nothing”. He felt cheated. When I told him about this conference he said “tell Kari that I want my money back”.

Why so? Let’s take an example: His results said that he to 77 % might be bald – even though we both have the same mother. But he is NOT bald. His conclusion was that the test must be wrong! He wasn’t quite able to accept the difference between a statement about probability, and a prediction about himself: When reading that he is lactose intolerant, he said “but I drink milk and I digest it. So the test must be wrong!” And when reading that he has a less probability of restless legs than I have, he said “but I have more restless legs than you. The test must be wrong!” This is an important reason why personal genomics might have some problems of finding a broad audience. Causation is easy to understand and to make useful. Association is not.

Even I have started stupidly to speculate about, what’s in it for me. I like to brag about my Churchill gene when smoking a big cigar in a bar here in Denmark (It is still allowed to smoke in some public places in DK), because my genes (wrongly) suggest to me that I’ll not get lung cancer. But there are many other ways in which people can use this type of information for their own benefit. They can use it to improve doping results, to make decisions about their offspring (positive and negative eugenics) or deny moral responsibility (“blame no me, but my genes”). Lesson: People will make an equal amount of wrong and right conclusion with regard to their genetic profile.

Social concerns
Most public concerns have dealt with the question of unpleasant knowledge: What if I learned I was likely to die young? Or what if I have passed on a rogue gene to my daughter? Many have also questioned the potential abuse from governments, insurance companies and employers, who could use such information against them in the future. But probably the opposite situation will be even more common: People will go to their employer or their university and say: Hey, look at my Sioux gene; I am three percent Native American, so please give me my scholarship, and my casino money! Or they’ll say, hey, I am seven percent Jew, please let me get Israeli citizenship (for what ever reason that is). In general, they will try to take advantage for their own benefit.

Also, with genetic test results in hand, parents may feel tempted to wave it in the child’s face and say, “Your destiny is here. You have the Usain Bolt gene! Two copies of the ACTN3 gene! You have to go to sports training, not to these stupid drama lessons!” And too many children might have to fight the burden of hopeful parents, and run away, or commit suicide. In conclusion: As long as genetic tests are as tentative as they are right now, they become modern horoscopes. And horoscopes tend to be abused. Lesson: The number of social abuses could very well be equal the number of social benefits.

Other important social concerns on the emergence of genetic testing are the following:
- Self-knowledge implies knowledge about kin.
An example: I am a carrier of the hemochromatosis allele (having the combination A;G in the SNP rs1800562) which is found in 5-10 percent of Caucasian populations. (A;A) homozygotes have a 85 percent risk of developing hemochromatosis, a disorder whose symptoms include cirrhosis of the liver, diabetes, hypermelanotic pigmentation of the skin, and heart failure. Me having one A means that there is no small risk that one of my family members are homozygote, and since this disease is easy to treat but difficult to diagnose (and since some of them seem to have skin problems), I have told them that they should get a blood test for hemochromatosis. But this is not always a prudent thing to do. They might not want to know. They might not want me to know. They might just be plainly annoyed by me bothering them or knowing something about them. Lesson: Knowing your own genes creates a non-trivial responsibility towards your family members.

- Segmentation, social tagging and discrimination vs. health, pension, and insurance governance
From a governmental point of view, population genetic profiling will be very useful. Health, insurance, and pension authorities will be able to make targeted preventive regulations against detrimental traits and, conversely, create proper incentives in order to harvest beneficial traits. But this only applies for benevolent democracies. Recently though, we have learned how fragile democracies and their institutions can be. In most cases politicians on this planet give a higher priority to the protection of the nation-state rather than to individual and human rights. It is therefore not clear, whether protective laws (like the Genetic Information Non-discrimination Act, GINA, in the U.S.) in all situations will hinder abuses of segmentation, genetic tagging and discrimination. Lesson: Exposed genomes need stronger legal rights, extending beyond national borders.

