Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Anti-Science Left (on The Agenda)

This is post is really part 3 of a series of posts on science and justice, see part 1 and part 2.

Last night I watched this very interesting discussion on how the left (like the right) can have strong anti-scientific inclinations. Two particular parts of the show really made me reflect on the attitudes I often face with my students in my course (which I have been teaching for over a decade now) "Science and Justice".

At one stage in the interview this speaker (see his article here) mentioned how insights from evolutionary psychology can explain why many of the left take a purist attitude (purity being an innate part of the psychological systems which ground “intuitive ethics”) about the food they put in their body and fears about population growth and its detrimental impact on the environment.

This suggestion resonates with my own experience in teaching my students for over a decade. Most political science students that take political theory courses are left leaning. As such they are very passionate about trying to make the world a better place. As admirable as this sentiment may be, unfortunately they are less diligent about cultivating intellectual virtue (e.g. an appreciation of the salient facts, understanding, the detective's virtues, etc.). Instead, they are prone to adopt a rather simplistic lens that reduces complex problems into a "good guys" vs "bad guys" analysis. The "bad guys" are typically Big Pharma, the rich, men, or developed countries as a whole, and the "good guys" are the poor (e.g. developing countries), women and children. Once one has adopted this mindset, then any problem in the world, whether it be poverty, climate change, war, infectious disease or patriarchy, can be explained by this simplistic analysis. And the more specialized a student's training in political theory, the more fervor they (most, not all) tend to have for their commitment to this vague and indefensible framework.

Now I understand these students have good intentions (they, rightly, perceive that the world has many problems), but their desire to take the "moral high ground" often clouds their understanding of the complexity of the problems in the world. Bear in mind that all the problems I just listed-- poverty, climate change, war, infectious disease and patriarchy- all existed prior to their being any "developed world" or Big Pharma. This fact alone should make one cautious about adapting overly simplistic explanations of these problems. Climate change is the one example that is uniquely different. The climate has of course always been changing, even before industrialization. But the more specific concern with man-made global warming over the past century and a half is a more recent concern. However even in this case the story is much more complex than the simplistic (and false) belief that the developed world is responsible for climate change (past and future) and have enjoyed all the benefits of development at the expense of those who have had to bear all the costs (namely, developing countries). Our minds are perhaps hardwired to interpret the world in terms of simplistic patterns (like "haves" and "have nots"), but that does not mean it is an accurate representation of reality. Education should challenge our preconceived ideas of the world and dogma.

When I teach the weeks of my course on aging and life extension these points become most salient. I am always struck by the fact that (a) very few students understand that chronic diseases are the leading cause of death in the world, and (b) that chronic disease is a problem for both rich and poor countries, and (c) that people in poorer regions of the world actually age, and that this can cause them to experience suffering, disease, a decline in income, etc. I could go on.

I suspect that the dominant framework most undergraduates have of the world (it was the one I had 20 years ago) is something like this-- there are rich countries (like Canada and the USA), where most disease is caused by obesity and inactive lifestyles which Big Pharma makes billions off of, and then there is "the rest of the world" (which is poor). It is in "the rest of the world" that they believe most people die young, die from poverty, infectious disease like HIV/AIDs, and climate change. No doubt this perception has been shaped by what they have heard in the media in the first two decades of their life.

The interesting exercise I try to get them to engage in is to see that the process of evolution by natural selection itself is also implicated in the story of human suffering and disease. Initially most students are not sure how to respond to this. They do not deny evolution by natural selection, but the suggestion that there is a moral imperative to redress the vulnerabilities of our evolutionary history just doesn't (at least initially) engage their moral sensibilities. These intuitions are themselves the product of our evolutionary history, and thus ill-equipped for grappling with the question of what constitutes well-ordered science. Indeed, many students react very negatively to the suggestion that justice might require we aspire to promote health in late life. In their minds, science has little, if anything, to do with realizing ideals of justice, freedom or equality. If anything, science has helped facilitate injustice, which is why many on the left are easily persuaded to be anti-science on many issues.

