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Steve Clarke’s Posts

Geoengineering, Science, Consequentialism and Humility

The Uehiro Centre has recently hosted Clive Hamilton who was visiting from the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University. Hamilton is well known for his work on the politics of climate change. While here he presented a paper on the ‘Ethical Foundations of Climate Engineering’, which he has now been revised and is available at his website:

Climate engineering is also known as ‘geoenginering’ and the ethics of geoengineering has recently been discussed in a joint paper by several members of the Uehiro Centre who take a view that Hamilton strongly disagrees with:

 Hamilton’s paper is an attack on consequentialist justifications for geoengineering – attempts to use technology to try to manipulate the Earth’s climate in order to ameliorate the effects of climate change. He sees such attempts as part and parcel of a world view which springs from the Scientific Revolution. He tells us that: ‘The consequentialism of climate ethics is built on an unstated (and mostly unrecognized) understanding of the natural world, one that grew out of the Scientific Revolution in the 17th Century and the European Enlightenment philosophy that went with it.’ According to Hamilton, people who are in the grip of this scientific world view, including consequentialist philosophers, lack ‘humility in the face of nature’. The ground for this humility is, ‘… acceptance of our limitations in the face of the superior power, complexity and enigmatic character of the earth’. Hamilton sees the presumption that we might be able to ‘master’ nature as fundamentally misguided: ‘Climate engineering represents a conscious attempt to overcome resistance of the natural world to human domination …’, however, ‘… the sheer complexity and unpredictability of the natural world resists attempts at total mastery’.

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Should the Danish Ban on Marmite be Spread?

It has been widely reported that Denmark has banned the sale of Marmite, a move that has shocked and outraged many Britons who love Marmite. Similarly, many Australians have been shocked and outraged by reports of a Danish ban on Vegemite. These reports are somewhat inaccurate. Companies that wish to market products that are fortified with extra vitamins, minerals and other substances are required to seek prior approval from the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration before the product can be placed on the Danish market and this has yet to happen in the case of Marmite (or Vegemite). These regulations have been in place in Denmark since 2004 but have not been applied to the case of these fortified food spreads until now. See:,frameless.htm?NRMODE=Published

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Should surgeons other than cardiac surgeons publicise performance information?

Mortality rates for common forms of cardiac surgery have been made public in the United Kingdom for several years now. This information is individualised. If you are considering having a particular surgeon perform a common form of cardiac operation on you, you can make a better-informed decision by getting on the internet and finding out how many times that cardiac surgeon has conducted that operation, how many of his or her previous patients have survived such operations and how often they have not survived. You can also find out how your prospective surgeon compares to other surgeons performing similar operations. Although the publicising of cardiac surgeons’ performance information was controversial when it was first introduced, it has attained a broad level of acceptance in areas in which it has been introduced, in large part because this form of transparency has been effective in reducing mortality (see Justin Oakley and Steve Clarke ‘Surgeon Report Cards’, in Patient Safety First: Responsive Regulation in Health Care, edited by Judith Healy and Paul Dugdale, Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 2009, pp. 221-236). For discussion of a range of ethical issues related to the disclosure of surgeons’ performance information see Informed Consent and Clinician Accountability: the Ethics of Report Cards on Surgeon Performance, edited by Steve Clarke and Justin Oakley, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, July 2007.

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Why we should accept genetically modified chickens

Avian influenza, or ‘bird flu’ is a significant risk to many different wild bird species as well as to domesticated birds including chickens. The virus subtype H5NI has already killed millions of chickens especially in Asia. H5N1 has also resulted in the death of over three hundred humans who have made contact with infected birds. It has the potential to kill many millions of humans – perhaps even billions, according to an article in the American Scientist if the virus mutates to make it easier to transmit from human to human (

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Reframing Sacred Values and Making Political Compromises

Steve Clarke 

Scott Atran’s Talking to The Enemy (HarperCollins: New York, 2010) has recently been published. This is a big, sprawling and very readable book which has much that is important to say about religious behaviour and the role of religion in inspiring, and also in preventing, terrorism and conflict in general. I recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about religious conflict ‘on the ground’. One of the many intriguing issues that is discussed in the book is the issue of compromising over sacred values. When a religious group asserts that a particular city, or geographical feature which they control is sacred or holy, they are typically also asserting that they are not prepared to give up control of that site, regardless of the costs to them. And if they do not control it then they are prepared to do whatever is necessary to regain control of it, regardless of costs. The same can be said for possession of sacred artifacts and the right to practice sacred rituals.


