Ebola, Ethics & Safety

English: Color-enhanced electron micrograph of...

English: Color-enhanced electron micrograph of Ebola virus particles. Polski: Mikrofotografia elektronowa cząsteczek wirusa Ebola w fałszywych kolorach. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kaci Hickox, a nurse from my home state of Maine, returned to the United States after serving as a health care worker in the Ebola outbreak. Rather than being greeted as a hero, she was confined to an unheated tent with a box for a toilet and no shower. She did not have any symptoms and tested negative for Ebola. After threatening a lawsuit, she was released and allowed to return to Maine. After arriving home, she refused to be quarantined again. She did, however, state that she would be following the CDC protocols. Her situation puts a face on a general moral concern, namely the ethics of balancing rights with safety.

While past outbreaks of Ebola in Africa were met largely with indifference from the West (aside from those who went to render aid, of course), the current outbreak has infected the United States with a severe case of fear. Some folks in the media have fanned the flames of this fear knowing that it will attract viewers. Politicians have also contributed to the fear. Some have worked hard to make Ebola into a political game piece that will allow them to bash their opponents and score points by appeasing fears they have helped create. Because of this fear, most Americans have claimed they support a travel ban in regards to Ebola infected countries and some states have started imposing mandatory quarantines. While it is to be expected that politicians will often pander to the fears of the public, the ethics of the matter should be considered rationally.

While Ebola is scary, the basic “formula” for sorting out the matter is rather simple. It is an approach that I use for all situations in which rights (or liberties) are in conflict with safety. The basic idea is this. The first step is sorting out the level of risk. This includes determining the probability that the harm will occur as well as the severity of the harm (both in quantity and quality). In the case of Ebola, the probability that someone will get it in the United States is extremely low. As the actual experts have pointed out, infection requires direct contact with bodily fluids while a person is infectious. Even then, the infection rate seems relatively low, at least in the United States. In terms of the harm, Ebola can be fatal. However, timely treatment in a well-equipped facility has been shown to be very effective. In terms of the things that are likely to harm or kill an American in the United States, Ebola is near the bottom of the list. As such, a rational assessment of the threat is that it is a small one in the United States.

The second step is determining key facts about the proposals to create safety. One obvious concern is the effectiveness of the proposed method. As an example, the 21-day mandatory quarantine would be effective at containing Ebola. If someone shows no symptoms during that time, then she is almost certainly Ebola free and can be released. If a person shows symptoms, then she can be treated immediately. An alternative, namely tracking and monitoring people rather than locking them up would also be fairly effective—it has worked so far. However, there are the worries that this method could fail—bureaucratic failures might happen or people might refuse to cooperate. A second concern is the cost of the method in terms of both practical costs and other consequences. In the case of the 21-day quarantine, there are the obvious economic and psychological costs to the person being quarantined. After all, most people will not be able to work from quarantine and the person will be isolated from others. There is also the cost of the quarantine itself. In terms of other consequences, it has been argued that imposing this quarantine will discourage volunteers from going to help out and this will be worse for the United States. This is because it is best for the rest of the world if Ebola is stopped in Africa and this will require volunteers from around the world. In the case of the tracking and monitoring approach, there would be a cost—but far less than a mandatory quarantine.

From a practical standpoint, assessing a proposed method of safety is a utilitarian calculation: does the risk warrant the cost of the method? To use some non-Ebola examples, every aircraft could be made as safe as Air-Force One, every car could be made as safe as a NASCAR vehicle, and all guns could be taken away to prevent gun accidents and homicides. However, we have decided that the cost of such safety would be too high and hence we are willing to allow some number of people to die. In the case of Ebola, the calculation is a question of considering the risk presented against the effectiveness and cost of the proposed method. Since I am not a medical expert, I am reluctant to make a definite claim. However, the medical experts do seem to hold that the quarantine approach is not warranted in the case of people who lack symptoms and test negative.

The third concern is the moral concern. Sorting out the moral aspect involves weighing the practical concerns (risk, effectiveness and cost) against the right (or liberty) in question. Some also include the legal aspects of the matter here as well, although law and morality are distinct (except, obviously, for those who are legalists and regard the law as determining morality). Since I am not a lawyer, I will leave the legal aspects to experts in that area and focus on the ethics of the matter.

When working through the moral aspect of the matter, the challenge is determining whether or not the practical concerns morally justify restricting or even eliminating rights (or liberties) in the name of safety. This should, obviously enough, be based on consistent principles in regards to balancing safety and rights. Unfortunately, people tend to be wildly inconsistent in this matter. In the case of Ebola, some people have expressed the “better safe than sorry” view and have elected to impose or support mandatory quarantines at the expense of the rights and liberties of those being quarantined. In the case of gun rights, these are often taken as trumping concerns about safety. The same holds true of the “right” or liberty to operate automobiles: tens of thousands of people die each year on the roads, yet any proposal to deny people this right would be rejected. In general, people assess these matters based on feelings, prejudices, biases, ideology and other non-rational factors—this explains the lack of consistency. So, people are wiling to impose on basic rights for little or no gain to safety, while also being content to refuse even modest infringements in matters that result in great harm. However, there are also legitimate grounds for differences: people can, after due consideration, assess the weight of rights against safety very differently.

Turning back to Ebola, the main moral question is whether or not the safety gained by imposing the quarantine (or travel ban) would justify denying people their rights. In the case of someone who is infectious, the answer would seem to be “yes.” After all, the harm done to the person (being quarantined) is greatly exceeded by the harm that would be inflicted on others by his putting them at risk of infection. In the case of people who are showing no symptoms, who test negative and who are relatively low risk (no known specific exposure to infection), then a mandatory quarantine would not be justified. Naturally, some would argue that “it is better to be safe than sorry” and hence the mandatory quarantine should be imposed. However, if it was justified in the case of Ebola, it would also be justified in other cases in which imposing on rights has even a slight chance of preventing harm. This would seem to justify taking away private vehicles and guns: these kill more people than Ebola. It might also justify imposing mandatory diets and exercise on people to protect them from harm. After all, poor health habits are major causes of health issues and premature deaths. To be consistent, if imposing a mandatory quarantine is warranted on the grounds that rights can be set aside even when the risk is incredibly slight, then this same principle must be applied across the board. This seems rather unreasonable and hence the mandatory quarantine of people who are not infectious is also unreasonable and not morally acceptable.