- Multiculturalism vs. social norms
The manipulation and selection of genetic profiles will magnify social inequality. Even strong regulations won’t hinder this in the long run. It will lead to an even more segmented civil society. The dangers are obvious: We will have to accept that some social norms apply only to some of us. Others have the right to marry their cat, to have children with their mutants, have special rights and treat each other in a way we sometimes think is inhumane. It could undermine civil cohesion and create new types of human groups who no longer want to share the community's future. Equal rights could risk being replaced by cultural clans with odd customs, inequality before the law and unequal opportunities. Lesson: The possible disruption of civil coherence needs to be checked with plenty of education and information.

But you could also imagine a more positive scenario: a scenario where we learn to understand the difference between diversity and inequality, the difference between identity and the norm. A clarification of the limits of personal rights and social demands could also have the advantage that we start to think about an extension of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, so that it becomes really universal and includes all possible variants of our species and their relatives. Lesson: Whether the ongoing DNA revolution will result in greater tolerance, or whether it will result in greater bigotry and intolerance, is still an open question.

Let’s try to review the lessons pushed forward in this talk:
  • SNP’s don’t seem to say much.
  • Association is not causation.
  • There is a real danger of getting hung up on numbers, even though they mean nothing.
  • The value of a genetic scan means less than knowing the disease history of your family.
  • Incomplete genetic data can lead to wrong conclusions about your health status.
  • Genetic data, isolated from lifestyle and environmental data, is not very informative.
  • People will make an equal amount of wrong and right conclusion with regard to their genetic profile.
  • The number of social abuses could very well be equal the number of social benefits.
  • Knowing your own genes creates a non-trivial responsibility towards your family members.
  • Exposed genomes probably need stronger legal rights, extending beyond national borders.
  • The possible disruption of civil coherence needs to be checked with plenty of education and information.
  • Whether the ongoing genome revolution will result in greater tolerance, or whether it will result in greater bigotry and intolerance, is still an open question.

It is clear, that many of the negative ramifications of genetic testing stem from a lack of knowledge and unclear consequences. Therefore, the way ahead should have a primary focus on education, rather than on regulation. People who have grown up with the democratization of information will not tolerate paternalistic regulations that keep them from their own genomes, and early adopters will explore how this new information can best be used to manage our health. A good example in this direction is the PGP-consortium ( which is a group of volunteers from the general public working together with researchers to advance personal genomics.

A cry for regulation might be as premature as the tests themselves. In addition, the health care system, as mentioned before, is experiencing a power grab from the general public. In many medical areas there is a new alliance between researchers and patients. This emerging alliance tries to push forward the quality of the health care system, which itself very often is unaware of new insights, and which is lagging behind the implementation of new treatments. This will be even more pronounced in the case of personal genomics. Most doctors only have had a single course in genetics, and the increasing speed of new insights and new technologies put a huge demand on the training of health care personnel.

In such a situation, every hand is needed. Instead of holding back and trying to keep the academic authority, medical professionals will have to become coaches of people, who themselves will be the experts of their disease. This requires a maximum of educational effort and a minimal but sufficient amount of governmental regulation, which in turn will have to extend beyond national borders and apply globally.

Moralske følelser

Da Samuel Finkelkraut for 17. gang hentede sit barn for sent i børnehaven i Haifa, gav forstanderen ham et ordentligt fur: "Du kan simpelthen ikke være bekendt at lade dit barn og os andre vente så længe," råbte hun, "nu må det være slut!". To dage senere fik Finkelkraut et brev, som oplyste ham om, at man fra nu af ville indføre en straf på ti shekels pr. minut for hvert for sent afhentet barn. Som der stod i brevet: "Så kan synderne lære det!" Men der skete noget overraskende. Inden måneden var omme, var antallet af for sent afhentede børn steget til det dobbelte. Forældrene havde lært det præcist modsatte: at det var OK at komme for sent.