Here are actual comments (I am paraphrasing from memory) I have heard students and others express when discussing population aging, global health and a Darwinian approach to medicine:

"Old people should die sooner of disease so younger people can get a job".
"A cure for cancer already exists, but Big Pharma makes more money off of cancer than curing it".
"Wouldn't it be boring being alive longer and thus being married to the same person for longer?"
"We shouldn't modify the rate of aging as it is unnatural".
"Why don't we just spend all health research money on saving children and forget about helping those who are lucky enough to have lived a long life?"
"Slowing human aging will destroy the planet".

Such sentiments are common, and part of my research involves trying to understand why people have such attitudes, and how one can help people come to critically examine such attitudes. The students that I encounter who have strong convictions that the world is overpopulated, and that the future of the planet is a bleak one because of population growth, typically have little knowledge of demography. To start to chip away at their preconceived ideas about the state of the world one can ask questions like the following. "The world is a diverse place, which specific parts of the world are overpopulated? Does Canada have too many people? What about Italy, China or India?" And this will lead to a consideration of fertility rates. Which parts of the world are creating the most babies? And is this a good or a bad thing? Which factors (e.g. economic development, education, etc.) influence fertility rates? Which factors explain the current global population size and what is likely to occur in the future? Is it ever desirable to stifle or forfeit health innovations (e.g. sanitation, antibiotics) for the goal of reducing global population? What, specifically, are the harms of population growth and which types of fair and feasible interventions could help redress such problems? And how do such problems compare to other problems, such as the prevalence of chronic disease?

How can one cultivate a sense of proportionality that helps students overcome the "sacred values" they ascribe to nature or small(er?) population size and develop instead an informed and balanced view of the challenges facing humanity? This question is perhaps the central one that I face in teaching my course. Unfortunately many students in the humanities and social sciences have, at least in my experience, a world view that is shaped more by intuition and media "sound bites" than by science and empirical data. And many faculty teaching in the humanities and social sciences perpetuate this problem, including my own field (and for many years myself!) of political theory/philosophy. And I think this is a significant problem. Sharpening and strengthening the moral intuitions we have inherited from our evolutionary history (namely, when we lived in small hunter gatherer societies) does little to help develop the skill-set the next generation needs to face the challenges of the 21st century.

Not only is there a great deal of misunderstanding about what causes suffering, disease and death in the world, but society also suffers ageist attitudes that can be extremely difficult to dislodge. Many see health as a "zero sum" game. This means that they think of the good of health as something governed by a "fixed pot", and increasing health for one region of the world means there has to be less health for others in another part of the world. And so this mistaken view helps reinforce the negative attitudes people have to the goal of promoting health in late life. It strikes them as inherently unfair to want to do so because they believe it will make others worse off.

A second part of the episode of The Agenda worth noting was the admirable transformation this activist has undergone. In the 1990s he was a strong opponent of genetically modified organisms. His interests then turned to climate change, and as he became informed about that topic he realized one had to learn a great of science, and base one's assumptions and arguments on the best available empirical data and evidence. And so over time he realized that his opposition to genetically modified organisms was actually doing more harm than good. And so he critically reflected upon, and drastically changed, his views. This takes a great deal of intellectual humility and courage. And it is an encouraging story as it illustrates how science can overcome dogma and the confidence we tend to have in assuming we have the moral high ground on our side when the issues are extremely complex matters.

Below is a video of a lecture Lynas recently gave where he describes the change he underwent. My favorite part is when he mentions a comment someone made on his final anti-GMO article in The Guardian. They commented "So you are opposed to GMOs on the basis that it is marketed by big corporations, are you also opposed to the wheel because it is marketed by the big automobile companies?"


Monday, February 25, 2013

Previous Posts on Bentham

Tonight I finished my annual lecture on Jeremy Bentham and this inspired me to dig up some old blog posts on Bentham which I thought I would re-post here. The first is from the entry "Bentham, Sacred Values, and Ideal Theory" originally posted in 2011, and the second post from 5 years ago now (boy how the time flies!) titled "The Brilliance of Bentham".

"Bentham, Sacred Values, and Ideal Theory"
*originally posted in 2011*

It seems each year when I teach Bentham it stimulates some new ideas which I post about here (see here in 2010, and here in 2008). So this year is no different, as I am spending "reading week" pondering, once again, the brilliance of Bentham.