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Is the Rescue of the Chilean Miners a Miracle?

A number of clerics of various Christian denominations are claiming that the recent rescue of 33 Chilean miners was a miracle and, therefore, evidence in favour of the particular version of Christianity that they respectively represent. How are we to decide if this, or any other event is a miracle? The first issue to be cleared up is what we mean when we speak of miracles. Some talk of miracle is not meant to be taken literally. When enthusiastic cricket commentators reported that ‘Warne dismissed Gatting with a miracle ball’ they meant nothing more than that they were extremely impressed by a particular instance of Warne’s bowling. No religious connotations were intended. Other talk of miracles does involve religious connotations, however. Miracles are typically invoked in religious contexts as reasons to believe that God exists.


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An Obama Appointee’s Plan to Undermine the 9/11 Conspiracy Theory

In 2009 an article by Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule appeared in the Journal of Political Philosophy (Volune 17, 2, pp. 202-227). Among other things, the authors argued that governments should engage in ‘cognitive infiltration of groups that produce conspiracy theories’. According to them, this involves governments developing and disseminating arguments against conspiracy theories, governments hiring others to develop and disseminate arguments against conspiracy theories and governments encouraging others informally to develop and disseminate arguments against conspiracy theories (2009, p. 218). In particular they suggest that government agents enter chat rooms and online social networks to raise doubts about conspiracy theories and generally introduce ‘cognitive diversity’ into those chat rooms and social networks.

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The NHS Should Make and Sell its own Homeopathic Remedies and Homeopaths Should be Paid the Minimum Wage

In March this year I blogged on the topic of NHS funding for homeopathic remedies. Even though I agreed with the critics of homeopathy, that there is no credible evidence for the efficacy of homeopathic remedies and that it is irrational to use these in preference to medical treatments that have actually been proven to work, I argued that the NHS should continue to subsidise the cost of homeopathic remedies. My basic line of argument was anti-paternalist. People should have the choice to be irrational if they want. What is important is that people are provided with all information relevant to their decision making. However, if they go ahead and choose to behave irrationally, then, provided that they are not harming others, their actions should not be interfered with. It is not the State’s role to prevent people from making such choices.

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Is it easy to debunk religious belief?

The rapid development of the cognitive science of religion over the last 20 years has led to a renewed enthusiasm for anti-religious debunking arguments. The typical form of these is that w thinks that she/he is motivated to believe the tenets of religion x because of y, but w’s real motive for believing the tenets of religion x is z, which is not sufficient to warrant acceptance of x; therefore w is unwarranted in accepting x. For example w may think that she/he has a sound argument for the claim that God probably exists and is motivated to believe in God in virtue of accepting this sound argument. But Pascal Boyer and others tell us that humans are predisposed to believe in the existence of supernatural beings (minimally counterintuitive agents) and are inclined to do so, on the basis of less evidence than they would ordinarily accept to warrant belief in an agent, therefore w is unwarranted in believing that God exists. 

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Should Believers Trust Atheists?

The Science and Religious Conflict Project team here at Oxford has recently finished hosting a major international conference on Religion, Tolerance and Intolerance (For details see: The conference involved a large number of very interesting papers by eminent scholars across a range of disciplines. One that particularly peaked my interest was a paper on ‘Religion as Parochial Altruism’, which was presented by Professor Ara Norenzayan from the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia.

Norenzayan discussed, among other topics, the attitude of religious believers to atheists in America. I knew that atheists were not popular in America but I was surprised to learn that they are the least liked group in the entire country. While 33.5% of Americans would disapprove if their child married a Muslim (the second least popular group in America) an amazing 47.3% would disapprove if their child married an atheist. In another survey average Americans revealed that they were more likely to vote for a homosexual that an atheist presidential candidate.


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