 

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Factions & Fallacies

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In general, human beings readily commit to factions and then engage in very predictable behavior: they regard their own factions as right, good and truthful while casting opposing factions as wrong, evil and deceitful. While the best known factions tend to be political or religious, people can form factions around almost anything, ranging from sports teams to video game consoles.

While there can be rational reasons to form and support a faction, factionalism tends to be fed and watered by cognitive biases and fallacies. The core cognitive bias of factionalism is what is commonly known as in group bias. This is the psychology tendency to easily form negative views of those outside of the faction. For example, Democrats often regard Republicans in negative terms, casting them as uncaring, sexist, racist and fixated on money. In turn, Republicans typically look at Democrats in negative terms and regard them as fixated on abortion, obsessed with race, eager to take from the rich, and desiring to punish success. This obviously occurs outside of politics as well, with competing religious groups regarding each other as heretics or infidels. It even extends to games and sports, as the battle of #gamergate serving as a nice illustration.

The flip side of this bias is that members of a faction regard their fellows and themselves in a positive light and are thus inclined to attribute to themselves positive qualities. For example, Democrats see themselves as caring about the environment and being concerned about social good. As another example, Tea Party folks cast themselves as true Americans who get what the founding fathers really meant.

This bias is often expressed in terms of and fuelled by stereotypes. For example, critics of the sexist aspects of gaming will make use of the worst stereotypes of male gamers (dateless, pale misogynists who spew their rage around a mouthful of Cheetos). As another example, Democrats will sometimes cast the rich as being uncaring and out of touch plutocrats. These stereotypes are sometimes taken the extreme of demonizing: presenting the other faction members as not merely wrong or bad but evil to the extreme.

Such stereotypes are easy to accept and many are based on another bias, known as a fundamental attribution error. This is a psychological tendency to fail to realize that the behavior of other people is as much limited by circumstances as our behavior would be if we were in their shoes. For example, a person who was born into a well off family and enjoyed many advantages in life might fail to realize the challenges faced by people who were not so lucky in their birth. Because of this, she might demonize those who are unsuccessful and attribute their failure to pure laziness.

Factionalism is also strengthened by various common fallacies. The most obvious of these is the appeal to group identity. This fallacy occurs when a person accepts her pride in being in a group as evidence that a claim is true. Roughly put, a person believes it because her faction accepts it as true. The claim might actually be true, the mistake is that the basis of the belief is not rational. For example, a devoted environmentalist might believe in climate change because of her membership in that faction rather than on the basis of evidence (which actually does show that climate change is occurring). This method of belief “protects” group members from evidence and arguments because such beliefs are based on group identity rather than evidence and arguments. While a person can overcome this fallacy, faction-based beliefs tend to only change when the faction changes or if the person leaves the faction.

The above-mentioned biases also tend to lean people towards fallacious reasoning. The negative biases tend to motivate people to accept straw man reasoning, which is when a when a person simply ignores a person’s actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position. Politicians routinely make straw men out of the views they oppose and their faction members typically embrace these. The negative biases also make ad hominem fallacies common. An ad homimen 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. Typically, this fallacy involves two steps. First, an attack against the character of person making the claim, her circumstances, or her actions is made (or the character, circumstances, or actions of the person reporting the claim). Second, this attack is taken to be evidence against the claim or argument the person in question is making (or presenting). For example, opponents of a feminist critic of gaming might reject her claims by claiming that she is only engaged in the criticism so as to become famous and make money. While it might be true that she is doing just that, this does not disprove her claims. The guilt by association fallacy, in which a person rejects a claim simply because it is pointed out that people she dislikes accept the claim, both arises from and contributes to factionalism.

The negative views and stereotypes are also often fed by fallacies that involve poor generalizations. One is misleading vividness, a fallacy in which a very small number of particularly dramatic events are taken to outweigh a significant amount of statistical evidence. For example, a person in a faction holding that gamers are violent misogynists might point to the recent death threats against a famous critic of sexism in games as evidence that most gamers are violent misogynists. Misleading vividness is, of course, closely related to hasty generalization, a fallacy in which a person draws a conclusion about a population based on a sample that is not large enough to justify that conclusion. For example, a Democrat might believe that all corporations are bad based on the behavior of BP and Wal-Mart. Biased generalizations also occur, which is a fallacy that is committed when a person draws a conclusion about a population based on a sample that is biased or prejudiced in some manner. This tends to be fed by the confirmation bias—the tendency people have to seek and accept evidence for their view while avoiding or ignoring evidence against their view. For example, a person might hold that his view that the poor want free stuff for nothing from visits to web sites that feature Youtube videos selected to show poor people expressing that view.

The positive biases also contribute to fallacious reasoning, often taking the form of a positive ad hominem. A positive ad hominem occurs when a claim is accepted on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author or person presenting the claim or argument. Typically, this fallacy involves two steps. First, something positive (but irrelevant) about the character of person making the claim, her circumstances, or her actions is made. Second, this is taken to be evidence for the claim in question. For example, a Democrat might accept what Bill Clinton says as being true, just because he really likes Bill.

Nor surprisingly, factionalism is also supported by faction variations on appeals to belief (it is true/right because my faction believes it is so), appeal to common practice (it is right because my faction does it), and appeal to tradition (it is right because my faction has “always done this”).

Factionalism is both fed by and contributes to such biases and poor reasoning. This is not to say that group membership is a bad thing, just that it is wise to be on guard against the corrupting influence of factionalism.