Next week my intro to political theory class covers Bentham, and then Mill. As I have mentioned before on this blog, if I had only a 1 hour window to teach a class on only one moral or political thinker who I believe would have the maximum impact on improving our ability to think and act morally, it would be Bentham and his calculus of happiness. Why? Because it has the potential to help us overcome many of the cognitive biases that impede our ability to make rational and moral decisions.

Over the past few weeks I have started researching the social psychology literature on the topic of "sacred values". These are values that people believe are absolute or inviolable. Sacred values are things people believe should never be subject to trade-offs with lesser, non-sacred values. I am interested in seeing how the study of sacred values might apply to political philosophy and theory, in particular, to "ideal theory" in debates about justice.

Here are a few examples of expressions of sacred values from the last 40 years of political philosophy:

"each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override"

"liberty upsets patterns"

"inequalities deriving from unchosen features of people’s circumstances are unjust"

"If you're an egalitarian, how come you’re so rich?"

These different works of political philosophy are unified not only by their appeal to sacred values (typically liberty or equality, or a serial ordering of such values), but also by the methodology they employ to activate the appeal of ascribing a primacy to such values. This is typically done via abstraction and/or idealization. The theorist asks us to consider an artificially devised choice situation, one designed to reveal the "intuitive" foce of ordaining some value or values as "sacred" and inviolatible.

Bentham sought to replace our reliance of intuitive appeals to "sacred" values with a secular, rational ethic. Rather than invoking fanciful or abstract thought experiments that track our most basic moral intuitions about justice or fairness, Bentham instead urges us to consider the expected consequences of our actions in the "here and now (and future)". Viewed in this light, most injustice in the world stems from the fact that our laws and customs are not premised on a rational and competent assessment of their impact on human happiness. They are based instead of unquestioned customs, religion, cognitive biases, etc. Bentham offers us a transformative secular ethic.

To be a moral agent we must ponder the intensity of the pleasures or pains our actions will cause, the number of people affected by our actions, the likelihood that other pleasures or pains will be caused by our actions, etc. Tradeoffs of different kinds are thus inevitable. Responsible moral agents must realize that difficult decisions have to be made, and Bentham's calculus of happiness offers us some guidelines for thinking such decisions through.

Bentham's moral ethic thus enhances our moral deliberations, it compels us to develop the complex skill-set needed to act so that we maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Whereas moral and political theories that appeal to sacred, inviolable values typically close our minds and in doing so impair our ability to think and act morally in the real world. Deontology champions the primacy of sacred values and principles, and thus it forbids entertaining the kind of deliberation required in tradeoffs ("dirty hands"). This can leave individuals and societies ill-equipped to face the tough challenges we face, whether it be balancing concerns of liberty with concerns of security, or tackling the economy, climate change or healthcare. I will have more to say about this in a future post.

Of course one might reply that Bentham, and utilitarianism more generally, is just another example of a theory premised on a "sacred value"- namely, the value of happiness (or the principle of utility). I suppose that is true, at least to some extent. And that is why I prefer to endorse a pluralist ethic that makes virtue, rather than principle, the central focus of an account of justice.

But I do think there is an important difference between prioritizing happiness (or welfare) and prioritizing a value like liberty or equality. I won't work out that response here, but I think it is an interesting objection, and one worth responding to. Furthermore, the nature of a good like happiness is such that it will not pre-determine which tradeoffs can be made in advance of a full consideration of the relevant facts. And that stands in contrast to the stance of someone like Rawls, who argues that "a basic liberty can be limited or denied solely for the sake of one or more other basic liberties, and never for reasons of public good or perfectionist values". So if utilitarianism is premised on a sacred value its slogan would be something like "limit utility only for the sake of more utility". And that does not strike me as inherently problematic as deonotological theories are, for it invites us to get into the devil of the details. But again, I am not trying to defend utilitarianism here. I merely wish to point to an important feature of it that I think makes it a much more attractive moral and political theory than deontological theories.

So I hope you enjoy my Bentham video! And I hope to post a few more substantive things on sacred values and ideal theory in the weeks to come.


"The Brilliance of Bentham" *originally posted in 2008*

Many important ideas have been advanced in the history of moral and political thought- Plato on justice; Hobbes on the social contract; Locke on property; Rousseau on democracy; Mill on liberty, etc. The list goes on and on... And those lucky enough to spend their lives pondering the great thinkers of the past (and present) often forget what a luxury and privilege it is.

