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Could ad hominem arguments sometimes be OK?

By Brian D. Earp

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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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How to get positive surveillance – a few ideas

I recently published an article on the possible upsides of mass surveillance (somewhat in the vein of David Brin’s “transparent society”). To nobody’s great astonishment, it has attracted criticism! Some of them accuse me of not knowing the negative aspects of surveillance. But that was not the article’s point; there is already a lot written on the negative aspects (Bruce Schneier and Cory Doctorow, for instance, have covered this extremely well). Others make the point that though these benefits may be conceivable in principle, I haven’t shown how they could be obtained in practice.

Again, that wasn’t the point of the article. But it’s a fair criticism – what can we do today to make a better surveillance outcomes more likely? Since I didn’t have space to go through that in my article, here are a few suggestions: Continue reading

How to deal with double-edged technology

By Brian D. Earp

 World’s smallest drone? Or how to deal with double-edged technology 

BBC News reports that Harvard scientists have developed the world’s smallest flying robot. It’s about the size of a penny, and it moves faster than a human hand can swat. Of course, the inventors of this “diminutive flying vehicle” immediately lauded its potential for bringing good to the world:

1. “We could envision these robots being used for search-and-rescue operations to search for human survivors under collapsed buildings or [in] other hazardous environments.”

2. “They [could] be used for environmental monitoring, to be dispersed into a habitat to sense trace chemicals or other factors.”

3. They might even behave like many real insects and assist with the pollination of crops, “to function as the now-struggling honeybee populations do in supporting agriculture around the world.”

These all seem like pretty commendable uses of a new technology. Yet one can think of some “bad” uses too. The “search and rescue” version of this robot (for example) would presumably be fitted with a camera; and the prospect of a swarm of tiny, remote-controlled flying video recorders raises some obvious questions about spying and privacy. It also prompts one to wonder who will have access to these spy bugs (the U.S. Air Force has long been interested in building miniature espionage drones), and whether there will be effective regulatory strategies capable of tilting future usage more toward the search-and-rescue side of things, and away from the peep-and-record side.

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Fifty shades: should BDSM become part of general sexual education?

“BDSM [Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, Masochism] might be mainstream now, but it has a new PR problem. I blame Christian Grey.” writes ‘sexual submissive’ Sophie Morgan in an article in the Guardian.

I started reading E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey but didn’t get very far. It’s very badly written (guess that’s no longer a secret) and, well, I found it incredibly boring (Pride and Prejudice is more exciting, I think). In any case, the book is just a starting point for something I began thinking about after a recent conversation with a friend who is part of the ‘BDSM  community’.

The legal status of BDSM varies from country to country. In the UK, it is illegal if it results in any injury which is more than “transient or trifling”. Possessing extreme pornography is a criminal offence, which, for obvious reasons, may be problematic for those who are into SM. Moreover, those who engage in any kind of BDSM are not legally protected against discrimination on the basis of their sexual preferences (for example, they can be, and have been, fired for that reason).

I haven’t studied the issue in depth, but it seems to me that BDSM should be legal, the main reason being that it concerns a consensual sexual act by adults that doesn’t cause harm to third parties. (There’s an interesting paper by Nafsika Athanassoulis arguing why SM can be considered a consensual sexual act). But I was thinking about a further question. Should we put more effort into breaking the BDSM taboo? For example, in countries where BDSM is legal, should it be part of general sexual education?

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Asking the right questions: big data and civil rights

Alastair Croll has written a thought-provoking article, Big data is our generation’s civil rights issue, and we don’t know it. His basic argument is that the new economics of collecting and analyzing data has led to a change in how it is used. Once it was expensive to collect, so only data needed to answer particular questions was collected. Today it is cheap to collect, so it can be collected first and then analyzed – “we collect first and ask questions later”. This means that the questions asked can be very different from the questions the data seem to be about, and in many cases they can be problematic. Race, sexual orientation, health or political views – important for civil rights – can be inferred from apparently innocuous information provided for other purposes – names, soundtracks, word usage, purchases, and search queries.

The problem as he notes is that in order to handle this new situation is that we need to tie link what the data is with how it can be used. And this cannot be done just technologically, but requires societal norms and regulations. What kinds of ethics do we need to safeguard civil rights in a world of big data?

Croll states:

…governments need to balance reliance on data with checks and balances about how this reliance erodes privacy and creates civil and moral issues we haven’t thought through. It’s something that most of the electorate isn’t thinking about, and yet it affects every purchase they make.
This should be fun.

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The censor and the eavesdropper: the link between censorship and surveillance

Cory Doctorow makes a simple but important point in the Guardian: censorship today is inseparable from surveillance. In modern media preventing people from seeing proscribed information requires systems that monitor their activity. To implement copyright-protecting censorship in the UK systems must be in place to track where people seek to access and compare it to a denial list, in whatever medium is used.

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Cabs, censorship and cutting tools

The smith was working hard on making a new tool. A passer-by looked at his work and remarked that it looked sharp and dangerous. The smith nodded: it needed to be very sharp to do its work. The visitor wondered why there was no cross-guard to prevent the user’s hand to slide onto the blade, and why the design made it easy to accidentally grip the blade instead of the grip. The smith explained that the tool was intended for people who said they knew how to use it well. “But what if they were overconfident, sold it to somebody else, or had a bad day? Surely some safety measures would be useful?” “No”, said the smith, “my customers did not ask for them. I could make them with a slight effort, but why bother?”

Would we say the smith was doing his job in an ethical manner?

Here are two other pieces of news: Oxford City Council has decided to make it mandatory for taxicabs in Oxford to have CCTV cameras and microphones recording conversations of the passengers. As expected, many people are outraged. The stated reason is to improve public safety, although the data supporting this decision doesn’t seem to be available. The surveillance footage will supposedly not be made available other than as evidence for crimes, and not stored for more than 28 days. Meanwhile in the US, there are hearings about the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act, laws intended to make it easier to block copyright infringement and counterfeiting. Besides concerns that critics and industries most affected by the laws are not getting access to the hearings, a serious set of concerns is that they would make it easy to censor websites and block business on fairly loose grounds, with few safeguards against false accusations (something that occurs regularly), little oversight, few remedies for the website, plus the fact that a domestic US law would apply internationally due to the peculiarities of the Internet and US legal definitions.

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Panopticon Problems: Purists rather than Privacy?

Would a transparent society where we could all watch each other be a better society? A recent paper has made me wonder whether the big problem might not be privacy, but purists.

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A tale of two reactors

Right now, by sheer chance I am sitting in the same chair, in the same place in Stockholm, as when I first heard the news about the Chernobyl accident. But today it is the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan that has had an explosion.There are interesting lessons in how the two disasters have been playing out. Continue reading

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