Information Ethics

DNA papers, please

Kuwait is planning to build a complete DNA database of not just citizens but all other residents and temporary visitorsThe motivation is claimed to be antiterrorism (the universal motivation!) and fighting crime. Many are outraged, from local lawyers over a UN human rights committee to the European Society of Human Genetics, and think that it will not be very helpful against terrorism (how does having the DNA of a suicide bomber help after the fact?) Rather, there are reasons to worry about misuse in paternity testing (Kuwait has strict adultery laws),  and in the politics of citizenship (which provides many benefits): it is strictly circumscribed to paternal descendants of the original Kuwaiti settlers, and there is significant discrimination against people with no recognized paternity such as the Bidun minority. Plus, and this might be another strong motivation for many of the scientists protesting against the law, it might put off public willingness to donate their genomes into research databases where they actually do some good. Obviously it might also put visitors off visiting – would, for example, foreign heads of state accept leaving their genome in the hands of another state? Not to mention the discovery of adultery in ruling families – there is a certain gamble in doing this.

Overall, it seems few outside the Kuwaiti government are cheering for the law. When I recently participated in a panel discussion organised by the BSA at the Wellcome Collection about genetic privacy, at the question “Would anybody here accept mandatory genetic collection?” only one or two hands rose in the large audience. When would it make sense to make mandatory genetic information collection? Continue reading

Hide your face?

A start-up claims it can identify whether a face belongs to a high-IQ person, a good poker player, a terrorist, or a pedophile. Faception uses machine-learning to generate classifiers that signal whether a face belongs in one category or not. Basically facial appearance is used to predict personality traits, type, or behaviors. The company claims to already have sold technology to a homeland security agency to help identify terrorists. It does not surprise me at all: governments are willing to buy remarkably bad snake-oil. But even if the technology did work, it would be ethically problematic.

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The unbearable asymmetry of bullshit

By Brian D. Earp (@briandavidearp)

* Note: this article was first published online at Quillette magazine. The official version is forthcoming in the HealthWatch Newsletter; see http://www.healthwatch-uk.org/.

Introduction

Science and medicine have done a lot for the world. Diseases have been eradicated, rockets have been sent to the moon, and convincing, causal explanations have been given for a whole range of formerly inscrutable phenomena. Notwithstanding recent concerns about sloppy research, small sample sizes, and challenges in replicating major findings—concerns I share and which I have written about at length — I still believe that the scientific method is the best available tool for getting at empirical truth. Or to put it a slightly different way (if I may paraphrase Winston Churchill’s famous remark about democracy): it is perhaps the worst tool, except for all the rest.

Scientists are people too

In other words, science is flawed. And scientists are people too. While it is true that most scientists — at least the ones I know and work with — are hell-bent on getting things right, they are not therefore immune from human foibles. If they want to keep their jobs, at least, they must contend with a perverse “publish or perish” incentive structure that tends to reward flashy findings and high-volume “productivity” over painstaking, reliable research. On top of that, they have reputations to defend, egos to protect, and grants to pursue. They get tired. They get overwhelmed. They don’t always check their references, or even read what they cite. They have cognitive and emotional limitations, not to mention biases, like everyone else.

At the same time, as the psychologist Gary Marcus has recently put it, “it is facile to dismiss science itself. The most careful scientists, and the best science journalists, realize that all science is provisional. There will always be things that we haven’t figured out yet, and even some that we get wrong.” But science is not just about conclusions, he argues, which are occasionally (or even frequently) incorrect. Instead, “It’s about a methodology for investigation, which includes, at its core, a relentless drive towards questioning that which came before.” You can both “love science,” he concludes, “and question it.”

I agree with Marcus. In fact, I agree with him so much that I would like to go a step further: if you love science, you had better question it, and question it well, so it can live up to its potential.

And it is with that in mind that I bring up the subject of bullshit.

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What’s the moral difference between ad blocking and piracy?

On 16 September Marco Arment, developer of Tumblr, Instapaper and Overcast, released a new iPhone and iPad app called Peace. It quickly shot to the top of the paid app charts, but Arment began to have moral qualms about the app, and its unexpected success, and two days after its release, he pulled it from the app store.

Why the qualms? For the full story, check out episode 136 of Arment’s excellent Accidental Tech Podcast and this blog post, but here’s my potted account: Peace is an ad blocker. It allows users to view webpages without advertisements. Similar software has been available for Macs and PCs for years (I use it to block some ads on my laptop), but Apple has only just made ad blockers possible on mobile devices, and Peace was one of a bunch of new apps to take advantage of this possibility. Although ad blockers help web surfers to avoid the considerable annoyance (and aesthetic unpleasantness) of webpage ads, they also come at a cost to content providers, potentially reducing their advertising revenue. According to Arment, the ethics of ad blocking is ‘complicated’, and although he still believes ad blockers should exist, and continues to use them, he thinks their downsides are serious enough that he wasn’t comfortable with being at the forefront of the ad blocking movement himself.

In explaining his reasons for withdrawing the app, Arment drew a parallel between ad blocking and piracy. He doesn’t claim that the analogy is perfect (in fact, he explicitly disavows this), and nor does he take it to be a knock-down objection to ad-blocking (presumably he believes that piracy is also morally complicated). But he does think there’s something to the comparison.

Like Arment, I think there are considerable moral similarities between ad blocking and piracy. But, also like Arment, ad blocking seems to me, intuitively, to be somewhat less morally problematic. This raises an obvious question: what’s the moral difference?

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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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A Code of Conduct for Peer Reviewers in the Humanities and Social Sciences

1. The fact that you disagree with the author’s conclusion is not a reason for advising against publication. Quite the contrary, in fact. You have been selected as a peer reviewer because of your eminence, which means (let’s face it), your conservatism. Accordingly if you think the conclusion is wrong, it is far more likely to generate interest and debate than if you agree with it.

2. A very long review will simply indicate to the editors that you’ve got too much time on your hands. And if you have, that probably indicates that you’re not publishing enough yourself. Accordingly excessive length indicates that you’re not appropriately qualified. Continue reading

What to do with Google—nothing, break it up, nationalise it, turn it into a public utility, treat it as a public space, or something else?

Google has become a service that one cannot go without if one wants to be a well-adapted participant in society. For many, Google is the single most important source of information. Yet people do not have any understanding of the way Google individually curates contents for its users. Its algorithms are secret. For the past year, and as a result of the European Court of Justice’s ruling on the right to be forgotten, Google has been deciding which URLs to delist from its search results on the basis of personal information being “inaccurate, inadequate or no longer relevant.” The search engine has reported that it has received over 250,000 individual requests concerning 1 million URLs in the past year, and that it has delisted around 40% of the URLs that it has reviewed. As was made apparent in a recent open letter from 80 academics urging Google for more transparency, the criteria being used to make these decisions are also secret. We have no idea about what sort of information typically gets delisted, and in what countries. The academics signing the letter point out how Google has been charged with the task of balancing privacy and access to information, thereby shaping public discourse, without facing any kind of public scrutiny. Google rules over us but we have no knowledge of what the rules are.

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Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Giving Ourselves Away, by Callum Hackett

This essay, by Oxford graduate student Callum Hackett, is one of the six shortlisted essays in the graduate category of the inaugural Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics.

‘Giving Ourselves Away: online communication alters the self and society’

Invention is a fertile source of new ethical problems because creating new tools creates questions about how they might be used for better or worse. However, while every invention has its unique uses, the questions we must ask of them are often the same. For example, the harnessing of water and steam in the Industrial Revolution raised the same concern as robotics in contemporary manufacturing for how mechanization affects the economic empowerment of the working class. Naturally, there are fewer underlying ethical problems than there are inventions that cluster around them, but here I wish to explore the possibility that the mass adoption of the internet has brought with it a new problem with which we are just starting to engage. Specifically, while the internet poses a series of difficult questions, I will consider the implications of certain characteristics of online communication for the self, society and politics. Continue reading

Humans are un-made by social media

‘Technology has made life different, but not necessarily more stressful’, says a recent article in the New York Times, summarising the findings of a study by researchers at the Pew Research Center and Rutgers University. It is often thought that frequent internet and social media use increases stress. Digital unplugging, along with losing weight and quitting smoking, is seen as a healthy thing to do. But, said the article, we needn’t worry so much. Frequent internet and social media users don’t have higher stress levels than less frequent users, and indeed women who frequently use Twitter, email and photo-sharing apps (and who use these media for life-event sharing more than men – who tend to be less self-disclosing online) scored 21% lower on the stress scale than women who did not.

I suggest that, far from being reassuring, these results are very sinister indeed. They indicate that internet technology (or at least something that has happened to humans at the same time as internet technology has been happening to them) has effected a tectonic transformation in the human constitution. The outsourcing, digitalization and trivializing of our relationships should make us stressed. If it doesn’t, something seriously bad has happened. The stress response enables us to react appropriately to threats. Switch it off, and we’re in danger. Only a damaged immune response fails to kick off when there are bacteria around. A tiger confined in a tiny concrete pen has lost a lot of its tigerishness if it doesn’t pace frustratedly up and down, its cortisol levels through the roof. Continue reading

On Swearing (lecture by Rebecca Roache)

Last Thursday’s Special Ethics Seminar at St Cross College was booked out very quickly, and the audience’s high expectations were fully justified. Rebecca Roache returned from Royal Holloway to Oxford to give a fascinating lecture on the nature and ethics of swearing. Roache has two initial questions: ‘Is there anything wrong with this fucking question?’, and ‘Is this one any f***ing better?’. (Her answers turn out to be, essentially, ‘No’ to both.) Continue reading

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