Here is a thought experiment: Suppose an instructor had only a 1 hour window with which to teach one idea or figure from the history of ethics. And this 1 hour class would be recorded and all future generations around the world would watch it and reflect upon and discuss what you teach.

What issue, insight or idea would you choose that would help equip future generations to meet the challenges they would face?

Hmmm, interesting question! What idea or figure would I choose? If I stop and think about it, I would probably spend that time talking about the philosopher I covered in my second year class today: Jeremy Bentham.

For the record, I am not a Bentham scholar, nor do I consider myself a utilitarian (though perhaps I am a closet consequentialist, as I believe virtuous agents- and aspiring virtuous agents- are really, deep down, sophisticated consequentialists!). So just to be clear, I’m not choosing Bentham because he figures prominently in my own research or writings.

But if there was just one idea or insight I would want the next generation of humanity to consider and reflect upon, as they face the deluge of important issues they face, it would be Bentham’s brilliant “Calculus of Happiness”.

When facing decisions concerning how we ought to live our lives, both as individuals and as societies, Bentham argues that we ought to consider the *consequences* of our actions. More specifically, we should seek to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. In order to sensibly think about how we could do this, Bentham believes we ought to apply the following calculus of happiness:

1. Intensity of the pleasure
2. Duration of the pleasure
3. Its certainty/uncertainty
4. Remoteness [nearness in time]
5. Fecundity [likelihood that it will be followed by sensations of the same kind]
6. Purity [likelihood that it will be followed by opposite sensations]
7. Extent [the number of persons to whom it extends]

Now, I have chosen Bentham’s calculus not because I think we should endorse it full stop. Rather, I believe that his consequentialist insights are where I think all moral agents should start their reflections (though perhaps not end!). Instead of making decisions based on religious dogma, or abstract thought experiments like Rawls’s original position or Kant’s categorical imperative, Bentham’s public ethic requires us to take seriously *empirical information*. Like the amount of happiness in question, the likelihood this happiness will be achieved, the negative consequences our action could have on others, etc.

Bentham’s concise calculus, more than any other idea I can think of in the history of ethics or political philosophy, captures what I think is one of the (if not the) most important components of living a good life and establishing and maintaining a flourishing society— knowledge.

Whatever one might take the flaws of consequentialism to be (e.g. it permits the violation of side-constraints, ignores the importance of virtue etc.), its main strength, in my opinion, is that it explicitly rules out letting dogma, superstition, ideology, etc. infest our deliberations concerning how to live our lives. And that’s a pretty big asset of a moral and political theory! An asset few contemporary normative theories possess.

Sure I would want to say a lot more, if I had more than the 1 hour window, to talk about the potential problems with Bentham’s calculus, what rival normative theories might offer, etc. But in this thought experiment I am asking us to limit ourselves to just the 1 hour window, for doing this is helpful in reflecting on what we want from our normative theories. For example, is it more important that they achieve the requisite level of precision vs proportionality? Which is more important if we want to increase the likelihood that our normative theories will lead us in the direction of living well? So if the moral compass we leave future generations is Bentham’s calculus of happiness then I think we would not, as many deontologists maintain, be doing them a disservice. Far from it.

Of course I would not want future generations to simply accept and blindly live by Bentham’s calculus (thus making it the secular equivalency of conventional religion). Rather I would want them to think about the pros and cons of Bentham’s utilitarianism. To think about the different ways their actions can impact the lives of others, to think about the uncertainty of the impact their actions can have, and the purity and impurity of their actions, etc... These are all great insights we often ignore! And so I think the brilliance of Bentham has been overlooked by contemporary moral and political philosophers. Bentham’s ideas are perhaps more important today than ever.


Friday, February 22, 2013

John Maynard Smith on 7 Wonders of the World

I just came across this gem of a video, of a beautiful mind and his passion and love for science. Enjoy!


Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Commercialization of Academic Research

The latest issue of Science has this interesting news piece on universities and the commercialization of academic research.