Hvorfor det? Ifølge Samuel Bowles, der er adfærdsøkonom på Santa Fe Instituttet i New Mexico, kan man tænde og slukke for folks moralske følelser med simple påvirkninger. Og det viser sig, at strafbetalinger ofte virker modsat hensigten: De installerer en markedslogik, hvor der tidligere var et krav om civil anstændighed. Det bekymrende ved fænomenet er, at når man først har punkteret de sociale normer én gang, vil man ikke uden videre kunne komme tilbage til den oprindelige adfærd igen. I eksperimentet fra Haifa droppede børnehaven f.eks. straffen igen, men forældrene blev ved med at hente deres børn for sent alt for ofte.

I en tid, hvor økonomiske incitamenter bruges som universalmiddel til adfærdsregulering, skal man derfor passe meget på med, hvornår de i virkeligheden er demoraliserende. Tag bloddonation eller frivilligt arbejde. Det viser sig gang på gang at motivationen ryger og kvaliteten falder, når aflønning kommer ind i billedet. Tag chefen på arbejdspladsen, der ved, at en økonomisk gulerod aldrig er nok til at få det bedste ud af en medarbejder. Og måske skal global miljøpolitik som CO2-kvoterne medregnes til den slags dårlige ideer: Da EU’s ETS-system blev indført i 2005, steg CO2-udledningen 1,9 procent de følgende år. Og med de historisk lave kvotepriser i dag, har vi givet vores virksomheder en perfekt licens til at glemme miljøet og forurene endnu mere.

Her foretrækker man måske moralen. Den er absolut, og frister færre til at snyde systemet. Adam Smith har fået æren for at være manden, der har lært os, at det er OK at være et dumt svin, i hvert fald økonomisk set. Hans 'usynlige hånd' organiserer hverdagen til vores alles bedste, uden at vi behøver at være flinke. Så længe bageren, bryggeren og bonden følger sine egeninteresser, vil det skabe et fælles gode, som vi alle vil nyde godt af. Men Smith har også skrevet bogen Moralske følelser, der om noget pointerer, at vi ikke gør alt for vores egen skyld. At andres trivsel og lykke ligger os på sinde. At medlidenhed, lidenskab og sympati er ærlige og rene følelser i sig selv.

Det var i Moralske følelser Smith for første gang brugte metaforen om den usynlige hånd til at beskrive de samfundsfordele, der ligger i, at folk følger deres egeninteresser. Han skriver: "[Folk] ledsages af en usynlig hånd, der i næsten lige så høj grad omdeler livets nødvendigheder, som havde Jorden været opdelt i lige store portioner blandt alle dets beboere, og derfor, uden at ville det, uden at vide det, fremmer samfundets interesser." Metaforen har gået en sejrsgang i økonomisk teori lige siden. Så sent som forrige år fik tre økonomer Nobelprisen for at finjustere den usynlige hånd til at virke endnu bedre via spil­teori og økonomiske incitamenter - noget man kalder 'mechanism design'. Men man skal bemærke det lille ord 'næsten' i Smiths bog. Han vidste, at egeninteresser ikke er nok. Der er også brug for moralske følelser. Og hvis man underminerer dem med platte økonomiske incitamenter, kan det have den modsatte effekt.

The Black Hole War

Bogen handler om en ægte videnskabelig krig - en intellektuel strid på højeste niveau. På den ene side har vi Leonard Susskind og Gerhard ’t Hooft. På den anden Stephen Hawking. Og i midten - stridens æble - et sort hul, hvis mærkelige egenskaber risikerer at vælte alle vores forestillinger om tid og rum, eller om informations- og energibevarelse. Hvem har ret, og hvilken virkelighed lever vi egentlig i?

Det er spørgsmålene, og de er fortalt på en yderst spændende, personlig, velskreven og kompetent måde i Leonard Susskinds nye bog The Black Hole War - My Battle With Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe From Quantum Mechanics. Susskind er en af grundlæggerne af strengteorien, men har også bidraget til mange andre grene af den teoretiske fysik. Med en meget sympatisk og meget personlig stil har han lavet en fuldtræffer med denne bog. Så hvis man nogensinde har læst Hawking, eller bare havde ønsket det, så er denne bog et must – og desuden meget bedre skrevet.

