Epistemic Ethics

The reproducibility problem and the status of bioethics

There is a long overdue crisis of confidence in the biological and medical sciences. It would be nice – though perhaps rather ambitious – to think that it could transmute into a culture of humility.

A recent comment in Nature observes that: ‘An unpublished 2015 survey by the American Society for Cell Biology found that more than two-thirds of respondents had on at least one occasion been unable to reproduce published results. Biomedical researchers from drug companies have reported that one-quarter or fewer of high-profile papers are reproducible.’

Reproducibility of results is one of the girders underpinning conventional science. The Nature article acknowledges this: it is accompanied by a cartoon showing the crumbling edifice of ‘Robust Science.’

As the unwarranted confidence of scientists teeters and falls, what will – and what should – happen to bioethics?

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Don’t write evil algorithms

Google is said to have dropped the famous “Don’t be evil” slogan. Actually, it is the holding company Alphabet that merely wants employees to “do the right thing”. Regardless of what one thinks about the actual behaviour and ethics of Google, it seems that it got one thing right early on: a recognition that it was moving in a morally charged space.

Google is in many ways an algorithm company: it was founded on PageRank, a clever algorithm for finding relevant web pages, scaled up thanks to MapReduce algorithms, use algorithms for choosing adverts, driving cars and selecting nuances of blue. These algorithms have large real world effects, and the way they function and are used matters morally.

Can we make and use algorithms more ethically?

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What’s Wrong With Giving Treatments That Don’t Work: A Social Epistemological Argument.

Let us suppose we have a treatment and we want to find out if it works. Call this treatment drug X. While we have observational data that it works—that is, patients say it works or, that it appears to work given certain tests—observational data can be misleading. As Edzard Ernst writes:

Whenever a patient or a group of patients receive a medical treatment and subsequently experience improvements, we automatically assume that the improvement was caused by the intervention. This logical fallacy can be very misleading […] Of course, it could be the treatment—but there are many other possibilities as well. Continue reading

Plausibility and Same-Sex Marriage

In philosophical discussions, we bring up the notion of plausibility a lot.  “That’s implausible” is a common form of objection, while the converse “That’s plausible” is a common way of offering a sort of cautious sympathy with an argument or claim.  But what exactly do we mean when we claim something is plausible or implausible, and what implications do such claims have?  This question was, for me, most recently prompted by a recent pair of blog posts by Justin Weinberg over at Daily Nous on same-sex marriage.  In the posts and discussion, Weinberg appears sympathetic to an interesting pedagogical principle: instructors may legitimately exclude, discount or dismiss from discussion positions they take to be implausible.*  Further, opposition same-sex marriage is taken to be such an implausible position and thus excludable/discountable/dismissable from classroom debate.  Is this a legitimate line of thought?  I’m inclined against it, and will try to explain why in this post.**  Continue reading

Limiting the damage from cultures in collision

A Man in Black has a readable twitter essay about the role of chan culture in gamergate, and how the concepts of identity and debate inside a largish subculture can lead to an amazing uproar when they clash with outside cultures.

A brief recap: the Gamergate Controversy was/is a fierce culture war originating in the video gaming community in August 2014 but soon ensnaring feminists, journalists, webcomics, discussion sites, political pundits, Intel… – essentially anybody touching this tar-baby of controversy, regardless of whether they understood it or not. It has everything: media critique, feminism, sexism, racism, sealioning, cyberbullying, doxing, death threats, wrecked careers: you name it. From an outside perspective it has been a train wreck hard to look away from. Rarely have a debate flared up so quickly, involved so many, and generated so much vituperation. If this is the future of broad debates our civilization is doomed.

This post is not so much about the actual content of the controversy but the point made by A Man in Black: one contributing factor to the disaster has been that a fairly large online subculture has radically divergent standards of debate and identity, and when it got into contact with the larger world chaos erupted. How should we handle this? Continue reading

Lying to children

A study published this month shows that school-aged children are more likely to lie to an adult if that adult had recently lied to them. The British Psychological Society’s Research Digest summarizes the study here.

Hays and Carver took school-aged (and preschool-aged) children and assigned them to one of two experimental conditions. In the first condition – the lie condition – the child was told that there was a large bowl of sweets in the experiment room when in fact there was no such bowl. Continue reading

Motte and Bailey Doctrines

One of the difficulties of getting people to behave better epistemically is that, whilst intellectual dishonesty is wrong, it is difficult to convict people of intellectual wrongs. As David Stove showed in his wonderful paper ‘What is Wrong with Our Thoughts?’ (The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies Chapter 7 ), there are indefinitely many ways of cheating intellectually and for most there is no simple way to put one’s finger on how the cheat is effected. There is just the hard work of describing the species in detail.

Some time ago I wrote a paper entitled The Vacuity of Postmodernist Methodology (here or here  or here ) in which I described and named a number of  such cheats that I detected in postmodernism. One of these I named the Motte and Bailey Doctrine. There has recently been a flurry of use of this concept to analyse ethical, political and religious positions (e.g. here, here)  so I am taking the opportunity to have a look at it again.

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Political speech crime

In an article at The conversation  Professor Torcello has proposed that ‘an organised campaign funding misinformation ought to be considered criminally negligent’. I am wholly in agreement with him. I cannot think of a political party whose campaign can be characterised as anything other than an organized campaign funding misinformation and I would be delighted if we could bang them all up in chokey for it and be rid of them. Sorry, what’s that? He wasn’t talking about politicians? Well who was he talking about then? Continue reading

Moral Luck Revisited

The tragic sinking of the South Korean ferry raises again the problem of moral luck which Bernard Williams did so much to expose in his famous 1976 article on that topic. The South Korean president has now claimed that the captain of the ferry is a murderer, implying that he is subject to the same degree of blame as any other murderer. Continue reading

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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