Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Challenge of Our Times

One of the most important challenges of this century...slowing human aging.


Monday, March 29, 2010

Nature Supplement Issue on Aging

Nature has a special Supplement issue on aging here.

It is encouraging to see Nature put the spotlight on aging research. Such a focus is justified for an intervention that could slow human aging would be one of the most important advances in the medical sciences.

The issue has a number of interesting articles on topics like the genetics of aging and aging and cognitive decline. And you can listen to a podcast of the issue here.

Here is a sample from the editorial that nicely captures why this research is more important than ever:

Growing old seems intimately linked with decline. Ageing, the accumulation of damage to molecules, cells and tissues over a lifetime, often leads to frailty and malfunction. Old age is the biggest risk factor for many diseases, including cancer and cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases.

The realization that time does not have to take its toll came with the discovery of mutant nematodes that far outlived their normal fellow worms. Not only did they live substantially longer, but they seemed to stay younger for longer too. And, remarkably, a single mutation in a single gene was all it took to slow down the wheels of time.

It is now clear that by tinkering with particular signalling pathways and by balancing nutrition, the lifespan of many organisms, including yeast, worms, flies and mice, can be extended. Crucially, the same tweaks often bring about substantial health benefits and seem to delay the onset of age-related diseases. Most of the pathways involved are evolutionarily conserved, so it is likely that some of this research will eventually benefit human health.

The number of people aged 60 years and older is growing rapidly worldwide. So keeping the elderly healthy has to be high on the list of priorities. Ageing research is clearly gaining momentum, as the reviews in this Insight testify, bringing hope that at some time in the future we will be able to keep age-related diseases at bay by suppressing ageing itself. As ageing will affect us all sooner or later, we hope that you will find this collection informative and stimulating.


Saturday, March 27, 2010

Normblog Profile

Norman Geras has posted a profile of me over on this blog here.

Thanks Norm for adding me to your list. I learned a lot about myself by trying to answer your questions!


Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Examined Life is Worth Living!

In The Apology Socrates famously claimed that "the unexamined life is not worth living".

Socrates was way ahead of his time and he is my favourite intellectual hero.

This study in the latest issue of Psychological Science provides some empirical evidence to back up Socrates. A sample from the abstract:

Is the happy life characterized by shallow, happy-go-lucky moments and trivial small talk, or by reflection and profound social encounters? Both notions—the happy ignoramus and the fulfilled deep thinker—exist, but little is known about which interaction style is actually associated with greater happiness (King & Napa, 1998). In this article, we report findings from a naturalistic observation study that investigated whether happy and unhappy people differ in the amount of small talk and substantive conversations they have.

....Together, the present findings demonstrate that the happy life is social rather than solitary, and conversationally deep rather than superficial. What makes these findings especially compelling is the lack of method overlap between the well-being measures (self- and informant reports) and the interaction measures (direct observation). Also, the replication of findings across measures of well-being and across weekday and weekend behavior is encouraging.

Naturally, our correlational findings are causally ambiguous. On the one hand, well-being may be causally antecedent to having substantive interactions; happy people may be “social attractors” who facilitate deep social encounters (Lucas & Dyrenforth, 2006). On the other hand, deep conversations may actually make people happier. Just as self-disclosure can instill a sense of intimacy in a relationship, deep conversations may instill a sense of meaning in the interaction partners. Therefore, our results raise the interesting possibility that happiness can be increased by facilitating substantive conversations (Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2006). Future research should examine this possibility experimentally.

Remarking on Socrates’ dictum that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” Dennett (1984) wrote, “The overly examined life is nothing to write home about either” (p. 87). Although we hesitate to enter such delicate philosophical disputes, our findings suggest that people find their lives more worth living when examined―at least when examined together.

The New York Times also has the scoop on this study here.

A study like this should give philosophy departments everywhere the ultimate rationale for recruitment: study philosophy and be happy! It worked for me :)


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sen's The Idea of Justice (Chapter 4)

Chapter 4 is a substantive chapter and Sen elaborates on many of the key arguments and points he outlined in the Introduction. In particular, he provides more support for the provocative claim that the question “What is a just society” is not a good starting point for a useful theory of justice.