A sample:

But efforts to turn universities into commercial hothouses often don't succeed: Tech transfer is a net money-loser at most universities, studies suggest, with legal and administrative costs often exceeding revenues. Indeed, a growing number of scholars warn that government and university officials too often create unrealistic expectations by overstating the potential benefits of commercialization and underestimating how hard it is to do and what it will cost. Many advise schools to focus instead on "knowledge transfer"—helping society benefit from the discoveries and skills of faculty members and students without focusing just on finances.

....Generating good ideas is just the first step. If an invention appears to have commercial value, a university can create intellectual property (IP) by applying for a patent, copyright, or some other form of ownership that it can legally enforce. The university can then sell or license the right to use the invention to one or more companies—or assume the risks of launching its own startup. Any payments or profits are typically divided equally among the inventor, the inventor's academic department, and the university's general fund.

The Bayh-Dole system has opened the door to some eye-popping payouts. In 2005, for example, Stanford earned $336 million from selling its stake in Google, and New York University and its researchers have earned more than $650 million since the mid-2000s from the science underpinning Remicade, an arthritis drug. In 2011 alone, Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, earned $192 million from its tech transfer operation, topping the most recent annual chart assembled by AUTM. And a federal jury recently awarded a whopping $1.2 billion to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, after it found that a semiconductor company had used the university's inventions without permission. (The company is appealing the verdict.)

The problem facing would-be copycats is that such windfalls are the exceptions, not the rule. "The great majority of [university] inventions generate modest revenues and many generate none," the NRC report found. "A handful of universities and a small fraction of all inventions are responsible for a large fraction of the revenues received."


Saturday, February 09, 2013

Teaching the Ethics of Life Extension

This term I am teaching my graduate level seminar "Science and Justice" to approximately 14 (mostly) MA and PhD students from political science, philosophy and psychology here at Queen's. It's my favorite course to teach (I also teach an undergrad version of it as well) and we address a number of ethical and social issues related to the genetic revolution.

Here is the trailer for the course:

This course is the ideal course to teach with an interdisciplinary group of bright students, as they bring their own particular expertise, insights and assumptions to class discussions, which makes for more fruitful and interesting debates.

This year I devote two whole classes to aging and the ethics of life extension. Last week was our first class on the topic and I asked my students, who are all graduate level students in the humanities and social sciences, how many of them had taken a course where aging was either the focus, or even just a topic covered in, the course. Not a single hand went up! This simply reinforced my conviction that it is absolutely essential to teach the course I am teaching, and to dedicate two weeks to aging and the ethics of life extension. I hope it helps to fill what is an unfortunate gap in the education our students receive.

In my opinion, the aging of the world's populations is the most interesting and important development of the 21st century. And yet the education our students (many of whom will go on to be teachers, professors, politicians, work in public policy, law, medicine, etc.) receive is one that is completely blind to this reality. This neglect is itself an oddity worthy of serious reflection. Why do so many scholars in the humanities and social sciences appear to have "aging blinders" on? I think the answer to this question is complex, and many distinct cultural and institutional factors account for this neglect. I will write a longer post about this in a few weeks. I believe that one of the main reasons for this neglect is that scholars ignore the ultimate causation of morbidity, mortality and behaviour. While the proximate causation of mortality (such as poverty and war) is on the radar of many in the humanities and social sciences, they do not adopt as diverse an explanatory toolbox as they ought to. Once you add an evolutionary perspective into the mix, the questions, topics and debates to be discussed and pondered are wondrous and pressing. And doing this has profoundly altered the topics I work on, and the manner in which I approach them, in both ethics and political theory.

In the first week of our course we focused on the aspiration to slow human aging. We read this article and this one, and watched this Charlie Rose interview.

This week we consider the more ambitious aspiration of eliminating aging (or achieving "biological immortality"). The idea of a species being biologically immortal might sound like pure science fiction, but there are such species that exist today. Hydra, for example, are biologically immortal and constantly renew the tissues of their body. The turritopsis dohrnii, also known as the "immortality jellyfish", is another fascinating species worth mentioning. After reaching sexual maturity, this jellyfish can actually become younger and return to the earliest stages of development, thus starting the cycle of life over again. This process is called transdifferentiation.

The readings for this week's class include these two excellent articles: here and here. I start the class with the Lifestar video above. And then we shall have a class debate on the pros and cons of pursuing biological immortality. Should be fun!