Archive for the 'Culture and Society' Category

Dec 13 2019

Who Gets to Decide?

Published by under Culture and Society

One of the things I like about blogging is that it is an interactive forum. Often times the conversation in the comments dwarfs the original article in scope and depth. I use this to learn as much from my readers as they do from me, and improve my understanding of topics and ability to communicate them. Sometimes points raised in the comments deserve the treatment of a full blog post, not just answers in the comments.

Yesterday I wrote in support of crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe applying standards to protect their users from fraud and abuse, specifically not allowing their site to be used to fund clear medical quackery. I took the time in this article to spell out my basic approach to the concept of regulation, because it is a common theme here. Part of skeptical activism and science communication is consumer protection against fraud and abuse. I believe that proper regulation is essential to protect the public from fraud, and so I am often called upon to defend the very concept of regulation itself.

One commenter raised what I find to be the two most common pillars of objection to regulation – the slippery slope argument and the question of who gets to decide. Neither objection, when used as a blanket or overreaching argument against regulation, is valid. Let’s start with the slippery slope.

For background, a slippery slope argument is one that concludes that if step A is taken, this will lead inevitably or very likely to step B. Since most people would find B unacceptable, we should be cautious about taking step A. To support this argument it is often further argued that there is no difference in principle between A and B, and therefore in order to be fair and internally consistent, we cannot take step A without B. This form of argument becomes a slippery slope fallacy when the premise that A inevitably leads to B or should if we are being consistent is simply wrong, or at least an unwarranted assumption. Remember, we are talking about informal logical fallacies here, so they are not always wrong. That depends on the specific context.

What the slippery slope fallacy ignores is that ethics and legislation is often about balancing two or more valid principles and concerns. When it comes to regulation we are often talking about freedom vs security or protection. Striking a balance between these two does not mean we will inevitably surrender all our freedom, any more than it means we will inevitably live in total anarchy. In fact, legal principle and precedent enshrines this balance – the state has the right to regulate various things, but must demonstrate a compelling interest before encroaching on a recognized personal freedom.

Let’s take helmet laws as an example. People have the freedom (in principle) to decide for themselves if they want to wear a helmet when riding a bike or motorcycle, but governments often assert their right to decide for individuals, and essentially make it a fineable offense to ride without a helmet. What is the state’s compelling interest? Well, if you get into an accident which results in brain injury, you may become a burden to the state and therefore others. Your injury would affect other people, by raising their health insurance premiums, or using public resources. Is that enough? Regardless of where you come down, the deeper point is – the decision is based upon a balancing of these various concerns. We can make an individual decision without obligating every similar decision to be decided in the same way. If we allow the state to force us to wear helmets, that does not mean they have a green light to micromanage every single life decision we make. Or if we decide the state does not have that right, that doesn’t mean they also don’t have the right to enforce speed limits. For every decision, the state has to demonstrate a compelling interest which is greater than the personal freedom being sacrificed. Each decision is individual – no slippery slope.

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Dec 12 2019

Crowd Funding Quackery

A recently published ethics paper addresses the issue of whether or not it is proper for crowdfunding sites, like GoFundMe, to allow campaigns to fund dubious medical treatments. This question is also part of a more general issue – how tech companies have replaced traditional industries and institutions thereby bypassing existing mechanisms of safety, justice, and quality control. On the medical issue, the authors write:

Recent studies have shown that many individuals are using crowdfunding to finance access to scientifically unsupported medical treatments. Recently, GoFundMe prohibited campaigns for antivaccination groups on the grounds that they “promote misinformation about vaccines” and for treatment at a German clinic offering unproven cancer treatments due to “the need to make sure people are equipped to make well‐informed decisions.” GoFundMe has not taken any additional actions to regulate the much larger presence of campaigns seeking to fund unproven medical interventions on the platform. In this article, we make the ethical case for intervention by GoFundMe and other crowdfunding platforms.

The basic principle is that tech companies still retain an ethical and legal responsibility for how their platforms and technology are used. Most applications and social media outlets begin as an unregulated peer-to-peer environment, just facilitating an individual exchange between two private citizens. In a way this is a Libertarian nirvana. However, as such applications scale up the downsides that have already had to be dealt with in the traditional industries they are supplanting begin to resurface.

We can take any such app as an example, such as Uber. The Uber app, which I use, is very convenient. They have definitely made a better mousetrap. But as Uber has grown huge, we begin to question what responsibility they have to their drivers and riders. How much do they have to vet drivers to protect riders? What kinds of protections and benefits should they offer drivers? Did they just replace a regulated industry with an unregulated one? The same questions have arisen with Air bnb, which critics warn is being used to simply create de facto hotels that skirt regulations.

