A British nurse has been arrested for claiming online to have eaten two women, with the police digging up his garden. This is the latest twist on the Gilberto Valle case, where a New York policeman stands accused for plotting to kidnap, rape, murder and cannibalize women. The case hinges upon whether the disturbing online discussions between Valle, the nurse and others are actual evidence of planning crimes, or just vivid shared fantasies. When should we act when encountering disturbing fantasies?
By Julian Savulescu and Anders Sandberg
Vicky Pryce, wife of disgraced ex-MP Chris Huhne, is back in court this week after the jury trying her case was discharged last week having failed to reach a verdict on her charges of perverting the course of justice. In 2003, Pryce accepted Huhne’s speeding points, but is claiming a defence of marital coercion. In 10 questions to the judge, the first jury showed an alarming and deep lack of understanding. Questions included:
“Can a juror come to a verdict based on a reason that was not presented in court and has no facts or evidence to support it?”
They also showed the jury had apparently forgotten key concepts which were explained during the trial:
“Does this defence require violence or physical threats?”
“Can you define what is reasonable doubt?”
Following the jury’s discharge, the judge said the jury showed “absolutely fundamental deficits in understanding”, adding that he had never seen this in 30 years of presiding over criminal trials. In Pryce’s trial, the questions the jury asked after several days of deliberations raised alarm bells, but in another trial where a verdict was reached, we would never know what the standard of jury understanding or deliberation had been. Yet juries are asked to decide (in some countries) on matters of life or death.
The Pryce case may have been unusual, but in any trial, and particularly in complex fraud cases, juries are asked to juggle and compute vast amounts of information, and to retain it throughout the trial in order to make an informed decision at the end. We have argued in “The Memory of Jurors: Enhancing Trial Performance” and “Cognitive Enhancement in Courts” with Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, that cognitive enhancement, particularly memory enhancers should be made available to jurors. If this had been available in the Pryce case, would the jury have spent more time discussing the decision at hand, and less on (mis-)remembering the judge’s instructions on reasonable doubt or the definition of coercion? If we ask people to take on a civic duty we should offer them all the tools we have available to assist them in its completion.
As I am writing this post, asteroid 2012 DA14 is sweeping past Earth, inside the synchronous orbit (in fact, I am watching it on live webcast). Earlier today, an unrelated impactor disintegrated above Chelyabinsk, producing some dramatic footage and some injuries from shattered glass due to the sonic boom. It might have been the largest impactor over the last century, clocking in at hundreds of kilotons. It is no wonder people are petitioning the White House to mount a vigorous planetary defense against asteroids and comets. But what is the rational and ethical level of defense we need against astronomical threats?
Would you trust a minister of finance explaining how he just fixed the latest euro-zone deal if he came out of the summit chambers tipsily waving a glass of wine? No? What about if he gave a press conference after an all-night session? Most likely nobody would even notice.
Yet 24 hours without sleep has (roughly) the same effect on decision-making as a 0.1% blood alcohol content (six glasses of wine in an hour). You would not be allowed to drive at this alcohol level, but you are apparently allowed to make major political decisions.
The example is from a blog essay (in Swedish) by Andreas Cervenka, where he asks the sensible question: can we trust sleep-deprived political leaders?
Ulf suffers dementia and lives in a nursing home. He often interacts with Lena, who also has dementia. They seek each other out, invite each other to their rooms, hold hands and kiss. They can clearly express what they prefer (or not). The staff think they enjoy life and each other’s company. There is just one problem for the happy couple: Ulf is married, and his wife is not happy. She and their children strongly dislikes the relation between Ulf and Lena and asks the staff to keep them apart. They argue that if Ulf had been free of dementia he would not have desired contact with Lena; he might sometimes even be confused and think Lena is his wife.
The situation was posed as a question to the ethics committee of the National Board of Health and Welfare in Sweden, and it recently responded that the staff should not try to interfere in the relationship: the welfare and autonomy of Ulf is prior to the wishes of the family. An earlier question dealt with a somewhat similar case, where the cuckolded wife demanded that her husband be both separated from the other woman and medicated to “dampen” him. The committee found that it would be against the autonomy of the man to be medicated against his will, and the staff did not have a right (legally or morally) to prevent patients from seeing each other.