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42 Fallacies for Free in Portuguese

Thanks to Laércio Lameira my 42 Fallacies is available in Portuguese as a free PDF.

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Medbots, Autodocs & Telemedicine

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In science fiction stories, movies and games automated medical services are quite common. Some take the form of autodocs—essentially an autonomous robotic pod that treats the patient within its confines. Medbots, as distinct from the autodoc, are robots that do not enclose the patient, but do their work in a way similar to a traditional doctor or medic. There are also non-robotic options using remote-controlled machines—this would be an advanced form of telemedicine in which the patient can actually be treated remotely. Naturally, robots can be built that can be switched from robotic (autonomous) to remote controlled mode. For example, a medbot might gather data about the patient and then a human doctor might take control to diagnose and treat the patient.

One of the main and morally commendable reasons to create medical robots and telemedicine capabilities is to provide treatment to people in areas that do not have enough human medical professionals. For example, a medical specialist who lives in the United States could diagnose and treat patients in a remote part of the world using a suitable machine. With such machines, a patient could (in theory) have access to any medical professional in the world and this would certainly change medicine. True medical robots would obviously change medicine—after all, a medical robot would never get tired and such robots could, in theory, be sent all over the world to provide medical care. There is, of course, the usual concern about the impact of technology on jobs—if a robot can replace medical personnel and do so in a way that increases profits, that will certainly happen. While robots would certainly excel at programmable surgery and similar tasks, it will certainly be quite some time before robots are advanced enough to replace human medical professionals on a large scale

Another excellent reason to create medical robots and telemedicine capabilities has been made clear by the Ebola outbreak: medical personnel, paramedics and body handlers can be infected. While protective gear and protocols do exist, the gear is cumbersome, flawed and hot and people often fail to properly follow the protocols. While many people are moral heroes and put themselves at risk to treat the ill and bury the dead, there are no doubt people who are deterred by the very real possibility of a horrible death. Medical robots and telemedicine seem ideal for handling such cases.

First, human diseases cannot infect machines: a robot cannot get Ebola. So, a doctor using telemedicine to treat Ebola patients would be at not risk. This lack of risk would presumably increase the number of people willing to treat such diseases and also lower the impact of such diseases on medical professionals. That is, far fewer would die trying to treat people.

Second, while a machine can be contaminated, decontaminating a properly designed medical robot or telemedicine machine would be much easier than disinfecting a human being. After all, a sealed machine could be completely hosed down by another machine without concerns about it being poisoned, etc. While numerous patients might be exposed to a machine, machines do not go home—so a contaminated machine would not spread a disease like an infected or contaminated human would.

Third, medical machines could be sent, even air-dropped, into remote and isolated areas that lack doctors yet are often the starting points of diseases. This would allow a rapid response that would help the people there and also help stop a disease before it makes its way into heavily populated areas. While some doctors and medical professionals are willing to be dropped into isolated areas, there are no doubt many more who would be willing to remotely operate a medical machine that has been dropped into a remote area suffering from a deadly disease.

There are, of course, some concerns about the medical machines, be they medbots, autodocs or telemedicine devices.

One is that such medical machines might be so expensive that it would be cost prohibitive to use them in situations in which they would be ideal (namely in isolated or impoverished areas). While politicians and pundits often talk about human life being priceless, human life is rather often given a price and one that is quite low. So, the challenge would be to develop medical machines that are effective yet inexpensive enough that they would be deployed where they would be needed.

Another is that there might be a psychological impact on the patient. When patients who have been treated by medical personal in hazard suits speak about their experiences, they often remark on the lack of human contact. If a machine is treating the patient, even one remotely operated by a person, there will be a lack of human contact. But, the harm done to the patient would presumably be outweighed by the vastly lowered risk of the disease spreading. Also, machines could be designed to provide more in the way of human interaction—for example, a telemedicine machine could have a screen that allows the patient to see the doctor’s face and talk to her.

A third concern is that such machines could malfunction or be intentionally interfered with. For example, someone might “hack” into a telemedicine device as an act of terrorism. While it might be wondered why someone would do this, it seems to be a general rule that if someone can do something evil, then someone will do something evil. As such, these devices would need to be safeguarded. While no device will be perfect, it would certainly be wise to consider possible problems ahead of time—although the usual process is to have something horrible occur and then fix it. Or at least talk about fixing it.

In sum, the recent Ebola outbreak has shown the importance of developing effective medical machines that can enable treatment while taking medical and other personnel out of harm’s way.

 

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Lessons from Ebola

English: Biosafety level 4 hazmat suit: resear...

English: Biosafety level 4 hazmat suit: researcher is working with the Ebola virus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While Ebola outbreaks are not new, the latest outbreak has provided some important lessons. These lessons are actually nothing new, but the outbreak does provide a focus for discussing them.

The first lesson is that most people are very bad at risk assessment. In the Ebola hot spots it is reasonable to be worried about catching Ebola. It is also reasonable to be concerned about the situation in general. However, many politicians, pundits and citizens in the United States are greatly overestimating the threat presented by Ebola in the United States. There are only a few cases of Ebola in the United States and the disease is, the experts claim, difficult to catch. As such, the chance that an American will catch Ebola in the United States is extremely low. It is also a fact Ebola outbreaks have been contained before in countries with far less medical resources than the United States. So, while it is prudent to prepare, the reaction to Ebola has greatly exceeded its actual threat in the United States. If the concern is with protecting Americans from disease and death, there are far more serious health threats that should be the primary focus of our concern and resources.

The threat of Ebola is overestimated for a variety of reasons. One is that people are rather susceptible to the fallacy of misleading vividness. This a fallacy in which a very small number of particularly dramatic events are taken to outweigh a significant amount of statistical evidence. This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because the mere fact that an event is particularly vivid or dramatic does not make the event more likely to occur, especially in the face of significant statistical evidence. Ebola is indeed scary, but the chance of infection in the United States is extremely low.

