Swamped

It’s been a very busy week. The Biophysics Department’s recruiting “weekend” started Wednesday night, with dinner at Om, an asian-themed overhip restaurant/lounge. Yesterday it was dinner at a fancy restaurant in the North End; tonight is the big ceremonial dinner thing.

Last night, the other TA and I attempted to grade the exam. It was hard, and around 2 AM we gave up, and I crashed on his couch. This morning I performed final debug on a pulse sequence that’s set to run at 2 PM. At that point, I’ll probably still be talking about these tests, trying to puzzle out how to grade people who took a completely different interpretation of the question and proceeded to answer it correctly.

Unrelated: I have an observation about the mortgage problem, and science. Prof. George Church, a genomicist (I made that word up), is doing a study in which he acquires complete genomes of about a dozen people, each one independent. He will then publish these genomes, along with a full biological parameterization of the individuals, so that other scientists can look for connections between the genes and the resulting human.

This is considered a highly risky human-subject experiment, because it will be relatively easy to figure out who the subjects are, even if their names are not given, because each person’s DNA is unique. There are all sorts of privacy implications, most notably the possibility that insurance companies could deny coverage on the basis that they know an individual is at high risk of particular diseases. Normally, no university ethics board would allow this experiment to go forward.

The Church lab has figured out a clever solution to this problem. In every human trial, the subjects are required to give “informed consent”. The scientists must provide them with an intelligible overview of all the risks associated with the study, and the subjects must understand this list and accept it. The Church lab, for this experiment, has created “highly informed consent”: because the risks might be considered especially high, and difficult to communicate well, only subjects with a “Master’s degree in genetics or equivalent” will be permitted to sign up for the study.

The news media tells me that millions of Americans recently signed contracts for adjustable-rate mortgages. These mortgages have unlimited downside risk, and are really quite dangerous financial instruments, like an uncovered call option. There are plenty of people for whom an adjustable-rate mortgage really was the correct choice, but I suspect many of the people who bought them did not correctly apprehend the dangers of this form. Most theories of contract law require a “meeting of minds”, in which both sides read the same contract, both fully understand its implications, and both agree to be bound by it. In these theories, a signed contract is not binding unless the signing party correctly understood its meaning. This is extremely similar to informed consent.

Congress is currently debating placing restrictions on what kinds of mortgages may legally be offered. This is not, I think, the best solution. The best solution is something like what the Church lab ended up with. If a party to a contract is exposed to unlimited downside risk (or appropriately defined “high risk”) then that party should have to demonstrate sufficient expertise in finance and financial history to prove that they fully understand the possible consequences of the contract they are signing. In my opinion, a solution of this form would be more effective, both in preserving the power of contracts and in preventing future financial excesses.

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