I believe this simple claim is actually among one of the most important theses that the discipline should address and debate. If our theories of justice have started off on the wrong path then investing more of our energies into waddling yet further along that mistaken path will be in vain. And that conclusion ought to trouble us as philosophers and as educators.

[Just an aside: I think the fixation on the intellectual exercise of figuring out the demands of perfect justice is a much more modern phenomenon than Sen believes, and has more to do with the professionalization of the discipline than a common intellectual thread between thinkers as diverse as Hobbes and Rousseau]

In this chapter Sen argues that the transcendental approach is neither sufficient nor necessary. On p. 98 he asks “does a transcendental approach produce, as a by-product, relational conclusions that are ready to be drawn out, so that transcendence may end up giving us a great deal more than its overt form articulates?” His answer is no. Transcendental approaches do not give us rankings of departures from justness in terms of comparative distances from perfection. And I think the reason why transcendental approaches do not, and cannot, provide this is that such theories bracket the non-ideal considerations that would bring such comparative concerns to the fore (e.g. non-compliance, scarcity, disease, etc.). And so asking what justice is in a closed, rich society full of compliant healthy persons is really the wrong question for us to ask. It doesn’t help us in our deliberations about what the demands of justice are in societies that have crime, disease, immigration, ballooning deficits, etc. Sen gives the example of comparing mountains (p. 102). Accepting that Mount Everest is the tallest mountain in the world isn’t necessary, nor particularly helpful, when comparing the peaks of Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount McKinley.

To bring what I think is the power of Sen’s critique of the transcendental approach to the fore, permit me to apply it to Nozick’s theory (as I have already targeted Rawls and don’t want to give the impression that Rawls is the only culprit here). Sen himself doesn’t address Nozick’s theory in great detail in this chapter (there are one or two references to Nozick), but I think Sen’s general critique can be made more compelling by considering how it applies to a specific transcendental approach like Nozick’s.

Nozick’s transcendental account of justice maintains that “whatever arises from a just situation by just steps is itself just (Nozick, 1974: 151). So a perfectly just society is one with a minimal state where the rights of self-ownership, including property rights, of all are protected. There is no taxation on earnings for things like satisfying the demands of equality or priority. The priority of liberty, for Nozick, means liberty cannot be sacrificed for these other societal aspirations or interests. While it might be morally laudable if citizens choose to donate a portion of their earnings to help the disadvantaged, for Nozick it is unjust to compel citizens to do so via the coercive use of state power (in the form of redistributive taxation).

The great bulk of ASU is an exercise in ideal theory. However, there is one important “non-ideal” principle that Nozick invokes in his (scant) discussion of rectifying past injustice. Nozick’s entitlement theory of justice is premised on three principles- the principle of transfer, the principle of just initial acquisition and the principle of rectification. The first two principles help us to determine when one is entitled to a good or holding. But of course people do not always abide by the requirements of these two principles. Human history is not one of just initial acquisition nor just transfers. It is a history of slavery, conquest, theft and fraud. To remedy such injustices the entitlement theory must invoke a principle of rectification.

Given the *actual* history of human acquisition and transfers, it is surprising that Nozick’s historical theory does not make the principle of rectification much more central to ASU. The topic ‘rectification’ appears only five times in the index and totals a meagre seven pages in a book that exceeds three hundred and fifty pages. The neglect of this topic no doubt reflects the fact that Nozick’s approach is a transcendental one, rather than comparative approach. The scant discussion of rectification gives some hints at how the entitlement theory might be applied in the real world. But what Nozick has to say about this is very unsatisfactory. Indeed, I think he struggles to try to make it cohere with his transcendental account. And I think this reinforces Sen’s critique that such theories can’t provide us with rankings we can use to tackle injustice in the real world.