Another reason is that people are also susceptible to a variation on the spotlight fallacy. This variant involves inferring the probability that something will happen based on how often you hear about it, rather than based on how often it actually occurs. Ebola has infected the 24 hour news cycle and hearing about it so often creates the psychological impression that infection is likely.

As I have consistently argued, threats should be assessed realistically and the response should be proportional to the actual threat.

The second lesson is that the politicians, media and pundits will exploit scary things for their own advantages. The media folks know that scary stories and fear mongering get viewers, so they are exploiting Ebola to the detriment of the public. Ebola has been made into a political issue, so the politicians and pundits are trying to exploit it for political points. The Republicans are using it as part of their narrative that Obama is an incompetent president and thus are emphasizing the matter. Obama and the Democrats have to strike back in order to keep the Republicans from scoring points. As with the media, the politicians and pundits are exploiting Ebola for their own advantage at the expense of the public.

This willful misleading and exaggeration is clearly morally wrong on the grounds that it misleads the public and makes a rational and proportional response to the problem more difficult.

The third lesson is that people will propose extreme solutions without considering the consequences of those solutions. One example is the push to shutdown air travel between the United States and countries experiencing the Ebola outbreak. While this seems intuitively appealing, one main consequence would be that people would still come to the United States from those countries, only they would do so in more roundabout ways. This would make it much harder to track such people and would, ironically, put the United States at greater risk.

As always, solutions should be carefully considered in terms of their consequences, costs and other relevant factors.

The final lesson I will consider is that the situation shows that health is a public good and not just a private good. While most people get that defense and police are public goods, there is the view that health is a private good and something that should be left to the individual to handle. That is, the state should protect the citizen from terrorists and criminals, but she is on her own when it comes to disease and injury. However, as I have argued elsewhere at length, if the state is obligated to protect its citizens from death and harm, this should also apply to disease and injury. After all, disease will kill a person just as effectively as a terrorist’s bomb or a criminal’s bullet.

Interestingly, even many Republicans are pushing for a state response to Ebola. I suspect that one reason Ebola is especially frightening is that it is a disease that comes from outside the United States and was brought by a foreigner. This taps into fears that have been carefully and lovingly crafted during the war on terror and this helps explain why even anti-government people are pushing for government action.

But, if the state has a vital role to play in addressing Ebola, then it would seem to have a similar role to play in regards to other medical threats. While Ebola is scary and foreign, it is a medical threat and thus is like other medical threats. However, consistency is not a strong trait in most people, so some who cry for government action against the Ebola that scares them also cry out against the state playing a role in protecting Americans from things that kill vastly more Americans.

The public health concern also extends beyond borders—diseases do not recognize political boundaries. While there are excellent moral reasons for being concerned about the health of people in other countries, there are also purely pragmatic reasons. One is that in a well-connected world diseases can travel quickly all over the globe. So, an outbreak in Africa can spread to other countries. Another is that the global economy is impacted by outbreaks. So, an outbreak in one country can impact the economy of other countries. As such, there are purely selfish reasons to regard health as public good.

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Lessons from Gaming #2: Random Universe

Call of Cthulhu (role-playing game)

Call of Cthulhu (role-playing game) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My experiences as a tabletop and video gamer have taught me numerous lessons that are applicable to the real world (assuming there is such a thing). One key skill in getting about in reality is the ability to model reality. Roughly put, this is the ability to get how things work and thus make reasonably accurate predictions. This ability is rather useful: getting how things work is a big step on the road to success.

Many games, such as Call of Cthulhu, D&D, Pathfinder and Star Fleet Battles make extensive use of dice to model the vagaries of reality. For example, if your Call of Cthulhu character were trying to avoid being spotted by the cultists of Hastur as she spies on them, you would need to roll under your Sneak skill on percentile dice. As another example, if your D-7 battle cruiser were firing phasers and disruptors at a Kzinti strike cruiser, you would roll dice and consult various charts to see what happened. Video games also include the digital equivalent of dice. For example, if you are playing World of Warcraft, the damage done by a spell or a weapon will be random.

Being a gamer, it is natural for me to look at reality as also being random—after all, if a random model (gaming system) nicely fits aspects of reality, then that suggests the model has things right. As such, I tend to think of this as being a random universe in which God (or whatever) plays dice with us.

Naturally, I do not know if the universe is random (contains elements of chance). After all, we tend to attribute chance to the unpredictable, but this unpredictability might be a matter of ignorance rather than chance. After all, the fact that we do not know what will happen does not entail that it is a matter of chance.

People also seem to believe in chance because they think things could have been differently: the die roll might have been a 1 rather than a 20 or I might have won the lottery rather than not. However, even if things could have been different it does not follow that chance is real. After all, chance is not the only thing that could make a difference. Also, there is the rather obvious question of proving that things could have been different. This would seem to be impossible: while it might be believed that conditions could be recreated perfectly, one factor that can never be duplicated – time. Recreating an event will be a recreation. If the die comes up 20 on the first roll and 1 on the second, this does not show that it could have been a 1 the first time. All its shows is that it was 20 the first time and 1 the second.

If someone had a TARDIS and could pop back in time to witness the roll again and if the time traveler saw a different outcome this time, then this might be evidence of chance. Or evidence that the time traveler changed the event.

Even traveling to a possible or parallel world would not be of help. If the TARDIS malfunctions and pops us into a world like our own right before the parallel me rolled the die and we see it come up 1 rather than 20, this just shows that he rolled a 1. It tells us nothing about whether my roll of 20 could have been a 1.

Of course, the flip side of the coin is that I can never know that the world is non-random: aside from some sort of special knowledge about the working of the universe, a random universe and a non-random universe would seem exactly the same. Whether my die roll is random or not, all I get is the result—I do not perceive either chance or determinism. However, I go with a random universe because, to be honest, I am a gamer.