There are two principles here. The first has to do with the role of regulations in general to protect the public from exploitation of various sorts. I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole entirely, but just summarize my position as this. I support carefully considered and monitored regulation to keep society functioning optimally and prevent exploitation, externalizing costs, unfair competition, and the like. The only truly free market is a regulated one, because an unregulated market will become increasingly distorted over time as the powerful use their power to obtain more power (rather than play fairly).  At the same time we have to be humble regarding unintended consequences, which is why regulations need to be minimalistic and monitored for their effects. If you buy some version of this basic premise, and are not an anti-regulation purist, then it should be concerning that effective regulations are being nullified by an app. This is happening without any elected representatives of the people making any decisions – without any public representation. In the extreme this can evolve into a tech oligarchy.

The second principle is fairness. If one industry that is regulated is competing with another that is unregulated, that gives an unfair advantage to the unregulated one (regardless of what you think about regulations in general).

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Nov 15 2019

Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act of 2019

Published by under Culture and Society

The Ohio State House recently passed a revised education bill, now on its way to the state senate, that includes some concerning language. Here is the relevant passage:

Assignment grades and scores shall be calculated using ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance, including any legitimate pedagogical concerns, and shall not penalize or reward a student based on the religious content of a student’s work.

This is a wonderfully ambiguous wording, which I think is a feature, not a bug. It mirrors other parts of the bill which likewise sound superficially reasonable, but there is every reason to suspect has a clear purpose. The big question is – what does it mean that you cannot penalize a student for the religious content of their work? Does that mean they can say in a science class that the Earth is 6000 years old? Can they submit a project on history about Noah?

This is an extension of a strategy that creationists have been using in recent years. They are pushing for carefully crafted laws that sound like they are just promoting freedom, but are specifically designed to provide cover for teachers who want to introduce creationist materials in their classroom. Alternatively, under the guise of “standards” they can introduce laws carefully crafted to provide justification for not admitting evolution or climate change into the classroom.

These laws have to be viewed very much in their political context. Also, their impact will largely be determined by how they are enforced. Of course, if you know ahead of time how they are going to be enforced, because they were specifically crafted for that purpose, they are really stealth laws hiding under coy language.

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Oct 18 2019

Diffusion of Responsibility

Published by under Culture and Society

I still remember the PSA of the crying American Indian, sad because of all the trash that the modern world was spreading in the previously pristine environment. It was powerful, and it had a real impact on me. The ad was sponsored by Keep America Beautiful, and I (like most everyone else) assumed this was an environmental group interested in keeping America beautiful.

Actually the piece was a clever bit of propaganda, which relates to the topic of this post – the diffusion of personal responsibility. I wrote yesterday about the letter from celebrities admitting that they are environmental hypocrites for living a high carbon footprint lifestyle while campaigning against climate change. The conflict is between personal and collective responsibility, and my basic conclusion is that both are important. Many excellent points were raised in the comments, and two points in particular I think deserve additional exploration. The main one, mentioned by townsend, is that this all relates to the diffusion of personal responsibility. This was implicit in my previous post, but it is an important social psychological principle that is worth discussing further.

I first learned about this in my Social Psychology class in college – this is a long well-established psychological principle. The broad brushstrokes are this – humans are social creatures. We evolved emotions of justice, reciprocity, shame, and guilt in order to modify our behavior to be compatible with our social structure. If everyone maximally pursued selfish interests, we could never have a functioning society.

However, problems arise when the sense of personal responsibility is diffused, because this shortcircuits the feedback loops of guilt, shame, and a sense of responsibility. If something is equally everyone’s responsibility, then it is essentially no one’s responsibility. I experience this every time I travel is large groups. Once you get north of about 6-7 people, the group is paralyzed and can’t seem to do anything. Even walking together from point A to point B becomes an exercise in herding cats. However, if you assign someone as the group leader (or wrangler, or whatever) then the group can function as a unit. The same is true on any project – there needs to be clear lines of responsibility.

This lesson was learned with public housing. Common areas soon fell into disrepair and utter filth. This is because no one was responsible for them. If, however, housing was designed with no common spaces – where an individual owner was responsible for their own space, the situation was much improved.

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Sep 23 2019

Outrage, Bias, and the Instability of Truth

One experience I have had many times is with colleagues or friends who are not aware of the problem of pseudoscience in medicine. At first they are in relative denial – “it can’t be that bad.” “Homeopathy cannot possibly be that dumb!” Once I have had an opportunity to explain it to them sufficiently and they see the evidence for themselves, they go from denial to outrage. They seem to go from one extreme to the other, thinking pseudoscience is hopelessly rampant, and even feeling nihilistic.