Når man først er gået i gang, kan man ikke andet end at fortsætte med at læse. Blandingen af refleksioner om fysik, om verden og de forunderlige forskere er en ægte fryd for læseøjet. Bogen svælger heldigvis ikke i anekdoter, men man får alligevel et godt indblik i de mange personligheder på vejen. F.eks. når man læser om fysikeren Don Page: ”Page is an amiable bear of man… a profound thinker… extremely impressive. He is also an Evangelical Christian, He once spend more than an hour explaining to me, using mathematical arguments, that the probability that Jesus was the son of God exceeded 96 percent.”

Ja, det er skam en underholdende fortælling om intelligente og interessante mennesker, deres tanker, deres argumenter, deres fejl og mangler, deres klarhed og idiosynkrasier, og ikke mindst deres enorme videnskabelige brillians. Det er en bog, der bestemt er værd at gå i krig med.

Leonard Susskind
The Black Hole War - My Battle With Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe From Quantum Mechanics
472 sider, Little, Brown and Company, 2008

Los Angeles Times
Discover Magazine
New York Times

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Realitetstjek af 'Grænser for vækst'

Det mest pessimistiske scenarie fra 1970'er bestselleren stemmer alt for godt med virkeligheden, som den ser ud i dag.

Læs hele artiklen i pdf

I 1972 udgav den såkaldte Club of Rome bogen The Limits to Growth. Bogen blev solgt i 9 millioner eksemplarer og oversat til 29 sprog. Baseret på computermodeller for en række nøgletal viste den, at menneskeheden står over for nogle store omvæltninger, hvis ikke den formår at skifte til en mere bæredygtig udvikling.

I modsætning til den almene kolportage, forudsagde Romklubben ikke, at verden ville gå under inden det 20. århundrede var omme. Den præsenterede derimod flere scenarier for, hvordan tingene kunne udvikle sig, alt efter hvilken global politik, der ville blive ført. Og ifølge Graham Turner fra Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Institution, CSIRO, i Australien, viser det sig nu, at virkeligheden i dag passer godt til et af rapportens værste scenarier, kaldet 'standard run', også populært kendt under "business as usual"-scenariet.

50-100 år senere
Turner har som en af de første sat sig ned og kigget på, hvad bogen faktisk sagde, og sammenlignet det med de historiske data for den globale udvikling fra 1970-2000. Som kilder brugte Turner offentligt tilgængelige databaser i FN-publikationer, hos World Ressource Institute Earthwatch og fra projektet 'Vital Signs' fra Worldwatch Institute.

Resultaterne viser, at der er en god overensstemmelse mellem 'standard run' fra andenudgaven af bogen i 1974 og den reelle udvikling i de fem nøglekategorier, som er:
1. population
2. fødevareproduktion
3. industriproduktion
4. forurening samt
5. forbrug af uerstattelige ressourcer.

Scenariet vil ifølge modellerne føre til et kollaps i det globale system en gang i midten af det 21. århundrede – som illustreret i diagrammerne her på siden (se pdf).

Data passer derimod ikke så godt med de to alternative hovedscenarier, der forudsætter enten en effektivisering af teknologierne, eller en stabiliserende reduktion i forbruget.

I det første alternative scenarie, kaldet 'comprehensive technology', søges bæredygtighedsproblemerne løst kun ved hjælp af teknologi. Det forudsættes, at ressourceknaphed ikke vil være noget problem på grund af genbrug og udvikling af erstatningsressourcer. Desuden antages det, at forurening kan kontrolleres, at landbruget fordobler sit udbytte, og at prævention er tilgængelig over hele kloden. I dette scenarie vil sammenbruddet udskydes til slutningen af det 21. århundrede, når den økonomiske vækst har overgået effektiviseringsgevinsten og forureningskontrollen.

I det andet alternative scenarie, kaldt 'stabilized world', vil både teknologiske løsninger og socialpolitik være nødvendig for at opnå en form for ligevægtstilstand. Eksempler på nogle af de nødvendige socialpolitikker er bl.a. gennemsnitlige to-barns familier, effektiv familieplanlægning, forbrug af service- og helbredsgoder i stedet for materielle goder, 'perfekt' kontrol af forurening, diversificering af landbruget og en længere levetid af den industrielle kapital.

