Early April saw some unusually smoggy days across much of Western Europe, resulting in widespread media attention to air pollution.
(See, for example, here, here and here.) On one day, air quality in some parts of London was worse than in Beijing. Further attention has been drawn to the issue by a number of recent official reports, including one from the World Health Organisation, which has declared that air pollution is now the world’s biggest single environmental threat to health.
As has been noted, media coverage can give a misleading picture of the health risks of air pollution. Coverage tends to focus on short-term peaks, such as those seen recently in Western Europe, but the health risks of air pollution are primarily related to long term exposure, and show no ’safe threshold’ effect. Elevated baseline levels of pollution are thus more of a problem than occasional peaks.
There’s another important aspect of air pollution that often goes unnoticed; small geographical differences can have a marked effect on exposure to air pollution and thus on risk of adverse health effects. For example, living near a busy road appears to substantially increase air pollution-related mortality. A study published last year in the Lancet (press summary here) investigated the effects of very local differences in air quality on mortality by pooling 22 European cohort studies. The investigators found that an increase in average annual fine particulate (PM2.5) exposure of 5 µg/m3 was associated with a 7% increase in the risk of dying from all natural causes. This is approximately the difference between living on a busy urban road and living in a traffic-free area. The finding was robust in the face of correction for various possible confounding factors. Continue reading
Things I’ve learned (so far) about how to do practical ethics
I had the opportunity, a few months back, to look through some old poems I’d written in high school. Some, I thought, were pretty good. Others I remembered thinking were good when I wrote them, but now they seem embarrassingly bad: pseudo-profound, full of clichés, marked by empty rhetoric instead of meaningful content. I’ve had a similar experience today with my collection of articles here at the Practical Ethics blog. And Oh, the things I have learned!
Here are just a few of the lessons that have altered my thinking, or otherwise informed my views about “doing” practical ethics — particularly in a public-engagement context — since my very first blog post appeared in 2011:
A study published last week (and summarized here and here) demonstrated that a computer could be trained to detect real versus faked facial expressions of pain significantly better than humans. Participants were shown video clips of the faces of people actually in pain (elicited by submerging their arms in icy water) and clips of people simulating pain (with their arms in warm water). The participants had to indicate for each clip whether the expression of pain was genuine or faked.
Whilst human observers could not discriminate real expressions of pain from faked expression better than chance, a computer vision system that automatically measured facial movements and performed pattern recognition on those movements attained 85% accuracy. Even when the human participants practiced, accuracy only increased to 55%.
The authors explain that the system could also be trained to recognize other potentially deceptive actions involving a facial component. They say:
In addition to detecting pain malingering, our computer vision approach maybe used to detect other real-world deceptive actions in the realm of homeland security, psychopathology, job screening, medicine, and law. Like pain, these scenarios also generate strong emotions, along with attempts to minimize, mask, and fake such emotions, which may involve dual control of the face. In addition, our computer vision system can be applied to detect states in which the human face may provide important clues about health, physiology, emotion, or thought, such as drivers’ expressions of sleepiness and students’ expressions of attention and comprehension of lectures, or to track response to treatment of affective disorders.
The possibility of using this technology to detect when someone’s emotional expressions are genuine or not raises interesting ethical questions. I will outline and give preliminary comments on a few of the issues: Continue reading
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I’m working on a paper entitled ‘Cyborg justice: punishment in the age of transformative technology’ with my colleagues Anders Sandberg and Hannah Maslen. In it, we consider how punishment practices might change as technology advances, and what ethical issues might arise. The paper grew out of a blog post I wrote last year at Practical Ethics, a version of which was published as an article in Slate. A few months ago, Ross Andersen from the brilliant online magazine Aeon interviewed Anders, Hannah, and me, and the interview was published earlier this month. Versions of the story quickly appeared in various sources, beginning with a predictably inept effort in the Daily Mail, and followed by articles in The Telegraph, Huffington Post, Gawker, Boing Boing, and elsewhere. The interview also sparked debate in the blogosphere, including posts by Daily Nous, Polaris Koi, The Good Men Project, Filip Spagnoli, Brian Leiter, Rogue Priest, Luke Davies, and Ari Kohen, and comments and questions on Twitter and on my website. I’ve also received, by email, many comments, questions, and requests for further interviews and media appearances. These arrived at a time when I was travelling and lacked regular email access, and I’m yet to get around to replying to most of them. Apologies if you’re one of the people waiting for a reply.