The interesting question is what to make of romances that come about due to dementia. Are they authentic? How do they relate to the interests expressed earlier in life?
There is a new call for a pardon of Alan Turing, who in1952 was convicted of homosexuality. An earlier petition for a pardon was declined by the UK government (he got an apology instead 2009). Lord McNally stated in the House of Lords that:
“A posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence. He would have known that his offence was against the law and that he would be prosecuted.
It is tragic that Alan Turing was convicted of an offence which now seems both cruel and absurd – particularly poignant given his outstanding contribution to the war effort. However, the law at the time required a prosecution and, as such, long-standing policy has been to accept that such convictions took place and, rather than trying to alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right, ensure instead that we never again return to those times”.
However, the eminent signatories of the new call counter by arguing:
“To those who seek to block attempts to secure a pardon with the argument that this would set a precedent, we would answer that Turing’s achievements are sui generis.”
Does that make moral sense?
The headlines are invariably illustrated with red-eyed robot heads: “I, Revolution: Scientists To Study Possibility Of Robot Apocalypse“. “Scientists investigate chances of robots taking over“. “‘Terminator’ risk to be investigated by scientists“. “Killer robots? Cambridge brains to assess AI risk“. “‘Terminator centre’ to open at Cambridge University: New faculty to study threat to humans from artificial intelligence“. “Cambridge boffins fear ‘Pandora’s Unboxing’ and RISE of the MACHINES: ‘You’re more likely to die from robots than cancer‘”…
The real story is that the The Cambridge Project for Existential Risk is planning to explore threats to the survival of the human species, including future technological risks. And among them are of course risks from autonomous machinery – risks that some people regard as significant, others as minuscule (see for example here, here and here). Should we spend valuable researcher time and grant money analysing such risks?
Andrew Hessel, Marc Goodman and Steven Kotler sketches in an article in The Atlantic a not-too-far future when the combination of cheap bioengineering, synthetic biology and crowdsourcing of problem solving allows not just personalised medicine, but also personalised biowarfare. They dramatize it by showing how this could be used to attack the US president, but that is mostly for effect: this kind of technology could in principle be targeted at anyone or any group as long as there existed someone who had a reason to use it and the resources to pay for it. The Secret Service looks like it is aware of the problem and does its best to swipe away traces of the President, but it is hard to imagine this to be perfect, doable for old DNA left behind years ago, or applied by all potential targets. In fact, it looks like the US government is keen on collecting not just biometric data, but DNA from foreign potentates. They might be friends right now, but who knows in ten years…
When MPs took a maths exam it showed that the members of parliament are pretty bad at elementary probability. When asked “if you spin a coin twice, what is the probability of getting two heads?” 47% of conservatives and 77% of the Labour MPs gave the wrong answer. About 75% of the MPs felt confident when dealing with numbers, although they generally though politicians did not use official statistics and figures correctly when talking policy.
How should a rational person react to this news?
The gene for internet addiction has been found! Well, actually it turns out that 27% of internet addicts have the genetic variant, compared to 17% of non-addicts. The Encode project has overturned the theory of ‘junk DNA‘! Well, actually we already knew that that DNA was doing things long before, and the definition of ‘function’ used is iffy. Alzheimer’s disease is a new ‘type 3 diabetes‘! Except that no diabetes researchers believe it. Sensationalist reporting of science is everywhere, distorting public understanding of what science has discovered and its relative importance. If media ought to try to give a full picture of the situation, they seem to be failing.
But before we start blaming science journalists, maybe we should look sharply at the scientists. A new study shows that 47% of press releases about controlled trials contained spin, emphasizing the beneficial effect of the experimental treatment. This carried over to subsequent news stories, often copying the original spin. Maybe we could try blaming university press officers, but the study found spin in 41% of the abstracts of the papers too, typically overestimating the benefit of the intervention or downplaying risks. The only way of actually finding out the real story is to read the content of the paper, something requiring a bit of skill – and quite often paying for access.
Who to blame, and what to do about it?