This general phenomenon is not limited to medical pseudoscience, and I think it applies broadly. We may be unaware of a problem, but once we learn to recognize it we see it everywhere. Confirmation bias kicks in, and we initially overapply the lessons we recently learned.

I have this problem when I give skeptical lectures. I can spend an hour discussing publication bias, researcher bias, p-hacking, the statistics about error in scientific publications, and all the problems with scientific journals. At first I was a little surprised at the questions I would get, expressing overall nihilism toward science in general. I inadvertently gave the wrong impression by failing to properly balance the lecture. These are all challenges to good science, but good science can and does get done. It’s just harder than many people think.

This relates to Aristotle’s philosophy of the mean – virtue is often a balance between two extreme vices. Similarly, I find there is often a nuanced position on many topics balanced precariously between two extremes. We can neither trust science and scientists explicitly, nor should we dismiss all of science as hopelessly biased and flawed. Freedom of speech is critical for democracy, but that does not mean freedom from the consequences of your speech, or that everyone has a right to any venue they choose.

A recent Guardian article about our current post-truth world reminded me of this philosophy of the mean. To a certain extent, society has gone from one extreme to the other when it comes to facts, expertise, and trusting authoritative sources. This is a massive oversimplification, and of course there have always been people everywhere along this spectrum. But there does seem to have been a shift. In the pre-social media age most people obtained their news from mainstream sources that were curated and edited. Talking head experts were basically trusted, and at least the broad center had a source of shared facts from which to debate.

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Sep 12 2019

What Is Red Mercury?

Published by under Culture and Society

I’m not a fan of the Star Trek movies reboot. While I do like the cast, and as a Trek fan I have some level of enjoyment of anything in the franchise, the movies were disappointing. As is usually the case with big budget movie failures, the problem was in the writing. Case in point – red matter. This is a mysterious substance invented by Vulcans in the future, a single drop of which could produce a singularity. It appears as a blob of red liquid. In the end it was a silly physics-breaking plot device that took you out of the movie.

I was reminded of this with recent reports of another mysterious red matter – so-called red mercury. As far as I know there is no connection between the two, and the similarity is pure coincidence. Perhaps the only connection is a psychological one. Mercury is already a fascinating substance, a metal that is liquid at room temperature. It would be fun to play with, if it weren’t so toxic. Red mercury would be an even more exotic form of this amazing element, and that is perhaps the same wonder-factor that the movie writers were going for.

In any case – as with red matter, red mercury does not actually exist. I write about a lot of things here that don’t actually exist, in order to deconstruct persistent belief in something nonexistent. People, apparently, are good at believing in things that aren’t real, a manifestation of the many flaws and limitations in our belief-generating machinery.

Beliefs can be generated and supported by a number of mechanisms – first hand experience, a phenomenon having a real effect in the world, misperception, biased memories, deliberate cons, wish fulfillment, cultural inertia, and a host of cognitive biases.  There are sufficient mechanisms of belief at work to create and sustain belief in something without any basis in objective reality. Every culture, in fact, is overwhelmed with such beliefs.

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Aug 12 2019

The Epstein Conspiracies

Published by under Culture and Society

This was highly predictable. Of course there are conspiracies surrounding the apparent recent suicide of Jeffrey Epstein while in prison. That’s just background noise now. There are conspiracies about everything. Apparently the two shootings last weekend were false flag operations, because #conspiracies.

Just as predictably, news about the conspiracy theories, how they spread, and how they are treated by the media is itself news. And yes I get the irony that here I am blogging about it. It’s turtles all the way down. I guess in order to have something interesting to say I have to get one level more meta than everyone else – does that do it? Getting meta about being meta?

By now this phenomenon is old news. The traditional editorial filters are no longer in place. They have largely been replaced by algorithms which determine which news items are “trending.” This becomes a self-reinforcing feedback loop that allows the worst information to spread. Of course, this has always happened. Sensationalism and propaganda spread because they are interesting. They break up the mundane monotony of our lives. They are a real-life soap opera.

Jonathan Swift observed in 1710, “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.” There are also several versions of, “A Lie Can Travel Halfway Around the World While the Truth Is Putting On Its Shoes.” The source of this quote, often mistakingly attributed to Mark Twain, is unclear. The point is – the inherent advantage that false but sensational information has in the human mind over prosaic truth has long been observed. And that, of course, is the ultimate medium, the human mind. The external method of spreading false information is incidental to the core phenomenon, but it can influence the speed with which such information spreads and the credibility it is given.