I’m very happy to have started a debate on this topic, although less happy to have received a lot of negative attention based on a misunderstanding of my views on punishment and my reasons for being interested in this topic. I respond to the most common questions and concerns below. Feel free to leave a comment if there’s something important that I haven’t covered. Continue reading
This month an article published in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) outlined the results of a study on self-harm amongst jail inmates in New York City. Data on all jail admissions between January 2010 and October 2012 was analysed and the authors noted the following: “We found that acts of self-harm were strongly associated with assignment of inmates to solitary confinement. Inmates punished by solitary confinement were approximately 6.9 times as likely to commit acts of self-harm after we controlled for length of jail stay, SMI [serious mental illness], age, and race/ethnicity.”
This research provides an interesting springboard for a discussion. Can solitary confinement ever be justified, and if so, in what circumstances? Continue reading
Last summer, on this blog, Rebecca Roache suggested several ways in which technology could enhance retributive punishment—that is, could make punishment more severe—without “resorting to inhumane methods or substantially overhauling the current UK legal system.” Her approbation of this type of technological development has recently been reported in the Daily Mail, and reaffirmed in an interview for Aeon Magazine.
Roache’s original post was, at least, a response to the sentencing of the mother and stepfather of Daniel Pelka, who was four when he died as a result of a mixture of violence and neglect perpetrated by his parents. They each received the maximum sentence possible in the UK, a minimum of thirty years in prison before the possibility of parole is discussed (and even then they might not get it). This sentence, Roache wrote, was “laughably inadequate.” Continue reading
This week, I’ve been thinking about smoking. Full disclosure: My name is Jim and I am a smoker. I have smoked for nearly a decade now – been since around 2005 – and I only smoke menthol cigarettes. I am addicted to the sweet menthol smoke, where that touch of red fire at the end of a white stick seems so perfectly suited to almost any occasion from celebration to commiseration. I give up on average for a month or two a year, every year. I always come back, though. The reason I say this is to highlight that I am by no means one of these dour-faced moralizers, condemning smokers for their ‘filthy habit’. Like a snot-nosed child, it may be filthy, but it’s my filthy habit. Most efforts to encourage people against smoking focus on the idea that smoking is personally damaging: it causes illness and death, it costs a lot of money, it harms others, it litters the environment, and so on. This week, however, I’ve been thinking about whether the real concern is that smoking might be morally wrong. (NB: I’m discussing where whether it is morally wrong, not whether it should be legally banned or whether people should have the ‘right’ to smoke – these are distinct questions). Continue reading
You can get experienced meditators to produce, on demand, feelings of timelessness and spacelessness. Tell them ‘Try to be outside time’, and ‘try not to be in the centre of space’, and they will.
These sort of sensations tend to happen together – so strikingly so that Walter Stace proposed, as one combined element of mystical experience, ‘non-spatial-and-non-temporal’.1
Why should that be? asked an Israeli research group in a recent and fascinating paper. And was the generation of these sensations related to alterations in the sense of the body? Continue reading
The dictator Joseph Stalin reputedly once said that “The death of one person is a tragedy; the death of one million is a statistic.” Behind this chilling remark lies an important insight into human moral psychology. Our moral intuitions are myopic. For instance, we are repelled by the idea of causing others direct physical harm, while it is psychologically much easier to inflict the same, or greater, amounts of harm in non-direct ways. (Think of controlling a drone, as opposed to stabbing someone at close range.) Continue reading