If the universe is deterministic, then I am determined to do what I do. If the universe is random, then chance is a factor. However, a purely random universe would not permit actual decision-making: it would be determined by chance. In games, there is apparently the added element of choice—I chose for my character to try to attack the dragon, and then roll dice to determine the result. As such, I also add choice to my random universe.

Obviously, there is no way to prove that choice occurs—as with chance versus determinism, without simply knowing the brute fact about choice there is no way to know whether the universe allows for choice or not. I go with a choice universe for the following reason: If there is no choice, then I go with choice because I have no choice. So, I am determined (or chanced) to be wrong. I could not choose otherwise. If there is choice, then I am right. So, choosing choice seems the best choice. So, I believe in a random universe with choice—mainly because of gaming. So, what about the lessons from this?

One important lesson is that decisions are made in uncertainty: because of chance, the results of any choice cannot be known with certainty. In a game, I do not know if the sword strike will finish off the dragon. In life, I do not know if the investment will pay off. In general, this uncertainty can be reduced and this shows the importance of knowing the odds and the consequences: such knowledge is critical to making good decisions in a game and in life. So, know as much as you can for a better tomorrow.

Another important lesson is that things can always go wrong. Or well. In a game, there might be a 1 in 100 chance that a character will be spotted by the cultists, overpowered and sacrificed to Hastur. But it could happen. In life, there might be a 1 in a 100 chance of a doctor taking precautions catching Ebola from a patient. But it could happen. Because of this, the possibility of failure must always be considered and it is wise to take steps to minimize the chances of failure and to also minimize the consequences.

Keeping in mind the role of chance also helps a person be more understanding, sympathetic and forgiving. After all, if things can fail or go wrong because of chance, then it makes sense to be more forgiving and understanding of failure—at least when the failure can be attributed in part to chance. It also helps in regards to praising success: knowing that chance plays a role in success is also important. For example, there is often the assumption that success is entirely deserved because it must be the result of hard work, virtue and so on. However, if success involves chance to a significant degree, then that should be taken into account when passing out praise and making decisions. Naturally, the role of chance in success and failure should be considered when planning and creating policies. Unfortunately, people often take the view that both success and failure are mainly a matter of choice—so the rich must deserve their riches and the poor must deserve their poverty. However, an understanding of chance would help our understanding of success and failure and would, hopefully, influence the decisions we make. There is an old saying “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” One could also say “there, but for the luck of the die, go I.”

 

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#Gamergate, Video Game Wars, & Evil

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As a gamer, philosopher and human being, I was morally outraged when I learned of the latest death threats against Anita Sarkeesian. Sarkeesian, who is well known as a moral critic of the misogynistic rot defiling gaming, was scheduled to speak at Utah State University. Emails were sent that threatened a mass shooting if her talk was not cancelled. For legal reasons, the University was not able to prevent people from being weapons to the talk, so Sarkeesian elected to cancel her talk because of concerns for the safety of the audience.

This incident is just the latest in an ongoing outpouring of threats against women involved in gaming and those who are willing to openly oppose sexism and misogyny in the gaming world (and in the real world). Sadly, this sort of behavior is not surprising and it is part of two larger problems: internet trolling and misogyny.

As a philosopher, I am in the habit of arguing for claims. However, there seems to be no need to argue that threatening women with violence, rape or death because they are opposed to misogyny in gaming and favor more inclusivity in gaming is morally wicked. It is also base cowardice in many cases: those making the threats often hide behind anonymity and spew their vile secretions from the shadows of the internet. That such people are cowards is not a shock: courage is a virtue and these are clearly people who are strangers to virtue. When they engage in such behavior on the internet, they are aptly named trolls. Gamers know the classic troll as a chaotic evil creature of great rage and little intellect, which tends to fit the internet troll reasonable well. But, the internet troll can often be a person who is not actually committed to the claims he is making. Rather, his goal is typically to goad others and get emotional responses. As such, the troll will pick his tools with a calculation to the strongest emotional impact and these tools will thus include racism, sexism and threats. There are those who go beyond mere trolling—they are the people who truly believe in the racist and sexist claims they make. They are not using misogynist and racist claims as tools—they are speaking from their rotten souls. Perhaps these creatures should be called demons rather than trolls.

While the moral right to free expression does include the saying of awful and evil things, a person should not say such things. This should not be punishable by the law (in most cases), but should be regarded as immoral actions. Matters change when threats are involved. Good sense should be used when assessing threats. After all, people Tweet and post from unthinking anger and without true intent. There are also plenty of expressions that seem to promise violence, but are also used as expressions of anger. For example, people say “I could kill you” even when they actually have no intent of doing so. However, people do make threats that have real intent behind them. While the person might not actually intend to commit the threatened act (such as murder or rape), there can be an intent to psychologically harm and harass the target and this can do real harm. When I contributed my work on fallacies to a site devoted to responding to holocaust deniers I received a few random threats. I was not too worried, but did have a feeling of cold anger when I read the emails. My ex-wife, who was a feminist philosopher, received the occasional threats and I was certainly worried for her. As such, I have some very limited understanding of what it would be like receiving threats and how this can impact a person’s life. Inflicting such a harm on an individual is wrong and legal sanctions should be taken in such cases. There is a right to express ideas, but not a right to threaten, abuse and harass. Especially in a cowardly manner from the shadows.

As might be suspected, I am in support of increasing the involvement of women in gaming and I favor removing sexism from games. My main reason for supporting more involvement of women in gaming is the same reason I would encourage anyone to game: I think it is fun and I want to share my beloved hobby with people. There is also the moral motivation: such exclusion is morally repugnant and unjustified. If there are any good arguments against women being more involved in playing and creating games, I would certainly be interested in seeing them. But, I am quite sure there are none—if there were, people would be presenting those rather than screeching hateful threats from their shadowed caves.

