Neuroscience at Trial: Society for Neuroethics Convenes Panel of Front-Line Practitioners

Is psychopathy a birth defect that should exclude a convicted serial killer and rapist from the death penalty?  Are the results of fMRI lie-detection tests reliable enough to be admitted in court? And if a giant brain tumor suddenly turns a law-abiding professional into a hypersexual who indiscriminately solicits females from ages 8 to 80, is he criminally responsible for his conduct?  These were the questions on the table when the International Neuroethics Society convened a fascinating panel last week at the Carnegie Institution for Science last week on the uses of neuroscience evidence in criminal and civil trials.

Moderated and organized by Hank Greely of Stanford Law School, the panel brought together:

  • Steven Greenberg, whose efforts to introduce neuroscience on psychopathic disorder (psychopathy) in capital sentencing in Illinois of Brian Dugan has garnered attention from Nature to The Chicago Tribune;
  • Houston Gordon (an old-school trial attorney successful enough not to need his own website, hence no hyperlink), who has made the most assertive arguments so far to admit fMRI lie-detection evidence in a civil case, United States v. Semrau, and
  • Russell Swerdlow, a research and clinical professor of neurology (and three other sciences!).  Swerdlow’s brilliant diagnostic work detected the tumor in the newly-hypersexual patient, whom others had dismissed as a creep and a criminal.


In three upcoming short posts, I will feature the comments of each of these panelists and present for you, dear reader, some of the thornier issues raised by their talks.  These cases have been reported on in publications ranging from the Archives of Neurology to USA Today, but Concurring Opinions brings to you, direct and uncensored, the statements of the lawyers and scientists who made these cases happen … Can I say “stay tuned” on a blog?

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1 Response

  1. This is fortuitous, for me at least, as I’ve almost finished reading Raymond Tallis’s very important book, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (Durham: Acumen, 2011). Tallis’s background includes research in clinical neuroscience yet he has become a formidable philosopher in several subfields within philosophy of mind, including personal identity and the study of consciousness. It would be nice to see a panel like the one above include folks like Tallis…and M.R. Bennett, P.M.S. Hacker, Michael S. Pardo, Dennis Patterson, Daniel N. Robinson, and Steven Horst, in other words, those a bit more constitutionally sceptical of the extravagant if not grandiose claims often made on behalf of the neurosciences, owing in large measure to their training in philosophy of mind and/or philosophy of science (sans scientistic biases) (Bennett is an exception: he has co-written several things with Hacker but is a neuroscientist and not a philosopher).