Here is what Nozick proposes as a way to tackling the concerns of rectification:

Perhaps it is best to view some patterned principles of distributive justice as rough rules of thumb meant to approximate the general results of applying the principle of rectification of injustice. For example, lacking much historical information, and assuming (1) that victims of injustice generally do worse than they otherwise would and (2) that those from the least well-off group in the society have the highest probabilities of being the (descendants of) victims of the most serious injustice who are owed compensation by those who benefited from the injustices (assumed to be those better off, though sometimes the perpetrators will be others in the worst-off group), then a rough rule of thumb for rectifying injustices might seem to be the following: organize society so as to maximize the position of whatever group ends up least well-off in society. (Nozick, 1974, p. 231)

Given the importance the issue of rectification has on Nozick’s entitlement theory one is bound to wonder why Nozick does not make this issue more central to ASU. Nozick now adds a very important qualification to his argument for the minimal state. To his original declaration that ‘taxation is on a moral par with forced labour’ we must add: if and only if no considerations of injustice could apply to justify such taxation. The minimal state is only justified provided all past injustices have been rectified. What society can claim to have satisfied such a requirement? Once we extend the issue to a global context the issue of rectification becomes even more complicated. Which of the developed countries can truthfully claim that they acquired their current level of prosperity from just transfers and just initial acquisitions?

Nozick’s entitlement theory of justice is a good example of why it is a mistake to start with the question “What is the just society?”. Libertarians take the idealized story of the Lockean appropriation of initial property and apply its prescriptions to the real world without acknowledging the realities of how property was acquired.


Saturday, March 20, 2010

Science Editorial on Science-Based Health Care

The latest issue of Science has this interesting editorial from Chen Zhu, the Minister of Health of the People's Republic of China. A sample:

The provision of adequate health care is one of the major challenges for modern societies. It is an especially tough task in developing countries with limited resources and insufficient capacity. Obstacles are even encountered at the conceptual level: For example, a traditional misconception is that spending on health is a social burden, instead of being a strategic investment essential for each nation's socioeconomic development. According to economic analyses, health system innovations will not only improve livelihoods but also boost internal consumption and job opportunities. But these innovations cannot succeed without the strong support of science.

Both the biomedical and social sciences will be critical for developing sound policies that reshape health care systems. In China, with its fast-aging populace and a disease burden increase associated with urbanization and industrialization, science must drive an evidence-based analysis of the cost-effectiveness of drugs and medical technologies to enable effective and affordable prevention, diagnoses, and treatments. Science also facilitates the evaluation of the performance of health care institutions to ensure quality services. And science can drive a national innovation strategy. Thus, the education of medical professionals, training of regulatory teams, and fostering of biotechnology talents can be leveraged through Internet-based platforms that reach remote areas.

....To fulfill these missions, visionary policies are needed to support capacity-building in science and encourage translational research in multidisciplinary clinical studies, health system innovation, and health industry growth.


Friday, March 19, 2010

3 Wishes

Some food for thought to ponder over the weekend. No doubt the medium will strike many as "unconventional", but I like to think of it as a mix of "old world" meets "new world". I invoke the literary genre of antiquity but add a few bells and whistles from the Internet.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Obama's Investment in Biomedicine

Nature Medicine News has the details about the US White House's 2011 budget and the fact that it includes a $1 billion bonus investment in the National Institutes of Health.

Even in the face of financially challenging times, the last thing governments should entertain cutting is health research. An investment in health research will pay many dividends further down the road in terms of the quality of life aging populations can expect and the economic prosperity of a society.


Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Wonders of the Web

The internet never ceases to amaze me. Every week I download a few lectures on diverse topics and this has been invaluable in keeping my interest and enthusaism for knowledge burning and in shaping the substantive topics I tackle in my academic research.

