James Tabery is an internationally renowned philosopher and medical ethicist. An expert on the intersection of science and society, he is best known for his research on topics such as: how advances in genetics help some and hurt others, why conspiracy theories abounded during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, how scarce medical resources should be allocated during times of crisis, what we owe victims of eugenic sterilization who are still alive today, and where the future of biology and medicine are headed.
Dr. Tabery is the author of dozens of articles, op-eds, and two books: Tyranny of the Gene: Personalized Medicine and Its Threat to Public Health, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2023, and Beyond Versus: The Struggle to Understand the Interaction of Nature and Nurture, published by MIT Press in 2014. His work has been featured in The New York Times, Time magazine, NationalGeographic, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, and on National Public Radio.
He is a speaker who manages to be both energetic and cerebral, drawing on examples from history, politics, the law, medicine, philosophy, and economics. With extensive speaking, television, and radio experience, he is comfortable and engaging in front of very large audiences or in intimate settings.
Dr. Tabery is a professor in the Department of Philosophy and also a member of the Center for Health Ethics, Arts, & Humanities at the University of Utah. An award-winning teacher and researcher, he has advised hospitals and states on the ethical response to treating COVID-19 patients, led efforts to reckon with the history of racial violence, and spearheaded efforts to find and compensate the survivors of eugenic sterilization.
When It’s a Matter of Life or Death
The COVID-19 pandemic placed healthcare providers in a situation many had never faced before—deciding how to prioritize patients to determine who gets access to life saving treatments. Even though most acted with the best of intentions, charges of ageism, racism, and ableism ensued. In this talk, Professor Tabery draws on his work consulting hospital systems and states on how to ethically triage patients. Who do we treat when it’s a matter of life and death? It turns out that there are a number of different ways to answer that question, but not all of them hold up to ethical scrutiny.
We live in sea of nonsense—pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, quack medicine, marketing gimmicks. So it might be natural to wave off anything that smells fishy as bullshit. But history is replete with actual conspiracies (think Watergate); things that were once written off as scientific mumbo-jumbo are now in textbooks (think plate tectonics); and medical practices that are standard today were once laughed off (think washing hands before surgery). So how do we distinguish the reasonable from the absurd? When the next controversial idea comes along, should you take it seriously or kick it to the door? This presentation draws on Professor Tabery’s popular university course “Detecting Bullshit” to provide practical guidance for navigating a world full of b.s.
Genetics Goes to the Court Room
Imagine you are a juror asked to pass sentence on man convicted of murder. Would biological information about the criminal’s predisposition to violence affect your judgment? Would it make you inclined to punish him more, or perhaps less? Biological research on the causes of bad behavior is growing increasingly common, and it has now entered the court room, with profound controversy. In this talk, Professor Tabery puts audience members in the jury box and lets them decide, while also comparing their answers to what he’s learned from his research involving actual judges and lay people faced with the same scenario.
Race, Research, and Reckoning
Between 1950 and 1974, horrific research was conducted on Black prisoners in the Stateville Penitentiary outside Chicago, IL, all in the name of uncovering the genetic mechanisms responsible for response to antimalarial treatments. Even more shocking, the research expanded outside the walls of the prison to include family members of the prisoners and children as young as two. This presentation shines a light on a forgotten episode in the history of biomedical research’s mistreatment of communities of color, and traces its legacy to biomedical research still conducted today.
What Do We Owe the Victims of Eugenic Sterilization?
Over 60,000 Americans were sterilized throughout the twentieth century based on the eugenic idea that those deemed “unfit” should not reproduce. While this abhorrent history was standardly written as if it ended in the distant past, in fact eugenic sterilizations continued in many states well into the 1970s. This means there are victims of this eugenic assault on reproduction still alive today. Professor Tabery introduces audience members to this history, its lasting legacy, and his efforts to find survivors. That then raises a question that states across the country are beginning to wrestle with: What do we owe those survivors?
How the Genome Distracts
Geneticists are embarking on a massive effort all over the world to collect DNA from people of color, promising to use the genetic insights from that biological data to combat the unjust racial health inequities that harm those diverse communities. This presentation expands on Professor Tabery’s essay for the Los Angeles Times and his book Tyranny of the Gene; he shows how this well-intentioned effort is actually more likely to exacerbate the problem of racial disparities rather than solve that problem because those disparities are not caused by genes; they’re caused by racism in our environments.
The False Promises of Personalized Medicine
Building off his essay in The New York Times, Professor Tabery debunks popular myths surrounding the promises of “personalized medicine”—the tailoring of healthcare to our genomes. Personalized medicine is often hailed as a revolution in healthcare, one that will cut costs, expand access to marginalized communities, and usher in a new era of biomedical breakthroughs. Professor Tabery, however, uses his own father’s experience with personalized medicine as a lens to show how the science and medicine works, and why we should all be skeptical of the hype.