Computermodellen blev udviklet af Jay W. Forrester fra MIT i Boston, USA. Han var en af de første til at bruge ikke-linær dynamik (han kaldte det system-dynamik) til analyse af komplekse systemer. Modellen blev kaldt World3 og havde både positive og negative feedbackmekanismer inkorporeret i ligningerne.

Kort efter dens offentliggørelse affejede mange økonomer og politikere rapporten som undergangshysteri, og den er siden blevet brugt flittigt som et klassisk eksempel på en venstreorienteret bekymringskult. Ord som pessimisme og dommedagsprofeti har hængt ved Romklubben som fiskelugten ved Esbjerg havn.

Problemet er blot, at bogen blev fejlciteret, og fortsat bliver fejlciteret. Blandt de hyppigste fejlcitater, også bedrevet af Bjørn Lomborg, var påstanden om, at en række uerstattelige ressourcer ville være opbrugt 'i løbet af 20 til 30 år'. I virkeligheden står der ingen steder i bogen, at noget bliver opbrugt inden år 2000. I stedet for at lave en forudsigelse, handler bogen om, hvordan vigtige globale nøgletal vekselvirker med hinanden, og hvordan verden derfor kunne se ud om 100 år, alt efter hvilke scenarier, vi vælger at følge.

Det for mange økonomer provokerende budskab i bogen var, at alle ikke-bæredygtige scenarier vil føre til, at en naturlig kapacitetsbarriere vil blive overskredet i løbet af det 21. århundrede, og at det til at starte med vil føre til et kollaps i industriproduktionen.

Dette vil så føre til fødevaremangel og derefter et voldsomt fald i populationen. Men bogen sagde også, at sammenbruddene ville kunne undgås med en kombination af ny teknologi, global bæredygtig politik og adfærdsændringer.

I en opfølgning til Grænser for vækst udgav forfatterne Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers og William Behrens i 2004 bogen Limits to Growth - The 30-year Update, som med små justeringer af modellen bekræftede de oprindelige konklusioner fra 1972 og, om muligt, tegnede et endnu mere dystert billede af fremtiden.


En af de mest interessante bøger for designere og ingeniører fra 2008 var ganske sikkert den meget omtalte Nudge - Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness af Richard H. Thaler og Cass R. Sunstein.

Den handler i al sin enkelthed om, hvordan mennesker er stort set ubevidste omkring deres valg af handlinger i hverdagen, og om, hvordan man ud fra denne viden kan designe en mere hensigtsmæssig infrastruktur.

Vi mennesker vælger nemlig sjældent optimalt i forhold til vores egne ønsker og behov. Derfor er det som politiker, som ingeniør og som forældre nødvendigt at tilskynde os til at tage de rigtige valg med små tricks, der tager højde for vores mangelfulde biologi og fornuft, og som kan lede os i den rigtige retning.

Hvordan man kan gøre den slags 'godartet manipulation' viser Nudge med mange gode eksempler. En klar fuldtræffer fra adfærdsøkonomen Thaler og politologen Sunstein. Se også min egen artikel i Ingeniøren om forskningen bag og Ulrik Andersen artikler om evidensbaseret arkitektur.

Richard H. Thaler og Cass R. Sunstein
Nudge - Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness
295 sider, Yale University Press, 2008

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Verden uden os

Den meget populære og omtalte bog fra sidste år, The World Without Us af Alan Weisman, er nu blevet oversat til dansk. I alt har bogen solgt over to millioner eksemplarer og er blevet udgivet i 30 forskellige lande. Den må kunne noget som andre bøger ikke kan.

I modsætning til de fleste bøger på markedet om, hvordan kloden bliver ødelagt, og hvorfor vi vil gå store katastrofer i møde, har Weisman gjort et behændigt trick: Han har slået alle mennesker ihjel i begyndelsen af bogen. Så behøver vi ikke at forholde os til al den elendighed, og kan koncentrere os om det positive: Om hvordan kloden hurtigt vil glemme os, ryste sig en enkel gang og blomstre på ny.

