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?
Tonight I participated in BBC’s “The Moral Maze”, discussing the recent reactions to a report by Dominic Cummings, an advisor to the education secretary, that mentioned that genetic factors have a big impact on educational outcomes. This ties in with the recent book G is for Genes by Kathryn Asbury (also on the program) and Robert Plomin where they argue that children are not blank slates and that genetic information might enable personalized education. Ah, children, genetics, IQ, schools – the perfect mixture for debate!
Unfortunately for me the panel tore into my transhumanist views rather than ask me about the main topic for the evening, so I ended up debating something different. This is what I would have argued if there had been time:
Last week Pieter Bonte gave a St. Cross seminar titled “Neither God nor Nature. Could the doping sinner be an exemplar of human(ist) dignity?” The talk is online as a mp3.
Here are some of my notes:
Chad Dixon, an Indiana man was recently sentenced to 8 months in jail for teaching people how to beat polygraph tests. The sticking point seems to be that polygraphs are used by the US federal authorities for screening applicants and detecting crimes, so if people could get past them they could do all sorts of nefarious things. But the reliability of polygraph tests is highly dubious, and false positives may have stalled many careers. So of course the UK is considering making polygraph testing compulsory for sex offenders, something the blogger Neurobonkers described as a return to trial by ordeal. Is it unethical to teach people to circumvent these tests?
When I last blogged about the surveillance scandal in June, I argued that the core problem was the reasonable doubts we have about whether the oversight is functioning properly, and that the secrecy makes these doubts worse. Since then a long list of new revelations have arrived. To me, what matters is not so much whether foreign agencies get secretly paid to spy, doubts about internal procedures or how deeply software can peer into human lives, but how these revelations put a lie to many earlier denials. In an essay well worth reading Bruce Schneier points out that this pattern of deception severely undermines our trust in the authorities, and this is an important social risk: democracies and market economies require us to trust politicians and companies to an appropriate extent.