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Jul 30 2019

The Challenge of Deepfakes

You have probably heard of deepfakes by now – convincing video manipulation that is improving rapidly, getting better and easier. Right now you can often tell when a video has been manipulated. The human eye is very sensitive to movement, facial expressions, and other subtle cues. But the best examples are getting more difficult, and experts predict there will be deepfakes undetectable by most people within a year.

How will this affect the world? Most reports I read simply say that people won’t be able to trust videos anymore (we already can’t trust photos). But that doesn’t capture the situation. People knowing that video can be manipulated won’t really solve the problem.

The problem is psychology – people can be primed and manipulated subconsciously. Let’s say, for example, that you see a video of a famous person committing a horrible crime, or saying something terrible. Even if you know such videos can be faked, or hear the claim that that video was fake, the images may still have an emotional effect. It becomes part of your subconscious memory memory of that person.

Human memory also will contribute to this effect. We are better at remembering claims than remembering where we heard them (source amnesia) or if they are true or not (truth status amnesia). Seeing a dramatic video of a person doing something horrible will stick with you and will be much more vivid than later information about forensic examination of the video.

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Jul 16 2019

Multi-Level Marketing Is Still a Scam

Published by under Culture and Society

Multi-Level Marketing (MLM) companies are inherently, in my opinion, exploitative. The MLM model is that the sales force is hierarchical – you are hired by someone who takes a cut of what you earn. You, in turn, can make money by recruiting your own sellers, who each pay you a cut of what they earn, and what everyone below them earns. In other words – it’s a pyramid scheme.

A raw pyramid scheme is just a transfer of money – I give you $10, and recruit five people to give me $10, and so on. Everyone makes money, except for those who get stuck at the bottom of the pyramid. Pyramid schemes are generally illegal because only the people at the top really make money. The math of the situation guarantees that even in a few generations the pyramid will burn itself out. (1-5-25-125-625-3,125-15,625-78,125-390,625-1,953,125-9,765,625-48,828,125-244,140,625) In 13 levels you get close to the entire population of the US, in 2 more, close to the population of the Earth.

An MLM is basically a pyramid scheme in which a product is used as cover for the transfer of money. Sellers need to buy product from the company, which they may use themselves but are also meant to sell. Some MLMs require a minimum purchase each month, whether you sell it or not. In this way also the salespeople are also customers. It amazes me that this is at all legal. Most states and the federal government regulate MLMs rather than outlaw them completely For example, sellers need to demonstrate that they make most of their income from actually selling products, not just getting paid by those under them. Certain practices, such as requiring a minimum product purchase, can be outlawed as well.

The numbers tell the story. An analysis by the FTC found that 100% of the 350 MLMs they looked at were top heavy, meaning that the vast majority of the profit went to the very top promoters, while everyone else lost money. A staggering 99% of those involved lost money. In fact, it’s worse than a no-product straight pyramid scheme, in which 90% of participants lose money. There, of course, will be exceptions – that seller who is 2-3 standard deviations from the mean, who was in the perfect situation, or just has exceptional business and marketing skills. They make money, and then they become the poster child for that MLM. If they can do it, you can do it.

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Jul 04 2019


Published by under Culture and Society

Today is the Fourth of July. First, I want to say happy birthday to my two brothers, Bob and Joe, fraternal twins who were born on the 4th. But also happy birthday to America. The 4th is always a good time to reflect on what the American experiment in constitutional democracy really means.

I tend to look at it this way – process is more important than outcome. This is true in the same way it is true for science and critical thinking. Science is a system of valid methods used to build an empirical model of reality. In science, using proper methods is what counts, not the outcome of the experiment. When you put the outcome first, and then use whatever methods necessary to generate the desired outcome, that’s pseudoscience.

In the same way we have a system of government that puts the rule of law, with the Constitution being the highest law, above any particular outcome. It is supposed to be a peaceful and fair method of determining things like law, justice, rights, and the expenditure of common resources. It is valid in that it derives from the people with fair and even representation. Obviously the system is not perfect, partly because people are not perfect, but also because running a country with over 300 million people is horrifically complicated and must, by necessity, involve numerous trade-offs.

But the idea of the Constitution is that we have a system, and if everyone follows the system then at least there are checks and balances, there is a system for correction of error, people have a way to make their will felt, and the whole thing grinds messily on. A friend of mine recently observed, however, that what really has surprised and even frightened him over the last two years is the realization that the whole system is much more of a gentleman’s agreement than he ever imagined. I tend to agree.

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