As far as removing sexism from video games, the argument for that is easy and obvious. Sexism is morally wrong and games that include it would thus be morally wrong. Considering the matter as a gamer and an author of tabletop RPG adventures, I would contend that the removal of sexist elements would improve games and certainly not diminish their quality. True, doing so might rob the sexists and misogynists of whatever enjoyment they get from such things, but this is not a loss that is even worthy of consideration. In this regard, it is analogous to removing racist elements from games—the racist has no moral grounds to complain that he has been wronged by the denial of his opportunity to enjoy his racism.

I do, of course, want to distinguish between sexual elements and sexism. A game can have sexual elements without being sexist—although there can be a fine line between the two. I am also quite aware that games set in sexist times might require sexist elements when recreating those times. So, for example, a WWII game that has just male generals need not be sexist (although it would be reflecting the sexism of the time). Also, games can legitimately feature sexist non-player characters, just as they can legitimately include racist characters and other sorts of evil traits. After all, villains need to be, well, villains.

 

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Charity to those we oppose

I have a couple of old blog posts, one from mid-2008 and the other from early 2010 in which I am highly critical of Australian journalist Guy Rundle. In both cases, particularly the second, I’m quite snarky about Rundle – but I’m not going to apologise about either. Neither goes beyond my rather loose standards of civility; the criticisms are of substance in each case; and there is no realistic possibility that even a large number of posts of this level of aggression would tend to intimidate Rundle, someone with considerable cultural influence and easy access to very large platforms.

By all means, make up your own mind about that. As for me… these days, my language might or might not be slightly more temperate, but I’m still fairly comfortable, even five or six years later, with the two posts as they stand.

So far, so good. Nonetheless, these posts were on subjects that I felt passionately about. In the first case, it was about the heated public debate in Australia during 2008 on the art of Bill Henson (a celebrated Australian and international photographer who’d been accused of, in effect, creating and exhibiting child pornography); in the second case, it related to the debates, throughout the relevant period, about the “New Atheism”, during which “New Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins received a great deal of hostile criticism, including from other atheists who wished to take a softer approach to religion. I somewhat angrily defended Henson in one post and the New Atheist crew in the other. Again, you can make up your own mind about the cogency or otherwise of my defence, though (again) it was of substance on both occasions.

Still so good. But I’ve been very aware of late of how easily we (or some of us) find ourselves reaching for vitriolic and potentially silencing language when confronted by people who disagree with us on issues that we feel passionately about. When someone made a comment on Twitter yesterday, recommending Guy Rundle’s new book, I immediately found myself replying with a pair of vitriolic tweets about Rundle which I’ve since deleted. Having made them, I found myself going into a mode of rationalising it in my mind. When I woke up this morning I realised this was nonsense and that I’ve held a somewhat irrational grudge against Rundle based on nothing more than disagreement on a couple of things (again, things that I felt passionately about) a few years ago. That’s just silly and unfair.

It’s no use saying that my original remarks in 2008 and 2010, linked to in the tweets, were substantive. The fact is that it’s easy to judge someone in an unfair and sweeping way based only on a couple of disagreements in the past. I’d fallen into exactly that trap.

I deleted my remarks on Twitter, made a couple of tweets explaining why I’d done so, and apologised privately to the person whose original tweet I’d reacted to (who was cool with it). There’s no use in apologising to Rundle himself – i.e. there was no real prospect that he’d been harmed or seen the offending tweets.

I could pat myself on the back for reacting fairly quickly and well in this case, but still… I didn’t meet my own standards in the first place. I regret that. More importantly, the incident underscores that I, like many others, can be tempted to unfairness and a lack of charity toward other individuals provided only that they have, perhaps on more than one occasion, taken what I see as the “wrong” approach to an issue that engages my passions. If I can do this so easily, while already being aware of the problem, it’s no wonder that I see so much of this sort of thing happen in social-media interactions. Well-meaning, decent people can quickly find themselves demonised, portrayed as morally corrupt, etc., over good-faith differences of view. Even if the latter seem (as Rundle’s did to me) to be ill-informed and simplistic, they may turn out to have an element of truth, and even if that’s not so they probably at least are the views of someone trying to sort through an issue in good faith.

In Rundle’s case, he especially bothered me back in 2008 and 2010 because he was attacking targets who were already under serious public attack (especially in the case of Henson) and put arguments that had already been used, and in my mind refuted, many times (especially so in the case of the New Atheists). But there’s another factor here. Rundle is a very well-known journalist in Australia. As mentioned above, he has access to large platforms and carries considerable influence. He’s a major left-wing public intellectual in his own country. It can seem fine to make unfair and vitriolic attacks on such a person on the basis that it’s “punching up”.

This business of “punching up” and “punching down” merits more thought. First, Rundle really would be far better placed to do significant harm to my reputation than I am to harm his. He has much bigger platforms and many allies who also have bigger platforms. (For whatever it’s worth, he also doubtless has enemies who are much more of a concern than I am.) There is definitely something in the idea that two antagonists in public debate can be greatly out of balance in power. In such cases, vitriol is far more damaging and potentially silencing when resorted to by the person with (considerably) more power. Indeed, people with large platforms should, arguably, be very reticent in what they say about relatively powerless individuals.

Still, I noticed one person toward whom I feel nothing but good will announcing a break from Twitter a few days ago, having endured too much abuse from others who disagreed with certain of her views on feminism. What she found especially hurtful was the large amount of abuse she’d received from other feminist women, as opposed to whatever she’d received (and been braced for) from anti-feminist men. As was noted in the brief Twitter discussion around her departure, some of those women may have thought that they were “punching up” at her… but what feels like punching up to the person doing the “punching” may feel very different to the person being “punched”, especially if it’s from more than one source and it’s continuing. That can soon become exhausting and can be silencing.

There’s no exciting moral to all this. I don’t intend to turn into the civility police, and I don’t suggest that we all walk on eggshells even when criticising very powerful individuals, institutions, ideologies, and ideological tendencies. That said, it’s well to remember that even seemingly powerful opponents can be psychologically hurt and reputationally harmed. Furthermore, it does nothing to advance the search for truth and wisdom when we interpret opponents uncharitably or draw unfair, sweeping inferences about their intellectual ability and moral character, perhaps based on no more than a couple of disagreements. Indeed, many opponents may turn out to be correct; even the ones who don’t may have something cogent and useful to say if they are allowed to discuss the merits of the issue rather than being subjected to tactics that silence their contributions.