I thought it would be fun to put together a list of "10 excellent lectures" that I have enjoyed and learned a great deal from. Most of these talks are from Ted Talks, the best online resource for educative and inspiring talks. I hope you enjoy these lectures as much as I have:

1. Randolph Nesse on Evolutionary Medicine

2. Kerry Mullis on Science and the Experiment

3. Liz Coleman on Liberal Arts Education

4. Ken Robinson on Schools and Education

5. Dan Gilbert on Psychology and Happiness

6. Nina Jablonski on Skin Colour

7. Robert Sapolsky on the Uniqueness of Humans

8. Human Longevity

9. Stuart Brown on Play

10. Steven Pinker on the Decline of Violence


Friday, March 12, 2010

Sen's The Idea of Justice (Rawls and the Priority of Liberty)

I just finished reading Chapter 3 of Sen's The Idea of Justice and I wanted to elaborate a bit on one line of objection Sen makes to Rawls with respect to the prioritization of the equal basic liberties principle. I have tried to make a similar objection against Rawls (here), and I think Sen’s distinction between an “arrangement-focused” versus “realization-focused” approach to justice can usefully clarify my objection and concerns.

So the criticism I have in mind is that the Rawlsian prescription that justice requires us to serially order liberty over all other values (e.g. equality, priority, utility, etc.) is an “arrangement-focused” approach to justice which (unlike a “realization-focused” approach) is not “inescapably linked with the world that actually emerges” (what Sen calls “naya”, p. 20). As such, the “arrangement-focused” approach generates inert or deeply problematic prescriptions when invoked in (or applied to) the real world.

The design of the original position ensures that the parties invoke an “arrangement-focused” approach to justice rather than a “realization-focused” approach. For example, in addition to the impartiality-promoting constraints Rawls invokes, like the veil of ignorance, he also introduces questionable empirical assumptions. For example, in his discussion of maximin Rawls claims that the contracting parties are deliberating about what their place would be within a society that exists in the circumstances of justice under reasonably favourable conditions. Elaborating on what the latter entails Rawls claims that they are the ‘conditions that, provided the political will exists, make a constitutional regime possible’ (Rawls 2001, p. 101). These are conditions such as sufficient economic and technological development, sufficient natural resources and an educated citizenry.

But this contravenes the constraint the veil of ignorance imposes on the parties in the original position-namely, how rich or poor their country is. Very few non-democratic societies in the world today, let alone in past generations, are so affluent that they could institute American-style liberal democracy if they only had the “political will”.

Perhaps the Rawlsian would also add that, as an exercise in ideal theory, the parities are to assume full compliance and thus the priority of liberty does not require much affluence as society would not have to spend much on protecting liberty if no one would be inclined to contravene liberty.

Assumptions like full compliance and “reasonably favourable conditions” thus bracket key considerations that a “realization-focused” approach to justice would emphasize- like that fact of non-compliance and that protecting liberty has costs.

The right to vote is a basic liberty and a just society should ensure that no adult citizen is denied the right to vote. But the difficulty arises when decisions must be made concerning the allocation of the public funds needed to run an election and ensure citizens can exercise their right to vote. Prohibiting citizens from voting is not the only way citizens can be disenfranchised. Full compliance would rule that possibility out and let’s grant that assumption for the moment. But other “realities” of even fully compliant societies raise serious challenges. The distribution of polling stations within a geographical territory and the hours of operation of a polling station, etc. will also have an impact on the opportunity citizens have to exercise the right to vote. These provisions have budgetary implications which can run into millions of dollars. In The Costs of Rights Stephen Holmes and Cass Sunstein describe some of the costs involved in American elections:

In Massachusetts, a state law passed prior to the 1996 presidential elections mandated longer hours for polling stations. Implementing this tiny amendment to the law cost Massachusetts taxpayers $800,000. In California, where a study of electoral expenses was commissioned by the state government, the cost of any statewide election (whether presidential, senatorial, gubernatorial, etc.) runs around $45–50 million. This is also true for any referendum requiring a separate ballot. Printing and mailing costs for voter guides alone, including those printed in Spanish as well as English, can range from $3 million to $12 million. In California, the cost per voter is estimated to run from $2 to $5, depending on each municipality’s voting system (Holmes and Sunstein, 1999, p. 114).

All rights, even something as basic as the right to vote, cost money and this means that giving an absolute priority to the basic liberties will severely constrain the public funds available to promote other laudable aims. How much should we spend to ensure that every citizen enjoys what Rawls calls the ‘central range of application’ (Rawls, 1996, p. 297) for each of the basic liberties and exactly what constitutes this range of application? The answers to these questions cannot, for Rawls, be answered by appealing to considerations of the common good. Rawls believes that justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others. Indeed, justice even denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by conferring greater benefits on those individuals whose rights are being restricted (unless those benefits are greater liberty).

