Epistemic Ethics

Gay Genes II: The Spectre of Creeping Exculpation Returns

Results of DNA tests of gay men reported to the American Association for the Advancement of Science last week provide further evidence of a genetic influence on male sexuality.

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Confirmation bias, embarassment and organisational ethics

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.

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Closing down comments

Popular Science  has decided they will no longer permit comments on their new articles.  If you are a ‘vexing commenter’, a ‘shrill boorish specimen’, rather than a ‘delightful, thought-provoking commenter’, it now turns out you were never welcome. Of course, they have a perfect right to close their comments: it is their website. Their reasons for doing so, however, show a distressing lack of respect for the value of free speech and free opinion.

It is true that some people are shrill, boorish and vexing, but some people are merely called that because they are saying things others do not wish to hear. Climate skeptics are frequently dismissed in these terms. Very good, you might say. But so were abolitionists, feminists and gay rights activists. This is that well known irregular verb, I am forthright, you are argumentative, he is boorish, she is shrill, we are reality based truth speakers, ye (you all) are clamorous and they are vexatious liars.

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Polygraphs: placebo or trial by ordeal?

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?

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Lying in the least untruthful manner: surveillance and trust

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.

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What to do with the Redundant Churches After the Demise of Religion?

Some weeks ago I attended a lecture by Daniel Dennett at the Oxford Union on religion. As expected, it was a lively presentation that predicted the demise of religion. However, one matter that started me thinking was how Dennett concluded his lecture: he ended by pondering what we might do with all the redundant places of worship once his prophecy was fulfilled. His suggestion was that they might satisfy a secular purpose, as places where the community might come together to address the novel challenges of the modern world. I started me thinking as I wondered whether a belief in religion might be better than atheism for attaining this, or any other, goal. Some, such as Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind (2012)) have suggested that religion is a particularly effective force for bringing people together. Continue reading

Secret snakes biting their own tails: secrecy and surveillance

To most people interested in surveillance the latest revelations that the US government has been doing widespread monitoring of its citizens (and the rest of the world), possibly through back-doors into major company services, is merely a chance to smugly say “I told you so“. The technology and legal trends have been clear for a long time. That intelligence agencies share information (allowing them to get around pesky limits on looking at their own citizens) is another yawn.

That does not mean they are unimportant: we are at an important choice-point in regard how to handle mass surveillance. But the battle is not security versus freedom, but secrecy versus openness.

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A Leader Without a Doubt

He never expressed doubt in anything, I think that was his – one of his strengths. He never expressed doubt. Once he’d made his mind up that something was right it was right.

- General Pinochet’s personal driver, commenting on their private conversations about politics and his own admiration for the late dictator.

I was kidding about the source. It was Lady Thatcher’s former driver Denis Oliver, commenting about her when interviewed by the BBC this morning (only gender was changed in the quote). Why do people so often take complete absence of doubt to be a strength in a leader, even when they disagree with that leader’s views? Can they be persuaded otherwise?

The Ethics of Meatballs

In the light of the unfolding horsemeat scandal, it was only a matter of time before some equine entrails were uncovered in an Ikea meatball. This is a shame on many levels, not least for the poor pigs, cows, and horses whose flesh will now end up as landfill. I personally am quite partial to an Ikea meatball, would not object on the mere grounds that it contained horsemeat (I think I would have been hard pressed to identify the ingredients anyway prior to the scandal), and recently enjoyed an Ikea meatball dinner in Budapest with a colleague from the Uehiro Centre, not a million miles from where the offending meatball was uncloaked. But for those who consider eating Ikea meatballs intrinsically good, but eating horsemeat intrinsically bad, how could they be advised?

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Roman Catholic doctrine and abortion

Vice-President Biden is a Roman Catholic. In the recent debate with Paul Ryan he was asked his view of abortion and he said

I accept my church’s position on abortion…. Life begins at conception. That’s the church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life. But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews…I just refuse to impose that on others.

So he’s saying that abortion is murder and while he’s certainly not going to be murdering any babies that he’s carrying he’s cool with you murdering yours. Or am I being unfair? Continue reading

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