To rally supporters and succeed in their struggles, political organisers may well need to pretend that their opponents are 100 per cent wrong. Yet, as Saul Alinsky notes in his celebrated (or notorious) Rules for Radicals, the opponent in a particular situation may actually, on an objective assessment, be more like 40 per cent right. But that message, alas, never rallied anyone. At the same time, Alinsky tells us, the organiser should be able to see things from both viewpoints once a dispute reaches the final negotiation phase. Here, tactical trade-offs can be made, which requires a more objective understanding of all the underlying interests and merits.

While those might be good rules for political radicals trying to achieve victories against slum lords, business corporations, or oppressive governments, it would take a rather extreme situation before philosophers ought to start thinking in that way. In normal circumstances, there’s much to be said for searching out that 40 per cent, or even 4 per cent, of truth in an opponent’s position if we want to make intellectual progress – and that includes trying to see the opponent fairly as a person. (If the opponent actually turns out to have 60 per cent of the truth, or perhaps more than that, even better.)

Again, I’m not the civility police. But rules for philosophers should involve attempts to be charitable and fair. This is a word to the wise… or in my case the not-always wise.

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Asteroid Mining & Death from Above

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Having written before on the ethics of asteroid mining, I thought I would return to this subject and address an additional moral concern, namely the potential dangers of asteroid (and comet) mining. My concern here is not with the dangers to the miners (though that is obviously a matter of concern) but with dangers to the rest of us.

While the mining of asteroids and comets is currently the stuff of science fiction, such mining is certainly possible and might even prove to be economically viable. One factor worth considering is the high cost of getting material into space from earth. Given this cost, constructing things in space using material mined in space might be cost effective. As such, we might someday see satellites built right in space from material harvested from asteroids. It is also worth considering that the cost of mining materials in space and shipping them to earth might also be low enough that space mining for this purpose would be viable. If the material is expensive to mine or has limited availability on earth, then space mining could thus be viable or even necessary.

If material mined in space is to be used on earth, the obvious problem is how to get the material to the surface safely and as cheaply as possible. One approach is to move an asteroid close to the earth to facilitate mining and transportation—it might be more efficient to move the asteroid rather than send mining vessels back and forth. One obvious moral concern about moving an asteroid close to earth is that something could go wrong and the asteroid could strike the earth, perhaps in a populated area. Another obvious concern is that the asteroid could be intentionally used as a weapon—perhaps by a state or by non-state actors (such as terrorists). An asteroid could do considerable damage and would provide a “clean kill”, that is it could do a lot of damage without radioactive fallout or chemical or biological residue. An asteroid might even “accidentally on purpose” be dropped on a target, thus allowing the attacker to claim that it was an accident (something harder to do when using actual weapons).

Given the dangers posed by moving asteroids into earth orbit, this is clearly something that would need to be carefully regulated. Of course, given humanity’s track record accidents and intentional misuse are guaranteed.

Another matter of concern is the transport of material from space to earth. The obvious approach is to ship material to the surface using some sort of vehicle, perhaps constructed in orbit from materials mined in space. Such a vehicle could be relatively simple—after all, it would not need a crew and would just have to ensure that the cargo landed in roughly the right area. Another approach would be to just drop material from orbit—perhaps by surrounding valuable materials with materials intended to ablate during the landing and with a parachute system for some basic braking.

The obvious concern is the danger posed by such transport methods. While such vehicles or rock-drops would not do the sort of damage that an asteroid would, if one crashed hard into a densely populated area (intentionally or accidentally) it could do considerable damage. While such crashes will almost certainly occur, there does seem to be a clear moral obligation to try to minimize the chances of such crashes. The obvious problem is that such safety matters would tend to increase cost and decrease convenience. For example, having the landing zones in unpopulated areas would reduce the risk of a crash into an urban area, but would involve the need to transport the materials from these areas to places where it can be processed (unless the processing plants are built in the zone). As another example, payload sizes might be limited to reduce the damage done by crashes. As a final example, the vessels or drop-rocks might be required to have safety systems, such as backup parachutes. Given that people will cut costs and corners and suffer lapses of attention, accidents are probably inevitable. But they should be made less likely by developing rational regulations. Also of concern is the fact that the vessels and drop-rocks could be used as weapons (as a rule, any technology that can be used to kill people will be used to kill people). As such, there will need to be safeguards against this. It would, for example, be rather bad if terrorist were able to get control of the drop system and start dropping vessels or drop-rocks onto a city.

Despite the risks, if there is profit to be made in mining space, it will almost certainly be done. Given that the resources on earth are clearly limited, access to the bounty of the solar system could be good for (almost) everyone. It could also be another step form humanity away from earth and towards the stars.

 

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Voter Fraud Protection or Voter Suppression?

English: map of voter ID laws in US

English: map of voter ID laws in US (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One essential aspect of a democracy is the right of each citizen to vote. This also includes the right to have her vote count. One aspect of protecting this right is to ensure that voter fraud does not occur. After all, voter fraud can rob legitimate voters of their right to properly decide the election. Another aspect of protecting this right is to ensure that voter suppression does not occur. This is because voter suppression can unjustly rob people of their votes.

Many Republicans have expressed concerns about voter fraud and have worked to enact laws aimed, they claim, at reducing such fraud. In response, many Democrats have countered that these laws are, they claim, aimed at voter suppression. Naturally, each side accuses the other of having wicked political motives. Many Democrats see the Republicans as trying to disenfranchise voters who tend to vote for Democrats (the young and minorities). The Republicans counter that the Democrats are supporting voter fraud because the fraud is in their favor. In many cases, these beliefs are no doubt quite sincere. However, the sincerity of a belief has no relevance to its truth. What matters are the reasons and evidence that support the belief. As such, I will look at the available evidence and endeavor to sort out the matter.