The only way I can make sense of Rawls’ absolutist stance on basic liberties is that he (falsely) assumes these are costless rights. But a basic right like the right to vote has costs. We could spend endless amounts of public funds trying to ensure that the right to vote is adequately regulated (as well as all the other fundamental rights and freedoms).The more we spend on improving the enjoyment of this one right the less we will have for other laudable aims that do not involve basic liberties, such as universal health care, education, etc. But Rawls does not permit us to appeal to benefits to the public good when making decisions about the regulation of basic liberties. Such decisions would violate the equal basic liberties principle which is serially ordered above the principles of fair equality of opportunity and the difference principle. So the equal basic liberties principle cannot be subjected to a cost–benefit analysis that transcends the metric of liberty itself. But the reality is that every society, even affluent societies like America, must (and do) make such decisions when they invest scarce public funds into certain aims (e.g. national defence, domestic security, education etc.) rather than other aims. These constraints are ignored by Rawls because he discusses a society that exists in an idealized scenario that is insulated from many of these issues. Thus an “arrangement-focused” approach to liberty limits our deliberations in a way that makes it sound reasonable to assert “The priority of liberty implies in practice that a basic liberty can be limited or denied solely for the sake of one or more other basic liberties, and never, as I have said, for reasons of public good or perfectionist values.” (Rawls, PL 295) A “realization-focused” approach to justice will not take such an absolutist position on liberty.

And this then links in with Sen’s concern about the relevance of a global perspective of justice. If one sought to apply Rawls’s first principle of justice to the global arena, one might think that it is most important to train virtuous judges who can then ensure that all societies make good on having the “political will” to prioritize liberty over all other values (by threatening to invalidate legislation that contravenes a liberal constitution). Having impartial and competent judges is of course important. But as the “first principle” of global justice one might find it a bit odd, even perverse, to prioritize the training of judges and instituting judicial review over, say, the training of doctors and nurses, eliminating infectious diseases, eliminating the most blatant and vicious abuses of political power. A “realization-focused” approach to justice would bring these considerations to the fore, rather than bracketing or side-stepping them as I believe Rawlsian justice does.


Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Main Menu (March 2010)

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Altruism, Time and the Titanic

The latest issue of PNAS has an interesting study on the interaction between survival norms and social norms in the sinking of the Titanic and the Lusitania. Whether or not people act on the basis of survival norms (i.e. "everyone for themselves!") or social norms ("save women and children first!") depends on how much time there is to react to the disaster. Here is the abstract:

To understand human behavior, it is important to know under what conditions people deviate from selfish rationality. This study explores the interaction of natural survival instincts and internalized social norms using data on the sinking of the Titanic and the Lusitania. We show that time pressure appears to be crucial when explaining behavior under extreme conditions of life and death. Even though the two vessels and the composition of their passengers were quite similar, the behavior of the individuals on board was dramatically different. On the Lusitania, selfish behavior dominated (which corresponds to the classical homo economicus); on the Titanic, social norms and social status (class) dominated, which contradicts standard economics. This difference could be attributed to the fact that the Lusitania sank in 18 min, creating a situation in which the short-run flight impulse dominated behavior. On the slowly sinking Titanic (2 h, 40 min), there was time for socially determined behavioral patterns to reemerge. Maritime disasters are traditionally not analyzed in a comparative manner with advanced statistical (econometric) techniques using individual data of the passengers and crew. Knowing human behavior under extreme conditions provides insight into how widely human behavior can vary, depending on differing external conditions.

And today's Globe has a piece on the study here.


Monday, March 01, 2010

Kahneman on the Tyranny of Our "Remembering Self"

This Ted Talks by Daniel Kahneman on human happiness is fascinating:

This is timely as I am giving a lecture on Bentham tonight. Here is my Bentham "Calculus of Happiness" video: