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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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Why It’s OK to Block Ads

Over the past couple of months, the practice of ad blocking has received heightened ethical scrutiny. (1,2,3,4)

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, “ad blocking” refers to software—usually web browser plug-ins, but increasingly mobile apps—that stop most ads from appearing when you use websites or apps that would otherwise show them.

Arguments against ad blocking tend to focus on the potential economic harms. Because advertising is the dominant business model on the internet, if everyone used ad-blocking software then wouldn’t it all collapse? If you don’t see (or, in some cases, click on) ads, aren’t you getting the services you currently think of as “free”—actually for free? By using ad-blocking, aren’t you violating an agreement you have with online service providers to let them show you ads in exchange for their services? Isn’t ad blocking, as the industry magazine AdAge has called it, “robbery, plain and simple”? Continue reading

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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Saving administration costs or saving lives?

By Lucius Caviola & Nadira Faulmüller

Imagine a car company advertising as follows: “90c of any dollar you pay for your car goes directly to building cars. Only 10% of our expenses go into planning, designing, and advertising them.” Such a campaign strategy would seem patently bizarre; when buying a product few of us are interested in how much went into administration, all we care about is what we get for our money. Overhead ratio (the proportion of money going into administration) is irrelevant; only cost-effectiveness matters.

This common sense approach to purchasing goods or services does not seem to translate into the non-profit sector, however. Consider the following advertisement by the organisation CARE:  “More than 90 percent of our expended resources – among the highest of all philanthropic organisations – support our poverty-fighting projects around the world. Less than 10 percent of expended resources go toward administrative and fundraising costs.” Continue reading

Beyond 23andMe’s Shutdown: The Role of the FDA in the Future of Direct-to-Consumer Genetic Testing

Kyle Edwards, Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and The Ethox Centre, University of Oxford

Caroline Huang, The Ethox Centre, University of Oxford

An article based on this blog post has now been published in the May – June 2014 Hastings Center Report: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/hast.310/full. Please check out our more developed thoughts on this topic there!

Could ad hominem arguments sometimes be OK?

By Brian D. Earp

Follow Brian on Twitter by clicking here.

Could ad hominem arguments sometimes be OK? 

You aren’t supposed to make ad hominem arguments in academic papers — maybe not anywhere. To get us on the same page, here’s a quick blurb from Wikipedia:

An ad hominem (Latin for “to the man” or “to the person”), short for argumentum ad hominem, is a general category of fallacies in which a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person presenting the claim or argument. Ad hominem reasoning is normally categorized as an informal fallacy, more precisely as a genetic fallacy, a subcategory of fallacies of irrelevance.

Some initial thoughts. First, there are some clear cut cases where an ad hominem argument is plainly worthless and simply distracting: it doesn’t help us understand things better; it doesn’t wend toward truth. Let’s say that a philosopher makes an argument, X, concerning (say) abortion; and her opponent points out that the philosopher is (say) a known tax cheat — an attempt to discredit her character. Useless. But let’s say that a psychologist makes an argument, Y, about race and IQ (i.e., that black people are less “intelligent” than white people), and his opponent points out that he used to be a member of the KKK. Well, it’s still useless in one sense, in that the psychologist’s prior membership in the KKK can’t by itself disprove his argument; but it does seem useful in another sense, in that it might give us at least a plausible reason to be a little bit more cautious in interpreting the psychologist’s results.

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Twitter, paywalls, and access to scholarship — are license agreements too restrictive?

By Brian D. Earp

Follow Brian on Twitter by clicking here.

Twitter, paywalls, and access to scholarship — are license agreements too restrictive? 

I think I may have done something unethical today. But I’m not quite sure, dear reader, so I’m enlisting your energy to help me think things through. Here’s the short story:

Someone posted a link to an interesting-looking article by Caroline Williams at New Scientist — on the “myth” that we should live and eat like cavemen in order to match our lifestyle to that of our evolutionary ancestors, and thereby maximize health. Now, I assume that when you click on the link I just gave you (unless you’re a New Scientist subscriber), you get a short little blurb from the beginning of the article and then–of course–it dissolves into an ellipsis as soon as things start to get interesting:

Our bodies didn’t evolve for lying on a sofa watching TV and eating chips and ice cream. They evolved for running around hunting game and gathering fruit and vegetables. So, the myth goes, we’d all be a lot healthier if we lived and ate more like our ancestors. This “evolutionary discordance hypothesis” was first put forward in 1985 by medic S. Boyd Eaton and anthropologist Melvin Konner …

Holy crap! The “evolutionary discordance hypothesis” is a myth? I hope not, because I’ve been using some similar ideas in a lot of my arguments about neuroenhancement recently. So I thought I should really plunge forward and read the rest of the article. Unfortunately, I don’t have a subscription to New Scientist, and when I logged into my Oxford VPN-thingy, I discovered that Oxford doesn’t have access either. Weird. What was I to do?

Since I typically have at least one eye glued to my Twitter account, it occurred to me that I could send a quick tweet around to check if anyone had the PDF and would be willing to send it to me in an email. The majority of my “followers” are fellow academics, and I’ve seen this strategy play out before — usually when someone’s institutional log-in isn’t working, or when a key article is behind a pay-wall at one of those big “bundling” publishers that everyone seems to hold in such low regard. Another tack would be to dash off an email to a couple of colleagues of mine, and I could “CC” the five or six others who seem likeliest to be New Scientist subscribers. In any case, I went for the tweet.

Sure enough, an hour or so later, a chemist friend of mine sent me a message to “check my email” and there was the PDF of the “caveman” article, just waiting to be devoured. I read it. It turns out that the “evolutionary discordance hypothesis” is basically safe and sound, although it may need some tweaking and updates. Phew. On to other things.

But then something interesting happened! Whoever it is that manages the New Scientist Twitter account suddenly shows up in my Twitter feed with a couple of carefully-worded replies to my earlier PDF-seeking hail-mary:

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Why advertising gay conversion therapy is like advertising make-up

by Rebecca Roache

Various news sources—including The Huffington Post, Gay Star News, and the London Evening Standard—are reporting a High Court case in which a campaigner for gay conversion therapy is fighting Transport for London (TfL) over a ban on its bus adverts that suggest that homosexuality can be ‘cured’.

Dr Mike Davidson is head of Core Issues Trust which, according to its website, is ‘a non-profit Christian ministry supporting men and women with homosexual issues who voluntarily seek change in sexual preference and expression’. Davidson, who is married with children, insists that his own gay feelings were removed by therapy. He told The Huffington Post that he had homosexual feelings ‘from the moment [he] opened [his] eyes’. Even so, he believes that ‘gay’ is a ‘late twentieth century political construction’ that people can reject. His adverts read, ‘Not gay! Ex-gay, post-gay and proud. Get over it!’—a response to similar posters by lesbian, gay and bisexual charity Stonewall which read, ‘Some people are gay. Get over it!’ Davidson’s adverts have been deemed ‘offensive to gays’ by London Mayor Boris Johnson, who is also head of TfL. Continue reading

Advertising, Autonomy and Breastfeeding: Some Reflections.

In ethical discussions, we are often quick to lambast advertisements for the way in which they can subvert the consumer’s autonomy. It is certainly true, as other posts on this blog record, that  some advertisements aim to intentionally deceive consumers, and to manipulate their preferences in a manner which can serve to undermine their autonomy. Continue reading

Banning Junk Food Ads On Disney Media Outlets: A “Game-Changer”, or a Mickey Mouse Measure?

Yesterday, with the help of first lady Michelle Obama, the Walt Disney Company announced that from 2015, it will no longer allow the advertisement of junk food on its media outlets (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-18336478). This announcement has been lauded by those who are alarmed by the colossal statistics regarding childhood obesity in the USA. Mrs. Obama herself hailed the initiative as a “game changer”.

The USA (but not only the USA) is facing an epidemic of childhood obesity. 17% of all children and adolescents in the USA are clinically obese, triple the rate of what it was one generation ago (http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/childhood/index.html). This percentage might even be higher according to a recent study (http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0033308). Given the numerous health problems associated with obesity, this is clearly a cause for grave concern. Continue reading

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