One point of contention is the extent of voter fraud. One Republican talking point is that voter fraud is widespread. For example, on April 7, 2014 Dick Morris claimed that over 1 million people voted twice in 2012. If this was true, then it would obviously be a serious matter: widespread voter fraud could change the results of elections and rob the legitimate voters of their right to decide. Democrats claim that voting fraud does occur, but occurs at such a miniscule level that it has no effect on election outcomes and thus does not warrant the measures favored by the Republicans.

Settling this matter requires looking at the available facts. In regards to Dick Morris’ claim (which made the rounds as a conservative talking point), the facts show that it is false. But the fact that Morris was astoundingly wrong does not prove that voter fraud is not widespread. However, the facts do. For example, in ten years Texas had 616 cases of allegations of voter fraud and only one conviction for double voting. In Kansas, 84 million voter records were analyzed for fraud. Of these, 14 cases were referred to prosecution with, as of this writing, zero convictions.

Republicans have argued for voter ID laws by contending that they will prevent fraud. However, investigation of voter fraud has shown only 31 credible cases out of one billion ballots. As such, this sort of fraud does occur—but only at an incredibly low rate.

In general, significant (let alone widespread) voter fraud does not occur although the myth is widespread. As such, the Republican claims about voter fraud are based on a myth and this would seem to remove the foundation for their claims and proposals regarding the matter.

It could be countered that while voter fraud is insignificant, it must still be countered by laws and policy changes, such as requiring voter IDs and eliminating early voting. This does have some appeal. To use an analogy, even if only a fraction of 1% of students cheated, then professors should still take steps to counter that cheating for the sake of academic integrity. Unless, of course, the measures used to counter that cheating did more damage than the cheating. The same would seem to apply to measures to counter voter fraud.

One rather important matter is the moral issue of whether it is more important to prevent fraud or to prevent disenfranchisement. This is analogous to the moral concern about guilt in the legal system. In the United States, there is a presumption of innocence on the moral grounds that it is better that a guilty person goes free than an innocent person is unjustly punished. In the case of voting, should it be accepted that it is better that a legitimate voter be denied her vote rather than an illegitimate voter be allowed to get away with fraud? Or is it better that an illegitimate voter gets away with fraud then for a legitimate voter to be denied her right to vote?

My own moral conviction is that it is more important to prevent disenfranchisement. Obviously I am against fraud and favor safeguards against fraud. However, given the minuscule rates of fraud if attempts to reduce it result in disenfranchisement, then I would oppose such attempts on moral grounds. Naturally, another person might take a different view and contend that it is worth disenfranchising voters in an attempt to reduce the minuscule rates of fraud to even more miniscule levels.

Returning to the matter of facts, one rather important concern is whether or not the laws and policies in question actually result in voter suppression. If they do not, even if they do nothing to counter voter fraud, then they would be tolerable (assuming they do not come with other costs).

Unfortunately, the evidence is that the laws that are allegedly aimed at preventing voter fraud actually serve as voter suppression measures, mostly aimed at minority voters. Keith Bentele and Erin E. O’Brien published a study entitled “Jim Crow 2.0? Why States Consider and Adopt Restrictive Voter Access Policies.” Based on their analysis of the data, they concluded “the Republican Party has engaged in strategic demobilization efforts in response to changing demographics, shifting electoral fortunes, and an internal rightward ideological drift among the party faithful.” The full study, from the journal Perspectives on Politics, is available here. Since this is a factual matter, those who disagree with these findings can counter this by providing an analysis of equal or greater credibility based on supported facts.

Interestingly, it is a common talking point among Republicans that professors are tools of the Democrats and that academic experts should not be trusted. While this is a marvelous ad homimen, what is needed is actual evidence and arguments countering the claims. If professors are tools of the Democrats and academic experts are not to be trusted, then it should be rather easy to provide credible, objective evidence and analysis showing that they are in error. In terms of specifics regarding voter suppression, I offer the following evidence based discussion.

One of the best-known methods proposed to counter voter fraud is the voter ID law. While, as shown above, the sort of fraud that would be prevented by these laws seems to occur 31 times per 1 billion ballots, it serves to disenfranchise voters. In Texas 600,000-800,000 registered voters lack such IDs with Hispanics being 40-120% more likely to lack an ID than whites. In North Carolina 318,000 registered voters lack the required ID and one third of them are African-American (African-Americans make up about 13% of the US population).

Another approach is to make it harder for citizens to register. One example is restrictions on voter registration drives—Hispanics and African-Americans register to vote at twice the rate of whites via drives. It is not clear how these methods would reduce fraud. The restrictions mostly do not seem to be aimed at making it harder for people to register fraudulently—just to make it more inconvenient to register.

A third tactic is to reduce the available early voting times and eliminate weekend and evening voting. This would seem to have no effect whatsoever on fraud, but seems aimed at minority voting patterns. In 2008 70% of African-American voters in North Carolina cast their ballots early. Minority voters are more likely than white voters to vote on weekends and in the evening. For example, 56% of the 2008 weekend voters in Cuyahoga County in Ohio were black.

A fourth tactic is to make it harder for people with past convictions to regain their voting rights. This impacts African Americans the most: 7.7% of African-Americans and 1.8% of the rest of the population have lost their right to vote in this manner. This tactic does not prevent fraud—it merely denies people the right to vote.

It would seem that the laws and policies allegedly aimed at voter fraud would not reduced the existing fraud (which is already miniscule) and would have the effect of suppressing voters. As such, these laws and proposals fail to protect the rights of voters and instead are a violation of that basic right. In short, they are either a misguided and failed effort to prevent fraud or a wicked and potentially successful effort to suppress minority voters. Either way, these laws and policies are a violation of a fundamental right of the American democracy.

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