Så hvis du er en af dem, der vil vide hvad der ville ske, hvis vi mennesker pludselig forsvandt fra Jordens overflade, så er denne bog et godt og tragisk-muntert bud. Weisman tror ikke selv på, at vi uddør sådan lige med det samme, tilgengæld er det jo allerede nu et faktum at cirka 80% af alle andre nulevende arter er på vej til at blive udslettet på grund af vores tilstedeværelse.

Men så kommer der vel nye.

Alan Weisman
360 sider, Borgen, 2008

New York Times

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Sustainability by Design

Hvis man tilhører den gruppe af mennesker, som er forundret over at skiftet til en bæredygtig udvikling altid formuleres som "problemer der skal løses" og som "alternative teknologier der skal udvikles", så er bogen Sustainability by Design af John R. Ehrenfeld et godt bud til at tænke i nye indfaldsvinkler.

Med undertitlen "a subversive strategy for transforming our consumer culture" forsøger Ehrenfeld at tage fat i de mere dybereliggende årsager til tingenes tilstand. Der er med andre ord tale om en generel modernitetskritik, inklusive forslag til adfærdsændringer, denne gang ikke fra en humanistisk intellektuel, men fra en teknologiprofessor på MIT.

Se denne anmeldelse af bogen, som sammenligner den med Friedmans nye bog Hot, Flat and Crowded, omtalt andet steds på denne blog. Han har en god pointe. Jeg er selv også ganske forundret over, at så få tænkende mennesker er klar over, hvor uendelig lidt et skift til brintbiler eller en udvidelse af CO_2 kvotesystemet til hele kloden egentlig betyder i det store billede af kommende katastrofer. Men måske kan man ikke andet end at starte i det små.

John R. Ehrenfeld
Sustainability by Design
246 sider, Yale University Press, 2008

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Jeg har sammen med Kalika Bro Jørgensen startet en ny blog på som hedder Bogblokken. Konceptet er måske en smule karlsmart, fordi vi skal kunne skrive om - og præsentere - bøger, uden nødvendigvis at skulle have læse dem selv.

Men ideen er god nok. Der er rigtig mange populære bøger om naturvidenskab og teknologi, og de er blevet en vigtig del af det videnskabelige arbejde, fordi de bliver læst af mange mennesker og giver plads til mere spekulative ideer, end hvad der typisk er plads til i fagbladene.

Bøger skrevet af forskere bliver sjældent taget alvorligt af 'systemet'. Universiteter medregner dem ikke som seriøse forskningsbidrag, og de citeres ikke i fagartikler. Men de er alligevel en vigtig del i forskningsarbejdet og er ofte de egentlige aktører i en offentlige debat.

BogBlokken er en derfor service for de nysgerrige bogorme, der kan lide at blive klogere på verden. Hvis man vil følge med i, hvad der kommer af nye, populære og (inter)nationale fagbøger, så er det stedet. Det skal være et sted, hvor læserne selv skal komme til orde, og hvor deres ekspertise skal bruges til at vurdere bøgerne bedre end vi ofte er i stand til.

Kriterier for bøger
1. Der skal være tale om populære eller semi-populære bøger, som har en væsentligt element af naturvidenskab eller teknologi som emne.
2. Skønlitterære bøger er ikke udelukkede, ej heller opsamlinger, antologier, biografier, etc., men de skal kun forekomme i absolut mindretal.
3. Vi tager udgangspunkt i egen interesse. Bare fordi en ny populærvidenskabelig bog er dansk, er den ikke bedre stillet end andre.
4. Et andet vigtigt udvalgskriterium er væsentlighed: hvis der udgives en ny 'Arternes Oprindelse' eller en ny 'Principa Mathematica', så skal vi selvfølgelig være der.
5. Popularitet er også et kriterium. En bog, der er på alles læber, kan vi ikke være bekendt at udelade i alt for lang tid.
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