My new book is out

Ethical tensions imageMy new book, Ethical Tensions from New Technology: The Case of Agricultural Biotechnology, has just been released. As stated in the back-cover blurb: The introduction of new technologies can be controversial, especially when they create ethical tensions as well as winners and losers among stakeholders and interest groups. While ethical tensions resulting from the genetic modification of crops and plants and their supportive gene technologies have been apparent for decades, persistent challenges remain. This book explores the contemporary nature, type, extent and implications of ethical tensions resulting from agricultural biotechnology specifically and technology generally. There are four main arenas of ethical tensions: public opinion, policy and regulation, technology as solutions to problems, and older versus new technologies. Contributions focus on one or more of these arenas by identifying the ethical tensions technology creates and articulating emerging fault lines and, where possible, viable solutions.

As an edited book, I have solicited contributions from scholars all over the world. Here is the table of contents:

Introduction: Ethical tensions and new technology: An overview in the context of agricultural biotechnology
Part 1: Public opinion and interest
1: Ethical tensions from a “science alone” approach in communicating GE science to consumers, by Jane Kolodinsky (University of Vermont)
2: Against the (GM) grain: ethical tensions and agro-biotechnology activism in the United States, Bradley Martin Jones (Washington University in St. Louis)
3: The use and abuse of the term GMO in the “common weal rhetoric” against the application of modern biotechnology in agriculture, by Philipp Aerni (University of Zurich)
4: Collaborating with the enemy? A view from Down Under on GM research partnerships, by Rachel A. Ankeny (University of Adelaide), Heather J. Bray (University of Adelaide) and Kelly A. McKinley (University of Adelaide)
Part 2: Policy and regulation
5: Three models of public opinion and public interest for agricultural biotechnology: precautionary, conventional, and accommodative, by Duane Windsor (Rice University)
6: Genetically modified organisms in food: ethical tensions and the labeling initiative, by Debra M. Strauss (Fairfield University)
7: Ethical tensions in regulation of agricultural biotechnology and its impact on policy outcomes: evidences from the U.S. and India, by Deepthi E. Kolady (South Dakota State University) and Shivendra Kumar Srivastava (ICAR-National Institute of Agricultural Economics and Policy Research)
Part 3: Technological fix criticism
8: Technological pragmatism: navigating the ethical tensions created by agricultural biotechnology, by Dane Scott (University of Montana)
9: Absolute hogwash: assemblage and the new breed of animal biotechnology, by Katie M. MacDonald (University of Guelph)
Part 4: New versus old technology
10: Nature-identical outcomes, artificial processes: governance of CRISPR/Cas genome editing as an ethical challenge, by Frauke Pirscher (Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg), Bartosz Bartkowski (UFZ – Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research), Insa Theesfeld (Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg) and Johannes Timaeus (University of Kassel)
11: New technology, cognitive bias and ethical tensions in entrepreneurial commercialization: the case of CRISPR, by Desmond Ng (Texas A&M University) and Harvey S. James, Jr. (University of Missouri)
Part 5: Mediating ethical tensions
12: New technology, ethical tensions and the mediating role of translational research, by Corinne Valdivia (University of Missouri), Harvey S. James, Jr. (University of Missouri) and Roberto Quiroz (International Potato Center)

Don’t wait to order your copy from the publisher (here), Amazon (here) or wherever fine books are sold.


Declining moral values in the U.S.

An important area of research for me involves the study of how moral values relate to economic conditions of society and the well-being of individuals. For example, a few years ago I published a study (here) describing how to measure the generalized morality of countries, and I linked that measure to economic conditions within countries. Currently I am trying to understand trends in moral values and how and why they change over time.

It is not uncommon for people to bemoan a decline in moral values. For example, in 2015 a Gallup Poll (here) found that “Most Americans (72%) continue to believe the state of moral values in the U.S. is ‘getting worse,’ while 22% say it is ‘getting better.'” But is there evidence supporting the ‘decline in moral values’ story? Yes, at least in the United States.

I like working with a database called the World Values Survey, which is a compilation of face-to-face interviews with adult citizens ages 18 and older conducted in many countries around the world. Respondents are asked many questions about what they believe, such as perspectives about religion, politics, social values, and so forth. The survey is conducted in multiyear waves about every five years or so. It began in 1981. The most recent wave in which data is available (number 6) began in 2010 and involves work in 57 countries around the world with more than 85,000 respondents. The organization behind the study is currently preparing for the next round of studies.

Note the following two charts for respondents in the United States. The data are reported for each of the six waves. The number of respondents in each wave is at least 1,000 (and so allows for meaningful statistical analyses).

Social trends

This first chart (‘trends in social values’) shows the percent of people who believe that different social issues are not justifiable. There is a clear downward trend. If these represent genuine moral values, then here is the evidence. I could add others. For example, in 1981, 69 percent of people believed that prostitution was not justifiable, but in 2005 the number declined to 47 percent.

Economic trends

This next chart (‘trends in socio-economic values’) shows the percent of people who believe that certain actions by individuals are not justifiable. There is also a downward trend, although it is not as pronounced as is the case for social values. I call these ‘socio-economic values’ because I use them to construct my measure of ‘generalized morality’ mentioned above.

Why is there a decline in moral values? Well, that’s the million dollar question. While we can easily point to correlations, identifying causality is notoriously difficult in social science research. But sometimes correlations suggest patterns and plausible explanations. For example, declining religiosity and confidence in churches might be an explanation. Religions have traditionally played a major role in articulating moral standards in society. If people become less religious and are less tied to churches over time, then that might explain why moral values decline.


Consider this chart (‘importance of religion’), which shows various indicators of religiosity. While most people in the United States continue to believe in God (almost 90% according to the most recent wave of the World Values Survey), they are becoming less connected to Him. For example, only about 60 percent of people believe that God is important to them. There is also an alarming decline in confidence in churches. In 1981, 46 percent of people had a lot of confidence in churches, but in 2010 the percent had declined by more than half to 19 percent. If we don’t trust our churches then we will not trust what is taught there, such as being moral and having high moral standards.

At the risk of being accused of confusing correlation with causation and overlooking the many complicated factors affecting moral values in society, I am tempted to call this one. We need a spiritual and religious revival in the United States if we want to see a reversal of declining moral values in society. We need to go back to church. We need to listen to preachers and Sunday School teachers. We need to study scriptures and pray and do other religiously meaningful things. If we believe in God, then we need Him to be important to us. Why not. We’re important to Him.