Today, 31 years ago, the human species nearly came to an end. Lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov was the officer on duty in bunker Serpukhov-15 near Moscow, monitoring the Soviet Union early warning satellite network. If notification was received that it had detected approaching missiles the official strategy was launch on warning: an immediate counter-attack against the United States. International relations were on a hair trigger: just days before Korean Air Lines Flight 007 had been shot down by Soviet fighter jets, killing everybody onboard (including a US congressman). Kreml was claiming the jet had been on a spy mission, or even deliberately trying to provoke war.
Shortly after midnight the computers reported a single intercontinental missile heading towards Russia.
There could be increased numbers of psychopaths in senior managerial positions, high levels of business: a paper in Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology has demonstrated that smart psychopaths are hard to detect as psychopaths. The authors tested participants for psychopathic tendencies using a psychological scale, and then tested their arousal levels through galvanic skin response while showing normal or upsetting images. The interesting finding was that only lower IQ participants showed the expected responses (lowered startle when viewing aversive images in psychopaths): smarter participants seemed to be able to control their emotions.
The lead author, Carolyn Bate, said:
“Perhaps businesses do need people who have the same characteristics as psychopaths, such as ruthlessness. But I suspect that some form of screening does need to take place, mainly so businesses are aware of what sort of people they are hiring.”
Should we screen people at hiring for psychopathy?
Cryonics – the practice of freezing people directly after death in the hope that future medicine can resuscitate them – is controversial. However, British Columbia is the only jurisdiction with an explicit anti-cryonics law (banning advertising or sale of cryonics services), and a legal challenge is apparently being put together. The motivations for the law appear murky, but to some this is a rights issue. As Zoltan Istvan notes, “In a world where over 90 percent of the people hold religious views of the afterlife, cryonics could become a noteworthy global civil rights issue. ” Maybe the true deep problem for getting cryonics accepted is that it is a non-religious afterlife, and we tend to give undue privilege to religious strange views rather than secular strange views.
A recent report by Lipsitch and Galvani warns that some virus experiments risk unleashing global pandemic. In particular, there are the controversial “gain of function” experiments seeking to test how likely bird flu is to go from a form that cannot be transmitted between humans to a form that can – by trying to create such a form. But one can also consider geoengineering experiments: while current experiments are very small-scale and might at most have local effects, any serious attempt to test climate engineering will have to influence the climate measurably, worldwide. When is it acceptable to do research that threatens to cause the disaster it seeks to limit?
The dating site OKCupid displays a message to visitors using the web browser Firefox asking them to change browser, since “Mozilla’s new CEO, Brendan Eich, is an opponent of equal rights for gay couples”. The reason is that Eich donated $1,000 to support Proposition 8 (a California ban on same sex marriages) six years ago. He, on the other hand, blogs that he is committed to make Mozilla an inclusive place and that he will try to “show, not tell” in making it so. The company at large is pretty firmly on the equality side in any case.
Will the technologisation of boycotting lead to consumer pressure being applied in a better way?
Cory Doctorow has written a thoughtful critique of two science fiction stories and how they might promote short-sightedness and morally bad behaviour. If one thinks science fiction is good for teaching us to think about the future (or literature in general about the world), is there a moral responsibility of authors to avoid moral hazard? And if that is true, what about ethicists coming up with thought experiments? Continue reading
Matthew Harwood has an interesting essay about how a FBI investigation suffering from confirmation bias relentlessly pursued an innocent person based on an accidental partial fingerprint match at the Madrid bombings, leading to him being detained for two weeks – despite plenty of strong evidence against the suspicion. In fact, the dis-confirming evidence was in several cases seen as confirming (No passport? Aha, he must have been travelling abroad secretly!)
Confirmation bias is something that modern police is taught to guard against, but that is of course not enough: knowing about a bias does not mean it will go away. Actually fixing the problem requires institutional structures that balance the human tendency towards bias, and maintaining those structures require proper buy-in from management and correction when they fail.
But there might also be a deeper institutional ethics problem going on here. In a recent ruling a judge ruled the TSA no-fly procedures unconstitutional. As the Kafkaesque shenanigans of the case show, the government spent significant effort, money and political capital in obstructing a case where they actually admitted the plaintiff on the no-fly list did not pose any threat. Indeed, it was a clerical error that put her on the list. While one can argue that maybe the real issue was defending an important administrative tool rather than defending the erroneous decision, it still seems likely that a significant motivator was simply preventing embarrassment.
This year Alan Turing got a posthumous royal pardon for his conviction of homosexuality. Justice Minister Chris Grayling said: “Turing deserves to be remembered and recognised for his fantastic contribution to the war effort and his legacy to science. A pardon from the Queen is a fitting tribute to an exceptional man.” Last year I blogged here on why asking for a pardon of Alan Turing might be a mistake. I still stand by my criticism: the fact that Turing was exceptional doesn’t mean he was above the (unjust) law or that he is more morally deserving than any other victim of that law.
Meanwhile in Russia, an amnesty has been called for 20,000 prisoners. This includes plenty of political prisoners, most notably members of Pussy Riot and Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The official reason for this seems to be the 20th anniversary of the adoption of Russian constitution, but in practice it might of course be a festive way of defusing some criticisms before the winter Olympics. Should the freed dissidents and their supporters now feel grateful to Putin?
Are we overprotective of Mars? That is the claim made by Alberto G. Fairén and Dirk Schulze-Makuch in a recent commentary in Nature Geoscience. They argue that current planetary protection policies that try to prevent bodies in the solar system from becoming contaminated by Earth-life are too costly, inhibit scientific exploration and might actually be unnecessary because of natural contamination. How much value does a pristine non-terrestrial environment have?